The possessed man, to Jesus, in the country of the Gerasenes…
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
Luke 8.28

We, first of all, have to put the story in context: it follows immediately on (in all three of the Synoptic Gospels) from the stilling of the storm.  Jesus and his disciples emerge, from out of the mortal danger of wind and storm in a small boat, into the calm – and on to landfall – and safety.

Safe, they may be, but they are in a strange land.  They have crossed the Sea of Galilee, they have left behind the familiar safe havens of Capernaum, Magdala, and Tiberius, they’re all on the western shore, back in Galilee.

And here they are now on the eastern shore – a foreign shore – they are now outside of Israel, and are at the very edge of the wilderness – where there may well be dragons, or, at the very least, demons!

There is a city there, a city of sorts (somebody has to live at the edge of the world!), and the first local they meet, true to form, has lots of demons, legions of them, in fact.

He was a strange man, this ‘Legion’: a deranged nudist, living down among the dead; a storm of a man himself, who had to be tied down for his own safety, or maybe, perhaps, just out of fear.

And yet this foreign, non-Jewish, possessed and troubled soul – recognised what had washed up onto his shore, recognised the person (and status) of Jesus; and recognised that he wasn’t there just to sightsee.  “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

This in stark contrast to his disciples we note, who just prior to landfall, had exclaimed (Luke 8.25):  “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”

And contrast all this to the prophet Isaiah (65.1).  There we find a God who is desperate to be sought, and found, and recognised, by those, as it were, ‘on the other side’, almost jumping up and down in his eagerness to be noticed:
“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am.’ to a nation that did not call on my name.”

To a people indeed:
“…a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks;
who sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places;
who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels…” (Is.65.2-4)
– all those who just pay lipservice to God’s covenant love.

 Jesus, on the other hand, crosses over boundaries, into alien and hostile territory – setting free those shackled by their own demons, snatching them back from the brink of the abyss, re-clothing them with dignity and respect, and restoring them to humanity.

 St Paul, who had himself crossed over from Judaism to become a follower of Jesus, and who clearly had his own demons to contend with, knew that we all have to be set free, re-clothed, and restored, in Christ, in order to become who we truly are, who God has destined us to be:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” (Gal.3.27-28)

 We all have to cross that storm-swept sea.
We all have to step out onto that foreign shore.
We all have to live, for a while maybe, down among the dead men.
We all have to cry, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?
– in order to discover ourselves, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in our right minds.

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“In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week,
the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews.
Jesus came and stood among them.
He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’.”
John 20.19

 “…the doors were closed…for fear of the Jews.”…!

 Fear is a very powerful human emotion…
          – and comes in two ‘varieties’…

 ■        ‘Outside Fear’…
          – fear that originates mainly ‘outside’ of ourselves…
          – fear of something real and threatening…
          – fear that has good reason to be…
                   – standing in the middle of the fast lane of a motorway
                   – climbing into a cage of hungry lions…
                   – being at the receiving end of an artillery bombardment…
          – a variety of fear that is relatively uncommon
                   – stuntmen, lion-tamers, and residents of the Middle East excepted…!

■        ‘Inside Fear’…
          – fear that originates mainly ‘inside’ of ourselves…
          – fear that starts in our hearts or our heads…
          – fear, not of ‘what is’,
                   but of ‘what might be’…
          – fear of the possible,
                   but not necessarily of the probable
          – fear that has little or no reason to be…
          – a very common variety of fear…

 The way that fear works is different for each variety…
         – the different sorts of fear have different sorts of power…

 ‘Outside’ fear releases adrenalin…
          – makes us alert…
          – gives us energy…
          – the ‘fight or flight’ response…

 ‘Inside’ fear, on the other hand, shackles and binds us…
          – makes us prisoners…
          – prevents us from living a full and free life…
          – disables and cripples us…

 When John writes that “the doors were closed…for fear of the Jews”
          – he means more than the physical doors of the room…
          – he means the emotional state of the disciples…
                   – abandoned/bereft…
                   – the doors of their hearts shut too…
                   – locked in by their own fear…

 We all have these ‘inside’ fears that shut and lock our hearts…
          – fear of humiliation or ridicule…
          – fear of what others might think of us…
          – fear of being shown up, or making a fool of ourselves…
          – fear of saying/doing the wrong thing…
          – fear of failing (ourselves/others)…
                   – the list is endless…

 Some of these fears may be grounded in reality…
          – many/most are not…
          – they are fears that exist only in our own heads
          – but they can still disable and cripple us…

 “Jesus came and stood among them.  He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’.”

 Jesus comes to set us free…
          – he comes to break all the shackles that bind us…
          – he comes to unlock the gate to new/true life…
          – he comes to bring his peace to us…

 His resurrection demonstrates that the greatest limitation in life: death itself…
          – has been overwhelmed by his victory…

 And if the greatest limitation of all has been eradicated…
          – then so too all the lesser limitations…

 He has broken open, not only the closed doors of the tomb…
          – but also the closed doors of our hearts and lives…
          – we no longer have anything to fear…!

 Love has conquered death…                                                                             1Jn.4.18a
          – “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”                                       

 A rider to all this…
          – the Church has used the power of ‘inside’ fear…
          – particularly the fear of the consequences of sin…
          – and despite the clear assurances of Jesus that he has taken away our sin…

 When Jesus says…                                                                                           Jn.20.23
     “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
      
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

 …we perhaps too readily equate them with the ‘power of the keys’ given to Peter…     Mt.16.19
     “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
     
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

 …and interpret the words as meaning that the apostles can turn forgiveness on and off…!

 I think that Jesus more probably means that the more we hang on to the notion that our sins
(and those of others) can remain unforgiven, then the consequences are the same as if they were unforgiven…
          – in other words, we can, through an unwillingness to let sin go,
         actually feed that inner fear that shackles and locks us up…

 Jesus has forgiven our sin…
          – he has released us from it…
          – but we still seem to have the knack of hanging on to it…
          – and thereby letting it hang on to us…!

 Jesus comes and stands among us…
          – and says to our hearts: ‘Peace be with you – you are set free’.

Preached before the service begins – so as not to interupt the ‘flow’!

Palm Sunday…
 – a day with a heavy load of SCRIPTURE…
 – FOUR readings: Gospel, OT, NT, Passion…
  – even if the passion is a ‘shortened’ form…!
 – it’s a lot to take in…!

So, a question…
 – what is scripture FOR…?
 – what is its purpose…?
 – what part does it play in the life of a Christian…?

There are various answers we could offer…
 – some of them can be found within scripture itself…
 – classic one, from St Paul:                                (2Tim.3.16)
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful
for teaching, for reproof, for correction,
and for training in righteousness…”

 – several passages talk about scripture as being able to be  ‘fulfilled’…
  – so perhaps it’s also useful for pointing to the future,
   or to something deeper…

Generally speaking scripture is usually seen as ‘something we can get something out of’
 – something that benefits, or teaches us…

This is all true…
 – but I would like to suggest to you that there is another purpose,
  another function, of scripture…
 – that it’s not just something we can get something out of OUT OF…
 – but that it’s something that we can also get INTO…

Today we are going to hear the story of the ‘Passion’…
 – the death of Jesus…

How many times have you heard it before…?

Are you going to get something different or new out of it this time…?

Maybe not…!

But in this setting at least, that is not its function…
 – we are not here today to be taught, or reproved, or corrected, or trained…
 – we are here today to be invited to enter into the experience of the passion…

I think that the primary function of scripture is to draw us into the story…
 – to make us part of it…

When Jesus said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’
 – he wasn’t just talking about the Eucharist, Holy Communion…
 – he was talking about the fullness of faith, including scripture…

The word ‘remembrance’ in this context doesn’t just mean ‘remember’…
 – it means ‘remember’, and ‘re-enact’
 and bring what we re-enact out of the past and into the present…
 – to make it real again today…

That’s why we can say, “This IS the body/blood of Christ”…
        “This IS the word/gospel/passion of Christ”…

We make a connection…!

Today we are invited to stand with those who stood by the cross 2000 years ago…
 – not to learn, or to be instructed…
 – but simply to be part of it all, to be there!

Over the last couple of weeks the daily readings set for Morning Prayer have been from Exodus: the long wrangle that Moses and Aaron have with the Egyptian Pharaoh to persuade him to let the Israelite people go from Egypt (designed so that the readings about the Exodus itself coincides with Easter).

Alongside this, out in the real world, union negotiators have (had!) been wrangling with Willie Walsh about conditions of service for BA cabin crews.

I was struck by the parallels.  There was Moses and Aaron traipsing back and forth to see the Egyptian CEO, Pharaoh, trying to negotiate an escape plan for the people of Israel.  Different plans were put on the table, rejected, more plans suggested, all against the background of increasingly more menacing ‘plagues’.  In the end, the death of all the Egyptians’ first-born sons clinched the deal!

The most interesting aspect of this ‘parallel’ was the realisation that we, as human beings, as Christians, often try to ‘negotiate’ favourable terms for ourselves with God.  “I promise to try to be good, if only You will…!”

This is, of course, a pointless exercise.  God always wants the best for us, and always knows what the very best thing for us is.  He knows it better than we ourselves know it.  He also knows that some of the things we might think are good for us are, in fact, in the greater scheme of things, bad for us.  In our negotiations with God, he already has the best plan for us on the table.  His plan, once again, involves the death of a first-born son, his own!

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate deal-clincher.  In all of our little negotiations with God, He knows that, deep down, what we really all want (what we really NEED) is ‘life in all its fullness’.  And so that is exactly what he offers us, through faith in him and through his own incarnate self/son, Jesus.  He even pays all the costs.  Deal done!

And when we come, Sunday by Sunday, to the ‘table’ of the Eucharist, we accept that deal with thanksgiving and hope, accepting God’s assurance that whatever happens in our lives, his love for us is undiminished and never-ending.

Alleluia!

I was very saddened to hear this morning that the singer/songwriter Lesley Duncan had died earlier this month.  Her music accompanied me through the late sixties and early seventies.

Only last night, at a charity event in church for MedEquip4Kids (a brilliant local charity!), where various local schools came together to sing and play music, I had played Lesley’s album “Sing Children Sing”!

Here’s a taste:

and:

and:

“…you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground…
…and you shall put it into a basket and go to the place
that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.”
Deuteronomy 26.2

It does, at first sight, seem quite odd that the season of Lent…
 – a season of giving up and doing without…
 – should begin with a reading about a big basket of goodies…

The offering of a basket of ‘first fruits’, began as a Canaanite harvest festival…
 – a thanksgiving for the grain and grape harvests…
 – but which, when adopted by the Israelites, acquired an added new twist…

As part of the ritual of offering that basket of ‘goodies’…
 – the person making the offering was required to PAUSE…
  – and to REMEMBER…
 – and to recite a little bit out of their oral history…                                  Dt.26.5
  – “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor;
  he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number…”
 
 – to PAUSE and to REMEMBER a time when there were no ‘goodies’…
  – when life was not so easy…
  – when life involved affliction, toil and sorrow…

It can be easy, when times are good, to forget the times before…
 – times that may not have been so good…
 – times we would like to forget…
 – times that are now long gone and behind us…

It was important to the Israelite that they should PAUSE and REMEMBER…

In Lent we do the opposite…
 – we deliberately ‘do without’, in order to…
  – well, in order to do what…?

 – what are we doing, when we give things up in Lent…?
 – and why are we doing it…

 – to make ourselves feel bad, perhaps…?
 – to make ourselves uncomfortable…?
 – to raise our awareness of our own bounty…
 – to remember the poverty / disadvantage of others…?

Well, I suppose it is all of that…
 – but it is, above all, an opportunity to PAUSE and to REMEMBER…

The temptation of Jesus is not just a story of the victory of virtue over badness…
  – of good over evil…
 – it is designed to pull us up short…
 – to make us PAUSE and REMEMBER…
  – to pause and remember some of the fundamentals of Christian living that   so easily get lost in our rich, bountiful, and abundant world we now live in…
  – despite the recession…!

To PAUSE and REMEMBER…

“One does not live by bread alone”                 Lk.4.4

We are not to be driven solely by our physical needs and desires…

Money and goods are not the measure of our authenticity as human beings…

Life is more about seeking the depths within…
 – than it is about acquiring material things…
  – or attaining celebrity status…

We are SPIRITUAL, as well as physical beings…
 – and we neglect that inner being at our peril…

To PAUSE and REMEMBER…

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”                                          Lk.4.8

Much of the good things that we have are GIVEN…
 – through chance, through genetics, through the generosity of others…
 – none of us are entirely self-made…

Recognition of the grace of God in our lives…
  – the ‘givenness’ of much of what we are and have…
 – and the way we respond to that in ‘service’ to each other…
  – simple humanity towards each other…
 – is a first step upon our journey to becoming who we truly are…
  – children of God…

To PAUSE and REMEMBER…

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”                                                  Lk.4.12

Satan tempts Jesus with invulnerability…
 – throw yourself down, God will save you…!
 – that will prove to everyone that HE IS who he says he is…

But Jesus knows that VULNERABILITY, not INvulnerability, is the key…
 – that living by frail faith…
 – that living with uncertainty…
 – that living the ‘gifted’ life of faith, hope and love…
  – is worth more that any proof, or certainty…
  – and opens up a deeper relationship with God
   than we could ever ‘make’ for ourselves…

And so we pause and remember…
 – that DEPTH and GRACE and VULNERABILITY are where we find our true selves…
 – and where we reap our richest bounty…

Thank to Scott Gunn @ Seven Whole Days.

Interesting discussion on ‘new monasticism’ on BBC Radio 4’s “Beyond Belief” today at 4.30 pm.

Should be available soon on BBC IPlayer HERE.

There is an Anglican tradition of contemplative prayer (patrimony) which consists in kneeling, sitting, lying, in silence. It is an aphophatic way,it uses no images or narratives, it has no theme or passage, it does not seek pathways or destination; it is silence before the reality of God. It is a way taught within Anglicanism for most of the last century; Fr Gilbert Shaw was the great apostle of the methodology, in recent years Fr. Bill Scott has guided people in this way.

It is a methodology without methodology, it consists in the silence, not in listening for a voice in the silence, not in listening to the silence as a voice, it is the silence. This way is not to be found in intrusion into the silence, it is not a journey to God found beyond the silence by becoming one with the silence in which God may be found. It is the silence. The prayer is not in embracing, moulding or entering into the silence, it is not in letting the silence be moulded around the soul at prayer, or the woman in the application of the silence.

It is the loss of everything that is not the silence, it is not the loss of self, it is the silence. It is not discerning the ‘heart-beat’ of God, but it may be hearing therumours of the wordless love of the Sacred Heart, which can be heard only in the silence.

Reposted from Fr Jones, of St Peter’s, London Docks HERE on 25 January.

A sermon for Christmas Midnight Mass

“And she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son
and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Luke 2.7

Probably not the best beginning for a mother and child…!

Nor, perhaps, a very unusual one…
     – poor, unmarried, teenage girl has a baby…
          – it happens…!
     – in a shed…
          – slightly more unusual, perhaps…
     – and the events that followed: shepherd, angels, kings…
          – definitely a bit extra-ordinary…

But I wonder what her aspirations, her hopes for the future, had been, before all that happened…
     – before the events of that first Christmas overtook her…
     – before she became a teenager catapulted centre-stage  into the course of history…?

I’m guessing that she didn’t spend her earlier years really, really, really wanting to be the virgin Mother of God…
     – she probably just wanted to be a hairdresser…
     – or a waitress…
     – or maybe even a singer…!

Joe McElderry, on the other hand…
     – really, really, really, really DID want to be a singer…
           – but not just any singer…
     – he really, really, really wanted to be a star, a pop idol…
     – he really, really, really wanted to be the one with the X-Factor…

– and a couple of weeks ago…
     – one third of the British population were witnesses to his success…
      – another teenager catapulted centre-stage into stardom…

You will probably know that the letter ‘X’ in English…
     – has the same form/shape as the letter ‘Chi’ in Greek…
     – and the letter ‘Chi’ is the first letter of the word ‘Christ’…
     – and is often used as an abbreviation for the word ‘Christ’…
     – as in ‘Xmas’ / ‘Christmas’…

We could say, I suppose, that Mary was the very first to have the X-factor…
     – she, after all, gave birth to the X-Child, the Christ Child…

The TV X-Factor auditions began way back in June…
     – when Joe McElderry joined his first queue…
     – queuing up to become a pop-idol…
     – singing his heart out for the first round judges…

The real X-factor beginning was nine months ago…
     – the event the Church commemorates as the Feast of the Annunciation…
          – 25th March…
    – the celebration of the announcement to Mary that she would be a mother…
         – but not just any mother…!

And like Joe McElderry, Mary sang her heart out…

And the Church still sings her song today…
     – every day…!
     – every day the Church, as part of its office of Evening Prayer, sings the Song of Mary, the ‘Magnificat’…

 “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
 my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
 he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.

 From this day all generations will call me blessed;
 the Almighty has done great things for me
 and holy is his name.”

But Mary’s song in not the song of an aspiring pop-idol…
     – anything but…!
     – instead her song focuses, not on herself, but upon the X that lies at the heart of her life
      (and in the centre of her womb!)…
     – upon the X-factor that turns away from stardom, and fame, and riches…
     – and concentrates upon turning those values upside down:

“He has scattered the proud in their conceit,”
 continues Mary in her song
 (without ever mentioning the name Simon Cowell)
“He has scattered the proud in their conceit,
“casting down the mighty from their thrones,
 and lifting up the lowly.
he has filled the hungry with good things
 and sent the rich away empty.”

Christmas night is the final round of the cosmic X-factor…
     – when the real winners are revealed: the lowly, the hungry…
     – and the judges: the proud, the mighty, the rich, are sent away…
    – where mercy rules, and God’s promise reigns…
    – where the values of a self-obsessed world are turned on their head…
    – and idols are exposed as the empty vessels they are…

Tonight is the final round…
     – but it is not the end…
           – that will come later…
           – about thirty or so years later…
     – when the ‘X’ at the heart of the universe…
     – revealed tonight as the Babe of Bethlehem…
     –  urther reveals himself from a different angle…
     – not with an ‘X’, but with a Cross…

[Thanks to CyberVicar for the seeds of this sermon: here.]

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