Sunday, 14 October 2018

Trinity 20: What do you lack?

Amos 5.6-7, 10-15, Hebrews 4.12-16, Mark 10.17-31

I was on a preachers’ discussion forum earlier this week, and noticed that a fellow preacher had asked for a quick yes/no vote on what we were planning to say about this week’s Gospel reading. He’d set up an online poll. The question was quite simple. “Are you going to tell people that they should give up everything and live in radical poverty, as Jesus told the rich man – sell what you have, give everything up? Yes, or no? Last time I looked the poll was running at about 50/50. I’m not telling you what I voted. You’ll have to work it out from what I say!

This is a very tricky passage, one that can make us feel very uncomfortable. Some Christians have heard a simple, literal message here. St Anthony heard this story in the fourth century, and gave up all he had and headed out into the Egyptian desert to live as a hermit. St Francis heard it and abandoned all his wealth, even taking off the clothes his rich father had given him and handing them back to him in the public square at Assisi, so that he ended up standing there stark naked. Jesus’ words to this rich man went straight to Anthony and Francis hearts, and they took them absolutely literally, just as I am sure Jesus intended this rich man to do. But does that mean we should all be doing the same?

The reason my online colleague asked the question was that he knew there is a real temptation for preachers – for all of us – to try to explain away Jesus’ challenge. Perhaps it only applies to the rich, we say – by which we mean “someone richer than I am”.  Or perhaps Jesus doesn’t mean us to give away everything, like St Francis? (Actually I do hope you don’t suddenly feel moved to take all your clothes off, if you don’t mind! ) But how rich is too rich, and how poor is poor enough?  Perhaps it only applies to those called to be saints or those with a troubled relationship to possessions? We can breathe a sigh of relief if that’s not us. One of the most desperate attempts to remove the sting from this passage is the oft-repeated story that there was a gate in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus called the “eye of the needle” which was so small that camels had to be unloaded in order to pass. Camels could go through eyes of needles, but only if you unloaded them first. Unfortunately there was no such gate. The story was pure wishful thinking. Jesus was simply using an image well-known across the Middle East to describe something that was completely impossible. In India it was an elephant and the eye of needle.

The truth is that we all want to wriggle off the hook of this passage. Most of us know that we have too much stuff, and feel faintly guilty about it. So we try to tame Jesus’ words convincing ourselves that they don’t really mean what they sound as if they mean, or that he didn’t really mean us.  

I wonder, though, whether we are actually starting in the wrong place completely with this story. We are so caught up with the second part of what Jesus says to this man, that we miss the first part.  Jesus doesn’t just say “go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor…”. He says, “You lack one thing; go sell what you own….” “ You lack one thing.” I don’t think this is a story, primarily, about what we have. I think it’s a story about what we lack, and how we feel about that lack. Get that right and some of our questions about what we have might solve themselves.

What does this man lack, the man who already has so much -  wealth, fine clothes, the latest chariot, and a lot of virtues, it seems too, if we take him at his word about all those commandments he’s kept? What does he lack? In his own words, it is “eternal life”. That’s what brings him running to Jesus, throwing himself at his feet – he doesn’t saunter or even walk purposefully. He runs. It’s his longing for eternal life which makes him run. What is he looking for? It sounds as if he wants to know that he is right with God, accepted, secure, but he sees that assurance as something he can “inherit” and that's very interesting. An inheritance is something which is paid out to us after someone dies, something coming to us in the future. It’s a sum of money, or a house, or a collection of original Beatles records. It’s something we can put in a bank or on a mantelpiece. This man, who has so many possessions, assumes that eternal life is just one more, the possession that will complete his collection. It’s the ultimate gift for the person who has everything, something which he can put in a display case, store in a safe deposit box, reassured that it’s there for the ultimate rainy day of his death. It’s a common misunderstanding. Many Christians still see eternal life as just a ticket to heaven, the assurance that when the time comes, St Peter will wave them in through the pearly gates.

But Jesus doesn’t talk about it like that. When, later in the passage he says that “in the age to come” his followers will have eternal life, he isn’t talking about life after death, he’s talking about the Kingdom of God, the time that he is ushering in there and then, a new way of living, a new awareness of the presence of God in this world as well as the next. Eternal life isn’t something you “possess”, like a Rolex watch or a Ferrari. It is something you live. Perhaps it would be better if we called it “eternal living”. It’s a quality of life, a way of life, in which everything is tinged with the divine, in which we find God at every point. Those who live “eternally” assume that they are walking on holy ground all the time – when they go to the shops, meet with a friend, respond to someone in need. they are people who have learned to expect that God will show up in every area of their lives, and learned to welcome him there.

The rich man who comes to Jesus has found that all the wealth in the world and all the virtues he can cultivate don’t bring him the sense of inner peace he craves. But as long as he sees it just as a bolt on to the almost perfect life he has, like the final, rare stamp that will complete his stamp collection, he will never find it . Jesus knows that his whole life needs to change, his whole perception of himself. He will have to learn to acknowledge his lack, to see himself as needy, poor, helpless, powerless, in order to be open to the riches of God, and the only way that can happen is if he gives up the comfort blanket of his possessions, all of them, and comes and follows Jesus, in whom all those riches dwell. The tragedy is that, in the end, he can’t bring himself to do it.

Jesus may call us to give up all our possessions, or he may not, but he certainly calls us all to be at home with our need, at home with the idea of ourselves as beggars, people who, for all our possessions, can never come to a point where we are self-sufficient, people who will always need God and always need one another.
That’s what eternal living looks like.

As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, we need to be “laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account”, which sounds horrible, but is actually the beginning of the good news, because when that happens we are able to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The prophet  Amos thunders at his people to stop thinking they can do whatever they want because they happen to have money and power. “Seek God and live” (live -there’s that word again). Dethrone yourself, he says. Accept that you aren’t the great  “I am” and put yourself into the hands of the one who is.

So, back to that poll I started with. Was I going to tell people they should live in radical poverty?  What did I vote? I voted Yes, but not because I think we should all give up all our possessions. The message of the Bible, taken as a whole, isn’t that there’s anything wrong with material things in themselves. I voted Yes because I think that until we discover and accept that we are all basically poor and helpless,   no matter what power and wealth we may seem to have on the surface, we'll never find the treasure we really need, the knowledge of God’s ever present love. If we always live in the bright light of our own strength and capability, we'll never find the God who dwells in the darkness with us. Sadly, it’s usually only when our lives go wrong that we discover that. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus in the Beatitudes. Or, as someone else translated it, “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”

Today you may have much, or you may have little. You may have come here today knowing there is money in the bank, food to put on the table, health and strength to deal with life. Or you may have come here today feeling lost and lonely, at your wits’ ends, racked with doubt or debt. But in God’s eyes we are all the same. We are all people who need his love, whether we know it or not, people whom he longs to lavish his love on, people who have nothing that is truly our own, and yet people who, because of him, have everything we could ever truly need.

If we want to be rich in the things that matter, we first need to recognise what we lack, the thing we can never truly possess, but which is given to us in full measure, packed down and overflowing, the grace of God, his presence, which enables us to live eternally, here and now, right where we are.


Sunday, 7 October 2018

Sowing generosity: Harvest Festival

Today’s Gospel story is a strange one – at least it seems so to me because I am a keen gardener. Let me explain. A sower went out to sow, said Jesus. In those days that meant walking up and down with a bag of seed and throwing it out around you.

Some seed fell on the path, where the birds ate it, some fell on rocky ground, where it didn’t have enough soil for its roots so it withered when the sun shone on it. Some seed fell in the midst of thorns, great big thorny thorns – it didn’t stand a chance. But some seed fell on good ground, grew well and produced a good crop.

Now it seems to me, as a gardener, that that sower was pretty rubbish at his job. Why on earth was he scattering seed around in places where it must have been pretty obvious it couldn’t possibly do well. I suppose it is just conceivably possible that he didn’t know about the stony layer under the soil, or that the thorns sprang up after he’d sown the crop – though a good gardener should know their soil before they start sowing – but the path at least must have been obvious, trodden down, leading straight across the land. He can’t have missed that. What did he think he was doing? Farming or feeding the birds? Three quarters of the seed went to waste. There are all sorts of perils a seed faces when you put it in the ground, and you can’t always guard against all of them, but this sower seems to me to have been very careless, scattering his seed in completely hopeless places. And Jesus must have known that, because most people in his society would have had to grow at least some of their own food. They couldn’t just go down to Tescos for it.

But maybe the daftness of the story is the point, because Jesus isn’t telling us about gardening. He’s telling us about God.

No sensible human gardener or farmer would behave like this. Seed is precious. There’s only so much of it.  You sow it in places where you at least think it is likely to have a fighting chance of growing. The only person who can scatter seed around like this sower does is one who has a great deal of it, an unlimited supply in fact. It doesn’t matter to this sower that some seed doesn’t grow, because there is plenty more where it came from.

What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about the unlimited love of God, the love that never gives up, that is given freely and abundantly, that there is no end to. He’s talking about love that is given to us whether we know what to do with it or not, whether we appreciate it and nurture it or not. And when we get it wrong, when we are stony, thorny people, people who are all trodden down, unable to let his love take root and grow in us, like that path, he doesn’t give up. He keeps on sowing and sowing and sowing, until one little seed lodges somewhere in a bit of good ground and puts down its roots and produces a crop.

In the first reading we heard today, we heard that “God loves a cheerful giver”. That’s because God is a cheerful giver. Giving is what he does. It’s in his nature, even if people don’t notice, and don’t thank him.

And of course, Christians believe that every one of us is made in the image of God. We are meant to be like him. If it’s in God’s nature to give generously, then somewhere, however deeply buried, it’s in ours too. Being made in the image of God means that we are truest to ourselves, most like we ought to be when we are living – and giving - as God does.

But sometimes it can feel hard. What will happen if we give away our time and money, or energy and love? Will we have enough for ourselves? Paul says yes. “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”

We can only give away generously what we have when we have realised that it was never ours in the first place, that it all came from God, and was given to us out of his generosity. Of course, we have to take our financial planning seriously, and honour our commitments to those who depend on us, but we don’t have to cling anxiously to what we have, says God. We can pass it on, let it go. We can learn to live with hands that are open to give by making sure that they are also open to receive.   

That’s why this festival, Harvest Festival, is so important, because it ties together the receiving and the giving. First we recognise all we’ve been given – we’re reminded of God’s generosity to us in the glories of the flowers and the abundance of the fruit, and in each other too and the fun we can have together – the scarecrows, the Harvest Suppers. We recognise our dependence on the earth, the gift of God. We remind ourselves that we didn’t do anything to earn or deserve this gift.  It is a gift, not an entitlement.

And then, when we’ve got that firmly in our heads, Harvest Festival tells us to look around and realise that there are other people in the world, who are no different to us, no more or less deserving, no more or less loved by God, who need us to pass on what we’ve received, to live as generously with them as God does with us.

Some of them are in our Poverty and Hope leaflets today. There’s Moussa, in Burkina Faso. A small gift to him of goats, chickens and sheep from Christian Aid and it has turned his life around. The sheep pay the children’s school fees, and provide his family with a financial cushion if the harvest isn’t good. That means the children don’t have to work underground in dangerous mines – their only other option. They can get an education which will unlock all sorts of opportunities for them, their families and their community. A little bit of generosity, a small seed, landing in the right place in Moussa’s life has transformed not only his life but the lives of many others too. Then there’s Gogo, who is living with HIV. USPG has supported her as she challenges the stigma that diagnosis brings in her community. Because of their help – our help – she’s been able to develop farming skills which others want to learn from her. A seed of dignity has borne a rich fruit for her and those around her. Or there’s Nevedita, in Sri Lanka. She’s working with children who’ve been abused and exploited. Supported by CMS, she is establishing safe houses for children whose childhood has been stolen from them. A seed of hope gives them a future. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Christian Aid is supporting Leonard, as he works to create a peaceful democracy through a grassroots movement in his local area. A seed of justice carries the promise of peace for his land.

Stories like this abound. Often it doesn’t take much to begin to change a life. We know that ourselves. A kind word or a well-timed offer of help can make all the difference to us when we are in need. But for that to happen we have to be living with open hands – open to receive God’s goodness and open to pass it on to others.

So, this harvest, we give thanks for what we have received. It’s not ours. We don’t deserve it. We didn’t earn it. But God, in his ridiculous generosity gave it to us anyway, just because he wanted to see us enjoy it. Like that sower, he throws around his love as if there was no end to it, because there isn’t. And he calls to us to do the same, to trust in his generous love and to pass it on.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Trinity 18 : Liberation

Mark 9.38-50, James 5.13-20 & Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-29

The God we know will never be known better by any attempt to confine, restrict or keep to him or her to ourselves. Jesus reinforces this view through Mark’s account today. In essence his message is that our behaviour should do nothing that restricts our own faith, the faith of others or those who may give faith to others.

Each of today’s readings, in their own way, remind us that God is a liberating God who doesn’t want his people trapped in suffering, either physically or in our minds.

Though in our gospel reading today we hear Jesus speak of hell originally he would have used the word Gehenna which would have held horror for those hearing him. It was the valley outside Jerusalem where the Romans burnt bodies and where Jerusalem’s rubbish was also burnt, smouldering as a symbol of death, suffering and filth. Some will choose to understand Jesus words as a literal indication of what lays ahead for many but the context speaks more loudly of Jesus saying ‘don’t lead lives that are empty, trashy, sinful, fit only for the waste disposal, more akin to us saying ‘don’t live life in the gutter’.

The teachers and political campaigners among you, not to mention anxious parents, will know that there is a time for knowledge to be imparted in a calm routine manner and there is a time when dramatic effect is needed to urgently make a point that sticks in the mind. Jesus’ reference to Gehenna and cutting off body parts clearly falls in the latter category.

Who hearing his words could want a rubbish life for them or their friends and family, fit only for the sad stenching place they went out of their way to avoid?

Similarly Jesus did not want to encourage people to self harm, it’s important to contrast chopping off body parts with Jesus entire mission to bring healing and wholeness in every way. He is using the horrific image of self-mutilation to stress how very important it is not to ignore our failings that might lead us into sin and also obscure Christ from others. Personally I’d rather he hadn’t used this example but maybe the fact that we are forced to wrestle with it is the point.

It’s essential we are clear that even though we can sometimes feel full of self-loathing the answer is not to inflict further pain on ourselves, but to seek healing. James letter goes on to point out that this can be achieved by wise counsel, loving support and prayer. Jesus’ stark message was that the habits, customs and weaknesses which are at the root of a problem keeping us from wholeness with God need to be identified, faced up to and then urgently dealt with, cut them out of our lives. A clean break with sinful ways is what Jesus wanted as a result not a clean break with our body parts.

It seems likely that at least part of Jesus address to the disciples is an angry response to John’s whingeing that people outside our group ‘have been casting out demons in your name.’ Jesus confronts the insularity of this view disappointed at this lack of understanding, he wants the disciples to know that this is not some exclusive club with special rights to play with God’s power but that God’s love and power for good are there for all. The message for people to understand was that this is not something to be dabbled in like witchcraft it is a holistic way of life with God involved in every aspect. There is no part time Christianity, nor is it a faith where we can pick and choose the parts we like and ignore the aspects we find more challenging.

The disciple’s behaviour reveals our human weakness to fear those who are different from us and, for this reason, to insist on a level of conformity which can manifest itself in such limited thinking, such tiny expectations. This in turn limits our expectations of God and our ability to recognise him at work in others.

I admit that I had to look twice, read the livery on the side of a mini bus which identified it as belonging to the local church, and then at the driver, a distinguished looking Sikh man with full turban and beard. Does Jesus look at this and think ‘at last they seem to be getting it’? I expect he’s grateful for someone willing to drive through the appalling south London traffic and happy that the people can get where they need to go. And, unless the driver had nicked the bus, with all the relaxed looking passengers in it, it seems that the people running the church were chilled about this as well. This is good isn’t it? A tiny example of collaboration that makes the kingdom of God, as each of us understand it, a little more real to others.

In Numbers we heard again of attempts to control God and keep him for only a pre-approved group, in this case the elders Moses gathered in the tent. An unnamed young man and Moses assistant Joshua were complaining that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. Moses responds by teaching them that he doesn’t control what God chooses to do but wouldn’t it be wonderful if his spirit fell upon all his people. The more evidence of the Spirit at work the better as far as he is concerned.

It seems pretty clear that people have always whinged, whined and complained. Aussie friends of mine used to say that we Brits are famous for it when visiting their country, making a fuss about little things like a snake in the garden, unbearable humidity or a red back spider under the toilet seat. They claimed that they could always tell when a plane load of Brits had arrived because the whining noise didn’t stop when the engines were switched off!

Perhaps the next time we feel like complaining about a situation we should consider the impact on the person who is doing their best to run something, provide for or facilitate others. Maybe their generous efforts are a result of the Spirit at work only for our complaining to come along and smother it.

I’ve certainly seen many volunteers running scouts, football clubs or clubs for the elderly at great personal sacrifice only to be the recipient of whingeing and complaining that they are not doing things right or how others expect them to be done. Of course the natural reaction might be an impolite reply and who could blame them? ‘If you think you can do better you are welcome to have a go’ seems a fair response. Certainly I’ve seen a volunteer football referee taking abuse from parents on the touchline walk up to them and offer his shirt and whistle, needless to say the loud mouth people shrunk back from taking responsibility.

So it seems reasonable that Moses has had enough. Perhaps, in the way that people ask ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’ the rhetorical question the Israelites have here is ‘what has God, through Moses, ever done for us? Well one or two things come to mind, surely the people haven’t forgotten that he led them out of slavery, that God protected them and they have seen the waters of the sea part just for them, water has sprung forth from rock and food has been provided in the desert. So rather lot of incredible things it seems, yet all they remember is the delicious food that had been available to them in Egypt, glossing over the fact that they were enslaved. Selective nostalgia remembers all the lovely food as being available for free conveniently forgetting that the true cost of this was slavery and hard labour.

I suppose that as soon as our immediate needs are met we often simply think of the next thing that will make our life more pleasant without stopping to be truly grateful for what we have. Mind you it made me hungry hearing of cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic, I guess the ingredients would have made their daily meals a lot tastier. But the point of the passage is not about the culinary options available, it’s about recognising our blessings and about discovering liberation in God’s love. The people who sit back and expect to be provided for without any contribution to their community might no longer be physically enslaved but neither have they found true freedom. That’s why the 70 elders are given a share of responsibility from then onwards, freedom to criticise also means freedom to take responsibility, it’s time for the Israelites to understand the need to be active participants in the relationship with God.

This is highlighted further by James as he encourages shared times of joy as well as support for each other when our faith is tested and prayer for each other that recognises the real potential for God to work through any one of us. In doing this we move closer to the freedom that God wants for us and share in Christ’s healing mission.

I finish where I started. Our readings remind us that we need to be Christians called to an active faith reliant on God’s grace, followers of Jesus who allow God to be free in our minds, open to meeting with her in unexpected ways, places and people. Where we can we must open doors, clear obstacles and make God’s love available to others, encouraging each other through life’s challenging times but also recognising and celebrating the gifts we are blessed with. If we can do these things we are taking steps towards the liberation and healing available to us in Christ.

Kevin Bright                                                                                     
30 September 2018

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Trinity 17: Restless hearts

“Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”. Today’s collect – the special prayer for the day – is one which many people love* I’m always glad when it comes around. Like many of the best prayers it has a long pedigree. It is based on the words of St Augustine of Hippo, a fourth century Christian leader from North Africa, and it is from a book which is basically his autobiography, called the “Confessions”. To sum it up in one sentence, it’s the story about how his “restless heart” finally came to rest in God.  

Augustine had  been born and brought up in the Roman town of Thagaste in North Africa in the dying years of the Roman Empire, by a Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan father, Patricius. The young Augustine didn’t look remotely saintly, though. He was looking for meaning and happiness, as we all do, but he tried whatever came to hand in order to find it. He tried wild nights out with his mates, wine, women and song… but fun though they were, they didn’t really hit the spot. All he ended up with was a rather tangled personal life, which included a child, born when he was 17, by a woman he never got around to marrying. So he looked to religion and philosophy – and there were plenty of options to choose from. We may think we live in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, but it was nothing compared to the Roman Empire.  All sorts of ideas jostled for followers. There was Christianity, the newly declared the official faith of the empire. There were the old Roman and Greek religions with their multitude of gods and goddesses. There were mystery religions with strange secret rituals and beliefs. Who had the truth? What was life really all about? By the age of twenty, Augustine’s “restless heart” had led him to a group called the Manicheans, who were followers of a Persian philosopher Mani. Like many groups we now tend to lump together under the name Gnostics, the Manicheans believed that the created world, the world of matter and the flesh, was at best inferior, the work of a lesser god, and at worst evil. The soul was a divine spark, they said, which had been imprisoned in the body, and longed to be free of it. To Augustine, who often felt like a battleground of conflicting impulses and desires, it all sounded very convincing.  

But after a while Augustine started to feel unsatisfied with the Manicheans too. Their accounts of creation seemed too far-fetched, and he suspected that many of their teachers didn’t really understand their own teachings. So he looked once more at Christian belief, and gradually came to believe, at least in his head, that this was the faith that made most sense to him. But it was still just in his head, not his heart. He believed things about God, but putting his life into God’s hands, letting his faith make a difference to his life was a different matter.    What might he have to give up? How might he have to change? It was as if his “restless heart” had led him to the brink of the ocean, but would he have the courage to jump into the water and trust it would support him?

He struggled. He thought big and complicated thoughts about faith and philosophy, but in the end that wasn’t what really changed him. It was this. One day he was sitting in his garden, he said, in despair, when he heard the sing-song voice of a child from somewhere nearby.
 “Take it and read, take it and read…” sang the child. Puzzled, he picked up a Bible. It fell open at the letter to the Romans…”Let us live honourably, as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealously. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus…”

Somehow those words went right to the heart of his struggle. Living well wasn’t just about changing your mind, adopting a new set of philosophical beliefs; it was about letting God change your life – and his life needed to change.

But he hadn’t worked this out through his own cleverness, or through the teaching of some great spiritual teacher; he’d been directed to it by the words of a child, who didn’t even know that they were doing it. He’d been striving to find the way to God with his restless heart, but all the time God had been right there waiting for him to stop striving and to fall into his arms, into the place where he really belonged. It was God who had found him. Indeed God had never lost him.

There are plenty of restless hearts in the readings today too.
James writes to a church full of people who are tossed about by their fears , by the “cravings that are at war within them” . They covet things they can’t have. They are ruled by “bitter envy and selfish ambition” . They grasp for power, and they don’t care who gets hurt along the way. And why? Because they are struggling to find peace and meaning, not realising that what they seek is theirs already, if they will only “draw near to God.”  .

James talks about the “harvest of righteousness, sown in peace” which they long for. Peace, in the Bible – shalom in Hebrew - is always about far more than the absence of war or the absence of noise.  It’s about everything being as it ought to be, in its proper place, healed and whole. And it starts inside us, in our hearts. We can’t have peace out there, if we haven’t got it in here.  We strive for wealth and status, for lots of “likes” on our facebook post or our Instagram feed, for constant affirmation, we work our fingers to the bone to get that promotion, but when we get them, we find that, actually, we don’t feel any better at all because whatever we have gained we can also lose. It’s only when we realise that we are held in God’s love, when we are centred and secure in that, that we find the peace that can’t be destroyed or taken away. “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you” says Augustine, and his words make as much sense now as they did 1700 or so years ago when he first wrote them.  

That’s a lesson which Jesus’ disciples had to learn too. In our Gospel story today, he tries to teach them, yet again, that he will be betrayed and killed but that he’ll rise again. But they still aren’t ready to hear it. As they walk along the road, Jesus is aware that they are squabbling among themselves. He knows what it’s about. It’s what squabbles are always about.  Who is the greatest? It doesn’t matter whether it’s children fighting for the biggest slice of cake, or nations fighting for land and political influence, our squabbles are always, in some sense, about  wanting to feel bigger and better than others, because then we think we will feel more secure and more significant in a world which is so much bigger than we are, beyond our understanding and control.

For Jesus’ disciples it was no different. Like all their fellow Jews they lived under the perpetual threat of Roman takeover, and longed for a Messiah, God’s anointed one, to deliver them from that threat, to make Israel great again (and if that sounds familiar, it’s meant to). They want to believe Jesus is that person, and that he’s about to take his throne, but the problem is that their vision of greatness is one patterned on the empires they see around them. All they can imagine is that Jesus will be like the Roman Emperor only infinitely bigger and better. And when that moment comes, each of them wants to be his right hand man, the one who will share the biggest slice of his power and glory…  That person will have it made. They’ll never have to worry about where the next meal is coming from ever again. They’ll have won the lottery of life.

But when they shamefacedly admit that this is really what they are thinking, Jesus simply takes a child, a small child, a vulnerable child with not  a scrap of power, and puts it in their midst. If you want to really have that security you crave, the ultimate peace you are trampling over each other to find, you need to take a lesson from this little one. It’s only when you can welcome littleness and vulnerability, when you can own and embrace the stuff in you which feels helpless, when you can accept that actually, you really have no more power to control your life than this child does, that you will discover that God is with you, at work in you, that he loves you, and that there’s nothing you need to do, nothing you can do, to make him love you more – or less – than he does already. Discover that and you won’t need to worry about who is the greatest at all.  

That’s as hard for us to learn as it was for Jesus’ disciples and  for those whom James was writing to  and for Augustine, who struggled with it all his life, but it’s the key to finding what we all need, the peace of God  that passes understanding.  The restlessness of our hearts may show itself in all sorts of ways. We may be anxious about our lives or the lives of those we love. We may be constantly distracted, never able to trust that we have chosen the right path, or that what we have will be enough. We may be locked in feuds or burdened by grudges which we can’t let go of because we can’t imagine life without them. We may be relentlessly competitive, in ways that drive others away from us.

Whatever form our restlessness takes, though, Augustine – and James and Jesus – would tell us that the answer to it is the same. “Lord, you have made us for yourself” says Augustine. We don’t have to compete for God’s love, or work for it; we don’t have to push others out of it in order to gain it. It is ours already. There is an “us-shaped” place in the heart of God, an “me” shaped place, a “you” shaped place, a space shaped like each of us, a space for  each of us. All we have to do is fall into it and learn to trust it, and our “restless hearts” will find the true rest they have been craving.

* Almighty God, you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself,
and so bring us at last to your heavenly city
where we shall see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, now and forever.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Trinity 15: God-given voices

Audio version here

Those of you who took part in the Lent discussion groups on the five senses earlier this year may recall one session when we thought about the sense of hearing. The Wednesday morning group was an especially chatty group, as I recall. Often everyone talked at once. But for this session I particularly wanted us to listen to each other. So I produced  a shell and said that people could only speak when they were holding it – so only one at a time. It’s known as a magic microphone in the trade. You might think that everyone in this chatty group would have made a mad grab for it, but that’s not what happened. Instead a deathly hush fell. No one seemed to want to hold that shell. A few people made contributions, but many, suddenly, stayed silent. Why? As we talked about it after the exercise someone hit the nail on the head. “The thing is that if you are holding the shell, and everyone’s listening, you feel you really have to have something worth saying!”

Speaking and listening ought to be simple – we do them all the time, but often they’re not. Today’s Bible readings might help us to understand why.  

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah looks forward to a time when God will rescue his people from exile in Babylon. And what will it time be like? It will be a time when the “ears of the deaf will be unstopped… and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” This isn’t really about physical healing; it’s about the healing of a whole nation, the restoration of hope.
Deafness and speech impediments can often leave people feeling cut off and marginalised, disempowered, unable to take part in conversations that shape the future, unable to make their opinions known, and that’s how Israel feels, says Isaiah.  No one is listening to their voices. They aren’t hearing words of hope, words that give them dignity. They’re at the mercy of the powerful rulers of Babylon. But it won’t always be so, says Isaiah.  God hasn’t forgotten them. He has been listening, and he has a message for them - “Be strong, do not fear”. And God’s word will be the word that will prevail. It will turn out to be far more powerful than anything the Babylonians say to them. Babylon will be defeated, and they will indeed go home. God’s word, after all,  had brought Creation into being – “Let there be light”, he had said, “and there was light” – so why should his word be any less powerful now? He is the one who can make the deserts of their hearts, the deserts of their hopes, blossom with new life.  

There’s a lot of hearing and speaking going on in the Gospel reading  too. A deaf man is healed and enabled to “speak plainly”. A Syrophoenician woman’s voice is heard – eventually – and honoured.  
But the Gospel writer tells us that even for Jesus this can be a struggle. To understand why, we need a bit of background.

Jesus is in Tyre, a seaport on the Phoenician coast. What’s he doing there? We’re not told. It’s a puzzle. Tyre was outside Jewish territory. Like most seaports, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural place, with sailors and travellers from all over the world passing through it. There would have been temples to pagan gods and goddesses on every corner, food that was unclean for observant Jews, behaviour they would have found offensive.  This isn’t a seaside holiday.

Jesus is deliberately, putting himself outside his comfort zone, quite literally going to a place where he knows he will be challenged. It’s a bit like the forty days he spent in the wilderness – the wild place, the haunt of demons, before his ministry started. Tyre is another wild place, but Jesus knows he needs to be here. He’s been preaching that God’s love is for everyone, but it seems as if he feels the need to test out how deeply he believes that. But they say you should be careful what you wish for because you may get it, and that’s exactly what happens.  

Perhaps he’s prepared for the foreign temples and unclean food, but for a Gentile woman – apparently on her own – to throw herself at him, as this woman does is clearly more than even he is expecting. In a society where respectable women kept to the home, and their male relatives normally spoke for him, there is something suspicious about this woman from the start. Perhaps her daughter’s father is a sailor, long departed across the sea? Whatever has happened, Jesus is clearly uncomfortable at first. His words to her seem harsh. They are harsh. People have tried to suggest that he is just testing her faith, but what kind of person tests someone who is so desperately in need of help. The most likely explanation for them is the obvious one – that Jesus needs to learn something from her. This is the lesson he has come to Tyre for. Her refusal to be fobbed off and his acknowledgement that she is right to persist  is the challenge he needs, the confirmation that God’s love is indeed as broad as he has said it is.

The surprising thing is that this story is here in the Gospels at all. It shows Jesus in a bit of a bad light, after all. But the Gospel writers evidently believed that their readers needed to hear about this moment when Jesus learned something from a Gentile woman, so they were prepared to put it in anyway.  Their readers were struggling to make a new community in which Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slave and free, were all included on the same terms. This story tells them that even Jesus struggled to do this, but that the struggle was worth it because if we don’t listen to the voices that disturb us, we will miss the voice of God that speaks through them.”

In the second part of the Gospel reading we meet a man who is literally speechless, and deaf as well. Imagine what his life might have been like. There was no sign language at this time. There were no hearing aids. He’d never have the chance to join in a conversation. He’d have been vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – after all, he had no way of complaining. After he’s healed, we are told he “spoke plainly”. I often wonder what he said. I’m sure he would have expressed love and gratitude to some people, but maybe also there were wrongs to be righted, as well. Maybe some people heard painful home truths from him. Just like the Syrophoenician woman, his voice might not have turned out be one everyone wanted to hear. Jesus didn’t just give him the power of hearing and speech; he gave him the power to challenge, to confront, to make his opinions known, and there’s always an element of danger in that.

Both these stories ask us powerful and disturbing questions. Whose voices do we pay attention to today, and whose do we discount? How willing are we to do what Jesus did, to put ourselves in positions where we might be challenged, or have to change our minds?  Can we bear to hear the voices of people who don’t share our politics, who don’t see the world as we do? Can we bear to the hear the voices of people who may have hurt or offended us in the past, and who we now can’t believe could ever do anything right or good?  We may like to think of ourselves as loving and inclusive, but there will always be people who we close our ears to, whose opinions we disregard before they’ve even opened their mouths. These stories call us to be honest with ourselves, to ask God to show us where our unconscious biases are. They call us to accept that we need to hear voices that disturb and challenge us if we are to grow into the people he wants us to be. If Jesus needed that, then how can we not?

But I think these stories might also ask us how we feel about our own voices and how we use them. Like those who were so reluctant to take hold of that shell in our Lent Group, we may not be sure that we have something to say that is worth hearing.

We may have learned that lesson early, if no one seemed interested in what we had to say as we were growing up, or if we have been repeatedly ridiculed and silenced by powerful voices around us – a domineering parent, sibling, friend or partner. We may have been shouted down by a society which looked down on us or disapproved of us for some reason - poverty, gender, lack of education, mental health issues, family circumstances, sexual orientation. We may have learned that it was safer to keep our mouths shut. We may talk endlessly about everything and nothing, but never take the risk of saying what we really mean.

If that’s the case, then these stories are a reminder that the voice each of us has is unique, and God-given. Jesus enables the deaf man to speak plainly, to say what he needs to say. And in honouring the voice of the Syrophoenician woman, in letting her teach him, he gives her a dignity which her society would never have done, recognising her strength and her courage.

The world needs to hear what each of us has to say, however tongue-tied and insignificant we feel. The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, said that “every creature is a word of God, and a book about God.”  That means you, and me. You’re a word of God. I’m a word of God. Each of us is something unique that God is saying to the world. When we speak our God-given truth with our God-given voice, however hesitant and inarticulate we feel, God speaks through us, and God’s word is a word which brings worlds into being, which makes streams flow in the desert, which heals the broken-hearted and gives hope to the hopeless.

So, today, tomorrow, this week, let’s be aware of the people we hear and the people we fail to hear, of the words we speak, and the words we fail to speak. Most of all let us be open to the voice of God which tells us to “Be strong, and do not fear!” and let’s encourage other people to hear that message too, in what we say and in what we do. Amen

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Trinity 13: Self-made or God-made?

I wonder how many people you’ve depended on so far this morning, how many people have helped you? There may be some obvious answers. Perhaps someone’s  made breakfast for you, or given you a lift. Here in church, people have given you hymn books, musicians have sung and played, people have set up the church for the service – we soon discover how much we need them when they aren’t there and everything goes to pot! 

But you will also have depended this morning on many people who you’ll never see or know; those who produced the food you ate for breakfast and transported it to the shops you bought it from, those who maintain the infrastructure we all depend on, who provide electricity, gas, clean water and so on.

And it doesn’t stop there. Behind the people who help us in the here and now is a vast number of others stretching back into distant history whose work has made possible what we enjoy today. We can follow the service because people taught us to read – teachers or parents – and those who campaigned and worked for free, universal education. We may only have lived to see this day because medical professionals and scientists over the ages have laboured to discover and develop treatments for the diseases that would once have finished a lot of us off prematurely.  I could go on, but you get the message. It’s only 10.2am, but we’ve already depended on an army of people today.

But how many of them have we consciously thought about this morning, let alone thanked? Probably not many, and my experience is that most of us prefer to think of ourselves as independent, self-reliant, self-sufficient, in charge of our own lives – not needing others. We like to think that we are “self-made” people.

The term “self-made man” only entered the dictionary in 1832 – US senator Henry Clay seems to have coined it to describe those pioneering people who made new lives for themselves in the USA. They’d had to reinvent themselves as they’d colonised what was, for them, uncharted territory. Some had chosen to come. Others were forced from their old ways of life in Europe by persecution, pogroms or famine. It’s easy to see why they might have felt as if any success they’d had was down to them alone and to their determination and grit. No wonder the myth of the “self-made man” or “self-made woman” caught on so stronglyin the USA – it’s something that Donald Trump is noticeably playing into.

But it is a myth. In reality, those pioneers were drawing on all sorts of support in order to survive; the lessons they’d learned growing up, the accumulated store of wisdom developed in their old countries which they’d brought with them, the political and financial backing of vested interests who wanted them to colonise this vast country. There is no such thing as a “self-made” person.

And when we read the Bible, we discover that that’s how God intended it to be. Christians believe that each of us, and all the world, is made by God, that God “intricately wove us in the depths of the earth” as Psalm 139 puts it, that God shaped us before we were born, and sustains us through life and death. But you don’t have to have a religious belief to see that none of us is entirely our own creation.  At the most basic level, we are all made physically from the DNA of our parents. We arrive in the world with many of the building blocks of our temperament and personality already formed, as well as our physical characteristics. Our bodies are made from the food we eat, and the communities we grow up in shape us socially, psychologically and spiritually. The things that happen to us, for good or ill, profoundly affect our lives too. I saw a moving interview with young Rohingya people growing up in refugee camps in Bangladesh this week. One 15 year old girl had married a man in his 60’s and was carrying his child, another had become a sex worker. It wasn’t what they’d planned for their lives, but they’d lost their families and their schools. They’d found themselves on their own, unsupported, so they’d had to make choices from which there could be no going back. How might our lives have turned out if we had been put in the situation they were? None of us can know.

The idea that our lives are entirely down to us, that we can do whatever we want to, if we only have enough grit and determination is wishful thinking. Of course we have choices, but we are never totally in control of our lives. And let’s not be blinded by that military imagery in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and in some of our hymns this morning. They may sound like anthems to the self-reliant hero, but the point Paul, and the hymn writers are making is that soldiers need strength and armour beyond themselves to survive the battle Paul calls it the armour of God to emphasize that. It’s not their own! All they can do is choose whether to put it on or not.

In our Old Testament reading, Joshua calls the Israelites to make a choice too. They’d struggled across the wilderness for forty long years, led by Moses. But now they’d finally reached the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey”, a fertile land, where they were starting to grow crops that had been unimaginable in the desert. Everyone is heaving sighs of relief. At last that terrifying time in the desert has ended! They can put it behind them. But the danger is that they will also put behind them the memory of how they survived, that it was God who rescued them from Pharaoh and sustained them on their wandering. And if they forget that, there’s a danger too that they’d forget the lessons he taught them. Through their hardships, God had formed this bunch of slaves into a people, given them patterns of life to follow, patterns of justice and compassion, of care for each other and for the world. God had given them a sense of dignity and agency. They had learned that they were beloved by God. He’d gone to all this trouble for them – for them! These were lessons they would need to hang onto if they were going to build a society that reflected God’s priorities. But remembering God would mean remembering their need and vulnerability too – that’s something we all sometimes struggle with when we’ve come through hard times. We just want to move on, to say  “I’m ok now. I’m fine. I don’t need help anymore.”

Joshua fears that they’d prefer to worship the local gods of Canaan, gods associated with lush green pastures, fruit trees, grain fields, grape vines, comfort, ease than the God who reminds them of a time when they were powerless and hungry. His fears are realistic, as it turns out. Although they promise to “choose God” at this point, the reality is rather different, and they soon fall away from that promise.

It’s no accident that the book of Joshua, along with much of the Old Testament, was written during the time the Israelites were far from home and in deep trouble all over again, in exile in Babylon. Once again they were desperate, and asking what had happened, why this disaster had fallen on them. The Old Testament writers drew on ancient oral tales, but they shaped them into a bigger story, a story of God who had been faithful to them, even when they hadn’t been faithful to him. It was as if Joshua was standing before them now, in Babylon, and offering them the choice all over again. Who’s really had your back all these years? Who’s really cared about you and been there for you when you’ve needed it? Is it the gods of Canaan? Is it the god you have made of your own strength and capability?   

In the Gospel reading, people are struggling with the same dilemma. Jesus has fed 5000 people on five loaves and two fishes out in the middle of nowhere – and, yes, that is meant to remind us, and them, of the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. People have been very grateful. But then Jesus tells them that they need far more than loaves and fishes to be really alive. They need to feed on him. It’s all too much. For a start it sounds suspiciously like cannibalism, which is rather yucky, but even if they can get past that, Jesus is unmistakeably talking about a commitment to him, a choice they need to make, and that’s far more than they’d bargained on.

Many of his followers quietly slope away. In the end, there’s just Peter and a handful of others. “Are you leaving too?” asks Jesus. But Peter has made his choice, and he speaks for all of them.  “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Like Joshua, they’ve seen what God has done for them in Christ, and they can’t unsee it. They’ve known what it means to stick close to Jesus; not just a belly full of bread and fish, but a new-found sense of dignity and worth and purpose, and to give it up, however hard the path, would feel like death to them now.  They need him. They need the life that he’s given them.

Living well, living fully, living the lives God wants for us isn’t necessarily complicated, but it’s often difficult. It’s about loving your enemies as well as your friends, praying for those who have it in for you, working for justice and love when everything around you seems unjust and hateful, holding onto hope for others as well as yourself. We can’t do it on our own, however self-reliant we may think we are. We can only do it if we are prepared to admit our need of God’s help. That may come to us through prayer, through reading the Bible, through the love of others, through the worship which draws us close to each other and opens our eyes to what is beyond us too. We’re offered a choice. Will we give up the myth that we can be “self-made”, that it’s good to be “self-made”, the myth which leads us to worship ourselves and our own strength? Or will we learn instead to rejoice in our need of God, and let ourselves be the “God-made” people he wants us to be?

Monday, 20 August 2018

Stories of King Solomon

We thought about wisdom and what it looks like in our All Age Worship yesterday. No sermon to share, as I improvise at All Age Worship, but here are the two stories I told, from the Jewish oral tradition, about King Solomon, the king most associated with wisdom in the Bible.

King Solomon and the Goldsmith

One morning a goldsmith came to the court of King Solomon, very distraught and asking for help. The king was sitting in judgement in his throne room, with his adviser, Beniah, standing by him, when the man came before him. “Great King Solomon, please help me!” Last night a burglar broke through the door of my workshop and stole all my gold. I don’t know what to do, as my family and I will now be destitute!”

“Do you have any idea who might have done this?” asked Solomon.
“No – we were all asleep at home next door.”
“Did your neighbours see or hear anything?”
“No – they were all asleep too”
“Hmm…” said Solomon, as he thought. “It seems, then as if there is no one we can ask about this, no way of finding out what happened…and yet… there was one witness we might talk to”
“Who is that?” said the goldsmith.
“The door itself, of course,” said Solomon, “the door which let the thief through!”
“The door! But you can’t talk to a door”, said the king’s advisor.
“Of course I can. I am Solomon. God has given me the ability to hear the voices of all his creatures. The door is made of wood, from a tree, so of course I can talk to it. I shall be there in one hour from now”

The king summoned his heralds, and ordered them to go out to the area where the goldsmith lived and announce to all around that in one hour they would see the miracle of the king holding conversation with a door.

When he was ready, Solomon set off in a great procession, walking through the streets of Jerusalem until he came to the goldsmith’s workshop.
A great crowd had gathered, as you might expect, to see this wonder. Every man, woman and child in the area was there.

Solomon went up to the door of the goldsmith’s workshop and in a loud voice addressed it.
“Door! I am the great King Solomon. I am distressed to hear that you have failed in the one task you were given, to guard the goldsmith’s gold from thieves. What have you to say?”
Solomon put his ear to the door and nodded sagely.
“The door says it is sorry, and wants to make amends”.
“I am glad to hear, it, door. It is good to make amends. You can do so by helping us to catch the person who has done this terrible deed. Can you tell me his name? Do you know who he is?”
The king listened to the door again, and then said that the door had said it didn’t know his name.
“Can you describe him at all? No? It was too dark to see him clearly? What a shame.”
“Is there anything at all you can tell us that might help us to catch him?”
The king listened then announced to the crowd, “the door says that there is one thing he knows. Last night a spider spun a web across the door at about the head height of a man. So the man who broke in would have had to walk through it, and will certainly have a cobweb on his hat…”

The king turned to face the crowd, and stretched out his royal arm and pointed into it. “Guards ! Arrest that man! Yes, the one in the red cap, the one who has just put his hand up to take it off!”
And the guards rushed into the crowd and seized the man and brought him before the king. The man fell on his knees and begged for mercy, saying that he was sorry for what he had done and would pay all that he had stolen back twice over. The king ordered him to be taken off to jail where he could ponder his crime while he decided what was to be done with him.

The king and his entourage returned to the palace, where his adviser, Beniah, congratulated him on the clever way he had discovered the thief. “Yes, I am glad it came out so well,” said Solomon, “though I am always sorry when I have to lie!” “But such a clever lie, your majesty, to convince everyone that you were talking to a door, and that the door was talking back to you!”
“Oh, no, that was not the lie!”
“What! You mean you really were talking to the door, and it was really talking to you?”
“Oh yes, of course! God did, after all, give me the power to understand the voices of all his creatures! No, the lie was that, actually the door told me right at the beginning who the thief was, and where he was in the crowd, but I realised that I would need the man to confess if we were ever to bring him to justice.”
“But why, your majesty?”
“Well, besides the fact that it is always better for someone to own up to their own sin, our Law insists that it takes two witnesses to convict someone of a crime. And we only had the testimony of one door!”

King Solomon’s Ring

Beniah, the king’s adviser, knew full well how much power he had, so close to throne, and Solomon had noticed that he was a little inclined to throw it around, so he thought of a way in which he could bring him down to size a bit, so he decided to set him a challenge.

“I want you to find me a ring which will make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. You have one month, and if you do not succeed you will lose your place at court.”
Benaiah was alarmed, but not too alarmed. After all, how difficult could it be? Money was no object, and he had a whole month. He went through Jerusalem, visiting every shop, every workshop, and talked those who made and sold rings. Did they know of any such ring? They all scratched their heads and said that they did not.

So Benaiah went down to the harbour and spoke to the captains of all the ships there and the merchants unloading their goods. Did they know of any such ring? But they did not.

Benaiah sent out messages around the kingdom and beyond, but no one could think of anything which fitted the bill. The days passed and the weeks passed, and soon the month was nearly up, and Benaiah was no nearer finding a ring which would do what Solomon had asked than he had been at the start. 

By the night before the deadline, Benaiah was in despair. What could he do? He would lose his job, and his family would be destitute. Benaiah found himself wandering distractedly through the bazaar, past stalls selling spices and fabric and He came at last to a little stall – not even a stall really, just a pitiful array of  bricabrac, cheap trinkets and household goods spread on a cloth on the pavement, with a small boy watching over them. “Can I sell you something, sir?” said the boy. “Alas I don’t think you have what I am looking for,” said Benaiah. “What is that, sir?” “A ring which can make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. My master has said I must find it for him.”. “ I have never heard of any such thing,” said the boy, “but I will ask my grandfather, who makes these things, and see what he thinks. He lives in this little shack here, behind our stall – this is his workshop.“

The boy dived back through the curtain into the shack. A few moments later he came back. My grandfather has prayed to God and he says he knows exactly what you need, and will bring it to you in a few minutes if you care to wait.

Benaiah waited, and sure enough, a few minutes later a frail old man emerged bearing in his hands a package, all wrapped up in a scrap of fabric. “Take this ring to your master and give it to him, but don’t look at it first – you will just have to trust me that it is what you look for.”

So Benaiah, having no other option took the package, and the next morning gave it to Solomon, explaining where it had come from and how he had found it. It looked so poor in its tattered fabric wrapping, and when Solomon unwrapped it, Benaiah didn’t feel any better about it at all. It was just a plain ring, made of some cheap, base metal. But Solomon looked at it closely, and as he did so, he started to weep – great big tears. Benaiah was worried. What on earth had Solomon seen in this ring to make him so sad? And what would happen to Benaiah as a result?

Solomon wordlessly handed the ring to Benaiah, and Benaiah, full of sorrow and worry, peered intently at it. And then Benaiah began to smile. 

There scratched into its surface were the words, “This too shall pass”. 

And Solomon said to him, “Well done Benaiah, you have done what I thought was impossible. I, a happy man with wealth and power beyond imagining have remembered that it is only mine for a season, that one day I will die and it will all pass from me, that old age and death will rob me of all I have. You have made a happy man sad. But I see from your smile that you have also made a sad man – yourself – happy, because your troubles have evaporated since you have succeeded in this challenge. The man from whom you bought this ring is wiser than both of us, and God is wiser than us all. Earthly joys and sorrows all pass, but the joy we find in God is eternal. I shall wear this ring always”. And he did.