Monday, April 25, 2011

Jesus - the suffering companion of all men and women - on the Road to Emmaus

What do you do when everything goes horribly wrong?

That’s a massive question … and it is one I have found myself reflecting on in the past few weeks. It is a question I want to reflect on this evening.

As far as those two friends on the Road to Emmaus were concerned something horrible had happened. They had pinned their hopes on someone they thought would change the world. For a while he had changed their way of looking at things. For a while it felt as if he was going to sweep people along with him.

Nazareth was a pretty unimpressive place … so unprepossessing that when recently the eggheads on the TV quiz show of that name were asked which village Jesus came from in Galilee they couldn’t come up with an answer.

Nazareth was as little known then as it seems to be little known now in the world of TV Quiz shows.

Jesus of Nazareth had spoken out so powerfully. He had held the powers that be to account in just the way his ccousin John the Baptist had done a while before. This Jesus really had been a prophet the like of which hadn’t been seen for five centuries at least. He matched his actions to his words. And he had made a difference. He spoke out powerfully against the abuses of the religious rulers – how they were absorbed in the minutiae of religious practice – tithing mint and cumin so carefully and neglecting the weightier matters of the Law, Justice and Mercy and Faith. He spoke out against the abuses of the state authorities and challenged people to turn the other cheek when they were threatened not to retaliate.

And with this Jesus it hadn’t just been words. He matched actions to the words he used. Where people were hurting he healed them … he preached acceptance of all and of everyone and he ate with tax collectors and sinners, and what’s more he even touched people suffering from leprosy.

He truly was a prophet mighty in deed and word.

He had said it would turn out this way. But no one had really believed him, not least his closest friends. But that’s exactly how it had turned out.

And it had been horrible.

To see him betrayed. Him of all people! Betrayed and handed over to the authorities, the religious authorities the state authorities. Condemned to death and crucified.

It had been horrible to see.

So, what did those two friends do when the unimaginable happened.

I want to home in on the first couple of verses of this familiar passage.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened …. they were talking and discussing,

What do you do when something horrible happens?

That’s what you need to do.

Don’t cut yourself off. You need someone to talk to. Someone to listen. And that’s exactly what these two friends found in each other.

It has been a strange period since Christmas.

There have been wonderful things that have happened. And there have been horrible things that have happened. I have been close to people who have gone through horrible times since Christmas. Difficult to know what to do.

And since Christmas much has happened in our world. Egypt, Tunisia, … but then Libya. The family whose nephew was about to go on their third tour of duty to Afghanistan. A veteran. And only 23.

We touch horrible things.

I don’t know about you, but I found what happened in Japan, and continues to happen, horrible. Difficult to cope with. All sorts of questions.

What do you do?

First and foremost. How vital it is to talk. To come together. To be a support to each other. Don’t bottle it up in the face of horrible things that happen close to home. It is important to come together. To talk things through. To talk and discuss.

It’s been great to welcome the CF Youth Easter event this weekend. 40 years ago Felicity and I were among the group that started those events off … with an Easter Youth conference here at Highbury. Great to welcome the young people back this weekend.

Great connections to be made at such event.

Following this afternoon’s decision at the Open Meeting of CF Youth, CF youth is being wound up, or better, it is morphing along with the other CF youth organisation into CF Extra. A new youth thing in our churches involving everyone in our churches who is 10 and older. Sad to see these Easter youth conferences finish as they began here at Highbury. But exciting to have the prospect of something new happening.

That’s what happens with youth events. Wind the clock back 50 years and you reach the days of the Livingstone Fellowship. That was a youth movement among our Congregational churches that came into its own in the fifties and lasted into the sixties. And was strong here at Highbury.

As happens at such events people meet, they fall in love, they marry. It worked for Felicity and me … and it worked for Dick’s brother John Adams who married Elizabeth Harding.

I pricked my ears up when I read about Elizabeth Harding’s nephew, Daniel Harding. He has become one of the country’s leading conductors.

On 11th March 2011 Daniel Harding found himself in Tokyo, scheduled to conduct the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler’s 5th Symphony. What had happened was so unimaginably horrible, what should they do?

He consulted with the Orchestra. Collectively, they came to the decision that they would carry on with the concert and play that evening.

They did.
On Twitter, subsequently, Daniel Harding tweeted, “Would have played just for the 69 year old who walked 4 hours across Tokyo to make it to the concert! That's dedication to music!!
Just played Mahler 5 for the 50 who made it… Hope the other 1750 are all ok. Wonderful atmosphere on strangest of days.” (
As soon as I read that story, I went to the CD shop behind the Brewery, was treated to a 30 minute conversation with the guy behind the counter on Mahler, and ended up purchasing the Simon Rattle performance of Mahler’s 5th recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic. Not an inappropriate choice as Simon Rattle was the one who took Daniel Harding under his wing at an early stage in Daniel Harding’s career. I learned first in that conversation, and since have come to hear for myself, how moving that symphony is. Emerging from a life that not least in death and bereavement had experience pretty horrible things, it explores musically the two themes of death and resurrection. How moving it has been to play that music as we have laid out our own walk to Jerusalem in the footsteps of Jesus this Holy Week.

What do you do? It was good simply to come together. To be a support to each other. And in that music share the sadness of death but also share the hope of resurrection.

Those two on the Road to Emmaus found that evening that something happened as they talked and discussed with one another.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,

I don’t want to dwell on the rest of the story, how Jesus explained the messiah to be messiah had to be a suffering messiah who experienced the most horrible of horrible suffering himself, and only then come through to resurrection victory beyond. I just want to focus on those words,

“Jesus himself came near and went with them.”

In the face of horrible things that happen. That is what I find so precious about my faith, my Christian faith. Faith for me isn’t about arguing about the existence of God, much as I enjoy doing that. It isn’t about trying to figure out how God allows things to happen. Much as my questioning mind finds itself asking those enormous, unanswerable questions.

The great thing about faith for me is that it focuses on the God who in Jesus Christ comes alongside us in our sufferings and walks with us along the way.

When that Japanese earthquake struck I found myself turning to a Japanese, Christian novelist I had first read ten years ago. At that time I found it quaint to see how often earthquakes and volcanoes figured in the writing of Shusaku Endo. Just like that quaint Japanese art with the ever present Mount Fuji in the background. Now I realise it is not quaint at all. It reflects the fact that Japanese people live always very close to death and destruction by the forces of nature. I re-read Shusaku Endo’s novel, Volcano, though the novel I would recommend is Wonderful Fool, written at the same time. It was the translator of Volcano, Richard A Schuchert, who reminded me what it is about Shusaku Endo that for me goes to the heart of the Christian faith.

Born in 1923, he had become a Christian in his teens. After studying in Paris, he returned to Japan where he found him self frustrated at the way westerm missionaries presented Christianity with a triumphant victorious Christ.

That was not the Christ Shusaku Endo had found. The Jesus Christ who was so important to him was very different.

For Endo … the quintessence of Christianity lies in God’s loving compassion for His wretched children. His willingness to share with us in our suffering. The Japanese heart and mind seek a merciful mother-image of God, rather than the stern, demanding, threatening father-image which (in Endo’s opinion) has been unduly emphasised by the missionaries…. Endo is attracted to Jesus the suffering companion of all men and women. (Richard A Schuchert in the Introduction to Shusaku Endo, Volcano (Sceptre, 1978, originally published in Japanese in 1959)

That’s it!

That’s the heart of the Christian faith for me.

That’s what made all the difference to the two on the Road to Emmaus.

“Jesus himself came near and went with them.”

Shusaku Endo later published A Life of Jesus. He reflects on the hard lesson the disciples had to learn that in Jesus the Messiah is not ‘glorious’ possessed of power, full of majesty … but a suffering servant, a man of sorrows.

“There is probably no passage in the whole New Testament which better portrays the disciples’ mood than the episode of the travellers to Emmaus.

“What emerges clearly,” for Shusaku Endo, “in that evening’s touching so try is the image of Jesus as ‘companion’.

What do you do in the face of something horrible?

Find someone to talk to. Share the burden. Be a support to each other.

And then discover in Jesus the God who is alongside us in the pain, sharing the suffering, walking with us along the way, our companion for the journey.

As they talked and discussed and supported each other, as Jesus joined them on that journey, something prompted those two to do something themselves.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them.

They felt compelled to do something. To offer hospitality to this stranger.

Maybe that’s where our faith is propelling us. Strengthened by the talk, strengthened by the presence of the companion, then we too can DO something. Practical response to help those who face times of difficulty.

Never alone - thoughts for Easter

40 years ago this year Felicity organised an event here in Cheltenham for young people, a couple of years later she and I were part of the group that organised the very first CF Youth Conference here at Highbury.

It’s great to welcome CF Youth to this Easter event this year again at Highbury, as you this afternoon will be making plans for something new and exciting in the future.

Through the week the church has been open and we have been invited to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as his journey took him to Jerusalem, to the cross and to resurrection.

When I have been in the church I have been playing one piece of music that I chose to play specifically for this Easter. It was Mahler’s 5th Symphony. I chose it for a very specific reason.

Many of the older people who have been at Highbury for a long time will remember an earlier youth organisation in our Congregational churches. It was called the Livingstone Fellowship. Diana and Dick were among those who were very involved. Dick’s brother, John married another of those who was very involved, Elizabeth Harding. Interesting isn’t it what involvement in church youth organisations can do for you – Felicity and I are still going strong 40 years on!

Elizabeth Harding’s nephew Daniel has in recent years become one of the country’s leading conductors.

On 11th March he was scheduled to conduct Mahler’s 5th Symphony. The orchestra he was to conduct was the Philharmonic Orchestra of Japan. The concert was in Tokyo.

Should they or shouldn’t they carry on? They felt it best – because it was good in those circumstances to get together, to be a support to each other. It was a remarkable evening. Mahler’s 5th Symphony had an appropriateness to it for two themes run right through the Symphony – Death and Resurrection.

We’ve been telling the story of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem, a journey that took him through death, a cruel, painful death, to resurrection. The Way he took, opened up a way that his followers have taken ever since, a way of love for God, of love for one another, that does not enable us to avoid the awful things that life and this world, nature itself, sometimes hurls at us. But it does offer us a Way through the pain of death to a resurrection victory we too may share.

In a strange way this weekend walking in the footsteps of Jesus, listening to that music perhaps prompts us to realise something very special about being people who follow the way Jesus has opened up for us.

We need never feel alone. There are always people there for us. Some things change, new, exciting challenges come along, and the presence of God’s love is always with us, come what may. Through death to resurrection the way Jesus invites us to follow is a way trodden by so many down through the years, and a way that draws us into the eternal love of God.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ideas don't exist unless you do something!

It’s lovely to welcome Emily and Rosie to today’s service, and Chris’s father, John and stepmother Joyce. . Our thoughts and prayers have been very much with Chris ever since we heard of her illness and all through the time she has been at Sue Ryder home. It was lovely to share a very real celebration of her life at the Crematorium last Tuesday and it seemed right to mark Chris’s life during our service today. So Emily and Chris have brought along some cakes to have over coffee after the service.

Chris has had a love of this place, and has done an immense amount for us over the years. She worked with the children, and as a Deacon – she would take the minutes at Deacons meetings. All her working life Chris worked in scaffolding, so Chris played a key part in the maintenance of the building for a while, acquiring scaffolding for some key jobs. She has helped edit Highbury News for many years working with Stefan and with Desiree, and latterly with Diana. Chris loved her garden, flowers, and all things floral and so one of the things she brought to the magazine was the pictures and clipart and the often floral designs and flourishes.

But that wasn’t all Chris brought to the magazine. Chris had a passion for helping other people and for social justice. That meant that for a number of years Chris was our Christian Aid organiser, organising the Christian Aid week collection that happens in the second week of May each year. Chris would add in fillers for the magazine that came from Christian Aid – stories the need for justice and to work for justice. Our Congregational Federation has a Peace Fellowship: Chris was a keen member of that as well. That commitment to peace and justice came out in her choice of fillers to put into the magazine.

So for a few minutes on this Palm Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week I want to bring together that passion for social justice and caring for other people with one particular picture that I think would have appealed to Chris. And I want to link that with the story of Jesus and Holy Week, and that great story of the foot-washing.

It’s a beautifully colourful picture that depicts the crucified Christ.

That goes to the heart of what my faith is about. I don’t start with some theoretical idea of God is all powerful, all loving. When I do start there I end up with all sorts of massive questions about why such awful stuff should happen in the world with all its injustices, and the kind of unwarranted suffering that sometimes comes very close to home.

My faith starts with Jesus. He came as a servant to serve other people and wherever he saw people hurting he brought healing, and wherever he saw injustice he stood for justice and made a difference. He couldn’t escape the suffering that came to him, instead he went through it … and as we will celebrate on Easter Sunday next week won a victory that we can share. He opens up for me the God I believe in as a God who comes alongside us in our suffering, remains with us through it all and draws us home to his eternal love.

And he does come alongside us in our suffering.

Look again at the picture and it is a black Jesus depicted in this stained glass window. The window is in the 16th Baptist Church of Birmingham Alabama in the States.

In a moving radio programme a couple of weeks ago, journalist Gary younge told its story.
On the morning of 15th September 1963 a bomb planted in the church by four men from a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan exploded taking the lives of three fourteen year old girls, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Me Collins and one 11 year old girl, Denise McNair.

It shocked the world and galvanised support for the Civil Rights campaign of Martin Luther King.

John Petts, a Welsh artist in stained glass heard the news of this atrocity in the small Carmarthenshire village of Llansteffan. In that instant he had an idea. He determined to offer his skills as an artist in the reconstruction of the church.

He said something then that is very powerful.

“An idea doesn’t exist unless you do something about it,” he said. “Thought has no real living meaning unless it’s followed by action of some kind.”

He rang a friend, David Cole, editor of the Western Mail, the national newspaper of Wales. An appeal laws launched. But it was an appeal with a difference. He did not want some rich benefactor to give all the money. The maximum anyone could give was half a crown 2 shillings and six pence. 12 pence today.

The appeal caught the imagination of the people of Wales. And soon the money was raised, the window designed and installed as a gift truly from The People of Wales.

Look again at the design. It is the suffering Christ who comes alongside people wherever they are – so in the window it is a Christ who for the people worshipping in that church is one with them, it is a black Christ.

One hand is held out as if calling a halt to the injustices of the world, and the sheer awfulness of the racism that was plaguing America and the world. You have made my Father’s house a den of thieves.

But the other hand is open and reaching out as if in forgiveness. “Father, forgive them …” were the words Jesus shared from the cross. And into that world of hatred Jesus brings the forgiveness that makes all the difference.

The words etched into the glass at the bottom of the window are words inspired by Matthew 25.

You do it to me.

How powerful that quotation is.

I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.”

Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,
you did it to me.

There is a wonderful comfort in the faith we share that focuses on the God who through Jesus Christ shares with us in our suffering, remains with us come what may and leads us through to his peace and his love.

But faith that looks to Jesus Christ as the suffering servant is faith that has to heed the challenge of Jesus’ words.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in that moment which we are going to remember as we share around this table.

And during supper Jesus … got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

Then comes the moment when Jesus shares his great idea.

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

What a great idea … that we serve one another.

That is the way the love Christ shows to us becomes a reality in the world around us.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

That’s the great idea.

But as John Petts saw …

“An idea doesn’t exist unless you do something about it.”

Chris got something of that idea … that’s what prompted her to help other people, all the way through even at the Sue Ryder home; it’s what prompted her to have a passion for justice and peace and to work for Christian Aid.

I guess the question for each of us is … what are we going to DO about it?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Baptism on Mothering Sunday

Today is one of those special days when we have an opportunity to treasure something of great value and of great importance. On Mothering Sunday, Mothers Day and on the day when we join in the baptism of Silvia it’s a great opportunity for us to celebrate the importance of family.

It was great meeting up with Alan and Daniela – and it really was one of those classic occasions. The conversation goes something like this …

Oh, so you’re from Wales!

That’s right!

Which part of Wales?

South Wales.

Where in South Wales?

Near Cardiff.

Where near Cardiff?

Just up the valley from Pontypridd.

That’s the Rhondda.

That’s right.

So, where in the Rhondda?

Porth …

Well my mother was born in Porth – it’s at this point that things can become really exciting were it not for one small thing.

The fact that my mother was a Jones from Porth as well .. does not necessarily mean it was the same Jones family.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing family history, tracing the family tree.

There’s something about doing family history that is very fascinating. Doing a family tree really only works backwards.

You can start with yourself and trace the family tree back. I can go back on my father’s side of the family to the 1600’s. On my mother’s side of the family we don’t go quite so far back.

It is not possible to pick an individual in the 1600’s and then build up a family tree forwards. The problem is that you go wider and wider and wider. So the individual you choose in the 1600’s would have so many descendants by now it would not be possible to trace them all.

Tracing your family tree gives you a sense of who you are … this is where I have come from. Be it Wales, Italy or wherever … and it’s precious.

In our service today we celebrate the possibility of belonging to another family too. The family of God’s people, the family of the church. Inside that family there is a very real sense of belonging. The very real sense of belonging that we have comes from tracing that family back.

We welcome Silvia today into the whole family of the church wherever it may be … but we do that here in this particular church. Silvia is in a line of people who have been baptised here and welcomed into that church family. We have our baptismal role on the wall taking us back 50 years and more. From our archive we have earlier rolls, called a Cradle Roll – they go back a lot further. These are all people who have been welcomed into the family of the church here in Highbury.

But our church goes back to 1827 – but we go further back still.

Our family tree is taking us back and back and back – until we reach one point in particular and one person in particular – until we reach Jesus.

It is in the love God has for all that can be seen in Jesus that we find our roots.

Jesus uses this same kind of picture of a tree with roots as a picture of his family as it extends through the years to us.

I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him will bear much fruit.

Being part of the family gives a sense of rootedness, but it is also a network of support that is valuable, a sense of identity that makes us the people we are.

The network of support of the church family is something invaluable as it gives us a way of supporting each other.

But through that support there is so much of value to be gained by looking to Christ.

I found myself in conversation recently with a colleague who had been out in New Zealand when the earthquake struck. The rector of the church where they were staying had to travel to the other island where a little one in his own family had died in the earthquake.

We were sharing with each other the difficulties there are in having faith in the face of difficult times. He spoke of an interview where John Humphreys was questioning Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about God in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

“When such things happen, how do you believe in God?” There was seemed like an endless pause, then Rowan Williams replied … “only just.”

There is an honesty in that response, that is an honesty we who value the importance of faith would do well to seek.

Believing in God can be difficult in the world that these little ones are growing up into.

For me as a Christian I don’t want to start with some philosophical idea of God.

I want to do the family tree thing … and go back to Jesus. He teaches a way of life based around love and concern for others that makes a world of difference in every generation – that’s something I want to pass on to these little ones entering into this world.

Where he is confronted by suffering he brings healing. But there are times when that suffering gets the better of him and at the death of his friend Lazarus he weeps.

In Christ there is something of God that is different from the philosophical idea of God so many people who don’t feel part of the family have. This God is the one who is with us through the dark times, who comes alongside us when things are at their worst and stays with us. There is no escaping the valley of the deepest darkness – but the God Jesus makes real for us is the God who is with us through that valley.

Let’s hold on to the God Jesus opens up for us – let’s feel part of that family tree going all the way back to Jesus – for as we are in him we will bear much fruit.

I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.

The Jesus we look back to is the Jesus who went to the cross, and through the suffering of the cross came through to a resurrection we can share. His presence is with us enabling us to live the kind of life that can make a positive difference to others. He will be the strength alongside us that we need for the living of our lives.

This is the Jesus at the root of the family tree we celebrate being part of today.

Jesus knew full well that this image of the tree, the vineyard was one that reached back into the mists of time. I want to finish with a very short reading that contains a wonderful promise. It comes from Isaiah 27 verse 2-3.

This is God’s promise to each of us as we are part of the family tree of Jesus – as we are the branches and he is the vine.

If we are going through difficult times, if we are conscious of the sadnesses around us in our world, then this is a promise to hold on to. But it is also a promise to hold on to as we think of Silvia, of Luca of all the little ones who are part of our church family looking into the future.

On that day the LORD will say of his pleasant vineyard, 3 “I watch over it and water it continually. I guard it night and day so that no one will harm it.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light