Monthly Archives: September 2021

Trinity 16 – 19th September – Penny Ashton

Trinity 16 – James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8 and Mark 9: 30 – 37

Where does the real power lie nowadays?  As I am writing this, the government is in the middle of a cabinet reshuffle, and my phone keeps giving me updates about who is in and who is out.  Does being in the cabinet confer power upon a person?  We tend to think so, but I have spoken to people who have been elected into various offices – not at cabinet level, but certainly to Parliament, and the one thing they have all agreed upon is that once you get there, you quickly realise how little you can actually do.

On the other hand, I find it quite alarming the amount of power that seems to be available to the media, big businesses and social media, particularly as they all seem to be able to choose how much they actually tell the rest of us, taking away our chance of weighing up the evidence for ourselves, and forming our own judgement.

James is quite clear about the wisest course of action, and he doesn’t find it in the seeking of power.  As he says in our reading today: if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom ….is earthly, unspiritual, devilish’.

If we look at our reading from the gospel, we can see a development in the story.  James, Peter and John have just returned from the mount of the Transfiguration with Jesus to find the other disciples have been unable to heal an apparently epileptic boy who was brought to them by his frantic father.  Worse than this, their failure has been witnessed by a large crowd and the religious leaders.  As they move on from there, Jesus, for the second time as is recounted in Mark’s gospel, teaches the disciples about what is going to happen to him when they get to Jerusalem, and again they are unable to grasp it.  It is easy for us, as we know how things work out, but for them, to be told that the leader whom they have followed and learned from for two or more years is to be executed must appear like a waste of effort.  Surely that is not how the story is supposed to end?  And what does he mean when he says ‘…after three days he will rise?

The one thing we can say for sure about Jesus is that he never tried to fit in.  He was not overtly rebellious, and did not appear to mount any challenge to the powers that be, and yet all his actions went against the norms of society at the time.

When they arrive back at Capernaum, he asks them what they have been talking about on the road.  This must have been one of those moments when nobody wants to catch anyone’s eye in case they are put on the spot.  They realise that squabbling over who is the best does not show anyone in their best light.  The three who went up the mountain with Jesus might have some justification in feeling superior, but you will remember from that story that Peter did not exactly cover himself in glory then either with his well meaning but misguided outburst.

Jesus then explains to them what is really important.  First of all, anyone who wants to be great must put themselves last and seek to serve everyone else.  In the social hierarchy that the disciples would have understood, Jewish men came at the top of the pile and were definitely way above gentiles and women, while children did not count at all.  And yet Jesus is saying that we must put the most insignificant ahead of ourselves if we are to align ourselves with the values of God’s kingdom.

Both James and Jesus are teaching about true power, but neither the disciples, nor probably James’ readers, nor I suspect we have ever really managed to grasp this teaching.  It is relatively easy to understand, until you leave the church and go back into the world to see how it works – and it doesn’t work the Jesus way.  And yet earlier in this reading Jesus has told us exactly where true power lies – and it is power that is available to us at any time we choose to use it.  When the disciples ask him why they were unable to heal the boy Jesus tells them that it only works with prayer.

I wonder how often we pray about the really big things that worry us.  Things like world peace, famines, global warming.  How often do we pray for our government, or for world leaders in general.  How about captains of industry, owners and editors of the news media, sellers of fossil fuels or arms manufacturers and traders.  Do we pray for those who are completely beyond the pale – people smugglers, owners of sweat shops, or trafficers of child labour or sex workers?  We do mention many of these things in our intercessions in church, but do we remember them in our daily private prayers?:   Do I?

Jesus didn’t ever say it was going to be easy, he never said that following him would make us popular.  He did say that it was the only way to work for the coming of God’s Kingdom – the one we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer.  Are we brave enough to be different?  Or should we continue to be British, to keep our ‘  heads down and hope not to be noticed?  Should we accept that things are as they are and there is little we can do to change the whole world?

Two short stories to end with.  One of my favourite quotes is ‘If you think you are too small to have an impact, you have never shared a bed with a mosquito’.  It has been variously attributed to the Dalai Lama and Anita Roddick, but the origin seems to be an African proverb that both of them have at some time quoted.  The second is the story of the small girl who was seen on a beach where thousands of starfish had been washed up and stranded by a storm.  One by one she was picking them up and throwing them back into the water.  A man on the beach stopped her saying ‘There are thousands of starfish here – you can’t possibly make a difference’  Her only reply was to pick up another starfish, and having thrown it into the sea she said ‘I made a difference to that one’..

Trinity 15 – 12th September – Derek Taylor

Mark 8: 27 – end   Who is Jesus?

Jesus asked, ‘Who do people say that I am?’  That’s a strange, but interesting question.  Yet it is not one that springs readily to modern ears.  You can’t expect someone like the Pope or the Dalai Lama to ask: ‘Who do people say that I am?’

I suppose that for many years I personally never really questioned who Jesus was.  My faith was firmly based on God the Father.  After all, Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’.  And Jesus was much more a person sent by God to show us how to live.  I could happily recite in the Creed; ‘God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father’, without it having very much impact.  The thing is, I guess I wanted then and example, not a Saviour.

Yet, if we go back to Jesus’ time on earth, the total expectation was looking for ‘the One who is to come’.  The known world then was in turmoil, much as it is today.  The Romans occupied Israel, and made life hard and difficult, and many people before Jesus had been looked to as possible leaders.  So was this rabbi from Nazareth the one for whom Israel had waited for centuries, the one of whom prophets and psalmists had spoken?  Was Jesus the long-promised Messiah?  (Messiah, incidentally, is the Hebrew word and means The Anointed One.  It is the same word as the Greek Christ.  Yet we tend to use Christ rather as a surname – Jesus Christ, Derek Taylor.  Yet it is Jesus the Anointed One).

Many people had questioned who Jesus was.  After he preached in the synagogue, people asked; ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph?’  They found it hard to accept, in spite of his healing miracles and teaching, that he could be anything other than an exceptional human being.  Yet, at this pivotal moment, before that time on the mountain top when Jesus appeared with Moses and Elijah and the voice from heaven declared; ‘This is my son,’ when only those possessed with evil spirits called out to him as the Son of God,  Peter, articulating the thoughts of the other disciples, when asked the second question by Jesus; ‘Who do you say that I am?’ ranked him greater that Abraham, Moses or any other Old Testament patriarch, king or prophet, and declared; ‘You are the Messiah’.  At last, the long promised one had come.  As Messiah he had unique status, he was God’s accredited representative, his anointed emissary who was to judge mankind. Deliver his people and bring the world to God.  He was akin to God.

It was the right answer and yet it had the wrong ideas behind it.  Peter thought of someone who would overthrow the Romans and set up a material kingdom, whereas Jesus himself taught of a spiritual kingdom established by suffering love.  Right to the end of Jesus’ earthly life, Peter thought he knew best, that his way was better than that of Jesus.  Are we today any better?

We need to learn that God’s way is not man’s way.  In Jesus God shows that He will achieve His victories through suffering love.  The Cross is Jesus’ acceptance of this, and the proof that he was right.  Suffering love DOES conquer.

But Peter and the disciples were just the first to find this difficult.  We too want a cosy discipleship, and aren’t over-worried by its ineffectiveness.  We want to serve humanity in a thousand ways that do not hurt us.  But it is only when we follow the way of costly obedience that we are truly following the suffering Lord.  He never pretended that following him would be easy – the gate is small, the road is narrow and those who find it are few.

So, back to the original question; ‘Who do people say that I am?’  It is not asked today.  Yest it needs to be.  Why are our churches declining so rapidly?  We need to turn to the next question – the more important one; ‘Who do you say that I am?’  Can you answer that?  It is vitally important that we have the right views of Jesus.  Is he divine or only human?  If he is only human, we may gain much from his teachings and example, but that is all.  When we are struggling or tempted we can’t turn to him for personal help.  Not even the holiest of saints in heaven ever reach down to help us.  No more can Jesus, if he is only human.  But if he is divine, he can be to us all that we need as friend, helper, guide, comforter, refuge. So it DOES matter what we believe concerning the person of Jesus.

‘Who do you say that I am?’  It is a question that particularly needs answering in this pandemic.  Do we trust in the power of Jesus, or in man-made rules and regulations?  Where is the voice of God being heard today:  Where are the prophets?  No wonder there is a pandemic: no-one is turning to God; the whole world is neglecting Him.  Are we then, being condemned to 40 years in the wilderness?  Are you a doubter or a truster?  A believer or a sceptic?  Who is Jesus?  A good man of history or the powerful, present person of God?   Surely we don’t put our trust in the edicts of governments nor even the arguments of scientists.  Our trust must be in the Lord Jesus, our God.  He taught us to pray; ‘The Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours NOW and forever’.

We can look back and see what he has done.  We can look forward to see what he can and will do, if we trust.  But…

But, do we ever call out to him to come to our aid, or please for his constant love to save us?  Just look at the Psalms as examples.  There are two things we can do to make sure we are on the right track:

  1. Go home, get out your Bible, preferably a modern version, and give yourself time to read the whole of St Mark’s Gospel: ‘This is the Good News about Jesus Christ’ and then encourage someone else to do the same
  2. Take your courage in both hands, cast aside all inhibitions, and in the course of normal conversation ask people – family, friends, neighbours, anyone; ‘Who do you say Jesus is?’

It may have an amazing ripple effect.  Give it a try.

Trinity 14 – 5th September – Penny Ashton

Mark 7: 24 – end – Jesus heals a deaf man

Our gospel reading today tells of two miracles of healing that Jesus did.   Both of these took place outside of Israel, the first in the region of Tyre and Sidon which is some way to the north and west of Galilee, and the second in the region known as Decapolis – which simply means ten towns which is both south and east of Galilee.  He and the disciples have walked quite a distance.  We are not given a reason, but it seems possible that Jesus needed to escape the crowds for a while, or perhaps spend time teaching his disciples.  We have looked at the story of the Syrophoenician woman quite recently, and so today we will look more closely at the second part of the reading, in which Jesus heals the deaf man.

A friend of mine when I lived in Scotland had a daughter who was profoundly deaf, and I remember his saying to me once that while blindness cuts people off from things, deafness cuts them off from people.  The world of a deaf person can be a very lonely place.  Being unable to hear my sermons might be annoying, but possibly no great hardship, but being able to see your friends laughing together and not share the joke must be frustrating in the extreme.  The deaf community have now developed ways of effective communication through sign language, and some can lip read – a lady we visit regularly does this, and we have to make a point of sitting facing her when we visit so that she can see our faces clearly.  She recently spent some time in hospital, and the chaplain who brought her communion had great problems saying the service as she was wearing a face mask which hid her mouth.  I have occasionally had the privilege of watching a group of deaf people singing, and this whether as part of a choir or not is a beautiful sight.  Unfortunately, signing is only a useful language when both parties to a conversation understand and can use it, which causes more separation between the hearing and the deaf communities.

I wonder how the deaf man’s friends were able to tell him where they were taking him and why?  He would not have been able to hear about Jesus without their support.  It is interesting to note the different way that Jesus treats this man compared to other healing miracles – firstly he takes him away from the crowd.  If the deaf man is to understand what is going on, he needs to be able to see Jesus clearly particularly his face.  Next Jesus touches those parts that need his healing – the man’s ears and his tongue so that he will understand Jesus’ intentions.  Jesus then prays to his Father and the word that he uses – which I think is pronounced ‘Ephphatha’ must sound almost like a sigh, but as we heard means ‘Be opened’, and that was all that was necessary.  Jesus speaking that word must have been the first thing the deaf man had ever heard – it must have sounded so beautiful to him.  His healing was complete with just that word and touch, and the crowds were so overjoyed that they would not be silenced, and I expect that the healed man, having found that he had been given the power of speech found it hard to stop as well!  In this miracle Jesus had shown again how he was fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies about him – in this case from Isaiah 35 v5 which says ‘Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped’

When I was quite small, my mother took me to our GP and told him that she was concerned that I might be deaf.  I don’t know if he actually tested my hearing, but the doctor’s question was to ask her whether she thought I couldn’t hear – or whether I just didn’t listen!  We don’t find it easy to listen well – it is a skill that needs to be practised.  I was concerned to learn recently that young people nowadays consider that only the old will have a ring tone on their phones – as they much prefer their phones to be silent and to message each other than to talk.  Could we be losing the power of conversation – of speaking and more importantly listening?

Most importantly, how to we communicate with God?  It is very difficult not to allow our prayer times to be occasions when we produce a ‘shopping list’ of our concerns to God, and don’t take the time to listen to Him.  There seem to be some people who will tell you that God ‘speaks’ to them often – I wish I was one of them.  My experience is that if I really want to know what God would say to me, then I must try to clear my mind of all the busyness and clutter of daily life and spend some time in silence.  Unlike the deaf man in our story, we live in a noisy world, and people seem very keen to add to their noise – I am constantly surprised by the number of people I see wearing earphones so that they can listen to music or perhaps audio books when they are out and about.  It is worth keeping in mind the lovely words of Psalm 46 v10 – ‘Be still and know that I am God’.  We also read in Mark 6 v31 that Jesus took the disciples off to a deserted place so that they could rest.

It is interesting to note that the Latin word which means to listen or harken to is Obedire which also means to be subject to, obedient, responsible or a slave.  The word for listen is also where we get our word obey – the two are closely linked, and we cannot obey if we have not first listened and taken note.

But even if we manage to escape into stillness, how good are we at really listening?  Listening properly is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced – often we fail to listen to others because we are too busy thinking about where we have to be next, or planning our reply before we have properly heard what they have to say – I have to plead guilty to that one!  How much harder to listen for the still voice of God, but how much more rewarding if, like the man in today’s story, we do manage to hear it.