"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Marlene's contemporary nativity: a salutary tale for Christmas.





Now, take my friend Marlene: she's a very artistic type.  You probably know the sort - dangly Trade Craft earrings, pencils and paint brushes pushed into her hair geisha - style: half-moon glasses precariously perched an the end of her nose and a pair of Doc Martens - one red and one green. ('I've another pair like this you know.')


She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings.  Her trans-gender 'Phantom of the Opera' is still talked about in hushed tones…… in Dewsbury.  Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows).  So I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity, although some concern was expressed: Marlene was the sort of person who had causes. We feared her analysis of Santa’s carbon footprint and her concern that the elves should have a living wage.


The committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings - very Chappell Allerton. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present.  We must make it relevant!” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.


 Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin, Trevor ... and Brenda … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.


Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin.  “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three moustaches – and that’s before the costumes are on. 


Her neighbour's daughter, Sigourney, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.


“But she's ethnic.  Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.


“Anyway,” she said, gesturing to an open copy of a book by Walter Bruggerman on the vicar’s desk, “If you knew your Hebrew you’d know that it doesn’t actually say Virgin.”


“Oh she thinks she’s a theologian now does she?” muttered Brenda to Justin.


The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel.  "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be?  Answer me that?" observed Brenda.  Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation insisted that he performed in his uniform.


“Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.


“Actually, Marlene, point of order.  The Philistines were a very cultured people”


 “Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the  donkey."


Sigourney's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper.  (Fortunately the ASBO he had been given for streaking through the synagogue as a bet had just lapsed.) A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines- “You can't come in here, we're full' although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: 'You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price”.


Now Brenda likes to think of herself as worldly-wise, but she flummoxed us all with her references to Cameron’s musical animal impersonations. Eventually she explained: “Cameron’s hung like a stallion, Sigourney told me.  So, what does that sound like then?  How do you sing like a stallion?”


Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.


"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."


"Joseph was older than Mary you know.  Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."


Rehearsals came and went.


"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"


"Piss off Trevor.  You’re a palm tree. Any more of that luvvy-crap and you’ll be the back end of the donkey.


"Len, please!  How often have I told you?  Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."


"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . . .' I may run screaming from the building"


"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."


"Sigourney, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas.  I'm sorry Cameron ... you've had what pierced?  I see .... well, we shan't need to see that on stage thank you very much"


“Point of order, Marlene, technically, its not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”


“…or possibly both ends of the donkey, Trevor! Terry.   Drop the line about 'Special Delivery', it's not working-"


And so the evening arrived --- and Marlene was proved right.  It was a triumph- dramatic, moving and powerful.  The stable became a bus shelter in front of an old garage, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck.  Drug paraphernalia littered the floor.  Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set.  Everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed. 


It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year.  It's going to be different this year though.  After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session.  Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about.


So we're back to the traditional again- shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep and angels with tinsel halos.  The relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.


And the meaning of Christmas in all this?


The Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special repeat, 8.00 pm, BBC2, Boxing Day, of course.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Advent, exams and the Apocopalypse

I put my Christmas decorations up in the classroom today. The kids in my form were less than impressed.

“We break up tomorrow Sir. What’s the point?”

I’m making a gesture, a concession.

“But it’s Christmas.”

No. It’s Advent.

As ever, no one gets it. Or as my colleague Matthew noted, “Nobody cares.”

I do.

We do little enough to celebrate the post-Advent season at the Knowledge College as it is. My year group are taking mock exams this week.

A week of exams kids: Happy Christmas. (Happy Christmas too, to all our colleagues – enjoy the marking. In my case 180 scripts.)

Today it rained just to add to the joy of my lot taking their Religious Studies exam this morning. The girls, as ever, organised and sensible all have retractable umbrellas in their bags and scuttle around with a sense of urgency. The boys, on the other hand, refuse to acknowledge the need for any sort of urgency. They slummock about through the rain like snails, arriving with their hair plastered to their heads and their clothes steaming. The room soon smells like hormonal dog.

“Run? Me Sir? I’m not a paramedic.”

This whole exam business is fraught. In the past very few have bothered to take mock exams seriously or to revise but I sense a change in the general culture. Some have admitted to considerable preparation.

I take the register and look at my lot. They aren’t stupid by any means – not all of them anyway – but my fear is that they will approach their exams like they approach the inter-form quiz: by putting down the first thing that comes into their heads without thought or consideration.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, what did my true-love give to me? I had asked.

“A turkey.”


Name three of Snow White’s seven dwarves.

“Sleazy, gropy and horny.”

Hmmmmm. There may be a chance we’ve not been watching the same version of the film.

“Sir, Sir. Is the world going to end?”

Of course.

“Really? Tomorrow?”

I sense we are in a different conversation.

Do you mean the Mayan Apocalypse?


Well, they didn’t see the Spanish coming so I doubt they’ll be reliable about the end of the world. Anyway, my cousin Steve is in New Zealand where it’s already tomorrow and he’s just posted on Facebook. He didn’t say anything about Armageddon. I think he may have noticed.

Talking about the apocalypse I saw a day by day weather summary yesterday. Yesterday and today were to be dull and rainy with a high of 4 degrees. Tomorrow, though, we can expect a change to fire and brimstone with a top temperature of 4000 degrees. I wondered whether it had been sponsored by Harold Camping.

Nice and warm for Christmas though.

There are also suggestions that a significant proportion of men are delaying buying Christmas presents on the basis that the end of the world will render the need to do such shopping pointless.

Ah well. Every cloud ….

I escort my form to the exam venue.

“Is this a calculator exam Sir?

Oh Deus Meus!

By coincidence, today is the mad Physicist’s birthday. I slip a card into his pigeonhole.

“In dog years you’re dead.”

I felt it said everything that needed saying.

On arriving back at my classroom I discover my Yr. 8 class has arrived. They are both a delight and as high as kites. Ten minutes into the lesson (arguments for the existence of God – religious experience) a little like a flash mob, they burst into a spontaneous rendition of Jingle Bells followed by Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I am charmed. I love these younger kids for their total unselfconsciousness.

At break my NBF Wesley from Maths comes into the office and puts the kettle on. Wes loves the R.S. Department but spends virtually no time in the Maths Department unless there is a meeting. Today there was a meeting.

“We had Secret Santa in our meeting this morning.”

What did you get?

“I got called Scrooge.”

I am not teaching as my kids come out of their exam so I go over to the refectory to canvass opinion. The general consensus is cautiously positive. A little later I scan some of their answers.

Budist don’t eet meet. Thay are vegtables.

My heart sinks until I realise that this is Martin’s offering. Martin is a lovely lad cursed with complex learning difficulties. I feel better but decide not to read any more just yet. It’s not good form to be seen running, weeping from the building. Even so, I can’t help but notice that Jordon has drawn me a yacht. It looks like the work of a five year old.

“I asked him if he was having trouble answering the questions.” The invigilator looks flustered. “He said he knew the answers but preferred to draw.”

Tomorrow is the last day of term.

I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Day at the Chalk Face

I appear to have woken up with a headache.

Did I drink last night?

Not so as you’d notice.

It must be singing Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation as a Second Tenor when in your heart of hearts you know that you are a Baritone.

The morning can only get better. I stumble into the bathroom at the crack of dawn on a cold November morning. Outside it is dark and rainy. Inside it is cold.

Very cold.

“Don’t forget the shower.” My beloved is still hunkered down under the duvet. The warm duvet.

Ah yes, the shower. I perk up. Until Yesterday it had been dripping and then round came Gavin and put in a new part. Today it doesn’t drip which is good.

It also doesn’t do hot anymore which isn’t good.

It’s a long time since I’ve done a strip wash at the sink, shivering and out of sorts. I am a creature of habit. Any change to my routine throws me out.

Buttoned up against the cold I get the car out, say hello to the Russian boys from Latvia (“dobroye utro” - see another of my many skills you didn’t know about) as they huddle around their clothing collection vans – National Kindney Federation (sic) - smoking and looking more miserable than I feel, and set out for the Knowledge College.

(And yes, Dear Reader, we've all had that suspicion.)

Local radio informs me that there are traffic problems in the direction I am heading. I don’t know why ‘m surprised. There are always traffic problems where I am heading. I intend to resign my membership of the M62 Supporters club.

Because of my change in routine I am about 10 minutes earlier than usual.

Ten minutes earlier and badly shaved.

I arrive at 7.00am. Schools are great places any time until 8.30am and so my sense of equilibrium is restored. Two of the cleaners serenade me as I mooch through the staffroom. It is not until sometime later that this strikes me as odd. I write up a set of minutes for a departmental meeting I didn’t attend – not my department.

“But you are better at the written word than me and I don’t want to come over as confrontational.”

What? And my writing style is always measured and temperate? Oh well, it’s all about perception, I suppose.

Talking about my writing style, I track down the local paper to see how my “Christian Thought” looks. (250 words on anything you like as long as it’s topical and not offensive.) I note that they’ve spelt my name wrong again and don’t bother to read further. The day doesn’t seem to be improving.

Back in my overwarm classroom out here in Frontier Land, on the edge of the school’s perimeter, I listen to Classic F.M. drink tea, eat my breakfast and watch the sun come up. Not for the first time it occurs to me that for a few minutes, when the school is silhouetted against the rising sun, it bears a striking resemblance to Dracula’s castle.

My colleagues arrive and we share the usual morning rituals: complaining about the world, the universe and the meaning of life, the weather, our classes and the motorway, and wondering who the milk in the princess packaging in our fridge belongs to.

I look at today’s timetable. When I have dried my tears I start to gather their books and see how far we have got in the various schemes of work. I am amazed: the marking fairy seems to have visited in the night and I am up to date. Where are the smelling salts? I may need a little sit down. This is an historic occasion.

The buses begin to arrive, disgorging the hormonal hoards. Every child is hitting every other child. The 11 and 12 year olds skip happily into the building, playing tag and complicated games of childish imagination. The 13 – 16 yr olds, aware of their superior status, skulk about aimlessly expressing their corporate individuality trying to look both cool and threatening at the same time. A very big girl is arguing loudly with a very small boy. I admire his tenacity but feel his days may be numbered.

Later that morning I am assaulted by a pupil.

This needs some clarification, not the least because I fail to notice.

I have a Yr 7 class and today Troy appears for possibly only the second time. Troy is a pain and sets out to be a nuisance from the outset. Fortunately I have the redoubtable Mrs. Cole working with me in this class. Mrs. Cole is a local grandmother. There’s not much she hasn’t seen and she moves to sit beside Troy, clearly determined that in any battle of wills she will triumph.

It is an uphill battle. He has no pen and no workbook and is in no hurry to admit this on the basis that were he to be provided with equipment he might be expected to do some work. He is perpetually off task and is lippy with Mrs. Cole. He just glowers at me whenever I intervene. It is clear that he wants to be sent out and, much as it irritates me to grant his wish, it soon becomes clear that this will be our only option.

I pop along to Derrinder’s room where she is being supported by Universal Auntie Viv. A quick negotiation later and I have returned, given Troy his instruction to follow me – which he takes his time about, obviously, and we set off.

Turn Left. I say as we reach my classroom door.

This is clearly not the direction Troy was expecting: he has his own idea of where he wants to go and so he turns right. I nip in front of him and block his way. He tries to dodge past and so I hold his shoulder bag by the strap. There is a bit of tussling and Troy makes another bid for freedom. I block him again but he’s small and quick and before Mrs. Cole can get to the door he is gone, leaving me holding his bag. A quick phone call to Patrol later and the lesson continues.

At break I ring around to see whether Troy has been rounded up and corralled somewhere.

“Yes I’ve got him.” Jenny is clearly used to dealing with Troy. “I’m just debriefing him. How are you?”

How nice. This concern for my welfare strikes me as odd under the circumstances but it is thoughtful.

Fine. Just a bit put out really.

The short silence at the other end suggests that this isn’t the response she expected.

I now have a top set Yr 11 and we have a good working atmosphere going when Derrinder appears in my doorway like a galleon in full sail, which is impressive considering what a slight young woman she is.

“Could I have some help please?”

I go to the door to discover behind her three of the usual suspects, a lout of boys, and remember that this is Derrinder’s nightmare class. Just looking at them irritates me: two of them are sporting that stupid current fashion in haircuts and one is bleached.

“Jake has just eaten his work.”

I look at bleached-blond boy and notice he has a large wad of unchewed (unchewable?) green paper in his mouth.

Get in there. I instruct, gesturing to my room. And don’t speak to a soul.

“But Sir …” Silly Haircut boy begins.

Don’t start. You’ve been brought here by your subject teacher, my colleague. I don’t need to hear the story. It’s enough that you’re here now. There’ll be plenty of time for a post-mortem later and you are wasting two classes worth of teaching and learning time. You – downstairs to Mr Wildman and you – along the corridor to Miss Fields.

A word from me and they do as they please. They have no intention of complying and they start to complain about Derrinder’s perceived unfair treatment of them.

Derrinder is set to explode. “So when I told you to put the chair down, I was being unreasonable?”

“He moved his head near my chair. How was it my fault?”

Miss Field appears. “I’ve rung for patrol.”

You hear that. Now you’ve a clear choice: do as you’re told or we’ll all go back to our classes and leave you to your own devices and patrol.

“I want to complain about Mrs. Singh.”

Good luck with that then. What’s your decision?

“I’m not going.”

“Neither am I”

Fine. We’re going back to our rooms.

They look confused. The door shuts. They stay put unsure what to do.

A little later Mrs. George appears. It is now lunchtime and I am debriefed over the incident with Troy.

…. So, really he was just awkward and determined. I conclude.

“And his language?” Mrs. George frowns.

No, he wasn’t sweary or shouty. The frown deepens.

“And at what point did he start pushing and shoving you?”

He didn’t. Mrs. George sighs.

“Let me read to you his statement.” Troy has been brutally honest about his own behaviour, confessing to things neither Mrs. Cole nor I noticed in addition to all the stuff we did.

“…and then I told him I’d break his fucking nose and I hit him.”

I sit and reflect. I’m a tall bloke and he’s a small lad. Is it possible that I didn’t notice?

In the end the best I can come up with is, Well he may have, but if he did, it passed me by.

Troy is given a two day exclusion and will not return to my lessons before January.

As I drive home I ponder this less than typical day.

Well, no one can say it’s a dull job.

No child was harmed in the writing of this blog.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sunday Sermon for All Souls Patronal Festival


Revelation 21:1-6a

John 11:1-45

When I was doing some reading around and hoping for inspiration, I noticed that many commentators seemed to confuse All Saint’s Day (1nd Nov) and All Soul’s Day (2st Nov) – which reassured me, because I had too. This is more than semantics: while we worship God in here (on the 4th because it is All Hallows patronal Sunday) we have memories of a couple of nights ago when children, some of them with their parents or older siblings, were out playing trick or treat. We might not immediately think so, but there is a very close connection between what they were doing and what we are doing. All Soul's Day and All Saints Day and the Eve of All Hallows (Halloween) are all part of a three-day celebration of commemorations of the dead which goes way back before the Christian era. The Church Christianized older Celtic festivals by giving new meanings to the customs of Halloween night, and by offering a vision of the Communion of Saints that is remembered on All Saints Day. Which leads us fairly neatly to a fundamental question: what is a saint?

If you look in the dictionary; there are four basic definitions of a saint: 1. A person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth. 2. A person who has died and gone to heaven. 3. A member of any of various religious groups.  4. An extremely virtuous person.

That covers almost all of us, surely? None of us may be up for canonization and we’ve yet to die, but we do belong to a religious group, we do intercede on behalf of others and (some of us) may be extremely virtuous.

“Sir. What’s a saint?” Now I’ve become used, as a teacher of Religious Studies, to being the school’s resident expert on all things randomly religious. And I was about to launch into an explanation of those who have been perceived as particularly holy or inspirational throughout the history of the church, when my inner voice told me to stop and think. It isn’t enough to talk about Tertullian, Irenaus and Augustine, people who helped clarify the faith amidst confusion and controversy; people who laid the foundation of the church.

It isn’t enough to talk about Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Saint Teresa of Avila who challenged us to look at the faith differently and find a deeper relationship with God. It isn’t enough to talk about modern day saints, such as Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu who struggled for the rights of all people. Neither is it enough to talk of those who have lived the Christian life and gone on ahead.

But are we not all saints? In the N.T. there are about sixty mentions of the word “saint” - mainly in the context of those who have died in the faith or who are disciples: followers of Jesus in his time. St. Paul used the term 44 times to refer to the Church on earth. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to apply that same idea to latter-day disciples: we are the saints.

So I tried this explanation on Darren.

“You Sir? A saint? As if!” (Said in terms of doubtful incredulity.) Rather harsh I felt. On the upside, though, that means our birthdays are saint’s days dedicated to us. (I think that may put a whole new perspective on my next birthday party.)

At this time of year we remember the faithful departed, the numerous ordinary people through the centuries who have lived and died trusting in God, faced life’s ups and downs with the same faith as the A List saints - but without the wider recognition. We must remember, too, that the saints were not perfect. That is something which our modern-day secular Halloween reminds us of: all of us have a darker side. The church at its best also recognises this. At its worst it sanitises the saints. The point is that even the greatest saints were also sinners. They run the gamut: they are extraordinary people and they are common folk like you and me. And that adds another side to our commemoration of the souls of the faithful departed. When we ask God to take care of these precious souls we might need to ask God to bring healing to any hurts which still exist between us and them; to any regrets we may have about things said or unsaid; things done or neglected between us and those who have gone before us, and ask for God to have mercy on us, to heal the wounds, to close the accounts, to put to bed any sense of guilt or failure. We remember so that in part we can stop, or change, what and how we remember in the light of God’s infinite concern for us.

Some of us have lived through gentle and good deaths, kind deaths where it was the right moment and in the right place and the tears shed were as much for relief and thankfulness as for any sense of loss.

For others, the deaths we carry are far more searing, bitter and angry: stupid or savage deaths which take an unkind toll on who we are and where the words of today’s reading from the Book of Revelation, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” may sound very hollow. Being who we are those sensations are kept mostly out of public view: people don’t need to see the sorrow I struggle with.
Let’s bring our sorrows and the pain we carry with us today to our worship, because these acts of remembrance also confront us with our own mortality, the fact that each one of us will one day die. Death brings separation and thus sadness, and for some people here the memories are still raw and sharp. For others there is a long sadness which never quite goes but which time has softened and God’s grace has tempered with thanksgiving for all the good memories.

There’s a wide breadth of experience here today and I wonder how each of us is processing these passages from Revelation and John: whether they have a particular resonance for those of us who have dealt with the loss of a loved one - more of a resonance, perhaps, than for those of us who haven’t? Yet here in this moment we are offered the chance to let God in. He sees. He gives us grace each day to survive. And He offers us the promise of hope.

Which is another of the things we do together at this time: we hold on to a living hope: a living hope in the promise of Jesus that he has gone ahead of us to prepare the way for us. “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

And where do we get this confidence from? Well, if from nowhere else, all we need is in today’s Gospel.

When we read, or listen to, today’s passage - Jesus and Lazarus - our own personal histories of death and bereavement colour the way we react. As someone who has yet to lose someone I love, I find this passage quite difficult because it contains hints of the future for me. I have elderly parents and we’ve had some recent health scares and hospitalisations, so when I read this passage of a close knit family wracked by bereavement it feels a bit too close to home.

This is a story about an encounter with death but before we carry on, can I ask that you pretend that you don’t know the Easter story? It’s a difficult ask, I know, but do your best.

The beloved brother of Mary and Martha has contracted a lethal illness. Knowing Jesus, their friend, to be a healer, an urgent summons goes out to him. He, however, delays his arrival on the scene until after Lazarus is dead. Then Jesus has both bereaved sisters to contend with, as well as a veritable Greek chorus of friends and neighbours.

Martha, though gently, seems to be rebuking Jesus, blaming him for not arriving in time to save her brother. Perhaps she is in denial, a common response to sudden death - hoping against hope that, even now, if Jesus really wanted to he could do something to change the situation.

It is at this point in the story that it delivers its key message. Jesus said to Martha, "Your brother will rise again." Martha responds in much the same manner that bereaved believers have ever since, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection of the last day." The unspoken implication then as now is: that's not good enough. Don't tell me that time will take care of my grief, I am in pain now. I can’t imagine living through today, or tomorrow, without this one I love, never mind waiting for reunion in the life to come. How can I endure this loss and go on? How can life have any meaning for me now? And Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" Those who believe in Jesus Christ, even though we die physically, will live spiritually, raised with him to eternal life.

Was Jesus’ question then only posed to Martha? Are we not also the implied audience for this question? If so, then every time this passage is read we are confronted with the same question as if it had just been asked of us: “Do you believe this?” Martha responded to the question in faith, even before she had the sign in her brother's raising from death, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

But, there are more bereaved people to encounter.

Mary and her comforters now come to meet Jesus. From Mary there is the same hint of rebuke as from Martha, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." But there is none of the hope, even if unrealistic, that Martha exhibited. Mary is in tears. So devastating was Mary's grief that Jesus too, began to weep.  The text tells us he was deeply troubled. But the Greek word underlying this says that Jesus shuddered with sadness; that his body shook with emotion. If this event is a parallel to the Christian life, the message is that Christians have to face a lot of death in the course of living. While death does not have the power, for a believer, to wipe out meaning, or to end spiritual life, it is, nevertheless excruciatingly painful to lose someone, or something, we love. It is appropriate to weep under such circumstances; it’s healthy to weep under such circumstances; and, rather than rebuke Mary for her tears, Jesus joins in with them - just as we can imagine Jesus weeping over every one of our losses, every one of our disappointments, every one of our failures; this is an acknowledgment of the reality of loss.

There is nothing pretty about death. No matter how much we try to dress it up with candles, flowers and poetry; no matter how ethereal we try to make things look, death is decay and putrification. In this story it is Martha who straight­forwardly speaks the harsh truth, "Lord, already there is a stench because has been dead four days." Unlike many today there are no euphemisms for Martha, she says it like it is.

Standing at the site of the tomb, a cave with a stone lying against it, don’t you get a sense of déjà vu? Wait a minute, what story is this? Haven't we heard this story before, only with a different corpse and a different cast of characters? So, the underlying theme breaks through the surface of the story and we suddenly understand how it is that Jesus intends to indemnify his promise to Martha - and by extension, to all believers.

Describe it how you will but at the end of our mortal life our soul, our essence, our personhood, who we are departs this life. And in the faith of Jesus Christ who rose again, we attain the salvation of our souls and Jesus reveals this to us, not only through his own death and resurrection (which, remember, chronologically we’ve not got to yet) but through the death and resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus’ power to raise him.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away..”

Let’s close in the words of a Jewish Prayer:

This day in sacred convocation we remember those who gave us life. We remember those who enriched our lives with love and beauty, kindness and compassion, thoughtfulness and understanding. We renew our bonds to those who have gone the way of all earth. As we reflect upon those whose memory moves us this day, we seek consolation, and the strength and the insight born of faith. Tender as a parent with a child, the Lord is merciful. God knows how we are fashioned, remembers that we are dust. Our days are as grass; we flourish as a flower in a field. The wind passes over it and is gone, and no one can recognize where it grew. But the Lord's compassion for us, the Lord's righteousness to children's children, remain, age after age, unchanging.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Time for a break.

I realise I've not been posting much of late, and to be honest it has become something of a chore. I don't really have the time at the moment and to be honest I don't really have the emotional energy either. So, I've decided to take some time out so that I can reevaluate. Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? Am I saying anything that others aren't already saying and am I saying what I am saying well enough to justify continuing? Perhaps my blogging experience is coming to a natural conclusion.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sunday sermon: "But you: who do you say that I am?"


Mark 8:27-38

27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”34He 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.36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

As a general principle I try to imagine my way into Gospel stories. I have to do this because I am almost always disappointed by the brevity of the gospel stories and their lack of background detail: they seem so clinical and succinct.  I try to see myself as an anonymous member of the crowd as I try to walk through the story. Who do I most identify with? Who do I sympathise with? Who irritates me? What if I was a Pharisee? What if I stood here or over by him? What if I couldn’t hear properly because of the crowd? – And I’ll always remember that segment from the film “The Life of Brian” where those on the edge of the crowd get a very garbled version of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the cheese makers?”

Of course, to what extent can someone like me, a product of my own times, truly enter into the experience, the sights, the sounds, the smells and, most importantly, the theological and social conventions of the first century? I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try and sometimes I am surprised by the insights I get.

So I imagine myself among a group of friends walking with the sun on my face and the smell of wild flowers in my nostrils, joining in with the banter and half listening to three or four conversations at the same time.

Stepping back into the real me again for a moment, I’ve been taught to consider one or two things about the Biblical passages I read which I ought also to take on board as I read this segment and try and make sense of it.

And of the many things I could consider is the question about who this portion of scripture was written for? Who was Mark’s target audience, if you like, because the audience changes within the Gospel passages? And recognising this helps us to understand more clearly the message in that portion of scripture. Sometimes we see Jesus talking to his disciples but the message he speaks is clearly intended for the Pharisees. The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying but the Pharisees certainly did. They were his audience on those occasions rather than the disciples. So we need perhaps to recognise that sometimes there is an implied audience. Again in today’s Gospel we’ve heard Jesus speaking to his disciples: they were his target audience on this occasion but at the same time we need to ask ourselves who else might Jesus be speaking to? And this time we can see ourselves as the implied audience – at least for the first part of the reading - and I think we’re right to do that because we, too, are disciples. What Jesus said (in the past tense) to his friends – and particularly to Peter, all that time ago, he is saying to us today: is - present tense. Now. This morning.

I’d like us to reflect for a moment on this Jesus. Here is a man who has left his mark on history, which is fairly surprising given that he lived a long time ago in a remote corner of the middle of nowhere; came from a poor family with no political or social clout; didn’t travel extensively; never wrote down his thoughts and ideas and died in pretty ignominious circumstances. In the normal course of events he ought really to have been lost to history. Yet this man became one of the most revered and talked about people who ever walked the human stage and I’m entirely confident that those three or four years of his public ministry have had a profound impact on the lives of each of us here. The problem is that there is a dearth of material from Jesus’ own time and mountains of conflicting material from every generation since. So which Jesus are we talking about? Gentle Jesus meek and mild, as the hymn would have us believe? (Small children and fluffy bunnies?) Remote, mystical Jesus championed by an army of conspiracy writers such as Dan Brown? Radical-revolutionary Jesus so beloved by the downtrodden in the liberation movement?  Nerdy-precocious Jesus sitting at the feet of the rabbis in the temple in his youth?

Will the real Jesus please stand up!

Today, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus poses a key question. He starts the exchange with his disciples with the opening gambit “Who do people say that I am?” Which may have gone more like, “When you’re out and about amongst the people, in the market place or the synagogue, what are they saying about me?” We can imagine the disciples processing this: and they come up with a variety of first-thing-that-come-into-their-heads answers.

Not satisfied with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and various other prophets, Jesus prompts them further: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Now they know that Jesus is referring to himself, and you can’t help but wonder at this point how foolish the disciple who offered “John the Baptist” as an initial answer is now feeling. Perhaps there is some friendly teasing at this point as they laugh at the daft answers they’d come up with…… but out of the midst of the laughter and banter Simon-Peter’s voice is heard clear and confident: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” We can imagine at this point the hush descending on the group as the others realise the implication of what Simon-Peter has just said and begin to consider it themselves.

Perhaps there is a similar mental back-tracking taking place here as we also realise the implication of both the question - and Simon Peter’s response: after all, every time this passage is read we are forced to consider the question ourselves as if it had just been asked of us. As modern disciples we are the implied audience for this first segment: it’s not just a story from back then. It’s a challenge for us today. No, it won’t hurt us at all to consider that Jesus is still asking the question of you and I today, here, this morning – and every time we hear this story, so when we ask: “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” his counter question is “Who do you think that I am then?” with a reply swiftly supplied by Peter: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”.

If Peter was actually the first to have fully understood the nature of the man he had been travelling with and sleeping cheek by jowl with, what had he thought before? How had the others understood this Jesus who had called them from their ordinary routines to this life on the road as religious itinerants? Which of the disciples’ answers best represents ours? Are we at that stage of spiritual awareness where we are still seeing Jesus as a “good man”? A prophet perhaps, which is where my Muslim friends get stuck? Or a preacher? A religious hothead cut down before his time? A political activist with a bad sense of timing?

Or like Simon Peter, have we recognised something beyond that? Have we had that moment of dawning realisation where we recognise that Jesus is….not was….is indeed the Christ, the son of the Living God?

Yes, Jesus, the Living Lord of the Church, responds, present tense, persistently down the generations “But YOU: who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question has a lot to do with whether we see a dead Jesus or a live Jesus in our lives. How anyone answers that question is a matter of huge significance.

It goes to the heart of our relationship with God; it goes to the heart of our understanding of ourselves; it goes to the heart of how we lead our lives; to the heart of the relationships we have amongst ourselves and to the heart of the very motives which drive our lives and our decisions.

In Matthew’s version of this story Jesus promised to build his Church upon this confession of faith. So we need, perhaps, to ask ourselves again “Who do I think that he is?” And when we do, we re-live this Gospel story. As we individually and personally reply to Jesus, “you are the Christ,” he says to us - to each of us - “You, too, are Peter and with you, too, I am building my church.” What happened to Peter continues and it includes us – present tense: it includes us. It’s in the here and now.

And then Peter blows it! "You are the Christ. You are the Messiah." He uses the right words, but he has trouble accepting their full implication. Jesus has to be very sharp with him. “Get behind me, Satan!” How humiliating! Only a few seconds ago he was, perhaps, feeling rather pleased with himself and now he’s being given a public dressing down. These are some of the strongest words in all of scripture, spoken to a man we know Jesus loved with all his heart.


Because Peter had only got half the answer right and he only revealed this by arguing with Jesus about what Jesus truly meant by “Messiah”. “Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

And this is where it begins to get quite difficult. “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. For 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.”

In my personal fantasy of being there in the story I am there as one of the disciples and so I am part of the target or primary audience, given the fate that we know awaited most of these men.

Every time I’ve been confronted with this passage and its talk of sacrifice in the name of discipleship, I’ve felt uncomfortable as I’ve listened to various people trying to argue the nature of the sacrificial life we should be living because of our allegiance to Christ: a life of loss forced upon us by our discipleship. I understood all the words but put into an argument, they never rang true in my experience. I am fortunate to live in one of the wealthiest and most tolerant countries on the planet: a country which is democratic and socially and religiously liberal as a default position. Where has been my loss and sacrifice in the name of the Gospel?

Certainly as a younger Christian I tended to assume that the fault must lie with me and my model of discipleship. If I wasn’t encountering hostility, perhaps I wasn’t doing discipleship right. After all, this passage and others like it make it clear that I should expect loss, sacrifice and conflict – if not persecution - as the cost of being a disciple.

It hasn’t happened - unless you count indifference.

The right wing tabloids in conjunction with former Archbishop Lord Carey, have tried very hard to convince us that there is an overt anti-Christian culture in modern Britain because some people have been stopped under Health and Safety rules from wearing religious jewellery in the workplace.

I really struggle to believe that this is what this passage means. If the cap doesn’t fit, don’t wear it! It’s about context. It is a warning for the disciples of the first century and with the gift of hindsight we know why. They were most certainly the primary audience for Jesus’ words.  

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that there is no cost for those of us fortunate to live in societies like this and I don’t want to minimise the experiences that anyone here may have had, so do feel free to come and wrestle me to the ground over coffee: I know that there will be people who  have counted the cost in terms of relationships with spouse or family, particularly those who have converted from Islam. I am also very conscious that other people’s understanding and image of Christianity can be ill-informed and that they make judgements about us on that basis. For most of us here there is a struggle at some level to live an out and proud life as a disciple, but when I read these words of Jesus to Peter I think of Christians living in Iraq or Pakistan at the moment and we should, perhaps, give thanks to God daily that this passage doesn’t really appear to apply to Christians living here – under current circumstances, so let’s not use that as an excuse for complacence. Hard to imagine as it currently is, things might change and our brothers and sisters elsewhere might have a lot to teach us about taking up our crosses.