Pictured above: the retreatants at the end of Saturday’s retreat at the Kairos Centre in Roehampton on 11th March. Picture by Jackie Charles
Talk 1. Jesus in the kitchen.
The theme of these talks is that God in Jesus Christ is with us all the time. In the famous prayer of Sir Jacob Astley, a Royalist Commander at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642 during the English Civil War he prays: Lord you know how busy I must be this day, If I forget you do not thou forget me. He is with us always. If we can be mindful of this, we will liberate great joy into everything that we do. You know George Herbert’s famous hymn Teach me my God and King. The penultimate verse refers to the elixir that makes all the difference, the elixir ‘for thy sake’: A servant with this clause makes drudgery divine, who sweeps a room as for his sake makes that and the action fine. For centuries it would have been perfectly normal to start any action by dedicating its outcome to God. Pray God that this will go well. Bless the fire that lights the stove. Bless the farmer that harvests the grain. Bless the farmer’s wife as she looks after her hens. We have in our kitchen a little plaque from Mallorca in which are a simple peasant couple, one seated the other standing, beside their garden wall. It says ‘God bless every corner of this house.’
This morning I would like to start by thinking of Jesus’s presence blessing what we do in the kitchen. We start with the kitchen in Capernaum when Peter’s mother-in-law was ill. The disciples and Jesus were hungry. They had been busy preaching. Peter’s mother-in-law would normally do the cooking but she can’t. (Matthew 8.10) So Jesus heals her so she can. The cooking is so important that he heals her and the miracle is recorded for all time. Jesus heals her so she can go into the kitchen and start making the food.
How many times have you felt too ill or weak or so flat that you think you can’t possibly go into the kitchen and face all that cooking and all those dishes? But somehow you have found the strength and resolution to do so. Jesus has healed you so that you can go into the kitchen.
Then it comes to bread-making. I assume the yeast in those days was a kind of wild sourdough. The flour would be mixed with water and left to ferment on a ledge near the window where the wild yeast could blow in and settle in the mixture. After a couple of days, the yeast would be ready. Meanwhile you would have ground up the grain on a large grinding stone or mill stone outside (Matthew 24 v 41). Jesus tells us that at the end time two women will be grinding the grain like this and one will be taken up into heaven and the other left. In preparation of food there is judgement. Is your heart right? Is it light with the light of Christ or heavy with a sense of futility? If you are happy that conveys itself to your cooking.
Then you take some of the flour you have ground and mix it with the yeast from the jar on the ledge, in the proportion, Jesus recommends of one to three in Matthew 13.33. This ratio is much higher than modern yeast needs but maybe the flour was not so strong to hold the yeast as modern flour is or the yeast was not so strong to raise the flour. Jesus is the yeast that makes the flour rise and we are to be like him, making things change. He can take our mortal bodies and with the power of his risen body make us like him. We can be like golden loaves, smelling of the aroma of heaven, for the smell of freshly baked bread is indeed heavenly and if you tap a freshly baked loaf it gives off a lovely sound, almost like a bell. The bell welcomes us to worship, to see what the risen Christ can do with His bread. He brings in a new heaven and a new earth for the former things are swept away (Revelation 21. 1). Maybe a new kitchen.
Then there’s the tension between listening to the Gospel and doing the dishes, a tension beautifully wrought in St Luke’s Gospel chapter 10 verses 38 and following. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to what Jesus is saying and Martha her sister is in the kitchen area ‘distracted with all the serving.’ You can imagine her, surrounded by platters and cooking pots trying to sort out the kitchen and get it tidy, maybe turning in a sort of playful exasperation to her friend Jesus ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do all the serving all by myself. Please tell her to help me’. Jesus however warns us of the trap of materialism. Have you not been shocked when Jesus seems to say that it doesn’t matter whether you wash the dishes or not, what matters is what is in your heart? ‘ “Martha, Martha’ he said. “You worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.”’ We can be so caught up in all the physical demands, all the things we have to do that we miss the moment of God’s visitation to us. That’s what retreats are for. To notice the Christ who is amongst us, calling us to spend time listening to him. Jesus is in the kitchen amongst the dishes. But he is speaking. There amongst the dishes in the kitchen in the preparation for a meal, God on earth is speaking to us. There is a lovely moment in the seventeenth century Diego Valazquez picture of the Supper at Emmaus where the maid in the kitchen suddenly stops what she is doing and looks up, she has heard Jesus’s voice as he breaks the bread with the two disciples after the resurrection and she realizes who it is she is hearing.
How could it be otherwise of all these meals are but a foretaste of all the heavenly meals we will have. For eating is more than sustaining the body. It is sustaining the soul as well. We shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4.4): we will eat God’s word and it will be like honey in our mouth. (Ezekiel 3.3). As we feed on the heavenly life of God so we will be more like him. The kitchen is where we learn to cook good food as a foretaste of the good food we will one day prepare, the food of heaven, the life of God himself. The kitchen is the heart of the domestic church where God is pleased to dwell. (Catechism 1656 ‘believing families are of primary importance as centres of living, radiant faith. For this reason, the Second Vatican Council, using an ancient expression, calls the family the Ecclesia domestica.). The kitchen is a place where hospitality takes a real physical form and hospitality is at the heart of faith. We are invited into the family life of the Godhead, where Father, Son and Holy Spirit are a community of three persons in one God. Through Jesus, as his beloved guests who have become his brothers and sisters, we are asked into the heart of God to form his household here on earth and in heaven.
Second talk: Jesus in the living room.
I want you to imagine your living room as the room in which you spend most of your life other than the kitchen. It might of course be your office or your work place. Anyhow let’s call that your living room because it is where you spend most of your daylight hours. What’s in the room? Almost certainly some sort of a screen, a TV screen or a computer screen. Maybe there’s a family picture, a picture of a child, husband or wife either hung on the wall or standing on your desk or Selotaped to a notice board. Maybe there’s a cd player, a radio or maybe you have piped music supplied by management. There’s a door, a carpet under foot, a relatively comfortable chair, a window to look out of. This is where you spend most of your day. Let’s take the door first. Someone comes through it. Are they Jesus? Well, if they are baptised then they are Christians which means that Jesus Christ is pleased to make his dwelling place in them. If they are not baptised they are still made in God’s image and likeness so Jesus can still use them as his ministers. Time and again God uses people who are not believers to carry important messages, messages of hope or of warning, calls to action or to a change of heart. So when they come through that living room door, chances are there will be something of Jesus about them.
Then there’s the picture on the wall. If they are of family, they will probably be of people you love, and love is of God. Those who live in God live in love and God lives in them (1 John 4.16). When we look at the picture of our loved ones on our desk or wall we are part of a communion of love with them and we are reminded of that perfect love which Jesus showed for us. Greater love has no one than this, that he lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you (John 15. 13ff). These pictures of love on the wall, they remind us of the perfect love who wins our hearts for God.
As I walk across the room I walk on a carpet. If it’s soft and luxurious I am reminded of the heavenly carpet of stars on which the feet of Mary Queen of heaven rest. Or maybe of that line from Isiah 52: How lovely on the mountains are the feet of those who bring Good News, good news of happiness. Some carpets are so lovely you want to take your shoes and socks off and just feel the lovely wool pile against your bare feet. There’s the moment when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and dried them with a towel (John 13, 1-17). Was he kneeling on a carpet in that upper room when he washed their feet? There’s the carpet of straw in the stable where ox and ass stood quietly watching the infant Jesus with his mother Mary (Matthew 2.7).
Or maybe the floor is hard, tiled or lino, or grand like a Roman Villa. I thought of the Pavement on which Pontius Pilate sat on his Judgment seat when he condemned Jesus to death (John 19, 14). That cold, hard pavement off which bounced harsh words of Judgement. I am thinking of the marbled palaces of the rich where, as Jesus tells us, we will not find the way (Matthew 11.8) or I’m thinking of the poor woman who had lost a silver coin and swept out her room furiously until she found it (Luke 15. 8) She was nearer the Kingdom of God. She rejoices in finding what was lost and Yes, she must rejoice for if she does not rejoice all that cleaning is turned on its head and instead of a clean bright room she is left with a room full of devils (Matthew 12. 45). So into our living room we must ask Jesus. Our empty space yearns for his presence; it must not be left empty.
So we sit in our favourite chair, our special seat, reminded of the comforting of Jesus who, having accomplished everything on the cross, saw that it was finished, died, was raised on the third day and ascended to his Father to sit at his right hand in glory (Mark 16. 19). At the end of a long, hard day it is good to sit in that seat and in our mind hear Jesus say, ‘well done, you good and faithful servant…come and join in your master’s happiness’ (Matthew 25 21)
Shall we turn on the tele? Do we find Jesus there? This two dimensional image seems further from reality than anything else in the room. It offers us engagement with the world but when we turn off the programme we realise that nothing has happened. It pretends to be reality, but it is not real. It is just entertainment, even the most horrible programmes are just entertainment, nothing gets done. How can we find Jesus in this box? I think we have to take a positive, engaged attitude to it. We have to challenge what we are being shown just as Jesus challenged the way of life around him. Are people who are behind the TV cameras trying to see things with the eyes of forgiveness, generosity, love, friendship, forbearance, the dignity and worth of each human being? As you look at the TV with converted eyes you may find yourself looking at the world as Jesus sees it. That is very different from passive viewing.
Computers are easier, for they are interactive. There can be a moral engagement with another person through email or Facebook or twitter or searching through websites to see what people are doing. Even so, be aware that the search engines and the websites are not morally neutral, they have their ways of seeing things and those may not be the ways of Jesus. Social media can be very dishonest, even ugly and dark. Is Jesus still there? Remember that Jesus had 12 disciples, they supported him, performed miracles like he did, they squabbled, deserted him and one betrayed him. He taught that the good wheat and the weeds should be left to grow together. Don’t pull up the weeds in case the wheat is damaged (Matthew 13. 24-30). Jesus is there on the web. His kingdom allows good and bad to flourish together. But he calls his disciples to follow what is good. So don’t let’s despise or reject social media but let us keep our Christian values when we use them and remember that Christ Jesus is with us when we tweet.
Finally, you look out of the window and you wonder about going on holiday. And that’s the next talk.
Talk 3. Jesus on holiday (with us)
Remember holidays are Holy days, so we should expect Jesus to come with us too. He liked camping because he had a fire going on the beach in Galilee, cooking breakfast for the disciples who were out fishing after his resurrection. (John 21.9). He liked to party because the disciples were asked why they partied and the disciples of John the Baptist didn’t (Luke 5.32). He liked to go off on his own, to get away from the crowd and he recommended that to others too. He attended weddings and banquets and rode into Jerusalem on a donkey at the height of the holiday season.
What about our holidays? Do we pack a bible or prayer book or some devotional material? Do we check the web to find out where we can go to mass? Do we make sure everyone will be alright while we are away? Jesus did, at the Ascension. He told his disciples that he was going away but he would not leave them comfort less, he would send the Holy Spirit (John 14. 18, John 14.26) Sometime it can take forever to organise everything before you go away, but remember that that’s what Jesus did and we are still benefitting from that.
So, finally you are on your way. Just like Jesus and his parents on the way to Jerusalem when he was 12. (Luke 2.41) Can you imagine the competition for who would spot Jerusalem first, appearing over the hills? Let’s hope no one gets left behind on the way back as Jesus was.
You arrive. Have you noticed that there are stories about arriving in the Gospels? There’s Luke 11, 5-10 about a man whose friend, who has been traveling, arrives late at his home to stay and he has nothing with which to feed him. So he wakes up his neighbour to give him some food. Or Luke 12.36 where the master returns late at night. Blessed are the servants who are awake to let him in. Blessed are the hotel staff who are awake when you arrive late because of delays.
You unpack your bags and like the scribes you have brought something old and something new, (Matthew 13, 51) a new outfit perhaps because you think that, like Mark 2. 22, new wine, new wine skins. New me, new outfit.
So you open the curtains and look out at a brilliant new scene, perhaps the sea, or forest, mountains or canals. And you think, “Behold, I am making all things new (Revelation 21.5)”. ” I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give water from the well of life free to anybody who is thirsty.”
Maybe you will go site-seeing or sight-seeing. Go and see the sights of the city. You have the description of the great city that St John saw, the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelations 22) But that is a city from which we will never need to return home because it will be our heavenly home for ever.
If we go for a swim, remember the first swim we had, in the waters of baptism, when we first met Jesus. When I go swimming I enter the water very slowly to get used to the cold water. Others rush in, to get the shock over quickly. Sometime the shock of faith is the way we see things so differently, it’s like the bracing cold water. But we get used to it and then we swim happily in the sea of faith.
Jesus said anyone who is not prepared to leave his family behind is not worthy of the kingdom of God. What can he have meant? I think he was talking about leaving your worries behind, not your responsibilities. He told us not to worry about what to eat or wear because God knows we need to live. God knows we need our families, our responsibilities, but not our worries. When we go on holiday, you have organised the care of your responsibilities back home, now go and enjoy the freedom God wants you to have. Hand over your burdens to Jesus. Take the load off your shoulders and put them onto Christ.
A friend of mine pointed out to me that in the 23 psalm God makes his sheep to lie down in green pastures. It’s as though he was pushing them down into the long grass, holding them there so that they had to relax, rest and just accept the lovely warm fresh green sweet grass all around them.
Climb a mountain. Jesus loved mountains and hills and when we are on the hills we can feel very near to him. Walk beside a lake like Jesus did. Walk on the beaches as Jesus did when he preached to the people. You may still hear his words coming to you on the sea breeze.
Finally, have a meal out. The Gospels are packed full of meals and in sitting at table and sharing we share in that central sharing meal of the Holy Trinity which is the central love feast of creation.
Talk 4. Coming back from holiday (with Jesus)
We come down from the mountain, leave the sea, finish the meal, pay the bill and head home. Now we unpack. I want in this last session to think of Jesus who is with us in the messiness and even the darkness of our lives. We have come back home and we have to face whatever we have to face, most or all ourselves, our failings and our weaknesses, our stubborn inability to change. For the fact is that although Jesus takes our sins and darkness onto himself and sets us free, we often remain as though we were still in the dark.
I remember in Jerusalem on a Holy Saturday morning attending a service in the open air where the Ethiopian Orthodox worshippers were thrashing the pavement with branches. This was the shriving of hell in which they remembered that after Jesus’ death on the cross, he descends into hell. There, in hell, he offers salvation to those who dwell in darkness.
This penetration of our inner emptiness, our primal horror, our amoral, reptilian self which clings to us with all the slime of millions of years of evolutionary struggle is the challenge Jesus makes on us to live up to our humanity, not down to our bestiality. We are made in the image of God, but we are made of the clay of the earth. All creation has fallen and our fallen nature sticks to us like clay. Here, in the darkness, Jesus meets us with our defenses down, in our nakedness and vulnerability as we, exhausted and flat, unpack our dirty linen from our cases. It is that moment when we sit, our head in our hands and, full of weakness, despair and loss of hope, leave behind our sunny holiday and say, ‘I cannot cope.’ This is that moment when Jesus comes to stand beside us amongst the scattered contents of our life. This is the moment when we find that the power of the cross drives its holy wood deep down below the surface of our lives right to our very core.
This is that moment of which the psalmist says,’ O where can I go from your spirit, /or where can I flee from your face?/ If I climb the heavens, you are there. /If I lie in the grave, you are there. / If I take the wings of the dawn/and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, / even there your right hand would lead me/your right hand would hold me fast. / If I say let the darkness hide me, / and the light around me be night.’ Even the darkness is not dark for you, /and the night is as clear as the day.’ Psalm 138. vv 7-12. There is nowhere the love of God cannot reach.
It is why coming to Mass or Holy Communion is not about our success or goodness; nothing to do with our achievements. It is where God meets us as we are, in the presence of his Son, in the species of bread and wine, in the company of the faithful, in his Word spoken from the Bible and in the words of the priest. He meets us in our darkness and takes us by the hand and holds our hands in his.
Sometimes we cannot move. We are paralysed by fear and failure and exhaustion and guilt. We cannot believe we are forgiven. Christ Jesus still holds our hands and as we sit there panting with despair and disbelief he breathes his breath of calmness and love over us.
The suitcases are all unpacked. The clothes have gone into the washing machine. The bank statements show we spent too much money. The post has piled up and there are too many emails. Work looms. The burdens and responsibilities are back. Has anything changed?
There is in the suitcase some sand. You are going to tidy it away into the bin. You bring it close to your eye and you see it is made up of tiny grains and flake of seashells. They have been washed by the sea for millions of years, yet they speak to you of happy days, sunshine and freedom, of creatures that swam in the oceans and cliffs that once stood on the coast and you remember that through all those countless ages God’s spirit had been hovering over the waters and his love had been calling his creation into life. You too are being called. Called to take up your place already prepared for you by God. His Spirit will always hover over you and his Son will always live in your heart and you will always be beloved of the Lord.