Sunday, 12 April 2020

Resurrection, again

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Provoking Faith - Easter Sunday - 12/4/20

Listen to this sermon here:

Mark 16.1-8

This is a very strange Easter Sunday,
            and the least strange thing about it
            is that I’m giving my sermon in my kitchen.

Normally, by this point in our journey from Palm Sunday to Easter Day,
            we have shared the meal in the upper room,
                        waited through Gethsemane,
            wept at the cross,
                        sat through the darkness of Saturday,
            and reached, finally, the moment of resurrection and new life.

Except, today, we are in a strange situation:
            we are proclaiming and celebrating resurrection
            in the midst of a time of fear, death and suffering.

Our usual messages of hope and joyful Eastertide are not the message for today.
            Because today we join with those who, throughout Christian history,
                        have had to work out what it means
            to proclaim resurrection when there is very little good news in sight.

Today we stand with those who have celebrated Easter
            in times of war, in famine, in disaster, and in plague.

And my hope is that as we do so,
            we will discover a fresh revelation of God’s faithfulness,
            that will sustain us over the days, months, and years ahead.

Because, of course, the world is never free from suffering:
            Easter is always celebrated in a world where darkness casts a long shadow.
And for the good news of resurrection to have meaning at any time,
            it has to also have meaning today.

The Good News does not only apply
            when the news is good.

And this is why I’m glad that this year’s Easter Bible reading
            comes to us from Mark’s gospel,
stopping where Mark originally intended his gospel to end:
            at the empty tomb,
            with the women fleeing in terror, amazement, and fear.

These first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ
            experienced it in the midst of grief and fear,
and their discovery that the tomb was empty
            was something that added to, rather than immediately alleviated,
            the intensity of their emotions.

The conviction that the power of places of darkness is broken
            is not easily won,
and the significance of the empty tomb
            is not easily understood.

For the women,
            who had gathered around Jesus at the cross and watched him die,
                        along with all their hopes, dreams, and longings for a better world,
            the tomb was supposed to contain nothing but the evidence of further decay.
The unexpected absence of the evidence of death
            was not, for them, an immediate panacea
            that restored everything they had lost.

What it was, was a disruptive indication
            that the evidence of Death’s power was no longer where it should have been,
            and that in its place was an empty space….

They weren’t immediately confronted with the resurrected Christ,
            just a mysterious young man, sitting where the body should have been,
telling them that the one they sought was no longer there,
            and that they needed now to go and tell Peter and the disciples
            that Jesus would be found in Galilee, back where the whole thing had started.

And so the gospel ends, at least in its original form,
            and it seems that the story is circular.

The disciples encounter Jesus, they hear his call,
            they follow him, and realise that he is the Messiah;
but then death and suffering comes,
            and their misplaced hopes for revolution are nailed to a cross.
And then they have to find him all over again,
            and, I would suggest, again, and again, and again.

T.S. Eliot captures something of this circularity
            of the experience of life lived in faith,
            in his poem Little Gidding,

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.[1]

It turns out that the significance of the resurrection
            is that it is not the end.
Rather, it is that which enables
            the living of life in a new way to begin.

Resurrection is that which brings new life into being
            precisely where it is most needed and least expected.

Resurrection is a journey through suffering,
            which breaks the power of sin and death
            to determine the value of a human life.

Resurrection is not release from suffering,
            nor is it an excuse from mortality.
Rather, it is the invitation to live anew,
            to start again, and again, and again;
to experience freedom and hope
            in the midst of restriction and despair.

Resurrection is the gift of faith
            which is the assurance of things hoped for,
            and the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11.1)
It is the hope of new life,
            and the anticipation of a new start.

Ched Myers says that,
‘the power of Mark’s gospel ultimately lies
            not in what it tells the readers,
            but in what it asks of them’.[2]

The challenge to us of the resurrection
            is for us to start again, and again, and again,
            this path of discipleship that many of us have been treading for so many years.

Just as the disciples had to return to Galilee to find the resurrected Christ,
            so we too have to return to our lives, for our experiences of resurrection.

Like the women, we too lack definitive proof of resurrection,
            and at times like this, the power of death can overwhelm the hope we cling to.
But this is precisely when resurrection breaks in upon us,
            as we look into the darkness of the tomb,
                        expecting to encounter nothing but the stench of death,
            and finding instead an emptiness that points to something beyond.

The open-endedness of Mark’s gospel
            means that, with the first disciples,
            we have to look to the future, and to the community of faith
            for the evidence of resurrection.

We have to look into the tomb,
            and work it out again, and again, and again.
And we will discover our resurrected faith
            as we seek Jesus in the ordinariness of our lives;
waiting, and waiting, and waiting,
            trusting ‘that the message we proclaim is pointing us beyond this moment,
            into God’s ultimate purpose which is life’.[3]

I’d like to close with a quote from a friend of mine,
            who just happens to have been elected as the next President of the Baptist Union.

His name is Geoff Colmer,
            and he wrote an article this week in the Baptist Times
            in which he said:

The counterpoint to waiting is hope.
            Hope isn’t optimism, positive thinking, glass half-full.
                        Hope isn’t wishful thinking.
            It isn’t a fantasy that someday our boat will come in.
                        It isn’t the ability to watch the news
                        and pretend that everything’s ok really.
Hope is a vision of life that is defined by God's promise,
            irrespective of what the situation looks like
and then, without denying the facts or turning away from the news,
            lives out that vision based upon God's promise,
trusting that the God who is love is with us, and for us,
            and intimately involved in our lives,
and relentlessly at work bringing good out of even the most painful situations.[4]

[2] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 403.
[3] Quote from the Narrative Lectionary Podcast.

Friday, 10 April 2020

The stations of the cross and the stages of grief

A sermon for Good Friday, 10 April 2020

In some Christian traditions,
            the journey towards the cross is marked by a process
            known as the ‘stations of the cross’.

This is a replication of the route Jesus was traditionally believed to have walked
            through Jerusalem as he carried his cross.

Pilgrims to Jerusalem continue to walk the way of the cross,
            or Via Dolorosa as it is known,
pausing at each of the stations of the cross to remember stories
            such as Jesus stumbling, meeting his mother,
                        having his cross carried by Simon of Cyrene,
            St Veronica wiping his face with a cloth, and so on.

This pilgrimage journey has its roots party in the scriptural stories of Jesus’ death,
            but also in the many traditions that emerged about Jesus’ final hours
            in the early centuries of the Christian tradition.

However, its historicity isn’t really the point.
            The power of the pilgrimage of the stations of the cross,
                        whether undertaken in Jerusalem or through the use of icons or images,
            is that it invites those doing it to enter into the story,
                        to spend time with the pain and suffering and death,
                        and to not rush too soon to the happy ending.

Baptists are not normally known for observing the stations of the cross,
            but I do wonder if at this time,
            we have something we can learn from this ancient pilgrimage tradition.

Sometimes, you can’t rush to the happy ending.
            Sometimes, you just have to stay with the pain,
                        and the suffering, and the death.
            Sometimes you just have to wait.

And this is not easy.

It’s not easy at the best of times,
            but it’s even more difficult when the pain, suffering and death
                        are visiting our own world, our county, our city,
                        perhaps even our families and friends.

Each of us is having to make our own, personal, journey towards the cross;
            and whilst we gather in online spaces such as this one,
nonetheless this year we are more disconnected, more isolated, more alone
            than any other Holy Week in recent generations.

And this is not easy.
            It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s painful.
Because this year,
            the story of the cross resonates so strongly with our own story.

We are not passive observers of the disciples, the women,
            and the crowds around Jesus as he walks the way of the cross.
We are part of the procession,
            we are making the journey ourselves,
            and we are feeling the grief, the loss, and the pain.

I’ve heard a few people in the last couple of weeks
            refer to the experience of the Coronavirus lockdown
                        as an experience of grief.

We may, or may not, have lost loved ones ourselves;
            but we are all experiencing loss.

We have lost our freedom, we have lost our normality,
            we have lost our sense of connection with others;
we have lost our place of worship, our place of work, our social lives;
            many are facing loss of income, loss of security, loss of independence.

And this is hard,
            and we are grieving the losses we have already experienced,
            and we are grieving the losses yet to come.

There is a process known as anticipatory grief,
            where you start mourning in advance for a loss not yet experienced.
It’s a kind of anxiety, and it can be all consuming,
            as our mind conjures worst-case-scenarios
            for us to obsess over in the dark watches of the night.

And, at the moment, the end, the exit strategy as the politicians call it,
            seems to reside in the far distance of an uncertain future.

We can feel trapped in our grief at all that has been lost,
            and unable to move on.

And so we experience, not only the stations of the cross,
            but also the stages of grief.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about these in 1969,
            and they resonate now as much as ever.

We will see them playing out in others,
            and we will (if we are self-aware enough) see them in our own lives too.

Some of us are in denial, carrying on as best as we can with normal life,
            telling ourselves that this is a temporary blip,
            and that we’ll all be back to normal in a week or two.

Some of us are experiencing feelings of intense anger,
            irrationally lashing out at others or ourselves
            as we process the frustration of the loss that has been thrust upon us.

Some of us are bargaining, possibly with God,
            seeking to lose ourselves in thoughts of ‘if only…’ or ‘what if…’,
            feeling guilt at the things we didn’t do whilst we had the chance.

Some of us are feeling depression,
            a fog of intense sadness that overwhelms our days
            and saps our ability to function.

And some of us are beginning to get hints of acceptance
            that this world of loss is something we will have to live with,
                        and so we are reaching out,
                        investing time in friendships and ourselves,
            listening to our needs and being gentle with ourselves.

And the thing is, these stages of grief
            are all a necessary part of healing after loss.

They are not experienced in order, or separately;
            they come at us randomly, furiously, like waves washing over us.

This is what it means to live in Good Friday,
            to weep at the foot of the cross,
to pause at the stations of the cross,
            to experience the stages of grief.

And without wanting to rush too quickly to Easter Sunday,
            because none of us are rushing out of this dark valley for some time yet,
            there is still hope in the distant future.

The co-author of The Stages of Grief was a man named David Kessler,
            and he has since written of final, sixth, stage,
            which he calls Finding Meaning.

He suggests that the end result of the experience of grief,
            can be a new meaning in life,
where peace and hope are found in the midst of grief,
            and begin to point to a new future.

The loss cannot be reversed,
            but the future is not hopeless.

So today, as we contemplate the cross,
            let us be alert to ourselves, and to those whom we love.
Let us be kind to one another,
            as we process our grief in different ways.

And let us hold fast to the hope
            that the Good News for all humankind
            is found in the horror of the cross of Christ.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

The Kingdom is coming

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Provoking Faith, 5th April 2020

Mark 11.1-11

On Thursday night, at 8pm,people up and down the country
            turned out of their houses and went into the streets.

Keeping the appropriate distance from one another,
            they shouted, applauded, banged saucepans,
                        and in some cases set off fireworks.

It was, of course the mass demonstration
            of public support for carers and key workers.

On Friday morning, on the Breakfast news,
            BBC reporter Dan Johnson said the following:

‘Someone once said that the NHS
            is the closest we have to our own religion.
If so, this is our new regular act of worship.’

A bit of Googling on my part revealed that he was quoting Nigel Lawson,
            former Chancellor of the Exchequer for the Conservative party,
who actually said,
            ‘the NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion’.

And I don’t want to get overly party political,
            but I do observe the irony
in the fact that the current national emergency
            has made the National Health Service an unassailable deity for these days;
demanding such unambiguous and ubiquitous adoration and sacrificial investment,
            that even our Prime Minister rose from his bed of sickness
            to stand alone on the steps of No.10 applauding the NHS.

Whereas the last ten years of political decisions
            about health spending and privatisation
might have led one to conclude that the NHS had become a golden calf
            in need of breaking up and melting down for profit.

How times change.

And I wonder, will they change again,
            when the current crisis is past?
Will we end up with future manifestos
            moving us once more towards a privatised and reduced National Health Service?

I hope not.

But people are fickle,
            and can turn from adulation to anathema in a matter of days.

Just ask Jesus,
            applauded and adored as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday,
            only to be hated and scapegoated by the end of the week.

Crowd mentality can turn on a dime,
            particularly when people are scared, hurting, and desperate.

And Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem
            was a carefully staged exercise in ‘messianic street theatre’ (Ched Myers),
designed to tap into the public desperation
            for release from the tyranny of the Roman Empire
            that had dominated their lives for decades.

The people of Judea were longing for a messiah,
            someone who would save them from the hostile occupation
            that was taking their money, their liberty, and their freedom of worship.

The Jewish scriptures offered a hope for such a figure,
            who was often held to be a so-called ‘son of David’,
                        a rightful heir to David’s mythologised kingdom;
            someone who would restore Israel’s political borders,
                        and bring freedom and dignity
                        to those currently living in fear, pain, and desperation.

There had been messianic uprisings before,
            most notably the Maccabean revolt
                        a Jewish rebellion, lasting from 167 to 160 BC,
            led by the Maccabees family against the Hellenistic empire
                        that had ruled Israel before the Romans.

You can read about it in the book of 1 Maccabees,
            which is in the apocrypha section of our church Bibles,
and if you do you’ll discover that one of the key revolutionaries,
            a man named, rather pleasingly, Simon,
laid siege to Jerusalem, and when he had taken the city for the rebels,
            staged a triumphal entry into the city.

Here’s the quote:

1Maccabees 13.51-52
On the twenty-third day of the second month,
            in the one hundred seventy-first year,
the Jews entered [Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches,
            and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments,
                        and with hymns and songs,
            because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.
Simon decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing.

It turns out that Simon Maccabaeus knew exactly what he was doing
            when he staged his triumphal entry,
because he knew the book of Zechariah in the Hebrew Scriptures
            which indicated that the day of Jerusalem’s messianic liberation
                        would be signalled by a victorious leader entering the city in triumph,
                        like a general returning from battle.

Zechariah 9.9
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
            Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he,
            humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

If you were going to be a revolutionary Jewish messiah,
            there was, it seems, a template to follow:
and Jesus followed it to the letter,
            carefully combining elements of both Zechariah and Maccabees.

Then if you throw in a reference to Psalm 118,
            you’ve got the complete package,
and we see this as the crowd welcoming Jesus
            quote from the messianic psalm, shouting:

Save us! [Hosanna]! … Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
(Psalm 118.25-26)

There’s no mistaking it,
            this is a triumphal entry setting up Jesus as the Jewish messiah.

It’s interesting, isn’t it,
            that almost half of the text of Mark’s narrative of the triumphal entry
                        is given over to the setup,
                        with the whole ‘find me a donkey’ cameo…

None of this is happening by accident,
            it’s a carefully staged piece of messianic street theatre,
designed to get the crowd cheering their messiah,
            who was entering Jerusalem
            in fulfilment of all their expectations of liberation.

But there’s a twist coming,
            because even as the crowd hail Jesus
                        as the one who will revive Great David’s kingdom,
            Jesus has already told his disciples that his revolution, his kingdom,
                        will not be a political restoration,
                        and it won’t even be a religious revival.

He’s not coming to fight,
            he’s not coming to re-establish Jewish freedom,
            he’s not coming to cleanse the temple of Roman occupation.

Jesus is marching on the city
            to do battle with the ideologies of nationalism and Zionism
            that perpetuate systems of violence.

He’s going to Jerusalem to defeat the deep forces of evil,
            not their temporary temporal manifestations.

His parody of a military insurgency
            is designed to highlight the problem, not the solution.

And the problem is this:
            The people are addicted to the culture of the quick fix.

They long for someone to ride into their lives in triumph,
            and offer them a way out of their problems.

They will stand in the streets and shout and applaud
            anyone who seems to offer them hope in their darkness.

And Jesus is coming to give them a message that they don’t want to hear,
            which is that sometimes the path to the new world
            involves a long and difficult journey
            through a time of suffering, death, and isolation.

And, as we will discover over the course of the next week,
            the crowd will not learn this lesson easily.
In fact they will change their allegiance from Jesus to Barabbas,
            continuing to cheer the violent revolutionary
            in place of the ‘dissident of meekness’ (Martyn Joseph).

And as we consider our response,
            as we make own journeys
            through this time of suffering, death, and isolation,
I wonder, I wonder… what we are applauding today,
            that we will shout crucify at tomorrow?

Can we see through the culture of the quick fix?
            Can we find a way past our national obsession
                        with technology as the path to salvation?

Can we inhabit a commitment to a better and more sustainable way of being human,
            where we are kind to each other and our planet.

I wonder…

Can we discover in this time
            that Christ invites us to a deeper journey through life,
where we address the questions of what it means to be mortal,
            and where we discover grace in the midst of human frailty?

Can we encounter the community of love even as we live in isolation,
            and realise that what binds us to one other
            is far more than what might divide us?

Can we recognise how easily we scapegoat others,
            and learn to reject narratives of ‘me and mine’,
in favour of a commitment to the love of neighbour,
            and of care for those who are vulnerable?

I wonder, in essence,
            whether we can recognise the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims?
Or will we end up being seduced once again
            by the kingdoms of power and violence,
that feed our addiction to the quick fix,
            but starve us of deep love and communion.

The Kingdom of Christ knows no boundaries,
            it loves all, embraces all,
and invites us to live the love of God into being in our daily lives,
            as we live lives of sacrifice,
taking up our own crosses, and following Jesus.