Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on Easter 3, 30th April 2017, Rachel Noël

May the words that I speak and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen

What a gift of a reading today. The road to Emmaus. There is so much in this story, it’s one of my favourite passages in the Bible, one that I come back to again and again. So my challenge today is to focus on just some of the amazing richness in this passage.

Each year Easter brings us the same questions… What does the Easter experience mean for us today? How do we comprehend it? It’s such a familiar story, and yet each year it is an incredible story. Jesus…. The Jesus that rode on a donkey into Jerusalem just a few short weeks ago… Jesus who was tried and then crucified… Jesus who was then buried in a tomb… is no longer in the tomb…
Each year we have to face the questions…

do we really believe that Jesus was raised from the dead then?…

and do we really believe that God is present with us now, in all the twists and turns that our lives may take (and trust me… I’m becoming more expert by the day at the scenic route to life!)

This whole chapter of Luke happens on just one day… both last week’s reading about Thomas and today’s reading of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus. It was an intense day.

We’re told that these two disciples were going to Emmaus… but we’re not told why. Were they just going home? Or were they trying to escape from the terrible things that had seen in Jerusalem?

Theologian Frederick Buechner interprets Emmaus as “the place we go in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is that we throw up our hands and say – Let the whole damned thing go hang… it makes no difference anyway…. Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes that you really want or reading a second-rate novel…. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred… that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die…..

Whatever our Emmaus… our escape…. The Risen Lord meets us in our ordinary places, in the reality, the experiences of our own lives…even in the places we retreat to when it all gets too much.
But this story warns us that Jesus may come in unfamiliar guises… when we least expect him.

It was only when Cleopas and his travelling companion stopped to share a meal together that they realised that it was Jesus with them. They hadn’t planned the perfect sacred moment with just the right music or incense or building or any of the other things that may seem important to us today… they hadn’t had time to prepare the perfect Masterchef meal… there were no Mary Berry cakes…

They just stopped to share bread with a stranger… It was in that act of sharing that they recognized Jesus…
The passage tells us that Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

He took bread… the ordinary, the normal, regular food. He did something that happens every day, everywhere… taking the regular, staple food….

And then he blessed it…. The ordinary suddenly becomes sacred through that act of blessing. Every week we bless the bread here and share it… at home we say grace, we pray and bless the food that we eat… the ordinary becoming extraordinary…

And then Jesus broke it… Gary will be doing the same later… breaking the bread, opening the ordinary, making it available to all..
And then he gave it to them, he shared it.

That ordinary, simple meal of bread… Jesus broke it and shared it… the basic act of hospitality, sharing what we have….welcoming the stranger
And then the story changes… the hidden suddenly becomes visible… their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus… and then he disappeared from their sight.

I wonder if that is echoed at all in your own experiences of God… Theologian Alan Culpepper suggests that God’s presence is often elusive, fleeting, dancing at the edge of our awareness and perception. If we are honest, we must confess that it is never constant, steady or predictable….(and getting a piece of plastic round your neck doesn’t change that either…)

The nuns in the Sound of Music sing – how can you catch a moonbeam in your hand, how do you hold a wave upon the sand? The mystery of God, of God’s presence is experienced in fleeting moments… in the middle of the ordinary… the extraordinary breaks through and then the mundane closes in again.

Often it is only in retrospect that we learn to treasure religious experiences. Followers of St Ignatius use the daily prayer of examen… reviewing the day with gratitude, focusing on the day’s gifts, noticing its joys and delights… paying attention to the small things… the food we eat, the sights we see, and other seemingly small pleasures…. God really is in the details, in the ordinary things of our lives. What is it like for you? Where do you notice God in your life?

For these disciples… they finally recognise Jesus and then he is gone…
In retrospect they notice “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Do you have any physical experiences that correspond to your spiritual encounters? A wise nun once suggested to me to notice how my body feels as I pray… it is in the ordinariness of being ourselves that we experience God… it may be a tingling in your body… it may be the warming of your heart… how can we attune ourselves to notice God in our own day to day lives.

I find the expression ‘our hearts burning within us’ to be fascinating. I was recently reading some research by a professor in Oxford, David Patterson, who has found that our hearts actually contain neurons too, similar to those in our brains… that our hearts and brains are closely connected… his research shows that these neurons in the heart are part of our decision making… and that this heart brain connection is at work when you experience feelings of compassion and empathy.

Somehow, in our hearts, our brains, our bodies we too can encounter God through bread blessed, broken and shared.

And it changes everything… these disciples return to Jerursalem, and encounter the eleven proclaiming “The Lord has risen indeed”…. And they have to share their experience, it comes bubbling out of them.

Easter isn’t over at the end of Easter Sunday… or even at the end of the 50 days of Easter that we’re in now….it stretches into the rest of our lives… these disciples may not meet Jesus on the road again… but that encounter changes everything. Whether we encounter God at the tomb, on a lonely road to our own Emmaus, or in hospitality with others… those encounters transform us… and our hearts too can be strangely warmed.

The Lord is risen indeed…and he continues to meet us on the road

We recognize him in the breaking of bread then, and in the breaking of bread today…

And we share our stories… our own ordinary stories, our own experiences…. Of the sacred and the ordinary, and together, let’s encourage each other as we gather to worship our Risen Jesus, to share bread and wine… and then as we go back out into the world with our stories to tell of our own encounters.

I will end with a poem by Ann Lewin:

Emmaus Walk
‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ we are
Told in childhood. It takes years
To grow through infant training.
Daring to trust comes with maturity,
Or perhaps is born of desperation.
The Emmaus two discovered
That the stranger unlocked
Understanding;
Shared food became a blessing.

Amen

(Thank you to The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on Luke)

Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on the Second Sunday after Easter, 23rd April 2017.

We live in a largely scientific orientated world. Knowledge abounds as researchers discover more about how our bodies work, how to harness the world’s resources to produce enough energy and how to increase economic stability. I, for one, am astounded how a mere piece of calf can keep my ticker going! We hear of new drugs, new procedures, great strides in the realms of neuro-science. What a time to live in! So much new knowledge!

When I was teaching research to psychotherapy students I used to get the whole process going by asking them to answer the question, ‘What is truth? And what is reality?’ You will be pleased to know I am not going to get you to discuss this right now, but simply to reflect with me on the challenge which confronts Christians when we are asked this question. If you want to sleep now please do! Whatever it is we seek to know we only know partially-it is how it appears to us. The poet Wordsworth said our knowledge is half what we create and half what we perceive.

What I mean is, that when we talk about the resurrection, we have only earthly images in which to talk about a profoundly mystical and transcendent reality or truth. And that, dear friends, was the dilemma with which the disciples and Thomas were confronted in that upper room in Jerusalem when the risen Christ appeared to them. The disciples believed they had experienced the Risen Christ, Thomas needed a different kind of experience before he believed. He needed a different kind of knowing to the other disciples.

Last Sunday was not just a moment of ‘ecclesiastical excitement’. The atmosphere was dramatic and perhaps momentarily exhilarating – but today it is routine. Maybe that is why it has been traditionally called ‘Low Sunday’ And today’s gospel reading confronts us with maybe something of a routine for us, the dance between faith and doubt. St John paints a picture of a band of ‘believing disciples’ who we are told ‘were glad when they saw the Lord’, and one disciple, Thomas, who was ‘non-believing’. A dance of faith and doubt: two sides of the same coin.

The story is familiar. The disciples give testimony through the words of the St John the evangelist that they had seen the Risen Lord. He had appeared to them in an upper room recalling the moment on Maundy Thursday when He broke bread and shared wine at His Last Supper before his crucifixion. Now the disciples were in hiding, ‘for fear of the Jews’-it wasn’t safe to go around acknowledging themselves as His followers-not yet anyway! The Risen Christ appears to them all except Thomas. He shows them his hands (probably his wrists) and his side, the marks of crucifixion. ‘This is me, your Lord, the one who was crucified on Golgotha’s Hill; I am Risen!’ He seeks to quell their fear and encourage them in the first scary steps of their mission to the world, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me so send I you.’ St John conflates Easter and Pentecost all in one and so he records Jesus as saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’- the promise of his Risen Spirit being their strength and motivation particularly in time of suffering and persecution.

Faith and doubt!  Strange bedfellows? I think not! So what is faith? It is easy to confuse faith with certainty and thus forever be repressing doubt. Certainty without doubt leads to a fanaticism such as we see with fundamentalist movements in many world religions with such disastrous destructive consequences-the creationist teaching of children in the mid-west of America, the terror struck actions of Isis, the legalistic view of the Renaissance Jew.

The faith of the disciples and eventually of Thomas is borne from the crucible of the cross. No cross, no crown: no doubt, no faith. It is a tension with which the mature Christian lives. And faith here is not about the correctness or incorrectness of doctrine or theological belief but about the very essence of ourselves, our true identity, everything we are and prepared to stake our life on. Christ was not beyond experiencing the tension of doubt-the temptations, the garden of Gethsemane, the words of dereliction on the cross. We need to make a friend of our doubt in order that it may feed our growth in faith. It is not an enemy to be overcome.

The believing disciples and unbelieving Thomas: they are both parts of me and I suspect maybe of you. Like the affirming disciples there are times when I feel really alive with every fibre of my body, mind and spirit-the moments when I feel life and love coursing through my veins-times of appreciation, and loving, seeing a way through a conflict, gaining new insight and understanding, a new truth about me and others. As pilgrim in John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ I reach the Delectable Mountains and am granted a glimpse of the Celestial City-these are moments when I feel and glimpse resurrection and I believe  it truly to be the power of the Risen Lord’s love enabling this.

But then like Thomas I sulk in sheer disbelief. The news of deaths and violence resulting in a refugee population of 22m million, the unnecessary death of a police officer in Paris, the despair at watching a child dies from a rare disease. Or the times when deadness and aridness and sometimes depression creep into our relationships which often result from the avoidance of facing reality together because we know it is too painful to bear. Where is the Spirit of the Risen Lord then? I see a number of bereaved people in my work as a therapist. They tell stories of feeling isolated, grief stricken, being so unhappy and disorientated when the known world of intimate relationships are broken as death and many forms of separation rob them of love and friendship.

John Humphrys of Radio 4 fame has written a searching book entitled, ‘In God we doubt’, the result of a series of interviews with leaders of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and the Muslim faith. When talking of the letters he received after the interviews he writes this about belief, ‘The pulse is still strong. However empty the pews may be in parish churches on a typical Sunday morning, there are plenty of people with a sincere and passionate belief. That much is evident. There are also plenty of people who think it’s all a load of nonsense……….What surprised me is how many think of themselves as neither believers nor atheists but doubters. They, too, are sincere. Devout sceptics, if you like. And many of them feel beleaguered. I’m with them.’

Thomas and the believing disciples: doubt and faith-both belong to us and take us to the very depths of ourselves in both sadness and joy, despair and hope, hate and love. They force us to face the truth about our lives. In reality we live quite a lot of the time in a space between the extremes. But Christ doesn’t ask us to sign up to belief before meeting him. ‘Peace be with you’ is his prayer for all of us.

An attention to what is happening to me in the routine and ordinariness of life when hate turns to love, separation to unity, unrest to peace, destruction to creativeness, may give us the cue and clue to a Risen Christ who is flowing through lives often unrecognised but is faithful to his promise that He will be with us to the end of the age. His encouragement is for all of us to relax into the mystery of his love and peace always present, always dancing among us, even in the greatest moments of our doubting.

 

John Towler

Assistant Priest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on Easter Day-16th April 2017 by the Reverend John Towler.

Maybe the nearest understanding I have of Easter faith is this moment, now! I am alive, I am present, and the spirit of the living God lives within me. Is the life I live now a foretaste of my resurrection? Is the life of connectedness in this community this morning a foretaste of the resurrection of the body? I guess we all come year by year to this great mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ with more questions than we do answers.

The gospel reading from St Mark is probably the most succinct of all the resurrection accounts. It is also the last chapter of his gospel. Somehow its abruptness tips over into this moment. St Mark uses the words of the ’young man sitting in a white robe’ to declare one of the most astonishing proclamations of all time: ‘he is not here……………he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you’. When I say the end of the gospel tips over into this moment I mean that this morning right now is our Galilee: for Galilee substitute Fordingbridge-where else would he be?! We can debate until we are blue in the face about what actually happened in our rational Western way but maybe the truth of the resurrection of God’s Christ will elude us unless we are still, and know that it is inside of us and between us he lives-allowing ourselves to experience this great mystery of presence.

Let us return to Mark’s account of the resurrection. What might be significant about Galilee is that it is the place where the disciples receive their calling by the lake. In Galilee they will ‘see’ the risen Christ as disciples who have been forgiven and who are renewed. Somehow Jesus is taking them back to the roots of their calling as disciples.

Galilee is also a code for the whole universe and tells us something about the total inclusiveness of all peoples for all time. What I mean by that is that Christ’s resurrected presence knows no barriers of space and time or place. Again our rational Western minds would like to know how. A modern theologian and scientist Don MacGregor has proffered a partial explanation. I will try and put it as simply as possible. Our world billions of years ago was brought into being by an act of Divine consciousness. Jesus the divine man is the ultimate expression of that divine consciousness-the closest human being who is at one with God. In his selfless act of dying on the cross he builds a bridge between humanity and God-he shows us a way of reuniting ourselves with God. By his resurrection he changes for all time the energy field and unites us through his Spirit to God. So through the Spirit of love he transcends our notions of time, space and place-witness his resurrection appearances to Mary, the disciples, the friends on the road to Emmaus, to Paul on the Damascus Road and to you and to I.

And that brings me back to this moment! Why am I here; why are you here right now? Somewhere along our journeys we have been touched by the fruits of Christ’s resurrection, we have become aware of his living presence within us. We have said ‘Yes to life’. We have responded however deftly to God’s call. Laurence Freeman in his book, ‘Jesus The Teacher Within’ writes this:

“To read the gospels, to pray in words and sacrament, to meditate, to live within a Christian Community, to study the traditions of orthodoxy, to alleviate the sufferings of others-these are all ways of experiencing the Resurrection. We only discover its meaning by experiencing it, by recognising him.”

There are two stories of resurrection appearances which on the face of it seem contradictory. The first is that occasion in the garden when Mary is in shock and like so many who are bereaved is looking and searching for her loved one, Jesus. Jesus appears to her and she is able to say and an equivocal ‘yes’-she says in recognition, ‘My Lord and my God’. The second is that walk of the two friends on the road to Emmaus. Jesus walks with them incognito, unrecognised and it is only when they share a meal and he breaks bread with them, they have any recognition.

There is a wonderful novel called ‘Incognito’ written by a Rumanian ex-communist, Petru Dimitriu. It is a profoundly moving account of the search for sanctity and humanity in and through and beyond the corruptions and inhumanities of life in our generation. It is an amazing story of how God’s mystery unfolds to Sebastian who is a soldier undergoing immense beating and dehumanising degradation in war. Let me read you two extracts:

“This was it, the sense and meaning of the universe: it was love. This was where all the turns of my life had been leading me………..”

For love was his response welling up ’from some unknown source’, of which he writes,

“What name shall I use? ‘God’ I murmured, ‘God’. How else should I address Him? O Universe? O Heap? O Whole? As ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’? I might as well say ‘Lord’ to the air I breathed and my own lungs which breathed the air? ‘My child?’ But he contained me, preceded me, created me. ‘Thou’ is his name to which God may be added. For ‘I’ and ‘me’ are no more than a pause between the immensity of the universe which is Him and the very depth of our self, which is also Him.”

Orthodoxy would say this is not a Christian book but for me is a testimony to Christ’s Resurrection, his cosmic spirit touching hearts and minds like Sebastian’s. God’s Risen Christ dances his way through the lives of all his people, the communists among them! For many, they do not ask the question of ‘Who is this?’ What the story confirms for me, in my experience, is that recognised or not, on Easter Day, we celebrate a power of love which deeply transforms lives, which brings comfort, healing, forgiveness and gives meaning to my existence right now, today and forever. Thanks be to God for this most unspeakable gift. Alleluia.

 

A sermon preached on Easter Sunday morning – Fake News? – Mark Ward, St Mary’s Fordingbridge

I wonder what brought you here this morning? I asked exactly the same question to the midnight mass congregation at Christmas 2015. Some of you will be here because you are always here, some because you are perhaps visiting family or friends and some because, well it just felt like the right thing to do today. Any one of those is absolutely fine. I suspect, or at least I hope that unlike midnight mass none of you has dropped in on the way back from the pub, although if you lived in a small town in Lincolnshire that my family lived in during the 1980s, it was always possible to go to the local pub, The Bull, for breakfast and pour your own pint to go with it, a hangover, if you’ll pardon the pun, from the days when the locals went fishing all night, or so they said.

 

But I digress – the Christmas story, as I recounted that evening, is a bizarre one. We now live in a world which has a new peace time phenomenon  – fake news, so imagine you have never heard this before:
An older man, about to marry a younger woman learns from an angel that his intended is already pregnant by something called The Holy Spirit, they then go on a very long journey whilst she is 8 months pregnant, turn up at their destination and find that they should have booked online but didn’t and they end up in a stinking barn surrounded by animals and then are visited by some, no doubt, equally fragrant shepherds who have brought a few extra animals with them. If that isn’t enough, the new father is visited in a dream by another angel who suggests they take a different way home as the King’s assassination squad is looking for their baby.  To be honest it’s the stuff of fiction isn’t it?

 

So, let’s fast forward 30-odd years. The baby has grown up and puts a rag-tag group of the locals together and persuades them to wander around with him living at the mercy of the weather and the kindness of the people they meet. But it turns out that this is no ordinary man, but a man nonetheless. He can heal the sick, he can make the dead rise to life, and he can avoid temptation like no other, and he is absolutely brilliant at not answering the question he has been asked and in so doing usually gets right at the heart of the matter at hand. Oh, and he can turn literally hundreds of bottles of water into the finest wine anyone has ever tasted, walk on water and calm a serious storm.

 

Yet, at the height of his fame, and having seemingly overcome attempts to silence him, it appears as though his whole world has fallen to pieces – and in the space of a few days his friends desert him, he gets hauled up in front of the local invaders’ big-wig who has no idea what to do with him, and then the very people he has been helping rise up and condemn him to death resulting in an excruciating few hours nailed to a cross during which time he slowly asphyxiates as he is unable to bear his own body weight, and even during that time he forgives someone who is strung up next to him and arranges for his mother’s future welfare.

 

Now if that isn’t enough, as we learned this morning, a couple of days later there is an earthquake which rolls back the stone over the tomb he has been placed in and he has disappeared.

 

So let me ask you again – what brought you here? Fake news? – If you had never heard this story before what would you think? It takes some believing doesn’t it? And even if it did all happen as the four books we have to read from lead us to believe it did – what is the point of it all? Surely it’s just some old mumbo-jumbo from the past.

 

So what does that make us then – gullible, stupid?

 

On the other hand does the amazing world we live in, and the stars we so far know of and the galaxies we as yet don’t, does that all exist out of pure chance? It is difficult to believe that it does.

 

Then again you say, but the world is full of evil and greed and hate, and we only have to go back a few weeks to the events in London recently to be reminded of that. If there is a God why on earth would he allow such things to happen? It’s a fair point, or so you might think.

 

But for me, and I suspect for numbers of you here today, it is the very fact that this is such a strange story which makes it real. How many savours of the world would arrange to be born into abject poverty, how many rulers would surround themselves with significantly fallible people to the point that they are completely hopeless most of the time? How many kings would travel for 3 years just in the clothes they stand up in and how many would submit to the kind of death Jesus allowed himself to suffer, when he had proven beyond all doubt that he could have done almost anything to escape?

 

For me it’s about suspending our own sense of reason. We try to rationalise everything don’t we, it’s the world we live in, especially now that we have to sift the fake from the real. Take the story of Jonah for example – how did Jonah survive in the belly of a large fish? Well I don’t know, our logic says he would have died because there was no air and then been dissolved by the acid in the fish’s stomach, but to a God that can create the world, I suspect it wasn’t that difficult to arrange. God exists outside our logic, outside our capacity to understand and we can only really learn from him if we accept that, if we open our minds to any possibility, and that’s why he chose all of those strange ways to make himself known to us, because it suited his purposes. And for us, we don’t always need to understand, we need to believe.

 

And that is my very long-winded way of getting to the morning of the Resurrection. The women run to the tomb to do all the stuff they had intended to do on the Friday but couldn’t because the religious leaders forbade it, as the Sabbath Day had begun. And when they arrived they found an empty tomb. The version we have heard today doesn’t tell us this but if you look at another account, Mary Magdalene meets someone she thinks is a gardener or maybe a caretaker of the land, and after hearing her own name mentioned just once – “Mary” – she not only recognises, but is adamant she has seen Jesus – she simply believes. She doesn’t stand and rationalise it, “well maybe I’m so upset I’ve dreamed it, maybe I ate something or drank something which is making me hallucinate”, no – she simply accepts it, Jesus is alive, and with that she runs back to tell the others, who not surprisingly think she has gone a bit la-la.

 

Yet Mary has seen beyond her human and earthly logic and accepted that God simply IS. And that’s why I’m here this morning because for me God simply IS. Jesus is hope beyond all the rubbish and the hatred. Jesus is the only one that makes the seemingly senseless massacre of a few days ago, a hundred miles from here, make any sense. His death taught us that we exist for one another, for the common good. PC Keith Palmer died to protect many others. I have no understanding why the others died but we see our true humanity – our small ability to grasp Godliness in the actions of those who so desperately tried to save others, in the actions of those who simply comforted others – “Love one another as I have Loved You”.

 

If you are still not sure why you are here – to be honest, it doesn’t matter – you are here, and you will leave here as Easter People, as Resurrection People, maybe not overflowing but at least and maybe only the tiniest bit touched by a God who has loved you since before you were and after you will be, and in the meantime, capable with his gift of love for you to do almost anything in his name.

 

So if you don’t quite understand it all, take comfort, neither do most of the rest of us, but you don’t have to rationalise everything to believe. Amen.