Preaching in season and out of season…what to say after the Grenfell Tower tragedy?

Standard

Today was the first time I’ve had to preach and take note of current events – I think all the other times there has been a major event in the news that my Training Incumbent has been around and so she has taken on the preaching on those occasions. But today, it fell to me to preach (as she is away) and I knew that I couldn’t *not* mention the recent terrible tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Already, when I first checked the gospel reading set for today, this verse jumped out at me:

Matt 9 36

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36

And it raised a wry smile initially as this was immediately after the election result was announced.

I had no idea that in the end this would still be the verse I would choose to focus on in my sermon – but for quite a different reason than I originally thought.

Here is a slightly edited version of what I preached this morning:

I don’t know about you but too many times recently I’ve had a bad feeling in my stomach when I’ve woken up to either switch on the radio or check the news on my phone. Recently it’s felt like there has been a tremendous tragedy for us to take in every week. Not least this last week with the terrible fire at the Grenfell Tower in London – made even worse by the fact that it was a preventable tragedy. There is understandably a lot of anger around. An uneasy feeling in the pit of the stomach, a mixture of grief and outrage.

In the ancient world, they believed that the centre of the emotions was not the brain or the heart – but the stomach. When you think about it, it makes sense. Our young people have been doing their exams these last few weeks, I can remember the feeling I got just before an exam – it was always in my stomach, a queasy feeling. Or, when you’re thrilled about seeing someone you love, that feeling you might describe as butterflies in your stomach – a lighter feeling of anticipation. Even now, we often say ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this’ or we talk about ‘gut instincts’. In Greek, the language that the New Testament was written in, there is a word, a funny sounding word that is only used a few times, that word is splagchnizomai and it means to be moved from the bowels or for your stomach to flip upside down (as someone rather graphically put it to me!) Our version of the bible translates this word as compassion and we heard it in our Gospel reading this morning:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

Jesus saw the crowds of people coming to him with all manner of needs and he had a reaction in the pit of his stomach. A reaction of compassion, of pity, of love.

Where else in the Gospels is Jesus described as having this reaction? He has this compassion when he sees the widow attending her son’s funeral. Jesus is moved to compassion when he hears two blind men calling out to him for healing. Jesus is moved to compassion for the crowd of 5000 people that have come to hear him speak and have gone without food all day. Interestingly the same word is also used to describe the response of the Good Samaritan when he sees the man lying by the roadside and to describe the response of the father of the Prodigal Son as he sees him at a distance returning home.

The interesting thing about Jesus’ gut reaction of love is that it is always accompanied by action. Jesus has the feeling in the pit of his stomach and then he acts, he heals, he transforms, he feeds.

In the gospel reading we had today, Jesus’ action on having compassion on the crowd of helpless sheep is to send the disciples to them, to do his work of healing and transformation.

Jesus says to the disciples whom he has called by name, ‘Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and as you go, proclaim the Good News ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near’. As you go – in other words, set off and while you’re talking about the kingdom, show them what it looks like!

Jesus tells the disciples to ask the Lord to send labourers into the harvest and then promptly reveals to them that they are those labourers! Perhaps we are those labourers!

Compassion means very little without action. The letter of James says ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ (James 2)

We might well ask, ‘where is God in all this?’ when we look at the footage of that burning tower. But in the gut reactions of compassion of people of many different backgrounds and religions we can see an outpouring of love and support in churches, mosques and community centres. We saw it in Manchester as homeless men ran into the bombed arena to carry out injured children. We saw it in the Muslim doctors who worked through the night to operate on the injured. We saw it in the response of ordinary people to the attack on London Bridge.

Where there is compassion and action – there is Jesus – working in and through us to bring wholeness and healing.

Jesus looks on us with compassion, he has an angry gut reaction to the injustice in our world and then he rises to act, with healing in his wings.

Let us each find a way to ensure that not only do we have that gut reaction of compassion but that we also demonstrate that love of God in action – reaching out to those around us in need, being a voice for the voiceless, sharing our resources, knowing that as Jesus sends each one of us, he equips us with his Holy Spirit to do his work.

 

What I learned about preaching from watching Masterchef

Standard

I gorged on Masterchef in my week off after Easter as I’d missed that a new series was on and so watched 13 episodes back to back in bed on my iPad! I’ve already managed to get that into a sermon (I preached on the gospel where Jesus asks for a piece of fish all about the centrality of food to the resurrection accounts!)

Watching Masterchef on my iPad

Watching Masterchef on my iPad

Watching so many episodes in a row enabled me to see the progress of the contestants ‘up close’ so to speak. This made me reflect a bit on my last year as a deacon and particularly on how I’ve developed as a preacher.

At the beginning of Masterchef, the contestants like to show off any special techniques they know. There’ll be something sous vide; there’ll be a smear of some kind of puree on the plate; there’ll be a quenelle somewhere; perhaps some crisped chicken skin and, this year, lots of the desserts included some kind of ‘soil’ (not very appetising sounding is it?) Usually, they either mess up the technique or get them right but just have too many ingredients on the plate.

I know my sermons were like this right at the beginning. Fresh out of theological college with a load of unthumbed bible commentaries I was all ready to show my credentials, to show off stuff that I’d found out. What would happen when I appeared before the ‘judges’ was that they said things like ‘this purée here was delicious but was totally overpowered by your sauce, that was the only thing we could taste’.

As the Masterchef series goes on you start to see contestants learn to keep things simple, put fewer ingredients on the plate, not give themselves so many processes to follow under the tight time constraints available.

I have started to learn the same things. I’ve learnt that I don’t necessarily have to preach on every verse of that week’s gospel reading – focusing on just one verse can work (and let’s face it, with at least 30 years in ministry ahead of me, God-willing, I will preach through the lectionary quite a few times!) I’ve also learnt that it’s a good idea to source your ingredients locally – this will then resonate with the congregation better.

I’m definitely not Masterchef final standard yet, but I’m learning and the metaphor of the Masterchef signature dish is one I will keep in mind each time I sit down to prepare a sermon. Think: ‘what would Gregg and John say if this sermon was a dish?’

Sermon on the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) – Sunday before Lent

Standard

All Souls' Church, LeedsIt was such a delight to be able to preach at All Souls’ in Leeds today (pictured) – this is the church I attended when I was at university the first time around – about 15 years ago!

The reading was from the Gospel according to Luke:

The Transfiguration

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

It’s often tempting, when thinking about the Transfiguration to talk about ‘mountain top’ experiences with God and hope that we will all get to experience God in a dramatic thunder and lightning way and regularly. Some Christians spend their whole time wishing for a dramatic experience of God and then wonder why they’re disappointed. Dramatic encounters of God are rare – even for saints such as St Peter. These flashes of God’s glory are incredibly rare both for the ordinary and extraordinary Christian.

I don’t think the story of the transfiguration is there to tell us we can all have a mountain top experience of God. I think it’s there to reveal to us who Jesus really is.

It feels like Jesus here lets Peter, James and John peer behind the curtain to see who He really is. So let’s have a peer behind the curtain ourselves.

Jesus takes just Peter, James and John to pray with him. Incredibly, they are heavy with sleep when they get to the top of the mountain. Can you think of another occasion where Jesus takes Peter, James and John to pray with him and they fall asleep? It made me straight away think of the garden of Gethsemane. I think this shows something of the disciples’ inability to comprehend Jesus. On the mountain top, the divinity of Christ is revealed to them. They are woken up by the flashing light – the word used to describe Jesus’ dazzling appearance is the same as that used to describe lightning. The disciples are woken out of their ignorance, their sleeping, to see the light of Christ. In the garden of Gethsemane, the humanity of Christ is fully revealed to them. They are woken up by Jesus to see him going to his death. The fact that they are asleep on both occasions speaks to me of the difficulty of really comprehending who Jesus is, who God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is – the deep Trinitarian mystery at the heart of our faith.

At college recently we had a talk from an Orthodox priest and he was telling us about the iconostasis which is the screen that is put up in front of the altar in Orthodox churches . On certain occasions in the year, the screen is opened up for people to see through. This only happens at certain times such as Easter week. As Father Andrew was speaking, it made me think about how we, as Christians, only see rare glimpses of God. Much of the time we are either asleep, like the disciples, or experiencing hardship, rather than seeing the glory of God on the mountain top. Indeed if we were really to see God in all His glory we would be perplexed and terrified, just as Peter, James and John were. I’m not sure the experience they had was altogether comfortable!

So Peter, James and John are woken up from their sleep by this lightning flashing and somehow discern that Jesus is speaking to the two great figures of Judaism – Moses and Elijah. These were men who were long-dead. What this does is point to the reality of resurrection.

Peter decides he needs to do something. Don’t you just love Peter? I think if he were around today, he’d have tried to take a photograph – I know I would have! His, rather strange, response, is to want to create tents for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. All the text tells us is that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’. Perhaps he was trying to preserve what he could see – in the way we might take a photo now. Perhaps he was trying to be religious, showing how he wanted to worship. What is interesting is that as soon as he suggests making these tents the cloud descends with the voice of God. The cloud and voice intervene just as Peter is trying to give equal importance to Moses, Elijah and Jesus. But we know that Jesus is the very image of God, the firstborn over all creation (Col 1:15) – he is not equal to Moses and Elijah – he is their God.  Moses represents for Jews the Law and Elijah represents the prophets. What happens on the mountain is a visual representation of what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel:

‘do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them’ – Mt 5:17.

Peter, James and John are given a revelation of who Jesus really is. We see quite clearly that Jesus is on a level with God himself. He’s not just a good teacher, he is God incarnate.

So, we, just before the contemplative and sometimes difficult season of Lent, are given a glimpse of who Jesus really is, resurrected, ascended, glorified; we must keep this reality in our minds as we journey towards Easter.

Prayer labyrinth at Shepherd's Dene retreat houseA while ago I had the experience of walking a prayer labyrinth. A prayer labyrinth is a circular path which you walk on slowly and contemplatively. The path winds into a central space and back out again. These labyrinths appeared in medieval times – there is a famous one in Chartres cathedral – it ended up in the Da Vinci Code! These labyrinths were created so that Christians who couldn’t afford to go on a full pilgrimage to a foreign land could go on a ‘mini’ pilgrimage a bit closer to home. Walking the path for the first time it felt as if the path represented my life with God. When I started the prayer labyrinth, for the entire first half I was desperate to get to the middle. The centre of the labyrinth represents communion with God. I spent most of the first part of the walk looking forward to getting to the middle and thinking about what would happen when I got there. Once I did get to the middle, it didn’t feel all that different. I felt God saying to me ‘did you not think I was already with you?’ I realised that the presence of God was in the whole of my journey of life. It was as if the presence of God was like a river running through that path – perhaps deeper in the middle but the water a soothing presence throughout. As I left the middle of the labyrinth to wind my way back to the beginning I had a whole new perspective. I realised that, although there are times when we feel particularly close to God – just like Peter, James and John experienced on the mountain – He is actually with us all the time. He is the paraclete, the Holy Spirit, the one who comes alongside.

So be encouraged as we go into Lent, the resurrected Christ is with us throughout our journey of life, whether we are in darkness, or whether we are on the mountain top, He journeys with us and is the only one we should listen to.

—————————————————————————————————————————–

In the interests of sermon construction, here is a section that I wanted to use but didn’t make the final cut!

There is something fascinating about the fact that the ‘transfigured’ Jesus is still recognisably Jesus. This reminds me of the story of the road to Emmaus, where the disciples at first don’t recognise the resurrected Jesus and then, suddenly, they know it is him, in the breaking of the bread. The sacrament in which we are about to take part has this mystery – the very presence of Christ in simple bread and wine – both a hiding and a revealing of who God is.