An uncomfortable answer

‘”what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ What answer did the man described in the Gospel this morning expect? We sense his enthusiasm to meet Jesus. He runs. He kneels before him and asks ‘”what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’.

Here was a man who lived what looked like a good life. And yet Jesus says he lacks one thing and challenges him to sell what he has ‘and give the money to the poor’ and then to ‘follow’ him.

Perhaps the man hoped the answer would be more positive, keep doing what you are doing but no, he got an uncomfortable answer.

And here we draw together this Gospel and our first reading from the letter to the Hebrews which talks of the word of God as ‘living and active’ as something that is ‘piercing’ that ‘judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’

It’s a strange reading in a way written as if the word of scripture had a single voice. But the scriptures don’t work like that. The written words were inspired over centuries by different people at a different time within a different context and yet there is still truth in these words.

For scripture taken seriously does have this remarkable capacity to both challenge and inspire. Which brings us back to this Gospel and the man who asks what he must do to ‘inherit eternal life.’

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Small changes

The parable of the Snowflake. I promise we will come back to the Mustard Seed but for now, The Snowflake. It goes like this:

‘Please tell me the weight of a snowflake’, the Fieldmouse asked the Dove. ‘Well’, said the Dove, ‘I would guess that it weighs about nothing more than nothing’. ‘Hmm. Then I have seen a miracle’, said the Fieldmouse. ‘I was sitting here yesterday when the snow was falling and I counted the flakes as they landed on the branch of the tree. There were exactly 1,374,921. And then one more snowflake fell – nothing more than nothing, you tell me – and the branch of the tree snapped off and fell to the ground.’

Small things really can make a big difference.

It is a real pleasure to be here with you this morning as you focus your Eucharist on how we might live out our lives as Christians in the midst of both Climate and Biodiversity Emergencies. This is, without doubt, the biggest challenge that humankind has ever faced. I don’t wish to diminish in any way the real difficulties and enormous sadness that Covid has thrown in our direction, BUT unless we collectively get our act together pretty soon Climate change will make Covid seem like a very small problem.

I’m sure you are well aware of the issues. They have, thankfully, been very much in the news recently as COP26 gets closer – that crucial Climate change Summit taking place in Glasgow in November. (By the way, thank you to those of you who provided refreshments for the Young Christian Climate Network walkers as they passed through Whitkirk last week.)

Here is just a quick reminder of some of the issues that COP 26 has to deal with:

  • As we have so far failed to control emission of global warming gases like Co2 and methane, the earth is continuing to heat up at an alarming rate. It is already 1.2 degrees hotter than in pre-industrial times, and present data suggests we are heading for an average rise of 3.5 to 4 degrees. That doesn’t sound too bad, until we remind ourselves that global warming leads to dramatic changes in climate. One climate scientist estimates that unless we act, a third of the world’s population – 3 billion people – could be living in desert by the end of this century.
  • As deserts expand there will be more famine AND as parts of the world become less and less habitable, there will be mass migration of people across the globe, seeking out the ever-shrinking environments that will support life.
  • Global warming means that ice is melting rapidly in polar regions and sea levels are rising. Our most vulnerable sisters and brothers are already suffering, in Bangladesh for example, with increased flooding of coastal areas and river basins. I read recently that one very well respected climate scientist has suggested we may need to relocate our capital city to somewhere other than London as that could disappear if rising sea levels are not  dealt with.
  • And then there are the rainforests – sometimes described as the lungs of planet earth. We continue to chop them down, mostly to graze cattle, or to grow crops to feed to intensively reared animals, or to grow palm oil. And as we chop those precious trees down, we displace indigenous people, we release more global warming gasses into the air, and we destroy the biodiversity on which we depend. WWF research suggests that about 10,000 species a year become extinct, and they are confident that this massive rate is not one of the natural extinctions that have happened from time to time in earth history, but that this is being driven by human activity – by our activity. 

I truly haven’t come here this morning to fill you with gloom and doom. BUT we do need to face the truth of climate change head on. Because only then will we stir ourselves to the action that is needed. And our Christian Faith gives us a million and one reasons to get stuck in to the task of caring for creation. (I won’t mention them all!)

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Voice

Yorkshire has, according to an article I read been ‘crowned as the most trustworthy accent in the country.’
Now I’m not sure which Yorkshire accent those participating in the survey listened too.

The Yorkshire accent in Barnsley is different to that in Sheffield or here in Leeds. But nevertheless the Yorkshire accent won with the poor old Brummies coming last.

And we all know that accents do make a difference. As does the tone in which something is said.

We don’t want someone who is overly jolly giving us bad news like Dr. Hibbert in the Simpson’s cartoon series who always manages to laugh when giving a patient bad news.

Nor do we want a comedian presenting the news. The best newsreaders have a calm authority, think of Trevor Barnes or Huw Edwards or Anna Ford.

And there is something reassuring that can be conveyed through a voice. I think of Mark Carney the former governor of the Bank of England who always seemed to instil confidence, at least in me.

Then there are those actors of stage and screen think of Jean Luc-Picard, the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, also known as the actor Patrick Stewart. You always thought with him in command then things would work out. Of course Star Trek is fiction but you know what I mean. Accents, voices, the way something is said matter.

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Not fitting in and weakness

Not fitting in and weakness – two themes to ponder this morning from the readings, themes that are subtly connected – not fitting in and weakness.

Not fitting in – is something that most of us have some experience of. Whether it is starting a new school or new job or joining a new group, or even coming to church. We know that sense that we don’t fit in. We don’t know anyone. We don’t know the rules.

But eventually we adapt, we form new friendships and we do fit in. And generally in life we like to fit in. And what is true now was true in the time of Jesus. Jesus in the Gospel this morning is back in his hometown. He goes to the synagogue on the sabbath just as he always has.

But this time something changes. His teaching is different. He has an authenticity and wisdom that astounds those present. And from being someone who fitted in ‘they took offence at him.’

It’s interesting that this trip to the synagogue precedes the sending out of the disciples in the second half of our reading this morning. They, you recall have witnessed what happened in the synagogue.

And Jesus sends them out by two and the Gospel makes it clear that they will not fit in everywhere, that some will take offence at them.

As followers of Jesus today this experience of not quite fitting in is around for us sometimes. For though we generally want to fit in there are times when it can come into conflict with what we think Jesus would have us do.

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Giving thanks… whatever

Many of us have had, either one or both doses of a vaccine that we hope and pray will lessen the continued impact of Covid-19 on our lives. Those of you who have not yet – soon will.

And its clear that the vaccine has made all the difference, and though the virus will continue to evolve the vaccine works. Those who developed, manufactured, delivered and administered it deserve our thanks.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that charities like Christian Aid identified this moment in which we want to give thanks and donate money to support those less fortunate then ourselves.

But if we feel the need to give thanks for the vaccine at the moment just imagine the response of the poor woman described in our gospel this morning who has ‘endured much under many physicians’.

Just imagine her desire and need to give thanks for the miracle she received from Jesus just by touching ‘his cloak.’

Then there’s Jairus whose daughter who is at ‘the point of death’. He pleads with Jesus to come and though he arrives too late to everyone’s ‘amazement’…‘she got up.’

What would Jairus have wanted to do in response to Jesus giving him his daughter back? Surely from that moment on he would’ve been for ever thankful and spent his life telling others of the miracle that happened that day.

But Jesus says ‘tell no one’. He does so because he knew that his teaching could so easily be distorted by these acts of love, for faith in him is more than miracles. It was and is about transformation of life, a way of living and loving that changes everything.

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The Kingdom of God is…

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God’ asks Jesus in our Gospel today. To answer his question he uses a parable to help his listeners understand because it’s not a kingdom as we often think of it. Nor is it a place, as we understand place. Nor is it just a fantasy or an idea that makes us feel better.

It is so much for when we pray ‘thy kingdom come’ we are praying that God’s reign over all things will in time be established.

What that looks like is beyond our imagining except every now and then we get little clues. For example, in those random acts of kindness and love from both friend and stranger that surprise us. These help us believe that what we hope and dream of, what we long for might just come true.

They are to use the imagery of our Gospel little mustard seeds of the kingdom, gifts through which we contemplate what is to come. And yet the imagery Jesus plays with in this parable is not just about the future. It’s about what was to happen next for those first followers of Jesus.

For they in a way were tiny seeds, frightened people, fragile and precarious living in a hostile culture. But they became so much more for from tiny seeds came the church that has ‘”put(s) forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”’

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Living the Transfiguration

Train from Leeds to Edinburgh. Edinburgh to Glasgow. Glasgow to Oban. Ferry from Oban to Craignuire. Bus from Craignure to Fionnphort. Ferry from Fionnphort to Iona.

It would have taken less time to get from Leeds to Paris than from Leeds to Iona. But when I boarded the ferry for the short crossing to the island. Tears ran down my face. And I had a strange sense of homecoming.

Whilst I run the risk of being an Iona bore – I know this is not the first time I’ve mentioned my pilgrimage there. It is relevant for today because Iona has become for me a place of transfiguration because I don’t think I really got what it was about until then.

For it seems to me that this moment described in our Gospel this morning in which Jesus is revealed with startling clarity is not just a singular event but part of an ongoing revelation given to invite and encourage us to see things differently as we go about our daily lives.

And that’s why I began with Iona because there I learned about this. For there the normal pace of life is suspended; you stop rushing about and take the time. To truly see the person before you. To savour the bird song. To appreciate the light. To see more deeply. To listen.

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Goodbye and Hello with my Dad as guide

Alleluia Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

It will come as no surprise to you that these words have taken on fresh significance for me this year. Words that proclaim Christ’s victory over death.

Faced as I have been with the death of my Dad I’ve been left asking fresh questions about the resurrection. About what it means for me and what difference it makes as I say goodbye to someone who has helped shape the person I am today.

That saying goodbye has taken place over the last months of his life. Sometimes that goodbye was spoken of and at other times it was observed.

Though he was still Dad bit by bit, day by day we said goodbye; to conversations once had about all sorts of things, to his laughter and smile, to his mobility and appetite for both food and life.

It wasn’t easy journey but it never is, as so many of you know having walked alongside loved ones as they’ve come to their final days.

It is the hardest thing in life to say goodbye to those whom we love most something Mary, Jesus’ mother knew as she stood at the foot of the cross to say goodbye to her son.

We can only imagine her anguish and pain though we know something of it through goodbyes we have had to say.

Yet even if you’ve not said goodbye to a loved one recently, we all know there are times in our life when we say goodbye.

Perhaps to a relationship, to a child leaving home, to a job, to a school, to not being as young as we were, to hair in my case. Goodbye is part of life.

Yet what the story of my life has taught me thus far is that though there are goodbyes, the God in whom I believe in is one who offers us hellos too.
Indeed on this day we celebrate and give thanks for the God who reveals through the resurrection of Jesus Christ that goodbye is not the last word we shall say. For goodbye leads to hello.

And God’s hellos sometimes arrive in surprising ways. Scrapbooks for example, something that my Mum is a great compiler of. Through them I have remembered afresh the story of our life with Dad. They have been a hello amidst the goodbyes. Helping us rediscover the man who led such a rich and full life.

There are hellos amidst goodbyes in the Easter Story too. Mary Magdalene, and Mary head to the tomb of Jesus, it was part of their saying goodbye. Perhaps they chatted on the way, they remembered the good times their tears were tempered by laughter.

They arrive to ‘see the stone rolled back.’ The angel serves as God’s hello ‘He has been raised; he is not here.’ What were they to make of it ‘terror and amazement’ seizes them and they are ‘afraid.’

‘He is not here.’ My Dad has died. His body is still here, yet I believe, I know that ‘he is not here.’

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