3rd Sunday of Lent 2018

3rd Sunday of Lent 2018

Well.   Just when you were thinking that Lent had some pretty serious texts, and deep things to think about, along comes an action-filled story, with Jesus whipping up some direct action in more ways than one, scattering livestock around the Temple precinct and casting coins left, right and centre before a crowd that watched with open mouths.  Who was this person?  Why did he do this?  Why take to himself the phrase “my Father’s house” when referring to the Temple?  The questions just keep coming, even from the outraged Temple authorities – “what sign can you show us for doing this” – that is, what Messianic miracle will prove to us who you claim to be – and Jesus answers in the most runic fashion – “destroy this temple and in three days raise it up.”

Messiahs are not supposed to tear things down.  They are not supposed to chase stallholders out of the Temple courts.  They are supposed to be loving and kind, gentle and meek.  This Jesus is most certainly none of these, at this moment.  But in the long run, what he says and what he does make perfect sense, after the resurrection, for no Temple is needed, no special place where God is to be found through arcane structures and dark mysteries.  The Temple is walking around in their midst, the Temple, where God’s glory dwells and is to be met, is talking to them, touching them to make them whole, listening to them and teaching them directly.

Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, tabernacles, chapels, cathedrals, gurdwaras and all the other holy places where worship is offered and the deity met, are all temporary, transitory places.  They cannot restrict the presence of the God of the universe to such a small space.  But we are finite, and need to deal with finite matters as we try to grasp the infinite.  We need a place, a centre, through which we can encounter the transcendent.  We have a deep-seated need for that place to be impressive, special, slightly mysterious.  Better still is if that place has areas which are forbidden, off-limits, as that reinforces our belief that God can only be accessed in a formal way, through the mediation of others – experts, holy people, those who have a special connection with the divine.

Jesus demonstrates that that is not true.  God can be met anywhere, through anything or anybody.  This is especially true for the baptised.  They have Jesus Christ as close to them as their clothing – why do they need some half-explained venue to get closer to God?  The baptised cannot get any closer to God than their breath – God is that close to us.

And Jesus takes direct action against those who would make it more difficult to get close to God, rather than easier.  The Temple authorities, in a well-intentioned attempt to keep the place holy, had decreed that only Temple money could be used in its courts, so ordinary shekels had to be exchanged for special shekels.  The Temple authorities had decreed that only specially approved animals and produce could be brought to the Temple as an offering for sin, for thanksgiving, for intercession – hence the large livestock market and provender stalls that filled the outer courtyard.  Jesus reacts violently to this – making a whip, driving people out – because prayer is to be made in the Temple, not profits.  Anything that keeps people away from God, that makes it harder for them to get through to the God who loves them and welcomes them is anathema to Jesus.  He is fired up with zeal for access to God, because he himself is that access and he wants people to recognise that.  The fact that it takes his death and resurrection for his disciples to reach that understanding shows just how difficult that is for us, weak mortals that we are.

So, do we, in some grand Lenten gesture, get rid of our buildings and our finery, our pomp and our traditions, for simple, direct one to one worship of Almighty God?  No, for that was not what Jesus was doing.  He didn’t want to destroy the physical Temple in Jerusalem, he just wanted people to use it properly, to be able to access it fully and freely.  So our Lenten gesture is not to pull our buildings down, but to open them up, to make them more welcoming, more accessible, more understandable, so that access can be easy and understanding of what we do can be complete.

How easy is it to get our minds around what we do this morning?  How much of what we do is habit?  How much of what we do is simply mouthing words and going along with the flow?  Look carefully at the words we say together – they are profound, powerful, God-filled.  Even the hymns we sing, the parts of the service we sing, are as God-filled as the spoken parts – they are all drawn from Scripture, no one made them up – they just took them as a unit and put them together as there were no better words to express our love of God, our worship of God, utter dependence on his mercy and grace, our amazing access to a holy God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Look at the objects we surround ourselves with on a Sunday.  Candles to show the presence of God, bread on a plate, wine in a cup – because Jesus told us to share them like that – simple, ordinary elements of everyday life transformed into objects that take us beyond ourselves and into the very presence of God.  And we do it together, because we are not created for solo living.  God made us who we are so that we can live and worship and share together – that is the purpose of the creation, that is our purpose as we worship together.

And sometimes direct action is required to bring people closer to the God who loves them.  That is why there is an emergency winter night shelter every night in the borough until Easter, because God does not want people sleeping on the streets, and the structures that were in place in our borough were not enough for the large number of rough sleepers we have.  And so we knit, and we donate, to take that direct action.  There will be a challenge to direct action on Tuesday night, when two eminent theologians come to the Barn to talk about climate change from a Christian perspective.  Our consciences call us to direct action every day, when we are confronted with need, of whatever sort, in our daily life – it is part of our redeemed humanity.

So let us be bold in tearing down that which prevents people from meeting easily with the God who loves them, and may we rejoice together in all that our loving heavenly Father has done for us.

Holy Week & Easter 2018

Holy Week & Easter 2018

25th March  Palm Sunday 10am: Our joint service starts at the Barn Church, then we shall walk with our palms to St Luke’s for Communion

Monday in Holy Week 8.00 p.m: Compline and Prayer at the Barn

Tuesday in Holy Week 8.00 p.m: Compline and Prayer at the Barn

Wednesday in Holy Week: 8.00 p.m: Compline and Prayer at the Barn

Maundy Thursday 29th March 8.00 p.m. Eucharist with stripping of the altars  The Barn

Good Friday 30th March

10am Prayers and Buns – Family Worship at the Barn

12.00 noon Richmond Passion Play, Whitaker Avenue & Richmond Riverside

2.00 pm  Good Friday Meditation  St Luke’s

Easter Day 1st April

8.00 a.m.  Holy Communion  St Luke’s

9.30 a.m.  Easter Eucharist  The Barn

11.00 a.m.  Easter Eucharist  St Luke’s

2nd Sunday of Lent 2018

2nd Sunday of Lent 2018

Mark, in his hurry-along Gospel, does not spell out the temptations that Christ overcame in the wilderness, after his baptism.  But today, we read of a very specific temptation, that makes Jesus turn on a praised disciple and suddenly identify him as a source of base human thinking rather than a fully worked through divine course of action.  What is the problem?

The problem is, if we read the text of Mark exactly as the lays the story out, this morning’s passage comes immediately after Peter has publicly acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah.  All this is going on in Caeserea Philipi, a long way from Jerusalem, safe from Pharisees and Sadducees, Herod’s spies and Roman troops.  Jesus can speak freely with his friends, and they can speak freely with him.  In this place of security and openness, Jesus extracts from his disciples just what conclusions they have come to about him, hence Peter’s declaration, and then proceeds to enlighten them on the consequences of that knowledge.

With information comes responsibility, with freedom comes responsibility.  The disciples now know for certain that they are living in the presence of God’s Messiah, which explains everything that has happened up to this point, and they do not want to loose any of it.  Life with the Messiah is amazing – healings, confounding the Pharisees, great stories, mystical encounters on mountains and lakes – and nothing is going to take that away from them.  Suffering and death do not feature on their agenda, and Peter tells Jesus that in no uncertain terms.

That is where Jesus cracks.  That is what makes Jesus turn to this fine friend, this man who has publicly acknowledged Christ’s Messiahship, and address him as Satan, the great deceiver, the Father of Lies, he who would have taken the throne of heaven for himself.  Peter has not yet had his mind transformed, he is still thinking in human terms, and has not yet grasped the full extent of the divine plan.  And what is that divine plan?  To suffer, to die and to rise again.  To take divine love to the very edge of human understanding, and transform it into redeeming love.  To take creative love into new spheres of joining the eternal and the finite, the uncreated and the created, so that death has no power, and only unconditional divine love is revealed and known.

Now I can quite see that Peter hadn’t got his mind round that, but did Jesus really have to be that brutal?  Could he not have let him down gently?  Would that not have been the path of love?

What we see in that moment when Jesus turns to Peter and calls him Satan is a revelation of the divine and the human operating hand in hand.  The human reacts sharply and aggressively, the divine counteracts the temptation with power and insight.  Self-centred human patterns of thought have to be replaced with divine, outward-facing love, and that is a hard lesson for Peter and all the disciples to learn.

It is worth wondering how much of the following discourse the crowd understands, let alone the disciples.  They know what Jesus means by “take up your cross”, as they had no doubt seen the condemned being lead out to a place of crucifixion, bearing the cross piece on their shoulders.  That would be sufficient to make them shudder, but for that to be their daily reality, while following this Messiah – that is even harder.

“Take up your cross” remains one of the hardest sayings of Jesus.  Down through the centuries, people have struggled with it, tried to make sense of it, even taking it literally for one bearded American in the 70’s, who walked around with a cross on his back for several years to try to get to the heart of what Jesus was saying.  I’m not sure how far he got, though, because the cross he was carrying was never going to be the cause of his death, in the way that it would be for Jesus on that first Good Friday.

We can spiritualise it – “it’s all about spiritual life and death, not an actual cross” – we can rule it out as irrelevant after 20 centuries – “no one is crucified any more, and most countries have outlawed the death penalty” – we can take a psychological approach – “ the death-inducing weight of guilt and shame” – we could even go with Albert Camus, from his Mythe de Sisyphe, and claim that there is joy in carrying the means of our death, as it affirms that we are currently alive and free.  (Sisyphus, founder of Corinth and one of the most scandalous rogues of Ancient Greece, was condemned by the Gods to push a heavy stone up a hill, only for that stone to hurtle back down to the bottom as soon as Sisyphus got it to the summit.  Camus argues that Sisyphus was happy in the moment that he reached the top of the hill with his boulder, before it cascaded down again.)

But this is Lent, and we should not be playing around with “human things” but diving deeply into the divine.  As he speaks these words, Jesus has already taken up his cross.  For him, it may be several years before he physically does that, but in his mind, in his attitudes, in his knowledge of God’s love, he is already carrying the means of his death, so that the whole created order may have new life in him.  During his life, during his ministry, he carries his cross.  When he feeds the multitudes, he carries his cross.  When he heals the sick, he carries his cross.  When he challenges the Pharisees, he carries his cross, and no one, especially not Peter, is going to tell him to put it down.

That is where we are today – seeing the cross for the first time in Jesus’s ministry – and understandably the immediate human reaction is to say “no, never!”  But the divine reaction is “yes, always” and for that we bow at Jesus’s feet and worship.

Having done that, we are called to look at ourselves and admit to all the things that we know we ought to do, but our humanity backs away from.  We may not be as defiant as Peter, we may simply tuck things away at the bottom of the “to do” list, but do them we must, or talk to that person we must, or share that burden we must, or take on that responsibility we must.  Christ was able to carry his cross because he was confident in his Father’s love and in the good purpose of his Father’s plan.  Christ also shared his cross with his Father, praying ceaselessly to align himself completely with the will of his Father.  Our prayer needs to be as fervent as Christ’s, our watching needs to be as intense as Christ’s, so that we are fully aligned with our heavenly Father’s intentions for us and for his creation.

Our Lent Appeal for the work of Glass Door with rough sleepers is still open – donate, knit, make a difference.

Our Lent groups are challenging our basic Christian assumptions – get involved.

Our Holy Week journey is planned – get on board, with your cross on your back and your sights set on Jerusalem where we will find the joy, the acclamation, the betrayal, the denial, the suffering, the death and ultimately the joy of resurrection, once again.

Climate Change and a faithful Christian response

Climate Change and a faithful Christian response

Churches Together in Kew, in conjunction with St Anne’s Social Justice Forum, are presenting a lecture on Tuesday 6th March, 7.45 pm at the Barn Church, Atwood Avenue, Kew TW9 4HF.  The subject is “Climate Change and a faithful Christian response”,  with attention to Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si: on care for our common home.  Two distinguished speakers, Bishop David Atkinson and Father Nicholas King SJ will present a discussion on this important, topical subject.  Please make an effort to attend and support our fellow Christians in Kew.