Sunday, 10 March 2019

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (Rev'd Anne Cunliffe) 6 March 2019

John 8: 1 - 11

I wonder what Jesus is writing in the dust?

In today’s gospel, we have a wonderful example of the mercy of God as Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery.
Apparently, the story was missing from the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel - it appeared later.

Some scholars have argued that the delay in accepting the story as part of the gospel reflects the difficulty many people had about Jesus’s response to this situation- about the way in which he readily and without question sets the woman free.

It was a response which was totally at odds with the strict penitential practices of the early church.

It reflects an old problem many people had with Jesus and have with God, there are those who find it impossible to believe in what Graham Greene calls, ‘the awful strangeness of God’s mercy.’

In the gospel story the woman is caught committing adultery - it takes two to do that! The man - he is nowhere to be seen. It seems he is quite happy to exit stage left and leave the woman alone in the hands of the scribes and Pharisees. Let her take the punishment!

These men know the law of Moses states, ‘if a man has intercourse with another’s wife, both of them, the man and the woman shall die; thus purging the evil from Israel.’

Though we might view it differently today, the minute the story begins our judgemental minds start working. Without knowing all the facts we can quickly make wrong assumptions about what has happened and what should happen.

As far as the scribes and Pharisees are concerned there’s no question about what must happen - the law is on their side - the woman must die. Yet they have violated the law by arresting the woman without the man.
In situations like this a kind of ceremony had to be done in order to bring judgement. Part of the ceremony required the priest to stoop down and write the law that had been broken along with names of the accused in the dust. This was often done in the dust on the floor of the Temple. Wherever it was done the marks must not be permanent. 

Jesus would also be familiar, as would the scribes and Pharisees of the words from the 17th chapter of Jeremiah and the 13th verse (pointing to the coming of the Messiah) ‘Lord, you are the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.’

I wonder what Jesus is thinking? I wonder whose name or
whose names, he is writing in the dust?

It appears his silence is important in this story – an uncomfortable silence with time for everyone to begin to feel uneasy – could they hear the voice of God inside them awakening them to their sinfulness?

When Jesus speaks his words are few. Jesus does not say the woman is innocent or that adultery is acceptable or no longer an offence against God - he does say, the first person to throw a stone must be sinless! 

Or to put it another way, if we are going to get serious about the law of Moses, we should all find ourselves guilty! One by one the woman’s accusers slip away...

There are no rules which if we observe them we stand right with God; there is only his generosity. There are no conditions, only his love. All are sinners: all may be forgiven.

Jesus is not saying to the woman her adultery does not matter. Of course it matters. It is an offence against love. But neither does he play on her guilt or her great fear. He simply assures her that whatever she has done and for whatever reason, she is not cut off from the love of God. The moment we want God, we have him; the moment we turn to God recognising our sinfulness we are met by his love and forgiveness.

This is what the Christian gospel is all about. It is not about keeping some set of rules, or about denying our real feelings or pretending to be other than we are.

It is about responding to a God who is revealed in the words and actions of Jesus, who brought joy to the poor, the damaged and the sinful because he lived and died to convince them of the certainty of God's unconditional love for each of us.

Has no-one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go in peace and do not sin again.
In those few words, we see the transforming quality of the love of God in Christ.

As the nameless woman encounters Christ she has an amazing experience of his love - she moves through sin, suffering and the threat of death to the promise of new life.

Transformation for her; I like to think too that it began a journey of transformation for all who had witnessed this scene; yes, for all her accusers!

Transformation – seems to be the word I have been given for Lent. A transforming vision of God which Keith pointed us to on Sunday in relation to the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Transforming the lives of others as on our Lenten journey, we support the Water Aid Project, Jars of Change & play our part in transforming the lives of those who have no access to clean water enabling them to have water on tap for the very first time!
Transformation - Wherever we are in our life and faith right now may Lent be for each one of us a season of transformation allowing God to change us and make us whole.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Sermon for Sunday 24 February 2019 (2nd Sunday before Lent)

LUKE 8: 22 – 25

Living in Morecambe, I guess that, unless you were born here, you chose to come at least partly because of the sea. How many people moved here specifically to be near the sea?

And of the rest of us, if you have the good fortune to take holidays, how many choose a destination at the seaside? “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside”!

Well you can’t understand our gospel reading this morning unless you forget all that and think of the sea not as beautiful and inviting but as dangerous and fearful. Which is why, in our reading from Revelation 4 it describes heaven as “a sea of glass”. We still use that phrase. And later in Revelation, (21:1) it describes the new heaven and the new earth as, rather puzzlingly, being without any sea. “The sea was no more.”

The people of the Bible associated the sea with terrifying evil powers. The forces of chaos and evil lived in the sea and anyone who lived near it were afraid of its destructive power. They believed some primal force was behind the storms that could whip up out of nowhere and destroy everything in its path. In our days of Tsunamis that is a bit more understandable.

And so Jesus going to sleep (Mark’s gospel adds a nice touch “on a pillow”) is a picture of undisturbed contentment and peace. He’s completely chilled, as if he hasn’t a care in the world. He’s not afraid of the sea.

While Jesus calmly sleeps, a storm sweeps down the lake, swamping the boat with water. The sailors panic and cry out to him that they are in very real danger of drowning.
I wonder what they expected of him? Did they just think he should know beforehand if drowning was to be their fate? Or did they have an inkling that he might be able to do something and rescue them?

Luke doesn’t record the actual words of Jesus. But we have them in the other gospels and they sound like he is addressing a personal force: “Peace, be still!” No wonder the disciples asked each other: “who on earth is this?”  Who can speak to the created order and tell it to ‘shut up’? What kind of power is this, greater than the power of the wind and sea?

I’m sure the purpose of this miracle wasn’t just a random display of power – Jesus had been tempted with that kind of danger a short time before in the wilderness in his encounter with the Tempter - and had resisted. There’s something else going on here.

I believe he wanted the disciples to get the message that God alone rules the waves and God alone can defeat the demonic powers of chaos and evil. When the disciples call out “Who is this?” they were drawn to the inevitable conclusion that in the most real and powerful sense Jesus is God, Yahweh himself, present on earth.

And if this Jesus can calm the storm at sea, surely he can calm other storms that rage inside and outside of us? The early Christians who heard this story passed down, and then read it for themselves as the written gospels were circulated, were facing political hostility and the threat and reality of persecution.

In the face of danger, they may well have felt buffeted, in danger of going under. They may well have been wondering why Christ was so slow to act. Was he asleep?

They were being reminded that even if Jesus seemed indifferent while the boat of the church was being tossed around, they must have faith. As long as Jesus was with them, there was no need to fear. It was a clear message to the vulnerable church to hold firm to faith in times of trouble. Simply because Jesus is God, he is able to bring us through the storm.

You may have heard about Asia Bibi – the Pakistani Christian woman imprisoned on death row after she was accused by her neighbour of blasphemy more than 8 years ago. After a lot of campaigning by Christian groups in Pakistan, our own country and others, the original sentence was overturned last November. But it sparked protests from fundamentalist Islamist groups in Pakistan to the extent that she will have to her home country and seek asylum in another country. Her lawyer has already fled in fear of his life. This is one of many, many stories of modern persecution of Christians and our gospel account today is very comforting to them.

Whether through the tempests of persecution of the church or personal storms of illness, loss, betrayal, bereavement, breakdown – this miracle has strengthened countless millions of Christians down through the centuries and still does today. Christ’s words still have an extraordinary power to bring a great calm in times of turmoil and chaos, when we reach out in faith, however falteringly, that he is who he is, God with us.

So what is our storm, we who live in Morecambe by the sea?
Swamped with worries about the children, the grandchildren, nieces and nephews, elderly parents? Feeling we’re going under financially or with the pressure of work or the worry of not having any work.

Drowning under a wave of criticism or bullying?
Floundering after hearing bad news of an unexpected diagnosis in ourselves or someone we love.

And perhaps deepest of all, the fear we don’t often talk about - the fear of death and dying – which the disciples knew all about in their storm.

Being a disciple does not exempt us from any of these fears. They are very natural and very real. It’s what we do with them that counts.

Jesus says to us with all the love of his heart: “don’t be afraid, I’m here; I’m with you in your little boat; put your hand in mine; we’ll make this journey together and I will give you peace on the inside (in your heart and mind), even while that storm rages on the outside. Just trust me.”

So may the Lord Jesus give us grace to walk by faith through every storm of life keeping our eyes firmly fixed on him.