Monday, 26 September 2016

Trinity 18: the life that really is life.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”

“Sumptuously” - now there’s a wonderful, evocative word. It’s an interesting word too, with a long history. It comes from the Latin word  - “sumptus” - expense . Throughout history nations have passed what are called “sumptuary laws”, laws which govern what people of different classes are allowed to wear. In Ancient Rome, only the Emperor was allowed to wear purple, dyed with the fantastically expensive Tyrian purple dye made from the tiny murex shell . Senators were allowed a purple stripe on their togas, but that was all. There were sumptuary laws in Medieval England too, laying down what kinds of fabrics and furs different ranks were allowed. Again, purple was a restricted colour. Only the royal family could wear it on outer garments. Lower ranks of the aristocracy could have it in the lining of their clothes, but ordinary people couldn’t wear it at all.  The whole complicated business was designed to reinforce the pecking order. Just by looking at someone you could tell how important they were.

The rich man in Jesus’s story is dressed in that exclusive purple (presumably hoping the emperor won’t notice), and he’s feasting sumptuously not just now and then, but every day.  He isn’t just rich, he is seriously rich. This is the man who has everything. The man who has believed his own PR and is quite sure he’s Somebody, with a capital S.

The original Greek word translated as “sumptuously” captures that meaning in a slightly different way.  It’s the word lamprōs.  It gives us our English word lamp, so you won’t be surprised to hear that it means shining, brilliant, splendid. This man’s wealth shines out of him. It announces his importance just like his purple robes do.

There’s an effortless sense of entitlement about him. He glides through life, expecting that it will all go his way. Even after death, when he’s in torment in Hades, he still feels entitled. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” he says. Why on earth should he think that Lazarus is going to traipse all the way down there to him, when he is, for the first time in his life, safe and comfortable at Abraham’s side? Yet still somehow he assumes that he only has to clap his hands and his needs will be met. And when Abraham tells him that isn’t going to happen, he still can’t give up the feeling that the universe owes him something. “Send him to my brothers then” he says… He hasn’t caught on that Lazarus isn’t at his beck and call.

The rich man assumes he is entitled, important, someone whom others should notice. And yet there’s a fascinating thing about this story. He may think he’s entitled, but actually in this story, he has no title, no name at all. It is the beggar, Lazarus, who is named.  It’s the only time in any of Jesus’ parables that a character is named, so it’s certainly deliberate. The rich man could be any rich man, but Lazarus who has been treated like a nobody, is a precious individual.  Luke has a habit of focussing in his Gospel on the people no one else notices. Right at the beginning, Mary sings the praise of God who “puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek.” This story is an illustration of what that looks like.

So, although the rich man may seem at the beginning to be the star of this story – the one who shines brightest – actually it is this overlooked, forgotten beggar who is its real heart.

So let’s put that brilliant, shiny rich man to one side and think about Lazarus instead. What are we told about him – and what are we not told about him?
Let’s start with the first half of the question.
When the story begins he’s lying at the gates of the rich man’s house, presumably because that seems like a good place to beg from, a place where people with the means to help will see him. Except that they don’t. Despite the fact that this rich man must have had to step over him and around him every time he went in and out, he seems to take no notice of him at all.

Lazarus lies there covered in sores.  He’s helpless. We’re told that he “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” He doesn’t want to “feast sumptuously”, just to have enough “to satisfy his hunger”, but even this is denied to him. He’s out by the gate, far from the table, and the rich man can’t even be bothered to send the leftovers out to him.

Even the dogs lick his sores, we are told. Dogs were regarded as unclean, so this is the final degradation for a man who has fallen about as low as it is possible to get.  If the rich man represents  the epitome of wealth, Lazarus represents the epitome of poverty. But it’s all about to change.

Lazarus dies, and we are told that he’s “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham”. It’s a wonderful, flowery image – it could have come straight off the front of a sympathy card. In stark contrast , all we’re told about the rich man is that he “also died and was buried”. No angels, no Abraham, no wafting through the skies for him!  But Lazarus is safe, at Abraham’s side, honoured in death as he never was in life.

So that’s what we are told about Lazarus. But what we aren’t told is, in some ways just as important. We aren’t told that he’s good, or pious, or holy or deserving. We aren’t told that he was a hard-working man who, through no fault of his own had fallen on bad times.

Jesus’ parable was almost certainly based on a well-known folktale of the time in which a poor but honest man and a rich, dishonest one find their positions reversed in the afterlife. It’s a theme which you’ll find in folktales through the ages, but Jesus’ puts his own distinctive slant on this story, and, in fact, cunningly subverts it.

This poor man is lifted up simply because he is poor, and because his abject suffering is an affront to God in itself. This is not how God wants his world to be. Throughout the Bible he tells us so.  The laws of ancient Israel, given by God to Moses, were designed to prevent wealth being heaped up by the powerful. Land couldn’t be permanently bought and sold. Debts must be forgiven every 50 years. Fields weren’t to be reaped to the edges, so that the landless could share in the harvest. It was all meant to stop inequality becoming entrenched. If God’s  people lived as they should, there shouldn’t be beggars at anyone’s gates. 

This parable isn’t about a poor but honest man finally being rewarded for his goodness despite the fact that both rich and poor have often told and heard it that way. The rich have told it as a sop to appease the poor.   “Accept your lot gracefully now, and you’ll have your reward in heaven later.” The poor have told it as a rather desperate wish-fulfilment. If I am good enough and clever enough it will all come out right for me in the end. But this parable doesn’t say either of those things. Instead it’s a blistering reminder that no one deserves poverty and that those who allow it to happen when they could have prevented it will one day have serious questions to answer. It tells us too, that poverty damages both poor and rich in different ways. If we define people’s worth by their wealth, as this rich man does, we blind ourselves to the true humanity and  personhood of those we think are beneath us. We miss the gift they bring, the blessing of God that is in them.

We’re told that this parable is addressed to “those among the Pharisees who loved money”. Pharisees weren’t usually people of high status. They weren’t necessarily rich, but it seems that some of them wanted to be, and the reason they wanted to be was that they believed that God gave wealth to those he specially loved, that it was a sign of his blessing. If you were poor it meant you’d fallen out of his favour.  “There but for the grace of God, go I,” as we say. Jesus story was a stark reminder that that was nonsense. Lazarus looked as poor as you could be, but God loved him and held him close.  The rich man, dazzled during his lifetime by his own brilliance, found that when his light went out in death, he was on his own.

The first reading hit the nail on the head. It warns us that those who “set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches” are riding for a fall. “We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it” says the reading. If we want “the life that really is life” then we will only find it letting our lives be shaped by God. It is his unconditional love for us which gives us the security we really crave, an unconditional love that extends to everyone around us too. When we have that security, we are able to be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.  We don’t have to hoard what we have or put others down to feel that we matter.

Next week we celebrate our Harvest Festival and, as usual, we’ll be taking a collection for the Diocese’s Poverty and Hope appeal. You were given a leaflet with some details of the projects it supports as you came in. It’s very easy for us to skim this and forget it, even if we stuff some money in the collection next week anyway, but in some ways the stories in the leaflet are as important as the money. They tell us that what might seem like an anonymous, needy crowd, is really made up of people like us; our brothers and sisters,  people with names and hopes and dreams, people with gifts to give, people in whom God lives and works, people who are an infinitely greater blessing to the world than the money we have in the bank. So I hope you’ll take the leaflets home, read them, pray about them, and give generously, so that both they and we can “take hold of the life that really is life”.


Sunday, 11 September 2016

Trinity 15 A reason to party?

Luke 15.1-10, 1 Timothy 1.12-17 & Exodus 32.7-14
The weather is just starting to turn a little autumnal, the first leaves are parting company with the trees, school and work are back in full swing. Well, at least this was preceded by a few weeks of fine sunny weather and it was during this time that I asked a friend ‘how was your weekend?’ She told me that the great weather resulted in her throwing a spontaneous party in the garden to celebrate and enjoy the warmth, share it with friends, have a BBQ with music and dancing into the early hours of the morning. ‘Sounds great’ I said, ‘well some neighbours didn’t seem to think so’ she replied, ‘after complaining once they returned to tell us they were calling the police.’ They obviously couldn’t understand the need for this outpouring of joy and celebration because summer had finally arrived in England. Or more likely they just had work to do or children who needed to sleep. I can remember my late uncle telling me that the first flat he ever lived in was below a man that loved to play loud reggae music into the early hours of the morning. He finally had enough and went to ask the man why he did this to which he received the disarming reply ‘it’s coz I love you man, I don’t just share my music with anybody!’ It might sometimes be inconvenient to us but we often don’t appreciate why people feel the need to party.

In our gospel reading today Jesus tells us of a man who leaves his 99 sheep to find 1 sheep lost in the wilderness. When he finds the sheep he ‘comes home, calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them rejoice with me for I have just found my sheep that was lost’. You can cut the tension with a knife between the groups of people listening to Jesus tell this parable. ‘This isn’t how it works’ the Pharisees and temple legal experts are thinking, if a sheep is stupid enough to wander off into the wilderness it brings the consequences that follow upon itself. Many had a similar attitude to those who were outcasts and homeless, forced into begging and prostitution to survive, they brought this upon themselves. But to the others, including tax collectors hated by most because they collected money for the occupying Roman army and sinners, including people labelled as such because they couldn’t keep the countless laws around ritual washing, there is a message of great hope to be heard. Their ears prick up and we are told that they ‘were coming near to listen to Jesus’.

 Jesus is telling both groups that there is hope for them but a bit like people who can’t see the reason for a party, who like consistent order and predictability, the Pharisees don’t want to know. They think that they already know God and this was a direct challenge to their established system of sacrificing animals to him in the temple to atone for sins, their mistaken belief was that surely God wants something in return. By thinking in this way the Jews made God small, tidy and contained. Jesus came to tell all willing to listen that God isn’t like this, he’s bigger than we can understand, his love for us is unconditional, extravagant, and some might even say crazy. Yet if we will simply accept the love he offers there is much rejoicing in heaven. We too can be mean minded and guilty of trying to restrict his love sometimes because of what we are often brought up to perceive as fair play.

If we were in a class at school and had all worked hard to get our homework in on time we might be a bit peeved if we are left sitting in the classroom while the teacher goes off to find the child who is playing truant and gently guides him back. If we’ve spent all our lives praying, worshipping, being people that belong to a church it’s important that we help people who do none of these things to know that God is just as interested in them as us. People often feel unworthy turning to God only when their lives go ‘belly up’, perhaps facing bereavement, ill health or having exhausted all the other things that they hoped would make their lives meaningful. They might have a sense that God won’t want them now, that they are trying to sneak in through the back door, but they are met with a God who welcomes them with open arms and proclaims ‘ you come in through any door you want, even climb in through a window if you like but just make sure you do come. God loves his entire creation, every single person matters.

We become conditioned to accept that there is always a certain percentage of wastage. Supermarkets accept that a certain amount of food will never be sold and therefore wasted and tragically nations can even come to accept that a certain amount of civilians will be accidentally killed during wartime bombing campaigns. God is not like this, his love extends to everyone, including the Pharisees but the problem is that they don’t want to explore a relationship with God beyond the confines of their system.

Some here will know that to carry a small child can be more than a matter of simple transportation, it can be an expression of love and a feeling of joy. Though there are also occasions when you might retrieve the child because it has done something bad, small children often emit unpleasant smells and have been known to wriggle, kick and embarrass adults by screaming out loud in public places as if they were being tortured. I don’t know if you can remember being carried as a child yourself. Several people have said to me that they would pretend to be asleep after arriving back home at night in the car in order to be carried to their bed by their loving parent, enjoying a sense of warmth and protection. To me there’s a hint of this in the parable, if you can allow yourself to imagine it, God the mother or father is prepared to lay us his children across his shoulders and bring us home. Even if we’ve been bad, even if we’re smelly and horrible there’s no sense that he wants to come and kick our backsides, make his forgiveness conditional upon future behaviour, He just wants us back with him. The second parable we heard was about the woman who lost a coin. Oh well, she had 9 others just like it. Those hearing the story may well have immediately related to the 10 silver coins which traditionally comprised a Jewish girl’s dowry so this wasn’t the equivalent of losing a pound coin down the back of the sofa. In Jewish marriage it was considered that the family of the groom gained, and the family of the bride lost, a valuable member who helped with all household tasks. It therefore seemed reasonable that the father of the groom should pay the father of the bride the equivalent of her value. Over time the dowry lost its original meaning as a purchase price paid to the father for his daughter and became a gift to the relatives of the bride, a kind father would give the dowry to his daughter. So you can see that those hearing the story would have been anxious for her to keep the precious gift whole and they would have appreciated the joy and relief when felt when the coin was found.The process of patient and methodical searching for the coin suggests that God is prepared to devote endless energy into finding one of his which has gone astray, shining light into dark places to find what he is looking for.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy he aligns himself with the lost sheep as he tells of his personal experience of God’s ridiculously generous grace to him, a man who was previously a violent persecutor of Christian’s. In the knowledge that Jesus came to save people just like him and us his reaction is also an outpouring of joy and praise. It all sounds like neat and overly simple evangelism on the face of it, but there is a hint of the complicated messy reality that is experienced by many of us when Paul refers to the fact that ‘Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience’. As we look at ourselves I expect we think that he’s going to need every ounce.

If we read on in Luke we would immediately come to the story of the Prodigal Son completing a trilogy proclaiming aspects of God, to be found in a searching shepherd, a searching woman and a loving father. Often studying the bible results in us sensing a call to take practical action but it’s equally important to appreciate that sometimes we are called to inaction. God just wants us to sit quietly for a moment and acknowledge who he is, what he has done for us and how much each one of us is loved. That’s it, no catch, no conditions. If that happens to result in an outpouring of praise in the next hymn or any other time, we can be sure that God is there ready and waiting to get the party started.

Kevin Bright 11th September 2016

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Trinity 15: What's mine is mine?

Listen to the audio version here (sorry about the bumps and shuffling at the beginning!)

Happy new year…At least that’s how it often feels at the beginning of September, especialy if you have any connection with the teaching profession, or have children at school or university, or are a student yourself. It’s a time when all sorts of groups and activities start up again after the summer break, so there’s all sorts of informal learning in the offing as well. Whether you are a four-year-old heading off into your reception class in uniform that’s miles too big, or an adult starting a new evening class , the start of the academic year can seem as if it is full of promise. But that promise often doesn’t last long. By Christmas we start to realise that it isn’t enough just to sign up, or even turn up. If we want to learn anything, we have to work at it, and give up our time and energy to it. However skilful our teachers, if we don’t concentrate and practice very little is going to sink in. Learning doesn’t happen by magic. No one else can do it for you. You have to apply your own brain to the task, and that can be hard going.

Today’s Gospel reading is all about learning.  Jesus is talking to the crowds who follow him – large crowds, we are told. He’s very popular. People enjoy his stories and marvel at his miracles. He’s got a lot of fans. But it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t want fans. He wants disciples. “Disciple” literally means “learner”.  It comes from the same Latin word that gives us “discipline”.  Disciples are people who engage in disciplined, intentional work in order to learn something.

What does it take to become a disciple of Jesus, to learn from him? Jesus had some pretty challenging things to say about it. “You can’t learn from me” , he said, “unless you give up all your possessions. You can’t learn from me unless you are prepared to hate your family, and even your own life.” It’s very strong stuff, and we need to be careful how we read it.  It’s a good example of a passage where you’ve got to understand the context  if you aren’t to end up in a terrible mess.

Jesus is using deliberately provocative, over-the-top language because he needs this large, excited crowd to understand what following him might lead to. It’s one thing to tag along for the ride for a day or two, maybe even to be healed of some illness that has been troubling them, but allying themselves with him in the long-term is another matter. That will involve radical change, and maybe radical sacrifice too. He wants to offer them something which will transform them, setting them free forever, not just for a day or two, but there’ll be a price to pay. If they want to be learners rather than just hangers-on, they will need to commit themselves, and to be prepared to give up whatever gets in the way of that commitment.

“None of you can become my disciple – my learner – if you do not give up all your possessions.”

We might be tempted to switch off at this point, defeated by the scale of that statement, but let’s hang on in there with Jesus and really listen.  He isn’t saying that we should live without material things. That would be impossible. We have to eat. We need clothes and shelter. No one can live without material stuff. And, in any case, the Bible doesn’t say that material things are bad.  In fact, it takes quite the opposite view. It starts with a wonderful celebration of the material stuff of the world. God made it, says the book of Genesis, and pronounced it “very good”. The Bible is full of celebration of the goodness and generosity of God; “wine that gladdens the human heart and oil that makes the face shine”  as Psalm 104 puts it. Many philosophies and religions of the time saw the material world as evil, a prison for immaterial souls, but the Jewish people disagreed. They proclaimed that it was mightily blessed by God. So Jesus isn’t calling us to a body-defying, self- punishing asceticism here. What he is warning against are “possessions”, not just material things in themselves.

What’s the difference? Material stuff is the stuff that is all around me, the stuff I am made of. A possession is something I possess, something I control, something I can grasp and keep, or think I can , something I think of as “mine”.

I don’t know if you’ve come across the Toddlers’ Laws of Possession, but if you have ever had small children you will recognise the sentiment. This is what they say a toddler is thinking:

If I like it, it's mine.
If it's in my hand, it's mine.
If I can take it from you, it's mine.
If I had it a little while ago, it's mine.
If it's mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
If I'm doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
If I’ve got one like it, it's mine.
If I saw it first, it's mine.
If you are playing with it and you put it down, it’s mine.
If it’s broken, it’s yours.
If it’s broken but you are enjoying playing with the pieces, it’s mine again.
If there’s any doubt about it, it’s mine.

That’s what possession looks like – and it’s not just toddlers who behave like this. We all do to some extent. The problem with this attitude is not just that it causes conflict; it’s that it’s based on a chain of misconceptions.

An attitude of possession is only possible if we believe that we can “own” things – land, goods, people, status, jobs – that they can be exclusively, permanently “ours” in some sense, but that isn’t ever really the case. All that we have has come to us from others. “Our” physical bodies are built from the genetic material of our parents and the food that the good earth gives us. “Our” achievements have been gained with the help of teachers, parents, and many others who have encouraged us along the way or paved the way for what we have done. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. “Our” goods are produced by the labour of others . “Our” homes and communities are built and maintained by the skills of those who can do things we can’t – building, engineering, problem-solving. We may pay for these goods and services, but we depend on others having the skills and willingness to do the task in the first place.  And the money we use to buy them is earned because someone else has decided they want to pay for what we offer. Without others, including many we will never see or know, we would have nothing. We couldn’t survive, let along thrive, without them.  So In what sense is anything we have really “ours”.

And the things we think of as “ours” are only ever lent to us. We hold them for the course of our brief lives at the very most, and maybe not even that. They can slip from our hands in a moment.  Those Syrian refugees who have landed on our shores with nothing had homes, jobs and belongings they thought were theirs forever, but now they’ve only got the clothes they stand up in. Redundancy or illness can strip away overnight the things we thought were ours to keep – our money, our health, the future we were hoping for. If we have relied on these things for our sense of self-worth, if we have hedged ourselves about with our possessions, hoping they’ll protect us forever from helplessness and want, we’ll find ourselves in deep trouble. What are we to do without them? If we have let our possessions defined us, who are we without them?

Even our families, says Jesus, can become a problem if we treat them as things to possess and control, or allow them to treat us that way.  Families can be wonderful. They can give us safe space to grow into the people God wants us to be, but if we place all our hope and security in them, if we try to be everything to them and expect them to be everything to us, to meet all our needs, we set ourselves up for failure and heartache.

The second reading we heard today – the whole of the very short letter of Paul to Philemon – underlines that danger. Paul’s in prison, but he’s not alone there. Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon, is with him, not as a prisoner but as a helper to him. We don’t know why Onesimus is with Paul. He might have run away from Philemon, or been sent away by him to serve Paul, but in the course of his time with him, he has become a Christian. Now Paul is sending him home, but he’s hoping that Philemon will be able to see Onesimus not as his possession, but as his “beloved brother”, taking him back as a sibling, not a slave. He’s calling for a radical rethinking of the relationships in this, typical, slave-owning, household . The early Christian communities were called to be places of equality and freedom, where there was supposed to be neither Greek nor Jew, male and female, slave and free. In a society where everyone in a household was “owned” in some sense by the paterfamilias, the head of the household – they even had the right to kill them - that was a radical idea. People weren’t to be treated as possessions, simply there to meet a need or fit into a predetermined slot in the household.

Christians struggled with it then, and they still struggle with it now. We still feel we are entitled to tell others what they can and can’t do, and get upset if they won’t conform. Paul challenges us, like Philemon, to think again.     

When Jesus tells us to give up our possessions – whether things or people - it’s not just a spot of de-cluttering he has in mind; it’s the attitude of possessiveness he wants us to lose.  He knows that it’s only when we stop looking at things - or people - as possessions, that we can start seeing them as the gifts they really are, gifts to celebrate and give thanks for, not security blankets to cling anxiously to for fear of being left with nothing.

And when we can see that, we might also see that God is all we really need to possess and be possessed by. In the end, it doesn’t matter what is “ours” so long as we are his.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Trinity 14 - There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch?

Luke 14.1.7-14 & Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16

In our gospel reading today we heard that Jesus went to lunch with a Pharisee. The Pharisees were very particular in observing Jewish law especially those around washing and eating, their preference was to share with other Pharisees who understood and observed their customs so we immediately question why Jesus was allowed to join one of their leading people for a meal. It doesn’t seem likely that they thought Jesus would be good company as a friend, after all they have criticised him and questioned his authority before this event so perhaps they want to get Jesus into their private space, on their turf, where things are done their way and the ‘pecking order’ is well understood by all in attendance. When you think about it we too have all sorts of rituals and expectations about dining in certain settings. Perhaps some business lunches are motivated by similar intentions to the Pharisees, aimed at finding out more about someone or their organisation, whether there are shared commercial interests or opportunities for collaboration, whether we even like the people and their ethics enough to work with them. Then there are wedding receptions, it’s often a nightmare when you are limited on numbers and have to not invite someone you know expects and invitation, I’m sure some people are mischievous with the seating arrangements, sitting someone opposite their 'Ex' or putting all the small children with a grumpy uncle. As host this is in your control, and when it comes to the top table that’s for the bride, groom and their important people only. In the ‘Journey with Jesus’ online article this week we are told how in India, some decades ago, rules of hospitality dictated that ‘men of God’ ate first, much to the frustration of a young boy eager for his lunch. Elders and preachers from his church often showed up for dinner at his home without warning, and after waiting for curry and rice to be cooked over a wood stove the 4 year old boy found it too much to bear as he watched these self-important people eat their fill while he waited. After visiting the kitchen on numerous occasions to see if it was his turn yet he finally lost it shouting ‘Get out, hurry up and leave so that I can eat.’ You can imagine that his parents would have been highly embarrassed but there’s a hint of Jesus teaching in this as the little, apparently unimportant person now cannot be ignored. Luke tells us that the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely when he came to eat with them. It seems that they also were being mischievous with the seating arrangements and keen to see where he would chose to sit or at least which couch he would gravitate towards as this would give clues as to how importantly he ranked himself in the order of guests. You can just imagine his host eagerly waiting for him to join the other guests jostling for position. It helps to consider that even to enter the dining area of a socially important man was quite something. Before getting here potential guests would need to pass through other spaces in the building which separated the room from the street, a sort of screening process to avoid unwanted guests. Diners would recline on couches with cushions to support them in a slightly upright position. The formal dining area was called the Triclinium (meaning three couches), the term was used to describe both the separate banquet room and the arrangement therein. The 3 couches were arranged to form a ‘U’ shape around an open area often decorated with elaborate mosaics upon which sat a table to which food was served. The 3 couches had strict designations as to who would sit where, the host and guest of honour always at the adjoining end of two of the couches with other spaces allocated according to the importance of the guest. Slaves or servants would never use the couches, never recline to eat, but usually stand or sit on the floor. With this knowledge we start to see that this is unlikely to be a generous invitation to share a meal and much more a reinforcement of the status of the elite and an opportunity to work out where Jesus saw himself fitting into all this. Over and again in the bible people come to Jesus with questions about importance and hierarchy and he refuses to even answer on their terms. This occasion was no different as Jesus refuses to play to the script that the Pharisees hoped for and turns the situation on its head. Jesus is not interested in their, or our, hierarchies, he’s wants them to think again, put aside their small minded ways and see things afresh. He begins by telling the guests to choose the place ranked lowest in the social order as it’s better to get upgraded than face the humiliation of being asked to move for a more important guest. As one commentator put it… The proud are headed for a fall… whether it’s a momentary embarrassment over seating arrangements… or a lifetime wasted feeding an insatiable ego. Through proud eyes, there are no lies… if I am the arbiter of truth. There is no greed… if I think I deserve something more than you do. There is no lust… if other people exist for my pleasure. In the terminal stages of pride, the only God I ever need smirks right back at me from the mirror. And he is such a handsome devil. Jesus then extends the challenge to those who host such banquets themselves. Don’t invite your friends, relatives or rich neighbours who will reciprocate with invitations to their parties or consider you favourably when opportunities arise but invite the poor and those who cannot repay you. I thought ‘oh no’I’m going for lunch at my sister-in-law’s after this service should I give her a call to make it clear that whilst I’m still coming there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever invite her to our house? What Jesus speaks of seems to be the exact opposite to a business lunch where at least all parties avoid the pretence that the host is doing this out of the kindness of his or her heart. I thought about the saying ‘ There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ which is first traced to 1940’s America where free lunch was often advertised to entice drinkers into bars but became a topic of debate especially among politicians and lawyers and was used as the title of the economist Milton Friedman’s book. In the various contexts of providing goods and services the kindness, generosity or help, be it from individuals, private companies or the state always has to be paid for by somebody however sincere the donors intention. Henry Wallace, a US vice-president said ‘Until man acquires the power of creation, someone will always have to pay for a free lunch.’ He’s my sort of theologian, it follows that only God can offer a free lunch, truly an invitation that has no conditionality, no qualification and regardless of how many people accept there is no opportunity cost. In other words Jesus is telling us when you do something don’t be motivated by what’s in it for me but by what can I do to share God’s love. If we accept God’s generous offer to be part of his kingdom then we also become hosts to others and this has to be reflected in the way we behave. You may be thinking, I don’t know many poor or disadvantaged people and even if I asked them they might not want to come to my house for lunch. Well this is only one tiny aspect of Jesus message, it’s not about dinner parties it’s about what God’s kingdom is like. If we want to be part of it we’ll need to be able to celebrate the fact that there’s none of the nonsense the marketing agencies use, no exclusive invitations, no limited number of places available, no rewards for your previous custom or spending. We should feel like were in God’s kingdom when the invitation is for all, we’ll find ourselves among rich and poor, every ethnicity, and even among some strange people we hadn’t thought God would invite. The thing we should all keep in mind, which unsurprisingly goes against many of our conventions, is that the fact the invitation is not exclusive does not make it any less valuable. In fact the opposite is true, when we understand the true value of what God offers us, how could we not want this to be available to every person possible. Amen Kevin Bright 28 August 2016

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Trinity 13: Sabbath holiness

I wonder what your feelings are about Sundays, the Christian Sabbath? It might depend on your age. In the sixties, when I was born, most shops were closed on Sundays, and there weren’t the Sunday sports activities there are now, but the rather grim attitudes which had forbidden children from playing or reading anything other than improving books had largely faded away. I remember it as a quieter day than normal, a different day, a day which normally included church and Sunday school, but not a solemn or boring day. Looking back it may have been a high point in Sabbath observance, preserving the sense of rest, but in a way which didn’t seem repressive – at least not in my family.  Some of you may recall a much stricter Sabbath observance, or, if you are younger, may never have known a time when this day was really much different from the rest.    

At the time of Jesus, the Sabbath was a major preoccupation of the religious experts, one of the things which singled out their nation among all the others of the world. Who were these strange people who refused to work, or even to fight in their own defence, on this one day of their week. Those religious experts argued endlessly about what, precisely, constituted work though. You couldn’t carry anything – that was work – but what distance did that apply to? Did carrying a chair across a room count? You couldn’t travel, but how far couldn’t you travel? You needed to get to the synagogue after all. Arguments raged among the lawyers.

In the story we heard in the Gospel, Jesus runs up against one of those religious experts, the leader of the synagogue he had come to on this particular Sabbath. He already had a reputation as a healer, and maybe that’s what drew the woman in this story to the synagogue on this day. She’d been ill for 18 years already, bent double by some disease, excluded from normal life by her disability, unable even to look other people square in the eyes. At this time disease was thought to be a punishment from God, so she may have been treated with suspicion by her neighbours as well. She wasn’t going to push herself forward though. It was Jesus who called her forward, laid his hands on her and lifted her up to standing again. Cue great rejoicing; the crowd seem to have been amazed and delighted. But the synagogue leader couldn’t see the wood for the trees. It was the Sabbath. Healing was work. Work was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus had broken the law. The fact that a desperate woman’s life had been transformed meant nothing to him. He just “kept saying” to the crowd that they should all have come on another day if they wanted healing…

Jesus wasn’t having any of it. The law permitted people to take their livestock to food and water on the Sabbath, so why should it forbid the healing of this poor woman, he argued. In fact, Jesus went further than that. It wasn’t just that he believed he was allowed to heal on the Sabbath; this was precisely what he ought to be doing. Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years be set free from bondage on the Sabbath.”

His answer hints at a much broader understanding of the significance of the Sabbath than the synagogue leader has, but it wasn’t really anything new; it was firmly rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures.

According to the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day ceased from his work. It wasn’t that he’d run out of ideas, but that when he looked at what he had made he knew that this was enough - good enough, rich enough, diverse enough. He didn’t feel the need to labour on and on, heaping up creation, striving after anything. It was good, just as it was, and it didn’t need a single extra thing to make it perfect. What it needed, was to be enjoyed, treasured and shared.
The story went on to tell how that first perfection was lost, but human beings never quite forgot it, deep down in their spirits, the Bible said, and they longed for a time when they could enjoy it again, longed for God to bring about its healing. The Sabbath was supposed to be a foretaste of that time, a foretaste of heaven. It wasn’t just a break to give tired bodies and minds time to rest – valuable though that is – before re-entering the real world of work. The Sabbath was the day that really mattered, a glimpse of a world made right, the goal of our work on the other six days.  

That’s why God said, through the prophet Isaiah in our first reading, that Sabbath joy was inextricably tied up with justice and righteousness. You couldn’t have a good Sabbath if you ignored those who were hungry and afflicted, if you spoke evil of others, if you just pursued your own aims. Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, the commandment God gave to the Israelites, wasn’t just about what you didn’t do on this special day; it was about what you did do on it, and on all the other days too.  Only then could the Sabbath be a day of delight and joy, as God had meant it to be. That’s why Jesus could so confidently say that healing this woman on the Sabbath wasn’t just permitted; it was compulsory, the task for which that particular Sabbath had been made.

So how do we feel about this Sabbath which is just ending? What glimpse of heaven have we caught in it? What call have we heard to service in it? Where have we encountered God in it? And how are we going to share in God’s healing work tomorrow, as a result of this holy day?


At our All Age Worship today I read this poem, which I wrote many years ago after working on the story of creation with a group of Sunday School children, who were rather unimpressed with the idea of God “resting” on the seventh day – not what they would have done if they had just made such a wonderful playground!

THE SEVENTH DAY - or what God did on his day off

On the seventh day
God played with his creation.

In the morning
he ran down early to the sea’s edge,
and in the crusted rock pools teased
the waving fingers of sea anemones. 
He let the sand, like powdered silk,
run through his funneled fingers
and the shallow water play around his feet,
drawing a sandy wake around them.
Crashing on the rocks the waves leapt
to greet him with sprayed salt.

In the afternoon
he kicked up leaves,
musty in the dark woods,
and chased the spidery seed children of the
rosebay willowherb,
tumbling idly into their new generation
over dry earth.
He dammed the icy streams
to sail twig boats down rocky rivers
and climbed into the branches of rough oaks
looking for secret squirrels

But in the evening -
in the evening he wanted to talk.
So he sought out man and woman by their campfire,
finding worlds within its embers.
Late into the night,
they listened, with their arms around each other,
to the songs of night creatures,
and invented music.

And God thought the seventh day was good,
because he played with his creation –
and the whole earth joined the game.

Oct. 88.    Anne Le Bas

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Trinity 12 2016: Trouble ahead

To listen to this sermon, click here.

Jeremiah 23.23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11.29-12.2, Luke 12.49-56

“There may be trouble ahead,” says the old song, but in truth it’s not a question of “may be”. We can bet on it that at some point in our lives there will be trouble. Collectively or individually we are bound to hit hard times and challenges. They might take the form of illness or loss, or they might be national or international crises, like the looming challenge of climate change, which threatens to make large parts of the world uninhabitable. No one is immune from trouble. Most people, though – and I include myself in this – prefer to ignore the problems until they hit us, by which time it is often too late to do anything much about them.

If you’re a fan of the Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, you might remember the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, who features in it, a creature described as so mind-bogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. So all you need to do to protect yourself from it, despite it being very ravenous, is to wrap a towel round your head. You can’t see it, so it can’t see you. Problem solved.

The Bugblatter Beast doesn’t exist outside the world of fiction – I hope - but its way of thinking certainly does. We can all behave like this. Seeing and acknowledging a problem makes it real to us, and we very often think that it is better to turn a blind eye and hope it goes away by itself. That’s what the prophet Jeremiah was complaining about in our first reading. He was called by God to speak to the people of Jerusalem at a time when there was definitely trouble ahead. The Babylonian army was advancing on the city, and it was obvious – if you didn’t have your head wrapped in a towel – that things weren’t going to turn out well.

But the people of Jerusalem preferred not to think about that, and most of their prophets were happy to reinforce their blindness. “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” they said – in the ancient world the gods were often thought to speak through dreams. But their dreams, said Jeremiah, were no more than “the deceit of their own heart”. It would all be fine, they said.  God would stop anything bad happening to them.

God called Jeremiah to break through this wall of denial. His words would be  “like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” . They would be just as vulnerable to the looming destruction as the nations round about them, he said, and they’d better wake up and prepare themselves for what was to come. You can imagine how well that went down. They preferred the dreams that comforted to the reality that challenged them, just as most of us would.

Jesus had an equally tough message to deliver to his disciples. They saw his popularity with the crowds. They heard his wisdom. They felt great when they were with him, as if they could do anything. Surely they were on a one way trip to glory. Jesus’ opponents would fall like dominoes as God swept him onto the throne of Israel! Then everything would be perfect. The lion would lie down with the lamb, swords would be beaten into ploughshares and best of all, they would get ringside seats for the whole thing.

The early Christian audience for which Luke wrote his Gospel probably nurtured the same sort of hope of easy triumph. When following Christ caused  them to be rejected by their families or put them at risk of persecution , they thought they must be doing something wrong. Why wasn’t it all working out the way they thought it should?

That’s why Luke reminds them of Jesus’ words. God was in control, love would win in the end, but there wasn’t going to be a shortcut to glory. The immediate future, which was the bit they would have to deal with, would contain sadness, loss and conflict. It was inevitable if they were challenging injustice. They just didn’t want to see that inevitable reality.  

And who can blame them? They were people like us. One day we’ll look back and see with 20/20 vision the threats we are blind to today, like the  threat of climate change, or the warping effects of inequality – things we could do something about, but rarely take as seriously as we need to. Deep down we know they matter, but most of the time we act as if they don’t.  One day we, or the generations that come after us, will ask how we could have missed their importance, why we didn’t act sooner.

Jesus asks his disciples “why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” and we might ask ourselves the same question. But beating ourselves up for not having our eyes open won’t do any good. Instead, we need to ask ourselves what it is that makes us keep them closed. Why do we so often put off dealing with things that really need our attention.

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people asking it. It may be that we are just plain lazy. Acknowledging a problem means doing something about it, and that means work. But my experience is that few people are really genuinely idle.  In fact it can take as much, if not more, work to avoid a problem than to fix it. We drink, eat or work to excess, we engage in risky behaviours, we worry about things that don’t matter, all to distract us from what we really need to do. The real problem isn’t laziness, it is fear.  We are afraid we won’t be smart enough or brave enough to do the things we need to do, afraid that we’ll find we have bitten off more than we can chew, afraid that we are in over our heads and drowning, with no one to come to our aid.  

But Jesus had said it would be like this, that life would often feel as if it was a mess. His own life had ended in humiliation on a cross – that is the baptism he talks about at the beginning of the passage. He’s going to drown in the deep waters of death. But that wouldn’t be the end, however final it appeared. And it wouldn’t be a sign that he had been abandoned or that he had done wrong. God would be with him in the squalor of the cross, and the darkness of death, and would bring him through it to new life, and if God could be with him in these terrible places, he could be with anyone, anywhere. “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” God had said to Jeremiah. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”

What do we need in order to face up to the challenges that confront us, the ones we work so hard to avoid seeing and acknowledging? Just the same as Jesus needed. We need to know that God is with us, that we are not alone, that we are held safely whether things seem to be going well or disastrously, that we can’t fall out of God’s hands, in life or in death. Knowing that gives us the courage to deal with whatever comes our way, to look at what we are most afraid of square in the face, secure in the knowledge that it cannot destroy what God has created and redeemed in us.

Ultimately it’s a matter of trust, which is really what the Bible means when it uses the word “faith”. To many people faith is what you believe, intellectually, in your heads – that list of propositions we find in the creed, but the original Greek word we translate as faith really means trust, which is quite different. Trust is far more active, something you do when you put your life into another’s hand. It’s the commitment couples make here at the chancel steps when they marry each other. It’s what an adult child does when they phone their parents in the middle of the night because they are in trouble, knowing they’ll get the help they need.  It’s what you do when you turn up on a friend’s doorstep, maybe after years, knowing that they will be glad to see you, and won’t mind you dropping in, even if the house is a mess and there’s nothing to eat. That is trust, and it is a vital part of our emotional and spiritual health.

Trust creates a safe space to grow and to change. If we believe that someone loves us deeply and strongly enough, we can make demands on them , try things out , get things wrong, take the risks we need to take. We know that they will stick with us. But it’s a chicken and egg situation. Often we need to take the risk in order to discover and develop the trust in the first place.

It is just the same with God. Our trust in him grows when we live our faith, when we practice forgiveness, when we are generous rather than anxiously hoarding what we have, when we answer God’s call to serve, when we love those who will never be able to repay that love, and let ourselves be loved by them too, when we face the things in our lives which need sorting out. All these things push us out into the deep waters with God, but through them we learn that, as the Bible says, “underneath are the everlasting arms” of God’s love.  (Deuteronomy 33.27, NIV translation)

I don’t know what your challenge is today – it may be deeply personal, something that is unique to you, or it may be a common challenge we must face together, but whatever it is, it is safe to open our eyes and look at it, because we do so in the company of God, from whom nothing is hidden, and whom nothing can defeat.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Trinity 7: Let me not be humiliated?

AUDIO VERSION I've been playing with the possibilities of recording sermons. You can find my first attempt by clicking on the link. Let me know if you find it helpful and if there are any problems with playback!

There’s a story told about an early Christian theologian called Origen. He lived around 200 AD, at a time when the Roman authorities were still persecuting and sometimes killing Christians. His own father had been killed in one wave of persecution, and although Origen felt sad, he also felt proud of his father. Martyrdom seemed like a noble thing – to give your life for your beliefs. Origen was fired up with enthusiasm. He decided he wasn’t going to hide away. He was going to go out there in the streets and declare himself as a Christian and embrace his fate.

Origen’s mother felt differently.

She’d already lost a husband, and she wasn’t about to lose her son if she could help it. But how could she stop him? She hit on a brilliant idea. As he slept, she took away all his clothes. In the morning, he literally didn’t have a thing to wear. It worked. Martyrdom was one thing, but having to run through the streets naked was quite another. Origen stayed at home and wrote theology instead.

Whether that really happened or not we don’t know, but it has a ring of truth about it. Humiliation is a powerful thing. People often cope better with physical pain and danger than with humiliation. If I asked you to tell me your most frightening experience, you probably could, but most people are extremely reluctant to talk about the times when they’ve been made to look a fool.  We’ve all got memories that make us cringe when we recall them… and if you think I’m going to tell you about mine, you can think again.

So perhaps we can empathise with the Psalmist’s desperate prayer in our Psalm today. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated” Ps 25.1

He’s not just afraid of falling on his face while everyone watches, or being the butt of some practical joke, though. He’s talking about the humiliation of being defeated by his enemies. Humiliation has always been a powerful weapon of war  – remember those photos from Abu Ghraib? It often breaks the spirit more quickly than physical pain.

Our Gospel story this morning is about humiliation, though it might not seem like that at first glance.

It all began when a lawyer stood up up to test Jesus. Lawyers then, like now, worked in adversarial ways, debating and disputing.  Like lawyers today, he knows he has to look strong and in control, to believe he’s in the right, so he can convince others of that.  

He poses what he thinks is a challenging question to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wants to test Jesus, to find out what his core beliefs are, to get into a philosophical debate. He knows how to handle that. But Jesus responds to  his question with another question, and the lawyer is forced into giving an anwer a child could have given. “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbour as yourself” was so basic, that it probably felt a bit insulting. So to try to “justify himself”  - to take back the moral and intellectual high ground the lawyer follows up smartish with another question. “Ok then, Mr Clever-Clogs Jesus, answer this one! Who is my neighbour?”

But still Jesus won’t be provoked into arguing back. Instead, he tells a story – the story we call the Good Samaritan.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” We don’t know why. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know what nationality or religion he belongs to. We don’t even know  for sure at the beginning that he is a man – the Greek word is anthropos, which just means “a person, a human being.”  This is everyperson – it could be anyone. It could be you. It could be me. Someone commented to me recently that this person is like a blank canvas. That’s a great way to describe him. Jesus means us to identify with this man. The story’s told from his view point. We aren’t told anything he wouldn’t have known and experienced as this story unfolds.

He’s going down the notoriously dangerous road, about 18 miles long, that winds down from Jerusalem in the hill country, through rocky, deserted wilderness to Jericho, near the Dead Sea. Like many travellers on that road, he’s set upon by robbers, who beat him up and leave him lying by the roadside, naked and half-dead.

Don’t forget that Jesus means the lawyer, and us, to identify with this beaten up victim; so what would we feel in that situation? We’d feel helpless, exposed and probably foolish as well, full of regrets; why hadn’t we taken more precautions?  

But all is not lost. A priest and a Levite come along – our countrymen. Surely they will help. But they don’t even come over to investigate. Why? We aren’t told, because the man lying by the side of the road wouldn’t have known either, and we’re seeing this through his eyes. Maybe they were afraid they would be beaten up too. Maybe they didn’t want to risk the ritual uncleanness they’d contract  from touching a dead body. They both had important religious roles after all. Or maybe they just didn’t care. We can only speculate, because that is all desperate man could have done as he watched them disappear into the distance.

But here comes a third traveller; this would have been good news, except that he’s a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans, near neighbours in the land we now call Israel,  hated each other, for reasons too complicated to explain. They just did. They had no time or respect for each other. Each believed that the other was just plain wrong, wrong in their beliefs, lifestyle, everything.  

So how might the victim of this mugging feel as he sees the hated Samaritan coming? If you were vulnerable, helpless and naked – especially naked -  who would you least like to see you in that state? Maybe it would be your boss, or a colleague who is always trying to get one up on you, or some relative you don’t get on with, or a member of some group you mistrust, and maybe have cause to mistrust.

The Samaritan is that person. The victim in this story might be half-dead, but he’d rather be completely dead than have this man see him in this miserable state. What is the Samaritan going to do? Gloat? Put the boot in further? Take some photos and post them on Facebook?

But, of course, that’s not what happens. He comes near, says Jesus, and he’s moved with pity, not with triumphalism. To the priest and Levite the man may as well have been a lump of meat. But to the Samaritan he was a real human being. He was prepared to have a real relationship with him, commit time and money to his care, now and in the future. Thank God he came along.

I’ve read and told this story many times. I’ve explored it with countless groups and I’ve discovered that a funny thing tends to happen to us as we think about it.  You’ll remember that I said that Jesus means us to identify with the man who was beaten up, that blank canvas of a man. But my experience is that somehow or other by the end, our attention has always slid away from him. We end up either identifying with the Samaritan, or aspiring to, hoping that we would have helped, or we identify with the priest and Levite, and feel guilty because we fear we wouldn’t have done. Somehow or other, we make it a parable about them, because it’s more comfortable that way. They may respond or not to the needs around them, but at least they are in control, they have a choice. We miss the fact that Jesus’ focus is on the victim, that’s where he wants us to put ourselves in this tale.

“Which of these three was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” he asks. “The one who showed him mercy” says the lawyer – the one who helped him. So who is the neighbour we are commanded to love? It is the one one who helps us. This isn’t a story about loving and helping those in need, or failing to. It is a story about acknowledging our own need, our own humiliation, and accepting help wherever it comes from.
Christians ought to have a head start in understanding this. After all we follow a humiliated leader, one who was himself ridiculed, beaten, and left to die on a cross. Christian faith starts, or should do, with an acknowledgement that we need God, that we need help, that we can’t do it ourselves. But that is as challenging and uncomfortable for us as it was for the lawyer who asked that question.

Perhaps it might help us to remember that  the word “humiliation” shares a root with the word “humus”, that good rich soil which grows the very best crops. Humiliation brings us “down to earth”, but in the end, the earth is the place from which true life grows.

That’s the message the hot-shot lawyer needs to hear. He doesn’t have to be in the right all the time. He doesn’t have to win the argument, to show his strength and competence. In fact, if he is determined to act like that he will never find the life he was asking about at the start.

A few weeks ago Boris Johnson promised people an “Independence Day”, but, whatever we feel about the EU referendum result, there is no such thing. There never has been and there never can be. We can’t be independent, none of us, no matter how strong and clever we are. We need each other, whether we label each other friends or enemies. Everything we do affects others, and everything they do affects us. We have one planet to share. There is no planet B, nowhere we can ultimately separate ourselves from those we find inconvenient or troublesome.

That sometimes feels like bad news, but it is really the best news of all. Eternal life isn’t a trophy to be won and owned independently. It is something we discover springing up in us and around us as we learn to see and accept each other  – friend or foe – as human beings made and loved by God.