A Head Wind and a Rough Sea

‘As soon as they had finished, Jesus made the disciples embark and cross to the other side ahead of him, while he dismissed the crowd; then he went up the hill by himself to pray. It had grown late, and he was there alone. The boat was already some distance from the shore, battling with a head wind and a rough sea. Between three and six in the morning he came towards them, walking across the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake they were so shaken that they cried out in terror: “It is a ghost!” But at once Jesus spoke to them: “Take heart! It is I; do not be afraid.”

‘Peter called to him: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you over the water.” “Come,” said Jesus. Peter got down out of the boat, and walked over the water towards Jesus. But when he saw the strength of the gale he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, “Save me, Lord!” Jesus at once reached out and caught hold of him. “Why did you hesitate?” he said. “How little faith you have!” Then they climbed into the boat; and the wind dropped. And the men in the boat fell at his feet, exclaiming, “You must be the Son of God.”‘ (Luke 14.22-33 REB)

‘The boat was already some distance from the shore, battling with a head wind and a rough sea’ (v.24). Lord, that’s what life so often feels like! We think we’re making progress, and then something unexpected comes at us out of the blue, and suddenly the winds are howling and the waves are tossing us around. It might be a family crisis or a health issue or conflict at work. It might be a crisis of faith prompted by a question we just can’t hold off any longer. In church, it might be the gradually shrinking attendance, or the difficulty fulfilling people’s ever-changing expectations with the limited resources on hand.

Lord, when the winds start to howl and the seas start to toss us around, we get scared. All too often, our faith isn’t up to the task. We’re doing the best we can, Lord, and sometimes we feel you’re being a little unfair to us, rebuking us for our lack of faith! After all, we can’t see you like those first disciples could! And even they had problems trusting you, even when you were standing right in front of them! So please be patient with us, Lord, when those storms toss us around. Give us a sense that you’re in the boat with us, and you will bring us safely through. Help us believe, and when our faith isn’t up to the challenge, please make up what is lacking. We ask this because of your love for us. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 44:1 – 45:28, Matthew 14:13-36, Psalm 18:37-50, and Proverbs 4:11-13)

The Lord’s word has stood the test

‘The way of God is blameless;
the Lord’s word has stood the test;
he is a shield to all who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 18.30 REB)

There are ways of living that have stood the test of time. Generation after generation has practiced them and found them good and fruitful. Over and over again, love and honesty, faithfulness and compassion, integrity and justice, have been tried and found to be effective in producing lasting relationships, strong communities, and a better world. Their opposites have not been so effective. Hatred and lies, unfaithfulness and hard-heartedness, duplicity and injustice  — all of these may have been effective at producing short-term gain for a few, but they have also led to fractured relationships in a world full of violence and fear.

‘The Lord’s word has stood the test’. NRSV has ‘the promise of the Lord proves true’, which is good too, but I appreciate the distinctive wording of the NEB/REB tradition. The way of God is tried and true. But it’s not easy and it’s not always popular. Sometimes those who practice it find themselves targeted by the rich and powerful. I’ve seen this happen. I’ve seen people who advocate for housing for the poor publicly opposed and vilified by those whose only concern is that their own housing values will go down. I’ve seen Christians who try to be faithful to Jesus’ command to love their enemies being angrily shouted down by their fellow Christians who accuse them of being unpatriotic traitors. That’s why the last part of the verse is important too. ‘He is a shield to all who take refuge in him’.

Faithful God, thank you that your way has stood the test. Help us to walk in it today, and if we are opposed for doing so, help us to take refuge in you. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 42:18 – 43:34, Matthew 13:47 – 14:12, Psalm 18:16-36, and Proverbs 4:7-10)

Water into Wine (a sermon on John 2.1-11)

A lot of people in the world around us think Christianity takes things away from your life.  They look at us Christians and they think ‘anti-sex, anti-gay, no parties, no drinking, gloomy thoughts about death and judgement, no leeway for having fun.’ 

Of course Christians haven’t always helped. I can’t say this for sure because I haven’t read it in the writings of St. Augustine myself, but  I’m told he did allow that on certain days of the year — days that weren’t especially holy in the church calendar — it might be okay for a Christian married couple to have sex together, as long as it was strictly for procreation and they didn’t enjoy it. Honestly, with quotes like that, the world doesn’t notice a thing that you say on other subjects!

C.S. Lewis uses a lovely illustration in one of his books. Imagine a colony of shellfish, clinging underwater to the side of a dock, living their lives with no idea of what happens above the surface of the water. Then one day a particularly adventurous shellfish lets go of the dock and drifts up to the surface of the water. He spends a long time floating there, watching all that happens on the dock. Finally he sinks down again and rejoins his fellow-shellfish. They crowd around and ask him what he’s seen and what the people are like up there. He says, “Guys, you’re never going to believe this! I couldn’t believe it myself when I first saw it! Their bodies are unprotected; they don’t have shells!” 

It would never occur to a shellfish that a shell might be a limitation rather than a protection. They wouldn’t understand that we humans are free to do so much more with our bodies because we don’t have shells! The only thing they would see is that something essential to life is missing from us humans, and the thought of living as we live would fill them with fear (if a shellfish can feel fear).

That’s the way it is sometimes when people who aren’t Christians think about the way we Christians live. All they can see is the things they think we have to give up. But what they don’t see is the things we gainfrom our faith in Christ. They don’t see the sense of joy we get from the presence of God, or the sense that we’re discovering the life we were created for in the first place. They don’t see our relief at being able to lay down our guilt and ask for God’s forgiveness, or the comfort of knowing that we’re not alone when times are tough. They don’t see the sense we have of being part of a church family where people love us and support us through the struggles of life. These are just a few of the things Jesus means when he talks in the Gospel of John about giving us ‘abundant life’. 

Jesus uses these words in John 10:10, the passage about the good shepherd. He says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. That’s what we’re discovering in Jesus: not less life, but more life, abundant life. It’s as if someone took the glass of water you were drinking and turned it into the most delicious glass of wine you’d ever tasted. 

Which is what today’s gospel is all about. John’s was the last Gospel to be written, probably about sixty years after the events of Jesus’ life. John had spent many years thinking about the story of Jesus and what it meant. He writes his book on two levels. On one level, it’s a true story about events that really happened. But on a deeper level it’s like a parable, and each story has a deep spiritual meaning.

This is especially true of Jesus’ miracles. John doesn’t actually call them miracles. He calls them ‘signs’, because each one points us to something about Jesus. For instance, after he tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand, he goes on to say that Jesus is the real Bread of Life. If we come to him we’ll never be hungry, and if we believe in him we’ll never be thirsty. Or again, after he tells us how Jesus healed a blind man, he goes on to talk about what it means to be spiritually blind and how Jesus can restore our spiritual sight.

So here we are, right near the beginning of John’s Gospel. He says in verse 11 that turning water into wine was the ‘first’ of Jesus’ signs. He doesn’t only mean ‘first’ in the chronological sense. He also means that this sign is the ‘basic’ sign, the one that controls all the rest or explains all the rest. So what exactly is this sign teaching us about Jesus? 

Let’s look at the basic story first. Jewish weddings in Jesus’ time were different from the ceremonies we know today. A newly married couple didn’t go away for their honeymoon; they stayed at home and kept open house for a week. In a life where there was so much poverty and hard work, this week of festivity and joy would have been a highlight of the year in a small village. It was a week-long feast! 

For a Jewish feast wine was essential. There wasn’t a lot of drunkenness. Drunkenness was actually considered a great disgrace, and they actually drank their wine in a mixture of two parts wine to three parts water. Hospitality was seen as a sacred duty and failure of provisions would have been a problem at any time. But for the provisions to fail at a wedding would be a terrible humiliation for the bride and bridegroom.

The six stone water jars were there to provide water for Jewish purification ceremonies – things like washing hands before meals and between each course of a meal, and ritual washings of dishes and plates. This was nothing to do with biological cleanliness; it was about ritual purification. People would actually wash their hands like this before praying to God. Not to wash your hands before you prayed was almost like refusing to confess your sins.

So this water standing there would remind everyone of the ceremonies of the Jewish religion. This was the water Jesus used to replenish the wine supplies at the feast. John tells us that the servants poured out the new wine and took it to the chief steward, the man in charge of the feast. When he tasted the wine the servants brought him, he could hardly believe his palate! He tasted it again and then went to the bridegroom and told him off. “Why didn’t you serve this stuff first? This is the best wine I’ve ever tasted!” 

This is the basic story. Out of his love and concern for this young couple, Jesus performed an act of kindness for them. But what’s going on at the second level, at the level of the deeper meaning? We have to dig a bit for this. The key to it is the six stone water jars. As we said, they were used in Jewish purification ceremonies. You might say that they represent the Jewish religion. There’s nothing wrong with religion; believing in God, trying to be good and performing correct rituals are probably good things to do. But we can notice two things about these water jars. 

Firstly, the number six. To the Jewish people, seven was the number of perfection, so six was one short of perfection. It’s as if John is saying to us ‘Religion by itself is incomplete; without Jesus you still haven’t got everything you need’. 

Secondly, the liquid in the jars was water; useful, essential, refreshing, but no Jew would prefer water to wine! Water is flat and uninteresting, while wine is tasty and exciting! It’s as if John’s saying to us “Without Jesus your life may be alright, but it doesn’t have that extra quality to it. But Jesus can transform your life into something wonderful, something quite intoxicating!” Remember that on the Day of Pentecost people thought the Christians who had been filled with the Holy Spirit were drunk. 

Transformation – that’s what Jesus is all about. Millions of people get up in the morning, drink their coffee to zap themselves awake, go to work and function all day. They come home in the evening tired out, and after a bite to eat they watch TV or play video games or do housework until it’s time to go to bed. They do this for five or six days a week. Now and again they go out to the gym or take in a movie or play some golf. They have a few friends, and they might visit with them from time to time. They bring up children and put them through education so that they’ll be able to do the same thing. 

But deep inside, many of them are wondering, “Is this it? Is this all there is to life? Surely there’s got to be more to it than this!” It doesn’t seem to matter how much money they make, how many things they buy, how many friends they have – something still seems to be missing. Their life is ‘just one water jar short of perfection’. 

John is telling us “Jesus and his gift of eternal life — that’s what’s missing”. Later on in John’s gospel Jesus uses the illustration of being born again. Birth isn’t the beginning of life. The baby is alive before, in the womb, but it’s a very limited kind of life. There’s not much room for growth or achievement or relationships. But after birth there’s a whole new world out there, with all kinds of possibilities for growth and new experiences and freedom. In the same way, life without Jesus is limited, but when Jesus connects us to the God who made us, he opens up a whole new world for us. To be in conscious contact with the God who created you is the most satisfying experience you can ever have. It transforms your whole life. 

So how do we experience this transformation that John is talking about here? 

Well, one thing’s for sure – if we believe this gospel reading, we won’t expect to find what we’re looking for in religious ritual alone. Religious rituals and ceremonies can be wonderful ways of deepening our relationship with God. But if we don’t have that basic connection with Christ, they’re just human activities, initiated by humans, controlled by humans, and totally explainable on the human level. It’s a sad fact that many, many Anglicans have been baptized as babies, confirmed as teenagers, and come forward every week to receive communion, but if you get into an honest conversation with them, they’ll admit that they’ve never experienced anything like a sense of connection with the living God. I know, because I’ve had those conversations. 

At the end of today’s gospel, in verse 11, we read these words:

‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’.

From start to finish, the purpose of the gospel of John is to help us come to believe in Jesus so that we can find life in his name. It seems such a lame thing, really; what’s so special about ‘believing in Jesus’? Census questions routinely ask if people ‘believe in God’, and routinely large numbers of people reply that they do. But when you question them a bit more closely about what they mean by that, most people really only mean that they believe there is a God of some sort, somewhere. 

But believing in someone is far more than just believing that they exist. If I were to say to you, “I believe in Brian Popp”, you would know that I meant far more than “I believe that Brian Popp exists”. I’d mean, “I’ve been getting to know Brian for a few years now, and we’ve had some long conversations, and I’ve asked him for his help a few times and he’s always come through for me, and I’ve come to trust him, because I know he won’t let me down”. 

In other words, believing in someone is a relational thing, as when a man and a woman commit themselves to each other in marriage. So much of the future is outside our control, but on my wedding day, for me to say, “I will” meant saying to Marci, “I’m taking my life and putting it into your hands”. That’s an act of faith, and that’s what ‘believing in Jesus’ means. 

What does believing in Jesus look like in our daily lives? Let’s listen to Mary here. What does she say to the servants in our gospel today, after she has her little conversation with Jesus? She says, “Do whatever he tells you.” (v.5) That’s what believing in Jesus looks like. If I trust my doctor, I follow his instructions. If I don’t follow his instructions, it would be reasonable for people to conclude that I don’t really trust him. In the same way, we believers in Jesus are learning each day to put the things he taught us into practice. That’s what faith looks like.

John is calling us this morning to do as the first disciples did, as Mary did. He wants us to see this sign that Jesus performed, to understand what it means, and to put our trust in him — for the first time or the thousandth time. Our life may feel dull and uninteresting, like stagnant water, but Jesus holds out the promise of abundant life, like the best wine imaginable. And he invites us to believe and trust in him, to put our lives into his hands in faith, and to live in obedience to him, because this is the way to experience abundant life. The invitation comes to you and to me and to every human being, every day. ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34:8).

The Pearl of Great Price

Jesus: ‘The kingdom of Heaven is like treasure which a man found buried in a field. He buried it again, and in joy went and sold everything he had, and bought the field. Again, the kingdom of Heaven is like this. A merchant looking out for fine pearls found one of very special value; so he went and sold everything he had and bought it.’ (Matthew 13.44-46 REB)

‘The kingdom of heaven’ is not ‘heaven’, nor is it ‘religion’. It’s the answer to the prayer ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. When God’s perfect loving will is done on earth as in heaven, then the kingdom of God has come.

So selling everything I have to buy the pearl of great price doesn’t mean giving up everything in my life that’s not ‘religious’. It means putting God at the centre of my life, and then discovering that everything else is in its proper place around him too. As C.S. Lewis once said, it means loving God above all others, and then discovering that we love the others more than we did before. God, help us today to seek first your kingdom and your justice, and then to discover that everything else we need has been given to us as well. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 41:17 – 42:17, Matthew 13:24-46, Psalm 18:1-15, and Proverbs 4:1-6)

The False Glamour of Wealth

‘The seed sown among thistles represents the person who hears the word, but worldly cares and the false glamour of wealth choke it, and it proves barren.’ (Matthew 13.22 REB)

I’m struck by the wording of the REB here: ‘the false glamour of wealth.’

Jesus is talking about distractions that steal our attention from the message God has planted in us. The gospels would seem to suggest that wealth is one of the more potent distractions. It dazzles us with the things it offers – the promises of happiness and pleasure and excitement. But of course, it also makes demands on us. The more we own, the more we have to protect and care for and worry about.

Wealth does seem glamorous in the glossy magazines by the grocery checkout. But most of the people in those photographs are chronically unhappy, and the majority of them seem incapable of forming lasting relationships. They have all the wealth they’ve ever dreamed about, but it hasn’t fulfilled their dreams

“But the seed sown on good soil is the person who hears the word and understands it; he does bear fruit and yields a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold.’” (v.23). Lord, help us to be that person, and not to be dazzled by the false glamour of wealth. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 39.1 – 41.16, Matthew 12.46 – 13.23, Psalm 17.1-15, and Proverbs 3.33-35)

Every Thoughtless Word

Jesus: ‘I tell you this: every thoughtless word you speak you will have to account for on the day of judgement. For out of your own mouth you will be acquitted; out of your own mouth you will be condemned.’ (Matthew 12.36-37 REB)

In this chapter the Pharisees spoke ‘thoughtless words’ when they condemned Jesus as an agent of Beelzebul. They couldn’t deny his miraculous healings, but they could not be seen as recognizing that God was at work in Jesus. All they could do was attribute his healings to the power of the devil.

I have probably done similar things. I’ve seen good things being done by people I disagree with, and spent all my time questioning their motives and their methods rather than celebrating the good that was being done and the lives that were being touched.

Lord Jesus, help me not to speak thoughtless words of condemnation and judgement. You have reminded us that words are important. They can kill and they can heal. They can bring joy or despair. Help us today to think carefully about the words we speak, so that we are a blessing to the people around us.

(Today’s One Year Bible passages are Genesis 37:1 – 38:30, Matthew 12:22-45, Psalm 16:1-11, and Proverbs 3:27-32)

The Gentleness of Jesus

‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, in whom I take delight;
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice among the nations.
He will not strive, he will not shout,
nor will his voice be heard in the streets.
He will not snap off a broken reed,
nor snuff out a smouldering wick,
until he leads justice on to victory.
In him the nations shall put their hope.’ (Matthew 12.18-21 REB)

Here Matthew is quoting from Isaiah 42 and applying the prophecy to Jesus. He is God’s chosen servant, anointed by God’s Spirit to spread God’s justice.

But Jesus’ justice is not harsh. He does not ‘snap off a broken reed, nor snuff out a smouldering wick’. He is aware that some of us have been bruised in the struggles of life, and some of us are having difficulty keeping the flame of our faith alive. He knows all about us, and he is gentle with us.

Lord Jesus, you know all our hurts and struggles, and the weakness of our faith. Thank you for your patience and love. Help us find in you the healing and strength we need. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 35:1-36:43, Matthew 12:1-21, Psalm 15:1-5, and Proverbs 3:21-26).

Revealing them to the simple.

‘At that time Jesus spoke these words: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and wise, and revealing them to the simple. Yes, Father, such was your choice.”‘ (Matthew 11.25-26 REB)

I have a great respect for learning and scholarship. I’ve been greatly helped by the writings of scholars who’ve studied the ancient scriptures in their original languages and cultural and historical backgrounds. I love reading books by people who have really thought their way through issues.

But great learning doesn’t necessarily equal great love, and Jesus leads us in the way of love. The key word here is ‘revealing’. The mysteries of life in the kingdom are not learned by intellect alone; they are revealed by God. And no outsider knows a father like one of his own children. God chooses to reveal himself to us through the Son, Jesus. And Jesus chooses to reveal God to us primarily by teaching us a life of love.

Thank you, God, for wise scholarship, but thank you even more for revealing yourself to the humble as we come to Jesus and learn from him the way of love.

(Today’s One Year Bible passages are Genesis 32.13 – 34.31, Matthew 11.7-30, Psalm 14.1-7, and Proverbs 3.19-20)

‘I trust in your unfailing love’

‘How long, Lord, will you leave me forgotten,
how long hide your face from me?
How long must I suffer anguish in my soul,
grief in my heart day after day?
How long will my enemy lord it over me?
Look now, Lord my God, and answer me.
Give light to my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, ‘I have overthrown him,’
and my adversaries rejoice at my downfall.
As for me, I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart will rejoice when I am brought to safety.
I shall sing to the Lord, for he has granted all my desire.’ (Psalm 13.1-6 REB)

This is one of those prayers that are very useful to have in your back pocket for when you need them. It seems to be written in a military context; the author has enemies who are out to get him, and he’s in real danger of being defeated by them. But of course ‘enemies’ come in all shapes and sizes, not just armies and uniforms. Maybe we’re facing a dangerous illness, the threat of job loss, the scorn of others. Maybe we’re struggling with our own inner demons, sins or addictions. And there’s always the ‘enemy of our souls’.

‘As for me, I trust in your unfailing love’. Lord, for me, that’s something I aspire to. I don’t always trust you as I would like. To be honest, that’s partly because not everyone who trusts you seems to be ‘brought to safety’. I”m on a journey. Each day, for me, is full of opportunities to learn to trust you.

So when I’m facing my fears and struggles and inner demons, help me ‘trust in your unfailing love’. Help me simply turn to you, take your hand, and walk with you through whatever ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ appear to be heading my way. And bless all who are facing enemies who terrify them today, and bring them also to a place of safety. Amen.

(today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 31:17-32:12, Matthew 10:24-11:6, Psalm 13:1-6, and Proverbs 3:16-18)

Book Review: ‘Tolstoy Lied’, by Rachel Kadish.

1577123The starting point of this story is the famous Tolstoy quote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As the intro says, literature professor Tracy Farber disagrees with this quote, which seems to imply that only unhappiness is interesting. Happiness is boring and predictable.

This controversy is presented to us as both the theme of this book, and also a project within the book, a project which Tracy never quite gets around to beginning until the end of the story. I believe in her project and I agree with her: I think literature (and music and poetry, for that matter) does indeed have a prejudice against happiness, especially happy marriages and families.

But I’m not sure this book is going to drive the coffin nail into Tolstoy’s maxim. Yes, I found it a very interesting story, but it was the conflict and the unhappiness (actual and threatened) that was interesting. When the happiness came back in all its glory, it was within only a few dozen pages of the end of the book.

Still, I loved the book. I enjoyed the honesty of the love story. These are real people making the mistakes that real people make, and yet living to tell the tale. I loved the quality of the writing; Rachel Kadish is highly literate and I enjoy reading a book written by someone who knows how to write excellent English sentences and paragraphs. I found the characters believable and credible. I found it hard to put this book down. I’ve read Kadish’s more recent work, ‘The Wright of Ink’, which is also excellent, and look forward to more great stories from her in the years to come.