A sermon about purpose and being deflated

June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Jesus, Moses and Elijah, Mount of the Transfiguration

Jesus, Moses and Elijah, Mount of the Transfiguration

I typed the wrong number in our lectionary for today. Instead of the end of 1 Kings 19, about Elisha being Elijah’s disciple, we got the whole of 1 Kings 19 – Elijah on Horeb, ‘only I am left’ and so on. I was preaching, and found myself comparing Elijah’s ‘deflation’ and Jesus’s purposeful journey though Luke.

I said to our congregation that I might well have made the mistake for a purpose. A good number of people thanked me afterwards for the bits about being depressed and ‘deflated’. So I thought I’d offer it more widely. Hope it helps.

Political dramas on the television are very fond of the ‘walk and talk’ sequence, where the Prime Minster or President is on the move, barking out orders and giving instant answers to questions from aides who come and go, usually with a clipboard or a mobile phone. The central figure is completely in control, directing the action, never pauses for breath and never has to reflect on the right answer. They are, to use some overused phrases, ‘in the moment’, ‘in the zone’. So popular is this device that it is frequently spoofed in comedy shows.

A slightly irreverent part of me imagines the Jesus of Luke chapters 5 to 19 as being like this. He hardly draws breath. His words pour out like a torrent. People come and are healed, miracles happen, and he uses each event to say further profound and challenging things. There’s story after story, parable after parable. Just look at Chapter 9. He sends the 12 to preach. They return, full of it. He feeds the 5000. Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus predicts his death. He goes up a mountain and is transfigured. He heals a boy with a demon. The disciples arg

ue about who is top dog. And at the end, in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus prevents his disciples from nuking a village, and people who try to combine their old life with following Christ are sent away with a flea in their ear. It carries on for another 9 chapters like this. It’s like one of those compilations of highlights with all the boring bits taken out. It’s exhausting.

Perhaps the key phrase in today’s reading comes in explaining the Samaritan villagers’ rejection of Jesus. His ‘face is set’ towards Jerusalem. All of this busy-ness, all of these words, all of these events have a purpose. Luke shows a whirl of activity around Jesus, with some reflective moments too. But it all leads towards a goal. Jesus isn’t hanging around to see what will happen. He is making it happen. And, as with any Rabbi worth following, his disciples had to do the same. If you’re going to follow me, he says, be prepared to have no house or home. Forget about the past, don’t look back. Complete focus, complete dedication.

What’s interesting to me is that this doesn’t make Jesus like some megastar on a walkabout, not really engaging with the people they meet. In fact Jesus seems to be ready to stop, ready to listen, to hear the next word from God, to speak the next word of God, to receive or offer service at any moment. I can imagine him not looking over people’s shoulders, trying to see if anyone more important is coming. He would look straight at people and give them all the attention the situation demanded. He responds to unexpected events and challenges with balance and insight, precisely because he is focussed on his goal, his reason for being there. He’s focussed, and purposeful, but not blinkered or blind to the needs around him.

Today’s readings offer us a superb contrast with another great leader who is full of the works and power and mission of God. Elijah the Prophet, in 1 Kings 19, is fresh from a whole series of miraculous events. He has predicted drought, he has multiplied food, he has raised a boy from death, he has challenged a king, he has wiped out the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He is the epitome of success, completely led by God and with a clear goal of standing for the true worship of God in a land where they have become distracted and unjust. He can even outrun a chariot.

But you wouldn’t think that if you started Elijah’s story only at chapter 19 of 1 Kings. Far from being the ‘super-prophet’ of chapter 18, he is completely miserable, and wants to die. One setback – a threat from the King he challenged – and all his power and purpose and focus just melt away. I’ll confess to being deflated on occasions in much the same way. It’s as if you’ve been floored. One minute all is powering on, the next you’ve been unplugged – and you deflate like a bouncy castle. Some of you may recognise the symptoms of a reactive depression in Elijah: he turns everything inward and it’s all about himself. There is no hope, no reason to do anything, exhaustion, gloom, despair.

It takes a retreat, physical care and activity, good food and a change of perspective to get Elijah back on track. He has mistaken a unique call from God for a requirement to do everything by himself, and has taken a temporary setback for a clear proof that he’s made a mess of it and that all is going to fail. God helps him put all this in perspective. His purpose remains, but he’s in good company, not on his own. It’s not all about him: there are 7000 with him, and Elisha is given to him as a close companion. His blinkers come off, and he’s able to put his life and his ministry and mission into context, ready for whatever comes next. Again I’ll confess to the way this works: admitting your deflation to someone else and being open to the encouragement of others leads to restoration, and the recognition that it’s not that bad, that it’s not up to you, it’s up to God.

When a potential disciple says to Jesus that he must put his affairs in order first, Jesus seems harsh: ‘let the dead bury their dead’. But this is for a positive purpose: ‘as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God’. Jesus calls us to live with our ultimate end in view, with the declared purpose of everything we do being for the kingdom.

Distractions to our Christian life can come in many forms: the voices from the past telling us this is not for us, that we’re not good enough; the demands of family, work and friendship; the need for security. Jesus’s focus is on what is to come, not what’s behind us. Other distractions can come from within: Elijah’s self accusation, exhaustion, over concentration on himself. We can be too focussed on the task and forget to look after ourselves and see the bigger picture.

What Jesus shows us is that we can ‘set’ ourselves towards God, and look out for what’s happening around us – we can gaze well ahead and look closely at what God is doing here and now. I’m trying to learn how not to be deflated. When you commit to something it’s hard when it doesn’t go right the first time. Jesus invites us to follow him without distraction, but also to take the long view, and in all things to proclaim the kingdom of God. If we follow him in doing this, we too will be fit for the kingdom.


No more shall the sound of weeping be heard

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

SONY DSCI don’t normally blog sermons. But tomorrow I preach at a Carol Service for the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths. What to say to a congregation for whom Christmas brings the memory of the lives of their little ones cut short? And what to say as the world watches a small town in America grieve its little ones? Here’s what I’ll say. It’s based on Isaiah 65. 17 – 25 (which I chose ages ago).

‘I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight’ says the prophet Isaiah, some two thousand five hundred years ago. ‘I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people’ he goes on. No more will there be the sound of weeping. No longer will children live but a few days, no longer will there be adults who die young. What thrills me about this poetic look into the future is its connection with reality. Some visions of the future are so fantastical that they are no earthly use. This one takes us from where we are, and offers us hope now. Where there has been pain there will be healing. Where there has been violence there will be peace. Where there has been death there will be life.

 I was privileged to spend the month of June in Jerusalem, and ate my breakfast each morning looking from its southern suburbs into Bethlehem. A few times I walked into Manger Square in Bethlehem. It took me 20 minutes. But to do so meant crossing from Israeli controlled Jerusalem to Palestinian governed Bethlehem, through a checkpoint in the 25 foot high Wall – the Separation Barrier. The checkpoint was guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, and each time we crossed we witnessed Palestinian families being thoroughly checked, their children thoroughly frightened.

 This part of Jerusalem is no joy. Today’s Holy Land, the focus of Issaiah’s promise, is no joy. In November a Palestinian rocket landed a mile or so from where I had stayed in June. In the current conflict innocents have died, including many children. We could be forgiven for regarding Isaiah’s vision as an irrelevance, a piece of wishful thinking, with no connection to what life is really like. Widening our horizon only confirms this view. The people of Newtown Connecticut can only cry out in agony at the massacre of children and adults there. ‘Our hearts are broken’ said President Obama. Their losses join the losses of people all round the world, and in all ages, and they join ours today. This congregation needs no reminding of what it is for a heart to be broken at the loss of a little one.

 ‘I am about to create joy, delight, length of days, fruitfulness, security, peace, blessing’ says God through Isaiah. And how will this come about? In the vision of this season generated by our popular culture it will be through pleasing aromas of Christmas food, through giving and receiving an iPad, through a celebrity autobiography, through the quality of our Christmas decorations, through sitting together in family harmony to watch other people’s misery on Emmerdale, Corrie or Eastenders on Christmas Day (7, 7.30 and 8.30 if you’re interested), through wearing ‘Christmas’ jumpers. Nice as some of those things are…I think not.

 Not when the abiding emotions and thoughts for many of you will be of what might have been, of who is not there, whether old or young – for me my mother who died seventeen years ago, my Grandmother who died this year, and my brother who died at six months when I was two, and whom I cannot remember yet miss as I watch my two sons interact and wonder what might have been for me and him these last fifty years. Such crying out is not settled and healed and solved by a soft focus warm glow jingle belled paper crowned high street Christmas. But, perhaps, even in the depths of despair felt by so many across the world at the needless death of their little ones, perhaps it may come to pass through what did happen in Bethlehem and which Isaiah looked forward to.

 It may come to pass because a fragile child was born in desperate circumstances in a tense country with occupying armies not afraid to massacre and kill little ones to enforce their rule. The vision of peace and hope may come to pass because a young woman grasped hold of words from God that the child she was carrying would change things. It may come to pass because her future husband – fathers feel this too – her future husband risked scandal and disgrace by holding on to that promise too, and welcomed the child as his own. It may come to pass because baby did become toddler and teenager and man, and lived what we live. It may come to pass because his mother lost him, watched him die, and cradled him then as she had cradled him just a few miles away and three decades before.

 It may come to pass because the Christian hope is that Jesus’s life and death is rooted in the painful reality of human life as it actually is, and that his new life reveals him to be the God who embraces our human life and sweeps us up into the new life of God. The vision of hope here is that you and I and everyone else who is broken up and hurting can glimpse the joy and hope which we have also experienced – in the love and care we have received from friend and relative and stranger, in the life we are determined to live with creativity and imagination precisely because we have loved so much. There is hope for ever because we have glimpsed it now. From this, even in the depths, there will be hope.

 I pray then, for you, for me, and for all who cry out in the pain of loss and in the warmth of remembering…I pray that we will know that real and possible vision, a graspable hope, through the birth of a tiny child, whose life and death and new life are our future, and whose arms are wide and whose love is everything.

Rules for Reverends IV

December 5, 2011 § 3 Comments

31. Falling asleep during a clergy quiet day isn’t a sin, but it’s embarrassing if you dribble.

32. The person who looks most miserable in a special service will be the one who tells you at the end how much they loved it.

33. You might have sung ‘Hark the Herald’ thirteen times already, but for most of the congregation it’s their only time in church this year.

34. The person who thought that an orange, some ribbon, sweets and a candle would be an aid to worship had to be joking. No one’s laughing now.

35. There should be a misprint in every order of service. Only God is perfect.

36. No one will notice if you do your bit at the wrong time. Everyone will notice when the organist does. Cut them some slack.

37. Virgers are God’s way of saying ‘I love you’.

38. Aggressive gestures at other drivers are given added spice when you wear a dog collar.

39. There is something curiously uplifting about doing 70 mph in a hearse.

40. You need a very secure safe for all the special treasures people entrust you with.

Women Bishops – The Next Step

November 12, 2011 § 5 Comments

York Diocese voted on the Women Bishops Measure today. Each House was in favour (Bishops 3/2, Clergy 25/14, Laity 42/8). We also voted on a ‘following motion’: to ask General Synod to ask the House of Bishops to amend the Measure ‘in the manner proposed by the Archbishops ofCanterburyandYork.’ We passed this by 62 – 24, with 6 abstentions.

I spoke against the following motion. I had voted against it at General Synod, have discussed it widely, and listened carefully. It was always going to be interesting speaking against it in a Diocesan Synod which values an Archbishop who spoke strongly for it. But the contrary arguments needed to be put. It looks like General Synod will have another look at the following motion in February, and I need to listen some more, so here’s where I think I am.

People who are against the consecration of women as bishops need the assurance that appropriate Episcopal ministry will be guaranteed to them. This ministry must come with ‘sacramental assurance’ (i.e. that the hands laid on the bishop in question at their ordinations as priest and bishop were themselves in the historic tradition, and that said bishop has not done anything to compromise this). The wording in the Measure simply speaks about a ‘male’ bishop, and it’s obviously not about gender alone. However, no scheme is going to offer an unacceptable bishop, and I don’t think this argument alone is enough to demand a change in the Measure.

Opponents also dislike the use of the words ‘Letter of Request’ when asking for such Episcopal provision. But there are letters and letters, and these ones have the force of law. So no need for change there either. « Read the rest of this entry »

Rev at Work

November 5, 2011 § 2 Comments

Having tweeted (@RevJFletcher) that my working day looked like being 16 hours yesterday, someone asked me to analyse those hours. Good question.

First: I think it was a good day. Lots of ‘Rev’ing. But what sort, and was it worth it? So:  

6.30 – 7.30. Up, and emailing. Not normal, this – just using being wide awake. Bye bye to Julia at some point during this time. She’s got an hour’s commute.
Work: lots of detail. Quality: more urgent than important. Rev quota: 4/10

7.30 – 8.00 Breakfast. Church Times. Bit of Daily Telegraph.
8.15 – 8.30: Dentist. Dens sana in corpore sano.
8.40 – 9.09: Admin in Office – noticesheet etc.
Work: lots of detail. Quality: more urgent than important. Rev quota: 4/10 « Read the rest of this entry »

General Synod Tuesday – an apology for my apology.

July 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Further to this – after a couple of hour’s work I found my deleted stuff – so it’s back as if live up to 11.30 is when I lost it!!

The Education debate carried on xpected – except we added Higher Education to the list of stuff we want to support.

And then we went home.


Dear all

Apologies – in trying to add a photo I deleted my previous content, and have failed to find it…and now the laptop battery is about to go. Curses! I may find it later…

General Synod in July 2011, as it happens (some of it)

July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve not blogged for
a while – and I’ve missed it even if others haven’t. So here I am
again, giving some live reports from General Synod in York. York
sees Synod in a completely different mode. All the rules of debate
remain the same, but it all feels different when you’ve had a late
night drink or eaten breakfast with someone who holds radically
different views to you. We all stay in the colleges of the
university, and you can find yourself meeting some amazing people.
Coming to York when I was first on Synod made the whole thing make
sense for me. And I can remember a brilliant breakfast, when I
found myself hearing about how to play leg-spin with a former
England Cricket Captain – the Bishop of Liverpool. This is the
first York Synod for new members – and I hope they have a lovely
time. We’ve opened with the usual stuff. We’re always addressed
first by an interesting guest. Today it was the leader of the
Orthodox Church in Albania. To be flippant, I loved his title –
‘His Beatitude’. Brilliant. And being serious he spoke carefully
how as a missiologist he worked with the church in ALbania after it
was allowed to exist again after 23 years of being banned, in 1990.
‘Do not worry about the future’ he told us. ‘The future in
Christ’s’. His first words in the ruined cathedral in Tirana were
‘Christ is Risen!’, and this became the watchword of the church
there. It was a humbling start. We also have the chance to say what
really should have been on the agenda – and we had some impassioned
pleas about emergency debates on the Sudan, the House of Lords and
the doctrine of marriage as it relates to Civil Partnerships. These
things are normally gently batted away – we are an ungainly kind of
oil tanker where debates are concerned. But Pete Spiers proposed a
way of getting an emergency debate onto our agenda, and I hope we
can do it some day. Later we have Questions – always lively. But
dinner first – and I hope I meet someone new! « Read the rest of this entry »

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