“Gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost.”

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Sermon for Trinity 9 at St Mary’s Whitkirk

“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

Many years ago, when I was a student, a friend and I catered for a Christian Union weekend away. Giddy from the unaccustomed excitement of spending £70 on food in Sainsbury’s – we drew up a menu for the kitchen door. ‘Friday evening – bread and fish; Saturday – leftovers.’ We were ridiculously pleased with ourselves!

We weren’t used to cooking for more than one or two – so we did tend to over-cater. I think we saw the leftovers in the feeding of the 5000 as a sort of divine over-catering, a sign of God’s generosity. And in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels this is how they appear.

But John puts it slightly differently.

“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

Suddenly the focus is not on how much is left over – but the importance of each fragment. Why is it vital that not one fragment is lost?

Well it’s seemed to me this week, as I’ve thought about this reading, that ‘gathering the fragments so that nothing is lost’ is often how God works.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the people Jesus fed that day focused on the miracle of multiplied loaves and fishes – and wanted to make Jesus their king. As humans that’s the kind of God we want – all-powerful, ready to get rid of the difficult stuff.

We often struggle with faith because God doesn’t swoop in when bad things happen. The pictures of suffering we see on our screens can be difficult to reconcile with faith in a loving God.

But incarnation suggests we’ve missed the point.

God’s response to the mess of human lives was not miraculous interventions from heaven…it was to become human.

Becoming human meant Jesus could only live one life – as one person, at one time in history. But that particular life was filled with things the world sees as worthless – fragments we might expect to be beneath the notice of God.

An inappropriate pregnancy; life as a refugee; spending time with outcasts; struggling with temptation; feeling abandoned by God; grief at the death of loved ones; being betrayed and abandoned by friends; fear of difference that leads to hatred…even to murder…

…these were all part of Jesus’ life. Perhaps his living them gathers those fragments – shows they are not lost, because God is in them.

The fact that Jesus experienced the worst aspects of human life – suggests that even these can be healed. God doesn’t intervene to stop them, but by living them Jesus gathers them in. Even the worst situations are not lost to God – Jesus is able to transform even them.

We have a tradition of offering the best to God…amazing buildings, beautiful music, carefully ordered worship, wearing our Sunday best. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but perhaps we forget that God is not only interested in our Sunday best.

Jesus was constantly challenged for eating with ‘sinners’…and responded that it is the sick not the well that need a doctor. His whole life was spent searching out the lost, reaching into the lost bits of people’s lives.

When he met a rich young ruler – who had genuinely kept God’s commandments and done the right thing – Jesus picked on his one flaw – a love of money. Jesus wasn’t dismissing all the good in that life, he wasn’t trying to catch him out, he was searching out the one fragment of him that was lost to God.

“Gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost”

I suspect God really wants the fragments we find it hardest to offer him…

…our workplaces…perhaps a job that is unfulfilling, stressful, boring…perhaps a job we love but where we find it difficult to live as faithful Christians…perhaps a workplace where we struggle to see God’s presence.

…or may be it’s a relationship that has soured…where we’ve been hurt or have hurt someone else by our words and actions…it can be hard to let God into our anger and hurt…or our feelings of guilt.

…or may be it’s just our personality flaws, the things about us we know are not at all Christ-like, the parts of ourselves we don’t particularly like.

These are the things in our lives that need changing…so perhaps these are the fragments Christ wants to gather up.

I became very aware of this at a funeral I took earlier this year. I don’t know if you can describe a funeral as ‘good’…but this one seemed good to me. When I met the family, they shared stories of complex relationships. The personality of their loved one had often made family life difficult. There was no lack of love – but things were not straightforward. In the funeral we were able to acknowledge all of that. We felt that we had offered all the fragments of that life to God – in the hope that through Christ they would be gathered up and healed.

There are times in most lives when we feel broken, fragmented. We might feel those bits are best forgotten, but those are the very fragments that need Christ’s healing, transforming touch. Until everything is gathered – we cannot really be whole.

The 5000 were amazed when they were fed. It took them longer to realise that Jesus offered not just food for the day – but healing and wholeness of life.

Lord Jesus, you sought out sinners, you challenged what was wrong in their lives; gather up the fragments of our lives so that nothing may be lost, but everything might be transformed by you. Amen

Unconscious bias – hearing what we want to hear…

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Mark 6:1-13 A sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk – Trinity 6

A father and son are involved in a car crash and rushed to hospital. The father dies but the boy is taken into the operating theatre. The surgeon says, “I can’t operate on him, he’s my son.”

How is this possible?

May be you’re feeling enlightened for realising the boy could have two fathers. May be you’ve heard the riddle before. But apparently many people can’t answer, because they can’t imagine that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

An example of unconscious bias. We know women are just as able to be surgeons as men…but our subconscious tells us otherwise. Mention surgeon – and our brains give us a picture of a man.

I think today’s gospel reading gives another example of unconscious bias. Here are the people of Jesus’ home town, they’ve known him all his life, they know his family. At first they’re amazed by his wisdom and his deeds – and with everyone else they wonder who he is. But their brains say – he’s the carpenter, the son of Mary, we know his brothers and sisters. Their subconscious says…prophets and healers don’t come from Nazareth.

According to Mark, Jesus was ‘amazed at their unbelief’ – modern science suggests he shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Conscious thought is slow and energy intensive. Our brains, bombarded by far more information than they can deal with, develop short cuts. They use past experience to develop automatic responses with a good chance of being right.

This is mostly pretty useful…ducking when something comes towards us…definitely safer than evaluating the risks first. But it affects the way we see others, gives us biases.

Our brains automatically put people into categories, using experience and the surrounding culture. This makes us biased towards people like us – because we’re comfortable with them. We have an idea how they will think and behave. This is affinity bias.

We also like to be right, to have our decisions confirmed. So we look for things that support our first impressions, we ignore evidence that suggests we’re wrong. This is confirmation bias.

This is not to do with being good or bad – it’s how our brains work. And the really scary thing is that we don’t even have to believe something for it to become our unconscious bias – we just have to be exposed to it enough.

If we go back to the riddle I started with – even female surgeons are fooled by it…because nearly all the surgeons they see in the media are male.

What has this to do with our faith? Well it affects the way we treat others – but this morning I want to consider how unconscious bias changes the way we see Jesus.

Jesus’ neighbours looked at him and saw the boy next door. Carpenters from Nazareth didn’t do miracles, didn’t speak with great wisdom. This idea was so embedded that they managed to ignore the evidence before them.

We’ve grown up with the idea that Jesus is God’s son; we know a carpenter from Nazareth can be our saviour. But perhaps we’re also too familiar with Jesus and his teaching. Perhaps we too find what we expect to find.

As a year 6 RE teacher I came across the most staggering piece of affinity bias – bias towards people like us. One child announced regularly that he didn’t believe in God. But when we started talking about Islam he asked “You know how our God is white…is their God Asian?”

Even the God he didn’t believe in had to be English…because he was important, an authority figure. The culture this child grew up in told him authority figures are white.

I’m sure we don’t have a picture of Jesus looking just like us – but it is easy to assume he must believe in the things we believe in…

For all its problems, Britain’s not a bad place to live. We have a society that prizes fairness, order, freedom. I’m guessing we’re proud to be British – at least most of the time. Our education system talks of ‘British values’…our culture tells us they are morally good.

I wouldn’t argue with that – I love a good queue! But does this investment in social norms, the unconscious bias it gives us, sometimes get in the way when we hear the teachings of Jesus? Does confirmation bias mean that we hear what we would like Jesus to have said – rather than allowing ourselves to be confronted by what he really said?

For the last 6 weeks I’ve been part of a Pilgrim group thinking about the Lord’s Prayer. Each Pilgrim session starts with a really close look at a piece of scripture. Studying Jesus’ words in this way has showed us that our investment in British Society can makes it easy to assume that what Jesus said must agree with ‘British values’

Take the familiar story of the Prodigal Son. The radical forgiveness at the heart of that story challenged our assumptions about prison. British values of fairness and order suggest it’s right for people to be punished for their crimes, that this is part of the role of prisons…Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness mentions repentance…but does it talk about punishment?

Fairness is so important in our society, that it’s easy to assume Jesus was all for it. It seems unfair that some claim as much in benefits as others earn by hard work – so it feels right to make sure it doesn’t happen. I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad, but I don’t think it’s what Jesus taught.

We know the carpenter from Nazareth is our saviour. But are we too sometimes guilty of making him into the boy next door, of assuming that if not an Englishman – then he would at least support British values.

Do we let our unconscious bias give us a much tamer, less disturbing Jesus than is really found in the gospels?

Stories of healing when we aren’t healed.

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Sermon for Trinity 5 at Woodlesford St John…

‘A girl restored to life and a woman healed’, the wonderfully triumphant title for today’s gospel reading. But triumphant doesn’t always seem quite right.

The last couple of weeks have been difficult for someone close to me. A different outcome would have brought healing to a life that’s already seen much suffering. So it was an outcome much prayed about, an outcome that then left questions.

I’m not going to share that story as it’s not mine to tell…but it brought me to this gospel reading from a particular starting point.

So stand with me in the crowd around Jesus: a mass of people, some curious, some puzzled, some desperate…As we jostle and push our way to Jesus we pass many suffering from chronic illness who are unable to reach him; we pass many too scared to reach out.

Come as I follow Jesus to Jairus’ house…On the way we pass other houses shut up with grief; houses where no healer came to restore life; where families were left to mourn their dead.

In Jesus’ short ministry there must have been hundreds, even thousands, who hoped for healing but didn’t feel his touch. We don’t hear their stories. In Jesus’ ministry there must have hundreds who were healed – so why were these particular stories recorded?

Perhaps these were the healings people remembered. Perhaps, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after Pentecost, as the first Christians held onto their faith in the face of persecution – these stories still meant something in their lives.

Because if these stories have anything to say, they surely need to speak when those we care for are not healed, are not restored to life. They need to say more than that on a particular day illness was healed and the dead raised.

This week the stories have spoken to me of fear, how fear separates us from one another and God, and how healing happens when fear is overcome.

After 12 years of haemorrhages the woman in the story must have been surrounded by fear. She’d endured the attention of many doctors – and must have feared any more. She’d spent all she had – she must have feared for the future. She was ritually unclean, so fear would have kept others away from her.

Jairus’ house too would be a place of fear. The agonising fear of losing a child…the fear of coming into contact with a dead body – again seen as unclean…the fear of saying the wrong thing that always surrounds such a tragedy.

Two women isolated by fear. Perhaps what people remembered later was the way Jesus cut through that fear and ended the isolation.

Jews feared the unclean…because they thought it separated them from God. This fear made them isolate people seen as unclean. But not Jesus…touched by someone untouchable, he reached out to her. By his healing touch he showed she was ill, not unclean…that she was not someone to be feared, that she need not fear.

Confronted by a corpse – he held her hand and told her to get up. His actions show there is no condition that need separate us from God.

Or perhaps people remembered how Jesus formed a relationship with those he healed. How he sought out the woman and called her daughter. How he held the hand of the dead child and spoke to her.

Were these stories important to persecuted Christians because they were discovering how a relationship with Jesus is life-giving and can drive out fear?

I wonder too, whether these stories stuck with people because of those who were healed. Women, especially unclean women were near the bottom of society. But in the midst of crowds they were the people Jesus reached out to. No one was beneath his notice.

We can understand all this – but still wonder what the story says when a child is not saved, or a when loved one is not healed.

Perhaps if this was all the story we had, it would mean nothing. But like the gospel writer, we hear this story as part of a larger story. We know that human fear of difference, of anyone who didn’t fit in, lead Jesus to death on the cross. But we also believe that, by his resurrection, Jesus conquered death.

In his lifetime, by a girl restored to life and a woman healed, Jesus showed his power over fear and death. If we believe in his resurrection perhaps we can find a wider picture of healing.

Perhaps it’s possible to hear these stories as promises. Promises that a relationship with Jesus can be life giving, even if suffering isn’t ended, and prayers don’t seem to be answered. This isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels almost impossible. But then, it wasn’t easy for those in the story either…

As a synagogue leader, Jairus should hardly have been begging an itinerant preacher to help. And the woman risked yet more fear and rejection. But these stories remind us that Jesus is worth seeking out.

Jesus tells them it’s by their faith they’re healed…But theirs wasn’t a confident faith…more a desperate turning to Jesus when they’d tried everything else.

I’ve found, in these stories, a picture of fear dispelled not by great faith, but by finding enough faith to reach out to Jesus. Faith that doesn’t necessarily understand, but believes that with Jesus – in the end – everything will be alright.

They can’t be telling us enough faith in Jesus always leads to physical healing – because that is not our experience of life. They don’t make it easy to put our fears, our need for healing into Jesus’ hands trusting that whatever the outcome – things will be alright. No, these stories don’t make that trust easy – but read in the light of the resurrection they at least make it possible.

Lord, we offer you all that needs healing in our lives. Help us to trust that you can take away our fears even when life is difficult. Amen