Sunday, 30 June 2013

Calling and following - Homily for 30 June 2013

(1 Kings 19.15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62)

Jesus tells his would-be disciples, “Follow me!” And he doesn’t take any excuses. When one man says, “Let me go first and bury my father,” Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their own dead…” Is that harsh? But I suspect that this man’s father had still to die, with plenty of life left in him. We do need to recognise family responsibilities, but not as simply another reason for saying why we’re not ready just yet for taking action.  There’s an urgency about Christ’s call, so much that Jesus tells the man who wants to go first and say goodbye to his family: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
How do you respond to the call of Christ? How do you make any decisions? How do you balance responsibilities, commitments, vocation and calling and set them against the person you are? - and the person you could be?
These are all issues I’ve been pondering again recently. Partly because this weekend is the anniversary of my ordination - what do I make of my calling as priest and deacon 32 years after the event? But also in the light of my experience of facing surgery and then having it cancelled, re-scheduled and cancelled again - and then being asked when or even whether I wanted to go ahead with it. After I’d psyched myself up for several months and planned who was going to be affected by my taking time off for several weeks to follow - and after I’d eventually had eight hours waiting on the ward for the operation to take place, half that time feeling rather silly in a theatre gown and thigh-length surgical stockings - I do understand why it was all called off, but it’s no easier for that to contemplate going back again. So everything is off again for the next few months.
Meanwhile I’ve pondered - and lots of people have been talking to me about their experience of health issues. There are those who have found themselves at the mercy of unforeseen complications - someone who’d had an operation which should have taken 40 minutes but it had actually taken five and a half hours; surgeons can’t plan for that. And people who’d found there was no alternative. Most succinctly someone was telling me he’d only been in hospital once in his life: “They came and asked me to give my consent for the operation, so I asked them what would happen if I didn’t sign. To which they said, well… you’ll be dead within 24 hours.” He signed - and I’m glad to say is now in robust good health.
It makes it easier to make a decision when you know there’s no alternative.
But what about the choices you have? My experience is perhaps a bit like people who’ve been booked up for a hot-air balloon flight. They may be apprehensive, but they’re ready for it. But then the flight gets cancelled on the day because of weather conditions. So they book again - and it gets cancelled again. And then they’re running out of days when there’s any availability, and it’s inconvenient, and the weather might be wrong again. What is going to get them back in the basket?
Or yesterday I was watching people on a zip-wire over the Tyne, jumping off the top of the Baltic to fly across the river to end up on a scaffolding tower in the middle of a car park. Two of them were people I knew. “Look, he’s on the edge and he’s got his legs over the side,” the daughter of one of  them exclaimed. I can imagine that moment - looking down to the ground, looking out over the river, looking at that thin cable which is all that separates life and death, and thinking “why did I sign up to this?”
I’m glad to say they got safely across - and no regrets.
What will make us jump? The leap of faith isn’t just for a short flight in a harness with all the safety procedures in place. “Follow me,” says Jesus - and it will have implications for the way you live your life… for the rest of your life. So it’s not surprising that some of the people Jesus encounters make their excuses. “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Can you plough that furrow? When people come to make arrangements for the Baptism of a child, do they see that it’s not just a half-hour service?.. It’s the beginning of a life-time, life-long project. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” St. Paul says in today’s New Testament reading. Paul isn’t always easy to understand. What he’s saying here is that living the Christian life isn’t just a matter of following rules - and it’s certainly not a matter of picking and choosing which rules to follow. There’s actually only one rule, “one commandment” - “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But that’s a rule to apply in every part of life and throughout your life. He warns us about all the things we shouldn’t do: avoidfornication, impurity, licentiousness,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,  envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” But it can be still more difficult to do the things which are positive - and these are the things that are really necessary: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control... If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
The good news is that it’s not all down to our own efforts. Jesus calls us to follow, to set our hand to the plough - but it’s his Holy Spirit who will guide us and strengthen us.
I’m struck by the enormity of the calling - to set out and to keep going… that is what Christ asks of us. Over 30 years since my ordination I’m still working on it. I hope I’m getting there. And I want to end by saying that the most significant thing I have learned in all those years is that we don’t get there simply by our own efforts. Too long perhaps I’ve dwelt on an image like that of the man in the picture inside your pewsheet. How much effort he seems to be putting into the task of ploughing! You’d think he was pushing the plough himself. Well, he does need to keep his oxen going the right way, his is the responsibility of guiding the plough. But we need to remember in our case that it’s Christ who goes before us, and God who supplies us with the grace we need. We simply need to follow.


Friday, 28 June 2013

Bringing home the Gospel…

Old news makes good news - or rather in this case good news (the literal meaning of the word gospel) makes the news still today.

The Lindisfarne Gospels were produced over 1,300 years ago. But the news that they are returning for three months to the North East of England from whence they came has caught the public imagination. Throughout July, August and September it will be possible to see them in a special exhibition in the Palace Green Library between Durham Cathedral and the Castle.

The Gospels are just that - the setting down of the good news of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Handwritten and wonderfully illustrated, it’s easy to see why this ancient book should appeal to people.

But I heard someone asking why we should be making so much of a fuss about them. Since Henry VIII pillaged the monasteries of their treasures in the 16th century, the Gospels have been in London. But in our times this has meant that millions of people have had the opportunity to see them - and free. “All you need to do is nip into the British Library - and there they are…” said my friend.

See them in Durham this summer - and you’ll have to pay! But it should be worth it. Here we’ll see not a book removed from its rightful home, but the Gospels set in their proper context. See them alongside the Durham Gospels and the Gospel which was buried in the grave of St. Cuthbert, and many other treasures besides. See the explanations of how they came to be produced and the community which created them. See that they have come home. And remember that the true treasure is the witness they bear to God’s love revealed for us in Jesus.

Durham Cathedral itself will be hosting events to celebrate the return of the Gospels. And - as you can read in this magazine - there are other exhibitions and occasions throughout the region to spread the celebration. I hope people might go to them. It’s a way of understanding that the Gospels come from a living tradition in which we share - of prayer, study, worship and service. They are an artistic production - and God gives us imaginations that we should keep using. They come from the North East - and that’s a reminder to us of the part which we can play in an often-neglected part of our country.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are a gift from our region to the wider world. What gifts can we still offer in our own day?                                  
Martin Jackson
This item appears in our Parish Magazine for July and August - read the whole issue online by clicking here

Monday, 3 June 2013

Only speak the word...

Trinity 1 (Proper 4) – Eucharist –

(1 Kings 8.22f, 41-43; Galatians 1.1-12; Luke 7.1b-10)

As far as I’m aware, this is the first time today’s readings have come up for use at the Eucharist since the present lectionary was introduced in 1998 - you need a combination of an early Easter and the right year in the three year-cycle by which the readings are organized if you’re going to get them. So take a good look - I don’t know when we’ll be seeing them next!

Because we don’t use them very much, you might not be very familiar with them. The first reading shows us Solomon, son of the great King David, at the dedication of the Temple which he has built in Jerusalem. Solomon can be rather full of himself. He’s a man of accomplishment. People come from far and wide to admire the buildings he’s put up - and to gawp at this wealth and riches. He’s renowned for his wisdom - though like many clever people he can also show quite a capacity for being stupid. And now we see him taking it upon himself to address God in prayer. “There is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath,” he acknowledges - but at the same time there’s a certain note of self-congratulation in his tone, a sort of “look at what I’ve built.” And then there’s the conclusion to his prayer - let people come from other nations to this place, and let them recognise who God is truly for them - “may they know your name and fear you… may they know that your name has been invoked on this house…”

If you visit Jerusalem now, you can’t help but be impressed by the size of the Temple Solomon built. Not that it is there for you to see - but the vast expanse of the site where once it stood... On the Temple Mount today you’ll find the El Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock - large, impressive buildings in themselves, but surrounded by still more empty space. The Temple which filled that space must have been immense. People who visited it must have been quite taken aback by its scale - as we know the disciples were by its smaller replacement when they exclaimed, “look at the size of the stones with which this place is built!”

Impressive buildings can have a certain converting effect - the Temples, churches and mosques which have stood on that holy site in Jerusalem; St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome: Hagia Sophia in Istanbul; our own Cathedral in Durham… These are places of prayer, places of pilgrimage, and they ask of us, “what does this place say about the God who is to be worshipped here?”

There isn’t a right answer to that question. The buildings which stand to glorify God were so often built to declare human power. Durham Cathedral stands alongside Durham Castle to remind us that the Norman king, William, truly was “the Conqueror.” It doesn’t stop them being holy places, but their very scale and expense begs the question of the cost at which they were built - wealth so often built up by unjustly acquired riches; human labour which was not always properly rewarded…

So I’m a bit ambivalent about the plea made in today’s Gospel reading by those who approach Jesus for a favour on behalf of a Roman officer. This centurion, say the people who have come to seek out Jesus, “is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue.” I want to ask how the centurion found the money to pay for the synagogue - was it his to give? Or did he direct the labour of those who built it? - and were they fairly treated? And a still deeper question I have is in those words “He is worthy of having you do this for him…” What makes this man worthy? - the fact that he has the money at his disposal when others are poor? - the ability to tell people to get on with the job when others are only to do what they are told?

But here I need to stop griping. King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple might be over-impressed by his own wealth, power and supposed wisdom. But this Roman centurion is someone quite different. The people from the synagogue who come on his behalf do so because he counts himself anything but worthy to approach Jesus - and they know he is a true friend of God. The centurion is a man of truly human compassion. He wants healing not for himself but for a slave. As a man who has more wealth than most and people at his beck and call, you might expect that the illness of a mere slave would be the least of his concerns. But this is someone he cares for. In his telling of the story, St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the centurion goes to Jesus himself - he doesn’t say anything of what he has done to deserve special treatment; he can only ask. In St. Luke’s account, other people go on the centurion’s behalf - and they say what they say because they know the extent of his faith and love.

And we see more of that faith when he sends a further message, asking Jesus not to come to his house - simply, “speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” As a man of authority himself, the centurion recognises the authority of Jesus - a man of God who will do God’s work. As a man of faith, he believes in the one who can bring healing to his servant.

Do we believe it? Do we believe that God will answer our prayers? Do we believe that God will give us the healing we ask for?

Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed…

That’s what we say in response to the invitation to come to Communion in this Eucharist: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

Jesus is the word who comes to us in the bread of the Eucharist, who gives us his Body and his Blood, for our salvation - for our healing. We need simply place ourselves before him, make our request, and he is there for us.

Not that we are worthy - but we can ask in faith.

This is how Bishop Tom Wright sums up what he has to say about today’s Gospel reading:

Contrast the prayer of this centurion with the prayers we all too often pray ourselves. ‘Lord,’ we say (not out loud, of course, but this is what we often think), ‘I might perhaps like you to do this… but I know you may not want to, or it might be too difficult, or perhaps impossible…’ and we go on our way puzzled, not sure whether we’ve really asked for something or not. Of course, sometimes we ask for something and the answer is No. God reserves the right to give that answer. But this story shows that we should have no hesitation in asking. Is Jesus the Lord of the world, or isn’t he?