All of you are one in Christ Jesus

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 19th June 2016
Galatians 3:23-end
Luke 8:26-39
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Luke’s story is full of pictures, imagery and emotion, a storm is raging and into that storm walks Jesus who brings calm and the storm is stilled.  It is, in many ways, the same story that precedes this in Luke’s Gospel, the story of their short journey across Lake Galilee.  Short it may have been, terrifying it undoubtedly was for those travelling with Jesus for a violent storm arose.  But as with the story this morning, Jesus speaks, the storm is stilled and peace is restored.
As I was reflecting on this story from Luke, people across the world were shocked and devastated by the merciless killing of so many people by one man in a nightclub in Florida.  And then during the early afternoon of Thursday we heard the shocking news of the brutal murder of Jo Cox, a remarkable young woman,  a dedicated wife and mother,  committed to serving the community into which she was born, as their MP and utterly committed to giving a voice to the voiceless and to making our world a better place.
It would appear that Jo, and all those who died in Orlando lost their lives as a result of the hatred and intolerance of others.  Tragically, that same storm rages in varying degrees of intensity across our world devastating the lives of countless families and communities – in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; to a much lesser extent in Israel, America and yes, within our own borders.
And so in a very real sense, this morning’s gospel reading speaks powerfully to us for it feels as though a storm is raging around God’s children – a storm of hatred and intolerance that binds and dehumanises wreaking havoc and pain.  In the midst of this storm, we desperately need to listen, and to catch those words of Jesus, words that bring calm, healing and peace, restoring dignity to broken humanity; catch them, hold them in our hearts and our minds, allowing them to shape us and mould us as God would have us be.
We don’t know why Jesus decided to go across to the eastern side of Lake Galilee, but cross it he does, to an area that was largely Gentile territory.  Perhaps he had chosen to cross to foreign soil to escape the immediate pressure of travelling around under the nose of Herod Antipas.  There was, however, to be no peace there either.  Before he had hardly stepped on to dry land, Jesus is confronted by man in deep distress, whose screams and yells fill the air, and whose appearance is shocking in its chained and shackled nakedness, filthy, torn and bruised by the chains and shackles and all that binds him; a man driven in his torment to make his home among the tombs.  Luke paints for us a picture of deep anguish, despair and desperation.  Why was it, I wonder, that he was living among the tombs – had the people driven him away from their homes, afraid of his difference; or had he taken himself there, feeling utterly outcast because he couldn’t be as other people were?  We simply don’t know.  But we do know that in the time and culture in which Luke was writing, disturbing behaviour, whatever medical cause we understand today, was attributed to demons and thus opposed to God.  His behaviour would give rise to fears amongst the people of his community, fears that would ultimately see him driven away – to the places where others dare not go.
But there is an irony in this story:  so often, the people who saw themselves as God-fearing and faithful were the same people who were incapable of recognising the presence of God in their midst; but this man, literally stripped of everything, is left with no illusions, and knows immediately what and who he is seeing and shouts: ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God.’
Into this clamour of noise, there is the voice of calm as Jesus asks ‘What is your name?’ That simple questions says ‘I want to know you, I want to know about you, I want to know who you really are’ and it gives to the man a sense of his worth as a human being, a sense of dignity, a sense of ‘someone cares’ – something that perhaps he hasn’t felt or heard for a very long time!  Did he once have a name – were there once people who loved him enough to give him a name?
‘Legion’ is the man’s reply – perhaps reflecting the enormous burden that he was carrying; for a legion was a vast unit in the Roman army of around 6,000 men.  Of course, it may also have been that his condition arose out of a traumatic experience associated with the Roman occupation. But the quiet, calm  authority of Jesus speaks to this human storm just as he did with the storm on the Lake.  Peace is restored, and the man, no longer tormented, is found sitting at the feet of Jesus.  God in Christ has return to this man his true humanity just as he will restore it to the whole of humankind.
This story begs the question: What is it we fear?  How do those fears impact on the lives of others?  Do those fears force others to live where we would not dare to go?  What are the fears that bind us, and prevent us from bidding others welcome into our communities?

It is deeply worrying that in the current climate storms of bigotry and intolerance rage that risk demonising people simply because their sexuality, lifestyle or beliefs, their national identity or cultural heritage, their political ideology or social understanding is different  from ones’ own.  It is a storm that is polarizing communities with devastating consequences.

St. Luke tells us that Jesus encourages the man, now restored to health, to return to his home and community, and speak out of his own experience of what God has done – be a living sign of the healing and glory that will transform the world.

Jo Cox believed in a better world and fought for it every day of her life.  She wanted us to shout from the rooftops, as she did in her maiden speech to the House of Commons, that there is much more that brings us together than drives us apart.   Her husband Brendan has encouraged all of us to continue that work, to unite and counter the hatred that killed her and polarizes peoples and communities.
That better world, a world where all are called by their name, a world where all live with dignity and in peace is the world our Lord came to proclaim – the Kingdom of God!
Across the length and breadth of our country, the storm, it seems, as abated, at least for a while and in the quiet we need to hear the voice of God speaking to us in the voices of all who call us to live together in unity and love, rejoicing in the richness of diversity, remembering those words of St. Paul:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

 

God has looked favourably on his people

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 5th June 2016

1 Kings 17:17-24
Luke 7:11-17

It is often said that out of the three Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – known as the Synoptic Gospels, Luke’s Gospel was written with the outsider particularly in mind. Luke was himself almost certainly a Gentile and most probably one of that group of Gentiles – the God-fearers – who, though greatly honouring the Jewish faith, shrank from circumcision, and therefore remained excluded, an outsider. Continue reading “God has looked favourably on his people”

The Centurion and his Slave

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 29th May 2016

Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

Today marks the beginning of a quieter time in the Church’s year – a year that so far seems to have moved at an astonishing pace.  Christmas and Epiphany seemed to come and go in a flash; early February saw the beginning of Lent and once again we were preparing for the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Continue reading “The Centurion and his Slave”

Feast of the Holy Trinity 2016

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 22nd May 2016

“Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Yourself. Amen.”

Today, the Feast of the Holy Trinity focuses our minds on the deep mystery that is at the heart of our Christian faith – God is three and God is one. We endeavour to explore, to talk about that mystery at the heart of God, but it is as difficult for us today as it has always been. The people who wrote the different books that make up the Bible reveal their attempts, their struggle to describe God, and familiar though these stories might be, they still have the power to catch us by surprise because they are not what we might imagine.
In Genesis (Ch 18) there is the story of Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. Significantly for us on Trinity Sunday, it tells of Abraham meeting three angels, but the angels are not described. Read on, and it becomes clear that Abraham thought he was dealing with men, only gradually realising his mistake. Then there is the experience of Moses – the story appointed for this evening. Moses could only liken his experience of encountering the Divine to a blazing bush on fire, yet not burned away by the fire. Ezekiel (Ch 1) has an extraordinary vision which he describes in great detail over 28 verses. Towards the end he sees the ‘likeness of a throne’ with what appears to be ‘something that seemed like human form’. The form shines as if with fire and even a rainbow and upon seeing it, Ezekiel falls prostrate, recognising ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’.

Turn to the New Testament, and the book of Revelation says (4:2-4) ‘At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.’ Wonderfully colourful all of these images, yet we are led to understand that they are attempts to describe that which remains essentially indescribable.
Yet in every generation, the struggle to explore the mystery that is God continues and like the people who have gone before us, we draw on picture language – the simple pictures of children, the philosophical language of philosophers and theologians, and everything in between. But at the end of the day, the philosopher or theologian may have come no closer to the heart of the mystery of who God is than the child or indeed adult who looks at a clover leaf and finds it both strange and beautiful. Language limits us, and our limited human perceptions struggle to comprehend the sheer wonder and glory of the One who created all that is. We struggle to convey with our words the sheer vastness of God’s love, infinite and yet utterly intimate at the same time.
And yet – a Trinitarian understanding of God is central to our Christian faith rooted in those words of Jesus spoken to his disciples: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

God is the Divine Father, the Creator of all that was, and is and is to come. Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets knew from their own experience of life that God was the holy One – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory – so wrote Isaiah, and so we say or sing week by week in the words of the Sanctus. He was the one at whose voice the world was called into being, at whose voice the foundations of the world would shake; at times apparently stern and demanding, but known with equal certainty to be faithful, compassionate and just; He was the one whose very essence is self-giving love, available not least to those who are weary and exhausted, a source of comfort, strength and hope for he does not grow faint or weary.

And yet he was also distant, remote, for no one could look on the face of God and live – until that is He chose to reveal himself in the vulnerability of our humanity Emmanuel, which means God is with us. In the life of Jesus, in his very being, the people of God were and are enabled to see something of the self-giving nature of God, His vulnerability, his concern for all mankind and His supreme love, in a manner never before experienced. Through our Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection, we are given the hope and the assurance that no matter what happens, nothing can separate us from the love of God. In Jesus, God made known to us His will for all people.

And then, following the Ascension, the followers of the risen Christ became conscious of a new influence upon them, a new power. They found themselves filled with boldness, courage and enthusiasm, a power which united them as never before. That gift of the Holy Spirit is the power by which they and we are made aware of God’s presence within us and around us, transforming our lives, and leading us into all truth; the Spirit unites us, inspires us, and energises us.
To concentrate purely on the divine nature of God is to lose sight of his humanity, vulnerability and the power which is at work among us now. To gaze permanently on the humanity of Christ is to lose much of the mystery and magnificence of the divinity of God. In praising too strongly the gifts of the Spirit, to the exclusion of all else we neglect the perfect example of humanity and the glory and mystery of the divinity.

So how then are we comprehend and explain the reality of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The disciples hesitated – they struggled to make sense of the reality of the mystery they were living alongside. Nicodemus, learned scholar ‘though he was, struggled to understand. True, he recognised in Jesus a teacher come from God, wanted to know more, but was also anxious to avoid giving the impression that he intended to become a committed disciple, so he came to Jesus by night. Jesus answers Nicodemus, taking him step by step deeper into the mystery of God. But for all his theological learning, Nicodemus lacks spiritual insight and has yet to learn that God’s creative power is not limited to the material and the physical. There also exists a realm of spirit in which God is at work. Jesus acknowledges in his conversation with Nicodemus that there is much that is mysterious, but there is also much that is mysterious about the natural world but that doesn’t mean it’s not discernible – the wind may be invisible but its effects are nevertheless undeniable. Nicodemus, the distinguished scholar, ought not to be ignorant of the power of God to change lives. Read on in John’s gospel and we discover that the search for understanding in Nicodemus continues leading him to become a follower of Jesus for it is him who, with Joseph of Arimathea, takes the body of the crucified Jesus, wraps it with spices in linen cloths in preparation for burial.

Like Nicodemus, in the face of the mystery that is God, perhaps we can’t understand…..yet. But that shouldn’t stop us searching for understanding, praying for discernment, while remaining content to live with the mystery. Our lives and the lives of all baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, are lives of faith and hope and love and in a very profound way become part of the divine life itself. We who have been made in the image and likeness of God live mystically in God in our relationships of love for each other and our neighbours – however imperfect that love may be. God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.

As we endeavour to live a life of faith rooted in God, who is revealed in the Son and made known through the Holy Spirit, we do so like the disciples before us. In the face of mystery we may hesitate, we may be uncertain, we may doubt, but ultimately we fall to our knees in worship. Amen

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on Ascension Day, 5th of May 2016.

Albert Woodfox was freed from prison in February of this year on his 69th birthday having spent the past 43 years in prison.  Save for the last few months during his preparation for release, all of those 43 years have been spent n an isolation cell.

As Albert walked out a free man, a highly questionable record had been set.  He became the longest standing solitary confinement prisoner in America.  For 43 years he had lived in a concrete box measuring 6 ft x 9 ft.  He had no view of the sky, there was no human contact and taking a walk meant pacing from one end of the cell to the other and back again.

Ed Pilkington, a journalist with the Guardian who interviewed Albert recently records:

‘Of all the terrifying details of Woodfox’s four decades of solitary incarceration – the absence of human touch, the panic attacks and bouts of claustrophobia, the way they chained him even during the one hour a day he was allowed outside the cell – perhaps the most chilling of all is what he says now.  tow months after the state of Louisana set him free, he says he sometimes wishes he was back in that cell.’

Albert adds:

“You know, human beings are territorial, they feel more comfortable in areas they are secure.  In a cell, you have a routine,  you pretty much know what is going to happen, when it’s going to happen, but in society, it’s difficult, it’s looser. So there are moments when, yeah, I wish I was back in the security of the cell.  I mean, it does that to you.”

Albert has survived 15,000 days of isolation, a form of captivity that the United Nations has denounced as torture.

With his conviction twice overturned, he walked out of prison an innocent man.  For 43 years, he experienced among other things, the powerlessness of having no voice and so is now dedicating his life to being a voice for those still in the hell of solitary confinement, feeling such a great responsibility for them.

But he has also said that the most disturbing part of freedom has been the dawning realisation of the change within society – he feels little sense of struggle for the wellbeing of all that he experienced before his imprisonment; rather “It’s all about me, what I need and how I’m going to get it”. That indifference, he believes, has in turn allowed the iniquity of solitary confinement to flourish.  “People don’t seem to be socially aware, nobody cares.”

And to some extent, that same indifference, indifference to the suffering of others whether as individuals or as a community, and the desire to cover one’s own back at the expense of the truth, enabled the iniquity of the injustice experienced by the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster to continue for 27 long years.

By contrast a judge in Italy’s highest court has ruled that the theft of a sausage and a piece of cheese by a homeless refugee did not constitute a crime because he was in desperate need of nourishment – the need to feed and the right to survive superseded property rights.

And it was a year ago today that we opened the doors of our Soup Kitchen for the first time!    It has been a  joy to witness the way in which our parish community has responded to this initiative and embraced the people whom many would prefer to ignore.  What was experienced by a man in Italy, and what we experience through the work of our Soup Kitchen week by week is a glimpse of what God calls us to  be, a glimpse of how He calls us all to live in community.

Every day, and in so many different ways, we experience personally or through the stories of others, something of the astounding wonder, beauty and goodness of humanity; but also humanity’s capacity for ugliness, brutality, and cruelty; deeply flawed and broken.

So what has all of this got to do with what we celebrate tonight – The Feast of the Ascension??

The amazing truth that the Ascension affirms is that humanity and divinity are not like oil and water – remaining completely separate – but inseparably bound together.  The story of the Ascension makes absolutely clear that the humanity which God assumed at the incarnation is not something temporary – God became fully and completely human in Christ; and that humanity, with its astounding beauty and capacity for goodness and gentleness, and in all its ugliness and brutality, that humanity, flawed though it is, is now taken into the very heart of God.  The ascended Christ remains both fully human and fully divine, and where Christ is, there we may be also.

Year by year, as we reach this particular Feast Day, we are reminded that God in Christ is no longer restricted by time or place, but  is with us always, no matter what, no matter where, no matter when.  And He will take our flawed lives, our stumbling and imperfect efforts and transform them in the building of his kingdom.  How?  Through the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  He just asks that we open our hearts to that gift, widen our imaginations and dream.  Then the impossible will become possible.

The giving of that gift, celebrated by the Church in nine days time at Pentecost, strengthened, encouraged and emboldened that group of fearful, flawed and hesitant disciples to become the effective dynamic witnesses to Christ ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’.  It is the beginning of that work, with its joys, their dreams, its challenges and its hardships that Luke recounts in the Acts of the Apostles.  The fruits of that work we experience here today, and see in the life of Christian communities across the world!

It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that today’s disciples – you and me and all who are baptized,  are strengthened to continue that work of discernment; and having discerned, encouraged to dream and imagine extraordinary possibilities and then to act, discovering deep within the courage and capacity to respond to the pain and suffering in our world with something of Christ’s love and mercy, justice and compassion, actively at work to make a difference in the world, the kind of difference love makes, the kind of difference that really builds the kingdom for which we long for, hope for and pray for, day by day, week by week.

Re-imagine what God can and will do; lets widen our vision to re-imagine the world through God’s eyes, to see those around us through God’s eyes; to see God in the people you and I meet, day by day.  And lets dream and re-imagine what we can do to ease the pain and suffering of His broken yet glorious world!  For we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed. Alleluia

“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come, and stay at my home”

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack at St Michael and All Angels on 1st of May 2016. 

I wonder; I wonder what it must have been like, sitting by the poolside in Beth-zatha, with all those people, each living with their own problems and struggles, longing to be healed, longing to be made whole.  Over the years, he had seen so many broken people come.  He would talk to them, and some he would get to know, listening to their stories.  Then after a while, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, occasionally much longer, they would go – rejoicing in the possibility of new life.  But still he remained.

What was wrong with him, I wonder – and how old was he when he first arrived.  But so long he had been here – years and years had passed, it seems!  And nothing, for him, had changed.  Just the same routine, the same struggle, day after day – begging for whatever charity he could get from anyone who happened to pass by; and never, never succeeding in getting into the pool first.  It just became normal – oh, long ago, it became normal – a sad, hopeless, way of life!

The pool was a well known place of healing, and what is believed to have been the original site has been excavated by archaeologists and I visited when I went to the Holy Land seven years ago.  I remember trying to imagine the people who, over the years, had sat there, waiting for their moment, struggling to get into the waters for healing.  Evidence suggests it wasn’t just a Jewish place of healing, but was regarded by others also as a sacred site and at one time was dedicated to the healing god Asclepius.  Today the site is watched over by the Crusader Church of St. Anne.

At the time of Jesus, the waters in the pool would bubble up periodically; it was believed that when the waters bubbled up, the first person in would be healed.

Into this scene comes Jesus who seemed to know that the man had been there a long time (rather as he seemed to know the life story of the woman at the well in Samaria).  And he asks the man, somewhat disconcertingly out of the blue:  “Do you want to be made well?”  But perhaps the question was not just about being made well, but about being ready to begin a new life, in place of resignation to sad hopelessness.

But our man did what I know I can sometimes do when I am challenged, and perhaps many of us do the same:  make excuses! Albeit very practical reasons for not expecting to be made well.

Jesus, the life-giver, cuts through it all with those words ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’  These echo the words spoken by Jesus to the man lowered down through the roof by his four friends.  On both occasions, and at once we are told, the men are made well, pick up their mats and begin to walk into new life.

And all of this takes place on the Sabbath.  In a profoundly symbolic sense, the man is brought into the Sabbath rest of God, and glimpses the ‘Joy of heaven to earth come down’.  Jesus chose to face the consequences of the ensuing controversy rather than waste time waiting another day; kowtow to his critics was never an option!

Like the man who had lived with disappointment for 38 years, Luke tells us in Acts that Paul also has had to live with disappointment.  Clearly, Paul had a very particular idea of where he would go and what he would do, but this was not to be – but something prevented him, disrupted his plans.  So we read in Acts that having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach in Asia, he diverted to Phrigia and Galatia, was stopped from going to Bithynia and so went to Troas via Mysia.  If you look at this on a map, it is clear that Paul had planned to go North and East, but this was thwarted and instead he goes North West ideally placing him so that he could respond to his dream, his vision – the nudging of God urging him to travel to Macedonia across the Ageaen Sea.

Having crossed the sea, Paul goes to Philippi and it is here that he meets Lydia, who was possibly Greek, but certainly according to Acts a dealer in purple cloth.  Purple dye was expensive, very expensive!  In the 4th Century, the historian Theopompus reported that ‘purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver’.  Consequently, purple dyed textiles became status symbols.  We might therefore assume that Lydia was a wealthy woman, otherwise she would never have afforded to buy the cloth in which she dealt.  She was a woman of means, a woman the world.

So here we are, at this place of prayer by a river and a conversation opens between her, Paul and his companions.  She listens eagerly, intently, with heart and mind opened by God.  What she hears has an immediate impact and her response is equally immediate; she and her household are baptised.  Lydia hears the invitation, grasps it and quite literally walking into the waterfor baptism, walks into the promise of new life.

But there is a second response to this extraordinary gift of God, and she offers hospitality reflecting if you like God’s invitation to all of us to ‘Come and eat’.

And who know, that gift of hospitality, making people feel welcome may have been instrumental in the foundation of the Philippian Church.  Hospitality is fundamental to the Gospel, to mission, to living out the love and welcome we are called to proclaim. This love is the kind of love that is willing to take a risk, commits itself in trust, long before it has full knowledge of where it might lead!

And so it was with enormous sadness and regret that I learned of the shocking news that on Monday night, MPs voted to block a new law that would have fast-tracked 3,000 refugee children reuniting them with their families here in the UK.  I simply cannot comprehend how our government can think it is acceptable on any level to turn our backs on the needs of vulnerable, frightened, traumatized children who desperately need to know once more what it is to feel safe, warm, loved and protected.  ‘Let the children come to me’ said Jesus to his disciples as they tried to stop them approaching.

Living the life of the gospel, demands our willingness to take risks.

The man at the pool of Beth-zatha was faced with a choice.  Stay with the life he had with its grim familiarity which lent its own sense of safety – or risk accepting the invitation to take a step into the unknown with its life-enhancing possibilities!  ‘Come and stay at my home’ says Lydia to the strangers she has only just met at the water’s edge, reflecting the open welcoming love of God revealed in Christ

The life of open, welcoming, sacrificial, self-giving love is the life we are all called to live as people who dare to call ourselves followers of Christ.  It may be risky, it will be costly.

But such a life always brings with it life-enhancing joys and possibilities that will turn the world upside down, turn night into day,  and enable us to glimpse God’s new creation of healing, wholeness and peace.

Amen

 

Have you believed because you have seen me? Blesssed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Preached by Lesley McCormack on Sunday 3rd April 2016 at St Peter & St Paul and St Michael and All Angels.

(holding up Bible) This is God’s story, the story of God’s interaction with his beloved creation.  But this is also our story, this is our song and now in the Easter season, we revel in the most astonishing and glorious part of the story of God’s dealings with his children, with the song of Miriam and Moses still ringing in our ears – “I will sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph, glorious his triumph! I will sing to the Lord”.

But not all are singing, it appears.  Some are in hiding, behind locked doors.  Hiding, we are told from fear of the Jews.  Yet they themselves are Jews, the one who led them was himself a Jew.  Perhaps it was the Jewish religious authorities that gave them cause to fear for Jesus had threatened the structures, purpose and the very meaning of the Jerusalem Temple at a fundamental level.  Or perhaps it was fear of the Romans, for accounts in Josephus indicate that the Romans would kill the followers as well as the leader of any Messianic group to ensure that the sedition did not spread, for holding on to power at all costs – that is what mattered to the Romans.

But mention of a locked door might also have been the means by which John was communicating something about Jesus resurrection body – a body that could still eat bread and fish and yet profoundly different, no longer constrained by the limits of time and space.

But I also wonder if they were, in a way, hiding from God – like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?  For what was the last thing they did before the arrest of Jesus?  They fled, they denied knowing him, they turned their backs even though so shortly before they had said they would die for him!  But now their friend and leader, the one who had so inspired and encouraged them – he is dead, the body gone from the tomb.  And if that wasn’t enough,  Mary Magdalene has told them  that she has seen Him!    None of it makes any sense – utterly incomprehensible.

Then suddenly, into this room where fear-filled men had gathered (but also it must be remembered the fearless Mary of Magdala who had come to them with extraordinary news) into this room, even though the door is locked, Jesus is there in the middle of them.  He doesn’t say what might have been expected – it doesn’t say ‘Well, where did you all go’ or ‘Why did you abandon me when you professed such loyalty!’.  No, nothing like that – rather, he looks at them and says ‘Peace be with you’. He shows them his hands and his side, presumably with the mark of the nails and the cut of the spear and again he speaks – ‘Peace be with you’.  They are words that remind us of the words so often used by God when he introduces himself or his messengers – ‘ Do not be afraid’.

These are words that are so much more than a greeting or words of reassurance; they are words that offer release from that which binds – be it fear, or doubt; guilt or shame; or any of the many things that serve at different times to bind and paralyse. These  are words that give courage and energy; words that unlock doors.  ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ says Jesus.  The disciples are to continue the work begun in Jesus.  They cannot, must not remain behind closed doors or the resurrection will mean absolutely nothing.  John Dominic Crossan in his book The Resurrection of Jesus, says that the Resurrection is less about the exultation of Christ, and more about the transformation of the world, about collaborating with the ‘non-violent God of justice and peace’.  These people who are confused, unsure, doubting and struggling to understand are the same people that Jesus sends out to continue his work.  And he empowers them for this work he calls them to do.

There is a wonderfully intimate moment  which again resonates with Genesis, for here in Johns Gospel there is no roaring wind or tongues of fire; rather the gift of the Holy Spirit is given quietly – He breathes on them and in that moment I imagine an experience of such closeness.  The breath of the Divine inspiring, empowering, energising these disciples.  We are drawn back to that image of God in the Garden of Eden breathing life into the first human being.  Here we witness the new creation.

Meanwhile, Thomas has been conspicuous by his absence, and is, it seems, not unlike many of us at times, struggling with his own doubts.  The other disciples share their experience with him, but he remains unconvinced by either their stories or their transformation from defeat to joy.  ‘No!  Unless I can see the marks of the nails and see the hole in His side made by the spear, I will not believe!’

A week passes, and then, through closed doors, ‘though no longer locked, Jesus is among them once more with those same words ‘peace be with you’ and immediately offers Thomas the opportunity to do what he said he needed to do.  But that offer was enough for Thomas; he is able to make what is the first full profession of faith in the divinity of Christ in the Gospel and proclaims ‘My Lord and my God!’  Jesus turns to Thomas and says ‘have you believed because you have seen me?’  Then it is as if he turns to me, to you to all of us …….’Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.’

In that moment, Jesus steps out of this story we are reading directly into our lives.  This is our story, this is our song, a song sung in the continuing hope and power of the resurrection.

The reality of the resurrection is lived out and sung in every small step that is taken to push back the darkness of violence and injustice in our world; it is lived out and sung in every small action that shines like a light in the dark places of peoples lives and the lives of communities.  The reality of the resurrection is made visible in efforts of young people like Katy Campbell who threw us a challenge to help her support Care4Calais and put together boxes of food and provisions for refugees living in camps in Calais.  It is made visible in the commitment of our volunteers who, week by week push back the darkness of injustice by making soup and providing nourishment, friendship and companionship to people who have little or nothing.  It is made visible through the love of friends, and neighbours; through the forgiveness of those we have hurt or wronged; through the constant love and support of those nearest and dearest to us; through the countless acts of generosity, kindness and compassion expressed in so many different ways in the ongoing worship, mission and ministry of this community.

Belief in the Resurrection is what drove Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter in Lampedusa to go down to the shoreline and gather wood – the broken fragments of a boat carrying Eritrean refugees wrecked at sea off the islands coast in 2011.  He went in search of the debris after meeting some of the survivors in his parish church; people grieving for their drowned relatives and friends.  At his carpenters bench he made small crosses from the salvaged wood to give to these people who had lost everything; crosses of wood that smelt of the sea and in which he recognised something of the holy.  He then made a large cross to hang in the church as a constant reminder of the suffering of refugees, but also a reminder to them, and to all who looked upon it, of their rescue.

A member of the British Museum heard Signor Tuccio describing his work; deeply moved she made contact with him and, unbeknown to the museums director Neil MacGregor, asked if he would make a cross for their collection.  Some while later, a parcel arrived.  What she unwrapped was a rough cross, bearing flakes of the blue and yellow paint that had once adorned another boat, one wrecked in October 2013 with the loss of 366 lives.

Two things happened as a direct result:  Mr. MacGregor accepted the cross as the last item to enter the collection under his supervision; and the Italian Navy initiated its Mare Nostrum sea-rescue mission.  That simple blue and yellow cross serves as a sign of the solidarity of those who, having little themselves, cannot turn away from the plight of those washed up on their shores.  That is the power of the resurrection.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

Preached by Lesley McCormack on Sunday 7th February 2016 at St Peter & St Paul.

“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Rawand Aziz and Saman Sharif are Iraqi Kurds, who fled persecution and oppression – both were granted asylum and later British citizenship.  But they are living in a tent in the cold and the mud in the Grande-Synthe camp near Dunkirk so that they can care for and support their wives and children in whatever way that they can – for their families have been denied British passports.

Every 90 seconds last year, a person or family in rented accommodation faced legal proceedings and 99,000 people ended up evicted, mainly due to rising rents and housing benefit cuts and Peterborough is among the worst in the country.

But…“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart”

Shortly before he died, Rohith Vemula wrote in his suicide note:   “Never was a man treated as a mind, a glorious thing made up of stardust,” Rohith had been a PhD student, at Hyderabad University, but he was also a Dalit, or untouchable.  He, with four other ‘Dalit’ students,  had been suspended from classes for three months, expelled from their university residence and told they were not allowed to enter any campus buildings, eat at the mess or vote in student elections.

But ……….“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart”

The World Health organisation has declared a global emergency as doctors and scientists endeavour to understand the relationship between the Zika virus and the thousands of babies born with brain damage in Brazil while on Tuesday the Israeli military demolished 23 houses in two impoverished West Bank villages, including structures that were home to more than 100 people

But…..“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart”

And we do not lose heart because God in Christ shines in our world as a beacon of light and hope, holding before us always the possibility of transformation.  And that is precisely what our readings this morning point us towards.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus takes with him Peter, James and John to the mountain top and there they experience an extraordinary moment, something almost otherworldly.  You might say that the story is in all four gospels, although John does not tell it in the same way as Matthew, Mark and Luke.  For John, as the theologian John Pridmore points out, ‘The whole story of Jesus is one of humanity transfigured, of incarnate light.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth”’

According to Luke, while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face  changed, and his clothes became dazzling white!  We are also reminded just how tired Peter, James and John were after their hike up to the mountain top and one can almost imagine them, heavy with sleep,  rubbing their eyes in the face of what they are witnessing!

Clearly Peter, James and John do not grasp the full implication of what they are seeing and hearing.  But I find myself wondering whether I or indeed any one of us here this morning would have done any better are comprehending what was going on had it been us on the mountain top with Jesus.  I suspect that I would have been with Peter as he suggests building shelters, perhaps so they could stay on the mountain top, safe from possible harm – for themselves and their beloved friend and teacher.  He has missed the point entirely.

Notice, though that Luke slips in six words that we need to hear and to remember:
But since they had stayed awake……
But since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory………

We may struggle to understand and make sense of all that is happening in our world; we may even at times long to hide and protect our eyes from the pain and suffering of others; but this story reminds us of the need to stay awake, ready to see those fleeting moments of God’s glory; not moments to be held on to and bottled but moments that fill us with joy and hope; moments that remind us …..

“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart”. 

Such moments serve to strengthen and encourage us in the work we are called to do.

Michael Ramsey, reflecting on the Transfiguration, said ‘Here the Lord, as Son of Man, gives the measure of the capacity of humanity, and shows that to which he leads those who are united with him’ (The Glory of the Transfiguration of Christ).  In the transfigured Christ, we see the full glorious potential of humanity.

Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth is, in some ways, an anguished letter reflecting pain and deep sorrow.

The events precipitating this second letter to the Corinthians is the subject of great debate among scholars.  There is, however, a suggestion that between the time of his first letter to them (when he endeavoured to address problems involving community division and behaviour), and the second, Paul made an ‘emergency’ and sorrowful visit to Corinth, possibly the second occasion on which he visited them.  This visit did not go well and it would appear from implications in 2 Corinthians that he followed it up with another letter, a letter probably now lost, which seems only to have made the situation worse.  There is hurt, anger and pain all around as the young Corinthian church community continues to struggle with the tension between the values and power of  God’s kingdom and the transient power of what their culture can give them!

‘Remember’, Paul says to his struggling community:

All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit Therefore, Since it is by God’s mercy

that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

Even when we think things can’t get any worse, we do not lose heart!

Christ calls us all, by virtue of our baptism, to be stewards of creation, to serve others, especially the poor, the marginalised, the outcast; we are called to seek right relationships with God and with each other; to be agents of God’s transfiguring, transforming love in the mess and the dirt of our wonderful yet broken world.  We only have to look at the experience of Jesus, to listen to the anguish of Paul to know that this work is not necessarily easy or pain free.  With Lent beginning on Wednesday, we are challenged afresh to reflect on how we live out God’s costly call to each one of us to be agents of His transforming Love.

BUT  since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart  – for if we look, we may glimpse God’s glory in the faith communities, individuals and organisations, teachers and healthcare workers  going to places like Grand-Synthe, offering their time and their skills to do what they can, supporting practically and emotionally, enabling people to know they are not forgotten; and to speak of the injustice and lack of humanity to the wider world.

We do not lose heart – for we look and glimpse God’s glory in voices of  scholars and students worldwide who challenge the injustice and discrimination that drove a brilliant young man to take his life.

We do not lose heart – for  we look and glimpse God’s glory in a theatre company performing Hamlet  outdoors in freezing temperatures amidst the mud and squalor of the Jungle – an act of loving solidarity that lends dignity, strength and hope to people driven from their homelands.

We do not lose heart – for we glimpse God’s glory  in our worship and in the many acts of kindness shown and expressed among us here in this place; among our neighbours and the wider community; so often quietly, unseen and unsung; we glimpse God’s glory through the continuing work of our soup kitchen.

We do not lose heart   even though the path ahead seems messy, tangled and unclear

We do not lose heart because in the cross we have seen that the glory of God cannot be extinguished by indifference and fear, injustice or cruelty and so are confident that Christ in whom we glimpse the fullness of glory, will strengthen and encourage each one of us in our continuing efforts – however great or small – to be agents of transformation who shine with the light of Christ.

Amen

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things

 Preached by Lesley McCormack on 31st January 2016 at St Michael & All Angels.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 2:22-40
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things

This morning Luke is moving us on from stories of Jesus birth to his arrival at the temple for the first time.  The angels we met just a few weeks ago with their song of joy and words of encouragement have departed, and other characters come to fill their place – Simeon and Anna – two human messengers declaring  God’s love in a world yearning for consolation.

Who are Simeon and Anna.  Well, we know very little about Simeon.  All that Luke tells us, apart from his godliness, is that he lived in Jerusalem, that the Holy Spirit rested on him, and drove him in to the temple at the right time to meet Jesus. We have assumed that he is old and in most works of art he is depicted as very old indeed.  The reality is that Luke makes no mention of his age at all. We know too, that Simeon had been ‘looking forward to the consolation of  Israel’

Anna, on the other hand, we know to be old, because Luke tells us so.  She had been married, but after seven years, her husband died and for 84 years she has lived as a widow.  Anna lived in the temple  – this was her vocation as a prophet,  living a life dedicated to God through worship, prayer and fasting.

So here we have two people, living  lives of faithful,  loyal obedience in accordance with the Law, rituals and codes of Judaism.  But far from making them satisfied with its provisions, their faith, their understanding has kindled within them a flame of expectancy.  Simeon is looking for the consolation of Israel while Anna was looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.  Faithful, prayerful study of the scriptures, properly understood produced men and women champing at the bit for the coming of God to his people.

Simeon is waiting in patient hope, as generations of Jewish men and women had been waiting for the last 500 years,  for ‘the consolation of Israel’; a hope rooted in the words of the prophecies of  Isaiah spoken to a community in exile – ‘Comfort, O comfort my people says God’.  Simeon longed for that promised consolation.  With all faithful Jews, he  may well have imagined a future glory of Israel as liberation from her enemies, freedom from Roman occupation, and restoration to the grandeurs of King David’s reign, establishing once more prosperity and peace of God’s people.

But then, on this particular day, something extraordinary happens.  There were people milling around the temple as there were every day, and among them, a young couple with their baby.  Mary and Joseph come to fulfil religious rituals involving the redemption of the firstborn and the purification of the mother after childbirth, marking her re-entry into society.  The purification involved sacrifice, and the gift offered varied according to the means of the family – for the poorest, the minimum was a pair of doves.  Luke tells us this is what Mary and Joseph offered and so makes the point that their baby was born in to poverty and is living in poverty.  Rituals completed, they could simply have quietly disappeared out of the temple and walked the three miles or so back to their home in Nazareth.  BUT

Simeon is a man rooted in God, open to the nudgings of God, open to be surprised by God.  And something moves him to approach this very ordinary, inconspicuous family group. And immediately he knows!  There may be no grandeur here, no power or wealth; no warrior in his midst – just a baby in the arms of his mother supported by Joseph.  But without any doubt THIS IS IT – mysterious and strangely different to what was expected, but this was the long awaited moment!

Simeon gently takes the baby from his mother, and speaks in those remarkable words we know as the Nunc Dimitus, words that have brought comfort and peace to people down the years at the end of each day and at the end of life.  Is it these words, I wonder, that lead us to think of him as an old man?  Perhaps he was but we simply do not know.

Mary and Joseph, were amazed at what was being said – and no wonder;  if the experience of the words of angels months earlier wasn’t disconcerting enough, what on earth did this man mean.  For Simeon’s prophetic words speak of joy and hope, but also the storm of division, controversy and pain.

 We know what Mary and Joseph could not – that those words point us towards Holy Week and the Passion.

Anna, meanwhile, is caught up in this drama.  But while Simeon held the baby, praised God and blessed Mary and Joseph, Anna did something else entirely – she told all who were looking and searching about this child.

For now, Mary stands cradling her child in the safety of her arms, full of joy and hope, wonder and anticipation; but a time would come when she would stand, longing to cradle her son once more and take away his pain, but have instead to experience the unimaginable pain of watching her son suffer so cruelly and die.

……Love bears and endures all things.

This, Luke is saying, is what happens when the kingdom of God confronts the kingdom of the world

Gulwali Passarlay was a torch bearer for the 2012 Olympics.  During a recent interview he said “My name is a mix of three words – Gul, which means flower; wali, which means friend of God and Passarlay which means spring. So I am a mix of three beautiful things!”  Gulwali was born in Afghanistan in 1994. His father was a doctor.  When he was three or four, his parents sent him to live with his grandparents in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. He has many happy memories of that period of his live. But all this would change.  Gulwali was 12 when the war was at its height.  In 2006, after his father and other family members were killed, his mother decided to pay for him to be smuggled out of the country to a place of safety.

Love bears and endures all things.

He recalls “Alone, I moved across eight countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Belgium, Calais in France and the UK. My journey was filled with everything – I endured imprisonment, hunger, cruelty, brutality, loneliness, terror and even nearly drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. I sometimes wonder if it was all worth it because I am so far away from my family. I recently lost my little sister, and my grandmother. I wasn’t there by their side, and I miss them very much.

And a sword will pierce your own heart too.

Now, aged 21, Gulwali is completing his final year at Manchester University where he has been studying Politics and Social Science, and dreams one day of returning to his homeland and entering politics there, longing to make a difference for his people ‘so that children like myself don’t have to leave their homes, and their mothers.’

Simeon and Anna were open to God, willing to be surprised by Him; willing to see the work of God in totally new and unexpected ways; open to have their understanding of the ways of God challenged and changed.  They were driven in their longing to see God glorified.  And God’s glory encountered in the Temple that day, was quite unlike anything they had imagined, a baby cradled in his mother’s arms.

And what of us – all of us here – are we driven with longing to see God’s glory? Are we open to being surprised by God?  To the possibility that His glory may be revealed in totally unexpected ways?  Are we open to the possibility that His glory can be revealed in the dignity, determination, gifts and qualities of people like Gulwali desperately seeking safe haven and new opportunities to grow and flourish.  And are we then ready to respond with the light of love that is of God himself,  a love that dispels the darkness of ignorance and bigotry.  Are we ready to reach out with a love that is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude; the love that does not insist on its own way and is not resentful; the love that bears and endures all things?  Are we ready to confront the kingdoms of this world with the values of God’s kingdom? Because if we are, and if like Anna we proclaim it to all, there may yet be hope for the thousands of children travelling in search of security, love and peace.  Amen

Now you are the body of Christ

Preached by Lesley McCormack on the 24th of January 2016 at St Michael and All Angels

“Now you are the body of Christ”

It was a cosmopolitan city, a lively seaport and trading centre exposed to multiple influences.  People and cultures from east and west jostled together bring their own understandings of the world, bringing their own questions and problems, joys and excitements.  It was a place where people would sit and openly debate issues of importance and concern

The city was Corinth, not far from Athens, and it is believed, Paul spent longer here than anywhere else.    Corinth prided itself on being a Roman colony on Greek soil; it celebrated its Roman style of buildings and culture, and prided itself on its intellectual life heavily influenced by Greek philosophical thought. It was here that Paul established the Christian community, people who were a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, all of whom were baptised in the name of Christ, just as Abigail and William will be in a few moments.  They would meet for meals and worship.  And Paul spent time teaching them about practical matters of living as members of a Christian community, and what faith in Christ means.

But in time Paul leaves Corinth to continue his work elsewhere, and it wasn’t long before problems arose – people of education of high social standing unwilling to integrate with people they felt were beneath them; reluctant to accept Paul’s sectarian social practices and teaching.  And factions arose – people siding with this or that particular teacher.  The upshot of all of this was that the concerns of the people were brought to Pauls attention resulting in this letter that Paul writes to the young church community, but a letter that leaves us with much to ponder in our own lives today.

Paul sets out the vision that he believes enables the people of Corinth – and us –  to fulfil Jesus challenge, and  underpins the common life of the Body of Christ – the community that Christ called into being, the church, the community of the baptised.  And it is into this community that in a few minutes, Abigail and William will be baptised.

From what we can glean from Paul’s letters, the Corinthians are a very attractive lot in many ways – enthusiastic, clever, gifted and determined.  But, they are utterly hopeless in their ability to live together in love.  And so we hear Paul’s impassioned encouragement to think in a completely new way.  Instead of always thinking about themselves and their individual needs and rights, instead of battling to be the most important, gifted person in any gathering, the Corinthians have to learn to think of themselves as one entity, one body – whose health and very life depends upon co-operation and connection.  Oh boy! How we need to hear that message today in a world that is every bit as divided and suspicious of those who are unlike ourselves as it was when Paul was writing.

The inescapable conclusion of Paul’s writing, and indeed it is a central thread through the whole of scripture, is that life in community is basic to any attempt to understanding God, and his love for his people.  It is about how we interact with others, how we understand the needs of others and how we respond to those needs.  For as Jesus makes clear in the Temple with his declaration of intent, it is about working always to bring about God’s justice and creating God’s community.

In other words, the Christian body, then and now, will be recognized by the way it treats others.  As we look around us, as we listen to the stories of people in our own country, to the stories of peoples across the world fleeing war, persecution and deprived of the basics that sustain life and hope, we have so much work to do.

For Abigail and William, revelling in the daily delights of fun and exploration with the occasional squabbles of childhood, the full force of these words and the challenge they present will pass them by.  But I hope that challenge will be only too clear to all of us who have left our childhood years far behind, and must take our part in nurturing these two little children in their journey of faith.

Through Baptism, our lives are bound to the life of Christ and we commit to a way of life that gives life – that shines like a light in the dark corners of our lives, our communities, our nation and our world.

We commit to a life that will be costly for we will find ourselves standing against the tide of popular opinion which all too often seeks to marginalise the poor, is suspicious of the foreigner and prefers to feather the nest of the individual rather than work for the wellbeing of the community.

Throughout life’s journey, Abigail and William  will listen to and be a part of shared stories, stories of the family and community life;  stories of faith and hope, strength, courage and love. They will hear stories about God’s relationship with his children, as they endeavour to make sense of their lives and the circumstances in which they find themselves; a narrative that speaks of God’s constancy and love for all his children; a narrative that speaks of light and hope; a narrative that I hope, with encouragement, Abigail and William will continue to return to throughout their lives.

But we begin with water, the stuff of life itself, without which nothing can survive.  Yet water can also drown and destroy.  Baptism is about both these – symbolising the movement from death to life – from being self-centred  to God-centred.  This morning, the water flowing over the heads of Abigail and William will symbolise that movement to new life; and in that action is brought together all the mixed stuff of life – joy and sadness, life and death, human frailty and God’s transforming love which says to both these little children and to each of us – “You are my child, my beloved,  – Go an build my kingdom of justice, peace and joy.” Amen