Sunday, 8 October 2017

Trinity 17 : God's vineyard

‘Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.”

The people who first heard the prophet Isaiah’s words probably thought they knew what they were in for. It was the classic way to begin a romantic folk song, and it sounded as if it was going to be a good one, a tale of romance, of passion, of good wine and sweet juicy grapes. The vineyard isn’t just a vineyard here. It is a symbol of a relationship.

It started off well. He had a ‘vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it.’ This was a vineyard that had everything going for it; a good position and a caring, hard-working owner who didn’t stint on the preparations. There was nothing hasty or slapdash about what he did. He planted the best vines. He protected his vineyard.

But despite all the careful preparation, all the love that had been poured into this vineyard, all the hope of its owner, everything went wrong.

‘I expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes’  It reminds me a bit of the English folk song ‘The water is wide’ - ‘I leaned my back up against a tree/ thinking it was a trusty oak/ but first it bent and then it broke/ and so did my false love to me.’ Different plant; same sense of bitter disappointment.

In Isaiah’s prophecy things go very rapidly downhill. There is nothing for it but to leave the vineyard to decay. The walls are broken down. It’s overrun by weeds. Even the rain won’t fall on it; it will soon become a desert.

By this stage, Isaiah’s hearers are probably starting to get the message. This isn’t some folk ballad about a human love story that’s gone wrong. It is a picture of God’s love affair with his people Israel. They are the vine. He’d planted them in a rich and productive land after their long slavery in Egypt. He’d given them everything they needed to thrive and bear good fruit, but they’d refused to live in the way he’d shown them. ‘He expected justice, but he saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’

Isaiah was writing just as calamity was falling on Jerusalem. The Babylonian armies were breaking down its walls. Like the vineyard in the prophecy it would soon be overrun, and left to rot and ruin.  ‘Why is this happening?’ said the people. ‘Here’s your answer,’ says Isaiah. God had done his bit, but they’d never really lived as citizens of his kingdom, never really lived out the life he called them to, a life of justice and peace. The nation had brought this disaster on itself.

Six hundred years later, Jesus launched into a story about a vineyard. He was standing in the Temple talking to the chief priests and elders. They’d have been very familiar with the imagery. Israel was often pictured as a vine or a vineyard in the Hebrew Scriptures – we heard it in today’s Psalm too.  They would have known Isaiah’s prophecy well – he was the most popular prophet at this time. They may have quoted the passage we heard to people themselves as a terrible warning.  ‘Look what happens when people ignore God’s rules’ they might have said, wagging their fingers at the sinners around them, the tax collectors and prostitutes, those who were down on their luck, beyond the pale, condemned by respectable society.

So when they hear Jesus talking about vines and vineyards, they wouldn’t have been surprised, but they would have been suspicious. Where is he going with this story? They have good reason to worry. A few days earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, acclaimed by the crowds, in a demonstration that had put the wind up the settled elites. To make matters worse, he had just told this crowd of religious professionals that tax- collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before they did. And as this story unfolds , it gradually dawns on them that they aren’t the heroes in it; they are the villains, the ones who withhold the vineyard’s produce from its rightful owner. Unlike Isaiah’s vineyard, this one is fruitful, but the refuse to give the landlord his property. He sends his messengers – the prophets – to try to set them straight, but they won’t listen, and even stone them. Finally, says the story, he sends his son, but him they kill.

Why do they kill him? How can they behave this way? Well, perhaps there is a clue in the way that landlord and tenants describe this final attempt to claim that grape harvest. Look at how the story describes this final man who is sent to them. ‘Finally’ it says, ‘he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”’

To the vineyard owner, this man is a son, a person whose birth he greeted with joy, who he’d seen grow up, who he’d nurtured and loved, who he had hopes and dreams for. His heart is tied to him. He’s proud and happy when things go well for him, weeps when he is hurt. That is what it is like to have a son.

But the tenants don’t see him as the landlord’s son, even though they know he is. They see him solely as the heir – that’s the word they use for him. Heir. That’s a word that’s simply about inheritance, money, what is coming to you. He’s not a person to them, he’s just an obstacle between them and the land they want for themselves. Calling him the “heir” dehumanises him - treats him as no more than an  economic unit. They have to dehumanise him in order to kill him. To them he is no one’s son, no one’s brother, no one’s husband or friend; they deny him his personhood, so that they can get rid of him as they might a piece of rubbish.  

That’s the way these chief priests and elders will treat Jesus – he will be crucified within the week. He can see it’s going to happen because it’s also the way he has seen them treat others, making rules which exclude and demonise people without, as he says elsewhere, “lifting a finger to help them”. They have pushed away those who they judged to be unworthy, the poor, the disabled, widows, orphans, those whose lives have taken a wrong turning. They have behaved as if God’s kingdom is theirs to control, as if they’re the ones who can say who is in and who is out of God’s favour. They have put themselves at the centre, secure within the borders of their self-defined world. In the end, though, as Jesus starkly warns, this will backfire. Their greed and self-protectiveness will bring disaster not just on them, but on those around them too.

The world is not their oyster. It is God’s kingdom. It is not theirs to own and to rule, to declare who can come in and who must stay out. It is God’s. No wonder they start to feel so uncomfortable.  

But perhaps it should make us uncomfortable too. We don’t have to be a first century chief priests to feel like we are – or ought to be – the centre of our universes, to behave as if we’re entitled to treat others as less than human, less worthy of attention and care. We all do it some of the time. 

At its extreme, it produces the sense of entitlement which enables people to massacre others, to take away their lives, as we saw in Las Vegas earlier this week. But in smaller ways, at work, at home, in our communities and in our churches, we can all turn into little empire builders, jealously protecting our turf, clinging onto what we think is ours,  elbowing aside anyone who is inconvenient to us. We don’t usually do it out of calculated wickedness, but because we feel insecure. If we don’t look out for number one, who will? But in doing so we reveal our underlying suspicion that we’re really on our own in the world. We may claim to believe that God loves us, that he’s there for us, but do we live like it? If we did, we wouldn’t need to scrabble for a place in the pecking order of the world, because we’d know we already have the safest place possible, a place in the heart of God. We wouldn’t need to dehumanise others or push them down in order to push ourselves up. We wouldn’t need to cling to possessions, because we’d know that we were securely possessed by God, held in his hands. We’d know, like St Paul that Christ Jesus had “made us his own”.

Jesus’ parable is, like most of his parables, is, at its heart, about the kingdom of God, about what it means to live as God’s people. God’s kingdom will be given, says Jesus, to those who produce its fruits, the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. That doesn’t mean it’s some sort of heavenly reward in the distant hereafter for good behaviour now. The point he is making is that the Kingdom of God comes into being as we live it, where we live it. Like the vine he likens it to, God’s kingdom grows organically, naturally. As we love others, a new bud of that Kingdom vine pushes out from the wood. As we act with integrity, a leaf unfurls. As we build community in the places we are the fruit of the kingdom ripens, bringing joy and refreshment to all around. But we can only enjoy that kingdom, only fully participate in it, when we realise whose kingdom it is, whose vineyard, whose vine. It’s not ours. We don’t make it with our anxious labour. We can’t possess it or control it. We don’t have to patrol its borders or protect it by our unremitting vigilance. It is God’s Kingdom, God’s vine, God’s vineyard. He lovingly grows it in our midst, if we will let him, generously gives it to us so that we can generously share its abundance with all who want its life.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Trinity 15 Striving side by side A sermon by Kevin Bright

Matthew 20.1-16, Philippians 1.21-30
As an employer, someone who regularly hires people for their knowledge, skill and ability to apply it effectively through sheer hard work the parable of the vineyard and the landowner really resonates with personal experience.

Unfortunately it’s the bit about a few people never being happy about their remuneration, package, compensation, wages, pay, however we wish to phrase it, not current employees of course, but some that have crossed my path in earlier years. Calculating fair wages is always going to be an imperfect art but one thing is for sure, envy and whingeing isn’t going to make it right.

If that seems a bit harsh there’s no doubt that Jesus also knew that comparing how generous the land owner has been would raise peoples blood pressure and if it doesn’t get us a bit cross initially then we probably weren’t really paying attention. After all why did the landowner have to ‘rub it in’ for the early workers by paying the last first so that they would see exactly what was going on? Was he deliberately trying to provoke them?

In first century Palestine the fee of one denarius (as referred to in the NIV version) was considered fair daily pay for a family to meet their basic needs, the original Living Wage.

Clearly people should be paid a fair wage for their work without discrimination of any kind but if we feel we are treated fairly should we be bitter if the employer shows generosity to some people? I’m sure that all of us here have bills to pay, financial commitments to meet. So what if the landowner Jesus talks of was thinking all these labourers have families to feed regardless of the hours they have put in and I’m in a position to meet their needs, so I will.
Of course if a trade union had existed it’s likely this practice would have had to stop as it’s not fair to the members. Everyone out, then the landowner would have no labour. That would teach him to be generous.
As usual Jesus leaves us plenty to speculate about in the parable, who knows, maybe the people hired last were often left unemployed because they were weaker than others, had children or sick family to care for or were discriminated against in some way and the landowner wanted to show them that their contribution would also be valued.

Is it a ridiculous thing for me to ask but were they not grateful for the work, were they not proud of their contribution and achievements or did they only care about what they got out of the deal and how it compared with others? After all the bargain struck with the first people employed was honoured exactly as agreed so why did they care about the later workers?
There’s no question that poverty can make life hard, but it’s also true that happiness doesn’t increase on a curve commensurate with increased wealth. An unhealthy relationship with money makes for miserable people but for all fortunate enough to be able to choose what they do with money that doesn’t get spent on subsistence they have the choice whether to be generous or not.

Too much money in wrong hands can also have disastrous results. There’s the famous quote from the wonderfully talented footballer George Best when asked where all his money had gone he replied “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

Beyond a commercially acceptable return many of the richest people will tell us it’s not about the money. The billionaire investor Warren Buffet said that for him it was just a counter to measure progress and his lifestyle combined with the fact that he has given more away than any other billionaire tends to back this up.

Last week I was at the funeral of a friend and client of mine, it was a long funeral, about 2 hours, mostly because of the range of people who wanted to pay tribute to him. I don’t know whether it’s the same for you when you attend the funeral of someone you think you’ve known someone pretty well over many years there’s often family or friends who have known them differently and you find out new things. It’s quite frustrating as I really want to say to them ‘I never knew that about you’ and explore it further but of course it’s too late.
No one giving a tribute pretended that he lived the life of an angel but a man who worked with him cleaning toilets when they started out told of how they would buy one meal and share it to keep down costs, but how even then he was generous in the way he shared this. As he built up his property empire others told again and again how he surprised them with his generosity and kindness. There was no great gain to him through his generosity but like the landowner he was in a position to do so and simply chose to make people happy or give them a pleasant surprise.

Whilst we and those hearing Jesus talk might immediately relate to what seems fair around wages his Jewish listeners would have been particularly challenged to consider how this principle applied to other aspects of their lives and their relationship with God. If they considered themselves God’s chosen people might they feel they were of greater worth then the gentiles, the latecomers? But if they think like this they fall into the class of the embittered whingers who think they have the right to tell God not to be too generous. Does this mean they didn’t believe in a God of love, compassion and great generosity or maybe it means some came to know him anew?
Maybe the disciples heard the parable as a warning that just because they were close to Jesus they shouldn’t think that they would be given priority over others when it comes to God’s love.

Surely us as mature Christians couldn’t fall into this trap? Could we think that God loves people of other faiths or none less than us? Could we think that people who come to this country willing to work hard shouldn’t be given the same opportunities as those who have lived here for generations?

Then we heard of St Paul writing to the church in Philippi whilst imprisoned in Rome. In some ways it links with the parable we heard in that it also has a lot to do with work. Paul’s not sure how things will pan out for him, he knew that there was a reasonable chance the authorities could decide to have him executed at any time and he is trying to reassure the Philippians that if this happens it doesn’t mean they should feel defeated, the important thing is that Christ is revered and held high.

Yet he knows that there is a lot of work he still can do and believes that God wants him to be released to do it and that both he and the Philippians should remain positive and bold in sharing the love of Christ. Paul is often drawing upon his own experience when he encourages others and isn’t asking them to face possible consequences that he hasn’t faced himself.

Some who have suffered real dark times are able to remain strong in their faith and outwardly composed yet the suffering is real. This was the case for Paul and if we read his second letter to the Corinthians he tells of ‘…pressure far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.’ Forced to put all in the hands of God he emerged with his belief strengthened.

We hear that the Philippians are urged to remain focussed on Christ and that there is sense of people working together as they ‘strive side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.’ Wonderful words and imagery that feel so different from those who worry about what others are getting but focus on the clear goal of spreading Christ’s love by combining resources, overcoming obstacles and refusing to be intimidated.
It helps me make a little sense of our readings today if we remind ourselves that it is the forgiveness, the grace of God is the real currency we are considering. It’s not something that we can earn and it doesn’t correlate with hours or outputs we can offer, it’s just given freely and generously to all willing to accept it. If we stop to consider how much we have been and want to be forgiven by God how could it ever make sense to ask that this is restricted for others regardless of how late they came to ask for it?

‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ Jesus said of those who crucified him.
‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’ he said to the criminal crucified next to him.

This is what Jesus spoke of when he started the parable with the words ‘For the Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner’, thankfully a landowner who is not focused on who deserves what, his only focus is on providing love and hope for all.

Kevin Bright 24th September 2017

Monday, 11 September 2017

Trinity 13: The armour of light

Trinity 13 17

“Put on the armour of light,” says St Paul. We don’t often see people in armour these days, but the people St Paul was writing to – Christians who lived in Rome about twenty years after the time of Jesus – would have seen armed men walking the streets every day. Roman soldiers in their armour would have been a familiar sight.

Paul’s first readers would have known far better than us what armour was for and about, but we probably need to do a bit more thinking to really get it. It seems to me that there are really two reasons why armour matters so much to soldiers. The first is obvious. It equips you for a fight. The Greek word Paul uses doesn’t actually just refer to the defensive stuff, the helmet and breastplate and so on, but to all the equipment a soldier would need, weapons as well. Soldiers need the best equipment they can get if they are going to win a battle, or at least survive to fight another day.  

But there’s another reason why soldiers wear armour, and that is to identify which side they are on. Armour is a bit like a uniform – every army wears something at least slightly different, otherwise you don’t know whether you are shooting at someone from your own side. The Roman soldier’s very recognisable uniform would have told everyone who looked at him that he had sworn to fight for the Emperor, to enforce his will, good or bad, right or wrong.  They would have known instantly what he stood for because of the armour he wore.  

So when Paul tells people that they need to put on this armour, he is saying two things to them. The first is that they are in a battle, and that they need to be equipped for it. We don’t have to be militaristic to appreciate that life is a struggle, full of challenges that have to be faced. The second thing Paul was telling his hearers was that in declaring themselves to be Christians, they have come down off the fence and taken a side. They have committed themselves to God, and that will have consequences for them that they can’t escape.  If we are going to call ourselves Christians, says Paul, we can’t just shrug our shoulders when we see someone in trouble, for example, and say “it’s nothing to do with me – it’s someone else’s job to help”. We can’t just shrug our shoulders at the things within ourselves that need to be straightened out either, and pretend they don’t matter. We’ve signed up to serve a God who created everyone in his own image, and loves them with his whole being, and if we say we are his, then we’ve signed up to do that too.  We are called out of apathy into commitment, into action, called to make a difference,  however insignificant we feel, however young or old we are, whatever our abilities or our disabilities.

Put on the armour, enlist for the battle, take yourself seriously, says this reading.

Of course, there’s a problem with all this imagery of armour. It’s very vivid. It grabs our imagination. But that can lead us astray.  Over the centuries, again and again, Christians have fought wars and persecuted those they think are in the wrong, fired up with crusading zeal. They’ve heard the first part of Paul’s phrase, “put on the armour” and got all gung-ho about it,  thinking it licenses them to throw their weight around. They’ve entirely missed the end of the phrase “put on the armour of light”.

So we have to be really careful with this image. The armour Paul is talking about isn’t made of steel; it’s made of light. That was meant to sound odd, to sound nothing like the arms and armour of a Roman soldier. You put on this armour by loving your neighbour, respecting others, not impaling them on a sharp sword. There’s nothing violent about it, nothing that insists on its own way – quite the reverse. I doubt whether this armour  would have impressed a Roman soldier. And yet , ultimately, the kind of self-giving love Paul is talking about is far more powerful than hatred, far more likely to make a difference that will last.

Paul emphasizes that message at the end of the passage we heard today when he uses this imagery of “putting on” in a different way. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” he says. First we were told to put on armour, now we are told to put on Christ. Be like Jesus, he means. Act as he would have acted. And how is that? Well, Jesus died on a cross, helpless, powerless. He was crucified because of his commitment to the people at the bottom of the heap, because of his rabble-rousing, trouble-making insistence that those on the margins of his society were as worthwhile and precious as those who held the reins of power, and had as much to give. As Jesus hung on the cross he looked like a complete and total failure, far from a conquering hero, and yet, out of his act of self-giving love came life and hope that has changed the world.

Today, as we baptise Ewan, Harry and Kristian they are going to be putting something on. It may not look like armour, but it reflects the same idea. After they are baptised, I am going to put these shawls around their shoulders. Clothing the newly baptised in a white garment goes right back to the earliest days of the Church, and in fact, some commentators think Paul’s words about “putting on armour” and “putting on Christ” were meant to remind people of what happened to them when they came up out of the waters of their baptism. They would have been baptised by total immersion – dunked completely . They would have needed something dry to put on when they came up out of the water. But the white clothes they were given weren’t just a practicality. They were symbols of the fact that they were now clothed in the love of God, that they had put on Christ, that they had taken up this armour of light which would equip them for the new lives they were called to live, loving and helping those around them, making their world a better place.

When we clothe Ewan, Harry and Kristian in these shawls, we remind them that, yes, they go out into a world that is full of challenges and danger. It might sometimes feel like a battle. But they too are clothed in the love of God. And that love, if they can learn to trust it, will help them to face whatever life throws at them, stand up against hatred and prejudice, make the difference to the world that each of them is called to make.  These may only look like flimsy bits of material, but the love they remind us of is stronger than Kevlar. It’s indestructible and eternal and we pray that they will know that they will put it on not just today, but every day.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Trinity 12: Bitesized wisdom

There are times when I look at the readings we are going to hear in church and think to myself, “Why bother to preach? The readings just speak for themselves”. Today’s second reading – that list of bits of good advice from St Paul to the Christians in Rome is one of them. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good…” I mean, what is there to say, other than “Amen”? Perhaps I should just sit down and have done with it.

But on second thoughts, maybe not!

You see, it is one thing to hear a passage like this, and even to understand it in our heads. But it is quite another thing to live it out. Human beings love a simple slogan or motto that encapsulates what they think is the right way to live. “Keep calm and carry on” “ Coughs and sneezes spread diseases”, “Be the change you want to see.”  Whether we post them on Instagram or embroider them on a sampler, or inscribe them on stone, we like these bitesize sayings, but being able to quote them isn’t the same as being able to live them. How many of Paul’s little sayings in this passage do we agree with? Probably all of them. How many of them do we put into practice? Ah, that’s a different matter.

The really important question isn’t “how should I live? We usually know the answer to that. It is, “why don’t I live like that.

We know we should “hold fast to what is good”, so why do we so often find we have let go of it. We know we should “Live in harmony with one another”, but we still get caught up in petty jealousies and malicious sniping.  

The Christians Paul was writing to in Rome were, I am sure, no different to us in this, and I’m also sure that St Paul knew that. He knew that a simple list of do’s and don’ts wasn’t going to change them  on its own. That’s why, to understand this passage, we need to know what has led up to it. We heard the section immediately before it last week. It said, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.... Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”  . We won’t get to be people who love genuinely, suffer patiently, bless those who persecute us, live peaceably, just by saying the words, however good we think they are. It is only when we put ourselves into God’s hands as “living sacrifices” , when we let him get to work on us, changing our attitudes, our world view, our priorities, our intentions, that our lives can be transformed in the ways we need them to be.

Today’s Gospel reading shows us what that might look like in practice, and why it tends to take so long!

Again, we need to know a bit of context. In the passage before this Peter had just recognised that Jesus was “ the anointed one, the Son of the Living God,” and Jesus had acclaimed him. “You are Peter – the rock – and on this Rock I will build my kingdom. “
But then Jesus started talking about his death. He would be arrested and killed by the authorities, he said. Peter couldn’t take it in.. Of course he didn’t want to think about his friend suffering, and that bit about resurrection – well that was just incredible anyway. But it was more than that. Peter assumed, like most people of his time, and many people in ours too, that if bad things happened to you it meant you had somehow deserved them, that you had offended God.

Surely, if he really was God’s Messiah, that couldn’t happen.

But Jesus answer was swift and he doesn’t pull his punches. “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  “You haven’t understood how God works at all,” Jesus was saying. “You’re so used to living in a world where might is right, where people get respect because they are wealthy or strong, that you can’t grasp that God might see things differently.”  

Peter had had a flash of insight when he realised that God was at work in Jesus as he preached and healed. He really was the Messiah. But his insight would have to go a lot deeper if he was going to understand what that meant – that God could also be at work in the pain, humiliation and apparent failure of the cross. His whole world view would need to be overturned before his mind could be renewed, and it didn’t seem like he was ready for that yet. It can take a lifetime, and lots of ups and downs for God to do his work in us.

I read a news story this week about a young woman from Florida, Angela King, who had grown up in a racist, anti-semitic and homophobic environment. As a teenager she had fallen in with a neo-Nazi gang and had become a far-right extremist, plastered with white supremacist tattoos. Eventually she was jailed for a vicious attack on a Jewish shop assistant, and was sent to prison. And there in the prison she found herself confronted with the very people she had always hated and feared most – many of her fellow prisoners were African-Americans. She couldn’t avoid them.

The article I read said this…
"People knew why I was in there and I got dirty looks and comments. I assumed I would spend my time with my back to the wall, fighting,"
What [she] did not expect was the hand of friendship - especially from a black woman.
"I was in the recreation area smoking when a Jamaican woman said to me, 'Hey, do you know how to play cribbage?'" King had no idea what it was and was taught to play.
It was the start of an unlikely friendship and King found her racist belief system crumbling as a result. Her friendship circle widened as she was taken under the wing of a wider group of Jamaican women, some of whom had been convicted for carrying drugs into the US.
"I hadn't really known any people of colour before, but here were these women who asked me difficult questions but treated me with compassion".
During her first year in the detention centre she was tipped off that a newspaper article was coming out about her case. She told one of her new friends how worried she was about the publicity.
"My friend had a job that meant she got out early to help prepare breakfast. The day it came out she stole the paper and hid it so no-one could read it. She, a black woman, did that for me, an ignorant white woman who was inside for a hate crime."
As it happened, King also realised while she was in prison, that she herself was gay – we often hate in others what we really fear in ourselves.
She’s now out of prison, has gained a degree in sociology and psychology and works with an organisation called Life After Hate ( which supports people like her who have left far-right extremist groups.

Her story spoke powerfully to me as I considered these readings we’ve heard today. I don’t know if she is of any particular faith, or whether those Jamaican women were either, but it seems to me that something very holy happened in the mess of that prison.  Hers is a mind that has been renewed. God has been at work. Her whole life has changed – even the hateful tattoos have gradually been renewed or transformed into loving messages instead. And it all started because a small group of people had the courage to bless someone who persecuted them, to love with a love that was genuine.

Because of that, Angela King has learned to see the good in those she had hated. She has learned that she doesn’t need to use force to be valued or respected, that she can drop the defences the world had told her she needed.  She has learned to love and to be loved. But it took a prison cell to teach her that.

To go back to the question I started with, “why do we find it so hard to live in the way that Paul tells us? Why do we endlessly repeat his words, and yet find they have so little impact on us?” I think the answer is that, as much as we want to be different, we don’t want anything actually to change, because change often hurts and disturbs us. It feels far easier and safer to cling to the patterns of thought and behaviour we’ve grown up with, and maybe grown old with, than it is to see that God could be at work in new ways, in people we have overlooked or avoided. It is especially difficult to see that God could be at work in suffering, mess and failure, in the things we just want to brush under the carpet and forget about, but unless we learn to see God there, we’re unlikely to find him anywhere else.

Both Peter and Paul learned the hard way to look again, to let themselves be reshaped, transformed, as they encountered God at work in a broken, suffering, humiliated man on a cross.  Because of that they were able to see God at work in all the other broken, suffering, humiliated people they came across, and in the brokenness, suffering and humiliation of their own lives. That turned their lives upside down. The wisdom Paul preached came from his own experience. He had seen evil overcome by love. Like Angela King, he had been blessed by his enemies, and encountered genuine love.  

It is easy to say Amen to Paul’s long list of do’s and don’ts, to turn them into slogans on a t-shirt or memes on social media, but if the way of life they reflect is to take root in us – and in a world where hatred and fear so often have the upper hand, it surely needs to - something usually needs to give, to break, to die in us. That’s the bit we find so difficult.

May God give us the courage to find him in the mess as well as the glory, and the grace to let him transform us by the renewing of our minds.


Sunday, 27 August 2017

Trinity 11: Sober Judgment

“ I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement.”

This time of year is a time when, for many young people the chickens come home to roost. Over the last week or so A level and GCSE results have come out, and as ever there have been scenes of young people in tears of delight or of disappointment as they have opened the fateful envelopes to find out what the examiners’ judgment is of their work.

Of course, it’s not just students who feel the weight of judgement. Most jobs include some sort of appraisal, formal or informal, annual or ongoing. People may be judged on how many sales they’ve made, how many patients they’ve treated, what their customer satisfaction rating is.  Even Jesus, in our Gospel reading, wants to know what judgements people are making about him. He reveals a surprising judgement on Peter too. Much to Peter’s surprise Jesus sees in him a rock-steady character which no one else seems to have recognised so far.  

Often, of course, the judgements that are most crucial are the ones we make of ourselves. We are often our own harshest critics, comparing our bodies against those of models or sporting heroes we see in the media, our families with others at the school gates, our lives with those who seem so much more certain and sorted out than we are. We’ve all got an “inner critic” asking  “what do people think of me? “ “what do I think of myself?” “Am I doing ok, or just kidding myself?” “Am I a good enough parent, child, spouse, friend worker, Christian…?” 

That inner voice may be negative, but it can also be falsely positive too, convincing us that we are fine and that all is well, when really it isn’t. We are shocked and indignant when someone else points out a failing we need to deal with. It’s a tricky business coming to that “sober judgement” Paul talks about.

Paul has a particular situation in mind when he makes this comment in his letter to the Romans.  He’s heard that divisions have broken out between the Christians in Rome. Some had Jewish backgrounds, others had Gentile, non-Jewish backgrounds. Each group thinks they are better than the other. Jewish Christians assumed that they ought to have the biggest say in shaping the church. After all, Jesus had been Jewish, and they shared with him that deep knowledge of the scriptures and traditions that had shaped him. But the Gentile Christians had embraced the good news that God was doing something new, and they believed that their voices counted for just as much as those of the Jewish Christians.

To complicate matters, a few years before this letter was written, all the Jewish people, including the Jewish Christians, had been forced to leave Rome by the Emperor Claudius.

That meant that the Gentile Christians, the ones who didn’t have all that Jewish heritage behind them, were left to cope as best they could. And guess what? They did just fine – that’s how it seemed to them anyway.

When the Jewish Christians came back a few years later, they found that these Johnny-come-lately Gentiles were disregarding all their treasured rules.  They’d begun to shape a Christian community of their own, and they thought it was all the better because it had cast aside its Jewish roots. God was done with all that history, the Gentile Christians said. Judaism was old hat. Why would God be bothered if you ate pork? Hadn’t Jesus put an end to all that nit-picking?

The Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians were locked into a war of words with each other, each thinking they had it right, and the others were missing the point.

Throughout the letter, Paul comes back to this tension between them again and again. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”,  he says. Neither Jew nor Gentile is perfect.  God is making a new creation, but it’s one in which Jews and Gentiles are equally valued.  Here in chapter 12 he tells these warring groups that whether they like it or not, they are now one body. Everyone brings something unique and valuable.

“Get down off your high horse!” says Paul to both groups. Learn to see yourselves as God sees you, as people with gifts, people he loves, but also people who are flawed and incomplete, people who need others to find the fullness of life God intends for us all. 

It’s good advice. Like most good advice, it’s not exactly rocket science. The interesting question is why we find it so hard to live like this, to come to that “sober judgement”, that realistic reflection on ourselves which would enable us to see ourselves and others clearly.  We puff ourselves up or pull ourselves down. We hide from others and we hide from ourselves. We treat others as less than they are, so that we can feel bigger.

So how can we find the courage to look in the mirror honestly and acknowledge what we see there?

Paul gives us some more clues if we have eyes to see them. Notice how, in this passage,  he talks about the mercies of God, the grace of God, the will of God, the gifts of God. We aren’t just one body, according to Paul. We are one body “in Christ”. What’s he trying to tell us? It is that first and foremost, we are God’s children, God’s creation, people who belong to God, not to ourselves. The gifts we are so proud of aren’t really ours, they are God’s, which he has given to us. The failings we berate ourselves for are just evidence that God’s work in us isn’t finished yet, not a sign that we are intrinsically bad. Or maybe it is even just that we’re trying to be people he never meant us to be. He may not have created us to be Olympic athletes or scientific geniuses or supermodels, so why do we judge ourselves harshly for failing to reach those goals?

Present yourselves as a “living sacrifice” says Paul to these warring Christians. Sacrifice was a familiar part of their world, in a way which it isn’t to us. Essentially, though, when you sacrificed something in the ancient world you were acknowledging your relationship to the god you sacrificed to, your dependence on him. “All things come from you, and of your own do we give you” said the Bible, words we repeat when we offer the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

So Paul tells the Roman Christians that the only way they can come to a healthy sense of themselves is by acknowledging that they don’t belong to themselves anyway. They belong to God. They are God’s possessions. The gifts of the Gentile Christians, their insights, their ideas, which they think are so brilliant and necessary, aren’t theirs at all. They come from God, who is working through them. And that means that the gifts, insights and ideas of the Jewish Christians are also God’s too. Neither group needs to push their own agenda aggressively to silence the other. It’s quite the contrary. They need to listen to each other, so that they can hear God’s wisdom in all its completeness.

We don’t have to be anxious about what we can and can’t do, what gifts we have and haven’t got. We don’t have to pretend to be something we aren’t. God is doing his work, in his way.

The image Paul uses of the body is a good and helpful one, not least because bodies aren’t fixed, static things, machines that can only do one task in one way. Bodies can do all sorts of different things, in all sorts of different ways, to meet all sorts of different circumstances. What has your body done this week? Gone for a walk? Baked a cake? Hugged a friend? Played with a child?  Thought an interesting thought? (Brains are part of bodies too!) Bodies can adapt and learn, and often have to. Most bodies are, or will be, disabled in some way at some time in life, either permanently or temporarily. Illness and injury may limit our bodies, but every body can be a blessing,  to us and to others, in what it can do, whatever that is. Stephen Hawking’s body is almost completely paralysed, and yet, look at what he has achieved.

That’s a very timely message for us here at Seal Church. Several significant people have moved on, or shortly will, from Seal Church over this summer. We’ve lost the Harvey family with their move to Hadlow. We’ll soon be losing Stephen Bloxham, who has shared his many gifts with us so generously over the past 8 years or so - musical, community building, fundraising . As ever, there are members of our congregation who aren’t able to be as active as they would like to be because of illness. And each year, there are some we lose through death. “How will we manage?” people ask me, whenever we have these significant losses to our little church family. “I have no idea”, is the honest answer, but I am sure that the God who gave those people to us in the first place is still at work here, and that he’s providing the gifts we need to do what he wants to. Things may change. They may not be as we expect or are used to. But if we trust God, welcome others and open our eyes and our hearts to what he is doing in our community we will end up with a church that is alive with his life, whatever it looks like!

One commentator on this passage said, “God doesn’t want something from us, he wants us”*. We were created by God. We are his children. When we present ourselves to him as “living sacrifices,” all we are doing is putting ourselves back where we belong – in his hands. And that is all we need to do. This, says Paul, is our “spiritual worship”– the only kind of worship that can really heal us where it matters, straightening out our distorted judgements and enabling us to see ourselves and one another as the beloved people we really are.


*Ben Witherington: Paul’s Letter to the Romans p.85

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Trinity 10: What has God put into your hand?

There’s a story told of the sixth century Irish saint, St Kevin, a man known for his feats of heroic prayerfulness. He was a hermit who lived in a cave by the side of Glendalough, a lake in County Wicklow. According to legend, at the beginning of Lent one year, Kevin settled down to pray. He stretched out his hands, as he was wont to do, and sank deep into prayer. So deep was his prayer, that he didn’t notice when a blackbird landed on his hand. So deep was his prayer that he didn’t notice either when she flew away and came back again with a twig in her mouth. So deep was his prayer, in fact that he didn’t notice her going to and fro for all that day, hour after hour, bringing twig after twig, weaving them together. He didn’t notice her bring dried grass and weave that into the twigs either. He didn’t notice until right at the end of the day, when he opened his eyes and realised that there in his hand was a perfectly woven nest, and the blackbird sitting in it. And underneath her were three sky-blue eggs.

“Ah!” thought Kevin. “Now what shall I do? Sister Blackbird has honoured me with her company, trusted me with her young. Hmm! Well, there’s nothing for it but to wait, and while I wait, to pray”. So Kevin did. According to the story, he prayed for days and days, sitting quite still, not stopping to sleep or to eat. One week passed, and two, and in the third week he saw the eggs crack open, and little by little the blackbird chicks emerge. But that didn’t mean he could move. Far from it. Now it was even more important that he stayed still as the parent birds brought food to their chicks. So Kevin just carried on praying. By the time the chicks were ready to fledge and fly the nest, Lent was nearly over, and as Easter Sunday came he celebrated the new life of resurrection, and the new life of the chicks that had grown in the nest of his outstretched hands…

Well, you can believe it if you like, but it’s a good story, whether it happened or not.

I like it because it makes me wonder what unexpected thing God might have put in my hands to deal with. Perhaps it is something which I would rather not handle – maybe Kevin had at least the odd moment when he wished that blackbird had nested somewhere else. Often in our lives there are situations which seem to us to get in the way of what we really want to be doing with our lives. We could be so much better, holier people if only… If only, we didn’t have that awkward boss at work, that difficult relationship at home, that illness to deal with, these cares and worries, those doubts and fears. These things seem to us to be distractions, diverting us from the path we planned to take.

And yet, it is often in facing up to and dealing with these awkward realities that we find the greatest blessing. We find our hearts and lives expanding because of them. Sometimes we may find a solution to them. Sometimes we may end up having to live with them, but what looks like a diversion from the straight road we’ve mapped out can be the pathway which leads to life in all its fullness, if we are prepared to let it be.

The Gospel reading we heard today reminds me of that too. Jesus is in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, foreign territory. Tyre and Sidon were Canaanite port towns to the north of Israel. What was he doing there? We aren’t told. Not having a seaside holiday, that’s for sure. Tyre and Sidon were a byword in Israel for sin and trouble, rackety towns where all sorts of people came and went, where sailors did what sailors have always done on their runs ashore. Maybe the father of the little girl whose mother comes to Jesus was a sailor. It’s certainly unusual for a woman to be out on her own like this, taking the initiative in challenging a male leader. Maybe he was a sailor who had gone away to sea and never come back, a sailor with a girl in every port, and she just happened to be the girl in this one. We don’t know. But she is obviously a nuisance, even to Jesus.

His disciples beg him to send her away, and he seems inclined to try, but she keeps on at him until he gives her what she wants - her daughter’s healing – and he doesn’t just do this, he also acclaims her faith.

It’s an awkward story. Commentators have puzzled over it ever since it was written. Jesus seems so rude. They have tried to say that perhaps he doesn’t really mean what he says when he compares her to a dog and tries to send her away, but I don’t buy that, and I think if the Gospel writers meant us to read it like that they would have said so. I think it is what it seems to be; a story about Jesus learning and growing. I think that’s precisely why he went to Tyre and Sidon – to challenge himself. And I think he found there the challenge that, even for him, felt like a bridge too far. But, helped by this woman, who had just seemed like a nuisance at first, his vision expanded to encompass this Gentile. The Gospel writers, I believe, included this awkward story as an encouragement to their hearers, who were also often struggling to accept those who found their way into the early Christian community,. “Even Jesus found this tough, and yet, what a blessing there was in accepting the stranger – however strange!”

So. I wonder. If we stretch out our hands in prayer today, as St Kevin did, what or who will we discover that God has placed into them? What are the inconvenient, awkward, puzzling realities that we struggle to hold, that we would rather put down somewhere and walk away from? Perhaps, like St Kevin, like Christ himself, we might find that, in God’s economy, there might be blessing hidden in the pain, new life hatching in our hands, if we have the patience and the faith to hold still and watch?


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Trinity 9 : Being saved

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” said St Paul in our second reading, from his letter to the Romans. It’s familiar Christian language. You’ll hear the words “saved” and “salvation” a lot in churches. It’s there in hymns and prayers. But what does it mean?

If you’d been a Christian at the time this church was built in the Middle Ages, you’d have had no
Detail from Doom Painting, St Thomas, Salisbury.
doubt. Salvation was about where you were going when you died. Many churches would have had a huge visual reminder of that too, in the shape of what was called a “doom painting”. They were often painted right here on the chancel arch, where you couldn’t miss it as you sat in church. On one side you’d see the saved rising up to heaven; on the other side would be people going the other way, stuffed down into the jaws of hell by gruesome looking demons. Being saved meant being on the right side of that divide, and you’d want to do everything you could to make sure you were. Salvation, as it was commonly preached and believed, was about having a ticket to heaven when you died. But although doom paintings have, thankfully, gone out of fashion, that view of salvation is still quite common.

But if that’s all that being “saved” means to us, then I think we’re missing something, because what the Bible says about “salvation” is much wider and richer than that. It is wider and richer in two ways, in particular, which I think we often miss.

The first is that “salvation” in the Bible isn’t just, or even mainly, about what happens to our souls after death. It is also about what happens to our bodies before it.

We can see that in our readings today. Peter calls out in our Gospel reading “Lord, save me!” – there’s that word again - but it’s nothing to do with the state of his soul. He’s sinking fast in a stormy sea, literally out of his depth and facing imminent death. The rescue he needs is a physical one, but when eventually climbs, coughing a spluttering, into the boat with the rest of disciples, I am sure he is in no doubt that he has been saved.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ healing work is often described as salvation, “‘Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ says Jesus to a father whose little daughter has just died. (Luke 8.50) “‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” he says to a blind beggar who cries out to him for help. There may be spiritual change for the people involved. When the cheating tax-collector, Zacchaeus, repents and repays fourfold what he has stolen from people after Jesus has invited himself to tea, Jesus says to the crowd, “today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19.9).  But often the physical healing is all we hear about and yet it’s still described as salvation for those concerned.

Even Jesus’ enemies taunt him as he hangs on the cross with the words, “‘He saved others; let him save himself “(Luke 23.35). It’s the real, tangible changes he has wrought in people’s lives they are talking about. They know they’ve seen salvation happening as he has healed people. What baffles them is that he doesn’t rescue himself. Salvation, throughout the Bible, is as much about physical as well as spiritual things, about the things people are struggling with right there and then, not just what happens after death. The people of Israel are described as being saved by God from slavery in Egypt. (E.g Exodus 15.2) ;and saved again by God from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 45.17) . The Psalmist pleads for salvation from his enemies, and thanks God when he has been rescued from death or disgrace.

There’s a prime example of someone who needs salvation in our Old Testament reading today. Elijah is running for his life. The Queen, Jezebel, is after him. He’d challenged the prophets of her God, Baal, to a contest, and he – or rather his God – had decisively won.  But Jezebel isn’t the kind of woman to accept defeat gracefully. She is spitting tacks, and she’s after Elijah’s skin. So he runs away, as far as he can, out into the desert. And eventually, after a long journey he finds himself at Mount Horeb, huddled in a cave, despondent and exhausted. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” asks God. It’s a good question. He doesn’t really know how to answer it. All he knows is that he has done all he can to stand up for the God of Israel, to defend the faith of his nation, and it isn’t enough. Elijah feels that it is all over for him, and for the people of Israel too. But God has other ideas. To begin with, he reassures Elijah of his presence. It comes to him not in anything dramatic – wind, earthquake and fire – but in the “sound of sheer silence”, or a “still, small voice” depending on your translation. After all the terror and the tumult Elijah has been through, when he has come to the point where he can’t be the big, brave prophet anymore, he lets himself fall into God’s hands and discovers that in God’s presence all is well, whatever else is happening to him and around him.  And then God shows Elijah, that though he thought there was no way forward, God has a plan. He’s already lined up Hazael and Jehu as kings, and Elisha to take up Elijah’s mantle as prophet too. Elijah is saved from his despair, given the strength and the hope he needs to go on. That is what it means for him to be saved by God. 

Salvation, in the Bible, isn’t some nebulous spiritual thing far off in the future, high up in the heavens. It is practical, personal, immediate. It comes to people as they need it, making a tangible difference to their lives. That’s the first thing we often miss.  

The second thing is that salvation, in the Bible, isn’t just a personal possession.
Paul describes salvation again and again in his letters as something which happens in communities, and in the whole of creation. In the passage we heard today he talks about salvation as a state in which “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” . That echoes his message throughout his letters that God’s saving power destroys the divisions of class, ethnic background and gender that beset his society. A few chapters earlier, he had talked about the whole of creation “groaning” to see the new thing God was doing in the world through the Christian community.  (Rom 8) Salvation wasn’t something you could enjoy in a private bubble, but something which affected everyone and ultimately could heal everyone.  God was “reconciling to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”  he said in the letter to the Colossians (Col. 1.19) . The Psalm we read this morning spoke of salvation bringing God’s glory to the land, creating a place of where mercy and truth met together, and righteousness and peace kissed each other. In the Bible, salvation is something we discover together, or not at all. It’s about our relationships with each other just as much as it is about our relationship with God, about politics and economics, the way we work, and shop and shape our families and treat the natural world around us.

So – two dimensions which we often miss when we hear the words “saved” and “salvation. The first is that it’s about the here and now, not just the afterlife. If salvation doesn’t make a difference to our lives right now, it isn’t salvation in the sense the Bible talks about it.  The second is that it isn’t just about us, a personal possession, a private matter; it’s something which is for, and about the whole of creation.

There’s a verse in Psalm 18 which has always summed up salvation for me. The Psalmist says, “[God] brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me because he delighted in me.”  Being saved means being brought into a “broad place”, a place where we find life in all its fullness, where we are freed from all that has bound us and made us less than the people God means us to be.  What that might mean in your life right now is going to be different to what it means in mine, but my salvation can’t be complete unless yours is too. And our salvation can’t be complete unless everywhere else in the world the hungry are fed, the poor lifted up, the oppressed set free, all people enabled to find that “broad place” for themselves too.

And if that makes us feel as if the task is completely impossible for us, then that is just as it should be, because if we could do it, then we wouldn’t need saving.  Whether we are trying to eliminate world poverty, stop North Korea and the US blowing us all to smithereens or just trying to cope with the pressures and demands of our own lives, we’ll inevitably come to a point where we realise, like St Peter, that we are out of our depth, in over our heads. We try to look strong, stay in control, keep all the plates spinning and everyone happy, but we’re not up to it. Life is too hard for us to go it alone. We are saved when we come to the limits of our own power and discover the limitless power of God beyond them.  We are saved when we come to the place of “sheer silence”, when we have run out of words and yet discover that God understands us anyway. We are saved when we finally give up thrashing about in the water on our own, and find the courage to allow other hands to lift us up.

Salvation isn’t a ticket to life after death; it’s a way of life before death. It is found in the journey, not the destination. Walking in the way of salvation day by day brings us into a right relationship with God and one another, a relationship of humility and openness. As we call out “Lord, save us!” again and again, we gradually learn to trust that God is beside us anyway, ready to pull us up from the seas that overwhelm us. And if that is true, then we don’t need a ticket to heaven, because heaven is where God is, and God is where we are, in life and in death, which is right where we need him to be.