2nd Sunday before Advent 18.11.12 Mark 13.1-8

10 11 2012

Big Stones – Scary Future

This passage really needs to be read as an introduction to the whole of Mark 13 – so the other verses are appended below.  It is not about ‘when’ things end – but ‘how’.

Mark 13.1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Reflection

To help give shape to the reflection I am going to suggest three types of question: head questions, heart questions and hand questions. They are about our intellectual response, our emotional response and our practical or behavioural response.  I hope that you will want to work at all three levels. You might prefer to stay in one area. But beware of staying in your comfort zone. That’s rarely where profound preaching comes from.

‘Head Questions’

  1. What was Jesus saying about the temple?
  2. Why is that such an important truth to convey to the disciples?
  3. Why does Jesus not answer the ‘when’ question?

‘Heart Questions’

  1. How do you feel when you come up close to a great and ancient building?
  2. What feeling lay behind the disciples’ question?
  3. What images do the verse 8 put in your mind – and how do you feel when you reflect on them?

‘Hand Questions’

  1. To what extent do you put your trust in things that are not really going to endure?
  2. What can you do to wake people up to the realities the future has in store?
  3. Are you the sort of person who responds to disaster appeals or do you tend to think it is someone else’s problem to sort it out and bring relief?

Finally

These questions are intended to challenge you to engage more closely with the passage and to hear and feel what it has to say to you.  That’s more than a five-minute task. And so is the follow-up – working out what you might want to say to others as a result of engaging with the passage with head, heart and hands.  Take your time.

The rest of Mark 13

‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

14 ‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 15someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; 16someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 17Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 18Pray that it may not be in winter. 19For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. 20And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. 21And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. 22False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23But be alert; I have already told you everything.

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

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3rd Sunday before Advent 11.11.12 Mark 1.14-20

3 11 2012

This is the Moment

This passage from the first chapter of Mark’s gospel gives a sense of the urgency of the gospel message. It is about now.

Mark 1. 14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Reflection

To help give shape to the reflection I am going to suggest three types of question: head questions, heart questions and hand questions. They are about our intellectual response, our emotional response and our practical or behavioural response.  I hope that you will want to work at all three levels. You might prefer to stay in one area. But beware of staying in your comfort zone. That’s rarely where profound preaching comes from.

‘Head Questions’

  1. What did Jesus mean by ‘the good news of God’?  (good news  = gospel, but what does that mean in everyday terms?)
  2. What does it mean to say that ‘the kingdom of God has come near’?
  3. Why was Jesus concerned to call practical men – and siblings – to be in his band of followers?

‘Heart Questions’

  1. How do you feel when someone says, ‘stop that, now do this’?
  2. And does the word ‘immediately’ reduce or exacerbate your  feelings?
  3. How do you think those busy working fishermen felt when Jesus called them to stop and follow?

‘Hand Questions’

  1. What, if anything, are you ready to be called to now?
  2. Do you have anything to say about the closeness – or distance – of the kingdom of God?
  3. What are you going to do about sharing your faith this week?

Finally

These questions are intended to challenge you to engage more closely with the passage and to hear and feel what it has to say to you.  That’s more than a five-minute task. And so is the follow-up – working out what you might want to say to others as a result of engaging with the passage with head, heart and hands.  Take your time.





4th Sunday before Advent 4.11.12 Mark 12.28-34

27 10 2012

A Wise Scribe

Today’s gospel describes brief encounter which goes very well for the scribe who initiates it. He asks a good question, ‘which commandment is the number 1 priority?’ and then engages well with the answer he gets. He does not simply say, ‘yes rabbi, thank you very much’. Rather he reflects the answer back, explaining how he sees it.  Jesus warms to this approach of intelligent dialogue and yet the result is that no one else asks questions. I wonder whether we need to ask why.

Mark 12.28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Reflection

To help give shape to the reflection I am going to suggest three types of question: head questions, heart questions and hand questions. They are about our intellectual response, our emotional response and our practical or behavioural response.  I hope that you will want to work at all three levels. You might prefer to stay in one area. But beware of staying in your comfort zone. That’s rarely where profound preaching comes from.

‘Head Questions’

  1. What would your question be if you were a scribe who was impressed with Jesus?
  2. If you had chance for a 5-minute one-to-one with Jesus, what would you ask him?
  3. Suppose the scribe had asked you the question, what would your answer have been?
  4. What, in your view, is the third most important commandment?

 

‘Heart Questions’

  1. How have you felt when you have approached people who are arguing?
  2. How do you feel about the repetition of ‘all’ in the great commandments?
  3. How would it impact on you if the word ‘all’ was replaced with ‘some of’?
  4. What does the word ‘dared’ signify in the final sentence?

 

‘Hand Questions’

  1. For the scribe this was a very successful episode. How can you follow his example of asking a good question?
  2. What evidence can you give that you have lived a life consistent with the two great commandments over the last week?
  3. What can you do differently next week to align more closely to them?

 

Finally

These questions are intended to challenge you to engage more closely with the passage and to hear and feel what it has to say to you.  That’s more than a five-minute task. And so is the follow-up – working out what you might want to say to others as a result of engaging with the passage with head, heart and hands.  Take your time.





20th Sunday After Trinity 21.10.12 Mark 10.35-45

14 10 2012

A Radical Ethic of Giving

Given Jesus’ response to the rich young man a few verses earlier, and his comment that, ‘the first shall be last, and the last first’, this episode is very surprising. Jesus has been expounding his topsy-turvy mindset very clearly and yet two of the key disciples just don’t seem to get it.  They return to the same old approach which seeks the best for me and my family.

Notice that Jesus did not rebuke the disciples for their anger towards James and John. He isn’t afraid of real feelings. Rather he seeks to move the conflict on to something more helpful, and so returns to the same radical ethic of giving that we have seen earlier.

Mark 10: 35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ 39They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Questions

  1. Why do you think James and John asked that question?
  2. What do you make of the positive part of Jesus’ answer?
  3. How would you summarise Jesus’ message towards the end of the passage if you  were speaking to a group of volunteers?




Ninteenth Sunday after Trinity 14.10.12 Mark 10.17-31

7 10 2012
Tough Love
Like so much of Mark’s gospel this passage is packed with difficult things for us to hear. Jesus is in a very uncompromising mood.  He demands from people the very last thing they want to give. He teaches that to follow in his way demands the sacrifice we don’t want to make.  There is nothing cosy here. The way is hard.  In fact ‘tough’ is probably the right word.  And yet Jesus looks at people with compassion and love.
Mark 10.17-31
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ 20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
Questions

1. What does this passage suggest about the way Jesus looked at people?

2. Why did Jesus give the answer that the young man did not want to hear?

3. What is the passage saying about money and wealth?

4. Peter’s question in  verse 28 gets a very positive answer. And yet there is a sting in the tail. How do you feel about that?

 





Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity 7.10.12 Mark 10.2-16

30 09 2012
Mark 10.2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Questions

1. Why did the Pharisees ask that question? What was their motive?

2. Why did the disciples repeat it later? What was their motive? What does the second answer add to the first?

3. Why would the disciples think it was appropriate to stop the children coming to Jesus?

4. What does it mean to ‘receive the kingdom of God as a little child’? How does that challenge us today?

Please let me know what you think of this new approach.





Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity: Superstar, Salt and Martini

30 09 2012

Has it occurred to you that it is curious that the Church of England is going through the appointment process of a new Archbishop of Canterbury precisely as the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is enjoying a revival?

On Friday the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) should have concluded its business, and sent its little list of two names off on its journey to Buckingham Palace via Downing Street. And on Friday night it was Newcastle’s turn to host the arena tour of Superstar.

If you watched the TV series to choose a Jesus you will know that the successful candidate was a man called Ben from Sunderland.  Since being selected he has had extensive training for the role and has grown his hair so that he looks the part.  I wonder about the Archbishop designate – will he get extensive coaching? Will he be helped to look the part?

In 2001, not long after the church of which I was incumbent was reordered, we staged a production of Jesus Christ Superstar.  The church was packed to capacity every night for a week. I spent quite a lot of time with the producer and the cast and was intrigued to get some sense of what they made of the story they were telling and the characters they were performing.

To mark the occasion I wrote a 20-page booklet called ‘What’s It all About: An Exploration of the Characters and Story of Jesus Christ Superstar’.  We handed it out free to all who came. It was a slightly crude attempt to get people to reflect more deeply and seriously on the questions and feeling that the performance had prompted.  I was surprised how positively it was received. One woman read the whole thing during the performance.

The whole experience was fascinating and compelling, an amazingly effective way to let the Jesus story capture people’s imaginations. I remembered that when it first came out in 1972 the church was very unhappy about it, and the placard carriers took to the streets. ‘See Godspell instead’, was the message. Superstar was considered blasphemous because the story ended with the crucifixion. There was also the problem of the very human portrait of Jesus. ‘He’s just a man’ sang Mary Magdalene, and all the Christians wanted to contradict the point rather than pay closer attention to the spiritual tension which her song articulates.

It may seem strange to say it, but I think the church today is more confident than it was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  Superstar came out at much the same time that John Lennon claimed that the Beatles were ‘more famous than Jesus’.  What is interesting about the point is that the criterion of ‘fame’ seemed to matter so much.

The importance of fame has of course increased enormously since then.  Young people will happily say that they have an ambition to be famous. Whereas, if I remember rightly, those who were young in the 1970s wanted to be successful or good at something – playing football, say.  But they (I mean ‘we’) would see it as intrinsically good. Not as a short cut to either fame or wealth.   The goal in the back of the net was its own reward.

Maybe the Superstar-era was something of a cultural turning point.  The word and concept of ‘celebrity’ was not yet current in the strong and pervasive sense that it is today.  And yet there was something intriguing about the man from Nazareth who – whether you believed he was Son of God and Saviour of the World or not – was certainly someone who could raise a crowd, cause a commotion and be a subject of fascination.

Looking back at my little booklet I am intrigued to see how thoroughly I went about the task of trying to connect the characters and story of the show with what the New Testament says.  The plot details seemed to me secondary, though it is interesting that the publicity for the Arena tour says that the story is loosely based on the last few days of Jesus life.  As if there was an uncontroversial and universally accepted ‘tight’ version.

Where Superstar becomes interesting is in its exploration of characters, attitudes and relationships.

I have mentioned Mary Magdalene.  The portrayal of Peter is very familiar from the Bible. We get a strong and impulsive character who is full of insight but also weak and fickle. He is a man who learns much, thereby setting the example to all who follow in the way of discipleship.  Simon the Zealot is energetic and impatient. He wants results and is not convinced that Jesus’ approach – which seems to be informed by soft values like love and compassion is ever going change anything.

The main character is of course Judas. Superstar was ahead of its time drawing this character to central stage. The show is at its most powerful when it allows us to feel all the negativity we have towards Jesus and his story.  Judas is in a way like Simon but he has a more anguished inner life. He is more sensitive soul who feels used and abused, by Jesus. He is the necessary betrayer, the pawn in God’s plan. The tragedy is that he cannot reconcile himself with this or with himself and that is the cause of his suicide.

The jaunty song of Herod is one of the most famous from the show.  But it is not a comfortable toe-tapping tune. It takes us to the place of mockery. As I wrote in my little booklet,

‘Mockery is insidious. Ignore it and you are oppressed. Name it and you are failing to see the joke and taking yourself far too seriously. Personally I don’t like the scene, but then again I don’t like mockery. But mockery is real and so the scene has to be there. Mockery was certainly there in the trial and death of Jesus. It is there in the crown of thorns; it in there in the notice which read ‘Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews’. The gospels also record that Jesus is mocked and scoffed at when on the cross.’

Again in the little booklet, I wrote about Pilate under the heading ‘Pilate’s Nightmare’.  The spectre of man of power being humbled by the man he is confronting. Jesus certainly gets the best of him in John’s gospel – leaving him to mumble ‘but what is truth?’ The sign that any debater has actually given up. He is revealed as impotent and yet there he is at the centre of things and apparently responsible.  He should be in control, but is subject to the madness of the crowds.

I could of course go on – for there is much to be gained from engaging with Jesus Christ Superstar.  It is in some ways a very raw piece of work. Rice and Lloyd Webber were in their early twenties when they wrote it, and there are aspects of the things which are unhelpful. The Dean of Birmingham took me to task when I was tweeting positively about it, pointing out that its portrayal of women was ghastly.  She had a good point, and there are several others, and they have challenged me to think why I feel that Superstar is worth our attention.

I have already told you that my former church was packed every night we put it on.  And it is not a small church – and it was not in the habit of being packed.  The Metro Arena was packed on Friday and not by the kind of people you will see in this Cathedral at most services or in the parish churches of the diocese. There was a huge standing ovation at the end of the performance.  People had been touched and excited by what they had seen. It had struck a chord, hit a nerve.  It was not an occasion of worship, but it was an experience which dragged people by the scruff of their neck to connect with the Jesus story in some way. And the method was not just rock music and edgy lyrics; it was to open up the question of how Jesus impacted on people, how they related to him, how he raised deep and urgent, life and death question for them.

What I love most of all about Superstar is that it is not boring. Nor is it pretentious or aloof. One young man was shouting to his mate in the interval – ‘I just love this show! Seen the film loads of times.’

I have been a long time getting round to this Gospel reading in this sermon (Mark 9.38-end).  It tells us that Jesus threw demons out of people and told the disciples that they needed to be like salt and salted with fire.  He also says that whoever is not against us is for us.

That tells me that the religion of Jesus should be combative, sparky, lively and inclusive.  It should be compelling and vital enough to get people to spend the thick end of £60 to sit on uncomfortable seats in an arena designed for ice-hockey.  It should be able to get blokes shouting to their mates about how much it means to them.

That’s a lot of ‘shoulds’ and I apologise for them. ‘Should’ is rarely helpful word as it invites the response of guilt.

Someone else has articulated these kinds of thoughts much better than that recently and I want to end by quoting him.  I am referring here to an interview given by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan not long before he died.  It was an interview in which he was urging the Catholic Church to adopt some attitudes and practices which are familiar in Anglicanism. But the part I am going to quote might speak to us just as prophetically – and therefore annoyingly – as they have done to the Roman Catholic establishment.

‘The Church is tired in affluent Europe and in America. Our culture has grown old, our Churches are big, our religious houses are empty, the bureaucracy of our Churches is growing out of proportion, our liturgies and our vestments are pompous,,, The Church is 200 years behind the times. How come it doesn’t rouse itself? Are we afraid? Fearful instead of courageous?’

I don’t suppose Martini had seen Superstar – but I know he had read Mark’s gospel.  ‘have salt in yourselves’. Do not let the taste of your faith grow stale or bland. And above all else – do not be afraid.

I began this sermon mentioning the CNC and the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury.  We hope and pray they were not looking for a superstar, nor for another Jesus. Nor even another Rowan. These options are not on the table.

But there is a need for someone who can – like the dying Cardinal Martini – speak the truth to a church which is in danger of being salt-free, fearful and pompous when it is called to be salty, courageous and humble. And to speak to the world in a way that compels attention, respect and response.

But this is a sermon and not a submission to the CNC and so the point is not that we need a certain character as Archbishop but that you and I need to be people of a certain character if we are to be faithful Christians. We need to have the rough and ready, passion-inspiring and difference-making quality of saltiness. Being bland is not an option. We all need to be people of salt.