Monday, 24 September 2012

After Mary's song...

A sermon for St Mary's Patronal festival. Preached on 9th September 2012.
I always get the best reactions from a narrative sermon. 
What did Mary say after singing her song? How did she explain it to others, to herself?

Luke 1:46-55

My soul magnifies the Lord! My Spirit leaps for joy in the God who is my Saviour!

Why did I sing that song?! How? It came from my heart in an uncontrollable stream, as if the words were given to me by God himself. My joy in the Lord felt like it would burst from my body – and I suppose it did - in song. As I approached the house, I saw Elizabeth – obviously with child as my visitor had told me she would be.She cried out as she saw me, feeling her baby leap within her. It seems to me that we have both been richly blessed by God.
But why?

Elizabeth is I suppose the wife of a Temple priest so must have some importance in God’s eyes. But me. I’m no-one. Just a young woman, and only just a woman. Unmarried, living in a small country that was once great through God’s blessing but is now ruled by a foreign army. I’m completely insignificant. A bit of a dreamer of dreams perhaps. But nothing special.

And yet I had that visitor who came and said such strange things  - he told me that I have found favour with God. In spite of my being the least important person I know, God has come to me, chosen me even, to be the mother of a baby who will be a king forever.  A king, forever! This baby, the visitor told me, will grow up to be called the Son of God himself! He’ll be the fulfilment of all that God has promised to us since Abraham. Doesn’t that all sound a bit crazy to you? It does to me too. But I have never been more certain of anything in my whole life. That’s what makes it even more crazy!
I know in my heart and trust in God’s promise that this king will do great things. 
My son will do great things. 
His kingdom will not be like the ones we know now – not even like the great kingdom of David.  This new kingdom will be a place where those who are powerful become as powerless as me. This kingdom - my son’s kingdom will be a place where the thrones humans build are torn down and people who have nothing, and who think of themselves as insignificant nobodies will receive an abundant blessing from God. I know this for sure because God has started already – with me.

He has chosen me, such as I am, to take part in something that seems impossible. No, not impossible, for I know that cousin Elizabeth says, like our ancestors Sarah and Hannah, that nothing is impossible with God. So, not impossible.
But astonishing. Miraculous. Amazing, wonderful - and rather awkward and difficult to explain. Especially to your fiancé.

I can still see the hurt and anger on Joseph’s face when I told him the visitor’s news about the baby that I’ll have. The baby that will come directly from God, and not because of him or any other man. And that it’s already inside me beginning to grow. As crazy as it sounds, I know that it’s true, and I think Joseph wants to try to believe it too. He’s a good man who fears the Lord. But his good reputation will be damaged when my news gets out. And it will. I’m not going to be able to hide this pregnancy forever. Joseph has said he has to think about what he’s going to do. So I’ve come to Elizabeth.

I wish Joseph could share my joy in all this. But he is wise, and knows it’s not going to be easy for either of us. People won’t believe that the baby is from God, and if Joseph publicly says it’s not his, and sends me away, I don’t know what will happen. That scares me.
I do believe that this is all in God’s good plan – but I don’t know why his plan involves such pain, hurt and rejection. Must the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and his family include such pain and disgrace for mine?

But then this new kingdom sounds like trouble. I don’t know much about anything, and nothing at all about powerful people - except it seems that those who have power want to hang on to it. And would not like having their thrones taken away from them – even by God.
I’ve never been rich – I can only imagine what it must be like, such comfort and luxury – no work, and servants to look after the household chores. That all sounds great. But God’s new kingdom will see rich people sent away with nothing. I do know what that’s like, and it’s not fun.
No. I’m guessing the rich and powerful might not like this new kingdom. This revolutionary kingdom can surely only come about at a price. And if the price of the birth of this new king is rejection, humiliation and pain so that God’s mercy will be shown to the poor and weak, then I will pay that price. And what’s more, I will teach my son to do the same.

For my joy in the Lord, my song, comes from knowing the stories of God’s love and mercy taught in the synagogues and in our families. I know that somehow I am a part of that story. That God’s mercy and salvation and the blessing promised to Abraham will be seen in a new way through the son I will have.
My job is to bring this new life, this precious, miraculous life into the world and nurture it so that God’s will can be done. My son is not just for me. In a way I can’t explain, I know he is for everyone. For God’s promise through Abraham is for all nations and generations.
Perhaps some people will think that they’re not important enough to be part of this kingdom. But that’s not true. God will use the least important person I know to do an important job for him. That’s me.

You know, He could be asking you to do something important too. You’re not too insignificant. Do you want to be a part of God’s new kingdom of mercy, love and justice? 
Yes, it’s possible for this kingdom to exist.

For nothing is impossible with God. And that’s why I sing!

The photograph is of a window in the Church at Taizé.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Questions, questions

Sometimes you plan something that you're a little wary of. Sometimes you wonder if it's really going to work. Sometimes you wonder at the last minute whether you really shouldn't change your mind and forget it altogether.

Today was a bit like that.
I was preaching in one of our churches - a small congregation, mostly elderly and mostly those who have worshipped in the church for many years. They are lovely people but concerned about the future of the church, and unsure where to begin to look for growth. Like many of us. they sometimes they don't like new things, and sometimes surprising them with something unusual doesn't work. So what I planned for my sermon today was a little risky and I nearly didn't do it. But I'm so glad I did.

Today's Gospel passage was Mark 9:30-37, and in these short verses there were many things I could have preached on. I even found my sermon from three years ago, preached in a very different setting and I enjoyed reading it - but it did not address the thing that was really standing out for me this week.
"They [Jesus' disciples] did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him." (Mark 9:32 NRSV)

I don't always use the internet for sermon preparation but when I do I often visit Working Preacher where the commentaries can be helpful (or, as is the case with most commentaries, unhelpful!) I was struck by one of the suggestions on there which was to get the congregation to be braver than Jesus' first disciples and ask him a question. So I handed out slips of paper and pens at the beginning of the service, and then preached on the importance of a questioning faith - a faith which seeks answers from God and trusts that He is big enough to take our questions in his stride. The I asked the congregation to write an anonymous question for Jesus on the slip of paper. The questions were collected
 in the offertory as a sign that as we bring our gifts in faith we also bring our questions to Jesus' table.

After the service I took the questions home and sat at my desk to read them.

I cried.

I hadn't realised until I read them what a gift I was asking them to give. I was unprepared for their honesty, puzzlement, pain and insight, and for my own reaction to that.  They range from the practical to the intellectual, and I felt humbled to be reading them. I wish I had easy answers, or indeed any answers for them. But I think that above all Jesus wants us to ask questions of him - about life as his followers - and that in asking the questions we are able to begin to live the answer.
I'd love to know, and offer a hug and reassurance to the person who asked how what they did was important. I'd love to talk further with the person what asked why they found it so difficult to ask Jesus a question. I rage with the people who are dismayed and angry about suffering in the world and current levels of violence over matters of faith.

And I will. Perhaps not directly but this has given me such an insight into God's precious people in that church and their concerns that I hope we will address at least some of them in preaching to come, and as we discuss a possible year of mission for our 80th birthday.

I am hugely grateful for the promptings of the Spirit who I'm sure gave me the courage to see my slightly mad idea through, and to the congregation who have trusted me enough to share what's on their minds and hearts before God.
So, what question would you ask?

New beginnings and writer's block

So, it's been a while. I am sorry about that. Part of me has missed blogging but a larger part has had something of a crisis of confidence. And so I have used the general chaotic nature of my life as an excuse - I don't have time to blog.

But of course what we have time for depends on our priorities and I guess that blogging became less of a priority for me. And so I stopped. And after a while, it became harder to re-start. I wasn't convinced that I had anything to say.
But September arrives with all its shiny newness amidst the fading summer. New shoes and pencil cases and in our house a complete new uniform, and routine as my daughter started secondary school. All of that went well - at least so far, and so I began to wonder if I shouldn't  do something about this blog. Its bookmark has been staring at me rather balefully from the toolbar of my browser, feeling a little unloved.
And of course as soon as I started to think that I might give this another go (with the encouragement of family and friends) something inside of me was released and I find that I have several blog posts in me just needing to be posted.
So as the chaos of my life takes a new shape this Autumn, with changes in schooling and my husband's work pattern, we'll see if this moves up my priority list. I want it to, and so that's probably the key.