"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

Friday, February 24, 2012

Sunday Sermon: Jesus in the wilderness for Lent 1

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Do you ever wonder if you’re in a parallel universe? Only recently in the classroom I was talking about Lent and one girl just looked blank. This, of itself, is not unusual in my classes, but she looked more blank than usual.

Well, I said, trying to explain, Some people choose to give up things like crisps or biscuits, cake or chocolate.

“Oh” she said, with the dawning of understanding on her face, “It’s a diet is it?”

More of which later.

Given that Genesis talks in depth about Noah and his experiences and that 1 Peter introduces an explicit connection between Noah’s Flood and Jesus’ Baptism, and also given that there are generally no coincidences in the way that the lectionary readings are put together, it would help to be clear about these links. Noah enters the waters in the ark, wanders for a time over the wilderness of the ocean, and emerges with a new covenant – a new agreement with God and a new proclamation of the reign of God; Jesus enters the waters of John’s baptism, wanders for a time in the wilderness of the desert, and emerges with another new covenant and a new proclamation of the reign of God.

Today’s passage for the first Sunday in Lent is typical of Mark in its brevity and urgency. In six verses the events are laid out - three major events: Jesus’ baptism, his time of testing in the desert and first preaching in Galilee. The sequence of events is significant, not simply because it seems the natural order of things, but because of its symbolism. In a new exodus Jesus retraces the journey of Israel: baptism (Red Sea), struggles in the desert (40 years) and good news (entry into the Promised Land).

There is a lot of symbolism here for those who enjoy such things.
Typically the story of Jesus in the wilderness is used on the First Sunday in Lent to introduce the Lenten fast but it is difficult to listen to a text when there are other texts lurking in the background talking about the same subject matter, often in ways more elaborate and more familiar. Mark’s is the text before us today, but Matthew’s and Luke’s are also in the background but Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, doesn't actually say anything about Jesus fasting during the forty days he spends in the wilderness. The suggestion here is not so much that Jesus fasted as that he committed himself entirely to God’s care, like Elijah and the Israelites and Noah before him. Mark shows Jesus relying on the provision of God for his sustenance and safety and, given that Mark never specifies how Satan tempts Jesus, as Matthew and Luke do, perhaps we are meant to understand that such deep trust in God is in fact what overcomes the Enemy’s testing.

This isn’t just a passage full of allusions to past events, though: it is also a passage about prophesy. In these six verses Mark alludes constantly to his own Scripture the Old Testament. As he told us in 1:2, the words of the prophet Isaiah resound through the centuries. Isaiah provides so many references for today’s gospel passage. The placing of God's Spirit on his chosen one to bring justice to the nations is part of God's description of His servant in Isaiah 42:1.

The "beloved one" (verse 11) does not just convey a message of warm feelings on God's part toward Jesus. It also conveys the message that Jesus is the servant sent by God as promised in Isaiah. Isaiah's prophecy also gives Mark - and us - a deeper sense of what god's kingdom may be and Isaiah 52:7 connects the one who brings good news with the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel.

But all this prophetic preparation does not diminish the qualities of loneliness and violence that this passage embodies, a loneliness that gets worse for Jesus as the gospel story unfolds. It is a theme that persists throughout the gospel. The immediate follow-up to Jesus' baptism when the Spirit throws him out into the wilderness is shocking – and it is meant to be. We’re so familiar with the story that we may not stop to consider the dramatic change of circumstances as the wonderful affirmation of Baptism leads directly to testing and a sense of loneliness which begins in the wilderness, home to prophets of Israel and to Israel itself in the years of wandering. Jesus too is there, the testing of his calling witnessed by no other person.

Jesus' proclamation of the "gospel of God" follows immediately upon the arrest of John who had also been preaching repentance in preparation for Jesus. More violence and loneliness. That arrest is unlikely to bode well for John … or for Jesus as he well knew.

At the end of Lent and the end of Mark both violence and loneliness come to a culmination in Jesus' cry of abandonment on the cross.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

O.K. so we’ve done a bit of theology: we’ve tried to unpack a little of the symbolic and prophetic elements of today’s gospel and I really hope that in some way that has helped us to understand more profoundly what we might have been tempted to see as a familiar story.

Now what?

You know, I’m sure I say this every time, but unless this story has the power to move us, to make links to our own lives and to challenge and change us, it will remain nothing more than a story. What are we to learn from it given that Lent is the traditional time for reflection and sacrifice and given that Jesus has shown us the way?

Well, let's look at the wilderness experience. Have there been times in your life when you have felt isolated and abandoned in the wilderness, grappling with both your circumstances and God? I know I have - over the last three years since I graduated from theological college: I have a strong sense of anger, loss and hurt, frustration and abandonment and I don't see an end to that in the short term. So, what am I to do? I only have one choice. I have to do as Jesus did and rely on God to see me through a difficult time and, like Jesus, I have to learn to rely fully on God because I can't do it in my own strength.

Too much about me there maybe but there will be - maybe have been - similar times in your lives where you can't see your way through the morass. So what do you do? Do you give up? I suspect that won't solve anything. Jesus' wilderness experience is a real experience for many people at some stage in their lives and maybe what keeps us going is the sense of Jesus as fellow sufferer and therefore a realisation that God enters into our suffering and is there willing to support us as he did Jesus in the wilderness.

And its a struggle.

Let's lighten the mood a bit.

Are we really back to giving up chocolate and crisps? As 2 Tim 1.1-14 puts it: … for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Self-discipline? Crisps and chocolate – or whatever? Self-discipline? Really?

I’ve brought some visual aids with me and it occurred to me that one way to seek to apply today’s gospel would be to take a good hard look at our lives. At risk of revealing far too much about myself I have four things I want to examine and consider. But as we have a look at my visual aids you might want to try to think about what might be in the bags that you could have brought for the occasion this morning had you had advanced warning.
Let’s start with the bag itself: Harvey Nicholls – Oooh there’s posh! But I could have chosen from several bags: ZARA, NEXT, H&M. I could have chosen the Dunnes bag, but I didn’t because that’s too cheap, and I am much more classy than that. I am much more cool and trendy, hot and happening. I am “Man at Harvey Nick’s”. See this bag in my hand. When I look at the male models there or in ZARA and NEXT on-line, I know that I will look just like those studs and I will become desirable. When I look at the women on these sites, I know that my wife will look just like those beauties after she buys all the Harvey Nick’s, ZARA and NEXT stuff and she will look fantastic. And the two of us, in ZARA clothing, will be the most alpha couple that you have ever seen. We will be the sort of people others aspire to be.

Envy motivates you to work harder. Envy motivates you to improve yourself and look more classy and dress more desirably. Envy sees the possibilities and what we can do for ourselves.

But we don’t do envy. We’re Christians.

As we think about envy what was in your bag that gets in the way of you relying on God?

Is there a sacrifice to be made there?

What else have I got in here? Ah, a mirror. Pride. Pride, the word has the letter “I” right in the middle.

I look great in this mirror. I look great in every mirror, now I come to think about it: so handsome, so intelligent, so… je ne sais quoi … I mean is it wrong to take a pride in your appearance? And doesn’t it feel good to know that we are a little bit better than those around us? It’s so good to our sense of self-worth to know that those around us are just a little less intelligent, a little less well off, a little less personable, a little less athletic, a little less musical, a little less gifted than we are. One of the great joys of life is feeling subtly superior to people around us.

But we don’t do pride. We’re Christians.

As we think about pride what was in your bag that gets in the way of you relying on God?

Is there a sacrifice to be made there?

What else have I got here in my bag? There are endless possibilities of course. Ah, a twenty pound note. This note is absolutely wonderful, with the picture of Her Majesty on it. If you have one of these, it will bring you great happiness. If you have ten of these, then you will have ten times more happiness. If you have a hundred of these, you will be a hundred times as happy. A thousand of these … yeah well, you get the idea. Money means we can buy more things. Can’t you see yourself stretched out on an exotic beach or driving that very classy car? Oh, what a vision. Don’t we deserve the best things in lIfe?. And they’re not really spoilt when we remember that others are hungry and starving.

But we don’t do greed. We’re Christians.

As we think about greed, what was in your bag that gets in the way of you relying on God?

Is there a sacrifice to be made there?

What’s next? Laziness? Yes. The remote control for the TV. My little fingers can control the tube. Oh, look at that channel. Oh, and that one. Oh. Couch potato, here I come. Couch potato, here I am. Wife, would you bring me a cup of tea? A beer? Something to eat? Wife, wait on me. Wait on me. Bring me chips. No, not any green salad. More chips please. I’ve had a busy week. I need to lie back on the sofa, stretch out and relax. I read that kids nowadays watch at least twenty hours of television a week but TV is so educational. So informative. So mind shaping. Watching TV does not teach passivity. Watching TV does not teach laziness. Watching TV teaches relaxation and mellowness.

But we aren’t lazy. We’re Christians.

As we consider laziness, what was in your bag that gets in the way of you relying on God?

Is there a sacrifice to be made there?

And we could go on.

One could be forgiven for thinking that we have trivialised Lent: you know, making small sacrifices which mean nothing. You want to know about fasting, ask your Muslim friends. They understand fasting and who knows, perhaps Lent was once far more like Ramadan. If giving something up is the major symbol of those things which distract people from God, we might well ask what those distractions are today: Food. Possibly; Time? Technology? Consumerism? How can we adopt an approach to those things which cloud our relationship with God? Perhaps less giving up and more taking on would help: a greater commitment to recycling, eating locally produced foods, leaving a smaller carbon footprint on the planet... So many challenges, choosing one could be life-giving in so many unexpected ways.

This gospel puts before us God's own son in his wilderness experience and this season invites us to share, however inadequately, in that experience. Yet, there is good news announced here. It is good news in chapter 4 that some seed "brings forth as much as a hundredfold." If we make Lent a meaningful experience what benefits could come our way in a deeper understanding and reliance on God? It is good news in chapter 4 again that "To you (plural) has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God..." During Lent, perhaps we can focus our own attention on that kingdom that Jesus brings among us. He challenges us (chapter 4 once more) "Let anyone with ears to hear listen."

Are we listening to that good news? The good news for this first Sunday in Lent is that our God understands. Our God has been tempted, too. Our God has experienced it all. In Lent, we accompany Jesus into the wilderness, so that God can lead us out the other side as we learn to depend wholly on his grace.

We accompany Jesus into the wilderness and learn to depend wholly on God’s grace.

It’s a mockery to try to do that by giving up biscuits so let’s try and take this Lent a bit more seriously eh?

Posted early in the hope of some constructive feedback.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Revision, child abuse, timetabling and farting.

Ah, the end of half-term. We are now officially on holiday. I say we. I mean me. I am hoping that my Yr 10 and 11 students, having been furnished with comprehensive revision booklets, will be busily slaving away over a hot keyboard in preparation for their exams in May. Yr 11 have ten lessons left and Year 10 have 12. As they seem sublimely unconcerned about this I suppose my hopes that they will be working will, as ever, be proved to be so much wishful thinking.

It's only R.S. after all.

I stood in the doorway on Friday to welcome my form in to registration and Katie arrived with a vivid red slap mark on her cheek. (I saw this in profile as she walked past me to her usual seat.) Now I am trained in the child protection procedures and, having taken the register was about to go over to Katie to take her out into the corridor where I could ask her about her slap mark. As I approached, forming my kind and empathic first phrase, she rummaged in her bag and got out her make-up. She was now full face on and, as she applied yet more blusher to her burning cheeks, I was able to see my mistake. She had not been slapped, she was going for the full on Coco the clown look.

Too much slap of quite a different sort.

Having had a nightmare with my second Yr 9 class of the day during their last lesson, I had arranged today for the four key players to do their R.S. work sat at the back of their form teachers' lessons. The public humiliation of being seen by - and looked down on by - Yr 11 students working on their maths or French exam work is clearly a chastening experience as the three musketeers returned to my lesson with two minutes to go in a very subdued manner.

Would that the same could be said for my disaffected Yr 11 class. I have already moved one girl R.S. groups on the basis of a parental demand, and today I was presented with a second such letter. The problem is that R.S. is blocked against wider Key Skills (no, me neither) on the timetable and a change of one subject necessitates a change of both and the teacher in charge of Wider Key Skills is implacably opposed to any change.

Last week my pal Bill, Head of Maths, wanted to change the maths groups of six students. For various reasons I won't bother you with here, this required a change of R.S. groups too.

And behold! It was so.

No discussion, after all it is maths. How easy it was for the Head of maths to effect change.

Still, it's only R.S.

This week, a term and a half into the academic year, the Science Dept. decided that it would be a great idea if the brightest kids in Yr 10 studied three separate sciences. This meant that they would drop Wider Key Skills (they didn't much care) to pick up the required extra teaching time. I was presented with a list of children who would, as a consequence, have to change R.S. groups.

About 30 of them. Thirty triple science kids would have to move from one block of R.S. groups to another but, to balance things out, another thirty who weren't taking triple science would also have to move from the classes the first lot were joining to the classes they'd left.

And behold! It was so.

No discussion, after all it is science. How easy it was for the Head of science to effect change.

My carefully crafted group dynamics now lie in tatters but its O.K. because Science is happy.

I want to move a kid R.S. groups and there has to be a year long public enquiry.

Still, it's only R.S.

Anyway, back to Yr 11. I have changed the seating plan. One boy has been withdrawn because of his special needs and another is on the verge of long-term exclusion. The last couple of lessons have not been too bad and there has been a sense of general calm and purposefulness. However, what is clear is the boys - well, the three remaining key players anyway - do not have the concentration span to cope with an hour.

After forty five minutes I notice a whole row of kids with their uniform jumpers covering their faces. The girls stoically continue with their work while the boys are giggling. There is a loud noise. It is a fart. (I hope it is a wet fart.)

Josh - 16, male, hormonal, man-child - can not seem to allow this moment to pass unremarked. He shrieks with joy and, in the way that only an attention-seeking youth can, brings the lesson to an abrupt halt with his overdone impersonation of the laughing policeman.

On cue Bill and Adam take Josh's lead. There is much cat-calling and blame laying. "You dirty bastard."

There was no need to do that. A more mature person would simply have got up and gone outside, sparing us both the smell and the disruption.

No one looks chastened.

I look at Josh. How can one boy have so many blackheads?

And a more mature person wouldn't feel it necessary to make a big thing out of it.

Then I think of my dear friend the mad physics teacher and realise that some boys never grow up.

It must have been ... oh ... six, seven, seconds back into the relative peace and quiet of Religion and Planet Earth (the enviroment (sic))when it happens again. It is a very long, loud, extended fart. The girls now object vociferously while the boys offer their out-of-ten rating. There are some high fives.

Is that methane? You know methane is a greenhouse gas.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Sweet Smell of Academic Success

Life as a Form Tutor is coming to an end. Mrs. Ali will be back from maternity leave soon. Can't come soon enough. Carly, Joanne and Ainsleigh have taken to arriving late to registration and it's akin to the opening scene of MacBeth, only more doom laden, in school uniform and missing the couldron.

We continue to do well in the inter-form quiz, thanks to Google. This week we got ten out of ten. Thank God the powers that be have no real sense of how inept my lot are, although the Head of Year did express admiration that we just happened to know the Latin name for a road-runner.

In general my form treat the quiz with disdain. The clever kids ignore it and of the rest, those who can be bothered shout out incresingly random answers in the forlorn hope that if we had a thousand years one of them might just hit on the right answer.

What's the largest country in Africa?


Close. But not close enough.

How many sides in an octagon? (The clue's in the name.)


Em ... nearly.

So my new best friend Ade has taken to sidling up to me and logging into google during this ritual period of corporate humiliation. (My colleague Jodi, who teaches English, is in the same house and has taken it upon herself to be the motivator of these three forms:

"Get your lot sorted out. They're pathetic!" Only much, much louder.
We are all frightened of Jodi. I forgot to hand the quiz in two weeks in a row so got 10x0x2.

I know she could hurt us.)

Ade! You smell of cigarettes.

"That's because I smoke."

Do you not think you might be missing the point?

Ade's problem with google is twofold.

Typing and spelling.

It'd be quicker to do it myself but that would be cheating. Do you see what I did there? Flexible morality! But it's a cut throat world in the ongoing Knowledge College task of getting one over on the other houses in the year group.

Jodi would be proud.

I start the day with the Yr 11 group I have come to know as "That Lot". Regular readers may remember a previous encounter

I am trying out a new line in put-downs:

Repeat after me. Do you want fries with that?

It is perhaps not surprising that the intended target doesn't understand but I am gratified to see Alexandra snigger.

A little later I have one of my nice Yr 11 classes. They are a small group - only twelve, and they've never been a moment's bother in two years. I am very fond of them although I have no expectations of good GCSE grades: this class includes one boy who managed one mark in his mock exam (and that was generosity on my part) so that's an indication of the level that we're working at here. Nevertheless their mystical target grades (which I increasingly believe are fabricated) suggests they should all get C/D grades. Ah, another stick with which to beat me.

We are chatting away and there is a kerfuffle (don't you just love that word?) outside. My door opens to reveal a support assistant. She seem to be a ventiloquist throwing her voice.

"I'm not going in there. You can't make me. I shan't do any work, right?"

The dozen and I adjust our sight lines downwards. And again. My heart sinks. It is Autumn, a child of the most diminutive proportions from Yr 8 who appears angelic as if butter wouldn't melt, but is in fact totally bonkers (a term we use a lot in pastoral care). My group turn to me as one for guidance and I roll my eyes. They nod and get back to their work. Not a word is exchanged.

Autumn is directed to a seat well away from my students where she procedes to tear up the work Mrs. Singh has sent her in with and sit back with her arms folded as if to say "There you go then, what are you going to do?"

Helena sneaks Autumn a glance and then looks to me, raises one eyebrow, nods towards Autumn and gives me a look as if to say "Loser!" and continues to wrestle with the Christian and Buddhist ideas of stewardship. I ignore Autumn. She is perplexed. I continue to ignore her. One angry little girl and a baker's dozen intent and paying her no attention at all. This is unusual but how, in my opinion, it should be. Too often the receiving class collude with the miscreant by giving him/her the attention they want. But not today. I feel very proud of my little lot. Academic they may not be, but they understand about behaviour.

Unlike my next class.

We have a new boy, Ummar, who suffers from a form of Tourette's Syndrome. He tends to twitch a lot. This class, are Yr 9 and prone to giggle and be silly at the slightest opportunity. My words in advance of Ummar's arrival about tolerance go unheeded.

Ummar suffers from a condition that makes him twitch and jerk and shout out things when he is stressed. He can't help it. Ignore him, be kind and don't laugh.

The class has selective hearing. They pick up the words Ummar, twitch, jerk, shout out and laugh.

Which they do.

A lot.

Ummar becomes more stressed and his behaviour more erratic.

Silly, silly, empty-headed, giggly girls. I could swing for them but it's hard to remonstrate with them without drawing more attention to Ummar. Then Ummar begins to talk to his exercise book and all falls quiet. I await the outburst that is sure to come but it doesn't.

The bell, fortunately, beats them to it.

Oh sorry. Did I say that out loud?