The refiner’s fire

My Nan always had a large stock of fine jewellery. When I was a little girl I would sneak into her room, quietly and slowly open up her jewellery draw, and gaze upon the glistening items inside. It was like looking at a draw of glass sweets, different colours catching the light, set in different precious metals. She used to catch me every time wandering around the room with three necklaces on, five rings on each hand, and big dangly earrings, sometimes I’d even have on a pair of her shoes. I didn’t really like dressing up, I just like pretending to be her. She had a long relationship with jewellery. Her mother had a huge stash and when she died I remember sitting in the upstairs room of a jewellers as she sold the lot. For my Nan jewellery wasn’t just something to wear, it was something to fall back on in times of need.

Sometimes life feels like it couldn’t get much harder. That every turn produces another problem, another issue. We often think can we withstand anymore? What more could happen? As Christians we here about other Christians being persecuted around the world, we see churches being closed and different management schemes put in place to keep us going. But surely we have a breaking point! Does God hear us when we call out?

On the second Sunday of Advent we think about the prophets. The voices in the bible from people who’s calling from God is to exclaim the passion of God. Their voice cry out vocalising the pain and the strain of God’s people, but also speak what is in the heart of God.

In the advent story we hear the heart of God through the words of John the Baptist crying out for God’s people to prepare the way for the Lord. This process to prepare for the Lord’s coming is shaped by God and described by the prophet Malachi as like a refiner’s fire.

Now growing up around a women who loved precious metals I took an interest in how they were made. The process of refining silver so it is of the correct standard to make jewellery is called cupellation. Basically the silver is placed in a cuple (a flat, porous dish, probably made from clay in biblical times) then heated to a high temperature that enables the impurities like lead, copper, and tin to be vaporised, or absorbed into the cuple, and skimmed off the surface of the molten silver.

God’s preparation for the coming of His son is described by Malachi as the refiner’s fire, that He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. This means that being a Christian and walking along the journey with God refining us as we go is tough! We are heated to become more malleable, and things of us evaporate, yet every time we come through challenging times stronger and shinier.

Because silver is shiny and it reflects the beautiful light that catches it. And that is our role as prophets in the modern word. We shine like the purified silver, allowing the words of God, the working of Him in our lives to shine His light around the world.

Being a prophet means speaking up and speaking out, speaking truth to power, challenging situations where you see things are wrong, speaking up for those who have no voice who God calls us to protect and build up. We speak this truth of God as we proclaim the story of Jesus’ birth against a Black Friday narrative where shopping and gifts and greed try to frame the Christmas we know and love.

We shine like purified silver in the light of our Lord, but our refining process is not over, God is always transforming and working us into something beautiful. And that is what He did in bringing His Son to us, when love came down in astonishing beauty – foretold and proclaimed by the prophets – and we carry on this tradition today, proclaiming the coming of the Lord, preparing that way, and reflecting His love in everything we do.

We are my Nan’s jewellery draw, we shine out and draw in others to see what it is like to be us, to be Christians, to radiate the light of God’s love.

May this advent be a time where our love for our Lord may overflow more and more, that in times of trouble and stress we stand in confidence that in the refiner’s fire shapes and moulds our hearts into something beautiful, aflame with love for the Christ child, making us stronger and shinier in the face of the world.

Prepare the way of the lord, he is coming soon!

Amen

Advertisements

Do whatever He tells you

Like the sharpness of the cold on a winter’s breeze, pain and disappointment pierces through all goodness. How can a place that holds the invitation to the Holy mysteries of God, be part of His own crucifixion?

The cross that is paraded and worn, becomes a justifiable place where people are nailed to it as they follow Christ. Yes we all have our cross to bear but are we meant to be crucified by those who welcomed us in His name?

Jesus himself faced the same journey. The same people cheered and praised Him who screamed and cried out crucify Him crucify Him. Maybe this is part of the Christian journey we all take…part yes, but all experiences? Maybe no.

Where is the justice for those who are facing the dual crowd? Both sides of a disagreement can ask this question, does God choose who to listen to? Perhaps the answer in this is to take the sides down, to silence the loud seeking for justice. When these barriers are down now there is silence where God can act – is this justice? A human ideal of justice is where retribution can be seen and paraded. A clear sense of this was wrong so this happened.

I’m not so sure that God’s kingdom works this way. God’s kingdom seeks to draw all together and anything that begins to separate it is sin. Justice can be seen by a different perspective – God’s justice seeks to bring all together through His son, the Spirit herding the sheep, but what of the goats? Is justice realising that there are predetermined sheep and predetermined goats – or is it realising that they are just different because they look different, yet in closer inspection are able to be drawn together because they all have a beating heart?

But what of that pain caused by His Holy Church that ignores, belittles, casts out, and pierces the heart of its members by members of the same body? Mary knows of this pain that pierced her heart also. She saw her Son’s friends leave Him on His journey to the cross, she saw them deny Him, she saw the red raw anger from the people who welcomed Him. And what did she do? She bore it all trusting in His justice, His promise. After all, it was Mary that told the servants at the wedding in Cana to “do whatever He tells you” – so this is where we begin.

Mary saw that the wine was gone and much shame and hurt would be coming towards to Bride and Groom from the same crowd that had celebrated their marriage. Mary saw and acted. She saw and told her Son and He listened and overcame their shame for them – justice delivered in quiet and unspeakable Grace. That is the hope that breathes into the piercing sharpness of hurt and division in the church, where members with the same mouths extol praise and spit anger and admonishment.

So we begin with Mary who saw the change in the crowd coming, who identified it to her Son, who with silent unspeakable Grace transformed the situation to one of blessing.

Mary says ” do whatever He tells you” – she was and is right.

What large stones and what large buildings!

Father, may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ our Lord

When I made my first journey to Liverpool to go to an open day for my theological college, I had no idea what Liverpool cathedral looked like. I got off at Liverpool lime street and started to walk the route towards the cathedral. On the way I saw a church with a tallish tower and I though that I had reached the cathedral.. It was a similar size to Manchester cathedral but as I got closer I realised it had no roof, it was the bombed out church, damaged in during the May Blitz in 1941 during the Second World War.

I tutted and continued to walk wondering if I would recognise the cathedral. I turned a corner and suddenly I saw the huge burnt orange stone tower that is the majestic Liverpool cathedral. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I felt like the disciples in the Gospel today as they said to Jesus, what large stones and what large buildings! As I got to know the cathedral building more and more I began to realise that there were much more precious stones inside, the living stones of the faithful who came to worship there.

In his letters Peter describes us, the faithful as living stones, precious and chosen, that if this very building, or even something as huge as Liverpool cathedral were to collapse all would be well because the true building blocks of the church would be still be visible. The living stones, you and I.

We are the living stones that build up the church, built on the foundations of Apostolic leadership, Jesus describes Peter as the rock on which he would build his church, Jesus himself the cornerstone the one on whom we depend on in the living, breathing Christian church.

In the Gospel today we hear Jesus foretelling the destruction of the stones that have been built up without His kingship, without His authority. As we draw ever closer to Advent we start to think about Jesus as King, and how we welcome Jesus to be king over us, and not just over us as people but of the things that we do and say. It is a challenging thought to wonder if we can actually let Jesus be king over everything, such as our relationships, our shopping habits, our homes. Can we start to think about how Jesus as king can shape us to be living stones to once again build up His church?

It’s not an easy thing to say yes to Jesus as King, as we know in Easter story people lined up down the streets of Jerusalem to welcome Jesus, waving palms and shouting out His mission His calling, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest! Yet in no time at all the same crowd stood and screamed and shouted crucify Him crucify Him.

Yet through this Jesus says if the faithful were silent, even the stones would cry out, this wonderful description of the stones being alive, the living stones who continue to cry out and proclaim that Jesus is King, that is Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the way the truth and the life.

But what next? We get a glimpse in the readings today of the second coming of Christ, in Daniel we hear of a great prince arising and delivering us from all anguish, in the Gospel we hear Jesus warning of the trials of the faithful, the cosmic struggle to see God’s kingdom here on Earth. Jesus describes this struggle as birth pangs, of pain during labour, a productive pain that has a glorious outcome, a new life bursting into the world through water and blood, as Jesus gave His life outpouring through His blood and water.

Every week we affirm that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We do not know when, but we must keep awake and be the living stones, building each other up in love and hope, encouraging each other as Paul writes in the Hebrews reading, holding fast to the assurance of faith with clean hearts washed through by the blood of Christ.

News around us telling us about declining numbers in the church should not worry us and silence us, because in the silence the living stones cry out, there is no stopping the mission of God or His relentless love and His desire for us to be reconciled to Him for ever.

No stone will be left upon another that is built up without acknowledging that Jesus is king, without Jesus as the cornerstone, without us knowing that we cannot do church without Him, or in fact anything without Him.

We are the living stones here in Rochdale, let us keep building, let us do everything in Jesus name.

Amen.

Silence

Today we are privileged to be surrounded by words and voices of those who experienced and were touched by the events of World War One. We can listen and reflect on the huge sacrifice that men and women gave as part of the war effort. However, as we think about the aftermath of the ending of World War One, the realty was much different, words were few and far between and it was silence that covered the country.

A sentence that epitomises the atmosphere felt by many after the war had ended was “he was in the war, but he never spoke of it”

The heavy silence that clung to families and individuals who had witnessed and been part of the first world war was much more than a coping mechanism, it was a culture. The ability to put into words the suffering and pain, the horror and the shock was muted.

The majority of personal accounts from the First World War only began to surface ten years after the war. The heavy silence held firm the inexpressible experiences, that all who suffered from the aftermath of the war suffered together, brothers, sisters of the war united and bonded together by silence.

In this silence and emptiness we find ourselves in the shadow of the cenotaph. The cenotaph – which is Greek for the empty tomb, provides a tangible place of mourning for those who lost their lives and have no grave. In this empty tomb this solidarity of silence is eternally held, the memories of those who never came home, the blood that was shed shines around the foot of the cenotaph in the delicate rows of red poppies, the poppies that grew from the earth that entombs those who fought on those frightful fields.

At the empty tomb we are faced with sadness, silence, and shock, yet we see a glimpse of hope, the hope that we glimpse like the disciples did in the discovery of the empty tomb of Jesus, He is not here he is risen, the hope of a resurrected life, the hope of peace, the looking and pointing to a new way of life.

Those who we remember today dared to hope for peace and gave their lives for its cause. and as the sun goes down and the warm glow of heavy setting light brushes down the empty tomb, the petals of the poppies glow with their deepest red, and in the silence as we are untied and bonded together, we also dare to hope for peace in the world.

They cried out to you and were delivered

Today our reading from Job and Psalm 22 move us into an atmosphere of lament. The word lament means a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The Psalms allow us to access this state of lament by transmitting to us ways of speaking that are appropriate to the extremities of human experience. In other words they give us the language to communicate our feelings when we are pushed to the very edges , the raw limits of our life. Our experiences and expressions of these times are firmly rooted in Old Testament language and stories, it is here where we can find biblical characters that have walked with God through suffering and confusion.

By entering into lament, an environment is created which allows the transactions of God’s grace into the situations that His people and communities cry out from. The function of lament, in my opinion, is to create a thin space that enables heaven and earth to converse, where the tangibility of God’s grace can touch the brokenness of His people.

If we see our life journey with God as one of Orientation (where everything seems great) – Disorientation (where things have changed and we feel in a state of crisis)- to Reorientation (where we are able to walk forward again in a new sense of direction) we are following the Old Testament blueprint of God’s redemptive grace. The blueprint I speak of is the crying out of the Israelites in their slavery, God hearing them and remembering His covenant, and delivering them out of slavery.

Embracing lament Psalms like Psalm 22 that we have heard this morning, teach us to stand boldly in front of God to invoke His answer and action in our lives. When we stand in a place of disorientation not knowing what we are to do, or we are suffering from unspeakable grief or hurt and looking down into the pit not knowing where to turn, our voices join those who have suffered and also cried out to God. In the space where we might have no words to speak to God through anger and doubt the lament psalms sing through our hurt to Him.

Job who cries out trying to find out where God is, Job says “if I go forward he is not there, or backward I cannot perceive him, Job cries out and by doing so sits faithfully in his disorientated existence waiting to see the signposts of God’s reorientation, to wait to feel and see God’s saving hand.

By the end of the book, God does indeed restore all that was taken from Job and restores it to him even more that he had before. Jobs story echos Jesus story who Himself cries out in the words of the Lament Psalm to His Father on the cross, the words of Psalm 22 “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” The Father raises Him and restores Him and even more as Jesus sits at His right hand side. If Jesus follows the Exodus blueprint of God’s saving nature, crying out in disorientation and then reorientated then we should also.

When things are difficult when live seems overwhelming it is in those times where crying out is absolutely necessary. There is no room for pride in journeying with God, we can open up our hearts and break down the barriers that are built up by human ego where we believe that not showing weakness is strength when in fact our saviour died in perfect weakness showing perfect strength.

Living a life with God is a daily resurrection experience where we find ourselves raised to obedience, hope, and power after being constrained by the darkness of the pit and the power of death.

Watching the news we see lots of terrible things going on, locally we hear of tragic stories. We also feel the pain of watching our churches close around us and seemingly not see a positive future moving forward.

The lament is an activity that we can do as a community, when we feel our movement from settled orientation into disorientation, our plea our crying out to God for His reorientation is needed, necessary, and part of our life living with God.

Seasons of sickness such as loneliness and abandonment, threat of enemies, shame and humiliation, call us to cry out, not because we have little faith but because we have faith in our God, our God with whom we have a deep relationship with, our God who brings us from brokenness to restoration.

What may that restoration look like? In truth we do not know because His ways are not our ways but restoration opens up the possibility of God doing something new, a radical newness as He breathes into our lives afresh.

In the bible, Israel were confident to speak their addresses of disorientation to God because they knew that He must respond due to the Exodus blueprint of deliverance. This boldness of faith, what we see in Job, what we saw as Jesus faced the cross, is ours also to follow.

The lament Psalms show us that we are not alone in our feelings, we are with the communion of saints who have called and cried out long before us.

I would like to invite you all to enter the space of the lament during our prayers shortly, urging you to cry out to God into the situations when you feel like you need His reorientation. Be confident in your prayers and concerns, God can take it, Jesus carried the weight of our sins on His shoulders, and let the Holy Spirit guide you in the ancient words of the psalmist,

Yet you are the Holy one, enthroned upon the praises of Israel, our forebears trusted in you they trusted and you delivered them, they cried out to you and were delivered they put their trust in you and were not confounded.

Amen

Be opened

Father, may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ our Lord
Amen.
On Friday I read in the Manchester Evening News that there had been some hateful graffiti written on the East wall of Manchester Cathedral. The words written were offensive enough to warrant the incident to be called a hate crime by the police. 

I visited the cathedral yesterday and saw the place where the graffiti was written, as I walked past I felt sad that people would feel the need to deface a building that is not just a holy place but a place that holds the community in prayer, a place where people gather to celebrate achievements and also remember those who have given their lives for their country. Manchester cathedral is a place that is open to all regardless of faith and during the Arena attack supported and comforted all who sought the building for comfort in the wake of the attack.

I spent some time at the high altar thinking about all the negative news that is circulating about our Christian church. Statistics were released recently that aim to show that we, the church, are no longer relevant in the modern world. 
As I thought about the seemingly uncertain future of the church my gaze was held by the frontal on the altar. On it was a row of trees. The trees had branches that were waving in the wind with a few leaves coming off. The trunk of the trees sat on a thin piece of ground and under the ground was water. The roots of the trees poked through the ground into the water below. 

I wondered what this picture was telling me and as I sat in the silence I felt like these words came to me:
The wind and the rough weather will shake the branches, some branches will be broken and leaves will fall off, but to be able to continue to stay upright and weather the storm the roots must grow deeper.

In the Gospel today we see deeper roots of faith being made. A Gentile woman is begging for Jesus’s help to heal her daughter from an unclean spirit. Her request and approach to Jesus is crossing social and religious boundaries, Jesus is aware of these boundaries which moves Him to challenge her request with a question.

The woman’s strong response to Jesus’s challenge points to the coming of the Holy spirit to rest on the gentiles after His death and resurrection. But most importantly, her deep roots of belief and faith in Jesus withstands any questioning of her ability to be able receive His blessings. 

This woman’s actions of approaching Jesus because she had solid belief in Him, could be a fresh teaching for us in the church, a way we can make these deeper roots to withstand the storm.  

When the woman approaches Jesus with her request for healing, Jesus doesn’t wait for approval from the PCC or General Synod to be able to administer the healing of the gentile woman’s daughter. She doesn’t have to disclose her sexuality, her marital status, her length of time that she’s heard about Jesus, or her financial position, Jesus sees and hears her deep faith and belief in Him and that is enough. 

The newspapers tell us that over half of the country claim not to follow any religion, however the Gospel tells us that these people still can and do cry out and encounter and receive God’s blessings. 

The pattern of God’s people crying out to Him and He hearing them and blessing them stretches back to the Exodus in the Old Testament. God hears the crying out of the Israelites in Egypt, God heard their groaning and remembered His promise to them and drew them out of slavery. 

If we apply these Old and New Testament Biblical truths of anyone being able to cry out and encounter and receive the saving hands of God, that all can approach Jesus and receive His healing touch and blessings, it can help us to realise that the future of the church actually sounds much more positive than the papers would report. All we need to do is be open, to be opened to God’s mission that is going on around us, to show everyone that we are here for everyone who seeks further understanding of God. 

Jesus commands “be opened” to loosen the mouth and free the ears of the second person who receives healing in the Gospel today.  

Where is Jesus commanding us to be opened today? 

Are there things in our hearts, situations on our minds that are jammed shut?

Are these things preventing us from growing those deeper roots that we need to withstand the storms of life?

Our deep roots are able to grow if we accept Jesus’s command to be opened. By loving our neighbour by praying daily Thy kingdom come thy will be done we open up and deepen our perspectives and understanding of God. In turn anchoring ourselves into the earth with firm foundations of faith.

We may loose some branches as storms blow through the church, our leaves will fall and be scattered, but with deep well fed roots we will remain and sustain all God’s people. 

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. – Isaiah 35:4

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but stands fast for ever. -Psalm 125

Amen 

It is the spirit that gives life


Father, may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ our Lord
Amen.
What is it like to have all the answers? 
There are people out there who my Nan would have described as having the gift of the gab. This means that they could talk themselves out of any situation and pretty much have an answer for everything. 
It is a trait of us humans to want to find an explanation for everything that we experience. Science has helped us to do this and as we speak there is a probe hurtling through space that has been sent to help us learn more about the sun. 
Today’s Gospel reading is one that is sent to probe and raise more questions to help us learn more about what it means to follow Jesus. There is no clear or easy answers from a teaching that is described by Jesus’ disciples as being difficult and hard to accept. This teaching causes a bit of a stir, that shakes the foundations of those who follow Jesus so much that by the end of the passage some have turned away from Him and left the group.
To accept this teaching of Jesus’ words to eat His flesh and drink His blood to abide in Him is pretty difficult, especially for us who require to have all the answers. 
How many questions do we have racing around our minds after we hear these instructions of eating and drinking Jesus to obtain eternal life.
But, like us, the disciples are used to Jesus’ teachings through His parables, and this further teaching about Jesus being the bread of life takes the metaphorical description of bread to an even deeper level. It points the disciples forward to the mysterious power of the cross.
To be Christians is to be marked with the sign of the cross, the baptismal mark of incorporation with Christ. As we trace the cross over our foreheads we remember that the cross on which our saviour and God hung, made no logical sense at all. 
Bonhoeffer describes Good Friday as us celebrating the fact that God let’s himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. St Paul says that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to confound the wise (1cor:27) and that anyone who claims to be wise in this age, that person must become a fool in order to become wise (1cor18:25).
There is teaching here to understand that our desire to fulfil all our human and fleshy explanations, to have all the answers to explain everything to rationalise the cross just doesn’t work. 

We have to enable with the spirit to have knowledge.
The cross is the focal point for the knowledge of God, the heart of the mystery of God’s being, the centre of all faith and theology. 
The cross and the difficult journey towards it through Jesus’ teachings can not be marked by offence or tragedy, but only as victory and liberation, of hope and where by believing and following Jesus we choose to live.
Jesus says that the spirit gives life and the flesh is useless, the flesh wants to stop walking with Jesus and walk away because it doesn’t understand, but with the spirit that burns inside our hearts knows the deep love of our God who is the God of life.
In the Old Testament, in the book of Deuteronomy God speaks to the Israelites and asks them to continue to walk forward in the blessings of God by choosing life. We hear the echoes of these teaching in the Joshua reading today. By choosing life they promise to walk in God’s ways, observing His commandments and to love the Lord our God.
This choice of life is given to the disciples in the Gospel today, Jesus say that words he has spoken are spirit and life. A unity of fleshy ways and the knowledge of God that the spirit gives them to keep walking with Jesus.
The spirit gives us life in the difficult teachings, when we are out of our comfort zones we learn, we deepen our belief, we strengthen out trust in Him.

When we hold the bread that is the body of Christ we hold and fulfil our hunger for the one who came to show us how much God loves us. As we drink His blood we quench the thirst for the knowledge of life that is promised to us. Through this Holy Communion, He dwells in our bodies, He abides in us as we abide in Him. 
There must be a connection between our spirituality and our fleshy human life. We cannot put our human behaviours in one box and our church life in another. To keep moving forward with Jesus out faith must overlap in our everyday lives, we are marked by the sign of the cross and that travels with us. 
When we feel like we have all the answers, or that theology is a by product of being a member of God’s church we have to step back and think of Jesus’ hard teachings. When we say that we are Christians that also means we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus. 

Discipleship and human life is meant to work together. God created us this way and He asks us to choose life, not death.

The only one who has all the answers is Jesus, He is the way the truth and the life. 

At the end of the Gospel reading, at the end of His teaching Jesus asks the Disciples, after the others had turned back, “do you also wish to go away?”  

He asks us the same question “do you also wish to go away?”

We answer with Simon Peter, Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. we have come to believe and know that you are the holy one of God.
Amen