Proper 7: The Joy of Questions

20/6/21 – Proper 7
Job 38:1-11
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind, Object 13 (William Blake Archive)

I mentioned last Sunday that the lectionary readings over the coming
weeks and months are something like Jesus’ Summer School. This morning
cannot help but think how amazing it would have been to go on a summer
holiday with Jesus! Imagine going on a picnic with Jesus and there is no
lunch. Think: loaves and fishes. Then going on a boat trip with Jesus. The
storm comes and he is found to be sleeping (I’ve always secretly
wondered if he was pretending just to see what the disciples would do!). In
three words he commands the sea to behave and it does!

In both Job and Mark’s Gospel there are some big questions being asked
by all the characters. God is questioning Job, the disciples question Jesus and then Jesus questions them. Questions are good things, part of our learning. Even the difficult ones. If you have spent any time around children you will know that questions come regularly and at rapid fire. I am sure that many of us have had the experience of being asked a question that we didn’t have answer for! That awful feeling when the teacher asks you and you have no earthly idea
what the answer is. Or those questions that have no easy answer or even an answer at all. What do we do with those ones?

Difficult questions run through the entirety of the book of Job as Job asks and is asked many challenging (if not impossible) questions throughout his ordeal. Questions about the nature of suffering, how God works (or doesn’t), what did Job do to cause his current suffering; surely his current situation is his fault according to the logic of his friends. Job struggles to give them an answer that satisfies because he knows there is nothing that he has done to end up where he is. Job has been lamenting his current condition and trying to make sense of it.

He has literally banging on the door of God’s house to have a word. This feels like a reasonable request as I think that I, too would want a word with the person – God or not – who put me there. Finally, after 37 chapters of lament, complaint and moaning, Job hears from God for the first time You get the feeling that God has almost had enough of Job’s questions so starts with a few of his own. There are 11 questions in 15 verses. God starts easy: ‘who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’ This one is easy to answer – it is Job.

Job now has to ‘gird up his loins like a man!’ I love that! God telling him off in such common language. God’s next questions are much harder:
 Where you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?
 Can you make it rain?
 Who gave you wisdom or understanding to the mind?
 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
 Can you feed the lions, satisfy the young ones?
 Can you feed the baby ravens when they are crying and there is no food to found?

If you read the last few chapters of Job, you see God fire a barrage of questions at Job; most of which he cannot answer! Job has not, in fact, been in the storehouses of the snow or hail, or sent forth lightening, nor was he present at the birth of the mountain goat and he is unfamiliar with the ordinances of heaven. Neither are we.

In the last chapter of Job, after all the conversation and questioning, Job’s first remark is ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’ Do you know this truth about God? Whatever we throw at him, the
questions we have about anything, wherever we find ourselves, whatever the situation we are in: no purpose of his can be thwarted!

In Mark’s telling of Jesus and the disciples in the boat, we are shown again that no purpose of God’s can be thwarted. Underneath all the questions an uncertainty, pain and suffering we have the one who gets into the boat with us. I love this story of Jesus. The opening chapter of Mark is full of the activity of Jesus’ ministry. Little wonder he fell asleep in the boat! Jesus had been going through cities and villages proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God, curing people. Jesus laid it out in the parable of the sower when told people to bear fruit with patient endurance. Jesus then had some family issues when his mother and brothers showed up. No wonder he needed a nap! And one day he got into a boat with his disciples and had a snooze. How
utterly human.

Even what happened next was not out of the ordinary; the Sea of Galilee is known for its quick change in tide. It can be as smooth as glass one moment and then choppy and windy the next. Jesus was with fisherman who knew that water, had lived and breathed it their whole lives. They are scared! That storm must have been beyond what they were used to. As human beings tend to like security and the familiar, so we get use to things whether they are beneficial or
not. The church is not exempt from this. Now I am not saying that everything has to change right now but over time.

I wonder what the disciples in the boat would have done if Jesus wasn’t with them? Rode out the storm I suppose. How much better though to have the one seated in the boat to rebuke the wind and the waging waves in an instant. There was a calm.

Whatever happens over the next few weeks, months and years here – when times of wind and wave sweep down and in times of calm, Jesus is on our side. He’s in the boat. Where is your faith? This is the question Jesus asked the sea-sickened, pale faced disciples and is not a bad one for us today.

Where is your faith when change comes, when what your used to isn’t what your used to anymore? I want my congregations, all the people of the Hambleden Valley to know Jesus, to have their faith in him. To know the one who commands the winds and the water that they obey him. Again, takes some creativity and imagination to read the Gospels and understand at a deeper level what he was doing and what that means for us. So let us ask the questions, of God, of each other and ourselves. Let us avoid the answers that are too easy
but engage with the ones that are hard.

Jesus is in the boat with us on the journey of each our individual lives but also our communal life as a parish and congregation. Let’s see where he
is taking us!

Proper 6: God the Gardener

The Generous Sower
Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘The Sower’

13/6/21 – Proper 6
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

I would like to welcome you all this morning to Jesus’ Summer School! We recently changed into the ‘ordinary time’ on the church calendar – which I think is anything but ordinary. The world and our times are certainly not ordinary! Over the coming weeks and months our weekly readings turn to the teaching of Jesus and his parables. Today’s lesson is about gardening and the particular use of seeds.

I know that a lot of you are avid gardeners and others are garden appreciators (like myself). Jesus often refers to gardening in his parables as he tries to teach about what the kingdom of God is like. He uses analogies of the seed and sower, lamps under bushel baskets, and today the focus is on seeds. Why these things? I think that lamps and mustard seeds represent everyday miracles. We all know how they work. The kingdom of God is in the everyday stuff of life. This is drastically different from the kingdom of military power that many people thought Jesus would bring; including the disciples.

The first seed parable might suggest that the gardener is rather reckless by the scattering of seeds. You could picture this person flinging handfuls of seed everywhere to fall where they may. This is not neat and orderly rows of well tended vegetables. Then this gardener goes to sleep, and doesn’t pay attention as the seeds begin to sprout. They don’t seem to know how this happens, just that it does. Sometime later they can come back and harvest what has been sown.

If you are a perfectionist you might have picked up what is wrong with this parable. Good gardeners do not toss seeds randomly about and then sleep away the growing season. Good gardeners should tend their garden, watch out for the weather, protect the sprouts from the deer and the birds. Things surely need to be watered and weeded.

Or, is this gardener generous and trusting? They apparently have enough seed to scatter freely and enough trust in the soil to do it’s thing so that not much attention is required. This gardener seems to understand the mystery, the ancient cyclical nature of the growing season. The gardener has done their part by planting and harvesting. Growth will simply happen without any intervention from them.

This gardener seems to know that they are not in charge; they are operating in the realm of mystery. No amount of worrying or control will make these seeds grow. In this story of the kingdom, it is not our striving, our piety or impressive prayers that cause us to grow and thrive in God’s garden. The kingdom of God will grow on grace alone.

The mustard seed is interesting too. Jesus’ first audience would have been surprised with this reference. I read recently that the people of Jesus’ day would not have planted mustard seeds. They were a noxious weed. You also would not want to attract birds to your garden either. Birds who eat seeds and fruit. Once a mustard seed starts growing they need very little care and not much water. They spread quickly and take over where they are planted; not exactly something you would want in a well-tended garden. It would have been seen as a nuisance and not to be cultivated on purpose. It grows like a weed and looks like one too as they are not beautiful to look at.

What does the mustard seed have to say about the kingdom of God? Mustard seeds have small beginnings. Jesus is saying here that this kingdom of God starts small and grows large – much larger than we can ever imagine, the kingdom spreads out and changes the taste of the world around it.
The mustard seed also says something about what counts in God’s economy, what is beautiful and who matters. It is not only the well-tended and well organised. It is the spindly weeds, the small ones who matter. It is the birds, an unwelcome visitor who is welcomed and given a seat of honour too.

If we are going to plant then we need to be sure of the soil in which we are planting. The first gardener seems to trust the soil to do it’s thing. Whatever happens in the soil is hidden, it is generous as it feeds and nurtures the seeds deep below the surface. Eventually the soil brings forth the seedling and it begins life above the earth to be harvested. How is the soil in which we are planting? There are times when we do not trust the soil, maybe we plant our prayers but not let them be cared for by the soil of God’s love and grace.

As a church and as part of a larger benefice, we need to spread out and change the taste of the world around us. Church is not contained to these four walls, this hour on a Sunday and only the people sitting here. Lord help us if that ever becomes our view of His church and his kingdom. Without seed, that is without the word of God being shared, then nothing will grow. Where can we be planting seeds in our villages?

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he is encouraging them to be confident of the love of Christ. We are not just God’s creation but part of his new creation. We walk by faith and not by sight, think of what happens in the soil that we cannot see. Paul is calling us to be confident in Christ. Probably one of the hardest things to do is to ‘walk by faith, not by sight’.

From Psalm 119 ‘your word is a lamp unto my feet and and light to my path’. The light is on the feet; we get enough vision for the next step not the whole journey. Walking by faith in all life throws at us. Growth still comes. New creation is birthed. We are nurtured and cared for by God.

Paul talks about our eternal home: in the heavens that God is preparing for us. We are to be forward-looking people. We have the Spirit as a guarantee. This is where our confidence should be.

How is your confidence this morning? What are you confident in? What we do as a church may feel small and under confident ; but it will grow like a mustard seed if we let it. We need scatter seeds with abandon, trusting that they will fall in the right places to take hold. It is not solely down to our efforts, well executed prayers and piety. There is mystery in the soil, in the unseen where growth happens. If, like Paul, we walk by faith and refuse to let circumstances crush or perplex us and focus on the new creation we can be confident in the love and grace of God.

Proper 5: God at the Centre

Hambleden Valley Group Service – St Mary the Virgin, Fawley
Proper 5

1 Samuel 8:4-11,16-20
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

Sieger Koder
Fr Sieger Koder, Jesus Loves the Children

I can only trust that it is divine providence to be preaching on 1 Samuel 8 and Mark 3 this morning; my first Group Service as Priest-in-Charge of the Hambleden Valley Group. I also realized that I haven’t written a sermon on this Sunday before either. Indeed a fresh start.

Both of these books along with 2 Corinthians will feature over the coming weeks according to the lectionary. Might I suggest adding them to your summer reading lists! There are some solid and still relevant lessons in them. I hope that the take away today: Is Jesus at the centre? It is a fundamental question for the Benefice at this time and for each of us. What happens when He is not? How do we put him back?

To set up my stall: I like the Old Testament. A lot. I am by no means an expert, it does take some time and energy to get one’s head around it and when you do there is beauty and story to be discovered.

If I had to nutshell the Old Testament it is this: it is a story of a people who messed up and the God who loved them anyway. These people, Israel, had been chosen by God to be his people (unsure why them), to be the Chosen ones they had to follow some rules – the Chema (love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. Super easy!) Israel had to care for the neighbours, the widows and orphans but above love God.

Yet, they couldn’t do it. They focused on what they didn’t have, they worshipped other gods, complained about what they felt entitled to, nothing was quite good enough, they wanted what the neighbours had. Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

In 1 Samuel, this all comes to a head as Israel demands a human king to look after them ; just like all the neighbours had. They thought this was a better option than obeying God. At this point, Samuel was an old man, his own sons had chosen their own paths and went astray so he would not be leading them for much longer. Israel has reached a critical moment in their history, two ways to go here. The way of God or the way of themselves.

Samuel gets a warning from God which he passes on about how awful the ways of a human king are going to be. A human king will turn their sons into war labourers, daughters will be put to work; he will take the best of their flocks, fields and vineyards for his friends, and then a 10% cut on top of that for his own personal use. This is grossly unfair. However, the people will not listen and continue their demands, they are actively rejecting God for their own agenda.

God’s response, despite the warning, is to give the people what they want. There are consequences, the Lord will not answer when they cry out because of the king. God did not do this because he is uncaring or gave up on his chosen people; he wanted to show them that His way is the better one, following him leads to life and not death. If God is not at the centre of life and we choose to go our own way, there are consequences, there are responsibilities that come with free will.

Stay tuned as the first human king of Israel will be appointed in next week’s edition!

Summer Reading Book 2: Mark’s Gospel

We are now in the early days of Jesus’ ministry and things are hotting up. Jesus is travelling, healing, teaching and gaining attention. He was doing things, like healing people on the Sabbath and declaring forgiveness of sins, getting in the face of the religious establishment. This attention is likely causing some pressure on his family.

We do not know very much about Jesus’ family life as there are few references to them. We have two in Mark 3 and they both indicate that Jesus’ family life likely was not easy! His family certainly doesn’t come across well; Mary and the brothers go to restrain him, public opinion was that ‘he had gone out of his mind’ and his family seem to have gone along with the crowd on this one. I am sure that many of us know what it is to have awkward/difficult/odd family members.

However, what Jesus is saying is lucid and makes sense. Jesus is pushing them to look not just at the theory of God but the reality of God. Everything Jesus was doing was good. Everywhere Jesus went people were being restored to God, evil and sickness were banished, demons were exercised. The root of the problem was that the power Jesus was displaying could only come from two sources: God or the devil.

Jesus is not only proclaiming the word of God but performs it in action. If we read God’s word, then we should be able to see it in action. Evil simply cannot work against itself.

This pushing made them, his family and the religious leaders, uncomfortable. His family was risking a bad reputation. The religious leaders could lose control of the population; so much so that they were willing to lie and deny the consequences of what Jesus was saying and doing was true.

Revd Dr Cally Hammond in this week’s Church Times, ‘We human beings have the terrifying freedom even to reject our Maker, and refuse to hear his voice. There are people, both inside and outside the churches, who put themselves – and keep themselves – beyond God’s forgiveness. This makes them literally ‘unforgivable’; because they refuse to respond to him, they harden their hearts against the call to turn and begin anew with him. This is not a matter of religious observances (reading the Bible, church attendance, saying prayers): it is about the command to confess that God is, with all that flows from that confession It is no sin to be ignorant of that, or to refuse it on the basis of a misunderstanding of what God is. But truly to know and still refuse? That really is unforgivable.’

I have always been curious about the nature of the unforgivable sin and what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. I don’t think I have found a clearer explanation than Dr Hammond’s. It is to know God truly and still refuse. This does not apply to people of other religions or little tribes of people in deepest, darkest, wherever. This applies to people who know and refuse to put God at the centre, actively rejecting what is on offer. Unfortunately I know many more of them than I do Muslims, Hindus and Samburus.

How do we keep God at the centre as a Benefice and as the beloved children of God? From the examples of 1 Samuel; choose God’s kingship over that of other imperfect and fallible humans, care less about what the neighbours have and what you do not. God is faithful and he will give us what we ask for sometimes; be careful what you are demanding and why. You just might get it!

From Mark, look to the love and goodness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Living a God-centred life is not always easy, the temptation to lie and deny can be strong at times, what other people think has a powerful influence on us, tuning that out to follow truth and conscience is never easy – not even for Jesus.

Good and saintly people of the Hambleden Valley Group – we will face consequences if we do not stay together, we cannot become divided over opinion, preferences or money and all the myriad of things that can cause difficulties in churches. We need to be united with God and with each. With God at the centre of our lives and churches there is a bright and hopeful future ahead of us.

I am going to end with a poem today called ‘I Am Bending My Knee’ by the Scottish folklorist, Alexander Carmichael.

I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me,
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
In friendship and affection.
Through Thine own Anointed One, O God,
Bestow upon us fullness in our need,
Love towards God,
The affection of God,
The smile of God,
The wisdom of God,
The grace of God,
The fear of God,
And the will of God
To do on the world of the Three,
As angels and saints
Do in heaven;
Each shade and light,
Each day and night,
Each time in kindness,
Give Thou us Thy Spirit.