The Chains that Bind Us

Chains wrapped around a person's feet

Acts 16:16-34 and John 17:20-26

At first glance, these two passages don’t seem to relate well to each other. But I think they have a lot to teach us – especially here and now. In Acts, we are seeing some of the earliest stages in the growth of the church in the Gentile world. And this section is really applicable to us in the 21st century West, because at the end of the day it’s full of imagery and depictions of slavery. Count them up!

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I have a Dream!

John 21:1-19

Jesus Appears to Seven Disciples

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

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What can we learn from Maundy Thursday?

There’s so much that happens in this service! To me, it feels like at least 3 services all smooshed into one – each maybe justifying its own sermon. So, settle down, because it’s going to be a long night. 

I’m joking. Sort of. 

But if Lent is one long season of preparation for Easter, Holy Week is that preparation intensified,  and Maundy Thursday is the setting-up of all that will happen over the Triduum, the 3 days, of Jesus’ passion. The readings that are set today draw on themes of Passover, of God’s saving the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt; on the institution of communion; the importance of serving each other through the symbolism of feet washing; and the watch in Gethsemane, as we try to do what Jesus’ disciples could not – to wait, and watch, and pray. By contrast, the pace of Good Friday seems relaxed in comparison. 

But we’re not quite there yet; so where shall we go tonight? 

Let’s talk about foot washing. We’re not doing it tonight, for various reasons. It’s awkward and uncomfortable; no one wants to show off their feet; it’s complicated getting towels and water and volunteers; everyone who doesn’t get their feet washed just sits and watches, which possibly makes it more awkward; and for some of us it’s quite physically hard to get our shoes and socks off, or to kneel down, in the first place. And there may be a few, or maybe even many of you, who are breathing a sigh of relief at this. 

And yet, I wonder whether we are missing out on something here. Whether we’re being a little bit like Peter – ‘you will never wash my feet!’ – because it’s too undignified for the building, the music, the liturgy, to have water splashing around and our bare feet out on a solemn day like today. And those of us who allow it – do we do it a little bit like Peter too – allowing it because Jesus is in charge, and hoping (just a little bit) that it might get us some brownie points in heaven, a taste of the Kingdom of God. 

I wonder whether we’ve forgotten that Jesus washed his disciples feet because there would have been a whiff of the road, the sweat, the dirt that they’d walked through that day. And yes, it’s become an object lesson in what Christian leadership and service looks like – about stacking the chairs, or washing the dishes, doing the dirty or boring or demeaning jobs that no one really wants to do but that need doing in order to enable life to continue – that if that is not below Jesus’ dignity, then how on earth can we say that it is beneath our own? 

But I want to draw us away from the valourising of service, just for tonight, and focus instead on the shame that we can sometimes feel about being the one whose feet are washed; the one who is cared for. 

We live in a pretty individualistic society, where the assumption is that we need to be able to look after ourselves, or our own family; that to have needs that we are unable to meet means that we are somehow lacking, when actually it makes us so very, very human. But the cultural assumption is that we should seek to be independent as far as possible, and that needing help is a failing on our part. 

When my little sister was a toddler, she had a catch-phrase, which came out on regular occasions whenever someone tried to help her with something. She wanted to do it “by my own!” You know the phase, don’t you – when you’re just trying to get the toddler dressed, or out the house, or toys packed away, or tea eaten, but you are no longer allowed or wanted to help, and instead you have to watch as half the food goes on the floor, or the table, or the face, or in the hair, and other such moments that would be very sweet – were you not just trying to get something done. 

I bet the disciples knew that their feet smelled a bit, but thought that they’d all known each other for long enough that they’d all politely ignore the whiff of the road – they’d not had time to wash, and they were all in the same boat. And then, when Jesus gets up to wash them, I’d’ve thought they’d all feel a little bit got-at, a little defensive: ‘alright, so my feet smell, but so do yours, Jesus, and you didn’t give us time to wash them before we ate!’

I can understand Peter’s refusal; and his allowing, too. I am not hugely good at recognising my need for care from people. But then, if I’m told I must, I go along with it. Once when I lived in Exeter I fell off my bike. Got a wonderful graze on my knee, but thought it’d all be fine. A week later it started oozing pus, and my work colleagues sent me to the walk-in centre, where I was looked after by some very kind nurses. And of course, I was there apologizing for taking up their time, and the fact that it was a bit gross, and their response, of course, was that this was their job. I still have the scar; but I have a knee that works, and I was hugely grateful for their care. 

Now, maybe my dislike of accepting care is just me; maybe you’re all very good at acknowledging your needs and accepting care from each other. I hope that’s the case; but I suspect maybe not. It takes trust to allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone. And yet, in refusing to acknowledge our need, we don’t allow people to meet it; we do not allow them to live out their gifts and skills that might make them feel fulfilled and myself cared for. And sometimes it’s easier to trust and be vulnerable with those who are professionals – doctors, nurses, counsellors, carers – than it is with each other.

To what extent does Jesus feel like a ‘professional’ in this sense, to us – the one who we can expect to receive care from, can be vulnerable with, can allow to wash our feet when we wouldn’t dare offer them to each other? But, if we are all called to be like Jesus, to wash each others’ feet, we each need to offer our metaphorical feet to each other. The things about our lives that are a bit pongy, a bit dirty, or messy, that don’t match up to the capable face that we like to present to the world. 

Foot washing in today’s service doesn’t fulfil our real needs; it’s become a symbol – a powerful one still, perhaps, but maybe one that has become divorced from the message that it was meant to get across. I wonder what those needs are, for us all? Maybe that’s something to ponder in the Watch this evening, or to bring to the table when we receive communion, or reach out in courage to share with those around us. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the needs that we have, as individuals and a community, and be brave enough to share those needs and accept the care that each other would offer. To trust that the whiff of our feet, or the pus of our grazed knee, will be met with compassion and care, rather than disgust; that we will remember the love that Jesus showed his disciples then and shows to us still. Amen. 

Hosting Refugees

With the war in Ukraine, Western Europe is seeing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, fleeing from their home.

Here in the UK, there are a number of appeals to people to provide suitable host housing and shelter. Here’s how you can help:

If you live in a city, you can register with Refugees At Home. However, they are urrently unwilling to host refugees in towns or villages that are not part of a major connurbation.

Beryl from our congregation is trying to make arrangements so that a cluster of refugees can be hosted here in West Devon – and because it would be a group, they would have the support of their fellow Ukrainians in this, a foreign country. If you are interested, she recommends you contact the Daily Mail, asking for John Abiona at ukraine@dailymail.co.uk.

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent: Psalms, Angels and Evil

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,  will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’

Those were the words at the beginning of our Psalm today.

There are times when I need the words and images in the psalms to sustain me more than anything else.

In times of trouble I turn to the psalms to help me pray. The psalmists knew what it was like to be pursued by evil doers, to be mocked for their trust in God, to suffer life threatening illnesses, to be surrounded by the enemy on all sides, to be hungry and thirsty, to feel abandoned by God….and yet to continue to hope and say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’

Other psalms express similar thoughts:

Psalm 27 v3 “Though a host encamp against me my heart shall not be afraid, and though there rise up war against me, yet will I put my trust in him”… in God.

Psalm 34 v6,7 “This poor soul cried, and the Lord heard me and saved me from all my troubles.  The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and delivers them

For me, the news we received on waking on Friday morning, 4th March, is still only just sinking in, how close we got to a global environmental catastrophe when Russia shelled, set fire to and seized the Ukrainian power station. We must continue to pray and trust that a force – an army greater than the evil forces of a man, tempted by greed, hatred and a desire to control and manipulate – is ultimately in control. We thank God and the heavenly host that all creation was protected from disaster on that occasion.

Today we are worshipping in Christ Church, but, of course our parish church on the Tor is dedicated to St Michael with its stained glass east window of St Michael the archangel with a sword in his right hand. St Michael, who the book of Revelation informs us threw the devil and his angels out of heaven – there is no place for evil in heaven.

Above the gates in Independence square in Kyiv, I understand is a statue of St Michael the Archangel, patron saint of Kyiv.

Following the shelling of the power station on Friday, you may have seen the video message on YouTube by the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church  from the besieged city of Kyiv. Of course I have only read the subtitles in translation but I know God loves the people of Ukraine. In fact, in the collect for Ash Wednesday, which I will again say (as our post communion prayer today) God hates nothing that he has made. We need to keep praying and trusting that he continues to protect his people on all sides: the angel of the lord encamps round those who fear him.

The Archbishop said on Friday that “many people” have told him that they have seen “luminous angels over the land of Ukraine.” And there have been photos of cloud formations with the appearance of angels put on social media – how they need that comfort and reassurance at present.

The Archbishop also said:

“I would like to address all those who care for the environment….it is necessary to stop this war immediately, this is not only becoming a humanitarian crisis before our very eyes, it is an irreversible attack on God’s creation, that for decades or for centuries will be impossible to correct. Ukraine has already experienced Chernobyl, now it is on the threshold of a new atomic threat that can be 10 times worse.

“Here in Kyiv we perceive that the patron of our city is the Archangel Michael who with the cry ‘Who is like God?’ cast into the abyss Lucifer — the one who rose up against God’s truth and was the leader of the diabolical armies,

“We perceive today that the Archangel Michael together with the whole Heavenly Host is fighting for Ukraine. So many people from throughout Ukraine are turning to me saying that they saw luminous angels over the land of Ukraine.”

He added: “Today we pray: O Archangel Michael and all the Powers of Heaven, fight for Ukraine! Cast down that devil who is attacking us and killing us, bringing devastation and death!”

Major archbishop: Many seeing ‘luminous angels over the land of Ukraine’ – Catholic News Agency

Keep praying, they need hope and encouragement not to despair; and to keep trusting that though they are walking through the valley of the shadow of death God is with them,

Our Gospel reading today reminds us of how Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil in the wilderness. It is a very familiar reading but one word struck me as I read it again, a very small but significant word the devil used… If.

Jesus had just been to the river Jordan and submitted to baptism. Heaven had opened and the Spirit descended on him, like a dove. He heard the wonderfully affirming words of the father, as he prayed: “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased, or my joy, my delight”. You are my beloved son – no doubt there. The true word of God the Father.

In the wilderness, though, the voice of temptation said: If you are the son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread….if ….sowing doubt in the mind of the son…..and trying to twist the truth….offering him all the kingdoms of the world if he bowed down and worshipped the evil one. To take power without enduring suffering first must have been a real temptation.

Jesus needed to overcome those temptations at the beginning of his ministry to enable him to overcome them at the end too. In the garden of Gethsemane he faced the enormity of the agony he had to endure, praying his own ‘if’: “Father, if you are willing remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will but yours be done”. And he accepted the cup of suffering. Listen to the mocking of our Lord on the cross: “the rulers scoffed at him saying, ‘He saved others, let him save himself.’ The soldiers also mocked him… if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!” And then, of course one of the criminals said: “Are you not the Christ, save yourself and us.”  If, if, if…

Jesus knew he was the Christ, the promised Messiah and the Son of God the Father but he also knew he had to suffer.

Our Christian brothers and sisters in Ukraine and in the rest of Eastern Europe, including Russia, know that they are precious children of God and much loved but at present they are suffering terribly. As they continue to trust God to protect them, I pray they will receive comfort, and that the Lord will deliver them from evil.

Amen.

Epiphany – a reflection on the coming of the Magi

We often think about Epiphany – if we think about it at all! – as being the end of Christmas. And so it is, technically – it is its own festival season. In the church, we celebrate Christmas from Christmas Day until “12thnight” – the 5th of January – and then Epiphany from 6thJanuary until Candlemas, at the beginning of February. Collectively, the two seasons are sometimes known as “Christmastide”.

Epiphany completes the traditional “nativity” scene – the arrival of the “Three Kings” or Magi. They come, they leave their gifts, and they go back home. Thus they neatly complete Isaiah’s prophecy and our crib scenes. 

But I think there is much more to be learnt from them than that cosy image of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, Magi and Christ-child.

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The Image of God

Jesus said, ‘… from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this
reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall
become one flesh.”’
(Mark 10:6-8a) In this episode of discussion between rabbis Jesus quotes both accounts of creation found in the first two chapters of the Jewish and Christian Bible (Genesis 1:27; 2:24).

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The Primacy of Prayer

Readings

1 Samuel 17:37-50 and Mark 9: 9,14-29

Both David and Jesus faced what seemed impossible odds. A handsome young lad, ruddy and with beautiful eyes, so we read (1 Sam 16:12), pitched against the gigantic Goliath about 9 foot in height and armed to the teeth! Or one person faced with a violent and berserk young man whom a crowd of willing and experienced helpers had failed to restrain or help. But they both triumphed in spite of the odds. So what was their secret?

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Angelic Waiters

The Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Mark 1:12f.

I’ve always had a problem with Lent, or at least with the way I have been encouraged to keep it, or by the way I have interpreted that encouragement.

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Water into Wine

Jesus, come! for we invite you,

Guest and Master, Friend and Lord;

now, as once at Cana’s wedding,

speak, and let us hear your word:

lead us through our need or doubting,

hope be born and joy restored…Amen

I’ve just quoted the first verse of  the 20TH CENTURY Epiphany hymn by Christopher Idle. I hadn’t come across it before.

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