27 March 2011

Lent and Living in the moment with God

Sunday 20 March 2011
Lent and Living in the moment with God
John 3 1-17; Psalm 121

Lent can be a difficult time – I know that I have said that before, because I feel the same way every year.

I remember reading something recently about the importance of living in the moment – of not being so caught up with our worries and concerns that we miss out on the life we are living right now.

I can’t remember precisely where I read that, but it obviously made an impression on me. I remembered it the other day as I was walking into town and saw some children playing on the slide in the playground.

Even before I saw them, I could hear them! One little boy was enjoying himself so much that he let out a long, loud, uncontrollable belly-laugh – it was lovely to hear!

That little boy was living in the moment.
He was relishing the joy of playing with his friends, experiencing the physical pleasure of speeding down the slide. He wasn’t worrying about what he was going to have for lunch – or even about how rough his landing might be!

Well, of course, that’s how it is when you’re little.

• Mum or Dad will provide lunch, and you probably haven’t realised yet that life has its share of rough landings.

• You certainly don’t watch the news and take in the horrors of what’s happening in Japan, or Libya, or so many other places.

• You haven’t yet formed the difficult questions in your mind, let alone got round to asking God about them.

Our readings tell us that following God, understanding him and his world, is not easy or straightforward.

Nicodemus was no fool, but he couldn’t grasp what Jesus was talking about. All of us hear the words of Psalm 121, and we wonder.

“The LORD will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life;
the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.” (Ps 121 7,8)

The evidence for that promise around the world isn’t very strong at the moment.

The liturgy we used on Ash Wednesday gave us some suggestions as to how and why we might keep Lent.

• It spoke of repentance and the assurance of God’s forgiveness;
• of growing in faith and devotion to our Lord.

And it included this reminder of our absolute reliance on God:

“God our Father,
you create us from the dust of the earth:
grant that these ashes may be for us
a sign of our penitence
and a symbol of our mortality;
for it is by your grace alone
that we receive eternal life.”

Lent is a reminder of our sins and shortcomings, a reminder of our mortality – and also a reminder of the promise of immortality which we receive by God’s grace.

Sometimes we need to be able to lift up our eyes to the hills. (Not difficult to do as you walk into town, even before you hear the children playing!)

We need the perspective that Lent brings – both the challenge and the reassurance of being God’s people.

• Yes, we often fail and fall short – but there is glory in the midst of it all.

• Yes, living in relationship with God can be difficult – but God loves us. He created us and blesses us in so many ways.

Dr Maggi Dawn is an Anglican priest who is about to move to a new post. She doesn’t know yet where it will be, but knows that this year holds much uncertainty, both for her and her son. And she is looking at this uncertainty through the prism of this season of Lent.

She writes this:

“I give thanks for health and strength, for my beautiful son, and for my fine friends. I stare down the threat of uncertainty and insist, instead, that it is an adventure. But at the end of every day there is an acute sense that we are but dust; that life is short and is running through our fingers.

It matters to do more than survive. Life needs to be lived, not just endured.

So this Lent I shall not be giving up chocolate, but instead I shall be actively, daily,

• giving up the dark tunnels of worry and fear,
• giving up an over-burdening sense of responsibility,
• giving up working overtime,
• giving up the bruising anger and resentment that I am entitled to.

Instead I shall be living … deliberately one day at a time, finding every day

• something to enjoy,
• someone to celebrate,
• and something to laugh about.

It feels like Friday already. But Sunday is coming. I know it is.”

[My emphases].

When I read those words, I knew that for me, this year, Lent could be different! I had found some positive disciplines to offset the negativity I so often feel in this season.

We may not be facing the sort of change that Maggi is this year,

but we all face life’s challenges, and we all live in an uncertain and disturbing world.

In the midst of it all, it’s good to remember that we live in this world with God, and that we can lift up our eyes – take time to recall God’s presence with us, God’s love for us.

We can take time to find everyday

• something to enjoy
• someone to celebrate
• something to laugh about.

We can take time to live in the moment with God.

See Maggi Dawn: Ashes to Ashes

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Jesus breaks down barriers

27 March 2011

Jesus breaks down barriers
John 4 5-42

It occurs to me that reading the Bible is like watching American Football.

[OK, I’m not sure how this analogy is going to work – but stick with me!]

I’ve been watching American Football for quite a while now, and I think that I understand a lot about the game and what’s going on.

• I know the difference between a touch-down and a touch-back;
• I can tell a Nose Tackle from an Offensive Tackle,
• a Full Back from a Tight End.

• I even know that a “Hail Mary” in football is different from a “Hail Mary” in church – although not that different: they both involve praying!

But sometimes during a game, something happens that I really don’t understand. (I am English, after all!)

Fortunately, because of the wonders of the Internet, I’m in touch with quite a few fans of my team – the Green Bay Packers [by the way, did I mention that we won the Superbowl this year?!]

These are fans who know all there is to know about the team, and who have grown up watching and playing the game. If there’s anything I need to know, they can explain it to me!

• You see, sometimes, however much you think you know, the only way to fully understand something is to be part of the culture.

• And that’s where our gospel reading this morning comes in: the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well.

It’s a remarkable story, but it needed footnotes even at the time it was first written down. The writer explains in v 9 that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans”.

That, as they say, is an understatement!

By Jesus’ time, and for hundreds of years before, there was an intense, historic hatred between Jews and Samaritans. We can’t really understand what Jesus was doing – unless we realise that.

In fact, you have to have grown up in the culture to appreciate the power of what was happening. We like to joke a bit about the rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire (at least, I think it’s a joke!) but think how things were just after the Wars of the Roses.

And more than that, Jesus was taking on another social taboo. The woman was … well … a woman!

She, herself, is astounded. She says to Jesus:

“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (Jn 4:9)

There is so much in this passage from John’s gospel, but perhaps nothing is more remarkable than the very fact that the encounter takes place at all!

The disciples certainly get the point – notice what happens when they come back.

“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no-one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (Jn 4:27)

They were obviously used to Jesus doing this sort of thing – defying social convention. They may have muttered to each other “There he goes again”, but they certainly didn’t challenge him.

But there’s one more thing about this encounter which makes it even more remarkable: Jesus knows that the woman is an outcast, even among Samaritans.

She has come to the well in the heat of the day. It would have been normal for the women to gather together early in the morning, or in the cool of the evening, when the work wouldn’t have been quite so hard. But she comes to the well at noon, when she can be sure to be alone.

She was accustomed to the whispering wherever she went, having been used and discarded by so many men of the village – and this in a culture in which there was little if any privacy, and gossip spread quickly. And yet, see how Jesus treats her.

As Sarah Dylan Breuer notes:

“Jesus addresses her in the same terms as he addressed his mother [earlier in John’s gospel]. He meets a woman who couldn't be more of an outsider, and he receives her as an insider, an intimate, who has no cause for shame. He brings up her past, and her present, not to shame her, but to take away their power, … showing how little they affect how Jesus and the God he proclaims receive her.”

The living water that Jesus offers the woman, and all those who follow him, is powerful stuff! It makes possible fullness of life – a new quality of life and relationships. Where Jesus is present, barriers are broken down.

Which is all well and good in the culture of 1st century Palestine – but what about us? Jesus is present with us, today. We are his followers – what is our experience?

Well, we are no different to people anywhere at any time. We know who our friends are; we tend to relate most easily to “people like us” – I know I do!

That’s quite natural, of course: there’s a level of comfort and security in that. But we all tend to define ourselves in comparison to others who are “not like us”. And the church behaves very much like the rest of society in that respect.

I think it’s immensely sad that the church, the followers of that same Jesus who met the woman at the well, is actually known far better for keeping barriers up than for breaking them down.

• We are known for our difficulty in accepting certain people.

• We are seen as those who claim exemption from equality laws,
• who put people into different categories,
• rather than doing as Jesus did – accepting everyone as human, created and loved by God.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. I suspect that no-one is quite as they are presented in the media.

But we do need to be careful that, however good our motives might be, we don’t manage to frustrate God’s persistent, transforming love for all people – the sort of love Jesus showed that Samaritan woman, who, by rights, he shouldn’t even have been talking to.

Inclusiveness is at the heart of the new way that Jesus calls us to.

That living water, that practical, accepting love shown by Jesus transformed the woman at the well. From being an outcast, she went back into her village and started telling all and sundry about her amazing man she’d met. “Could this be the Christ?” (v29). And she brought crowds of people back with her to meet him.

That same love can transform all our relationships – transform our churches, our communities, our world.

• Jesus sees each one of us, as he saw that woman – not judging us, but understanding and accepting us;

• and he makes it possible for us to share his love with others

• whatever the barriers might be.

See Sarah Dylan Breuer's Lectionary Blog for this reading: http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/02/third_sunday_in.html

and also Walter Brueggemann, Charles B Cousar, Beverly R Gaventa, James D Newsome Texts for Preaching – Year A Westminster/John Knox Press 1995 p208

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