Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas One and All

As some of you know I was never very good at being organised enough to do Christmas cards and a few years back I decided to give up completely in preference for a special Christmas blog post.

So Merry Christmas everyone with love from me and Michael! I hope you've all managed to celebrate as you wished despite the weather. 

As traditional I've got a video for you. This one uses a song by the wonderful Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies who play at the Performance Cafe at Greenbelt, where I volunteer each year.

This year I also offer you a poem I wrote as part of a workshop at Queen's Theological College and which was featured as part of a performance of The Virgin Monologues in early December.

Everything I ever had
was handmade; 
Everything I ever had 
except him. 

cups and bowls;

Now I am Handmaid, 

of the One; 
of the begotten
not made. 
                       Sarah Brush November 2012

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sermon on Mark 13

The Readings for the morning are: Daniel 12:1-13 & Mark 13:1-8

When I saw that the gospel reading for this morning when I would be preaching for you was the beginning of this chapter of Mark, I had one of those moments when God made me stop in my tracks. It was one of those moments when things seem to fit into place and a little part of me knew my placement with you would be something special. Not so much because of the content of this passage but because I journeyed with this passage during Lent this year.

Just before I was filling in a form to help chose where my placement church would be I was part of a parish challenge which our vicar organised. She challenged members of the congregation to learn, by heart, a chapter of Mark’s Gospel for “performance” on two Sunday evening in the run up to Easter. So 16 members of the church, me included set about trying to learn a chapter and I was given chapter 13. This meant that I focussed far more on this particular passage than I might ever have done otherwise as it’s not really one of my favourite passages.

It wouldn’t have been my first choice to be thinking about the end of the world. I might have preferred some stories of healing or a familiar parable. Not many of us would be naturally inclined to pick this passage or any of the others which talk about the end of the world but I know some of the church have been looking at this kind of passage in the series of evenings looking at Heaven. The evenings have been focussed on things we rarely talk or think about, angels, heaven and hell, funerals and death.

Of course our outlook on this kind of thing is not so different from the disciples. I don’t suspect that the awestruck disciple who points out to Jesus the grandeur of the temple was thinking it would prompt Jesus to begin a speech about the end of days. How shocking it must have been to this disciple who stared in wonder at the great stones that made up the temple which was so central to their life and faith then to hear Jesus say that it would all be torn down. All that was familiar would be destroyed and then he goes on to talk about the challenges that they would all face:
"When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” 
Indeed the disciples were clearly so disturbed and shocked by Jesus’ comment on the temple that later when they are sat on the Mount of Olives looking down at the temple they privately ask Jesus for more information and of course the reality of the destruction would have been all to clear for those reading the gospel at the time of its composition. After four years of the Judean revolution the Roman generals Vespasian and Titus finally put down the rebels in AD 70 and destroyed the Jewish temple mentioned in the story.

We might be inclined to focus on the positive stories of the kingdom not the ones about the end or the difficult times but Jesus isn’t shy about talking about it so I don’t think we should be. Our first reading shows us that the sorts of things Jesus is talking about were not new but deeply rooted in Jewish tradition:
“There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” 
And I think a word which Jesus uses towards the end of the passage gives us some insight into how we can approach passages such as this one. Jesus describes all these things as just “the beginning of the birthpangs.”

These things are like the great pains (so I’m told) that women go through before the birth of a child. Jesus is telling us that there will be terrible trials but that, coming through these trials, as a result something will be born which is worth all the trials. The coming of the Kingdom – that season which we celebrate as a church at the moment. I’m sure many of us have been through things which were (or may be still are) terribly painful yet which we know have also brought us things which we could never have experienced otherwise. I know for myself that ten years ago when my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer our family went through a really tough time. Yet for me it made me realise how much life should be valued and that time should not be wasted and in many ways it was that tough time which triggered me in to working for the church and exploring my vocation.

Over the time I’ve been on placement with you I’ve spoken with some of you about some of the trials and joys which life has brought you and I’ve also been joyed to see how strong the faith of many of you is well we might say in spite of trials but I think it’s better to say because of these trials. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
"Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." Romans 15:4-13 
And I think the passage we had in our Gospel today is such a passage. A reminder that endurance and encouragement of the scriptures such as this in our own lives we can still have – and perhaps because of have even more - hope. And hope in Jesus who is somehow more approachable as we know Jesus experienced much that we experience and many things beyond the trials we ourselves endure. As Paul says earlier in the same letter:
 “ we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5.1-11 
And it’s not just in our own individual lives. Our world sometimes focuses too much on the individual and not on the communal. For Jesus was speaking not on a personal scale but on a global one. He doesn’t talk about individual hunger but about famine, he doesn’t speak about family conflict but about war of nations not of individual against individual but of kingdom against kingdom. The kingdom of the world against the kingdom of God perhaps?

What do we mean by that idea of kingdom? A different way of living? A different way of viewing others? People often wonder what this Kingdom of God would be like. A wise man suggested to me last week that we can imagine what the kingdom would be like. What if when you went to sleep tonight the Kingdom of God became real on earth – when you wake up tomorrow how would you know? What would be different?

Christians objecting to how things are done in this world can cause conflict. Objecting to the way big business abuses those who work for them by paying them below a living wage. Objecting to the way governments around the world oppress minority groups because of their faith, ethnicity or gender causes conflict between Christians and non Christians these are but the beginning of the birth pangs. To see the kingdom on earth will take a radical overturning of the way the world is run as dramatic as the overturning of the temple Jesus talked about. Yet it may not all happen in one big dramatic way. We pray all the time in the Lord ’s Prayer "your kingdom come" and of course it is God who brings in the kingdom but God also asks us to do our part in overturning the world to make it more like the kingdom. As the great Desmond Tutu once said
Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” 
What are your little bits of good to do this week?

Where will you be challenging the worldly view and bringing in the kingdom?

Daniel 12:1-13
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.” Then I, Daniel, looked, and two others appeared, one standing on this bank of the stream and one on the other. One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was upstream, “How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?” The man clothed in linen, who was upstream, raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven. And I heard him swear by the one who lives forever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished. I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand. From the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that desolates is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred ninety days. Happy are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty-five days. But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days.”

Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.  

Sermon Summary Notes
A) Initial reaction to reading – Mark 13 Lent challenge
B) Not my usual choice – or anyone’s: end of time, death, funerals link to “Heaven”
C) Shock of disciples at the time – temple – ask him for more details; Temple AD70
D) Jesus not shy about it; part of Hebrew Scriptures tradition
E) Birthpangs; of the kingdom (season); trials leading to good things; personal experiences; F) Paul on endurance
G) Not simply personal but global; what is the kingdom? Christians vs world birthpangs;
H) Personal challenge to little pieces of good

Monday, August 13, 2012

Growing out of God

I've been struck lately by various "famous" people talking in interview about how they "grew out" of believing in God. Derren Brown talking to Chris Addison on Radio 4's Chain Reaction about how he used to be a "real happy clappy" evangelical and Jonathan Edwards on some piece of interview about the Olympics talking about how he was "over-zealous" about his faith when he was younger but how he got over it when he gave up serious sport.

Now of course the whole idea of maturing and going through stages of spirituality is not new, I'm hoping to look at ideas about faith development by the likes of James Fowler in a piece of research I'm doing for my ordination training and part of me is inclined to change the course of it slightly to look at this issue. If you don't know much about some of these theories, the Church of England has recently published a report on Faith Development (with particular reference to older believers) called Going on Growing which has a good summary of the various schools of faith development in its appendix.

I suppose these comments made me think about how we are preparing new Christians to progress to more mature levels of faith and spirituality without losing faith. Dealing with those inevitably difficult and imponderable questions to which there are no easy answers can cause many people (as Derren Brown himself discussed) to rationalise yourself out of faith. This time of questioning can begin in teenage or early adulthood or even later. How are we doing at helping people live with difficult questions or even how are we seeking engage them in exploring responses with depth rather than offering easy answers. 

I think perhaps we need to be more open about doubt. Remember when Mother Theresa's private papers revealed that she had extended periods of doubting? Some people saw this as undermining her position as an example of a strong Christian and yet others drew a sigh of relief to hear that it wasn't "just me". I think Rowan Williams' very mature approach to faith, offering deep theological reflections on issues has help offer wider society a view of Christianity as something more than "blind faith" and perhaps we need more of that.

Many new Christians come to faith by being convinced of a strong certainty about God - yet how do we KEEP these people on track when doubts assail them? Of course it's difficult to come to faith without some sense of certainty but those of more mature years perhaps come to faith for different reasons. How are we doing at helping those beyond the certainty phase come to faith?

No answers at yet but I'd be interested to hear any other thoughts!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sermon 12th August 2012

This morning's sermon. The readings were

Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2 John 6:35& 41-51 (see below)

 In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul sets us a challenge about how we should live and act and of course challenges are all over our televisions at the moment. Heading one of these challenges about not speaking negative I need to say this carefully but I’m not a great sports’ fan and so the Olympics is not something which generally inspires me. To be honest I’m really looking forward to the closing ceremony this evening more than much of the sport. My favourite bit of the Olympics so far as been the opening ceremony.

I loved its recognition of history (well a history of sorts) for its celebration of many things which reflect this country in literature and technology, in music and dance, in honouring those who have achieved great things and in upholding those who demonstrate great potential. For me the lighting of the Olympic torch by a group of young people who might one day be great Olympians was particularly special. The way each of those individual petals came together to be one was such a powerful symbol. I’m sure most of you won’t have failed to notice in the opening ceremony that it reflected the words of Jerusalem with its green and pleasant land, the dark satanic mills and the building of a kind of new Jerusalem symbolized by Glastonbury Tor (where Joseph of Arimathea is alleged to have planted his staff which then grew into a tree marking where he buried the Holy Grail) where all the flags of the world were placed together. There were also two hymns included in the music Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer sung by a choir of Welsh children and a beautiful rendition of Abide with Me by Emily Sandé accompanied by a juxtaposed energetic dance troupe to commemorate the victims of the July 7th bombings the day after London was awarded the Olympics for 2012. A bizarre element was the revealing of the inventor of the internet Tim Berners Lee and the words THIS IS FOR EVERYONE.

 It was not a very overtly expressed theology. There was not explicit mention of the centrality of the Christian faith to our heritage as a nation but to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, the heart of the Christian faith beat through that opening ceremony. For me that remains the highlight of the Olympics so far. As I said, I’m not much of a sports fan.

There is a tiny exception to that. One which I think I can safely say none of you will guess. I’ve always rather enjoyed watching a rather peculiar sport, namely the pole vault. Now when I was younger I watched it out of sheer fascination that ANYBODY would pick up a long pole, run very fast, plant the pole in the ground and try to launch themselves over a bar. Later, I rather grew to enjoy watching people hopelessly flinging themselves off this pole and then falling haphazardly on the ready mat beneath. It seemed so much like some form of slapstick comedy. This year, I sat down to watch it (as there is little else on the TV but the Olympics) and I found it a rather different experience.

Instead of finding it comical I found myself unable to distance myself from the experience of the women who were jumping. Now as it is such an obscure sport, I’m going to dare to suggest it might need a slight explanation. Each competitor may choose at what height of bar they start competing. So there might be four or five who start trying to get over a bar set at 4.3m and trust me that looks pretty high (14’) and if they succeed at that height they move on to the next and some people might only start trying at 4.5 or 4.6 m. Each contestant attempts a height and CAN FAIL twice in a row at one height or fail at one height and move on to another height and fail and still try again but if they fail a third time in a row they’re out.

The conclusion of the pole vault event then is rather curious. Not the glorious powering to victory of Usain Bolt or Mo Farah but successive contestants failing to get the height set and be eliminated. In this year’s women’s Olympics final the last two jumps by the two remaining competitors were both fails. The woman who won gold successfully jumped 4.75m and then failed to jump 4.8 three times. The woman who won silver, a young girl from Cuba equaled her own personal best and the national record of 4.75 but then also failed to reach 4.8 and having more failed attempts earlier than her competitor finished second but did so with a smile and the support of the crowd! Now I’m sure there are many other sports just as convoluted and complicated which some of you may have watched this week. Something more complex than the simplicity of six people running a race and being placed 1st 2nd 3rd and so on. But for me the pole vault involves the inevitability of failure. Each competitor strives not simply to do their best but to show that they cannot do any better. They push themselves to beyond what they can do - and fail.

What St Paul asks of the Ephesians may seem much simpler than some of the huge challenges you might have seen some athletes facing during these past weeks of the Olympics but this challenge from St Paul is something else –

Put away from you all bitterness 
and wrath 
and anger 
and wrangling 
and slander, 
together with all malice, 
AND be kind to one another, 
forgiving one another. 

Paul’s challenge is something incredibly difficult and YET, unlike those Olympic races, triathlons and heptathlons, something which we CAN all try to do and which we are all expected to aim for even if we must, like the pole vaulters, sometimes push ourselves beyond what we can do - and fail. Trying to control our anger or our malice can be a real challenge for some. Speaking gently of others, forgiving others is something we can all fail at. Yet having failed we can, like the pole vaulters try again and succeed and move on to try again to cease wrangling or to be kind. And of course – we can fail more than three times and still carry on trying! If you remember the story of Peter and Jesus, Peter is told he needs to forgive his brother seventy times seven – not just three and the good news is that forgiveness, that new start is there for each of us.

I don’t think Paul’s words are merely about BEING NICE. Is he suggesting perhaps that it is more difficult to be drawn to God if we present a negative attitude? Certainly I find it harder to connect with God if I’m at odds with other people. Paul’s exhortation to the people at Ephesus is not just asking everyone to BE NICE. There is something more fundamental about acting in the ways he describes than communal harmony. It is about enabling ourselves to get closer to God and, unlike some of the races, our striving is more like the pole vault. We are each trying to do our best and go beyond our best. It isn’t just those that win gold medals that succeed in God’s kingdom. It is the striving to do all those things that St Paul talks about, not the winning, that enables us to become a person who can connect with God.

The GOOD news for us of course as Jesus says in verses missed out in the gap in our Gospel reading anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; to echo back to the opening ceremony “This is for everyone” The good news of God’s love for us is not like competitions in the Olympics in which there are select winners. ANYONE and EVERYONE has the opportunity but with that opportunity comes the responsibility to live up to that great challenge which does of course require training, and support of others. Putting aside bitterness doesn’t come without work.

Being kind to people requires effort. Controlling our anger is something some of us have to work on more than others but I don’t think any one of us can demonstrate grace without regularly connecting with other Christians for support and connecting personally with God. Being tenderhearted of course requires us not to be soppy but to be vulnerable. Forgiving others, far from being yet another thing we must do, in fact underpins so much of all this challenge. If we can train ourselves to have the strength to forgive others, we have a chance of putting aside bitterness, wrath, malice, wrangling and slander

And if we can manage that then we can put aside “evil talk” allowing that which comes out of our mouths, to be as Paul says
“only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” 
And of course this grace of speech is also not just about being nice. Paul also talks about speaking the truth and this can sometimes mean we need to challenge people. Of course this must be understood in context with his other command not to show malice and to build people up so it’s a fine balance.

Someone who has put this into words is our Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy who has written a poem called Translating the British, 2012. At its heart is a challenge to the government and the banks as well as celebration of all those people who have won medals but it begins and ends like this
Translating the British, 2012 
A summer of rain, then a gap in the clouds
and The Queen jumped from the sky
to the cheering crowds.
We speak Shakespeare here,
a hundred tongues, one-voiced; the moon bronze or silver,
sun gold, from Cardiff to Edinburgh
by way of London Town,
on the Giant's Causeway;
we say we want to be who we truly are,
now, we roar it. Welcome to us
We've had our pockets picked,
the soft, white hands of bankers,
bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver;
we want it back.
We are Mo Farah lifting the 10,000 metres gold.
We want new running tracks in his name…

(She goes on to name many athletes and concludes) 

We saw what we did. We are Nicola Adams and Jade Jones,
 bring on the fighting kids.
We sense new weather.
We are on our marks. We are all in this together.

(For the full poem see here)

 Fabulous words. Of course the Olympics has been a time of all kinds of people gathering together but next week the challenges will be individual ones for each of us. So where for you will that challenge be this week. What will be the leap you have to make in kindness, in putting aside malice or anger? Who do you have still to forgive that is stopping you from meeting with God? And if that all feels too tough a challenge remember we can fail and try again. With Jesus: We sense new weather. We are on our marks. We are all in this together. 5Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Texts for today

Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2 25
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

John 6:35& 41--51 35
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Monday, July 16, 2012

Jelly Church

A somewhat delayed blog post about my Jelly Church talk from Yellow Braces as I was off poorly last week (nothing to do with eating jelly I promise!)

So what is the Jelly Church anyway?

Well I was looking for a way to explain to a group of young people what being part of the church fels like and what church is like and I wanted a way to demonstrate that people who go to church ARE the church, are made of the same STUFF as the church and are in fact little pieces of the church out in the world. For some reason I thought about the way that Jelly Babies are made of jelly and the idea just popped in there: Why not make a Jelly church full of jelly babies?

The idea grew - Jelly church is a place which no matter what it looks like has a certain kind of feel. It needs a firm foundation (FAITH) and which is exciting and comforting. Jelly church is somewhere which lets the light shine through and the people of Jelly Church are open about their faith and their lives living with honesty and according to the the teachings of their church.

I got the young people to use some jelly babies to create their own image of what the church should be like and they were pretty creative!

The group we worked with seemed to engage well with the idea and the challenge of course is to be that little bit of the church in the world no matter what  your personal shape of faith might be. We're not all the same (just like jelly babies) and the way we express our faith will not be the same but we can all do our part as long as we stay in touch with the church and other people of faith so that we continue to be energised. I managed to find some fabulous jelly baby shaped beads which we got the young people to write a message on for someone else in the group to remind them of their calling to be that little me-shaped piece of the church in the world.

In practical terms, I'm guessing you might be wondering how it was made!

After some initial trials, the final method ended up fairly simple. I got a
plastic garden trough and 13 packets of lemon jelly (yes - THIRTEEN!) You need to make it not long before you use the jelly church as the jelly babies do grow (something to do with sugar densities so I'm told by an eminent biologist called KT!). You make it in three basic stages.

Stage one: Melt 8 packets of lemon jelly and make up to 3.6 litres (not ADD 3.6 litres but make the mixture up to that in total - which is less than the packet tells you - this is to make it more solid) and leave to set

Stage two: Melt the remaining 5 packets and make up to 1.25 litres and leave in a jug until cool but not set. Meanwhile poke some litte jelly baby head sized holes in the set jelly and insert the jelly babies HEAD FIRST until half set in to secure them. Be sure to leave one end (about a THIRD of the trough) clear of jelly babies. Then when the jelly in the jug is COLD pour it in and it should cover the feet of the jelly babies with about 3cm clear jelly above their feet. Leave to set.

Stage three: Now you need to construct your church. Loosen the jelly in the trough bu sitting it in a sink of warm water until it appears to come away from the sides easily. Then place a large wooden board on top and flip it over. remove the trough to reveal your now upright jelly babies in their church. Slice of the clear third and set aside. Now carefully cut DOWN and ACROSS to remove two thirds of the remaining of the top to create a tower and nave. Using the pieces you have taken off you can create a porch and even an apse or side aisles plus turrets for the tower.

Please note: Transporting the jelly pre construction can be nerve racking but the tray can be used as a lid to the trough to make it more secure from damage!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Transfiguring the Bible

The readings for this morning were 2 Kings 2:1-14 & Mark 9:2-10 2 and I preached on both combined as follows:

Recently the Bishop invited a theologian from London to come and speak to the clergy about the imaginative use of the Bible and among some fascinating ideas to enrich our understanding of scripture he suggested that we look at the Bible not as merely a collection of books stacked on an imaginary shelf and ordered as they are or in some quasi dewey decimal system by type but as a city to be explored. This idea brings a three dimensional concept to how the Bible is understood as a whole. The Bible is not one long A road from Genesis to Malachi and a new motorway extension from Matthew to Revelation. It can be seen as a city with districts: The Legal district, The left bank where poems, songs and wisdom abide, the historic quarter with museums filled with stories of the past, the residential areas where letters are exchanged, the edges of the city where prophets challenge the establishment and speak up for those whose voices which are not heard.

For me it was such a captivating idea that I am using it as my Lenten discipline this year. I am spending lent building a model city of the Bible (with a little help from my husband and his woodworking tools!) so that I can set it all out before me and explore. How would that image change the way we might explore this bestselling book? What might be round the corner of a passage? What might be linked by the same underground line? What might we see in the background of a book and what might be in the same vista or over the horizon? Sometimes when we hear two passages from different parts of the Scriptures we can struggle to see why these two have been put side by side. But with this city idea, we can imagine how it is natural for passages to be related, perhaps even constructed to be viewed alongside each other.

Today we have two stories that seem very clearly located in the same landscape. The Story of Elijah and his disciple Elisha is mirrored by the story of Jesus and his three closest disciples. Yet more than just a simple comparison, these stories help illuminate each other when considered together in partnership. For read together a third key biblical figure also becomes visible – that of Moses as it reminds us of that passage from Exodus 24 when Moses and Aaron go up the mountain covered with cloud and meet with God. These echoes are not just about mountains not just because these two prophets appear on the mountain with Jesus but also in the figure of Elijah himself in the passage from Kings

Where does this story come in the life of Elijah? “Elijah heroically opposed the subversion of Israel's authentic faith and called the nation to a decision, but the earthly life of this majestic prophet, the Moses of his generation, was coming to an end. Was the mission of Elijah also to end? How could Israel carry on without his great spirit?” Likewise Jesus has been calling the Israelites back to the spirit of God’s commandments to them and calling others to follow him in that mission. Just before this passage he has warned the disciples to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees” For Elisha and the disciples, it has been abundantly clear that the man they are following is out of the ordinary. The disciples have just seen a large crowd fed by a small amount of food and Elisha has seen Elijah, form a rod with his mantle and, with Moses-like authority and power, strike the water of the Jordan; he’d seen the water part; and walked across with Elijah on dry ground. Yet the stories we have here demonstrate even more clearly the special importance of Elijah and Jesus.

For each story the main character’s death is recounted as being soon. For Elijah this is frequently mentioned whereas for Jesus his own prediction of his death is just around the corner in following verses. Yet for both stories, the issue is that of succession. When Elijah and Jesus are gone, those with them in these stories are the successors of their spirit and their mission. In both cases the culmination of the story is painted in mystical terms. Elijah is surrounded by a whirlwind; Jesus is transformed into dazzling white. These are both ways of saying that something out of this world is going on. A genuine whirlwind would have made it near impossible for Elisha to see anything and similarly this washing powder advert dazzling whiteness motif is something more than a very clean robe! These stories both describe a day when heaven and earth, time and eternity, meet. When we get a glimpse of heaven. As Elijah is carried up to heaven, we hear Elisha calling after Elijah “Father, Father”. In Mark’s account, the voice we hear is, in some ways a response from God the Father, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Other echoes are also to be heard. Elisha commits himself to following Elijah three times, and reading this alongside the transfiguration story makes me see the parallel with Peter and his promise to follow Jesus even to death. Of course here, a difference is apparent. Elisha loyally follows Elijah and receives his just reward – a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (a double portion being that which was traditionally inherited by the first born son not double what Elijah had but double what any other “son” would have). Peter’s promises are not so solid and that might be a disappointment but it is also a reassurance for us.

In the first story, Elisha seems the ideal and perfect disciple: The loyal servant and successor; A great example to follow. In the transfiguration story, the disciples are not so exemplary. Unlike Elisha who seems to know just how to act, Jesus’ disciples demonstrate a more human and familiar response. They are confused and don’t know what to do or say. Peter knows that something amazing is happening and tries to make the moment last forever – he wants to build a dwelling place for each of the great prophets. He wants them to stay there as they are. Yet this is not what this moment of transfiguration is about. Like Elisha before them, this transfiguration for Peter, James and John is the signalling moment that Jesus is indeed the Messiah – prefigured by Elijah and Moses and that they are to succeed Jesus with their ministry after him. The good news for us is that even they didn’t get it right all the time. Because of course this transfiguration story isn’t just to be read alongside the story of Elijah and Elisha but alongside our own stories too.

For all of us there need to be those times when we turn aside with Christ, when we are dazzled by his glory and made to feel special and that we are part of a great line of believers stretching back to Elijah and Moses. Yet these moments are not the place where we can build our homes. We can’t stay there and keep that experience in that place. We need to take that feeling and experience with us into our lives. We need to share that light. We also need to remember that we sometimes get it wrong but that we can return to that mountain each week in places like this church!

There may be places where you are trying too hard to restrict God in your life – to build a place for your faith to live in a controlled safe reassuring place. Where instead can you let Jesus take you to the mountain and dazzle you? And what is that bedazzling preparing you for? It might be somewhere you’re expecting but like the winding roads of the city which is the Bible, it might be something unexpected, just around the corner.

The readings for the morning were:

2 Kings 2:1-14
2Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” 4Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” 6Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. 9When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 13He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

Mark 9:2-10 2
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.