‘A tale of two Pharisees’ – 27th May, Trinity Sunday

Based around Romans 8: 12-17 and John 3: 1-7

Sometimes in our lives we might cross paths with someone on various occasions. At some time in the future we might look back and wonder what became of that person.

In the Bible too some characters appear and disappear and we wonder what became of them. Nicodemus is one of those characters. He only appears in the Gospel of John but he does appear, named, three times: first, here at the beginning of the Gospel, early on in Jesus’s ministry in this encounter where he seeks Jesus out at night; then later, with the priests and temple authorities when he asks whether it is right to condemn a man without a proper hearing; and lastly after the crucifixion where John records Nicodemus bringing spices to help Joseph of Arimathea  bury Jesus’ body before the Sabbath.

But who is Nicodemus? And does he become a true follower of Jesus and an active disciple after the resurrection?  We don’t know.  All we do know is that he was a Pharisee and close to the high priests, moving in important circles in the temple. He is an intriguing person. As a Pharisee he was well versed in the Scriptures, the law and the traditions of the Jewish faith and people.  It would appear that he saw something in Jesus, early on in his ministry, that raised his interest.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and so we can assume that he did not want to be seen approaching him, and perhaps we can presume that he did not think his fellow leaders would approve of his seeking out Jesus. Perhaps surprisingly, Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by saying that he believes Jesus is from God and that what he is doing is evidence of God’s work.  We know later that other leaders were more sceptical.

Nicodemus says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus however, comes back with with something of a curveball saying “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (or “born anew”).  This is an unfamiliar concept and Nicodemus takes the obvious approach and asks how anyone can be born a second time. Jesus qualifies his statement by saying that this is rebirth through the Spirit of God and Nicodemus again asks how this can be.

Jesus again come back at Nicodemus and asks “Are you a teacher in Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus goes on to say that he has come down from God, and will be lifted up like the serpent on the staff that Moses raised to save the people from plague. Jesus seems to foretell his crucifixion and death for the salvation of all.  He goes on with those words that are so well known: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

We don’t know Nicodemus’ reaction to this, we are not told, the  story moves on. But this is a strong testimony at the beginning of John’s Gospel of key themes in this Gospel – of the power of the Spirit, of the purpose of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection and of the difficulty some leaders would have in seeing past their traditions and pre-conceived ideas and worldly grounding to understand the spiritual realities of Christ.

Could Nicodemus have taken all he heard on board and spoken up for Jesus?  We don’t know. He did speak up loudly enough to say Jesus should be heard and he did respect him enough to ensure he was buried properly – but beyond that Nicodemus remains something of an enigma.

The other famous Pharisee – Saul of Tarsus – who was stopped in his tracks on the road to Damascus and challenged by Jesus to stop persecuting the Christians – became Paul who wrote to the Romans in our other reading today.  Paul reminded his readers that they had received the Spirit of God, to bring them into the family of God as adopted children of God.  They were born into earthly families, and now have been reborn into the family of God as adopted children and heirs. Paul knew the power of the Spirit to transform, to heal, to teach and to guide. He knew the power of being born anew from above. He encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was transformed by the Spirit and came to know God in a new way.

He experienced the vibrant reality of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together.

Today is Trinity Sunday where we especially focus on the three persons of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three and yet one, living and reigning in the unity of love.

The Trinity is a concept that some people really struggle with – how can three beings be one? Trying to explain the Trinity in rational language can be hard. Paul knew the experience of the three persons of God – and we too can know the three persons of God, but we may struggle to put into words just how they operate and how they can be three and yet one.

Jesus was trying to open up the concept to Nicodemus – of his presence and role on earth and the indwelling power of the Spirit and the heavenly existence of the Father. Paul knew the reality of Jesus in his encounter on the road to Damascus and the power of the Spirit in his conversion, healing and development as an apostle.

The Trinity is a dynamic unity of love and can be easier to experience than to describe or pin down. Pinning down the Spirit can be especially hard. Even Jesus knew this – describing the Spirit as like the wind, blowing where it will. The Trinity is united in love – embodying love, inspiring love, breaking down hostility and hatred with the power of restorative, recreative and saving love.

We can spend too much time trying to get our heads round the concept and not experience the reality touching our hears, minds and spirits, changing our lives.

Nicodemus was courageous enough to seek Jesus out, but we cannot be certain whether he ever truly became a disciple, whether he came to know the power of Jesus and the Spirit in his life to draw him closer to God. Paul knew the power of the Trinity – and the rewards of adoption in God’s family and he lived his life in the light of this knowledge.

May we know the power of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and live in the truth of the Trinity.

 

Reader Anne Grant

‘Jeremiah and the new covenant’ – 18th March, Passion Sunday

Based around Jeremiah 31:31-34.

There’s an amusing, short-short version of the Old Testament that goes as follows:

God : Don’t do the things I’ve told you not to do.

Man : Gotcha.

God : Great – we’ll get on fine.

Time passes…

Man : God?

God : Yes, my son?

Man : You know the things you told us not to do?  We did them….

God : (Sighing) Right. I’m going to punish you, then I want you to behave and not do those things again.  Can you manage that?

Man : Yep.

God : Awesome.  Let’s do it….

Time passes….

Man : God…sorry…we did them again…

And so on.

There is a lot of truth in humour. You’ll hear it said that the Old Testament describes the covenant relationship between God and His people, a relationship that is based upon the Law.  Now, what do we mean by that?

God struck a covenant – a type of contract, if you like – with the people of Israel that He would be their God, and they would be His people, if they would abide by the Laws he set before them. The Laws were given to Moses in the form of tablets of stone; they were written on scrolls of parchment to become the central part of the Torah – what we know as the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Deuteronomy and Leviticus provide a written down set of instructions – the Law – by which God’s people were to act and behave to maintain their side of the covenant.

And like all rule and law based systems – like our own modern society – we then get in to the whole area of interpretation.  There’s a joke that I’ve heard about lawyers and economists – ask two lawyers and you’ll get three opinions. And so it is in the culture that we read about in the Old Testament, based on the legalistic covenant between God and man.  We have sixty volumes of the Talmud – learned writings from scribes, rabbis, judges and prophets that help interpret the Law and apply it to everyday life.  As life got more complicated, there were more opportunities for loopholes and ‘grey areas’ to appear in the application of the Law. A good ‘modern day’ example of the interpretation of the Law of the sabbath was noted by the physicist, Richard Feynman, who was asked by an Orthodox Jew whether electricity was fire, because the questioner was trying to work out whether using ANY electricity on the sabbath was permissible.  The physics answer is ‘No, electricity isn’t fire’.  The Talmudic answer is ‘It depends what you’re doing with the electricity….’  If you’re interested in this particular problem, there’s a good article on Wikipedia called ‘Electricity on Shabbat’.

Having said that, though, we know that the Israelites didn’t exploit the grey areas; they drove a chariot and horses through the centre of God’s Law.  After all, these are the people who within a few weeks of being told ‘No idols’, are making golden calves to worship.

Punishment follows, then God relents, brings the people back to him, helps them along….and then the people do something else.

And Jeremiah writes at a time when the ‘something else’ has been bad indeed. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, writes at a time of exile. The country has been devastated, and Jerusalem has been destroyed by Babylonians. Jeremiah is in and out of prison, and his book reveals the anger of the Lord at the people – particularly the leaders of Israel – who have not been faithful to God by maintaining justice and obedience. The destruction of Jerusalem, the scattering of the people of Israel, the exile, is seen as a punishment by God for this failure.

You can almost imagine the more thoughtful people saying “We’re in a mess; and it’s our fault. We knew the Law, but we still were not faithful to it, and because of our disobedience and lack of faith in God and the Law we have been again punished. Why do we keep on like this? What is wrong with us?”

The book of Jeremiah is primarily the prophet telling the people hard truths from God.  But in the middle of his book, comes two Chapters – Chapters 30 and 31 – that are sometimes known as the ‘Book of Comfort’.  In the middle of his gloomy prophesying, we get tonight’s reading.  A statement of great hope from God, in the midst of the people’s despair. God tells the people – of both Israel and Judah – that He will make a new covenant with them to replace the one that he made with them when He led them from Egypt to (eventually) the promised land.

God is acknowledging that the covenant has been broken repeatedly by a faithless and ungrateful people, who haven’t treated God as a loyal bride would be expected to treat a bridegroom, but have, basically, cheated on Him and turned away from Him.

A new covenant is then described.

Whereas the old covenant was written on stone and parchment scrolls, and needed a library of explanatory texts and an army of experts to interpret, this one will be written on the hearts and minds of the people.  It’s not going to be a case of folks having to read up on it; the law will be in them, part of them.

Now, at this stage, this might start making the people feel a bit uneasy; if they have the Law written in their very being, then surely they’re in a worse position than they were previously.  There is no excuse for not knowing and understanding the law; and if the old covenant requirement of obedience ‘or else’ still applies, then things sound bad….

But wait.

Let’s listen again to what is written in Verse 34;

“No longer will they teach their neighbor,

or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’

because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest,”

declares the Lord.

“For I will forgive their wickedness

and will remember their sins no more.”

 

It’s not saying ‘know the Law’.  It’s not saying ‘they will all know the Law’. It’s saying that under the new covenant the people will all know the Lord. They will know God. They will be in relationship with Him.  Something rather different!

And then the final words ‘I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’ – there is nothing conditional here. God is wiping the slate clean – the covenant will not be dependent upon the people behaving in a certain way; sins will be forgiven and forgotten.

The old covenant failed because it relied on man’s faithfulness to God, and because of man’s very nature it was almost guaranteed to fail from the off.  The new covenant, spoken of here by Jeremiah, and brought to us through Jesus Christ, cannot fail because it relies on God’s faithfulness and grace to us.

That covenant is with us, now. It is written in our hearts and minds, made available to us by God’s incarnate word, Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God!

 

Reader Joe Pritchard

‘A tale of two women’ – 11th March, Mothering Sunday

Based around Colossians 3:12-17, John 19.25b-27.

Thursday was International Women’s Day. Today is Mothering Sunday.  So let me talk about two women, Dorothy and Hilda.

Dorothy* was born in the 1930s. She worked as a children’s nurse, then married and had several children of her own.  Much of the day to day work of keeping the household running and bringing up the children, she did on her own. Her husband worked long hours to provide for the family.  And in those days, men didn’t normally get too involved with the childcare.

You’d have thought she’d be busy enough with her own family.  But there was something about Dorothy that drew others close.  Her home became a magnet for friends of her children, people from her church and visitors from abroad.  People would turn up for lunch or to stay for a month at little, if any notice, knowing they would be welcome.  So meals had to be stretchable and beds or at least sleeping bags, available.  Dorothy befriended young people in care and helped to run a house for teenage mums who didn’t have the support at home.  She helped the elderly too – going shopping, giving lifts.

Her family grew, with many grandchildren and Dorothy became the matriarch of a sizeable clan.  In all, she was mother not only to her own children and others biologically related to her, but to many, many other people, young and old, who were drawn to her warm, welcoming, open house, her listening ear and her practical advice and help.

Dorothy died a few years ago.  But her legacy lives on.  It lives on in the warm, welcoming homes of her children and grandchildren.  Places where friends and strangers feel they too belong.  Places where those who practise the Christian faith mix comfortably with those who don’t, but where it’s normal to talk about the faith.  Places where you feel loved, cared for and where you can muck in and be a part of a community.

Hilda lived in the 7th Century.  She is famous for founding the Celtic monastery at Whitby.  This monastery would have been a cluster of simple houses and a chapel.  Here, small groups of men or women who had devoted themselves to God lived together in community.  They would follow the monastic way of life with its times for prayer, work, learning, and charitable care.

But others lived there too.  Lay people who worked on the land and helped provide the food for the community.  Travellers passing through.  Some would be Christian, but others might not be.

Hilda ensured that spiritual care was there for everyone in the village.  She would provide a listening ear for anyone who needed it, be they monk, farm worker or visitor.  Anyone could have their own soul friend to listen and to share with them as they journeyed their Christian faith, or indeed explored it for the first time.

Hilda came from a noble family. Kings and princes sought her advice.  But she was also deeply concerned for the ordinary folk.  One timid cowherd began to compose poetry and song.  Hilda encouraged him to develop his skills and he became perhaps the first English poet whose name we know – Caedmon.

We don’t know that Hilda had any children of her own.  She was in her 30s when she took up the religious life, so conceivably could have done.  But it was said that “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace”.  Several of her monks were to become bishops, and the way she formed a community of love and care was in turn followed by others.

Today we heard some words written by Saint Paul to the church in Colossae.

Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, meekness and patience.  Bear with one another.  Forgive each other.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love.

Words of wisdom written to help a young church community live together and to build each other up in the Christian faith.  But they’re good words of advice to help any family or community group live together.  A family like yours or mine.  A church community like ours here at St. Mary’s.

Both Dorothy and Hilda fully lived out this advice in their lives.  Everyone around them grew and thrived.  Through their compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness and love, they enabled others to reach their full potential.  Those whose lives they touched could then do the same.

You don’t have to be a mum to do what Hilda and Dorothy did.  We can all share compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness and love among family, church and community so that all may grow and thrive.

 

Reader Catherine Burchell

*name changed

‘Cleansing the Temple’ – 4th March, 3rd Sunday of Lent

Based around Exodus 20: 1-17, John 2.13-22

The content of tonight’s readings are pretty well known. The Ten Commandments, and the story of Jesus cleansing the temple.  Now – spot quiz – at first glance, what do they both have in common?

I could do with a ‘Countdown Timer’ here….

Well, they both appear more than once in the Bible.

The list of commandments we know as the Ten Commandments occurs 3 times; Exodus 34 is the only place where the label “The Ten Commandments” is used in the Bible. The other two listings (Exodus 20 – tonight’s reading –  and Deuteronomy 5) are normally referred to as the Ten Commandments, but the actual text doesn’t describe them as such.

And cleansing the Temple – that appears once in each Gospel.  The narrative occurs near the end of the Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels,  and near the start in the Gospel of John – our OTHER reading tonight.

Now, remember how I said ‘At first glance’ in my question? Well,  some scholars believe that these refer to two separate incidents, tonight’s cleansing happening at the start of Jesus’s Ministry, and the other three Gospels describing a different event that took place at the end of Jesus’s ministry. I think that this is quite reasonable; John’s Gospel also features more than one Passover, so more than one visit to the Temple by Jesus would certainly happen.

So – why did Jesus behave like this? We know from his previous experiences that Jesus wasn’t a stranger to the Temple in Jerusalem; he once ended up there ‘on His Father’s business’, as he put it, when he was a boy, and we can understand his affection and respect for the Temple.  The Temple was the Third Temple – the Temple of Herod, initiated by Herod to try and gain favour with the Jewish people.  By the time today’s reading takes place, it’s still not complete – it would only be completed about 6 or 7 years before it’s destruction in 70 AD.

It’s worth taking a look at the context of why the animals were in the temple precincts anyway, and what the money changers actually were.

At Passover, people would come to Jerusalem from all over Israel – and from further afield as well.  All worshippers at the Temple except women and children – would be expected to pay a half-shekel Temple Tax – worth about £2.50 at the current value of silver – and would also be expected to provide a sacrificial animal; a lamb or calf.

Now, the money had to be sanctified – Temple money. You couldn’t just give over any old cash. Each year different coins would be produced, and as a visitor you would exchange your currency for the Temple coins with which to pay the Temple Tax. This is where the money changers came in.  Similarly, many people coming to Jerusalem would find it easier to buy a sacrificial animal on arrival, rather than bring one with them on a long journey.

There was also a risk associated with bringing your own sacrificial animal.  Anything presented for sacrifice had to be of highest quality and would need to be approved by the Temple authorities before it could be sacrificed.

And here we find things get a bit messy, and potentially corrupt; money changers would charge a fee for each transaction they carried out.  Sellers of sacrificial animals would sell at a much higher price than would be normally expected, and it was often suspected that the Temple authorities would be ‘encouraged’ by the sellers of sacrificial livestock to disapprove as many ‘out of town’ animals as possible. Quite a few opportunities for the world of commerce and human greed to come between a worshipper and God.

Initially, the animal dealers were based outside the Temple, in the valley of Kidron on the Mount of Olives, but eventually, by the time Jesus visits, they’ve moved in to an area of the Temple called the Court of the Gentiles – the part of the temple that is open to Gentiles as well as Jews. In other words, part of the worship space has become a combination of a bank and a cattle market.

In Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 11 Verse 17, we hear that the temple was designed to be a place of worship for all nations. Gentiles who wished to worship God could, in principle, do so in the Court of the Gentiles – however, this area was now not really fit for worship – and this is why Jesus is so angry. His Father’s house is not fit to be a place of worship for all nations, if the gentiles have to worship amidst animals and moneychangers.

There’s a general idea amongst people that here’s where we see ‘Rambo Jesus’ – wading in and whipping the people as well as the animals to get them out of the Temple Court.  This is how it’s portrayed in at least one painting; but it’s not the case; the whip was used to drive the animals out, and Jesus turned over the tables over the money changers and generally ruined business for the day.

His disciples remembered what was said in scripture about the coming Messiah – that they would be overcome with zeal for the house of the Lord.  Well, this meets the bill.  The Jewish authorities, unsurprisingly, were less impressed and asked him on whose authority Jesus was asking.  His answer – that he would be able to raise the Temple in 3 days – rather foxed them.  But this answer, combined with the scriptural reference – was remembered by Jesus’s disciples after his death and resurrection, and reminded them again of the truth of the Scripture and of His teachings.

Temples are not just buildings. As Jesus pointed out – the body is a temple; even our human bodies.

Our Temple is our body, heart, mind and soul.  The place where we meet with God.

What do we do in our temple to interfere with worship? Who are the sellers of sacrificial animals and temple money-changers in our hearts and minds?  Maybe:

  • The noise and bustle of the market place of ideas
  • The sense that what we bring – our thoughts, feelings, our very body itself – isn’t clean enough, good enough or pure enough?
  • The sense that we need to change what we are for something else to become acceptable?

What can we do to cleanse our heart and mind to make accepting Jesus easier, to make worship and prayer easier?

  • We can bring Quiet in to our hearts.
  • We can accept and embrace the we’re broken; we’re fallen; we will never be perfect. That’s fine. We just try not to sin; be repentant. It’s an ongoing process; try again, fail again, try again. Keep at it.  That’s how we are – that’s how God expects to find us. Be yourself and present yourself to Jesus humbly, throwing yourself on his grace and mercy.
  • We are unique; we are made in the image of God. There is nothing in what we are to change, just how we behave.

Driving out these distractions and impediments to worship from OUR temple is not easy.  I feel I’d have more luck with shifting sheep and cows and overturning a few tables than I would in controlling and disciplining my occasionally unruly heart and head.

But, we need to make our temple suitable for worship of the Lord.

May our equivalent of whips and table turning be effective.

 

Reader Joe Pritchard

‘What now?’ – 5th November, All Soul’s Memorial Service

Based around 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 6: 37-40.

We are here tonight because of our individual experience of loss, it’s the reason that has brought us together. We want to remember our loved ones who we have lost, in a special way. Of course we remember them in our own hearts in private or among our families & friends much of the time but in a way a service like this helps us to mark their lives and their passing in a more formal, more public way and perhaps by doing this in church we feel that we can draw closer to God & hold our loved ones before him in prayer. It also gives us a space where we can be open about our feelings of loss and hurt and sadness without feeling that we have to put on a brave face for the sake of others. It’s ok to feel miserable, it’s ok to cry.

Sadly the older we get the more likely we are to experience the loss of people we care about. It’s hard enough when those people are very old and have had a good life but even harder when a death is untimely or through illness or is sudden when we were unprepared and feel cheated out of the time we thought we’d have together or of the chance to say goodbye. This can leave us feeling pretty raw and unfortunately there is no set formula or ritual or time to get over our grief. Each loss is unique because we are all unique and the relationships we have with one another are unique. What we feel and how we deal with loss is personal to us, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. That said though, it isn’t good to shut others out totally or hide away for too long for their sake or our own.

I’m at the stage in life where I have already been to too many funerals, family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues, all people who one way or another mattered to me a great deal and some I loved very dearly. The losses I feel most keenly include people from opposite ends of the age spectrum, my little first granddaughter, Lucy, who I never had the pleasure of getting to know, three friends who died way before they should have done and my wonderful dad who I had known & loved my whole life. Ten years on I still miss him very much and often wish I could ask his advice or share my thoughts and ideas with him because he of all people would understand me.

All those we lose leave a gap in our lives that can never truly be filled and we can feel that loss very keenly for a long time. Sometimes we wonder if we will ever be able to cope with it, but cope we must.

Only a few days ago Ann, one of my sister’s friends attended the funeral of her first  granddaughter, Cali Jane, who died at just a few months old after spending much of that time in a specialist hospital. After Ann came out from the service my sister said she looked utterly heartbroken and distraught and said “what now?” It’s the awful question that faces us all. Its two little words that express so much. What do we do when all the formalities are completed and we are left alone with our thoughts and feelings still raw, like open wounds that won’t stop hurting?

One of the changes that I think helps us in more recent times is how we say goodbye to our loved ones. When I was little funerals were almost always sombre, sad, serious occasions which tended to follow fairly rigid rituals that left little room for personal expression. In this part of the world everyone wore black or dark colours, looked solemn and children were usually excluded from the proceedings for fear it might upset them. Thankfully that’s largely changed now and we are more likely to celebrate the life of the person we have lost. Even little lives barely lived or not actually lived at all can be celebrated. If in the midst of our feelings of loss we can look at the good things we shared with our loved ones then we are likely to find that there is indeed much to celebrate and even smile about.

It might sound like an odd thing to say but I’ve been to some amazing funerals where a lot of joy as well as sorrow was expressed. Laughter has its place among the tears and there is nothing wrong with that. I don’t think I’ve ever come away from a funeral without knowing a lot more about the person who has died, even when I knew them well, or so I thought. Crying and laughing together helps us take that first step into the “what now” that we all have to deal with after loss. It helps us to keep putting one foot in front of the other until we find our way to a new form of normality. As long as we hold our loved ones in our hearts we are not abandoning them.

We have come together tonight to remember our loved ones. They are lost to us here and now but I take comfort in knowing that they are not lost to God but are precious to him. A line from our reading from John’s Gospel reassures me if this. Jesus says “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of those he has given me, but raise them up on the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day”. I pray that you too will find comfort in this.

Amen.

Reader Kath Boyd

‘Reading the Bible’ – 29th October, 21st Sunday after Trinity

Based around Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22: 34-46.

Today is Bible Sunday, the Sunday when we’re particularly encouraged to focus on the Scriptures and give thanks for God’s Word. I wonder if any of you have ever tried to read the Bible from cover to cover?  How far did you get?  (I salute your superior sticking power)

Reading the Bible from cover to cover like we would a novel is not usually recommended.  Although fairly easy at first, with all the exciting stories in Genesis and Exodus it’s not long before you reach Leviticus.  And boy, is it tedious!  Repetitive (and rather gory) instructions on sacrifice. An obsession with leprosy – contracted by people, cloth, even houses.  Law after law.  Yawn!  You reach for the latest Dan Brown, intending to return to the Bible later, but it somehow never happens.

Christians react to Leviticus in one of two ways.  One is to regard it as a historical and religious curiosity – mostly a record of priestly laws and practices that have been superceded by Jesus and by modern science.  The other is to go through it with a fine toothcomb and insist very loudly that everyone follow most, if not all the laws there.

And yet, to do either of these things is to miss what is at the heart of Leviticus.  But let me digress for a couple of minutes…

Did any of you see the recent TV series about the London Fire Brigade? It followed the fire and rescue crews as they went about their work and gave a sobering insight into just what they face daily.  Quite often they can’t see a thing because of the smoke, so they rely on infrared detectors to find the seat of the fire.  They follow strict procedures to keep them as safe as possible whilst entering a burning building.  They wear special protective clothing and breathing apparatus.  They may only stay in the building for a set time, because their oxygen will only last 31 minutes.  They’re counted as they go in and out.  When they come out they must rest awhile before they are allowed back in again.    And you can’t necessarily just go in with a hose.  Sometimes you have to assess other safety issues first.  In one case, they first trained the hoses not on the fire itself, but on some gas cylinders nearby, cooling them so they wouldn’t explode.

Fire in itself is neither good nor bad.  It provides heat, light, energy.  It is attractive.  But it is undoubtedly dangerous.  If you don’t approach it in the right way you might be killed.  Fire must be respected.

For the people of Israel, recently rescued from slavery in Egypt, living with God in their very midst is like having a massive uncontrollable fire in the middle of the community.  God is attractive – full of life and power, awesome, protective, holy.  But God can be dangerous.  Like a fire, he should only be approached with extreme respect.

God cannot be tamed!  And so the laws of Leviticus enable Israel to live safely with God in their midst.  There are boundaries to be respected.  A specific cleanliness to be observed.  Rituals and sacrifices to be performed in the right way.

But throughout the book of Leviticus God says to Israel: “I, the LORD your God am holy.  Therefore you shall be a holy people”.  God is holy.  And God has given Israel the gift of holiness.  Leviticus, then, is all about how to live as a holy nation, with the presence of God living in the midst.  What does it mean to be a holy people?

Yes it’s about maintaining a right relationship with God through worship.  But just as importantly,  it’s about how you live your everyday life in community with each other, family, friend, neighbour, rich and poor, countryman and foreigner.  Treat any of your fellow human beings wrongly and you break boundaries, causing sin to pollute the land.

Chapters 17-26 of Leviticus are known as the “holiness code”.   And at the heart of everyday holiness is is the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.  A commandment repeated on many occasions by Jesus in the gospels and by Paul in his letters.

The holiness code spells out in detail what it means to love your neighbour as yourself.  So loving your neighbour means dealing honestly with others, not defrauding them, judging justly, not harbouring a grudge, but correcting a neighbour when they’ve gone wrong.  Loving your neighbour means leaving the edges of your fields unharvested so that the poor can glean what’s left.  It means paying your labourers at the end of a day’s work, not the following morning.

Peppered throughout chapter 19 is the reminder “I am the LORD” or “I am the LORD your God”!  When you go about your everyday life, God is there!  So live your life in a way that truly shows you are God’s holy nation.

When we read Leviticus, it’s obvious that parts of it are now mostly of historical interest.  We no longer sacrifice animals.  Understandings in science and medicine mean that the much feared so-called “leprosy” – skin diseases and mildew – can often be successfully treated these days.  And we have, for good reasons, dropped many of Leviticus’ other individual laws.

But we are still God’s people.  His Spirit lives among us.  And the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself is one that is as relevant to us now as it was to the ancient Israelites.  So let’s not forget that God wants us to be a holy people too.  And let’s use the very practical examples listed in Leviticus 19 of what loving your neighbour meant then to guide us as we work out what this means practically for us today.

Reader Catherine Burchell.

‘In the Image of God’ – 22nd October, 19th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Matthew 22:15-22.

Image.  For some people, many people, image is everything – wearing the right clothes, carrying the right accessories, owning the right car or house or possessions, being seen in the right places, appearing successful, having the perfect family or job.  All social groups can get drawn into the image trap – young men and women may ask “Am I seen as sufficiently good looking?” or “Do I come across as sufficiently tough or streetwise?”; middle aged people may ask “Do I seem adequately successful?” “Is my home creating the right image?” Even churches can be drawn into the image trap – do we present the right image to be seen as successful in human terms?

People have always been concerned with image – portrait painters used to make people look more like the ideal of the day rather than necessarily portraying them as they truly were. Henry VIII felt deceived by the portrait he was shown of Anne of Cleves which he felt was overly flattering and did not represent the woman he was to marry.  Oliver Cromwell insisted that his portraitist paint him “warts and all”, wanting to be seen as he was.

In this age of multi media, of photoshopping and airbrushing, of social media and the constant desire for “likes” or new “friends” – image seems to be more dominant in people’s lives than ever. When the only people you mixed with and compared yourself with were in your local community it was hard to maintain an illusion that was not true as everyone knew each others’ homes and families.  But in cyber space, creating the right image seems to dominate.  However, always striving after a particular image can lead to all sorts of problems – depression and lack of self-worth if people feel they can’t really live up to the illusion of success they feel they should; debt if people try to buy the image they want but cannot really afford it; or just a sense that “being me” is never enough.  Wearing a mask, creating an illusion is tiring and ultimately unsatisfying. Trying to live up to an image that is not really yourself does not bring true happiness.

Image is a the centre of our Gospel reading today – even if it does not immediately appear to be!

Jesus is approached by some Pharisees and Herodians determined to catch him out.   They begin by flattering Jesus and then ask their trick question – is it right to pay tax to the Emperor?  They are trying to trick Jesus into showing himself either as a bad Jew or a rebel against Rome.  Jesus sees through their intentions and replies with his own question: “Whose image is on the coin used for the tax?”   “The Emperor’s” is the reply – so Jesus says, “Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s and give to God what is God’s”. That seems a neat and simple solution – pay imperial tax in the coin of Rome, obey Roman law in a secular context but maintain your religion and honour God as a separate part of life.  Keep religion and politics separate.

But Jesus was not presenting that duality.  We could say that Jesus’ question was a trick question as well.  Whose image is on the coin? The Pharisees and Herodians could only say, “The Emperor’s” as it was his relief on the coin.  But as every person is created in the image of God – it could be said that God’s image was on the coin (in the shape of Emperor) – but Jews were not allowed to make images of God.

If we go back to Genesis Chapter 1 we read: “ God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. And so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”  This is central to our understanding of ourselves in God’s Kingdom.

Most weeks we use the Eucharistic prayer that includes the words “For he is your Living Word, through him you have created all things from the beginning and formed us in you own image.”

We are all formed in God’s image – not in the shape of our features, the colour of our skin or hair, our level of intelligence or our physical perfection – but as human beings infused with the life and image of God breathed into us from the dawn of creation. As humans we all bear God’s image.

Thus the coin in our story bears the depiction of the Emperor’s head but therefore also shows a person created in God’s image – as every human is. We cannot separate  what is the Emperor’s and what is God’s – we do not live in a dualistic world. Every interaction we have with another human being is an interaction with another person made in God’s image, as we are.

This is not to say that there are not people who act in appalling and evil ways, who cause untold damage, distress and pain and who constantly seem to deny all that is Godly within them – but we believe it is possible for God’s word and God’s love to break in and transform and redeem and restore the centrality and sanctity of his own image. As our hymn “To God be the Glory” says “the vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

We are all made in God’s image – not the same, but each unique, different, special – each as valued as every other.  We never need to wear a mask or strive to conform to an image from outside – we only need to be ourselves, in the image of God, precious in the sight of God, loved as we are and for whom we are. The only perfection we need to strive after is our own in God’s eyes, and to make the most of our life among others.

Life is not compartmentalised into the “Emperor’s” (secular and political) and God’s (spiritual). God’s image is in everyone and therefore everywhere. We are first and foremost bearers of God’s image and so our primary calling is to honour God. Thus we can stand up for Kingdom values of justice in the world and values of truth, grace, mercy and love in every sphere of life.

This week a new series has started on TV – Bad Habits, Holy Orders – where five young women, self confessed party girls whose image conscious lives centre around clothes, make up, alcohol, casual relationships and having a “good time” have signed up for a spiritual exploration never expecting that they will end up spending four weeks in a convent in Norfolk. In the first week they have already begun to have their perspectives shifted on clothes, money, reliance on social media and much else and have learned to appreciate others more, It will be interesting to see how they progress as they are confronted by entirely different ideas of identity, image and self-worth. They are learning too that the spiritual is in everything from shopping and cleaning to basketball and prayer in the chapel.

Our Gospel story has tended to allow people to see a duality in the world – between “God’s” and “the Emperor’s” – the spiritual versus the economic and political. But we are all in God’s image – so every interaction is about God. The spiritual may be personal but the personal is, as it is said, political (and economic and social) – so the spiritual, God’s realm, encompasses all of life. Honouring God’s image in ourselves means honouring God’s image in others, in everyone, all the time. We don’t need to chase any other image.

Amen.

Reader Anne Grant.

‘Don’t worry, be happy’ – 15th October, 18th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14.

Note this sermon was preached at both the 10:30am and 6:30pm, but was written originally for the evening service where Isaiah 25:1-9 was one of the set readings.

When I’m asked to preach, I take a look at the readings that will be used, read them, pray around them and then put them on one side for a while to allow them to simmer.  Sometimes one will immediately leap out at me as being the one I feel moved to preach on; other times, it takes longer.

Until about 10 days ago, I was planning on preaching on Isaiah.

However, the Holy Spirit often has different plans for us.  I belong to a Facebook group for the US Episcopalian Church – our Anglican brothers and sisters in Christ in the US – and one morning I saw a post that suggested that worry was a sin.  My compassion was outraged; the exact words I posted were :

‘I’m sorry but ” please be aware that such emotions are considered a sin in the Lord’s eyes:” is, to me, spiritual abuse and may well deflect people away from a relationship with Jesus at the very time that they need it.’

And almost immediately after posting this I thought…hang on a minute…and returned to the readings for tonight.

And there, in Philippians, was Paul’s instruction to us:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Not quite explicitly labelling worry a sin, but enough to make me think that maybe I needed to think about Paul’s letter to the Philippians rather than Isaiah.

And to finally dive the point home, another article was bought to my attention from an email list I subscribe to that looked at Peter and worry.

I can take a hint, Lord.

And so, here we are.

The reading from Paul is part of one of his pastoral letters. Verses 2 and 3 refer to Euodia and Synteche – two prominent women leaders of the Church – who were having something of a disagreement that was causing problems.  Quite what the disagreement was about, we’re not told; but it was enough for Paul to exhort everyone involved – including the person he gave the letter to (the ‘loyal companion’) to try and resolve it.

We can look at the rest of the reading tonight almost as series of bullet-points that Paul provides to help with the dispute – whatever may have caused it.  And I think we can also apply these suggestions to quite a lot that happens in our daily lives.

We are told to:

  1. Rejoice in the Lord, and be known for your kindness and gentleness.
  2. Don’t worry; pray and allow the peace of the Lord to fill your hearts and minds.
  3. Think about the good things that you’re doing, that you’re experiencing, and focus and build on them.

Paul reminds us in Verse 4 to always rejoice in the Lord; I guess that if people ARE rejoicing in the Lord, it’s probably harder for them to have a good row!  And, thinking about it, why shouldn’t we all rejoice in the Lord; there is God the Father – the creator God….there is Jesus, who loves us despite ourselves….there is the Holy Spirit, that brings the Grace of God to us, that opens our minds and hearts to the works of the Father and the Son.  Why shouldn’t we rejoice in the Lord?

And then we come to the verse that I was reminded of on Facebook. Just to remind us:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

And it’s NOT just Paul – after all, we know that Paul can get a bit grumpy.  In the first letter of Peter, Chapter 5,, we read:

“ Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I get concerned and anxious about stuff. More than I should. Always have done; I started young, and even now I guess I’m something of a worry-wart, so you can see why I encountered this verse with some trepidation. Many people come to faith in the depths of worry; a good number even stay with Jesus when times get better! But to be told not to worry, but to pray instead? To cast our anxieties on God? Where does this leave us?

There is a famous quotation, attributed to Oliver Cromwell:

“Put your trust in God, but keep your powder dry.” Wet gunpowder in a musket or cannon wouldn’t burn – the message here is that Cromwell trusted in God to deliver the day, but accepted that he had to play his part.  Think of Gideon, dealing with the Midianites. God basically prunes his army down to a few hundred men – God effectively telling Gideon that ‘I’m with you on this, you can do it!’ but Gideon still whittles AND God still expects him to do something towards winning the battle – to go and listen in the camp of the Midianites and to take to the field.

Now, back to me and my anxieties. I look at what I’m anxious or concerned about and ask myself the simple question: “At this moment in time, have I done everything that is within my power to deal with the situation I’m anxious about?”  If I answer Yes – so be it, that’s all I can do, I thank God and pray for his continued strength, guidance and grace.  If I answer “No” to myself – then rather than worrying, I look to identifying what I still need to do, then pray for God’s help in getting me through the task.

I think Paul is highlighting the difference between valid concern that can be acted upon, and that all-encompassing, paralysing, deep-seated worry that for so many of us stops us in our tracks and can, for a while, become something so big that it’s almost an idol – a negative, fearful, idol that deflects us away from God.

I’ve had moments in my life when worry has paralysed me; it becomes the most important thing in my life; it feels like it will never go away. I think that this is what Paul is actually warning about; when we feel that the worry itself becomes bigger than God’s grace in our lives.  Paul reminds us here of two things for dealing with worry:

  • That by prayer and supplication and thanksgiving we should put our requests and in God’s hands.
  • And that by doing so, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

This can sound a bit platitudinous, but when we are truly in that place with worry, where we have done all that we can possibly do, worry does nothing but get between us, our friends and family, and God.  When is there a better time to fall back on God’s grace to help us?

I can imagine that this sort of idolatrous worry wouldn’t have helped matters between Euodia and Synteche and the rest of the Philippi Church elders.

And it doesn’t help us.

And Paul’s final thoughts tonight? Keep doing the good stuff. Keep catching each other out in being good. Focus on excellence – now that sounds like a modern day management theory, doesn’t it? Give praise when praise is due.

It’s hard to imagine that those problems in the Philippi Church would survive such a strategy; Rejoice in the Lord, be nice to each other, don’t be paralysed and side-tracked  by worry and despair, focus on excellence and give praise where praise is due.

Perhaps our day to day problems and concerns might benefit from some Pauline management skills, summed up in the lyrics of the song by Bobby Ferrin:

“Don’t worry, be happy”

Amen.

Reader Joe Pritchard

‘Jesus is our example’ – 1st October, 16th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32.

I’m sure that most if not all of you have at some time heard the phrase, “Is the Pope Catholic?” As far as I’m aware it is in no way intended to be disrespectful to the Pope or to Catholicism & Catholics, it’s usually used to imply that someone has asked a daft question or one to which the answer is so obvious that it needn’t have been asked. For example on a Friday evening my dear husband might say to me “Dearest, would you like to go to the pub?” to which the answer is usually “of course, are you kidding, why do you need to ask???” This may similarly be applied to offers of chips or cake, but enough of my vices. The reason I wanted to mention this phrase, “Is the Pope Catholic?” is because of a little anecdote my sister shared with me a couple of weeks ago which at first made me laugh and then it made me think.

A friend of hers was at work among a group of women and someone asked a question, I can’t remember what it was, but the reply was “is the Pope Catholic?” A few seconds later a younger member of the team piped up “I’ve Googled him and yes he is. Why did you want to know? This made everyone laugh including me when my sister told me about it. Then I thought “Oh dear, religion really is in rather more trouble than we thought”. This young woman genuinely had no idea who the Pope is and I rather suspect that she is not on her own and that ignorance about religion and religious culture, customs and practices is getting more common, at least in this part of the world.

Now some might say “So what? Who cares? Why should it matter when so many people no longer regard themselves as religious in any way and many of those who do have some degree of belief don’t necessarily know much about religion and don’t think it’s important enough to pay any attention to? It’s a fair question. In my opinion it needs a meaningful and thought provoking answer because it does matter to all of us, the religious and non-religious alike.

It can be tempting to some to regard religion as out-dated and irrelevant because so often it seems to be about church that is constantly fighting with itself, a God they don’t believe in, reading bibles that they don’t understand, following rules that are inconvenient and putting up with rituals that often seem meaningless. What they fail to appreciate is that religion, or should I say religions, have been a very important part of our cultures for centuries and have been very instrumental in shaping the peoples we became and the ways and values we have lived by. While these have often been far from perfect they have to a large extent provided a framework that has enabled us to live and work together as societies far better than if everyone had been left to fend for themselves.

If we are getting it even vaguely right, faith in God forces us to look at ourselves critically and ask whether we are putting into practice in our daily lives the values we say we believe in and hopefully this makes us better people and collectively a better society. That’s what has been going on for hundreds of years and in so many ways most of us have largely benefitted from that culture.

However, for the past century, probably since the end of the First World War and largely because of it, increasing numbers of people have struggled with religious faith and left the church. They found it hard to reconcile the existence of a loving & all powerful God with the slaughter and cruelty of that war. I think it was from the 1950’s onward that this disconnect from church-going accelerated and in the last few decades, in this part of the world it has become very marked and worrying, for those of us who care.

Again it’s reasonable to ask why this matters because to a large extent the same standards that we value have been maintained. But again those who ask “Why does it matter?” fail to recognise that the generations from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, whether religiously observant or not, grew up in a society that was still strongly influenced by the values of the faith based culture that still existed. However, this can no longer be relied on. If you have not read Alan Billings excellent book “Lost Church” I would thoroughly recommend that you do so because he explains this process far more eloquently than I ever could.

I would never for one moment suggest that religions have a monopoly on good morals and values because they don’t but at their best, and I would stress at their best, they have played a big part in instilling and nurturing these. This brings me back to our young lady who didn’t know who the Pope is. As more people grow up without any exposure to or appreciation of religious faith I wonder where that leaves them when science and reason and hard evidence don’t provide all the answers. In a world where we seem to be being pushed to be more self-centred, self-absorbed, self-indulgent and self-important, without a strong moral compass what is there to encourage us to look beyond ourselves and our own wants and needs and to make us question what we think or believe? Why should we not be selfish when that’s how the world around us seems to be and the rewards for selfishness so plentiful? As I said, religions don’t have a monopoly on goodness but it’s a tall order for any parent to instil good values like humility, unselfishness & compassion when they are not a strong or valued part of the prevailing culture. Yes we need to be aware and savvy and streetwise in order to survive and get on in today’s busy world. We have to know how to develop and promote ourselves in our careers or in our day to day dealings with the many people and institutions we encounter or we will just get left behind or over-looked or worse still not even noticed and it isn’t good to be naïve about this but being all about the self isn’t enough.

Contrary to what some people think, being a person of faith doesn’t mean you have to be bland or a door mat. There is nothing wrong with having a healthy degree of self-worth, especially if you believe that God made you and values you. But hopefully our faith also encourages us to value others and their needs too including those we will never meet, never know and some we might not particularly like or agree with. I find it truly frightening how increasing numbers of people think it’s OK to attack and vilify and bully and intimidate those who don’t share their views and beliefs. Sadly we are all too familiar with this from extremists and fundamentalists of all shades but now it seems to be becoming more common in everyday matters such as gender, sport or politics and for some it’s become an acceptable form of behaviour. Well it isn’t acceptable, it never has been and we need to make sure we don’t get sucked into it or just as importantly, silenced by it. We need to hold onto our values and to valuing each other.

In our Gospel reading from St Matthew we hear how once again the chief priests and the elders try to trap Jesus and prevent him from teaching. They want to tie him and everyone else up with rules and laws of which they are the judges in order to keep them in line. They won’t tolerate anyone doing anything without their approval and they can’t bear it when Jesus ties them in knots with their own rules and won’t be cowed into silence. Humility, even after being proved wrong doesn’t seem to be on their radar. We can all make mistakes or misunderstand and get things wrong but lacking the humility to admit it and make amends is not good. How much trouble and grief is caused because people can’t say “I was wrong”. Why do we seem so incapable or unwilling to learn from the mistakes of the past but just go on repeating them because we can’t be seen to lose face? The chief priests and elders had evolved a very precisely prescribed regime which they used to retain a tight control of the people they tended to regard as lesser than themselves. They did this in the name of religion but somewhere along the line, because they lacked humility they ended up effectively cutting God out of the process and making themselves important. I fear that in our modern world the same sort of thing is happening but the ones doing the silencing and trying to enforce their own ideas of conformity are many and varied from the individuals who troll on the internet to the biggest organisations who sometimes abuse their power.

What does religious faith have to offer in the face of all this you may wonder? As ever, Jesus is our example. He had both strength and humility and used them to good effect. He stood against the prevailing culture and challenged what was wrong. St Paul encourages us to do likewise and I think it’s worth repeating what he says,

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus.”

Let us pray that God will give us the humility, strength and courage to do this in our lives. Amen.

Reader Kath Boyd

‘The last word’ – 24th September, 15th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Jonah 3:10-end.

I’m a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  When I was a student I bought a building brick of a book published by Penguin that included all the novels and short stories.  I read through them happily until I was most of the way through ‘The Valley of Fear’ only to find the rest of the novel was missing.  It took me another 5 years to find out what happened….

I don’t know about you, but when I get to the end of tonight’s reading from Jonah,  I start flipping pages to see whether I’ve lost a bit.  God asks the question about Nineveh…

And that’s your lot. Nothing else; no reply from Jonah, that’s the end.

Our reading leaves Jonah pondering a question from God; what happened next? We have no guidance as to the fate of Jonah!   Was his mind changed? Did he live out his days in his scrappy little hut?

Your guess is as good as mine.

We have to assume that the writer of Jonah did this for a reason; that they felt that the ending was ‘fit for purpose’.  For us, the question tonight is ‘What is the purpose? Why does the book end with that question about the Assyrians?’

Let’s take a brief look at how Jonah got to this place.

Jonah had been tasked by God to go to the city of Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrians, and preach to the people, that if they didn’t mend their ways they would be destroyed.  Jonah, knows that God can be merciful, and feels that he would be wasting his time if he went to Nineveh. He disobeys God, and decides to run off in the other direction.  He takes a ship, the sailors believe him to be cursed and throw him in to the sea, where he gets taken in to the belly of a large fish, lives there for 3 days, prays to the LORD who causes the fish to vomit Jonah up on dry land.  Jonah is again told by the Lord to go to Nineveh – this time, he does what he’s told, and preaches the word of God so convincingly that the King of Nineveh says

All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

And that brings us to where we meet up with Jonah this evening. The fact that Nineveh is still standing at this point is quite interesting in itself.  The other Old Testament books about the minor prophets often involve states and cities that have been enemies of the people of Israel, that are then punished in some way by God. Nineveh was a major rival of Israel, and yet God has shown his mercy.  Jonah angrily prays to the Lord, telling God “I told you so!”:

“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?”

And he then goes on to tell God that he’d rather die than live.  This seems to me to be quite an over-reaction from Jonah.  The Lord has shown mercy to the city and it’s people – and because of that Jonah would like to be dead?

What’s this telling us about Jonah?

We know from earlier in the book that Jonah hated the Assyrians.  Jonah was prejudiced and something of a bigot towards them; he may have had good reason in his eyes – who knows.  And it’s very clear he’s angry – what my mum would have called ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’ angry.

In the novel, ‘Moby Dick’,  Father Mapple  preaches a sermon on Jonah in which he says that Jonah’s sin is “wilful disobedience.”  Which is spot-on.  But we still don’t really get any idea as to why he is so angry.

God questions Jonah’s right to be angry; after all, we’re talking about Jonah being petulantly angry with God’s decision here.  But God doesn’t punish Jonah; he sets out to engage with him.  After Jonah leaves the city to sulk, and sits under a homemade shelter, God sends him a bush to offer shelter and respite from the sun.  This pleases Jonah; he’s less pleased the following morning when God causes the bush to die and sends a heat wave for good measure.

And again, Jonah says to God that it would be better for him to die.  God points out that Jonah’s concerned about the fate of a bush that he was given as a gift, which he didn’t work to grow, and that came and went within 24 hours.  And he goes on to say:

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”

That question isn’t answered by Jonah. It’s just left hanging there.

Can WE answer it? Looking at Jonah’s behaviour and concerns during his adventures, we see that whatever happens to Jonah, his main concern is whether it’s what he wants to happen.  If something happens that isn’t what he wants, he takes his bat and ball home and states to God that he would prefer to die.  The removal of a bush or the salvation of a whole city of 120,000 people are much the same to him; it’s not what Jonah wants; therefore Jonah throws a magnificent strop.

So, as well as having issues with anger management, being a bigot, he’s also self-absorbed and egotistical, self-important and self-centred. Proud, and, ‘wilfully disobedient’.  I don’t know about you, but Jonah sounds awfully like me on a bad day.

Maybe that’s why the writer of the book of Jonah leaves it as he does – to make all of us Jonah.  God is engaging with us – as he did with Jonah.

We all have our own versions of Nineveh – those people who we just don’t like, the things that make us angry.  At the back of our minds we know that God loves these folks just like he loves us, and that despite our best efforts God will continue to work through us – as he does with Jonah.

Jonah couldn’t deal with the God’s grace that was being manifested to Nineveh; that ‘undeserved and unearnable’ love that God offers us all.

I know I have trouble taking grace on board; like Jonah, I like things my way and sometimes God’s grace may push in to my life in ways I’m not ready for. God’s grace is something we just have to receive and accept.

And the other thing about the ending of the book of Jonah? As always, God gets the last word.

Amen.

Reader Joe Pritchard