Good Friday meditation

Salvador Dali's painting of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

This afternoon I was invited to take part in the Comely Bank Council of Churches’ (CBCC) Good Friday act of worship: “Seven Words from the Cross”. I was given the second word: “Today you will join me in paradise”.

Luke 23:39-43

One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed [Jesus]: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!” But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him.
We deserve this, but not him — he did nothing to deserve this.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”
Jesus said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.”
(Luke 23:39-43, The Message)

Introduction

Barabbas?! What are you doing here?! I didn’t expect to find you standing at the foot of the Cross. You’ve got some cheek! They released you! Have you come to rub it in?!

Barabbas (The Last Words of Jesus)

They released me and chose Him. Then He rose and I fell down.

And they held Him a victim and a sacrifice for the Passover.

I was freed from my chains, and walked with the throng behind Him, but I was a living man going to my own grave.

I should have fled to the desert where shame is burned out by the sun.

Yet I walked with those who had chosen Him to bear my crime.

When they nailed Him on [my] cross I stood there.

I saw and I heard but I seemed outside of my body.

The thief who was crucified on His right said to Him, ‘Are you bleeding with me, even you, Jesus of Nazareth?’

And Jesus answered and said, ‘Were it not for this nail that stays my hand I would reach forth and clasp your hand. We are crucified together. Would they had raised your cross nearer to mine.’

… And at last He lifted up His head and said, ‘Now it is finished, but only upon this hill.’

And He closed His eyes.

Then lightning cracked the dark skies, and there was a great thunder.

I know now that those who slew Him in my stead achieved my endless torment.

His crucifixion endured but for an hour.

But I shall be crucified unto the end of my years.

(From Jesus The Son of Man, Kahlil Gibran)

In whose place?

In this monologue from Jesus The Son of Man, by Kahlil Gibran, Barabbas speaks to us of the on-going torment of seeing Jesus crucified in his place. Barabbas’s place in history is secured: the man whose place was cleared to make way for the Son of Man to be crucified. What does this do to Barabbas, a man on death-row, expecting any day to be executed.

I suppose, in many ways we can identify with Barabbas in this crucifixion narrative: As Jesus died in place of Barabbas,
He also died in place of me — He also died in place of you. What does it do to us to realise this, that it should be me in that place? To recognise that it is really we that deserve to be nailed to that cross.

Thief

How much are we like the first thief, who could not own up to what he had done; who could not accept that he deserved to be there. Full of anger, because we are not rescued from our sin — how much do we want God to wave some magic wand and to instantly and miraculously put right what we have done wrong in our lives? How easy it is to cry “Save me!” and to rant against God when there is no magic cure, no miraculous recovery, no legions of angels to swoop in to soothe us and bring wholeness.

The Usurper

Barabbas is quite the opposite. It is not that he cannot accept what he has done — he knew what he had done, he was ready to pay the price. What he cannot accept, however, is that Jesus took his place. But that is to try to usurp Jesus’s rightful place.

It is the age-old problem, experienced from the days of Adam, of trying to set ourselves up as God. Of trying to assume for ourselves God’s role rather than accepting God’s grace. Instead of giving ourselves entirely to God: we want instead to crucify ourselves.

Thief 2

But look at the second thief. He had accepted what he had done. He wasn’t fighting the system. He wasn’t coveting Jesus’s cross. He recognised the price that he must pay for his wrong-doing and there he was hanging beside Jesus.

Crucially in his encounter with Jesus he recognised something of hope. He somehow recognised that this torture, this pain was not the end. This wasn’t the final word. There was more to come: “Jesus, remember me when you enter into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.”

Conclusion

Jesus on the cross is the Crucified Risen-Christ. The resurrection of Jesus is of the Risen Crucified-Christ. The two events are necessarily connected. In the resurrection our failures are not forgotten but healed and transformed. We must wait for the resurrection, through the pain of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday.

The first thief’s torment was that he could not accept that he deserved to be crucified. Barabbas’s torment was that he did not allow Jesus to be crucified in his place. Today we are invited to recognise that we deserve to be on that cross.

Today we are invited to allow Jesus to take our place on that cross. And when we do, to each one of us Jesus says “Don’t worry, I will remember you. Today you will join me in paradise.”

My final sermon at St Salvador’s

St Salvador\'s Church in Stenhouse, Edinburgh. A grey building with a tower and spire, and blue skies behind.
A photograph of St Salvador’s, Stenhouse as I first saw it. The hall to the right has since been demolished, and the trees across the road have now been replaced by flats.

Today was my final Sunday presiding and preaching at St Salvador’s church in Stenhouse, and I really felt quite sad about it, to be honest. I shall miss that community.

This was my final sermon there:

Year B – Epiphany 3 – St Salvador’s, Stenhouse

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 — “Final Sermon at St Salvador’s”

Introduction

As St Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth: “Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short…” (1 Cor 7:29)

It is almost three years since I arrived back in Edinburgh, and our Ministry Team was established. At the end of April – in about three months’ time – my appointment here comes to an end. This morning marks my final Sunday preaching and presiding at St Salvador’s. Next Sunday the whole team will be here at 10:00 am to formally mark my handing over of responsibilities to Nicola.

I shall still be around for the next three months, mostly looking after things at St Ninian’s, Comely Bank during their period of transition in ministry – I don’t like the word interregnum because it literally means “between rulers”, and I don’ t believe that priests are rulers, we’re servants. But I will also be here to preside at some of the mid-week services.

There is probably a lot that I could say about my time here, about the things that I wish I’d done better – and that perhaps we as a team could have done better; or about the things that I’ve learned, about myself, about the Church, about God. But I simply want to say thank you for your love and support – thank you for the community that I’ve experienced and been allowed to belong to here at St Salvador’s. I will certainly take something of you into whatever I do next.

What next?

What will I do next, beyond April? To be absolutely honest, I don’t know. I’m still praying about it, still trying to hear what God wants for me next, still pushing doors and testing waters (and metaphors!). But so far it seems clear to me that I need to move out of full-time stipendiary ministry, at least for the time being.

Frustration

I feel frustrated that the Church is in a state of decline. I feel frustrated that it appears that the institutional Church’s response to this state of decline and loss of membership is being addressed and governed more by accountants and lawyers, than by theologians. I feel frustrated when I hear Churchmen saying “We can’t do that because we can’t afford it!”, rather than allowing our faith in the God of miracles, who came to earth and walked amongst us, and showed us that in God anything is possible – even being raised from the dead! I feel frustrated when I hear excuses instead of vision.

Step out in faith

I feel encouraged when I go to Church conferences and listen to people saying that the Church needs to get ‘out there’, to be alongside the people – but frustrated that when we get back to our parishes we sit back and say “Yeah, but not yet, eh? – I’ve got too much to do here first.” I feel that – for me – the only way to do that is to take the plunge and get ‘out there’. The only way is to step out in faith and see where God leads me. Which is a scary prospect, but also an exciting one.

In some ways it sympathize with Abram who was instructed by God to leave his comfortable, secure and familiar life in Ur and go.
“Where?” asked Abram.
“Just follow me,” said God, “I’ll show you.”

Jonah

There is something about that in our reading from Jonah this morning:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord … Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth … When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
(from Jonah 3)

Not so simple

Simple, eh? God says, “Come on Jonah, off to Nineveh with you, and proclaim my word.”
“Sure!” says Jonah, and off he trots. Jonah preaches the Word, the people listen, repent, turn to God and God blesses them. Job’s a good ‘un! (Well, Jonah’s a good ‘un – Job’s a whole different ballpark of worms!) … er, no!

It’s a shame that we don’t have much more than that in our lectionary, because the book of Jonah is a powerfully rich story – and not a very long one at that: four chapters. Read it in your own Bibles when you get home today. Jonah was one of the first complete books that I translated from Hebrew while at college. The story is filled with drama, with tension, and with humour – and my version was also filled with errors, but we’ll overlook those! (You should have seen how my version ended!)

Jonah is a nothing story if [all that we think] is that God sent Jonah to tell the people of Ninevah to repent. So he went and they did.
Why bother? This story is high comedy. It’s a parable told by a highly skilled story-teller who gets the Hebrews laughing at poor hapless Jonah until they find they are really laughing at themselves … If we [read] this story skillfully it can have us laughing at ourselves, at our bigotry, our xenophobia, our pride.
(Ralph Milton, Midrash email group)

What’s it all about?

The book of Jonah is about the struggle we have in following God:

“the message of the whole book is about selfishness [about how we often do things for ourselves, rather than handing ourselves over to God]. Jonah was concerned only for his own skin and his own country, but God is bigger than that. [God] is concerned for all the peoples and nations of the world. [We as] Christians also need to remember that God isn’t our personal genie who is only there to make things run smoothly for us and our friends. He is concerned about everyone – even our enemies – and our job is to work for Him wherever He calls us.”
(Jonathan Brant, Downloading the Bible: OT, p.106)

Conclusion

I don’t yet know where God is calling me; I don’t know where God is calling you. But I do know that all He asks is that we keep listening to Him, and keep trying to be obedient to Him.

Christmas Eve sermon

The Nativity of our Lord
This looks like Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus being visited by Bob Dylan

“Incarnation – Word – Language”

John 1: 1-14

In the beginning

In the beginning was the film, and the film was Star Wars.

Star Wars is the first proper film I remember going to see, I’d been to see cartoons at the cinema before that, but this is the one lodged in my memory. It was around May 1977. I was 5 years old and I went with my friend Graeme and his Dad for Graeme’s birthday treat.

I remember sitting in the cinema in Galashiels (in the Scottish Borders), Graeme sat on my right and I kept pestering him throughout the film to see the time on his new digital watch: the numbers glowed red in the dark, which was a real innovation in those days…!

What struck me first though was how HUGE the film seemed. It allowed me to see life for the first time on a universal scale, and I felt so small in comparison. The film begins in space: we see a wide screen of deep space, twinkling stars, and over the course of the next 90 minutes we are transported from one end of the galaxy to the other encountering all sorts of people and species; an action-packed tour of the creation, if you like.

The next thing that struck me was how incomplete the film seemed. It always puzzled me as to why it began with the words Episode 4: A New Hope splashed across the screen. It referred to something which had gone before. This was the continuation of a larger story, and similarly the end demanded that it be continued; the story was not complete in itself.

Comparison with John

It seems to me that John’s account of the Gospel is a bit like Star Wars. In Matthew and Luke we hear the story of the birth of a child, of a census, a journey to Bethlehem, of a star and angels, and shepherds and wise men. But in John the camera pulls back and we see the universal significance and where this story fits in.

Matthew and Luke’s accounts begin, quite neatly: there is a definite beginning: the story opens with a couple engaged, the visit from an angel, a decree from Caesar. But John begins by pointing us to something which has gone before-this is Episode 4: A New Hope — the story starts not here, but at the creation.

Genesis

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God is presented as speaking the creation into existence. God speaks the word and it happens: heavens and earth, ocean and stream, trees and grass, birds and fish, animals and humans. Everything, seen and unseen, called into being by God’s spoken word.

[While here in John’s account of the Gospel], in deliberate parallel to the opening words of Genesis, John presents God as speaking salvation into existence. This time God’s word takes on human form and enters history in the person of Jesus. [Throughout the Gospel] Jesus speaks the word and it happens: forgiveness and judgement, healing and illumination, mercy and grace, joy and love, freedom and resurrection. Everything broken and fallen, sinful and diseased is called into salvation by God’s spoken word.

… Somewhere along the line things went wrong (Genesis tells that story too) [we rebelled against God and turned away from Him,] and [we] are in desperate need of fixing. The fixing is accomplished by speaking — God speaking salvation into being in the person of Jesus. [So] Jesus, in this respect, not only speaks the word of God; he [himself] is the Word of God.

[If we ponder on this,] … we begin to realise that our words are more important than we ever supposed. Saying “I believe” for example, marks the difference between life and death. Our words [acquire] dignity and gravity in conversations with Jesus. … Jesus doesn’t impose salvation as a solution [–salvation isn’t thrust upon us –] rather, Jesus narrates salvation into being through leisurely conversation, intimate personal relationships, compassionate responses, passionate prayer, and — putting it all together — a sacrificial death. And we don’t casually walk away from words like that.”

(Introduction to John, The Message //Remix, Eugene Peterson p.1923)

Language

Language is an amazingly powerful thing. How we communicate as human beings fascinates me-from word play, puns and word games we use, often unnoticed, through to the creative use of language by novelists, playwrites and comedians-who seem to create something from nothing, almost plucking words from the air and building new worlds and perspectives before our eyes.

The philosopher Wittgenstein was particularly interested in how we use language and was intrigued by its power. He noticed how finding the right expression-the right combination of words-has the power to effect a change in us, to bring us satisfaction and relief in times of despair.

There is a power in words to change us and to change those around us. It was through a study of amongst others, Witttgenstein, that Christian writer Eugene H. Peterson came to recognise three types of language, which he simply labelled Languages one, two and three.

Language I

“Language I is the language of intimacy and relationship. It is the first language we learn… The language that passes between parent and infant is incredibly rich in meaning even if it is less than impressive in content, limited vocabulary and butchered syntax: parental whispers transform infant screams into grunts of hope.”

Language II

The second language “is the language of information. As we grow, we find this marvelous world of things surrounding us, and everything has a name: rock, water, doll, bottle. Gradually, as we acquire language, we are find our way around this world of objects. Language II [it comes as no surprise] is the major language used in schools.”

Language III

“Language III,” he tells us, “is the language of motivation. We discover early on that words have the power to make things happen, to bring something out of nothing, [parallels with Genesis there, perhaps?] to move [people into] action. A child screams and a parent brings food and clean nappies. A parent’s command stops the child’s tantrum -that at least is the theory! No physical force is involved. Just a word: stop, go, shut up, speak up, eat everything on your plate. We are moved by language and use it to move others.”

Recover Language I

The birth of Jesus Christ-God made human- Jesus being born and living among us brings us back to the need for the first basic language. The languages of naming and instructing are all well and good, but as Christians our first language is the most basic language of love, of relationship, of worship and prayer. It is not language about God or the faith; it is not language in the service of God and the faith; it is language to and with God in faith.

It is the language of Mary and Joseph cuddling their Christ-child to keep him warm in the draught of the cave or stable, and gurgling and cooing with him in love. It is the language of the shepherds, discovering the child and expressing their amazement at the wonder of life. It is the language of the wise men, in search of the Messiah, discovering a young child and offering their love and their worship before they have even opened their bags to offer their expensive gifts or opening their minds to ponder the theological consequences of this birth.

Our response to God

I remember speaking with somebody who was telling me about being present at the birth of a friend’s child and how she was on a high for about four days afterwards. This is our response to God at Christmas-it is a rediscovery of our loving response to God. It is a joining in with those around the manger, of our coos and ahhs to God, not in some sentimentalised way but as an honest, heart-felt response to God’s love for us and the wonder and amazement of Him giving us His life. It is a joining in, being a part of the story of Christmas-of allowing our stories to join with the cosmic story of God’s creation. It is simply our responding to God in adoration, in love and in worship.

“The Word did not become a philosophy, a theory or a concept to be discussed, debated or pondered. But the Word became a person, to be followed, enjoyed and loved!”

Sermon: Advent 1

Picture of Winter in Northumberland, England by photographer Ian Britton. (Photograph from FreeFoto.com.)

My sermon from this morning:

Winter Martyrium
I don’t like these short, dark winter days. By 4:00 pm the skies are darkening and the street lights across the country switch on like some consenting, creeping blanket of light. And I feel the desire to curl up and hibernate until the spring, to escape the darkness.

Tension
And yet there is something of a tension within me. Because it is within the stillness of the darkness, within the isolation and hiddenness of the dark that I encounter God. It is when I am painfully honest about the darkness within me that I am able to approach the light of God and ask for his warmth, protection and company.

Light
In winter dusk and early evening appear to me to be busier than the same time during the other seasons. The darkness focuses our attention on the light that is around about, Like the black line drawn around an illustration, it gives the light focus. On the main roads car lights and lorry lights; the orange “For Hire” lights on taxis; bright window displays, and illuminated shop logos; street lights and traffic lights; Christmas lights across streets and on Christmas trees. Flashing, busy, business, attracting our attention, our custom. Retailers know that light has the power to attract us, like giant moths to a candle. With such a competition for our attention it’s a surprise that we have time for the Light of the World at Christmas.

Funny how we feel more drawn to the light, for warmth, for security, for company. Without electricity or gas few of us can possibily imagine what life must have been light without instant-on light. When we relied very much on the natural ebb and flow of the seasons, until technology (flint, candles, matches, electric torches) helped us out.

We are reliant on light for our well-being, our health. We rely on light for security. Even the faintest glow from a bedside clock is enough to dispel our fear of the dark.

We are drawn to the light for warmth and company. I have fond memories of being huddled around a camp fire on a dark night, on a rocky hillside, the night before we got our final school exam results. The fire was our focus, as we sat enjoying one another’s company.

Or of a big bonfire built in the field of a church member. It was easy to get lost in the darkness, in the vast blackness you could find space. But it was a cold space and sooner or later, one by one we were all drawn back to stand around the fire. Watching the flames leap and dance, firing columns of sparks into the air. That bonfire also attracted the local fire-brigade, I recall.

Advent Longing
I long for the days to lengthen, for the evenings to begin later. I long for the sun to return and fill the earth with its light and warmth and reassurance.

That is what Advent is about: our waiting for God’s light to pierce the darkness; to fill the darkness with His light, even if at first it is only the spark of life that is the infant Christ child; to fill our emptiness with His presence.

Tidy
I struggle in the winter, with the darkness. So, I find myself tidying up and rearranging things, to help distract me. (It’s my number one anxiousness displacement activity!)

This week I tidied and cleared out my bookcases. I don’t know about you, but whenever I tidy away books I spend about half my time reading books or articles that I’d forgotten I had.

R.S. Thomas
I found an article about the Welsh, Christian poet and priest R.S. Thomas which also spoke to me of this Advent tension between the light and dark, but for Thomas it was about absence and presence.

“The tension between absence and presence is central to R.S. Thomas’s poetry;” writes Richard Griffiths, “the apparent absence of God, and the moments when there is a realization of the presence within that absence …”

“Faith does not come easily to Thomas. Only too often, his search for God seems to lead to nothingness. God is silent. There is a recurrent image, at all stages of his poetic career, of a priest praying in an empty church, unanswered. Though it is a constant theme, the message varies. At times the vision of the cross breaks through the silence of God, as the praying man comes to see the love of God:

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.
(“In a Country Church”, by R.S. Thomas)

“But, only too often, there is emptiness there, too, The priest ‘tests his faith on emptiness’, nailing his questions to an ‘untenanted cross’:

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waiting like this
Since the stones grouped themselves around it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
(“In Church”, by R.S. Thomas)”

(Richard Griffiths, “R.S. Thomas and the Role of Poetry”, Theology, Vol. C (July/August 1997) No. 796, p275f.)

No-one knows the time
Is God there or not? If God is there, perhaps the essence of God lies in His inaccessibility, as much as in his accessibility.
The tension between the absence and presence of God in R.S. Thomas’s poetry is more a simple than just those glimpsed moments when we catch sight of God in our moments of enlightenment. God is as equally present in our (perhaps) longer moments of darkness.

That is part of the tension of Advent; part of the tension of waiting with expectation. Waiting to discern the faint outline of God in the darkness; waiting for the light to come among us, as one of us.

“Beware, keep alert; for your do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13: 33)

Come, Lord, come down, come in, come among us.
Enter into our darkness with your light.
Come fill our emptiness with your presence.
Dispel the clouds and reveal your glory.
Come refresh, renew, restore us.
Come Lord, come down, come in, come among us.
AMEN.

(Prayer from Traces of Glory by David Adam (SPCK, 1999) ISBN: 0-281-05199-2.)

Filing sermons

I used my new Psion Series 7 today to write my sermon for tomorrow. I wrote this one in the sunshine, sitting at a round patio table in our conservatory in Cellardyke. When the midday sunshine grew too bright for me to view my screen (even with the brightness at full) I moved downstairs and finished wrestling with Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus there.

I’m subscribed to an online email discussion group called Midrash which frequently offers me inspiration aplenty during the weekly discussions of the following Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. It’s a wonderful resource.

Anyway, this sermon e-group got me thinking today about how I now keep my old sermons only in electronic format (with various regular backups) having discovered that the printed versions take up an awful lot of space over time. But how to store them, what format of naming and ordering on your computer would / do you use? Here’s what I do:

I have a folder entitled Sermons, within which I have four subfolders:

  • Other
  • Year A
  • Year B
  • Year C

‘Other’ covers anything that doesn’t fall into the Revised Common Lectionary three-year cycle of bible readings, eg Meditations, Funeral and Wedding sermons, sermon series and sermons that I’ve received from other people.

Within Years A, B and C I have the same eight subfolders:

  1. Advent
  2. Christmas
  3. Epiphany
  4. Lent
  5. Easter
  6. Ascension
  7. Pentecost Trinity
  8. Festivals

Hey! It’s the church year!

And within each folder I file my sermons with the following scheme — one that took me ages to develop, but which I offer to you for free:

<RCL Year> <Sunday Proper No.> <Year in ISO date format > <additional information>

eg

A Pentecost 03 Trinity 02 Proper 05 2005-06-05.lwp
B Easter 7 2000-06-04 A4.lwp
C Christmas Eve 2003-12-24 John 1.lwp

That way I’m always aware of the RCL year that each sermon pertains to, and within a folder I can immediately see if I have a sermon for a particular Sunday, and are sorted in chronological order, eg

A Pentecost 23 Trinity 22 Proper 25 1999-10-24.lwp
A Pentecost 23 Trinity 22 Proper 25 2002-10-27.lwp

Clever, huh! I share that with you for free.