‘Unbind him and let him go…’ Thinking about Lazarus in today’s world. Sermon for Adel Parish Church

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‘Unbind him and let him go…’ Thinking about Lazarus in today’s world.

Sermon for Passion Sunday – Adel Parish Church.

Romans 8: 6 – 11; John 11: 1- 45

It is slightly discomforting that today’s gospel is the raising of Lazarus…but I love the characters of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.

Not in the chosen group of twelve disciples…not on the margins of society…not characters exaggerated for the sake of a good story…just ordinary friends of Jesus, perhaps like you and me.

It seems from a previous story, that theirs was a house Jesus went to for rest and companionship…to get away from the crowds. They were, first of all, his friends…only gradually did they come to recognise him as their Lord.

When difficult stuff happens to us – we turn to the friends we trust the most – the ones who will know what to do. So when Lazarus becomes gravely ill, his sisters send for Jesus. He’ll know what to do…more than that…he can do things other people can’t. They trust he’s from God…they trust that if he comes, somehow everything will be ok.

But, it seems, he arrives too late.

Martha rushes out to him, still glad to have him there…but full of grief….and like so many of us when we lose loved ones – filled with ‘if only’.

“If only you’d been here – he wouldn’t have died”.

Mary in her turn says the same. They have enormous faith in Jesus – but for them death is the end. More than that – Lazarus has been dead for 4 days. In Jewish belief his soul has left his body after hovering around for 3 days. In practical terms, his body has begun to rot. The sisters have seen Jesus’ power, but death is surely more powerful still.

Perhaps Martha has a glimmer of hope…”If only you’d been here”, she says, “but even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

I don’t think she’s expecting a miracle though…even when Jesus says…”your brother will rise again” she understands it as an attempt to comfort her. Her faith already told her that at the end of times there would be a general resurrection.

But here Jesus makes an astonishing claim “I am the resurrection and the life,”…not at the end times – but there and then.

This is a strange story, about so much more than the miraculous bringing to life of a dead man. Loads of people must have died during Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t bring them back to life…sadly today we face the death of loved ones, of members of our community. We’re seeing death on a scale most of us have never experienced.

Frankly, the bringing back to life of one friend of Jesus is not much use to us if that’s all it is. Great for that family – but what do we do with it?

Firstly there is that famous verse…’Jesus wept’. Why? He knows he’s going to bring Lazarus back to life. He seems to be affected by the grief of Martha and Mary, by the suffering of Lazarus. This story isn’t about removing grief…or removing death. But it is perhaps about Jesus working and healing in the midst of grief…Jesus acknowledging the reality of death and of our grief and wanting to share it.

Then, when Jesus orders the gravestone to be moved, there’s Martha insisting, ‘but it’s 4 days since he died – it’s going to smell.’ This reminder that Lazarus is 4 days dead tell us that for the people around him – he is now gone – out of reach.

But Jesus has the stone removed anyhow – and commands, “Lazarus come out!” And Lazarus does. Death has not put him beyond the reach of Jesus. This story doesn’t say there will be no more death…no more grief…but it does give us the promise that when our loved ones die they may be out of our reach for now – but they are still with God.

Finally, there is the strange statement…’The dead man came out.’ I suppose I’d always assumed Lazarus came out alive…but ‘the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in cloth.’

Then Jesus says ‘unbind him and let him go’. Does this say something about the Christian life and what encountering Jesus can do for us now? Before Jesus can bring Lazarus truly to life he needs unbinding from all the things that stop him living life fully…not just the disease that killed him. We don’t know what those were for Lazarus…I guess they’re different for each person. But at the moment fear, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, the ease with which we become self-centered, may well be binding us…restricting our life.

Our Christian faith doesn’t offer us answers to all our questions at this time – but it does offer us a life giving relationship with Jesus. Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life” – resurrection and life are found in the person of Jesus.

This is not just the story of one person miraculously given some extra time with his family, this is a promise that Jesus can free us from all sorts of grave clothes that bind us – anxiety, fear, oppression, loneliness, pride, greed…

We’re living through times different to anything we have experienced before. But through prayer, and reminding ourselves of his words and deeds, we have the hope that encountering Jesus brings. We’re having to find new ways to pray and spend time with Jesus – especially if it’s something we’ve done mostly in church. But many of us have more time on our hands…please share anything that’s working for you.

I pray that in the difficult times to come, we are all unbound and let go…into new life with Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

Mother church…words for Adel Parish church on Mothering Sunday 2020

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‘Mother church’ Sermon for Adel Parish Church at a Eucharist celebrated on behalf of the parish  – Mothering Sunday 2020

Exodus 2:1 – 10; 2 Corinthians 1: 3-7; John 19: 25 – 27

When I started work as a curate – the problem arose of what title I should use in the schools of the parish. The vicar, Matthew, was referred to as ‘Father Matthew’…not too formal, not too familiar.

So what were the options available to me? Just to annoy me, Matthew liked to refer to me as ‘Mother Ali’…but it never felt right. As Mothering Sunday approached I have been pondering why this was.

I suppose it was because I am a mother of two, and I have a completely different relationship with them to anyone else. I certainly hope our school pupils wouldn’t be quite so rude to me…

In fact my reaction was similar to my discomfort in some ways with the whole idea of Mothering Sunday. It seems to take really important roles then recognise and celebrate them in just one person. Good mothers help us work out who we are; they teach us right from wrong and forgive us again and again; they feed us; they give us a place in a family…but those aren’t things only mothers can do.

Mothering Sunday is always a difficult day for many. We can’t all be mothers, some of us don’t want to. Some of us have lost mothers or children; relationships with mothers aren’t always good. This year it’s going to be difficult for everyone as we face the unknown with fear and anxiety.

So perhaps this a good time to rediscover one of the early meanings of Mothering Sunday – when people returned to their ‘mother church’.

How does our church provide ‘mothering’ and what does this mean to us in these times?

At the back of church we have our font – where for many the Christian journey begins. In baptism we join the body of Christ. We come as frail, fallible humans and are given a new identity. The words Jesus heard from God at his baptism are for us too “You are my child my beloved – I am pleased with you.”

Whilst our world changes about us: jobs and finances uncertain; children no longer in school, we can’t visit and care for people in the same way…that identity as God’s beloved children becomes more important than ever, because it is an identity nothing can change.

When we come to church together, we often begin with prayers of penitence – saying sorry to God, in front of each other, for the wrongs we do. We think about where we’ve fallen short, in the hope we might begin to do better. More importantly we then receive God’s forgiveness. We know God loves us even when we fail – and that gives us courage to try to do better.

As we face what this emergency exposes in our lives…the temptation to stockpile food, perhaps just a little, because others are…the urge to stop giving to food banks or other charities because life is no longer normal…the temptation to ignore rules on distancing, because we are not at risk…the way our patience is surely going to be tested…we can offer these to God, knowing that we are forgiven, and receiving the strength and encouragement to try to be more Christ-like.

Week by week, in this church, we share in the Eucharist, the bread and wine. We bring our hunger…for love, acceptance, faith, hope, peace, joy…and are fed with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

In this meal we’re assured that Christ is with us, making us truly alive…giving us love, acceptance, faith, hope, joy, peace. In this meal, begun just before Jesus went to his death – we’re reminded that he chose to experience the worst as well as the best of human life – that he suffers with us.

Through this meal we have hope that even death is defeated so that whatever happens, we and those we love are held in God’s hands. You cannot physically take part in this Eucharist – but you do so spiritually just as much as if you were here.

Finally – at the end of our services we are sent out to ‘love and serve the Lord’. Hopefully transformed just a little into the likeness of Christ, so that we can become what we are…the body of Christ.

This Mothering Sunday comes at the start of frightening, challenging times. But mothering has never been just for the good times. I reckon one of the most important things good Mums do is help us through the tough times. However much we argue – when things are bad it’s often Mum we want. Good mothers sort of say ‘Look – we’ll get through this, because I’m here with you.’

Jesus knew that – even as he was dying on the cross. He knew once he was gone things were going to be tough for the tiny, new church. He knew some good ‘mothering’ was going to be needed. So, as we heard in our Gospel reading, he created a new family…with his mother and his disciples…a new place where mothering could go on. A community to bring hope when things were tough.

So whatever challenges today brings to you – remember Mother Church…

  • giving us our identity as things change around us
  • reminding us of God’s forgiveness and love
  • satisfying our hunger for love, faith, hope, joy, peace

And remember – we are the body of Christ – so we are all called to give this sort of mothering to one another and the wider community.

 

 

 

Following Jesus…best job in the world?

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Following Jesus…best job in the world? A sermon for evensong, Lent 2 at St John’s Church Adel.

Numbers 21: 4 – 9; Luke 14: 27 – 33

The other day I saw an advert for the teaching profession. Called ‘every lesson shapes a life’ it showed teachers making a difference to children’s lives. It showed children who were struggling suddenly see the light…angry children calming down and achieving.

It showed the best bits of teaching. It didn’t show the ridiculous hours, the mounds of marking, unreasonable parents, a class of 6 year olds when a wasp gets into the classroom…

…of course it didn’t. It was hoping to persuade people it’s the best job in the world…and it is, most of the time. Well – perhaps the second best!

Similarly when you were advertising for a new Rector – you mentioned the welcoming congregation, the wonderful lay support, the beautiful building. You didn’t mention…of course there are no drawbacks to being Rector of Adel…but you get the point. When we want to attract people – we accentuate the positive!

Jesus however, goes about his advertising in a rather different way. He seems to be making sure people know about the worst bits of following him…carrying your cross…giving up all your possessions.

The only other time I’ve heard that sort of invitation is in Winston Churchill’s famous speech of May 13th 1940 as he formed a coalition war government.  “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, he said – as he invited the House of Commons to support him.

I suppose he was saying – this is a serious thing we’re about – so serious that you need to know from the start just what the cost might be. And that’s perhaps what Jesus is saying too. Following him matters…it matters so much that he doesn’t want people giving up the minute it gets tough.

You wouldn’t start building a tower without making sure you could finish it he says. You wouldn’t go to war without being sure of the outcome. I’m not sure humans have always followed that advice – but we get the gist…when something is really important, we try to make sure we can follow it through, even when things get difficult.

So Jesus seems to be saying – be ready for things to get difficult – because what I’m offering is important – not something you should give up at the first hurdle.

Churchill was offering blood, sweat, toil and tears because the alternative appeared to be the destruction of civilisation, the end of freedom. Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him, because the alternative is separation from God.

But it’s still quite a challenge – “no one can be my disciple unless they give up all their possessions”…that rules me out – you too I suspect! Well, as so often, I think Jesus exaggerates for effect. And not just because I can’t give up my possessions…

…the verse before this reading says “who ever doesn’t hate father, mother, wife, brother, children, life itself, can’t be my disciple”. We know Jesus doesn’t really want us to hate our families and our lives – that contradicts almost everything else he said.

He exaggerates for effect – to the crowds flocking to see a miracle. Don’t suppose you can be my disciples just by following me around in the good times, I think he’s saying. Following me needs to be the most important thing in your life – more important even than family, possessions, your life. You need to loosen your hold on these a little if you truly want to be ready to follow me.

A challenge! But the good news for us is that although following Jesus can indeed be a hard road, the rewards are worth it. The Jesus we meet in the gospels doesn’t spend most of his time warning what will happen if we don’t follow him, as Churchill had to do in 1940 instead, like those teaching adverts, he tries to show what we will find if we do.

Jesus feeds and heals and breaks down barriers. He promises bread that gives life, and water that satisfies our thirsts. He shows us that God is love and loves each of us.

Jesus shows us how to be truly human – and gives us a glimpse of what life will be like if we start to live our lives that way.

Today we hear his challenge – but unlike Churchill ‘only offering blood, sweat, toil and tears’, we can also remember his promise of life in all its fullness – not just one day – but now.

 

 

 

The birth is only the beginning…being ‘born from above’.

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The birth is only the beginning…being ‘born from above.’

Sermon for St John’s Adel 2nd Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12: 1 – 4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17

Anyone a fan of ‘Call the Midwife’? I’ve come to it rather late – so since Christmas I’ve been catching up on the early series.

Apart from being an amazing social history of post-war Britain, it’s also a reminder that childbirth is a messy and violent affair.

Since it’s really the story of the midwives, frustratingly we never hear the rest of the baby’s story…we don’t see them grow up. Occasionally there are glimpses – a young policeman will appear and say to a nun, “I’m one of yours – you delivered me during the blitz.” But mostly, it’s the birth that matters.

Today’s gospel is also about birth. Jesus tells Nicodemus no one can see the Kingdom of heaven without being ‘born from above’…often translated ‘born again’…

I wonder…what does that phrase mean to you? I’ve always belonged to churches where it’s either not used, or regarded with some suspicion…an idea used by rather dogmatic, overenthusiastic evangelicals.

And I’ve done placements in wonderful churches where it’s seen as vital…those who aren’t ‘born again’ perhaps not really regarded as proper Christians.

I guess as usual we’ve both missed the point. Firstly – I’m pretty sure Jesus chose the picture carefully. Birth – wonderful, but not gentle. Watch a couple of episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ back to back and you soon realise that.

But Nicodemus seems to be hoping it is. I think he’s realised that in Jesus he’s somehow encountering God but he comes to Jesus by night. As a Jewish leader he’s not ready to commit himself fully by coming openly during the day.

Does he come hoping for reassurance that he can have a private faith in Jesus, but go on with the rest of his life as before? That’s not what Jesus offers him. No, Nicodemus is told that following Jesus is like another birth – a huge change. It’s like moving from the comfort and safety of the womb, the life we know, to the scary space of the outside world.

Nicodemus is invited to bring his faith in Jesus from the secrecy of night, into the daylight where he can see it better.

Becoming a follower of Jesus means change. So those Christians who make much of the idea of being born again are right in a way.

I think the problem is that it’s come to mean a once in a lifetime happening. A sudden massive change from not believing to being certain that Jesus is Lord. That’s a wonderful thing that happens to some people…but for many, me included, it’s a much more gradual process. It’s not all about the birth.

Mark Oakley, a favourite writer of mine, says Christianity involves two conversions. The first happens when suddenly this idea that God loves us, and shows this love by sending Jesus…this idea starts to make sense, and something stirs inside us.

Something stirs…for most people it’s not a sudden certainty – not a point where we say, I wasn’t a Christian and now I am – we may not even remember it. But at some point we start to take faith seriously enough for it to invade the rest of our lives – we bring it out into the light.

Like childbirth, though – it’s not an end in itself. It’s the beginning of something…of that second conversion…a conversion that is the rest of our life…as we slowly, sometimes painfully, try to adjust to this different way of being human, to live in this different light.

So, although the ‘being born again’ matters – I think the second conversion matters more. We don’t want to be a ‘Call the Midwife’ church, just sharing birth stories – we want to be the spin off stories of how those babies grew up!

Which is why the chance to get involved and share our faith is so important. For me, growing in Christ has always involved discussion: trying to put my ideas into words and having them refined by the thoughts of others.

So there will be increasing opportunities to do this here at St John’s. There’s the Lent course – last week we had two very different but valuable discussions…ask the people who came. It’s not too late to join in.

In June Bishop Paul comes to confirm Christians here. If you haven’t been confirmed…if this Jesus stuff is starting to make sense, and you’d like to explore it further – speak to me about confirmation. You can come along to the discussions without committing to anything else.

In April we’re starting up a new group for older children – year 4 and up. A chance for them to be together without parents, to have fun, but also to start asking questions –discussing this Christianity stuff for themselves.

I know this sort of discussion is not for everyone – it can be a little scary. I would say though – if you’ve never tried it, give it a go.

But there are other ways to journey together as Christians – by getting involved in serving at the altar, and so perhaps learn a little more about the Eucharist.

By reading the lesson or leading the prayers, and so perhaps engaging a little more deeply with the service.

By joining the team who welcome people on a Sunday morning, or who serve coffee afterwards and so thinking about what welcome in God’s name looks like.

Or if you’ve done those in the past, but can’t at the moment – by taking the pew sheet home and praying for those listed on it. Praying for others is a great way of growing closer to God. Whatever you do – I think it’s good for all of us to think about new steps in our Christian journey.

So for us, being ‘born from above’ may not be the violent, messy affair so beloved of ‘Call the Midwife’, but it should hold the same promise of a whole new life ahead as we try to live in the light of Christ.