When you prayed beneath the trees

Jesus in Gethsemane. Source unknown.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “When you prayed beneath the trees” by Christopher Idle.  This 20th century hymn comes with its own tune, but John played it to an older hymn tune by Orlando Gibbons that better fits the sombre mood. 

The feel of the words is much like the better known American spiritual “Where you there when they crucified by Lord?”. They expand on the idea that Jesus suffered, not only in his own body, but for our sake and in our place. The repeated refrain of “it was for me, O Lord” emphasises this.  The four verses refer to the agony in the garden of Gethsemane; his trial; the ascent of the hill under the cross (‘via dolorosa’); and finally the crucifixion itself. 

This last, though, sees Jesus not as victim but as victor, another common understanding of what happened of Good Friday: “When you spoke with kingly power it was for me, O Lord, in that dread and destined hour you made me free, O Lord; earth and heaven heard you shout, death and hell were put to rout, for the grave could not hold out; you are for me, O Lord”.

Advent Faith

Advent faith Reading: Isaiah 40:27-31

Today is the third Sunday of Advent.  In the parish of Bramley we have a one-word theme each week during Advent. So far we have had HOPE and PEACE. This week’s word is FAITH.

What does that mean to you? People can sometimes be put off  getting involved with Christianity because we talk of faith, thinking that faith means already understanding the Bible, or believing certain things about God.  But all that can come later.  Faith, to begin with, simply means trusting God – just trusting that he exists, and that he cares.

Isaiah spoke to people who thought God was ignoring them in their problems.  No, he said, God understands everything. You just need to trust him, then you can be as strong and free as the eagle, in other words you will find the strength to cope with your problems and feel in control of your life, rather than being earthbound by your problems and other people’s expectations.

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Let’s look at a couple of pictures.  The first is a photograph of a bird – actually it’s a chough, a sort of large crow, not an eagle – but it is flying high above a lake.  My friends and I had spent hours climbing the mountain by our own effort, fighting against gravity, but here was this bird just soaring easily on the thermal currents.   I took this at a time when I had been a Christian for over ten years but was exploring options for ministry. This view from a mountain top spoke to me, of the way God might be freeing me from previous commitments to serve him.

 

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The second image is of a place some of you may know, the chapel at Scargill House. About five years after I had taken the first photo, praying in the silence of the chapel in the Yorkshire Dales, God gave me a picture in my mind, in which I was a baby bird, and God my mother. She was telling me it was time to fly the nest, not to be afraid but to trust her to know that now was the time to start flying. Within months of that I had given up my previous job, taken a big cut in income and started serving God in a new way in a new place. Since then I have worked for four different Christian organisations and trained as a Reader.

The point is that you don’t need the gifts of a prophet, the intellect of a bishop, or the wingspan of an eagle to start flying with God.  An amount of faith and trust as small as the tiny wings of a baby sparrow will do.  The question is, do you trust God when she says that she knows better than you do what you are capable of, and that you are now ready to fly with her?  It’s only the start of a lifetime’s journey, but it has to start with that simple act of faith.

Advent hope 

A reflection for the first Sunday in Advent – written for the online service from St Peter’s church, Bramley 

Bible Reading: Romans 15:7-13 (New International Readers Version)

Christ has accepted you. So accept one another in order to bring praise to God.

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews. He teaches us that God is true. He shows us that God will keep the promises he made to the founders of our nation.  Jesus became a servant of the Jews so that people who are not Jews could give glory to God for his mercy. It is written, “I will praise you among those who aren’t Jews. I will sing praises to you.” Again it says, “You non-Jews, be full of joy. Be joyful together with God’s people.” And again it says, “All you non-Jews, praise the Lord. All you nations, sing praises to him.” And Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will grow up quickly. He will rule over the nations. Those who aren’t Jews will put their hope in him.”

May the God who gives hope fill you with great joy. May you have perfect peace as you trust in him. May the power of the Holy Spirit fill you with hope.            ____________________________________________

Today is the first day of Advent, the season when we prepare to welcome Jesus. Our parish has a one-word theme each week, and this week’s word is HOPE. Hope, in the way the way Christians use the word, is more than just wishful thinking, it’s trusting that God has a plan for our lives and that his promises of restoration and rebuilding will come true.

At the start of Advent the Church looks back to a time before Jesus, when God’s people were without hope. They were living in exile, separated from family and unable to communicate with them, grieving for those who had been killed in war, unable to do their usual jobs.   Doesn’t that sound familiar, as we spend this advent still reeling from the effects of the virus?

Like them, we may feel we have nothing to hope for. But God sent prophets with a message of hope, that he would rescue his people and take them back to where they belonged, restoring relationships and building communities.

The words of the prophets did come true – God restored the Jews to their land.  But there was more, a greater hope that God would one day come himself to reconcile his people – not only the Jews, but all people on earth, even those most excluded from society.  That’s why in this reading St Paul tells his readers to “accept one another” or in other translations, “welcome each other”– he was talking to Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, but the same applies wherever there is division in society.

This call to welcome others is especially relevant today, when we see so much division, so much inequality, so much discrimination in our world.  Never forget, Paul says, that God’s promise of hope is to all people, but most of all to the excluded.

Indian-fishermen

What does this look like in practice?  Take these fishermen. They live in a village called MGR Thittu in Tamil Nadu, south India which we visited in 20o6 with Tearfund.  They are Dalits, those below the bottom tier of the caste system.  They were cut off from society, poor, despised, uneducated, unable to work in the towns. Then the 2004 tsunami hit them, destroyed their boats and their homes.  They had no hope.  But Indian Christians from an organisation called EFICOR (with financial support from Tearfund in the UK), and Christian Aid, came to their rescue with a practical message of hope.  They built new homes, gave them new boats, and opened a computer teaching centre so that they could learn to use the Internet, get jobs in the city and become part of mainstream society. Above all, the Christians brought a message of God’s unconditional love.  Several of the Dalits turned to Christ and now there is a local church in their village.

That’s what Advent hope looks like in India.  But who are the excluded people who God is calling you to welcome? Who are the people God is calling you to bring hope to, this Advent?

[Postscript: since I drafted this earlier this week, Tearfund have asked for prayer for the Tamil Nadu region as it has been hit by a severe cyclone, with large numbers of people evacuated from the coastal areas.  Pray that once again, they may be given hope for the future].

Back to … What?

 

This post is based on what I put together for our online workplace prayer meeting at the end of August.  It is based around verses from a well known hymn by Jan Struther – if you don’t know the tune you can easily find performances on Youtube.

September is always a time of new beginnings, especially for those in education.  This year, adults too are having to make adjustments, whether it’s to the “new normal” at work, or different ways of being church, or having to cope with redundancy. So this is a chance to pray for all those facing new challenges, as well as for ourselves.  We start by remembering that whatever a new day (or new term, or new job or lack of) brings, God will be with us.

Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,
whose trust, ever childlike, no cares could destroy:
Be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.

Back to work

Few jobs will be unaffected by the requirements of the post-Covid world whether it is working from home, serving customers in a socially distanced way or delivering online courses and meetings instead of being face-to-face.  Personally I am just finishing part-time furlough, having previously been on full time furlough for two periods totalling eight weeks earlier in the year.  But I’m only back in the office one day a week to begin with, sat too far from any co-workers to have conversations during the working day and unable as yet to have ‘real’ meetings.   Others such as schoolteachers will have to return to work full time but with the additional responsibility of ensuring the safety of their students.

Whatever your working arrangements, I hope that this prayer that I found online (credited to “Fowiso”) will help you as much as it has helped me these past weeks as I enter the small space that is my home office.

My Heavenly father, as I enter this workplace I bring your presence with me. I speak your peace, your grace, your mercy, and your perfect order in this office. I acknowledge your power over all that will be spoken, thought, decided, and done within these walls.

Lord, I thank you for the gifts you have blessed me with. I commit to using them responsibly in your honour. Give me a fresh supply of strength to do my job. Anoint my projects, ideas, and energy so that even my smallest accomplishment may bring you glory.

The hymn reminds us that God is with us in action as well as stillness:

Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe:
Be there at our labours, and give us, we pray,
your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.

Back to school

Pupils and students are going back to classrooms, but now in smaller bubbles, varied hours, having to keep social distance.  Many will have fallen behind in their education, and the lockdown has only increased the gap between those from well-off, well-educated families and those struggling with disadvantages.  Here is a prayer from the Church of England for those returning to school:

O God, the strength of our lives,
We pray for those who join a new school this term.
Make known your will for them,
help them to discover friends among strangers,
to meet opportunities and challenges eagerly,
and to do daily tasks in your name.
Give them strength to overcome worries,
and preserve them in your safe keeping,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

School has its challenges at the best of times – exams, bullying, subjects and sports that students don’t enjoy or feel they will never understand.  Coming back from school to a welcoming home is something that many of us remember enjoying at the end of a tough school day, but not everyone is fortunate enough to live in a supportive family.  Our heavenly father/mother, though, is always there to welcome, appreciate and comfort us.  Remember these young people as you sing or read the next verse of the hymn:

Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace:
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.

Back to church

Church leaders and their congregations have been faced with the challenge of not worshipping together for the last six months. Some have had the resources to respond to this inventively with complex, interactive online worship. Others have made do with a simple recorded service led only by the minister and perhaps their family members from home.  And many smaller congregations haven’t even managed that, keeping in touch only with phone calls.  Many older people don’t have computers or smartphones and have been left out of online worship.

Here is a prayer from the Methodist church for those returning to church:

Dear Lord
We pray for your church in this time of uncertainty.
For those who are worried about attending worship.
For those needing to make decisions in order to care for others.
For those who will feel more isolated by not being able to attend.
Holy God, we remember that you have promised that nothing will
separate us from your love – demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ.
Help us turn our eyes, hearts and minds to you.
Amen.

Back to justice

At a local level there have been many welcome initiatives during lockdown that bring people together to build community.  Around where I live, someone has set up a ‘Bramley Wombles’ group to  clear litter , while the ‘Bramley Tate’ group is painting vibrant street art to cheer people on their way. Others have been volunteering with food banks,  phoning people in isolation to offer help and emotional support, and so on.  But  while all this has been going on, many people have been concerned at the way the world is going.  This year, whether or not the pandemic has anything to do with it, we have also seen an increase in racism, hatred, violence of all kinds, and lies and scandals in politics.

At the same time climate change isn’t going away, and for all the good signs that more people are taking it seriously at an individual level, there seems to be a continuing lack of action by governments and corporations around the world who have the power and money to make a big difference.

When the world falls apart, people of all faiths call out on God to come to their aid. As Christians, we cannot forget that Jesus warned that things would get worse before he comes again to put everything right.  The following Bible reading reminds us that Jesus knew that his ‘good news’ would face resistance, and he encouraged his followers to concentrate on the people who welcomed his message.   Although Advent seems some way off yet, its refrain “Come, Lord Jesus” is one we can use at any time of year.

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.

Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” ~(Luke 10:1-11, New Revised Standard Version)

And so we pray for God’s justice to come among us:

Living God,
deliver us from a world without justice
and a future without mercy;
in your mercy, establish justice,
and in your justice, remember the mercy
revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

The last verse of the hymn encourages us to hand over all our problems and worries to God, especially at the end of the day.   “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”.  In the face of injustice, all we can do is our best, even if it seems very little, and trust God for the rest.

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm:
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.

May God bless your new day, your new term, your ‘new normal’.

 

Slower than Butterflies

This post is based on a prayer session that I led today.  The title comes from a book of meditations by Eddie Askew, and the idea is that to appreciate God’s presence we need to be moving at a pace ‘slower than butterflies’.

During the Covid-19 lockdown I have been doing more walking, and more photography than usual.  I do love photographing butterflies, but it requires patience.  Although they don’t fly fast, they rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds.  You have to stay around, observing them carefully and moving in slowly and quietly with the camera to get a good photo.

So here are some of my butterfly photographs, with some Biblical reflections about living slowly.

Small tortoiseshell

This is a small tortoiseshell, photographed on a riverbank – a very quiet place away from the noise of traffic.  We often need to find somewhere quiet to slow down and experience God in the silence.   The Prophet Elijah found this when he fled to a cave in the desert to escape persecution, in words that you may recognise from a well known hymn..

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ (1 Kings 19:11-15)

Ringlet

This is a ringlet, photographed alongside a footpath across farmland.  Sometimes you have to look long and carefully to spot the butterfly, especially a dull coloured one like this, and only see it clearly for a moment before it flutters away.  That’s a bit like the Holy Spirit of God – often we only have a brief experience of the Spirit before she seems to flutter away again. But even that brief experience may send us away rejoicing.  Perhaps that’s what St John had in mind when he wrote the following letter.  The word for “looked at” implies a lingering gaze rather than  a brief glimpse, reminding us that the wait may be long before the experience arrives.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

Skipper

This is a skipper, feeding on knapweed.  Butterflies and other insects have a symbiotic relationship with flowers – the insects feed on nectar, while they in turn pollinate other flowers, and so both species can continue to flourish.  Jesus spoke of how birds and flowers depend on God for their existence without worrying –

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)

Cabbage White

This cabbage white butterfly was basking on ballast on a railway line – a hot, dry and potentially dangerous environment with no source of food.  But  we can still find God even in places that seem a long way from a comfortable life, in the “valley of darkness” as well as the “green pastures”, as Psalm 23 reminds us –

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
(Psalm 23:1-4)

Speckled Wood

I found this speckled wood butterfly in a country churchyard.  The mound of earth may well have come from a recently dug grave.  As an old Christian proverb says, “In the midst of life we are in death”.  But butterflies are often held up as a parable of the resurrection: the earthbound caterpillar effectively dies as it turns into a chrysalis, which after a while yields the gloriously coloured, flighty creature that in its previous existence could not have imagined the glory that was to come. As Jesus explained –

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

So take some time today to slow down to butterfly pace, appreciate the silence, look for the signs of God in the natural world, trust Him for your material needs, and remember that beyond suffering and death will be the unimagined wonder of the world to come.

Cornish

A grayling butterfly, seen on the Cornish coast path.

May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun.
And find your shoulder to light on.
To bring you luck, happiness, and riches.
Today, tomorrow, and beyond.
            (an anonymous Irish blessing)

Copyright  (c) Stephen Craven 2020.  Quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Kneeling and toppling – a response to the Black Lives Matter movement

Yesterday I received two e-mails pointing me to the latest suggestion for a gesture of solidarity with a certain group of people: the idea was to kneel outside one’s house in silence at 8pm for the 8 minutes that an American policeman was preventing George Floyd from breathing.   I chose not to join in with this gesture, and I want to explain why.

Of course I agree that black people’s lives do matter and that the death of George Floyd – whether or not he was guilty of a crime at the time of his arrest – was an outrage and a travesty of justice.  No police officer should use more than the minimum necessary force in arresting someone, and every death in police custody must be investigated, with prosecutions where appropriate.

My reasons for choosing not to join in this particular gesture are more to do with the way that society works these days, and the dangers of crowd mentality.  The advent of first the Internet and then social media has made it incredibly easy for ideas – memes as they are sometimes called – to spread around the world.  I don’t expect more than a few people to read this blog, but who knows – the most unlikely things go viral.  The worldwide wave of demonstrations following Floyd’s death, and in the UK the removal by a cheering crowd of a statue to an 18th century slave trader in Bristol, have caught the headlines this week to an extent that nothing else has since the start of the Covid-19 crisis several months ago.  Without social media it would probably have been no more than a brief item on the news.  Twenty years ago we may never even have heard of a similar incident in the USA. A hundred years ago it would hardly have been possible.

As a Christian, I have to ask myself ‘what would Jesus do?’  Of course he didn’t have the Internet or a Facebook account.  But he was familiar with crowds, familiar with discrimination and all too familiar with political intrigue. Let’s unpack that a bit.

For several generations before Jesus’ time the people group he was born into – I’ll call them ‘the Jews’ although that’s a simplification – had been expecting a God-given spiritual leader (often referred to as the ‘Messiah’) and the expectation linked with that was that the Messiah would free them from Roman oppression.  Then as now, the Jews knew what it was to be persecuted.

At the start of what Christians call Holy Week, leading up to Easter, we remember when Jesus came up to Jerusalem for what he knew would be his last Passover celebration. Crowds cheered him, hailed him as the Messiah, and many would be expecting him to overthrow the Romans.  But he didn’t.

Jesus had a bigger agenda, a more important calling.  His task, uniquely, was to give his life “as a ransom for all”, to enable everyone to be reconciled to God.  That is why he would not be drawn into fruitless argument or vain attempts at armed insurrection.  Others had been there and failed.  He silently accepted the praise of the crowd on Palm Sunday, but equally silently accepted his betrayal by a friend, unjust trial by both religious and secular authorities, the calling of a hostile crowd for his crucifixion, and eventually that crucifixion as performed by the Romans.

At the same time, the Jews were not guiltless themselves when it came to racism.  Their scriptures, which still form part of the Christian Bible, include a record of genocide and hatred of entire people groups in the past. And even in Jesus’ day there was widespread discrimination, not least against their neighbours to the north, the Samaritans. The feeling was mutual and it seems the two groups would hardly talk to each other.  Did Jesus show that Samaritan lives matter?  Yes, he did.  But not by taking part in mass protests.  John’s gospel records him meeting a woman of Samaria alone, asking her for a drink (thereby making himself the one in need) and gently persuading her, and through her others of her village, to engage with him.  Later, he told the parable that we know as ‘the Good Samaritan’ through which he challenged his hearers to recognise discrimination for what it is, and that what matters is attending to the needs of other people irrespective of how we may categorise them.

Would Jesus have thrown a statue into the river?  Well, he overturned the tables of the Temple moneychangers when he saw that they were acting unjustly. I don’t think he would oppose the symbolic removal of Colton’s statue.  But the Temple incident was symbolic of all he had been teaching about the love of God, the dangers of wealth and religious power.   Symbolic actions like that do have their place in making a point to support an existing cause, as do demonstrations, vigils and lighting candles.  But in themselves, divorced from any other action, they achieve little, sometimes nothing, and can even harm the cause when peaceful protests turn violent as they often do.

Also, crowds are notoriously fickle. Someone this week asked a good question – how many of those who criticised Dominic Cummings for breaking lockdown (the previous week’s cause celebre) were also among those who broke the rules themselves to pack together to call for racial justice?   And how many of those who were in the crowd celebrating Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem were also in the crowd calling for his death?  The crowd moves on, the news moves on, another issue raises its head, the same or different people form a new protest movement, and last week’s ‘big story’ is in danger of becoming a footnote in history itself.

I am sure that Jesus would have agreed that ‘Jewish lives matter’, but also ‘Samaritan lives matter’ and even ‘Roman lives matter’.  He is here now with those who mourn the death of George Floyd – and countless other innocent victims of injustice.  He is here with those who are passionate for justice in all its forms.

There are many other causes besides those of tackling racism. Each one get its ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ in the media, and occasionally, for reasons that are not obvious, one particular cause gets longer in the spotlight, as racism has this week.  But none of the others have gone away.  Climate change, fair trade, the plight of asylum seekers in the ‘hostile environment’, sustainable transport… those are just the issues that I, personally, give particular attention to.  Those are my calling.   There are many others, no less worthy.  Racism is one.  Then there are animal welfare, LGBT rights, food poverty, nuclear weapons – the list is endless.    None of us can be involved in them all.  If you are involved in any of them, well done.

My reason for not kneeling for “Black Lives Matter”, then, is not because I think they don’t, but because that happens not to be one of the ‘causes’ that I feel particularly called to be involved in, and a symbolic gesture one evening means nothing if it isn’t backed up by sustained action.  So I thank God for all those who do work for this cause, whether or not it is in the media spotlight.

The way that Jesus  – the crucified and risen Messiah – changes lives and changes society is by calling individuals to repent.  Repentance meaning not merely being sorry for what we have done wrong, but starting a whole new way of life based on his ‘two greatest commandments’ – to love God (as creator of the world – if you don’t believe in God, at least love the world), and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  “Who is my neighbour?” someone asked, and Jesus replied with the story of the Good Samaritan – it is anyone whose needs we can do something about.

What each of us should do, then, is firstly to look at our lives and see where they may be harming others, directly or indirectly, and what changes we might need to make in the way we live to minimise or prevent that harm.   Then to pray, or ponder, what particular causes we are called to give positive support to.  And to give those few causes, or it may only be one, our full support, not only by occasional symbolic gestures, but with words, actions, giving of time and money, and changes in lifestyle that prove we really mean it.

All lives matter. Black lives matter.  Your neighbour’s life matters.  Your life matters. To God and each other.

© Stephen Craven 9 June 2020.

Palm Sunday (5 April 2020)

A Bible reflection for Palm Sunday (5 April 2020)

By Stephen Craven, Reader (Licensed Lay Minister) in the parish of Bramley, Leeds.

Introduction

Since all churches including ours (St Margaret’s Bramley) are closed at present, there will an online service offered by the Rector at 10.15 this morning on our Facebook page. If we had been having a service in church it would have been my turn to preach, so here is my reflection on the set readings for the day.

The Anglican liturgy for Palm Sunday is different from the standard pattern.  Instead of the usual short Bible readings, there are no fewer than six readings set for today, the last and longest of which is the full story of the passion (suffering) of Jesus according to Matthew.  I have chosen to comment on four of these.

Practical tip: for the Bible readings, right-click and select ‘open in new tab’ so that you don’t lose your place on this page.

 

The first Bible reading

Matthew 21:1-11 Jesus enters Jerusalem

 

Reflection

At a time when we are all socially isolated, reading of the crowds pressing around Jesus seems strange, and their cheerful shouts of praise may sound discordant or even disrespectful when we know how many people are suffering.  We are beginning to get used to being on our own, or just with a few family members, most of the time.

Yet people are still finding ways of doing things together, of staying positive.  Online meetings, virtual parties, swapping jokes (did you see the announcement on 1 April that the Bishop of London will be blasted into space to found the Diocese of the Moon and Mars?). ‘Dates’ where we chat by phone over our individual cups of coffee or glasses of wine.

And then there’s the 8pm clapping for the NHS – coming together to honour the workers putting their own lives at risk, hailed as heroes and heroines by the rest of society.  That’s much like what the crown on Palm Sunday were doing, coming together to honour Jesus as their hero, the one who would save them (Hosanna means ‘save us!’).   But save them from what?  From the Romans? From Herod?  A very different answer would emerge in the course of the next week.

 

The second Bible reading

Psalm 31:9-16

Reflection

Many of the Psalms are songs of lament, an honest crying out to God of the things that are wrong in our lives or in society, and the pains we suffer (physically or mentally).  Several of the verses of this psalm have echoes of how people are suffering with the Coronavirus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in trouble”… “my strength fails me because of my affliction, and my bones are consumed” … “when my neighbours see me in the street they flee from me. I am forgotten like one that is dead, out of mind” … “fear is on every side”.  Nothing can shock God, so in reading this psalm and responding to it, be honest with him about how you are feeling.

But like many of these psalms of lament, Psalm 31 ends in hope.  “Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his love to me when I was beset as a city under siege … be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” (verses 21, 24).

 

The third Bible reading

Philippians 2:5-11 

Reflection

In the early centuries of Christianity, men argued constantly about who Jesus actually was – truly God and not fully man, or truly man and not fully God, or somehow both fully God and man?  Most branches of Christianity teach the last of these: Jesus was truly divine, yet in every way a real human being: body, mind and spirit.   When he suffered, he really suffered.  Did this – becoming a suffering soul in a suffering body, dying on the cross – demean him, somehow compromise his pure divine nature?

Paul, writing to the Christians at Philippi, gives a resounding ‘no’ as his answer.  Precisely because Christ suffered for us as the man Jesus, experiencing all the pain that we can experience (while at the same time demonstrating how we should live), and thereby redeeming us from the sin that had separated us from God, he was given the highest honours in Heaven, and deserves the highest praise from us. Part of the way that we can honour Jesus’ sacrifice for us is by being servants of others, as many are doing already at this time of suffering.

 

The fourth Bible reading (the Passion Gospel)

Matthew 26:14-27:54

 Reflection

What does Holy Week have in common with the present lockdown of society?  For a start, the rapidly changing events.  No two days are alike.  Three weeks ago, I was working as normal in a city centre office, drinking with friends in pubs in the evening. Then came word that we should be socialising less, keeping our distance from people. The Diocese (my employer) asked us to work from home at least three days a week.  That was new for me, setting up my work laptop to log in to the office computer network. By the end of the week, we were told to take home whatever we needed as the office would be closing and home working has become semi-permanent.  I’ve had to learn video conferencing, scanning papers at home to upload remotely to the office.

The following weekend, like many people, Linda and I met friends for the final time in a pub on Friday evening, and on Saturday we drove out into the countryside – parking on a minor road, walking (mostly) quiet paths.  Two days later the Government told us even that was not permitted, and we’re now only allowed a short daily walk from home. Phone calls (maybe with video) are the only way of keeping in touch, and for those who live alone and don’t have the internet, it’s even worse (my mother is at least seeing my sister who comes to sit two metres away from her in the garden to chat). On Friday this week it was confirmed I will be ‘furloughed’ from next Wednesday – ‘laid aside’ for at least three weeks, albeit on full pay thanks to the Government’s 80% grant scheme. Compared with those whose small business have collapsed, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Jesus understands.  In the course of one week he went from being at the centre of attention, in control of his activities, to being accused of blasphemy, abandoned by his closest friends, losing his freedom of movement, whipped and crucified with only a few people present. The ‘Via Dolorosa’ or way of suffering, marked in many churches by walking round the Stations of the Cross as Jesus walked to Calvary, must have been a time of terrible loneliness. Even if there was a crowd watching, this time it was hostile. Some people say it was the same people who praised Jesus on Palm Sunday who called for his crucifixion on Thursday.  Others say the crowds were different.  But clearly the popular mood changed rapidly. Things had turned ugly.  Judas, one of the inner circle of disciples, betrayed him.  Pilate, though believing Jesus to be innocent, symbolically washed his hands of responsibility (oh, how topical!) and handed him over to be killed.

There is also the wild range of emotions. What have you experienced in the last few weeks?  Bereavement? Confrontation? Fear? Sleeplessness? Confusion? Loneliness?  Again, Jesus understands.  He went through all these emotions himself –  bereavement when his friend Lazarus died shortly before these events (famously, “Jesus wept”), confrontation in the Temple, the blood-sweating fear of Gethsemane, sleeplessness while his exhausted disciples dozed, the confusion of his betrayal and arrest, the loneliness of the trial and Cross.

 

But there are signs of hope, both then and now.  Throughout Holy Week there were exceptions to the popular mood. His mother who followed him to the end.  The anonymous owner of the Upper Room who lent it for the Last Supper. Veronica who wiped his face. The penitent thief.  The centurion who acknowledged him, after his death, to be the Son of God. Joseph of Arimathea who gave him a decent burial. These are the unsung heroes of the Bible story.   Likewise, in our own time we see signs of hope, whether it’s the solidarity of all applauding the NHS together, community initiatives to support isolated neighbours, donating to or volunteering with foodbanks.  Those who do these things are the sometimes unsung heroes of our own time.

In the last week I have also started to hear suggestions for this to be the wake-up call for a whole new way of living.  Maybe in the future we can commit to making permanent the temporary changes that have been forced upon us: less travel, less unnecessary shopping, more time calling friends, more exercise outdoors, a new engagement with God and nature, a new sense of belonging together as one common humanity.  These, of course, are all parts of what it is to live the Christian life anyway.

So we can know that Jesus understands the rapid pace of change and  emotional distress that we experiencing, but also asks us to be like those who face up to these by continuing to serve others, being heroic in any small way we can, and being open to more permanent change.   For Christians who know the ending of the Holy Week story on Easter Day, there is the assurance of resurrection, which is much more than Jesus coming back to life, it is the start of a permanent change, a completely different form of life – life eternal. More on that next week!

Finally, may I wish you a blessed Holy Week and joyous Easter.

Stephen


Reflections copyright © Stephen Craven 2020

Bible texts accessed through the Oremus Bible Browser are from The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A Lenten retreat

Text of a sermon preached at St Margaret’s church, Bramley, Leeds

Sunday 23 February 2020 (last before Lent)

Bible text: Exodus 24:12-18


Moses was exhausted.  At his wits’ end. Stressed out. Dare I say, knackered?  Let’s just recall what he had achieved in the last year or so, bearing in mind what psychologists tell us are some of the main causes of stress.

First of all, this elderly man had faced up to a near eastern despot; bringing plagues on the country by God’s power using nothing more than a miraculous staff (and constant prayer).  Facing up to bullies causes stress – check!

Then, at the Exodus, he led at least a million refugees out of the country by night, through the sea and into the desert, again with nothing more than the miraculous staff and prayer.  The responsibilities of leadership cause stress – check!

Once safely out of Egypt their problems hadn’t stopped. Surprise, surprise, there  not enough food and water for a million people in the desert. Moses had to face up to a rebellion against his leadership as a result.  Being unable to access life’s basic needs causes stress – check! But once again the miraculous staff – and constant prayer – had come in handy.

If that wasn’t enough, he had directed a battle against a hostile tribe, again using that trusty old staff and constant prayer, though this time he was so weak his assistants had to hold his arms up. Warfare causes long term stress – check!

He had already been up the mountain in Sinai once, to receive the Ten Commandments and lots of other regulations, amounting to four pages of closely printed text in our Bibles.  But it seems he had to memorise them all at first, because only now is he summoned up the mountain a second time to fetch the written tablets of the Law.  While physical and mental exercise are recommended for older people, that was going too far!  Over-exertion causes stress – check!

If all that wasn’t enough, somewhere along the way we are told he had separated from his wife, and a while later his father-in-law comes along to have a word in his ear about it.  Relationship breakdown causes stress – check!

Finally, until recently he had been acting as judge for the whole people of Israel.  Fortunately he had been persuaded by his father-in-law to delegate most of that workload to other people (see, even in-laws can be worth listening to at times!) But that had taken its toll.  Sorting out disputes causes stress – check!  How many stress factors is that so far?  I make it at least seven.  It was most definitely time for a break.

So, God calls Moses up the mountain a second time.  On this occasion Joshua, who would eventually take over from Moses, comes with him.  The instruction from God is clear: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there”.  I emphasise that word “wait”.  We are told that the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain: the word is the same that John uses when he writes that the Word of God “came and dwelt among us” in Jesus.  But this was only base camp: the two of them spent seven days there, not yet going into the full presence of God, but waiting.  I believe this was Moses’s retreat, and God wanted him to de-stress before calling him to the next phase of his ministry.

This is a good time to think about retreats, as many people do make a retreat in Lent.  They are not necessarily about abstinence or physical discomfort, although  Moses presumably fasted through this time and slept out in the open.  Most retreat centres these days offer good food and a comfortable bed, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it may be just what you need.  Ideally, though, the retreat is about renewing your relationship with God, so that you can re-enter the world and its problems with renewed energy, understanding and vision. So what might Moses have got out of his seven-day retreat at Mount Sinai Base Camp?

Firstly, he had time to think.  Retreats are not holidays.  They are not about pleasure seeking. They may well be about relaxing, and certainly having time and space away from distractions to think clearly.  We are told that Moses was a very humble man, and reluctant to speak (which is why Aaron had to go with him to meet Pharaoh). He had spent a long time in the desert alone as a shepherd.  In the language of today, he was probably an introvert, someone who finds their strength in solitude. More than most people he needed to get far from the madding crowd.  After all the stresses of leading Israel out of Egypt he needed time alone with God -and with himself.

Next, he had the opportunity to let go.  Retreats are not about “getting things done”, or even “sorting out problems”.  Rather, a retreat should be about leaving the cares of the world behind, to de-stress by handing over all your problems to God.  When Linda and I were on the Scargill community, many guests who came to us from busy lives would say they ‘left their cares at the cattle grid’, starting to relax as they came up the drive and into the calmness of our community.

Then, he had time for more reflective prayer.   All the praying he had done these last months was intercessory – for his people’s freedom, for their physical needs to be met, for victory in battle, for justice in the courtroom.  Now he desperately needed the other sort of prayer – meditation, contemplation, enjoying God’s presence.  A balanced prayer life includes both – meditation to take us out of the world and into God, and intercession to face outward to the world and bring its needs to God.  But on retreat, the emphasis is on the first.

‘Letting go’ is also about letting others take the strain.  “Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them”.  No-one is indispensable. Retreats can be about taking time out of daily life, handing over responsibility, letting other people answer the phone and look after the children while you are away – “me time” as well as “God time”.

Once someone on retreat has let go of their cares, relaxed and started to focus on God, then comes the opportunity to hear God’s word.  For Moses of course, that was quite literal – at the end of the seven day retreat began another, longer, tougher one – forty days on the mountain top alone with God, but the first week of retreat was essential so that he could be ready to hear God speak.

For most of us that will be through worship, the Bible, other reading, or perhaps pastoral conversations with a retreat leader or chaplain. But always be open to hearing God speak in a more audible way, or by dreams or visions. It does happen.

The retreat is also a place of discernment. At the end of a retreat, ideally there should be a call – a renewed sense of vocation, of having a place in God’s kingdom.  Moses went back down the mountain with the tablets of the law, and also with detailed instructions about the building of the tabernacle, the place of worship.  In his forty day solo retreat he had come to understand more deeply the nature of God and the way that he should be worshipped, and had that message to pass on to others.

So as we approach Lent, starting this Wednesday, here are some questions to ponder.

  • Can I make time for a retreat during Lent? Not necessarily a full week in a recognised retreat centre, but perhaps a quiet day away by myself to spend in relaxation and prayer?   Or even just a good long walk, if the weather lets up?
  • What are the things that are causing me stress at present? Can I manage to lay them aside for a while?  Is there someone I could talk to about them who could help me de-stress? Maybe a family member, as with Moses and his father-in-law, or a friend such as Joshua, or a health professional?
  • What are the things that distract me from prayer? Certain people, places, foods, devices?  Can I lay them aside for a while – give them up for Lent?
  • Does my prayer life need a better balance? More intercession, more Bible reading, or more meditation? What would help with that?

Whatever your answers to these questions – and we are all different – be assured that if you turn aside to look for God, you will find him.  Few of us will have as stressful a life as Moses – or Jesus – but just as they found God in the solitude, so can we.

Joseph in Egypt – resonances of redemption

Text of a sermon preached at St John the Baptist, Adel, Leeds.

Text: Genesis chapter 42

The book of Genesis offers us many well known stories that have passed into Christian and even secular consciousness. The longest sequence of these concerns Jacob and his twelve sons, a dynastic saga that sets the scene for the later Exodus.  The passage that we heard read tonight is only a part of that sequence, towards the end of it in fact. You may well know the whole story, but in case it’s unfamiliar I will summarise it as follows:

Jacob, grandson of Abraham, had twelve sons, by his two wives and two servant girls.  Joseph was the second-youngest, and Benjamin, born several years later, the youngest.  These two were the only sons of Rachel, the other ten were their half-brothers, and that explains a lot that happens later in the story.  As young men, the older brothers hated them because they were Jacob’s favourites, and even more so when Joseph told them of dreams that they would one day bow down to him.  So they sold him to slave traders, who in turn sold him to an Egyptian official.  Thrown into prison in Egypt, he escaped only when a former fellow inmate told the Pharaoh that Joseph had the gift of interpreting dreams.  As a result of which, Joseph became finance and logistics minister, storing up surplus grain for the seven-year famine he had predicted. A famine that afflicted neighbouring countries including Canaan where his family lived.  That’s the story so far.

So, in this episode, by which time Joseph was very well off, the older brothers come to see him to buy corn from the Egyptian stores. The whole story is rich in resonances, not only for our own time, but also for the wider message of the Gospel.  Let’s look at a couple of them.

The first image that came to my mind when I pondered it is the many movements of people around the world today displaced by war, disease, famine or flood, such as the so-called caravan of migrants into the USA, or the asylum seekers crossing the North Sea in small boats.  I don’t imagine for a moment that Jacob’s was the only family that went down to Egypt to seek food or work in the drought, there must have been thousands.  Joseph presumably had to receive all of them to assess their needs.  Far from being hostile to these refugees from natural disaster, he – and his Egyptian masters – were willing to help them.  At the end of the story, Jacob’s extended family is invited to settle permanently in Egypt.

What a contrast that is to the attitudes of suspicion we so often see around us.  There is good work being done in Leeds by a network of churches and voluntary organisations to support homeless people, asylum seekers and refugees.  Jesus would approve – he proclaimed his mission as being to seek and save the lost, he spoke to despised groups of people, he told the story of the good Samaritan (as unlikely an idea in some people’s eyes as the good asylum seeker).

Back to the story – It’s quite understandable that Joseph, however generous to other visitors, would not want to greet his brothers joyfully as soon as he recognised them.  The anger and hatred he may have felt at the time of his enslavement may have been long gone, but the wrong they had done would not have been forgotten, and how was he to know whether he could trust them now?  Reuben, the eldest, reveals that he had opposed any harm to Joseph, so in sending the rest of them back with the grain they had paid for he retains the second eldest, Simeon, as a hostage.

That is the other image I want to bring out – the hostage.  We know about hostages of course – it’s a practice found in probably all societies.  The reason for keeping a hostage is to barter them for something – ransom money, another prisoner in exchange, or a favour from the other side.  The news this week has been of a British registered tanker and its crew held hostage by the Iranians as a revenge for us detaining one of theirs.  God willing, they will eventually both be released.

Joseph knew all too well what it was to be a hostage – thrown into a pit by his brothers until he was ransomed by slave traders – out of the frying pan and into the fire we might say.  His second spell in imprisonment was for refusing to sleep with his master’s wife. We might call him a prisoner of conscience.  We know all about them too – how about Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, who is according to Amnesty International a prisoner of conscience in Iran, although she could also be described as a hostage in the international tensions between Iran and the west.

Joseph’s motive in keeping Simeon hostage, though, is different – it’s to ensure he doesn’t lose connection with his family again, and also so that he can get to see Benjamin, his youngest and closest brother.

One of the explanations sometimes given of Jesus’ death is that he was offered by God as a ransom for the evil in the world that keeps us hostages apart from God.  The good news is that we don’t have to offer anything in return – the ransom is paid, we are free to go, we only need to accept that he has reconciled is back into God’s family.   Much of the New Testament explores this theme of reconciliation, of drawing people back into God’s family where they belong.

So we have in the story of Joseph at least three universal themes that find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ – welcoming refugees, ransoming hostages, and restoring broken relationships.  Joseph overcame the setbacks of his early life through faithful service, and persevered until they had been put right – not by vengeance, but by patience, generosity and love.  May he be a model for our own discipleship.

(c) Stephen Craven 2019

Christian persecution today – lessons from the Bible

This is a talk I gave to my local church today. We lit a candle which burned throughout the service as a reminder both of the light of Christ, and in solidarity with prisoners of conscience (Amnesty’s logo being a candle surrounded with barbed wire).

Readings: Genesis 41:1-37 (Pharaoh’s dreams). 1 Corinthians 4:8-13

_____________

As I mentioned at the start of the service, our focus today is on the persecuted church. Throughout the world, discrimination against people of faith generally, but Christians in particular, is probably at the highest level it has been for centuries. The mainstream media, of course, focussed on national politics and sport, makes little mention of this. But look online, and you find that across the world, our brothers and sisters are suffering. In fact, according to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular group, “80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.”
This discrimination occurs in more than half the countries of the world (link). Another organisation, Release International, names among the countries of particular concern at present Nigeria, China, and perhaps surprisingly India. Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and the DRC continue to be of great concern as well. Deprived of employment, denied the right of peaceful assembly to worship, forced from their homes, and in some places murdered in cold blood simply for having converted from Islam or refusing to deny their faith in Christ. An international study in 2014 estimated that 100,000 Christians are killed every year because of their faith – that’s another ten people in the time we meet for worship this evening, and the figure has almost certainly increased since then. This morning we remembered St Margaret who suffered from Roman persecution of the Church. Her experience would be familiar to many today.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, they were not suffering persecution, but he had. He briefly recounts his experience as an evangelist – hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten like a slave, homeless, reviled, persecuted, slandered. His call to the Corinthians was to set aside what they saw as a privilege, a freedom from the burdens of Jewish law that meant they could ‘live like kings’. Instead they were to be like Paul, “fools for Christ”. That doesn’t mean behaving in a clownish way. Quite the opposite. The foolishness Paul has in mind is the challenge of standing up for Christian values even when it hurts. Accepting discrimination instead of resisting it. Following Christ’s teaching to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Margaret, and many other martyrs before and since, have followed this teaching. That is one challenge to all of us.
In our first reading from Genesis we encounter Joseph called up from the depths of the Pharaoh’s dungeon to interpret his dreams. As you may recall, the reason he was in prison in the first place was because he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and it appears he was there for quite some time. He, too, suffered for standing up for the principles of his faith.

While in prison, God had given him, not for the first time, the ability to interpret dreams, and the cup-bearer remembered this when the need for interpretation arose again. Pharaoh’s dream predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. The message was to prepare while times were easy, for the hard times that lay ahead. I venture to suggest that this dream has a timely warning for us today.
We may think that at least we are safe as Christians in this country. But for how long? A recent study showed that the percentage of British people calling themselves Christian – whether or not they belong to a local church – is now below 40% for the first time, while over 50% now identify as humanist or atheist. So we are definitely in a minority already. That, and the general tendency towards extremism of all kinds, suggest that living an openly Christian life will become harder, not easier, over the coming years. At the moment we don’t have to resist persecution, but we do have to resist secularism. At the moment our non-Christian neighbours may be tolerant of us, but it might not always be so.
Therefore, while we still have free speech, let us use it to stand up for our persecuted brothers and sisters across the world. Organisations such as Release International, Amnesty, Open Doors and Christian Today run campaigns, so we don’t have to start from scratch. While we still have the right to evangelise, let us use it to reach out to our community with the good news of Jesus. While we still have freedom of worship, let us not give up meeting together, as Paul wrote. Let us continue to burn the candle for justice, for freedom, for faith, for the light of Christ. Amen.