The Return of the Prodigal Week 3 - Leaving
I’d like to begin today by reading a very short anonymous poem about leave home:
It is written on a post card from two parents to their daughter. In the address section is written: the Great Unknown, Far, Far Away and the poem reads as follows:
We trust you.
We love you.
Mom and Dad
In those simple words is captured a whole range of thoughts and sentiments. A deep sense of love and care that has been nurtured and treasured over the daughter's lifetime, from her conception through childhood and teens and into adulthood… Dearest daughter, we love you. A sense of anxiety and worry over what could potentially go wrong. Be careful. The sense that she has grown and matured and has developed the skills to make it on her own. We trust you. And reading between the lines, the underlying sense of sadness that inevitably comes with having to let go expressed in the address: The great unknown, far far away…
We trust you.
We love you.
Mom and Dad
Today we continue our preaching series on the Return of the Prodigal Son, a reflection on the parable that Jesus tells in Luke 15 but also a reflection on a book written by Henri Nouwen reflecting on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name.
As Henri Nouwen reflects on the full title of Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’, he writes that implicit in the return is a leaving. Returning is a home-coming only after a home-leaving, a coming back after having gone away. He writes: “The father who welcomes his son home is so glad because ‘...this son was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found’. The immense joy in welcoming back the lost son hides the immense sorrow that has gone before. He writes that only when we have the courage to explore in depth what it means to leave home, can we come to a true understanding of the return.
In Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son, the sorrow and pain of leaving is depicted most profoundly in the rags of the son as he returns. But the depth of pain and sorrow are not just the son’s who has discovered the harshness of life outside of his father’s embrace. The sorrow is indeed also the sorrow and the anguish of the father who has watched his beloved younger son leaving home not as a means of growing to full maturity, but rather with a desire to avoid taking responsibility. With sorrow in his heart, the father has had to watch the son leave, knowing that disaster is surely awaiting the son, but it is the only way he will ultimately grow. Knowing also that if he tried prevent his son from leaving, he would lose his son’s love anyway. If you love someone, you will in the end need to set them free. Like Jesus who doesn’t run after the Rich Young Man, the father in the parable does not run after the son, for the son needs to make the necessary mistakes that will hopefully in the end lead him back home.
Henri Nouwen tells how Kenneth Bailey offers a penetrating explanation of the gravity of the son’s leaving. He quotes Kenneth Baily who writes:
For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morrocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while his father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same… the conversation runs as follows:
Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?
Could anyone ever make such a request?
If anyone ever did, what would happen?
His father would beat him of course!
The request means – he wants his father to die.
The implication of the son’s request is ‘Father, I cannot wait for you to die’. As Timothy Keller writes, the request shows that the younger son loves his father’s money more than he loves his father. It is the father’s stuff that he wants, not his father’s love.
The son’s leaving is therefore more than just an offence to the father, it is a heartless rejection of the home in which the son was born and nurtured and a break from the whole tradition upheld by the larger community of which he was a part.
One could say it is an act of profound self-centeredness and a betrayal of the treasured values of family and community that have nurtured and formed him, as he chooses to dispose of his father’s assets and leave for a distant country rather than to give back out of gratitude for all he has received in life.
But this parable is not just about leaving home in a literal sense. It is meant to be read as a parable, a metaphor for those times when we feel disconnected from the inner life of our own spirits. And so Henri Nouwen writes that leaving home is much more than an historical event bound in time and space. Rather, it is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows. Leaving home means ignoring the truth that God has fashioned me in secret, moulded me in the depths of the earth and knitted me together in my mother’s womb. Leaving Home is living as though I do not yet have a home and so must look far and wide to find one, when all along I already have a home in God’s gentle embrace.
Henri Nouwen goes on. He says “Home is the centre of my being where I can hear that voice that says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favour rests”.
To leave home for a distant country as the prodigal son does, is to cease to hear that voice of God that whispers our name and calls us the Beloved. And in it’s place to seek other ways to fill the void that is left. Leaving home means seeking, in other things, and in other people, a depth of satisfaction, contentment and love, that only God can bring.
To leave home in a spiritual sense, is to cease finding our fulfilment in things that are of eternal and enduring value and to put our hope and our trust in things that are impermanent, passing and of fleeting value.
By contrast, if we find ourselves deeply rooted in the world of the spirit, and grounded in a sense of the eternal, then it is possible to appreciate and enjoy the fleeting joys of life, because we are rooted in something deeper. Is that perhaps what it means to be in this world but not of this world? But when we fail to root ourselves in our true inner home of the spirit, then chasing after the fleeting joys of life becomes like chasing after the wind as we read in Ecclesiastes. It is a recipe for desperate, futile, empty and addictive living as the younger son very quickly discovers as he finds himself hitting rock-bottom feeding pigs and longing to eat their food. We can only appreciate the joys of our outward senses in the material world when we are rooted in the more enduring and deeper joy of the spirit, our true home.
As I suggested earlier, the fatal mistake of the younger son in this parable is that he wanted to enjoy only the good things of life. Leaving home was an exercise in avoidance. He was trying to avoid growing up, trying to avoid the pain and the difficulties of life as an adult and so soon he finds himself far away from his father’s love, living alone, in a pig-sty in a distant country. And there he discovers for himself that pain and struggle in life cannot in the end be avoided. When we live our lives trying to avoid the pain, the struggles and the responsibilities of life, we end up in even greater pain and suffering than we were avoiding in the first place.
We all find ourselves from time to time living in distant countries away from ‘the love of the father’. To live in a distant country is a metaphor for the dead-ends where we have searched for love, affirmation, value and satisfaction, but found only emptiness, broken promises and constantly shifting sands. Henri Nouwen writes: “I am the prodigal son, every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere? Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father?”
Henri Nouwen writes that it is not very hard to know when we are being dragged into a distant country away from our true spiritual home. Fear, anger, resentment, greed, anxiety, jealousy, a sense of barreness and emptiness are all signs that we have left home, perhaps daydreaming about becoming rich, powerful and famous, and in the process disconnected from the inner voice of love that is already whispering: “You are my beloved, on whom my favour rests?”
What are the times in your life where it has felt psychologically or spiritually you were living in a distant country?
What are some of the dead-ends you have found yourself over the years?
What are the places and occasions in your life where you were hoping to find satisfaction and contentment, (perhaps even unconditional love) but only found emptiness, like you had been chasing after the wind?
The Return of the Prodigal Son - Week 2 - Rembrandt the Prodigal & Rembrandt the Father
Last week I did an introductory sermon to a new sermon series on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
As an aid to exploring this parable in greater depth I will be using a book written by Henri Nouwen called “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. The book in turn is a reflection on Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting by the same name, a painting that Rembrandt painted very near the end of his own turbulent and tumultuous life.
As I shared last week, the painting by Rembrandt is a beautiful and moving depiction of the moment the prodigal son meets and is embraced by his father when he returns home. The kneeling son rests his face onto the father’s chest as the elderly and partially blind father places his hands gently over the son’s shoulders as he receives the lost and now destitute son with warmth and tender love, back to himself.
There is a beautiful stillness to the painting, almost as though Rembrandt has captured a moment of eternity on canvas. Henri Nouwen suggests that this painting reveals how by the end of his life, an inner transformation had taken place, with a deep sense of having developed an inner vision and a spiritual insight that he did not have in his younger years.
Henri Nouwen writes that in Rembrandt’s younger years, Rembrandt had all the characteristics of the prodigal son. He was… “brash, self-confident, spendthrift, sensual, and very arrogant.” Henri Nouwen writes that at the age of 30 Rembrandt painted himself as the lost son in a brothel, with his wife Saskia painted as one of the ladies of the brothel.
Rembrandt painted himself with his half-open mouth and lustful eyes holding up a half-empty glass while with his left hand he touches the lower back of the girl who appears to be seated on his lap.
It is a portrait of merriment and sensuousness, that perhaps captures something of the character of Rembrandt in his younger years.
Henri Nouwen writes that all of Rembrandt’s biographers describe him as a proud young man, strongly convinced of his own genius and eager to explore everything that the world has to offer; an extrovert who loved luxury and was quite insensitive towards those around him. In addition, like the younger son in the parable, one of Rembrandt’s main concerns was money. Rembrandt made a lot, spent a lot and also lost a lot. Nouwen writes that a large part of Rembrandt’s energy was wasted in long drawn-out court-cases about financial settlements and bankruptcy proceedings.
Nouwen writes that other self-portraits of this period reveal Rembrandt as a man hungry for fame and adulation, fond of extravagant costumes, preferring golden chains to the traditional starched white collars, and sporting outlandish hats, berets, helmets and turbans.
After Rembrandt’s short period of success, popularity and wealth as an artist what followed was a period of much grief, misfortune and disaster. He lost 3 children over a five year period from 1635 – 1640. Two years later his beloved wife Saskia died in 1642. After her death he had an affair with a women he had hired to look after his nine-month-old son Titus, which ended in disaster.
After that disastrous period of his life he had a more stable union with another women, Hendrickje Stoffels who bore him a son who died in 1652 and a daughter, Cornelia.
Henri Nouwen writes that during these years, Rembrandt’s popularity as a painter plummeted and in 1656 Rembrandt was declared insolvent, having to sign over all his property and effects for the benefit of his creditors in order to avoid complete bankruptcy. In doing so he lost all of his possessions, all of his own paintings as well as his collection of other painters works, his large collection of artefacts, and his house in Amsterdam with all it’s furniture.
When Rembrandt died in 1669, he had become a poor and a lonely man. Only his daughter Cornelia, his daughter-in-law Magdalene van Loo and his granddaughter Titia survived him. His common law wife, Hendrickje had already died 6 years earlier and his son Titus had died a year before his own death.
And yet, rather than becoming bitter and twisted by this tumultuous life; rather than wallowing in his own pain and self-pity, this life of excess, leading to disaster and loss had a purifying effect on him. In a way his life of ruin and loss led him in a movement away from the glory of the world that seduces with all it’s glittering lights to a discovery of the inner light of old age, the glory that is hidden in the human soul which surpasses death. While his own story had begun in excess and waste like the prodigal, in a very profound way, it was that very journey that led him to the Inner Light of God’s grace and compassion that is expressed so profoundly in his painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son.
In a way, by the end of his turbulent life, Rembrandt had indeed become the prodigal who was now ready to return Home to God. In a very real sense, the prodigal son depicted kneeling before his father is a depiction of Rembrandt himself. It was he who had learned by the end of his life how to kneel before the God who had made him and loved him, it was he whose pride and brashness had been transformed into humility and surrender before the tender Love of the Divine.
But in another sense, Henri Nouwen suggests that Rembrandt was not only the younger son in this painting returning home to the father. In a very real sense, by the end of his life, Rembrandt had indeed grown to become also the gentle, welcoming, tender father depicted in the painting. The only reason that Rembrandt could the gentle compassionate embrace of the father was because that gentle wisdom and compassion of the father had begun to dwell within himself as well. Nouwen writes: “One must have died many deaths and cried many tears to have painted a portrait of God in such humility”.
At the end of his life he was indeed the prodigal who had begun to find his way home to God, but in another sense the gentle, loving and welcoming father had come to dwell within the sanctuary of his own heart.
The journey of the Protestant, Reformed painter, Rembrandt Van Rijn from being the prodigal son in his youth to somehow also becoming the father in the parable by the end of his life, is, in a different way, paralleled in the life of the Dutch Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen whose life had become so deeply affected by Rembrandt’s painting.
As I shared in last weeks sermon, when Henri Nouwen had first encountered the painting, it was the prodigal son that had so captivated his attention. He had realised that he was that son. He was looking for a place he could call home. He was the one who felt lost and longed to be embraced.
But a few years later, while discussing the painting with a trusted friend in England, his friend had looked quite intently at Henri and said, “I wonder if you are not more like the older son?” With those words, his friend had opened up a new space within him. He had never thought of himself as the older son, but the more he thought about it, the more he realised that there was indeed an older son living within him. He had always lived quite a dutiful life, just like the older son, When he was 6 years old, he already wanted to become a priest. He was born, baptised, confirmed and ordained in the same church. He had always been obedient to his parents his teachers, his bishops and indeed to God. He had never truly run away from home and had never wasted his time and money on sensual pursuits, and never gotten lost in debauchery and drunkenness. For his entire life he had been quite responsible, traditional, home-bound. And yet for all that he may well have been just as lost as the younger son in the story as he saw himself in a while new way. He writes: I saw my jealousy, my anger, my touchiness, doggedness and sullenness, and, most of all, my subtle self-righteousness. I saw how much of a complainer I was and how much of my thinking and feeling was ridden with resentment. I was the elder son for sure, he writes, but just as lost as his younger brother. I had been working very hard on my father’s farm, but had never fully tasted the joy of being at home.
Having first identified himself with the younger son in the painting, and then discovered that he was the elder son for sure, a few years later, he became challenged by another trusted friend, who again, when reflecting on the painting with him said to him, “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realise that you are called to become the father… You have been looking for friends all you life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in a thousand things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right. The time has come to claim your true vocation – to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return”.
In writing his book on the Return of the Prodigal Son as few years after this conversation, Henri Nouwen writes: I still feel the desire to remain the son and never grow old. But I have also come to know in a small way what it means to be a father who asks no questions, wanting only to welcome his children home.
Over the next few weeks, may we also discover within ourselves not only the lost children of God, but also the compassionate mother and father that is God. Amen.
SERMON TEXT - Coming Home - The Return of the Prodigal - Introduction
I was the last of the three sons to leave home. My younger brother Wesley Who is about 4 years younger than me left home just after school at the age of 18 when he got a tennis scholarship in the US. The first time he came home a number of months later it was really wonderful. My Mom prepared everything in advance. She cooked his favourite food. On his pillow she placed his favourite crisps (Ghost Pops). When he arrived home, he knew that he had come home.
I left home only about two years later at the age of 23 when I was accepted as a minister in training in the Methodist Church. I was moved around quite a bit in those early years living in four different places over a four year period. In some way it was an exciting time, but it was also an unsettling time and so trips back home to my Mom and Dad were just wonderful. It was wonderful to be able to return to the warmth and security of a place called home.
But I am very conscious that there are many who don’t grow up in warm inviting and secure homes. For many home was and perhaps is been a place of insecurity, anxiety, trauma and abuse. There are many who at home don’t feel at home.
But even for those of us who have grown up in fairly stable homes there are many who from time to time experience a strange feeling homesickness even when finding themselves at home.
I read on the internet that in the Welsh language there is a word that expresses this mysterious feeling of being homesick even when you’re at home. It is the word: hiraeth.
I understand that it is a word that can have a variety of shades of meaning. Samantha Kielar writes that hiraeth can describe “...a combination of a sense of homesickness, longing, nostalgia, and yearning, for a home that you cannot return to, or perhaps no longer exists, or even maybe never was. It can also include grief or sadness for who or what you have lost, losses which make your “home” not the same as the one you remember.”
Lastly she says, one attempt to describe hiraeth in English says that it is “a longing to be where your spirit lives.” …” a sense of dislocation from the presence of spirit…. “a longing to be where your spirit lives”.
I get the sense that this was the feeling that Henri Nouwen was experiencing when he first caught sight of a painting by the Dutch artist Rembrandt.
Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest who had been born in the Netherlands in 1932 and ordained in Utrecht in at the age of 25 at St Catherine's Cathedral in the city of Utrecht.
He studied not only theology but also psychology and throughout his life he sought to integrate spiritual ministry with modern psychology. For a large part of his career he worked not as a parish priest but as an academic in a number of Universities in Europe and in the United States, most notably at Yale Divinity School and also as Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School where he taught until 1985 when his academic career came to an end.
By his late 40’s a restlessness began to grow in him. His work as a professor, a priest and a writer of spiritual books while also doing part time voluntary work a seminary in Central America kept his life going at a pace that was not really sustainable.
And so he began to explore a new direction for his life and ministry, which led him to sit in the office of a women from the L’Arche community for the mentally handicapped in France. He was exploring with her the possibility of taking a sabbatical to live and minister for a year in one of the L’Arche communities for the mentally handicapped.
He had just finished an exhausting 6 week lecturing tour around the United States.
While sitting in that office talking about his plans for a sabbatical and a possible new direction for his life, Henri Nouwen became mesmerised by a poster of one of Rembrandt’s paintings that was hanging on the back of the door. It was Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son, a painting that he had finished in 1669 very near the end of his own turbulent life.
It is a beautiful and a moving painting of the prodigal son’s homecoming when he meets his father. The prodigal son is depicted in a wretched, bedraggled and destitute state with clothes like rags hanging off his body, with only one shoe left, after having wasted his inheritance.
The painting depicts the prodigal son kneeling before his father in repentance, seeking forgiveness, while the father, who is depicted as quite elderly and seemingly almost blind, receives him back with a tender and warm embrace; his hands placed gently and tenderly one over the prodigal’s shoulder and back as he draws his once wayward and lost son towards himself with love. In the painting there is a warm and gentle glow of light shining on the prodigal as he buries his face into the bosom of his welcoming father.
Standing to the right is the older brother who seems set a little higher in the painting as though on a platform. His posture is bolt upright, his hands in a crossed, closed position as he appears to look down in a mixture of judgement, disgust, pity and disapproval.
In addition to these three main characters in the painting are three others looking on from different positions in the painting each with expressions ambiguous enough to make one wonder what they are thinking of all of this.
But for Henri Nouwen, the moment he laid eyes on the painting, it was the figure of the prodigal being received home with warmth and tenderness by the father that captivated his attention interrupting the conversation he was engaged in.
As he looked on the painting with longing in his heart he writes of his own condition: I was dead tired, so much so that I could hardly walk. I was anxious, lonely, restless, and very needy. During the [recent 6 week trip] I had felt like a strong fighter for justice and peace, able to face the dark world without fear. But after it was all over I felt like a vulnerable little child who wanted to crawl onto its mothers lap and cry.
It was in this condition that he found himself staring at Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the Prodigal Son. His heart leapt as he saw it. After his long self-exposing journey, the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything he desired at that moment. He was indeed exhausted from the long travels; He wanted to be embraced; He was looking for a home where he could feel safe.
He writes that in that moment, “...the ‘son-come home’ was all I was, and all that I wanted to be. For so long I had been going from place to place: confronting, beseeching, admonishing and consoling. Now I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel a sense of belonging, a place I could feel at home.”
In John 14:23 we read these words: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
Henri Nouwen writes that these words had always deeply impressed him with the profound insight ‘I am God’s Home’. It is not only that God, like the father in the parable is waiting with tenderness and love to welcome us home, but paradoxically and inexplicably, is it possible that God is also like a weary wanderer who is wanting to find a home, a resting place within us?
I have quoted St Augustine before when he writes: O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you. Is it possible that God’s heart is also restless until God finds God’s rest, or God’s home, in us. What could it mean to come home to God? Not later we die in the sky by and by, but here and now, in this world of crisis and conflict, today? And what could it mean to make our hearts a place where God can find a home?
Over the next few weeks I would like to invite you to join me as we explore the Parable of the Prodigal Son in greater detail, and with insights from Henri Nouwen, Rembrandt and the US Presbyterian minister, Timothy Keller, to explore more deeply how this parable is inviting us to more deeply to find a home in God, and in turn to allow God more deeply to find a home in us. Amen.
SERMON TEXT - Do You Love Me? Sharing Bread - John 21 1-4 & 15-17
Today we continue to explore another of the Easter narratives in John’s Gospel. John 21 seems to have been added as a post-script or as an epilogue to the original conclusion of the Gospel at the end of chapter 20 which seems to quite neatly conclude the purpose of John’s Gospel. But in the end perhaps the writer felt there was a little more that he wanted to add.
This Easter Resurrection narrative takes place in Galilee by the Sea of Tiberias, which was also known as the Sea of Galilee. John doesn’t give a time-frame, he simply says that this revealing of Jesus, as he terms it, took place later on. In verse 14 the passage states that this was the third time that Jesus revealed himself to the disciples after rising from the dead.
Again, one would have to acknowledge that John’s sequence of events doesn’t fit with Luke’s sequence of events.
John’s sequence of events takes the disciples back to Galilee where they go back to their former trade of fishing. But Luke’s Gospel keeps the disciples in Jerusalem right up to Pentecost after which they are so busy preaching the gospel that there is no time for them to go back to their old lives in Galilee. In terms of factual events, either John’s Gospel is correct, or Luke’s Gospel is correct.
But as I suggested last week, truth is greater than fact. Truth can be communicated in other ways other than in a list of facts. And so I invite us to explore briefly the deeper truth and meaning that this narrative has for us today. I don’t know if it happened exactly like this, but I know this story is true. What truth might it contain for us today?
Some commentators suggest that this narrative in John is in fact a symbolic narrative that has more to do with the mission of the early church than with eye-witness events.
The image of the disciples fishing in a boat symbolically suggests that the disciples were engaging in the mission of Jesus. When they had first been called, Jesus called them away from their nets and instructed them that from now on, they would be engaged in a different kind of fishing… fishing not for literal fish, but rather, fishing for human beings. Catching human beings out of the ocean’s of chaos and helping to bring them ashore onto dry land.
Is it possible that this narrative is a symbolic narrative showing the disciples trying their best to fulfil Jesus commission to them they they would now be fishers of men and women?
But in the story, the catch only happens as the disciples listen to the voice and the instructions of the Risen Christ. Working in their own efforts, they catch nothing. Listening to the voice and the instruction of the Risen Christ, the disciples make a large catch.
And that brings us to the mysterious number 153. In verse 11 we read that Simon Peter went aboard the boat to help drag the net to shore full of large fish, one hundred and fifty three of them.
That is a very specific number. It raises the question why the author seeks to be so particular about the number of fish that were caught? John’s Gospel often has a tendency to be quite symbolic. Is it possible that the author is wanting his readers to see this number as symbolic? Some scholars point out that in the ancient world it was understood that there were 153 different species of fish. From this perspective, the disciples have just caught one of each species of fish in the then known world. If the disciples new mission is to be fishers of people, is it possible that the number 153 is symbolic of the disciples mission that is now to include people of all varieties, of every known colour and every known race.
To make the catch, the disciples have to change the way they have been fishing? They have to consider throwing their nets in a new direction? I wonder if there is a message in that for the church today? Is it possible that the church as a whole, and also local churches, need to think about doing church in a different way if we are going to catch all sorts of new varieties of fish? Is it possible that business as usual, fishing off only one side of the boat is no longer going to bring in the fish. Perhaps a new direction is necessary?
Secondly, isn’t it significant that Jesus prepares a meal for them and after saying to them ‘Come and have breakfast’, he steps forward, takes the bread and gives it to them.
It has echoes of other moments in which Jesus shares bread with others. It reminds us how early on in Jesus ministry Jesus is criticized by other religious leaders for sharing his bread with sinners and outcasts. Then at the end of the Gospel narratives, it echoes the moment of the last supper where Jesus takes bread, breaks it and shares it with the disciples saying, this is my body. Also significant, the narrative in Luke’s Gospel when two forlorn disciples walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the crucifixion of Jesus. They are joined by a stranger who opens the scriptures to them. At the end of the journey when they invite him to share a meal with him, when he takes the bread and breaks it, their eyes are opened and the see it is the Risen Jesus. What is it about the action of breaking bread and sharing it that enables us to see Jesus? Perhaps it reveals the very pattern of his life, a life of self-giving love, a life lived in open welcome and sharing towards others, where all were welcome at the table of Jesus, both saint and sinner alike.
And that takes us to the third point for today. In this narrative Jesus shares his bread with a group of disciples who had abandoned and disowned him. When he needed them the most, they headed for the hills. And yet the Risen Jesus is still willing to share his bread with them, still willing to welcome them to his table, even before they have asked for forgiveness. In fact the story that follows shows not the disciples seeking a healed relationship with Jesus, but rather Jesus seeking a healed relationship with the disciples. It is Jesus who comes to them and not the other way around. And it is the character of Simon Peter who becomes the symbolic focus of this part of the narrative.
In Verse 15 we read, that when they had eaten, Jesus drew Simon Peter aside and said to him, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?’
Do you hear the echo of the words of Peter earlier in the narrative, before Jesus was crucified, Peter declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not." Or as the New Living Translation puts it, "Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will."
It seems that Peter had thought that he was better then everyone else. He had pretensions of having an heroic faith that would show that he was a cut above all the other disciples. Even if all fall away, I will not. Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will.
In John’s Gospel, Peter says to Jesus ‘I will lay down my life for you.’ To which Jesus replies ‘Lay down your life for me? In all truth I tell you, before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.
And now Jesus asks him, ‘Simon, son of John,’ (Jesus is no longer using his nickname of Peter. He is using the name given him by his parents). Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do? It is a probing question, that is digging in to Peter’s prior sense of superiority to the other disciples. Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will. Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?
Peter’s reply is interesting, ‘Lord, you know that I love you.’ He is no longer making superior claims of his love and loyalty to Jesus. He is no longer claiming to be better than the others. Rather than making any claims of his own, he appeals to what Jesus already knows about him, that despite his failure, despite his having deserted Jesus in such dramatic fashion, Jesus does indeed know that he loves him.
To which Jesus replies, ‘Feed my sheep!’
What Jesus wants from us is not claims of heroic superiority or attempts at perfection. What Jesus asks of us is simply our love, no matter how weak or fragile or imperfect that love is.
Simon, son of John, do you love me more than all of these?
Lord, you know that I love you.
There is more that can be said on this beautiful passage. More to be reflected on. But perhaps this is enough for now, except for a closing comment. When we are invited to share bread at the table of Jesus, what Jesus is asking of us is not our worthiness, not that we have a heroic or perfect faith. All he asks of us is our love, no matter how weak, fragile or imperfect it may be. This is not a meal for the perfect, only for those who love Christ, even if just a little, and long to love him more. Amen.
Resurrection Stuckness (John 20:19-31)
Last week in our Easter Sermon, I looked at the fact that the Resurrection is a bit of a mystery. Not all of the facts of the Easter stories line up across the four gospels.
I should just add a correction to last weeks sermon. I said that in John’s version, there were no angels. But in re-reading the story on Monday morning, I was reminded that two angels do appear in the story. Unlike the other gospels, where a group of women are met by angels outside the tomb, in John’s Gospel, it is when Mary Magdalene looks into the tomb, she sees two angels dressed in white, one at the head and one at the foot where Jesus body had been.
But that correction from last week doesn’t change the essential thrust of the sermon that the stories don’t all neatly line up. There are anomalies, discrepancies and even one could say some contradictions. It is difficult to know exactly what the facts were. Instead, what we are left with are stories. And stories are often more powerful than facts. Stories move us, inspire us, challenge us, and not just factual stories. How many of you have felt moved, challenged or inspired watching a movie that may have been a work of fiction. Even works of fiction can inspire, move and challenge because they point to a deeper truth about ourselves, or life, or relationships.
The Resurrection Stories don’t all line up. Perhaps their purpose was not primarily giving accurate facts about the Resurrection, but perhaps their true purpose, in the minds of those who were writing them, was about communicating the experience of the Resurrection, and inviting us to enter into the story of Resurrection ourselves. Their purpose was for resurrection to become the dominant story-line and direction of our lives rather than the story line of crucifixion.
A few years ago, Wendy and I were waiting at the Johannesburg International Airport, getting ready for a flight. In the bookshop there was an interesting book. It was a book that invited its readers to write their own biography. And in doing so to write the story as though you are the hero who triumphs over untold odds.
It is an interesting concept, because often the way we live the story-line of our lives is one of defeat. But this book suggested that it is possible to take the same time-line of your life, the same facts and events of your life and interpret them in a completely different way, and to see yourself instead as a hero who has courageously triumphed over a great many struggles, challenges and obstacles to where you find yourself today.
Perhaps the purpose of the Resurrection stories in the Gospel is to invite us to catch a glimpse of the experience of Resurrection. And in glimpsing the experience of Resurrection to read the story lines of our own lives of struggle and difficulty in light of Resurrection and in doing so, to become Resurrection people rather than defeated crucifixion people.
Isn’t interesting that in Mark’s Gospel when the young man dressed in white speaks to the women who have come to the tomb, he says to the women: “You are looking for Jesus… He is not here, he is Risen.” Isn’t it interesting that he doesn’t say: “He has Risen”. Is it possible that what the author of Mark’s Gospel is trying to say is that Resurrection is not primarily about something that happened in the past. Resurrection is something that we are all invited to enter into in the present.
And so today as we explore John 20:19-31, like the Native American Story Tellers when they told their tribes creation stories I would say: I don’t know if it happened exactly like this, but I know this story is true. There is a truth about Resurrection contained in this story that we are invited to enter into in the present.
Firstly by way of background, we have two evening encounters with the Risen Christ in John’s Gospel. The first takes place on the evening of the day of Resurrection. The second a week later. In both encounters, it appears that the disciples are stuck. While Jesus has been liberated from the tomb and is now on the loose, the disciples have retreated behind locked doors. They have retreated into a kind of tomb of their own making. For Jesus the tomb is empty. For the disciples, outwardly they have retreated into the tomb of a locked room. Inwardly their hearts and minds are locked in the tomb of fear.
We read in verse 19: “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Judeans.”
It makes me think of those powerful words of Neale Donald Walsh who writes: Fear is the energy which contracts, closes down, draws in, runs, hides, hoards, harms. Love is the energy which expands, opens up, sends out, stays, reveals, shares, heals.
While Jesus is living in the story-line of resurrection love that expands, opens up, sends out, reveals, shares and heals, the disciples are still living in the crucifixion story of fear, a fear that has caused them to contract, close down and hide. For Jesus the tomb is empty. For the disciples, they are stuck behind locked doors. They have not believed Mary Magdalene’s words of faith, hope and love, that the Saviour is risen.
But isn’t it fascinating that according to John’s timeline a week later, they are still stuck behind the same closed doors? Hang on a moment? Don’t we read that on the first day of the week, while they were locked behind closed doors for fear of the Jews, the Risen Jesus had stood among them, greeted them with peace, breathed his spirit upon them and commissioned them out with the words “As the father sent me so I am sending you?” Don’t we read that the disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord? And yet a week later we find them in exactly the same place they were a week before, still stuck behind closed doors.
Michael Marsh writes that when he was younger and when he read this story, it was with a sense of frustration. He was frustrated by the stuck disciples. Why weren’t they living with boldness and courage in the light of the Resurrection? Why had the Resurrection made no difference in their lives?
He writes looking back at his younger self and realises that beneath his frustration directed towards the disciples was in fact a deeper frustration at his own life. A frustration borne of the fact that he was stuck. Why was he still stuck? Why was he not living the resurrection life of joy, courage and boldness. Why was he still living a life of fear that was holding him back? Why had the Resurrection made no difference in his life?
Perhaps what the story reveals he suggests, is that the resurrection story line is not a once off event, something that happens to us in a moment and then all our problems disappear. Perhaps what this story points to is that Resurrection is a process. Even though, for the disciples, the story of resurrection begins with them gripped in fear and locked behind closed doors, the story doesn’t end there. They do eventually move beyond the closed doors. If you find yourself behind closed doors and you feel like you are stuck, remember, the resurrection story is a process. It doesn’t matter where you begin. What matters is what direction you’re pointing in.
For Thomas too, Resurrection is a process. For Thomas, Resurrection begins in disbelief. Not just ordinary disbelief, but a refusal to believe. When people speak of Thomas the first thing that comes to mind is Thomas the Doubter. He has been labelled by history as the one who doubted. But the story suggests that in fact he was not the only doubter. The fact that the rest of the disciples were still stuck behind the same closed doors a week later, suggests that they too were stuck in a doubt even after meeting the Risen Christ.
Thomas’s story of Resurrection begins in doubt, but it doesn’t end there. History tells us that Thomas the doubter was later to become Thomas the great missionary and confessor. History tells us that Thomas became the earliest missionary to India, where the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church founded in 52 A.D. still bears his name to this day. Tradition also tells us that the once doubting Thomas died as a martyr when he was run through with five spears by five soldiers. As Michael Marsh writes: That doesn’t sound much like a doubter, does it? It sounds like someone who grew and changed, someone for whom the resurrection of Christ was real, someone for whom the story of the empty tomb made a difference. It just took a little time, as it does for most, maybe all of us.
As Michael Marsh goes on he asks: “What is your starting point? Whatever your life is today, that is your starting point. If you’re dealing with deep loneliness, sorrow and loss, that’s your starting point. That is the room that the Risen Christ enters. If you are locked in a house of fear, confusion, or darkness, that’s your starting point and the place where Jesus stands. If illness, old age, disability or uncertainty are the facts of your life, thats your starting point and the place in which Jesus shows up. If you feel lost, betrayed, disappointed, overwhelmed, that’s your starting point and the house that Jesus enters. If, joy, gratitude, and celebration are the facts of your life today, that’s the starting point for your story of resurrection. Whatever it might be for you, it is just the starting point.”
Michael Marsh concludes: “The great tragedy is not that the disciples are in the same house behind the same locked doors. That’s just their starting place. The great tragedy will be if the disciples refuse to unlock the doors, refuse to open the doors, and refuse to get out the house.” Amen.
Easter Hymn Followed by an Easter Reflection by Rev. Brian Moodie
SERMON - The Resurrection Mystery - The stories don't all line up.
SERMON TEXT: The Resurrection is a Mystery… The stories don’t all line up.
I find it interesting that Easter Sunday is one of the more difficult Sundays to preach on…. And I think the reason for that is that for me, when one speaks of the resurrection of Jesus, one speaks of something of a mystery. It is clear that something profound happened to awaken the disciples to some new sense of purpose and mission, but the Gospel stories don’t all neatly line up.
I invite you to listen carefully with me as I outline each of the Gospels account of the Resurrection of Jesus.
Mark’s is the earliest and simplest version.
A group of women go to the tomb early in the morning. They find the tomb empty. They see a young man dressed in white who tells them “He is not here he is risen”. He then tells them to tell the disciples that they will see him in Galilee. They leave terrified, too afraid to tell anyone. That’s where the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end.
Matthew’s version written about 20 years later, embellishes on Marks’s version and adds to the ending.
The women go to the tomb early. When they get to the tomb, this time an angel appears with what feels like and earthquake. The stone rolls away, the angel sits on it. His clothing is snow white and his face is dazzling. (remember Mark only speaks of a young man dressed in white). Those who were guarding the tomb frozen as if dead (Only Matthew’s version makes reference to men guarding the tomb). Again the women are told, “He is not here, he is risen”, and that the disciples will see him in Galilee.
This time in Matthew’s version has the women run off with joy and excitement to tell the disciples. On their way, suddenly, they are met by the risen Christ who repeats the instructions that the disciples are to go to Galilee where they will meet him.
The closing scene of Matthew is the Risen Christ meeting the disciples on a mountain in Galilee where he gives final instructions and assures them he will be with them until the end of time.
Luke’s version starts in a similar way to Mark and Matthew but doesn’t end in Galilee, rather the action all takes place in and around Jerusalem. All happening on the day of Resurrection. Again early in the morning the women go to the tomb. There is no earthquake. The tomb is already open. There is no mention of an angel like Matthew. In Luke, it is not one, but two men in brilliant clothes. Their message to the women is a little different from Mark and Matthew. No instruction for the disciples to go to Galilee where they will meet the Risen Christ.
The women return to tell the eleven, but unlike Matthew, they do not meet Jesus on the way. The eleven think they’re talking nonsense about the empty tomb, but this time, unlike Matthew, Peter runs to the tomb to investigate.
Next, on the same day in Luke, two lesser disciple meet a stranger as they walk downcast from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Their hearts burn as he opens the scripture to them and at the end of the journey, as they share a meal with him, they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and he mysteriously disappears.
They run to tell the 11, and while they are doing so, the Risen Jesus appears to them all, shows them his hands and his side, invites them to touch him and eats a piece of fish to prove he is not a ghost, (which is interesting, because Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:50 says that the resurrection body is not a physical body but a spiritual body).
Lastly in Luke, Jesus leads them out to Bethany where he gives final instructions to remain in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high. Then he ascends into heaven. All of this takes place on the day of Resurrection. Which is also interesting because the book of Acts tells us the story of the ascension only takes place 40 days after the Resurrection during which time Jesus appeared on numerous other occasions.
Lastly, John’s Gospel gives another different account. Like all three other gospels, the story begins early in the morning, but this time it is not a group of women who go to the tomb, but only Mary Magdalene. There is no young man dressed in white, no angel who rolls the stone away, no men in dazzling clothing, no guards guarding the tomb. No earthquake.
She sees that the stone has been rolled away. She runs to tell Simon Peter who then runs to the tomb not by himself this time (as in Luke), but with another unnamed disciple.
Once Peter and the other disciple have gone home perplexed, Mary who has also returned to the tomb, stands at the tomb alone. Here she meets someone she thinks is a gardener who she realises is Jesus when he speaks her name. But in Matthew, Mark and Luke the women were told “he is not here”.
Mary Magdalene then returns alone to tell the disciples she has met the risen Lord.
Next, in John’s Gospel, on the evening of the same day, Jesus appears to 10 disciples (not 11 as in Luke). It is only a week later, in John’s Gospel that Jesus appears to all 11, when this time the doubting Thomas is present.
Lastly in John’s Gospel, a further appearance happens in Galilee at the sea of Tiberias at an unspecified time later. The disciples are fishing but catching nothing. Jesus appears on the shore, tells them to cast their nets to the other side (which is very similar to a story Luke tells near the beginning of his Gospel). As they drag the enormous catch to shore, Jesus prepares a fish barbecue on the shore. After they have eaten, Jesus draws Peter aside and three times asks, Do you love me, and three times instructs Peter, Feed my sheep.
And so the Resurrection stories of Jesus, as recorded across the four Gospels, and as it spills over into the book of acts and the writings of St Paul, are something of a mystery. The details (or the facts) don’t all align. There are discrepancies. One could even say, there are contradictions in both chronology and geography, as well in terms of personnel.
And yet, despite all these discrepancies and contradictions, there is a power in these stories that captures not just our imaginations, but which also captures out hearts. Who can remain unmoved when Mary’s grief is broken through when she hears the Risen Jesus call her by name, or when the two lesser disciples (as I have called them) find their hearts burning on the road as a stranger opens the scriptures to them, and then when they recognise him in the breaking of bread. Or when the doubting Thomas is brought to his knees when he encounters the Risen Christ in front of him and then is invited to place his finger in the nail marks and his hand in Jesus side. Or finally, when Jesus restores the fallen Peter and commissions him with the words “feed my sheep”, “feed my lambs” “feed my sheep”.
There is a power in these stories… a transforming power. A power that fills one with a sense of hope and optimism. A power that opens us to the deep sense that that which was deepest and most essential to Jesus, is still Alive, Present and at work in the world and available to each one of us today. These stories are filled with a power that fills us with a sense that this life is not all there is… there is a ‘more’, beyond this life of flesh and blood physical things, that whispers to the deepest longings of our hearts, the whisper of the Eternal, in the midst of time, the Call of the Infinite, in the midst of the ordinariness of life. The deep sense that this world’s story of violence, oppression and crucifixion, are not the last word. But rather God’s final word to us is Life, Eternal and Transcendent, a Life that not even death cannot overcome.
The stories don’t all line up… but for all their discrepancies, they point beyond themselves to the fact that something powerful happened after the crucifixion of Jesus, something that transformed a bunch of scared and defeated disciples, into a group that was transformed with a sense of mission based on the conviction that the crucifixion of Jesus was not the end of the story...
I end with the opening words of Luke 24: “On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but on entering they could not find the body of the Lord Jesus…”
I’m no longer an early riser like I was when I was a child. But when I do wake up early, and feel the stillness at the first sign of dawn, and the hush of expectation before the day begins, I find a sense of Presence, of Life, and of Hope that we seek to capture when as Christians we say on Easter Sunday: Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed.
Luke 19:28-44 Horses, Donkeys, Strength and Vulnerability - Palm Sunday Sermon.
Wendy heard an interesting interview with a horse racing jockey a few weeks ago… the jockey made the comment that racing horses are quite aware of what is going on… they know they’re in a race and they can be quite competitive about it. They actually want to win. These are not just dumb unintelligent animals. It is quite interesting to recognize that qualities and even emotions that we normally think of as reserved for human beings are also to be found in animals.
Horses are built for running. There is something about the uprightness of their posture, the strength in their legs and the sleekness of their build that suggests that they were made for running. There is indeed something quite majestic and noble about horses.
In the advertising industry, when a company wishes to capture a sense of majestic beauty, swiftness, strength and nobility, they will often choose the symbol of a running horse.
In South Africa, AllanGray, one of the really well-to-do and elite investment companies has a running horse as its symbol and emblem. Here in the UK, Lloyd’s Bank uses the symbol of a horse to project the image of being an upper class bank. The message is, if you want to be on the competitive edge of investment banking, bank with us. We will give you the competitive edge over others.
Not so with donkey’s. You probably won’t find a bank using a donkey as it’s emblem. Donkey’s are generally not associated with competitiveness, or with giving you the leading edge against your competitors. By contrast, donkey’s give off an air of acceptance, laid-back-ness, ordinariness and slowness. They may be good pack animals, even if they are at times a little stubborn, but they are not going to give you the edge over your competitors. If anything, the image of someone riding on a donkey is more an image of vulnerability than competitiveness and strength.
We’ll come back to horses and donkey’s in a moment, after all, this is Palm Sunday where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. But before we do that, I would like to briefly look at Vladimir Putin’s childhood.
When the war in Ukraine broke out, within the first week or so, some of the TV channels began re-airing documentaries about Vladimir Putin. I managed to watch one of them in which they explored briefly his childhood. It was interesting to see that although Putin for the past few decades has been one of the world’s most powerful men, his beginnings were in fact very humble. His father was a factory worker. His grandfather a cook, his great grandfather, a serf / peasant from the provinces. Putin himself grew up in a communal apartment shared by several families because they could not afford their own separate apartment. The communal apartment he grew up in was in very bad shape. drafty in winter and numerous leaks in the roof and ceiling that were constantly dripping into buckets on the floor.
The neighbourhood was rough, and being smaller and scrawnier than most of the other boys, he very soon learned that he needed to be hard and aggressive if he was to survive. Growing up in a rough neighbourhood taught him that if you are not tough and aggressive you will get stomped on by others. He learned that being vulnerable was not an option. And so it was in this rough and poor neighbourhood where the young Vladimir Putin really learned about life. To survive in this environment, Russian publicist Andrei Piontkovsky writes that he had to be cunning and brutal, to appear strong and never experience moral doubts and suffering.'
These conditions appear to have played an enormous role in shaping his personality and ultimately his politics. Underneath the cool and calm exterior, is still the street-fighter who believes in attacking first in order to ensure you come out on top. It seems that everything Putin learned about life, he learned on the streets of Leningrad in the poor neighbourhood in which he grew up.
What Vladimir Putin’s childhood taught him, living by the laws of the jungle in the neighbourhood in which he grew up, is that vulnerability is bad and strength and aggression are good.
In some way, this could be a definition of what some people refer to when they speak of toxic masculinity. The phrase toxic masculinity is not meant to say that all men are toxic. Rather, it is describing a particular unbalanced and one-sided expression of masculinity that is wide-spread enough to be a problem. It describes what happens when the important and valuable masculine qualities of strength and competitiveness are left unbalanced by an ability to also be open, soft and vulnerable. Vladimir Putin could be said to be an example of toxic masculinity. His masculinity is unbalanced, one-sided, only values strength and competitiveness, as no room for sensitivity and vulnerability, and therefore unable to truly empathise.
And that brings us back to horses and donkey’s.
The image of the Saviour riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is a powerful antidote to a one-sided emphasis on strength and competitiveness at all costs. The problem with a one-sided emphasis on strength and power is that it undermines the ability to love. One could say that Putin’s law of the jungle childhood has left him seriously emotionally and psychologically handicapped. When all you know is strength and power and aggression, then the ability to love is almost completely undermined.
To truly be able to love others, requires the ability to be vulnerable, to let your guard down, to show your weakness. Love requires being open to the softness of life.
And that is why the symbol of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is such an important religious symbol in the world. Jesus can be said to be the Saviour of the World, because, in a world where strength, power and competitiveness are the supreme values, there is little or no room for love. Love is only possible where strength is balanced by vulnerability.
Just as Truth needs to be clothed in Grace, so strength needs to be balanced by vulnerability. It is not that strength needs to be undermined completely. It takes courage to love and courage requires strength. There is nothing in the Gospels that suggests that Jesus was weak. There is a strength and a dignity that shines from Jesus in every page of the Gospels. But his strength was not one-sided or unbalanced. The strength of Jesus was balanced by a deep vulnerability and softness. And it is only this combination of strength and vulnerability that can enable us to truly love.
The world in which Jesus grew up, was also a world were strength and competitiveness ruled supreme. The Roman Empire ruled with strength and power. They stomped on their opponents. They did not become the top-dogs of the ancient world by their gentleness and compassion. But when you sacrifice gentleness, compassion and vulnerability you end up sacrificing the ability to love and be tender. To save a lopsided emphasis on strength, which prevents us from touching the true depths of what it means to be human, you need the counter-balance of a Saviour who can teach us to open ourselves up a little bit to softness and tenderness.
And so it is, that as Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he does so, not by riding with strength and power on the back of a horse into Jerusalem. If he had done so, he would simply have been reinforcing the idea that might is right, reinforcing the idea that strength is good and vulnerability is bad. Instead, with strength and dignity, he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and as he does so, he invites us to learn the to balance the way of strength with the way of vulnerability and softness, and ability to be tender and to weep with empathy at the suffering of others.
It is not insignificant that in Luke’s version of the story, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, not on a majestic horse, but rather on a slow and vulnerable donkey, he weeps publicly over the city of Jerusalem, because he knows the suffering that is to come upon them because they did not know the way that leads to peace.
Vladimir Putin’s childhood experiences seem to have caused him to so repress his soft and vulnerable side, that he is unable to empathise with the humanity of others, otherwise he would not be able to do what he is doing in Ukraine today.
And so, on this Palm Sunday, may Jesus, the One who rides into Jerusalem on donkey, become the one who saves us from an unhealthy and unbalanced emphasis on strength, that balancing strength with tenderness, softness and vulnerability, we may be ever more deeply opened to his Way of Love. Amen.
SERMON TEXT: I do not condemn you either - John 8:1-8
The War in Ukraine has revealed once again, the power of propaganda. One of the more disturbing aspects of the war in Ukraine has been to hear how powerful the propaganda machine has been in Russia. It has been disturbing to hear how, when people who have been hiding in basements in the cities with bombs falling around, when they have then contacted family members in Russia and told them what has been happening, they have been met with disbelief. Russia would not do such a thing. The control of the media and the counter-narrative in Russia is so powerful, that people living in Russia do not believe the first hand experience of their own family members in Ukraine.
Stories, and counter stories are very powerful. They shape our view of reality. We all live our lives within a story. Perhaps that is why a free press is so important… hopefully there are enough different voices within a free press that we can at least listen deeply to a story that may not always be the same as our own.
In reading the wider context of the war in Ukraine, it was also disturbing to read that there is also a religious dimension to the war. I understand that the Russian Orthodox Archbishop Kirril of Moscow supports Putin’s so-called special operation in Ukraine, and one of his reasons is that he sees it has a way of standing against the wayward morality of the West that he feels is spreading or creeping eastward into the territories of the Russian Orthodox Church.
It is at least helpful to hear that not all within the Russian Orthodox Church support the stance that Archbishop Kirril has taken. There have been some brave priests within the Russian Orthodox Church who have placed their own lives at risk by publicly disagreeing with him, which suggests that he must have some conception of what is happening in Ukraine, even if he does not know the full extent of it.
The case of Archbishop Kirril is one that is worth thinking deeply about. One of the grave dangers that it highlights is placing questions of righteousness higher up the scale of importance than questions of compassion and mercy. When one believes that matters of righteousness are of higher importance than compassion and mercy, then it is possible to justify actions that are decidedly uncompassionate and unmerciful in the name of righteousness. It is even possible to support the bombing of cities and the killing of civilians in the name of righteousness.
We can see these same dynamics at work in our Gospel passage for today. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law in the Gospel stories were those who stood on the side of righteous living and righteous behaviour. Their obsession was obeying the laws of God, for they believed that if they did so, God would intervene on their behalf and restore the fortunes of Israel. They would no longer live under the oppression of a foreign power. For them, the stakes were high! Within their understanding, it was an imperative that all Jewish people needed to play their part. If one person did not play their part, God would not intervene on their behalf. This was the story, they believed in their heads and which motivated their behaviour.
And so in the Gospel story today, we read that these religious leaders brought a women caught in adultery to test Jesus. The text goes on to say that they were testing Jesus because they were looking for something to use against him. They wanted to find evidence that would discredit him and trip him up in the eyes of the people.
What was it about Jesus that disturbed them so? “Well,” as Steve Hackman writes, “...Jesus had been developing a bit of a reputation. Word was getting around of his bringing a little too much love, mercy and forgiveness to people… and not just to pious folk, but most especially to sinners.
For the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, righteousness was of greater importance than compassion and mercy. And their insistence on the pre-eminent importance of righteousness, caused them to over-ride any sense of compassion and mercy. One translation of the Gospel passage reads as follows: “The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along who had been caught committing adultery; and making her stand there in full view of everybody, they said to Jesus, ‘Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law (in other words in the Bible) to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What do you have to say?
Perhaps it is worth pausing at this moment to consider what this must have felt like for the woman. If she was caught in the very act of adultery, was she even properly dressed? Was she standing there naked with men leering at her in judgement? Even if she was given the dignity of being able to clothe herself, how must it have felt to stand with one’s deepest darkest secret exposed for everyone and anyone to see. Imagine the sense of public shame she must have felt. What if it was me standing there with my deepest darkest secret exposed for all to see and for all to judge. What if it had been her accusers whose deepest darkest secret had been publically exposed? How might they have felt?
And how did Jesus respond to her? Jesus does not neglect the call to righteousness. Jesus does not undermine the need for whole-some living, after all, at the very end of the story, Jesus says to her ‘Go, and sin no more’. Jesus is deeply aware that there are ways of living that lead to wholeness and life. And yet, even though Jesus affirms what one could call ‘righteous, or wholesome living’, Jesus affirms compassion and mercy as having a prior importance before righteousness. Go and sin no more are not the first words Jesus speaks to the women, but the very last words. In fact this Gospel story would suggest that true righteousness is only truly righteous when it is clothed in mercy and compassion. Without Mercy and Compassion, righteousness simply becomes another way of sinning, another way of falling short, another way of estranging us from God.
It is interesting that earlier on in John’s Gospel, in fact in the very first chapter, when John is setting the scene for us, he uses two key words to describe and intriduce Jesus: Grace and Truth. In chapter 1 verse 14 ‘We have seen his glory… full of grace and truth’. It has always struck me that the word grace appears first. While for the Scribes and Pharisees truth (as they understood truth) took priority over grace and could override grace, mercy and compassion, for Jesus grace comes first and shapes and forms our understanding of what truth is.
Archbishop Kirril, like the Scribes and Pharisees, appears to have got the order wrong. For Archbishop Kirril in Russia, his understanding of truth over-rides grace, mercy and compassion. To defend what he believes to be truth, he is willing to give his support to actions that are devoid of any sense of grace, compassion and mercy. And this appears to be the same trap that Vladimir Putin has fallen into. He too is operating from a story in his head. A story about the greatness of Russia that needs to be restored and for the desire for his name to be recorded in the annals of history as the one who accomplished this, the one who made Russia great again. This is Putin’s story. This is Putin’s truth that guides and motivates his actions. It is the propaganda that goes around in his own head. And for Putin, this truth has priority over the human qualities of grace, mercy and compassion. And as a result, Putin feels justified in overriding the values that make us most deeply human. He feels justified in displacing millions of people because there is a truth (or a ‘rightness’) in his head that he sees more important than compassion, more important than mercy, more important than grace and love.
And yet for Jesus, it is the opposite way around: Truth is only true when it is guided and shaped by, and clothed in grace, mercy and compassion. We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.
We all live with our own sense of ‘the truth’. Values, perhaps stories that we buy into, that we believe to be true. Interesting the word truth in John’s Gospel is most accurately translated as Reality. In John’s Gospel, only Jesus is truly living in accord with the truth of Reality. According to John’s Gospel, the rest of us live in varying shades of darkness. We do not see reality as it truly is. As Paul puts it in 1 Cor 13, we only see in part. Our vision of Reality is shadowed and partial. Only Jesus sees with clarity. And according to John’s Gospel, Jesus’ perception of Reality is guided first and foremost by Grace, Mercy and Compassion.
What is the story of truth that goes around our heads… who are the one’s in the story of our truth, or our perception of truth who are the sinners, those who fall short, who do not live up to our high ideals, just as the woman in adultery fell short and failed to live up to the high ideals of the Scribes and Pharisees. What our passage is asking of us is not to give up our own deepest truths, but to make sure that whatever truth’s and ideals we hold up as true, are subservient to and shaped by, and clothed in grace, mercy and compassion.
And why is grace, mercy and compassion so important? Because the Reality is, we are all broken and incomplete in some way. Our brokenness and our incompleteness (our sinfullness one could say) may be different from the brokenness, and incompleteness and sinfulness of others. The truth is that none of us are living the perfect life. What Jesus reveals in this passage is that not even the Scribes and Pharisees were living up to their own high ideals. It turns out that they were not completely righteous either. It turns out that all this time, they were letting themselves off the hook for their own transgressions. Showing forgiveness and mercy to themselves, but unwilling to show the same forgiveness mercy and compassion to others who fell short in different ways from themselves. Jesus was simply inviting them to begin to extend this same compassion towards the women they had just humiliated who was standing in front of them.
What is the story of truth or rightness that we live by in our heads. Does that story of truth or rightness obscure our ability to see our own faults and weaknesses? And in the process does it over-ride our compassion, mercy and grace. Or, through the grace of Christ at work within us are we allowing grace, compassion and mercy to shape our understanding of what truth and rightness really are?
And lastly, perhaps a brief closing statement: Even this sermon/reflection is but a partial and incomplete reflection on the truth contained in this passage. This is not the whole truth… for I too, only see in part. Amen.
SERMON: Granny is like God. Isaiah 49:14-16 & Luke 15:8-9
My Mother is the handy-woman of the family. Her father (my grandfather) was quite handy. He was a brick-layer by trade and so worked with his hands all the time. Around the house when he was fixing things, as a little girl, my mom would watch and learn from everything he was doing. She was the apprentice who passed all the tools when he needed them. And so when I was growing up, while my Dad was the academic of the family… a bit like a walking encyclopaedia, my Mom was the handy-women of the house. I have memories of her laying down tiles on the kitchen floor, taking the washing machine apart to replace gaskets and fan belts, completely re-upholstering the lounge and dining room furniture, fixing the flushing mechanism in the toilet if it was no longer working, along with other plumbing work, replacing blown fuses, changing electrical plugs and the list could go on and on. Whatever handyman skills I may have, I learned them from my Mom.
Even now into her seventies, her reputation still holds strong, even though back-pain may hinder her ability to do some of the things she would have done when she was younger. My mom’s grandson, my nephew Kristian, has come to believe that my Mom can fix anything. A year or so ago, one of his toys broke, and so my brother said to him, “Don’t worry, we’ll store it in the cupboard. When granny comes to visit again she will help fix it for you.” To which he replied: “Granny is like God, she can fix anything!”
It reminds me of that saying which goes something like this: “God could not be everywhere, so He created mothers”. After quoting this statement, Sabrina Premij writes the following:
“I could not agree more. Moms are truly one of a kind. They have arms that were made for holding, for cradling, for loving. In these past 24 years, my Mom has used those arms to tuck me in every night, to rub my injured back, to wax my legs for the first time, to make her infamous tacos when my friends came over, to comfort me after a bad date, to hold my hand before crossing security at the airport, to squeeze me tight when I needed TLC, to love me unconditionally. And though I have grown over these years (sadly, not by much), there was always more than enough space to fit in my Mom’s arms. She’s like a magician.”
Perhaps it is worth noting that not all people’s experience of their Mother’s has been as positive as Sabrina Premij’s experience. On Mother’s Day, while it is certainly an opportunity to highlight all the best qualities that can be found in a Mother and to celebrate all that our Mother’s have done for us in the past and all they do for us in the present, there is a danger of eulogizing mother’s too much, because ultimately all mother’s have their own struggles and difficulties. All mothers have their strengths as well as their weaknesses and failings. If we eulogise mother’s too much, it can put an enormous amount of pressure on women to feel that they now have to live up to an un-attainable ideal. It can also potentially alienate those whose relationships with their mother’s have not been wholesome or life-affirming.
But it is Mother’s Day and so not completely inappropriate for us to celebrate some of the wonderful qualities that Mother’s bring into the world. And in the context of Sunday worship, it is perhaps also not inappropriate for us to consider how motherhood as a whole does have the potential for revealing something of the character and nature of God.
Within Christianity, we are not accustomed to speaking of God using feminine language. Most Christian talk of God has been to refer to God almost exclusively in masculine language. The result is that many many Christians around the world live with an underlying view that God is actually a man, albeit a very big cosmic man.
But the opening chapter of the book of Genesis reminds us that both men and women were made in the image of God, and if this is the case, then it is ultimately not true to say that God is a male or masculine. If God is Infinite, then everything we say about God using finite human language needs to be regarded as provisional and metaphorical. Under certain circumstances it is therefore possible to say that God the great Mystery of Life is like a man, or like a father. But if God is truly Infinite, and if women too are made in God’s image, then it should be equally possible to say that under certain circumstances God is also like a women, and like a mother.
And the truth is that in the Bible, there are a number of passages where God is indeed described using feminine imagery.
The very first place that this is done is in fact in Genesis chapter 1 where God is described almost as though God is like a mother bird brooding over her eggs, waiting for them to crack open and for life to come forth. The first few verses of Genesis 1 read as follows:
1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
The word that is translated as hovering is the Hebrew word rachaph (raw-khaf'). It is a word that can mean to flutter, to hover, to brood. In Deuteronomy 32:11 the same Hebrew word is used to describe God in the imagery of an eagle: God is ..."Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that hovers/broods over its young.”
And so in both Genesis 1 and Deuteronomy 32 God is portrayed like a motherly bird, brooding… in Genesis 1, brooding over the act of creation, waiting for life to burst forth, and in Deuteronomy, brooding protectively over her chicks.
This image is used again in Psalm 91:1-4 Where the Psalmist speaks of hiding under the shadow of the Almighty, and then in verse 4 "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge...”
In the book of Job, God is again pictured as a women who gives birth to creation… In Job 10:18, God is described as bringing Job forth from the womb as though God himself (or perhaps one should say God herself) has given birth to Job. And later on in Job 38:29 when the voice of God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, the Divine voice asks: “From whose womb does ice come forth? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens.” What these verses do is remind us that in every act of birthing, women are participating in the Divine act of creation, and that all of creation is this Motherly God’s beloved off-spring and child. From an ecological perspective, if creation is seen as an act of birthing from the womb of God, and as an act of motherly love from God, then we as human beings should show the same respect for creation as we would to any child, as an object of a mother’s love and care.
The image of God as mother is used again by the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 49. The passage was written during the Exile in Babylon, after the Babylonian Empire had invaded the Kingdom of Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, taking many of the people of Judah into exile in Babylon. And there, in exile, to a people who had lost everything, and who were now living in a strange and a foreign land, a prophet speaks of God’s ongoing love and care for his people. Despite appearances, that it seemed God had abandoned them, God is described as a mother who can never abandon or forget her children.
“14But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
the Lord has forgotten me!”
15“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or lack compassion for the son of her womb?
Even if she could forget,
I will not forget you!
16Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands”
The passage speaks of God’s motherly love for her child whom she can never forget or abandon.
And then our last passage for today, in Luke 15, Jesus also describes God in feminine terms as he describes God as a women, perhaps even a mother, searching high and low for a lost coin. She sweeps the house and turns it upside down, looking for this valuable coin that is lost. It is an image that is meant to remind us that all lost and wayward human beings, and there are indeed many of them, are like a valuable coin to God, and God is like a diligent women caring for and managing her home and household searching out for that which is lost. That is quite an unusual image of God. Normally we are used to hearing God being described in the imagery of a great King, sometimes as a warrior. But in this parable, Jesus uses a down to earth, ordinary, homely image of God as a women, bustling around her home, making sure that everything is in order: God, the home executive, as house wives have been described in more recent decades.
On this Mother’s Day, as we celebrate the gift of Mothers, may we also know the Motherly love of God who has given birth to us in love, who has promised never to forsake or abandon us in our moments of exile, and who comes searching for her valuable lost treasure, when we find ourselves lost and do not know our truth worth. Amen.
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