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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Funeral Oration: Pat Bailey


The brief tribute to my mother that I delivered at her funeral today.

PATRICIA DOROTHY LOUISE BAILEY (10th October 1927 – 12th June 2012)

The emotions one feels on saying farewell to a family member are, in the most literal sense of the word, ineffable. That’s to say, they are beyond anything that can be expressed in mere words. When that person is someone as close and as intimately connected with your own life story as your mother, it is easy to feel that you are saying farewell not just to someone you loved, but to a part of yourself. In that event, words are not merely inadequate; at a time like this they can actually get in the way. And so I am going to keep my words brief and simple.

The first thing I must do is on Dad’s behalf to thank everybody for being here this afternoon – particularly those who have had a long journey to get here. Mum loved every one of you with a fierce loyalty that she didn’t always have the right words to express. It is appropriate to remember that she lost her own mother unexpectedly, without any time to prepare herself emotionally, and at so young an age that she would inevitably bear the effects for life. I know as a former teacher that some children are hardened by that experience, and deal with it by giving first priority to their own needs. Mum dealt with it by committing herself entirely to her family.

The second thing I must do is pay tribute to Mum herself. I will start by giving thanks for her intelligence, her professionalism at work, her brilliance as a homemaker, and her loveliness as a wife, mother, grandmother (and for the last few months of her life, great-grandmother). But there are two more personal attributes I need to mention.
  • One is her moral courage: she was never overly self-confident, but like all her family she had a crystal clear sense of right and wrong, a burning sense of justice and fair play, and she stubbornly did the right thing even on occasions when that made life more complicated. At a time when most people seem to go with the flow, it is trait worth remembering.
  • The other trait, and the first thing Gill and I reflected on together as we digested the news of her passing away, was the indomitable sense of humour that she shared with all her family: on the odd occasion surprisingly loud, sometimes deliciously inappropriate, and amazingly resilient and reassuring in times of difficulty.
The last thing I must do is to pay tribute also to Dad, particularly for the way he cared for Mum round the clock, right up to the point where she needed full-time professional care. At a time in our culture’s history when traditional marriage - marriage "till death do us part" - seems to get shot at from all sides, Pat and Jack lived out their wedding vows for over 60 years and have given us a peerless role model in making the institution of marriage work. Gill’s and my debt to them is immeasurable.

Mum is at peace now. After all the physical and mental pain associated with her terrible illness, pain that she endured with remarkable courage and dignity, she is safe in the healing arms of God. And that mental picture naturally leads us into a brief time of prayer. Kate will come up now to guide our thoughts.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

UNFORGIVABLE SIN? (Mark 3:29)


Mark 3:20-34
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” 
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” 
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!

I wonder how you picture a typical day in the life of Jesus. Do you see fierce sunlight? Robes and sandals? Perhaps, in your mind’s eye, you can see that little troop of followers sitting out on a hillside listening raptly to Jesus’ voice. Or watching in amazement as the blind are made to see and the lame to walk. It’s so easy to wish ourselves into one of those idyllic scenes, isn’t it? That is, as long as we don’t have to stick around for what came later: the arrest, the trial, the torture, the gruesome death, and the witch-hunt for his disciples that followed.

We all know that Jesus’ life got very tough towards the end, but Mark’s Gospel sets out to show us just how tough his life was - not just towards the end of his ministry but right from the outset. And in our Gospel reading this morning, we heard Mark’s account of a day very early on in Jesus’ ministry – in fact, the day he chose the Twelve, the inner circle of followers. And the dominant theme of this day in Jesus’ life was… Pressure.

Firstly, there was pressure from the ruling classes – the religious dictatorship  the Romans relied on to keep order in the province. They saw Jesus as an agitator, a Che Guevara or a Bin Laden who would stir up unrest, undermine their power base, and bring the Roman army down on their heads. Jesus’s response? Defiantly to break the law by healing a withered hand on the Sabbath. This was what provoked the official conspiracy to end his life, and he must have known that he was making himself a marked man. Pressure.

Secondly, there was pressure from all the sick people, those who had heard of Jesus’ wondrous deeds and come to him for healing. Mark tells us that a large crowd of people from all the surrounding regions was following Jesus from place to place, clamouring for his attention. Rather than politely waiting their turn, it is clear that they pressed in on him, struggling against one another in their efforts to touch him. Pressure.

Eventually, Jesus and his exhausted followers took refuge in a house, where they probably thought they would get a few hours rest. But even there the desperate crowd caught up and besieged them, making it impossible for them to get out for food. No break from the pressure.

And at this point we see pressure on Jesus from a third source, the most unlikely and perhaps the cruellest one of all, namely his family. According to Mark, they decided he must have gone mad, and came to “rescue” him. You can imagine the embarrassing family scene that was brewing. Yet more pressure.

Then because madness was seen as a symptom of demonic possession, this family crisis gave the authorities an opportunity to rack up the pressure still further: to brand Jesus publicly as an enemy of the people – a blasphemer, a magician in league with the devil. Pressure piled upon pressure, in a way that must have threatened Jesus’ ability to carry on his public ministry. 

It’s essential that Jesus rebuts these accusations, and he does so at length. But some of the words he uses are so shocking that they have been called the hardest words in the Bible. And it’s on these words that I want to focus this morning: the point where Jesus’ defence of his ministry culminates in the warning that there is such a thing as an unforgiveable sin. 

That itself is enough of a bombshell for most people – that any sin could be beyond forgiveness. Yet Jesus himself says that one particular sin is eternal and can never be forgiven. And when he clarifies what this terrible sin is, the picture just seems to get more confusing: “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”. What on earth does that mean? And why is it so serious? Why should blasphemy against the Holy Spirit be so much worse than blasphemy against God the Father, or blasphemy against Jesus himself – God the Son?

The reason so many attempts to decode these words run aground is that they take Jesus’ words out of the context of the day’s events. The key to sound interpretation of the Bible is always an understanding of the context. And that is why I’ve spent so much time setting out the events of this momentous day in detail.

When you look at Jesus’ cryptic words from that perspective, I believe that their  meaning becomes clear. In short, a pressured, harassed, abused Jesus is cleverly throwing a challenge back at his accusers. Whatever Jesus means by “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”, he is directing at them. But what are his accusers doing to earn that charge? And why does it stretch the power of forgiveness to the limit?

What the religious leaders (and perhaps Jesus' family) are doing is making repentance and faith impossible. By branding the only way to forgiveness and salvation as unclean, or insane, they are declaring the Kingdom of God a no-go area for themselves and for others who believe their distorted perceptions. In their jealousy and pride, they are inoculating themselves against Jesus, armouring themselves against asking for forgiveness, and shutting the healing Spirit of God out of their lives. Jesus himself called on all people to repent and believe in the Good News. How can his hearers claim forgiveness in his name if they’ve irrevocably made up their mind that he’s a fraud – a trickster in league with the devil, or just a madman? As C. S. Lewis said, Jesus can only be one of these things: either he mad, or he is bad, or he the Son of God.

The question in many people’s minds now will be this: Is Jesus saying that his critics have put themselves forever beyond forgiveness, that they are damned for eternity? Certainly not – the consistent message of the Bible is that nothing is beyond forgiveness for those who turn to God in repentance and faith. Jesus is not declaring a permanent exclusion for anybody. But he is telling them where their stubborn opposition to the truth will lead. In effect, he is challenging them to see what he is doing in a new light – one which will leave the way open for them to embrace and be part of it.

This story is a challenge and invitation to every one of us. We all put barriers in the way of fully experiencing God’s grace and peace. Perhaps it’s a stubborn attitude to some aspect of Christian life, perhaps some specific past action that we stubbornly refuse to accept was wrong, perhaps some continuing part of our lifetyle, perhaps an obstinate refusal to forgive.

In a moment I’m going to create a few seconds’ silence – a short time in which we can each invite God to show if there is some way we are erecting barriers against the movement of his Spirit in our lives. That will be followed by special prayer of repentance, to which you can add a silent amen if you feel that would be appropriate and helpful. The only ones who need hear you are God and yourself.

[Pause] Heavenly Father, please show each of us right now, in the silence, if there is something in our lives that is obstructing our journey of faith, by the power of your Holy Spirit…… [period of silence]

Father, thank you for every new insight you have given anyone of us here today. We ask you now to give each person who has so asked you the Spirit of true repentance, renewed faith in Jesus, and a renewed spirit of service. We ask this in Jesus name. Amen.