Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Walking In His Shoes

The most striking image I have seen in the days since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is that of a bereft mother, her arm around another, both unconsolable at the death of their children. And the reason that the photo will live with me is because on the forehead of one mother as she embraces the other is the symbol of our mortality and the sign of our salvation - an ash cross.

We receive these ashes at the start of Lent as a sign of repentance, of our yearning for God’s forgiveness, of our intent to live our faith more truly in the face of our mortality. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” says the minister ‘blessing us’ with a blackened thumb. The ashes that mark our foreheads only last for a day, but the mark this makes on our hearts is meant to endure for the entire 40 days of Lent.

And yet this is not the first time we will have been marked in this way - we will have received a similar sign and symbol at our Baptism and again at our Confirmation.  The cross marked on us reminds us that we journey the way of Christ, all too aware that we cannot avoid it and should not shy away from it.

And yet we do shy away from it. We try to down play it’s horror, trying to explain it away as a symbol of the love of God and in so doing, denying the judgement it exercises on Jesus, his ministry and the world. But as we grapple with the cross, we all too often fail to acknowledge that here, at it’s foot, salvation was wrought for us and our relationship with God was forged afresh.

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four we have in the canon of scripture and  it’s author wastes no time in telling us things they think we don’t need to know or that may be considered commentary rather than essentials, so for example, there is no birth narrative in Mark - no manger, no shepherds, no angels or wise men. Scholars reckon it’s because Mark just didn’t think it was relevant to the story that the author wanted to share with his readers and hearers. Scholars also reckon it is the oldest of the Gospels we have with Matthew and Luke sharing  many of the same stories about Jesus. We arrive, almost breathless, at what we hear this morning after a whirlwind of healings, teaching and miracles.

Jesus has been in Caesarea Philippi, the city founded by Philip II, son of Herod, as his seat of power. It was the site of natural springs in a pretty desolate landscape and so was an area historically dedicated to the Greek God Pan, the God of desolate places and fertility. It was a wealthy trading hub - a clash of cultures, traditions and languages. In that religiously and political diverse environment Jesus teaches about who he is and what he has been sent by God to do.

‘… He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…’

John Hesp still lives in Bridlington with his wife. I say still, because he recently won £2million at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. But he hasn’t left his job as a caravan salesman or moved house. There are no designer clothes or Rolex watches. He has gifted money to family members and invested some in a business. He still drives the same car and has gone back to playing poker once a month with friends. But I wonder what you would do in his shoes?

Jesus has invited people to be in his shoes since the beginning of the gospel. He invited fishermen to literally come behind him, to walk in the dust of his shoes, to listen, learn and do as He has done. To follow. But here the rubber hits the road - in this multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith place, a seat of power, a place of wealth, Jesus nails his colours to the mast - or perhaps more correctly - looks ahead to what was to come at the cross. This isn’t Jesus predicting his fate - it’s him knowing what He is to do. If Jesus yielded to Peter’s tempting to take another path, Jesus’ status as Son of Man would have been in doubt. He might have gained things, perhaps even the whole world, but he would have lost who he is as the Son of Man, bound to suffer rejection and death. But more than that, the essential identity that Jesus is tempted to forego – taking up his cross – is the identity and temptation that faces anyone who would come behind him, who would follow, who would walk in His shoes. 

This morning, Jesus invites us take up our cross. Not His, but our own. We must take responsibility for following Him ourselves. We must carry the sign of what it means to be His disciple everywhere He goes, and there is nowhere in our own daily living that Jesus does not go. We carry that cross into school, into our workplaces, it comes with us as we drink coffee with friends, or sit at the bus stop. We shoulder that cross at the bedside of a sick spouse. We carry it to the graveside of a deceased neighbour - because in all of these places Christ goes before us and we follow. That is what it means for us to be a disciple, to be a Christian - to speak and act as He would in these and countless other places.

But the temptation we face is to leave our cross here. But if we do, we are no longer following Jesus and have given up on the life that He counsels us not to lose.  The Greek word here is the one from which we get our word psyche - our whole selves, our very identity as people. And that life is now so intertwined with the one whom we follow as we bear His mark from Ash Wednesday; from our confirmation; from our baptism. In other words as soon as speak to others as ourselves and not as we have heard Jesus speak - we have put down our cross. As soon as we respond to others in any other way than Jesus would, we have put down our cross. Our cross is hard and heavy - following Jesus is and will be sometimes be really difficult - but in carrying it - we accept the life He offers us and all the world as He heads to Jerusalem, knowing what He must do there.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lent As A Habit Forming Season

Here's a version of what I said at 8am and 11am this morning for Lent 1...


I discovered this week that some psychologists reckon it takes around 6 weeks for us to break out of the cycle of a habit, 6 weeks to become used to a new ways of living or thinking or acting. When we are struggling with a new discipline or skill, that period of time can feel like forever - will we ever master it.  It is an interesting accident perhaps that Lent now lasts around that length of time - 40 days - as we seek to grow in faith and become disciples of Jesus once again.

This morning’s Gospel takes place in the wilderness. Many of us hear the word desert here, but Mark is clear - this is the wilderness. It is a sparsely populated place between conurbations but it is not lifeless, but it can be dangerous as it is where wild animals live that may attack a flock; it is where bandits dwell that may attack at the roadside. It is also a place to where people flee from their problems to seek safety but it is also somewhere that one may be driven against one’s will to confront them in both cases the stories of Moses and Hagar are good examples. The wilderness was also a place of encounter - for many including John the Baptist and the Essene community who wrote and cared for the library of books we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls - it was a place to go to get away from the noise and bustle of the urban environment, and in a different physical landscape to allow the inner landscapes of our hearts to encounter God. It was a strange dangerous and spiritual place. A places where if you were to survive you needed to rely on the provision and protection of God.

'...And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him… 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness...'

If you type the word retreat into Google you end up with pages of listings of days of yoga, spa, fitness, reading, writing and the opportunity to book luxury apartments. The popularity of retreat has gone exponentially through the roof as it were. The ‘because your worth it’ culture in which we live has discovered the need for some sort of self care. In the most extreme cases, the number of 30 and 40 something who are now taking silent retreats as a way to detox from this digitally noisy instant news world. This counter culturalism remains so fascinating that it pops up on tv too, most recently on BBC4’s ‘Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery’ which had no commentary but filmed some of the daily lives of monks and allowed their life to be the soundtrack was not voyeuristic but entrancing and enticing.

For me at least, the most transforming of these sorts of programmes was simply called The Monastery and was based at Worth Abbey. 5 individuals lived the life of a monk there for 40 days and it had a transformative effect: It is fair to say that everybody on the show had been affected by their participation in some way. Four out of the five had either changed their job, or were going to change their job soon, and all it seems had utterly transformed the focus of their lives and their faith.

It is interesting to note that it is God the Holy Spirit that literally throws Jesus out into the wilderness. And part of Jesus being there for 40 days is to make him the new Moses linking the 40 years that Moses lead the Israelites, but I also noticed that Jesus is the new Noah too. Noah sent out the dove which returns with an olive twig in its beak indicating that the land was dry and a new start can be made, so the dove descends on Jesus According to St Gregory Thaumaturgus, the Father is “pointing him [Jesus] out right there as the new Noah, even the maker of Noah, and the good pilot of the nature which is in shipwreck.”

The glory of the new Noah is greater than the old. The first Noah’s righteousness preserved his own life from the flood. By contrast, the righteousness of this new Noah leads to his death, that a “shipwrecked” world might be “piloted” to resurrection life. And it is this rediscovery that we are encouraged into during these days of Lent.

The wilderness may times for us where we feel spiritually dry and lifeless. Where we feel barren, broken or alone. Times where need exist one day at a time - only just getting through. We all have experiences like that even if we are not brave enough to admit to them to ourselves let alone to others. God the Holy Spirit forced Jesus into that same environment as he entered the wilderness. Mark only gives us scant details - he was tempted, he was in with the wild beasts (a reference in the Old Testament to oppressive leaders in surrounding nations so here perhaps referring to the wild environment and the real challenges of existing safely there) and the angels waited on him (in other words God cared for him through it all.)

As we begin our journey into the Lenten wilderness some thoughts: Jesus must have experienced brokennesss and loneliness in that environment and in it God cared for Him. When we experience the wilderness internally where we feel lonely and uncertain of a direction - God loves us and cares for us - even when it feels like all around is barrenness bleakness. If you are not in this place I encourage you to reach out to someone here, or someone you know who is, and gently love them. You will be an angel waiting on that person. And if you are in that place, and all you see is rocks, sand and wild animals - know that one of those animals will be a hand to love and care for you and not attack you.

Lent can also be a place where God’s spirit drives us. It is not a time and place of austerity for penitence’s sake, but it is the gift of time to rediscover what it means to be a disciple - which is what it means for us to be Christian.  In our urban, visually noisy world which is still looking for an alternative way of living, there is a hunger for stillness and space, I encourage you to model it - find some time each day to detach yourself from the world. To find some space and enter a wilderness of silence for a few minutes each day: to intentionally stop, still down, be silent, maybe quietly reciting a simple prayer like the Jesus Prayer or a favourite verse of scripture - and invite Jesus, the New Noah, to lead you through the tricky landscapes of your heart and life - the bits that only he and you see - so as to learn once more how live the life of Resurrection hope again in 6 weeks time.