Sunday, 15 September 2019

Sheep and coins and precious people: Trinity 13

There’s nothing that concentrates the mind more than impending disaster. This morning at All Age Worship, we thought a bit about what we would take with us if we had to leave our house with a few minutes notice, like the people of Whaley Bridge earlier this summer, or those made homeless by Hurricane Dorian.

Some opted for useful things. The front door key. A phone and phone charger to let people know you were safe. Others thought first of things of sentimental value. The family photos which were now the only reminder of family members who had died, things that were irreplaceable. Of course, it went without saying that people were the most precious of all.

These were the things we valued the most.

When Jesus tells his stories of the lost sheep and lost coin, he is tapping into that instinctive sense we have of what matters to us and how desperate we are to preserve it. It’s not actually very sensible to leave 99 perfectly good sheep in the wilderness in order to find one which is lost, but the shepherd couldn’t bear to think of it being vulnerable and alone. The woman who used up good lamp oil to find her lost coin and then probably spent its equivalent on rejoicing with her friends also seems to have got things a bit out of proportion. The woman’s coin wasn’t worth a huge amount, but it was probably part of her dowry, the only thing which truly belonged to her and which she would keep if her husband divorced her. It was a symbol of her independence.

The amount of effort both characters put into their search may seem disproportionate, but that’s the point. People behave like this. We all do. People will even put their own lives in danger in order to save what is precious to them – spending those extra minutes gathering their precious possessions up, in the knowledge that every moment they delay is actually a moment they are risking their lives when disaster threatens. Disaster movies often play heavily on that – the wall of water is advancing, the asteroid is approaching but, no, the protagonists decide that they just have to go back for this thing, that person, the dog or cat they can’t bear to leave behind. We want to shout “no, leave it – just go!”, but it doesn’t work like that.

And, Jesus says, if people behave like this, how much more so will God?

The difference between us and God is in what, or who, we think is valuable enough to merit this “do or die” treatment.

The Pharisees and Scribes are clear about it. The valuable people are people like them, people who are at least trying to keep the rules, respectable people. They are aghast at Jesus’ apparent insistence on spending his time – wasting his time as they see it – on tax-collectors and sinners. Tax collectors collected taxes for the Romans; they were collaborators. ‘Sinners’ was a vague term that covered anyone whose behaviour, or simple misfortune, put them beyond the pale. This was an age in which illness, disability and poverty were thought to be punishments from God, so “sinners” covered many, many people who had just found that the wheels had come off their lives, so to speak, and that they were floundering in some way. What’s the point in trying to help them? If Jesus is God’s Messiah, surely he should be more careful, wiser, in choosing his associates!

That’s why Jesus tells them these stories. He gets his audience to think of what they value and how far they go to rescue and safeguard these things. But then he challenges them to imagine that God might feel exactly the same when he looks at the people they have written off.

"What if God felt about a tax collector the way you felt about a sheep that was lost and found, a coin which you had treasured as a symbol of your independence, a safety net if life went wrong for you? What if each of these people whom you have written off as a waste of space were actually worth so much that God would be prepared to give all he had, even his own life, for them." And that is exactly what Christians believe that he did in sending his son, who refused to turn back from his commitment to those who needed him.

The letter to Timothy, from which our first reading came, probably wasn’t written by Paul – it was probably written after he died -  but it is meant to read as if it was. It was  the kind of thing he would have said; we know from other letters that were written by him that he regarded it as astonishing that he, someone who had persecuted Christians, would ever be accepted by them, and by God, forgiven, loved, regarded as part of the family. But that was what had happened, and it transformed him completely. Love has a way of doing that. He was the “foremost of sinners”, and yet the grace of God overflowed for him.

Tonight we may be feeling like the lost sheep – “Can God really love me?” Or we may be feeling like one of those 99 who thought they had it all sorted out – “Can God really love him or her, the one who has wandered off?” But either way, the answer is “Yes!Yes!Yes!” and all the angels in heaven rejoice when we start to hear that answer and believe it.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Trinity 12: Life and Death choices

Audio version here

“You’ve got to hate your family” says Jesus in today’s Gospel. What?! That’s not what we come to church to hear, even if Auntie Mavis is rather irritating!  Whatever happened to family values, or loving your neighbours – and surely that includes your family?

Has Jesus gone mad?

Of course, there is more to this than meets the eye – you expected me to say that – but this sounds like pretty shocking stuff, and in a week like the one we’ve all had, watching our politicians tear each other apart, and with no end in sight, we may not feel in the mood for such a tough message. It’s more love we need, not more hate.

I doubt whether Jesus’ first hearers found this any easier to hear than we do, so why does he say it?

“Large crowds were travelling with him,” Luke tells us. They were travelling with him, tagging along to see what he would do next. But Jesus knew perfectly well that many of this crowd were going to melt away when trouble came, as it inevitably would. You don’t have to be the Son of God to work that out. It’s what always happens when the Next Big Thing comes along, whether it is Greta Thunberg or the latest Soap star. They are pushed up onto a pedestal, whether they like it or not, the embodiment of our hopes and dreams, but rapidly knocked off again, or simply forgotten, when they don’t deliver the magic solution to our problems. The truth is, of course, that there are no quick fixes. It takes hard graft and steady commitment not just from one superstar, but from all of us, to see the changes we need, and even then, it will turn out to be more complicated than we hoped, with reverses and failures along the way. But that’s not the message we want to hear, because it means work and possibly suffering for us.

The people Luke wrote his Gospels for, around AD80, knew that all too well. They’d witnessed the imprisonment and death of many of the first disciples at the hands of the Roman authorities. On top of that, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70  and expelled its Jewish inhabitants, forbidding them to live there. This included the Christians, because they were just another Jewish sect at this point. This catastrophe created a crisis of faith for the Jewish people. Every group fought with every other group, blaming them for the chaos and destruction. It would have made Brexit look like a walk in the park. Families were divided. People had to choose. Who would they follow? Whose opinion would they trust? Which way would they go? Whichever way they chose, they had to accept that others – perhaps their own families – would choose differently, that there would be division.

That’s the backdrop to Luke’s Gospel, written in the 80s AD. Of course Jesus isn’t telling us to hate our families, but he is warning that living life with integrity will inevitably mean making decisions at some point, and our decisions might put us at odds with those around us. It’s tempting to choose our path in life simply by following the crowd, but in this passage we aren’t just called to be followers, passively tagging along for the ride. We are called to be disciples. The word “disciple” literally means a “learner”. Learning – all learning - changes us. It changes our way of thinking, maybe our way of being too.  If we want to be disciples of Christ we need to be open to being changed by the experience of knowing him. That means making an active, intentional choice, counting the cost and accepting the consequences.

The letter to Philemon, which formed our second reading today, is an illustration of one early Christian who is asked to do just that. Philemon has a slave called Onesimus who has either run away or been sent away. Somehow he’s found his way to St Paul, and Onesimus has become a Christian himself. But now what? Paul can’t keep him; he’s in prison. But he is obviously anxious about sending him back. Roman heads of households, like Philemon, had the power of life and death over their slaves. Philemon would be entitled in law to punish Onesimus, even to kill him, but Paul wants him not only to accept Onesimus back again, but to accept him as a brother in Christ, not as a slave. It might seem obviously right to us, but it would have been a big ask at the time. What would Philemon’s peers have made of this, slave owning, well-to-do men like himself? What if it gave their slaves ideas above  their station, incited them to run away or rebel? What about the financial implications – the economics of the ancient world depended on the vast army of unpaid slave labour.

Philemon has to make a choice, and though it might seem an easy, obvious one to us, it wasn’t for him, and might have profound consequences. We don’t know what happened next, whether he did as Paul asked or not. It would be fascinating to discover.

Christians throughout the ages have faced similar dilemmas. During my sabbatical researches into saints I came across many who had had to step out of the niches their society expected them to occupy, to swim against the tide, and who paid the price for it –Santa Rosalia of Palermo was typical. She was a twelfth century Christian nobleman’s daughter who felt called to become a hermit, praying in solitude. Her family were horrified. They had a marriage planned for her, which would enhance their power and secure their dynasty. In her society women, especially noble ones, didn’t expect to have a choice about whether or whom they married. But Rosalia was determined. She ran away into the mountains that surrounded Palermo, and made her home, her hermitage, in the caves there, moving from one to another to hide from them.

It wasn’t until many centuries later that her bones were discovered, and miracles began to be attributed to her, but whether Rosalia’s afterlife as a miraculous healer is true or not, her first life, as a religious fugitive from a forced marriage is entirely likely. It’s a feature of many saints’ stories. Women who felt called to a religious life, to ministry, to study, to prayer – to anything other than marrying and having children to further their families’ interests - often paid a very high price for it, as they still do in some communities. The stories of early female saints, and many male ones too, are stories of resistance to the political and economic demands of their society. For men too there were often tough choices, refusing to fight for an unjust cause, rejecting their families’ pressures to gain or maintain status and wealth. The stories, of the saints, I discovered, are stories of people who were prepared to be changed by their faith, to learn, to be disciples, not just travelling with Jesus as long as it suited them, like the crowds in the Gospel story, but in it for life.

Today the pressures on us to conform are usually far less stark, but they can be just as powerful because they are so insidious. We fall into step with our friends, agreeing with their opinions even if we think they’re wrong privately, because we fear losing their friendship if we challenge them. We do what others want us to do because we don’t want to look uncooperative or uncaring, even if we don’t think it is the right thing for them or for us. We follow the train tracks laid down by our class or social group, because we can’t imagine our lives if we didn’t.

And does it really matter? Yes, says Moses, in our first reading. It does. In fact, it can be a life and death decision, not always physically, but certainly spiritually, both for us and for those our decisions affect. Moses was speaking to the ex-slaves who he had led out of Egypt. They were on the brink of entering the Promised Land, but how would they live when they got there? Would they remember the lessons they’d learned in the wilderness about the kind of society God wanted them to be, a society where there was love and respect and care for the poor and oppressed, as they had once been? It all depended on who they looked to for guidance. Would they fall in with the societies around them, who, let it be said, practiced child sacrifice amongst other things? Or would they keep their eyes on the God who had rescued them from oppression and faithfully nurtured and cared for them in the wilderness?

It’s up to you, said Moses. However great a leader he was, he knew that this next bit was out of his control, out of the control of any leader, just as it is today; no one can make anyone else do anything.  Every one of us shapes the society we live in day by day by our own decisions, our own choices, our own acts, however small they seem. When we stay silent in the face of injustice, prejudice and hatred, we choose death, not only for ourselves but for our communities. When we choose the cheapest deal rather than the fairest, we choose death, not only for ourselves, but for workers we’ll never see in nations far away, and maybe even for the ecosystem we all depend on. When we demonise others because they’re different from us, we choose death, not only for ourselves, but for any chance of a peaceful future for the world.

“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked” says Psalm 1. Of course, the right path isn’t always obvious, and people may legitimately differ on how to get to where we need to be, but today’s readings call us at least to ask whose counsel we are listening to, what pressures we are giving in to. They call us to be aware of the choices we’re making and take responsibility for them, so we can count the cost, and be ready to pay it.

We might prefer to hear something comforting and escapist this week, with so much chaos and confusion around us, but these passages don’t offer us that option. Along with their challenge, though, comes a glorious invitation; to be that tree standing by the waterside, to sink our roots deep into the soil of God’s love, to let our roots be watered by his Spirit, so that we can stand firm in times of trouble, and be fruitful whatever happens.  

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Trinity 11: Knowing your place

Everybody’s watching everybody else in today’s Gospel reading. The Pharisees, religious experts, are “watching Jesus closely”. But Jesus, we are told, is watching them too. “He noticed how the guests chose the places of honour”.

We talk about living in a surveillance society these days, but people have always watched each other, noticing the subtle visual clues that help them make judgements about others. Are they friend or foe? Rivals or allies? Wanting to talk, or wanting to be left alone? Interested in what we are saying or dying to get away? Some people are more observant than others, of course, and some people are easier to read than others, but actions reveal what words may try to hide.

In Jesus’ case, the people-watching was happening in the course of a Sabbath meal which he’d been invited to at the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, a high-up, important person in this particular religious movement. It was obviously a reasonably formal do, with all sorts of etiquette to observe, and the first and greatest hurdle was where you sat. How important were you? Where did you come in the pecking order? Who got to sit at the top table? Who was on the host’s right and left hands? There was no seating plan; you had to work it out for yourself. It sounds as if it was quite entertaining to watch as people jockeyed for position, gave way to others, or didn’t.

It’s the same in most gatherings and groups. There are the Alpha males, the Queen Bees,  the ones who set the trends and make the rules, who head straight for the best seats, buoyed up by an indelible sense of entitlement, whether they are really entitled or not. Then there are those who aren’t sure they’re meant to be there at all, newcomers who hover by the door watching for the slightest hint that they aren’t welcome so they can beat a hasty retreat. Then there are those in between. There are the ones with “imposter syndrome”, who find themselves a little higher than they are comfortable with, and can never quite relax in case they get found out. And there are the “humble braggers” the ones who ostentatiously insist that “no, no, I couldn’t possibly sit there – you take that seat – I’m really not important enough for it!”, while making sure that everyone else notices them doing it.  

Anyway, eventually the people at this dinner settle down. Everyone has a place. The “imposters” have come to the conclusion that if they’ve sat in the wrong place, they seem to have got away with it, again. The humble-braggers are content that everyone has noticed precisely how humble they are. The hoverers-near-the-door have perched themselves on the end of a bench, and the entitled ones are surveying the scene with satisfaction, congratulating themselves on being so important.  All is well…until Jesus opens his mouth and says what most of them have actually been thinking for the last half hour or so anyway.

“Are you sure you’re in the place you are meant to be? What if the host were suddenly to say, right now, with everyone looking that you – or you – or you – had taken a seat which was meant for someone more important than you? What if you – or you – or you – were suddenly told to get up and go to the back? What if you’ve got it wrong?”

In any culture, in any group of people, this would be very embarrassing; in Jesus’ culture, a culture where honour and shame were the guiding principles, it would never have been forgotten. You would probably never feel able to show your face again. His little parable of the banquet where the guest is made to take that “walk of shame” would have hit home very powerfully. How do you know you are in the right place? How do you know that you have got the right measure of your own worth? How do you know that you aren’t thinking too highly of yourself? Suddenly everyone is unsettled, looking at each other out of the corner of their eye, wondering if they are about to be humiliated.

This can all get very confusing, though.  Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted, but if you humble yourself so that you will be exalted, is that really humility at all?
If we put others before ourselves, are we just “virtue-signalling”, trying to look “holier than thou”?  If we put ourselves down are we actually “humble-bragging”, fishing for compliments and admiration? If we are proud of our humility, how can it be humility?
And aren’t there times when we should take pride in ourselves, take up our space in the world? Of course there are.

We can end up going round and round in circles, getting more and more self-obsessed, but if we do, I think that might be because we have missed the point completely.  

Jesus isn’t just trying to upend the social norms, here, substituting a new pecking order for the old one. He’s doing something far more radical. He’s telling us that it isn’t about us at all. The problem is our self-obsession, which creates this burning need to have a pecking order in the first place.

The guests at this dinner are using other people simply as objects to measure their own worth against. They aren’t looking at them as people in their own right, with fascinating stories to tell, burdens or joys to share, who are either more or less important than them, above or below them. That’s the only thing about their fellows which matters; whether they make them look better or worse. It’s like picking your friends because they are fatter and uglier than you are, so that you look slimmer and more beautiful by comparison.

For Jesus, though, each person, whoever they are, is precious, a unique creation of God, just as they are. “Don’t invite those who can repay you,” he says. Invite those who seem to have nothing to give you. Invite those who are vulnerable and in need, because they are vulnerable and in need, those who would have found it hard to provide for themselves in Jesus’ time, and still do today. Invite them for no other reason than that they are hungry and you have food. Invite them for their sakes, not for yours, to meet their need, not yours. Of course, when we do this, we may – almost certainly will – end up feeling blessed, because we will discover that those we invite are blessings in themselves, but if that’s why we do it, for our own good, then it will always ring hollow. Jesus talks about God rewarding those who do this “at the resurrection of the righteous”, at the end of time, but that it will be the  reward of seeing the whole world made right, not some special prize we can, or will want to, hug to ourselves.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews has the same message for the community he is writing to. “Let mutual love continue” he says; love that is based on equality, on the assumption that the other person is as valuable as I am. “Show hospitality to strangers” – people you don’t know, so you can’t tell whether they have anything you need. It’s about them, not about you. Identify with those in prison or being tortured– don’t treat them as if they are some other sub-human species who don’t need the same things you do. In marriage – and remember this is a society in which women were treated as property – show respect for each other. Don’t treat your partner as if they are just put there for your own convenience, to be picked up and dropped as the mood takes you.  “Be content with what you have”; don’t take more than you need because someone else will miss out, and greedy acquisition nearly always rests on exploitation. It’s a message we desperately need to remind ourselves of at this time, when greed and self-seeking seem to be getting the upper hand.

Treating others as people who are as valuable as we are is difficult though, which is why we so often fail to do it.

That’s why I am glad that the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t end there. “Be content with what you have” he says, “for God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’”. He’s quoting from God’s words to Joshua, the Old Testament figure who led the people of Israel from the wilderness into the Promised Land, a scary and daunting task. (Joshua 1.5) “So we can say with confidence”, he goes on, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Why are we self-centred? It’s because we’re anxious about ourselves and our security. It seems like a dog-eat-dog world out there, if we don’t look out for number one, who will?  We can’t live generously, confidently, open-handededly unless we deal with that anxiety, that sense of being alone in a hostile world, with no one to rely on but ourselves. As our first reading put it, it is when our hearts have “withdrawn from their Maker” that we get into trouble, and the consequences can be dire, not just for us, but for everyone.

We need to remember what the letter to the Hebrews reminds us of, that we are not alone. As well as the other members of their community, with whom they are called to share that mutual love, this writer points them back to the first Christian leaders – the likes of Peter, Paul, James and John. They coped with the challenges and fears they faced because they’d come to realise that God would always be with them.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,”   That doesn’t mean that Christian faith can’t change and develop, as some people interpret this verse; it means that God will always be faithful to us. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were the proof of that. God doesn’t pick us up and drop us on a whim, when it suits him, like some paranoid despot. He sticks with us, whatever happens.   

That’s the key to living in the way Jesus teaches. We need to learn to trust that the only opinion of us that really matters is the opinion of God, and that his opinion is always that he loves us with a never-ending love. If we can do that we’ll never need to put others down in order to raise ourselves up, or measure ourselves anxiously against them, because we’ll have nothing to be anxious about. 

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Trinity 10: Unbending

Today’s Gospel reading is a beautiful one, a story of a woman who is given back her life by Jesus, quite unexpectedly. But as with all healing miracles, it isn’t just physical healing which is going on here, and it isn’t just the woman who needs that healing.

The story takes place in a synagogue, probably somewhere in Galilee. Crowds are flocking to Jesus, out of need or curiosity, but not everyone has made up their minds what to think of him. Is he a good teacher, a healer, an inspiring leader, or is he a troublemaker intent on causing mayhem? The jury, for many people, is still out. On this particular Sabbath day he’s been invited to teach in the local synagogue, the place where that town gathered for prayer – a bit like we do in our parish churches. Maybe the synagogue leader who invited him was under pressure from the crowds to do so, maybe he wanted to see for himself what the fuss was all about.   

But anyway, here is Jesus, preaching to an eager crowd, when suddenly a woman  “appeared”  who was clearly suffering.  Where did she appear from? Was she lurking quietly in a dark corner, or hovering at the doorway?  Was she a regular, or someone who had just come because she’d heard Jesus was there? We don’t know, but she doesn’t seem to want to push herself forward. She doesn’t seem to have any expectation that she will be healed. After all, she’s been like this for eighteen years, so why should today be any different. It is Jesus who notices her and calls her into the centre of the synagogue.

She was bent over, according to the Bible. Just imagine what that would have been like. As well as the pain and discomfort, it would have meant that she couldn’t see what was going on around her easily, that she couldn’t look people in the eye or join in their conversations easily. She probably felt lonely and excluded.  And to cap it all, in her culture, disability was often seen as a punishment from God, a sign that you’d done something wrong, so there would have been a religious stigma associated with it as well. It must have been a miserable existence, but after eighteen years of it, she seems resigned– this was her life, how it was, how it always would be.

But Jesus noticed her, and Jesus called to her, and Jesus brought this woman centre stage where everyone could see her. And then he laid his hands on her, and as he did so, for the first time in eighteen years, she stood up straight. The words the Greek original text uses to describe this are interesting. She’s described first as “sunkuptousa”, literally bent double – kupto means “to bend”.  But when Jesus heals her the word that’s used “anakupsai”  usually translated as “straightened up”, but really meaning “unbent” – you can hear that word “kupto” in the middle of “anakupsai”. In the Greek, Jesus literally unbends this woman, and in doing so he gives her back her “standing” within her community of  faith, as well as straightening her up physically.  He declares that she is a “daughter of Abraham”, part of the Jewish family, equal in dignity and honour to anyone else there.

Jesus unbends her. But as it turns out, she isn’t the only one in that synagogue who needs unbending, because we soon discover that the leader of the synagogue, the one who was responsible for its smooth running, is just as twisted up psychologically by anxiety and anger because of what is happening as she had been physically. Whatever he thought Jesus would do, it wasn’t this!

I have some sympathy for him. If I invite someone I don’t know to lead worship or preach here I’m always aware that I’m taking a risk. What if they say something homophobic or sexist? What if they tell you that you’re all going to burn in hell?
I was confident that you were in safe hands with Adie and the others who led services and preached here during my Sabbatical because I knew them. I knew that they were people who’d do a good job, and would respect the values that are special to us. But an unknown preacher is another kettle of fish.  I’d have been  mortified if I’d come back to find that anyone had been hurt by what they’d heard from this pulpit.

This synagogue leader was not a bad person. He was just unbearably anxious about what he was seeing unfold in front of his eyes in the synagogue he was supposed to be in charge of, because it seemed all wrong to him.
His problem was that Jesus had healed this woman on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was supposed to be a day when everyone ceased from their work, just as God had done on the seventh day after he had finished creating the world. Observing a Sabbath Day is good. It reminds us that we don’t have to work 24/7  to prove our worth – in God’s eyes we are beyond price anyway. It’s a day when we can enjoy God’s goodness, treasure one another, a day when we can stop doing and discover that just being is enough. It all sounds simple, but, of course, in practice it isn’t. 

What counts as work? That was the question which bothered the religious experts of Jesus time. Was cooking work? Was carrying something work? Did  that apply to everything? Could you stir a pot? Could you move a chair?  If so, how far? Agricultural labour was certainly work, but cows still needed to be milked, animals needed to be fed.  Taking a Sabbath is a great idea - but as with so many things, the devil is in the detail.

It is those devilish details which are causing the problem here. This synagogue leader had come to his own conclusions about where the lines should be drawn and in his mind, healing was work, so it shouldn’t be happening on this day. When Jesus healed this woman – and who knew how many others there might want healing – he was overwhelmed by anger and anxiety. This was all wrong, and no good would come of it, and he would get the blame because he was supposed to be the one in charge.  “There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured, not on the Sabbath day”. He “kept saying” it, we told. He sounds frantic. The situation is slipping out of his tidy-minded grip, and he is trying desperately to get the crowd on his side, to regain control.  But all he succeeds in doing is tying himself in even tighter knots, bending himself even further out of shape.

He’s the one who really needs to unbend here. His rigidity isn’t just hurting him; it’s hurting everyone.  This poor woman has lived for eighteen years hardly able to lift her eyes from the ground, but he is living his whole life with his eyes bent downwards over his precious rules and that means he can’t see the effect those rules are having on the real, flesh and blood people around him. 

Now, it’s easy for us to judge him, but the truth is that we’re all a bit like him sometimes. We call it “sticking to our principles” or being singleminded in our commitment, but often the things we refuse to bend on are really just the fruits of our own anxieties and resentments. We want life to be tidy, black and white, with simple rights and wrongs, and we lose all sense of proportion as we try to make it so. We suffer, and so do those around us as a result.

Christian history is littered with vicious infighting and bitter schisms over things which in the long run look very trivial. Christians burned each other at the stake for centuries over what, precisely, they believed happened to the bread and wine at communion. In church communities people take offence because someone else sat in “their” seat, or because they didn’t happen to like the hymns that day, or they were inadvertently left off an email list. Families are torn apart by things that, in the long run are ridiculously unimportant - an unintended slight, a unwise remark - and one branch of the family never talks to the other again. “There’s a principle at stake” we declare, self-righteously, as we turn our backs on each other. Small wounds become running sores that never heal. We can’t see the wood for the trees anymore.

This synagogue leader wasn’t wrong to value the Sabbath day and want to keep it holy. It is a precious thing to set aside time to rest and to worship. But his devotion to the Sabbath had blinded him to this woman’s needs, and to the love of God which brought about her healing. He held tight to his principles, but she paid the price for them. 

The Sabbath was meant to be a foretaste of God’s kingdom, a mini-Eden, a day when people could catch a glimpse of the peace and freedom God wanted them to enjoy all the time, but the synagogue leader had missed that completely, because the rules had become an end in themselves to him, and a dead end at that.  In truth, this woman’s healing wasn’t an interruption of the Sabbath, it was the Sabbath, a glimpse of God’s power at work in the world. It wasn’t just about one individual being enabled to stand up straight, but a part of the unbending of the world, the unknotting of the tangles of sorrow and trouble which twist us all out of shape.   

It is, as I said, a beautiful story, one which speaks to the twisted up places in all of us, which calls to us to let God unbend us, release us, show us his freedom.  The story ends by saying that the entire crowd rejoiced at the wonderful things he was doing. I like to hope that maybe that included that anxious synagogue leader, that he, eventually, was unbent too, and stood up straight and looked around him and saw God at work, and found it in him to rejoice.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Gifts of God: Trinity 8, with baptism

It’s a great delight to be baptising Isla this morning, not least because I am going to be one of her godparents. But it’s always a delight to baptise a child.

When we do so, we are doing lots of things. We are praying for her, of course, and for those who care for her. We are making her part of the gigantic family of the church, through all time and space, declaring that she belongs to us all, and that we are all there for her. We are reminding ourselves, so that we can remind her, that there’s nothing we can do, nothing that can happen to us which can separate us from God. I may just pour a trickle of water on her head in a few minutes, but the water of baptism is a symbol of the love of God which is ever-flowing, which can never dry up. No matter how badly things may go wrong for her, as they can do for all of us, it all comes out in the wash of God’s love, so to speak. 

But one of the most important things that baptism tells us is that the child we baptise, before all else, above all else, is a child of God, his gift to us. We don’t give Isla to God in baptism, he gives her to us. She, like every child, like every person, is a reminder of the generosity of God, of the giftedness of all things. She is born as a gift, unique and precious, into a world which is all gift.

Do not be afraid, little flock, says Jesus to his anxious disciples, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom, he doesn’t just, or even mainly, mean life after death. It is far broader and better than that. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus talks about it as “life in all its fullness”, life in the here and now that is rich and deep, life that is beyond our expectations, beyond anything we could kid ourselves we had earned or deserved. It may not always be easy – neither Jesus’ life nor the lives of his first followers were easy – but it will be full of meaning, full of treasure, because it will be lived in the company of God. And this kingdom, this new place to live, is given to us, by God’s good pleasure.  All we need to do is to learn open our eyes to see it.

Jesus tells a parable about slaves waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet. Of course, they would need to be awake to look after him when he arrived  – they would expect to get into trouble if they weren’t. But Jesus turns that expectation on its head here.  He goes on to say , “He – that is the master -  will fasten his belt and  have them – that is the slaves - sit down to eat , and he will come and serve them.”  The slaves don’t need to be awake so they can work; thgey need to be awake so that they can share in the joy of that wedding he had been to, hear the stories, feel the excitement. They are going to be part of the celebration. Who, in their right minds, would want to miss it? Everyone hearing this parable would have known what the life of a slave was normally like, a life of drudgery, hardship and often fear. But in the kingdom of God, the ordinary things of life, even its darkest, middle-of-the-night moments, can be transformed into places of delight, when we learn to see God at work in them, God who wants nothing more than our company.  

It’s not always easy to trust that and to learn to look for that, of course. In our Old Testament Reading Abram longs for a child. God has promised that he will be the father of a multitude, but right now he’s not even father of one, and according to the Bible he’s almost a hundred years old, and married to a woman who is well beyond child-bearing age herself. He’s set out into the wilderness, enticed by God’s promise, to a new land that God has said his descendants will fill, but there are no descendants, and Abram is starting to despair, quite understandably. It looks as if all he has will eventually go to a distant relative Eliezer, and what of God’s promise then?  Abram is no hero. Trust doesn’t come easily to him. He tries all sorts of tricks of his own to achieve his aim in life. Twice he gives his wife away to others, to save his own skin. He fathers a child with Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar, at Sarah’s suggestion – perhaps that’s the way to create descendants they think – but that ends in disaster. Poor Hagar and her son, who have done nothing to deserve it, are cast out in the wilderness, where they have to be rescued by God. Abram is no hero. It’s a huge struggle for him to trust in the generosity and faithfulness of God, to see life as a gift, rather than as something he must negotiate through by his own anxious striving, just as it is for most of us.

But God sticks with him, reassuring again and again when he struggles. Look towards the heavens says God on this occasion, taking him outside his tent. Count the stars if you can!  Of course he can’t – it would be hard enough in our light–polluted skies, but impossible in the star-filled darkness of the desert. So shall your descendants be! And so it turns out to be. Eventually his son Isaac is born, and he goes on to have children of his own and soon it is as God has promised.  Abraham is the father of a multitude, despite this inauspicious beginning.

What we see, as we follow his story, is someone who is slowly, painfully, through many ups and downs, learning to trust God’s generous heart, rather than his own abilities and strengths. His story is an encouragement to us to keep going when times are tough, to keep daring to trust that we are in God’s hands, even if we have no idea what he is up to or where he is leading us.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

To be honest, if we know that, we know everything we need to know. This is one of the most comforting and encouraging verses in scripture, and one which we should all have graven on our hearts, so we can find it easily in dark or desperate moments. It’s not just that God grudgingly thinks he ought to look after us, now we are here. There’s nothing conditional about it, no qualifications; we don’t have to know anything, do anything, figure anything out. He doesn’t say that he’ll give us the kingdom if we are good, or say the right prayers or live the right way. Giving us the kingdom, life in all its fullness, is something which is in his nature to do, his good pleasure, his delight.

I pray many things for Isla today, and for the rest of the family, but most of all I pray that she’ll grow up knowing the generosity of God, that she’ll grow up knowing what we all struggle sometimes to believe about ourselves, that we are gifts of God – each one of us - that life is a gift of God, that everything around us is a gift of God. I pray that every day she’ll hear God’s call to her to sit down and eat with him, just because he wants her company.  I pray this for her because if she knows that, she’ll have that purse that never wears out, she’ll have found the treasure that never fails, and she’ll never need to be afraid.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Rich towards God

Audio version here

Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14,2.18-23, Psalm 49.1-12, Colossians 3.1-11, Luke 12.13-21

“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain and their work is a vexation?” The writer of today’s first reading sounds like he badly needs a break, a good long one, like I’ve just had. Maybe he did his research for this on an overcrowded, overheated commuter train coming back from London to Sevenoaks at the end of a long day…

It’s a blisteringly honest reflection on what most people feel sometimes, and some people feel all the time, questioning what on earth all their hard labour is really for. It’s a window into the mind of the person who is working multiple boring and backbreaking jobs and yet still not earning enough to be financially secure, or the person who has spent their lives climbing the greasy pole of a precarious career, at terrible cost to the family who never see them, and when they finally get to the top they wonder what it was all for. And even if you make a shedload of money, you can’t take it with you. “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?”  Is this all there is to life? Whether you end up rich or poor, the days have slipped through your hands, and what is there to show for them?

It’s not just paid work which can seem pointless. There’s an old folksong called the Housewife’s Lament, which came to mind as I read this Psalm.

Life is a trial and love is a trouble [sings the housewife in the song]
Beauty it fades and riches they flee
Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double
And nothing is as I would wish it to be.

There's too much of worriment goes to a bonnet
There's too much of ironing goes to a shirt
There's nothing that pays for the time you waste on it
There's nothing that last us but trouble and dirt.

There are worms on the cherries and slugs on the roses
And ants in the sugar and mice in the pies
The rubbish of spiders no mortal supposes
And ravaging roaches and damaging flies

The song goes on, and on, like the work, but the final straw for the housewife is when she realizes that when she dies she’ll be buried in the same dirt she’s been battling all her life.

We can all come to the point where we wonder whether the game is worth the candle. But, I don’t think the writer of Eccleisastes means this to be a message of hopelessness, and  neither does Jesus in the rather grim story he tells in our Gospel reading today.

Like a lot of Jesus’ parables, it’s meant to be over the top. I bet he hammed it up a bit as he told it, that there was a twinkle in his eye. We often miss that when we read his parables. But however ridiculous it is, it’s carefully told – every word counts.

Imagine for a moment that you were staging it, acting it out. How many actors would you need? Just one, really, until the very last line, according to the story. This rich man seems to live in a world in which he is the only inhabitant, despite the fact that this can’t be true. The land of a rich man produced abundantly, it begins. What? All by itself? I don’t think so. There are surely armies of unseen farm labourers working this land to make those crops appear, perhaps a family too – but this man seems blind to them.

When he realizes he has nowhere to store all this abundance, he says to himself  “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones…” Again we ask, what? all by himself? Is he a master builder now as well? Is he going to be lugging around all the timber, man-handling it into place single-handed? I rather doubt it. But as far as he’s concerned, he’s the centre of the universe. In fact he is the universe. It’s only at the end that he realizes that he is wrong.

He addresses his soul again – he talks to himself a lot -  he has to because  there’s no one else in his world to talk to. Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, he says, relax, eat, drink be merry.  But that’s the point when his self-centred, self-obsessed world comes crashing down. All of a sudden, another voice booms out, another character comes crashing into the scene. You fool, says God This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?… His life isn’t his to do what he wants with – it never has been. It isn’t his to possess and control – it never can be. No man is an island, entire of itself, said the poet John Donne. We exist in relationship, to others, to God, to the world around us. We can’t go it alone. 

Jesus tells this story in answer to a question he’s been asked about a family feud. It’s all about inheritance, money, as family feuds often are. But Jesus says that these rowing brothers are missing the point. Their argument about money is destroying something of infinitely greater worth, their relationship with one another. One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, he tells them.The worth of a life, the worth of a person can’t be reduced to the bottom line in a bank statement.

Jesus’ words here, and the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, can sound very grim and gloomy, but in reality they are words of hope and life. They release us from the burden of thinking that we have to create our own sense of worth, whether that is by heaping up money, clinging onto status, chasing celebrity or self-righteously signalling our own virtues. Our desperate scrambles to prove our value, divert us from the truth God wants us to know, that we are already as precious as it is possible to be to him. Nothing we can do can make God love us more, or less, than he does anyway.

As the Psalmist puts it “We can never ransom ourselves, or deliver to God the price of our lives. For the ransom of our life is so great that we should never have enough to pay it,” The imagery is that of slaves buying themselves out of slavery, so they can be free to do what they want. We think we are independent, in charge of our own lives, but that’s an illusion.  We are all actually interdependent, relying on each other and most of all, reliant on God, who gave us life, who gave us the earth we live on, the crops that feed us, the rain to water them, the sun to ripen them. Our lives are a gift, not a reward for anxious labour. We may have to work to earn the money to feed and clothe ourselves, but we don’t have to work to earn our worth in God’s eyes, and we can’t anyway, because our value is so great to him that we could never afford it. The good news of these readings is that our place in his heart is already secure, his gift to us. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the proof of that to us.

So the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes points us us beyond ourselves to the truest and most lasting source of our value. Jesus reminds us that if we want really to feel rich, we will only do so when we are “rich towards God”, when we invest ourselves in the things that connect us lovingly and compassionately to God and to one another. 

How might  we do that? We do it by spending time with God in prayer and reflection, opening ourselves up to hear what he says to us – not leaving it to the last minute, like the rich fool in Jesus’ story. We do it by opening ourselves up to others – if we are priceless to God, so are they. We do it by treasuring and caring for all that God has made, that precious creation we see all around us, which is his delight and his gift to us.
 We do it by looking for the path he calls us to tread and walking it with him.

Our lives are hidden with Christ in God, says Paul to the church in Colossae. It’s a beautiful phrase, which always comes as a great relief to me when I hear it. God knows us. God holds us. God wraps us in love. God cherishes us in the deep and secret places of his heart. God calls us out on a great adventure with him, just as we are. There is nothing we need to do except enjoy it, and let our joy spill out of us into the world around us. That is what it means to be “rich towards God”, to look to him for meaning rather than to our own anxious strivings, because the meaning he gives to our lives isn’t here today and gone tomorrow, slipping through our fingers like the morning mist, but lasts for ever, and can never be destroyed.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Easter 2: Holy flesh

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.  John 1.1 & 14

You may have wondered whether I have slipped a season or two – those are words which we often hear at Christmas, the final reading at traditional carol services, the reading which opens Midnight Mass, as a tiny light is brought into the darkened church.

They’re the opening words of John’s Gospel. Like all the best opening words they give us a clue about what the rest of the book will be about. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” You don’t need to know the plot of Pride and Prejudice to know that we are in for a story about a rich young man’s journey towards the married state. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution starts with a clear signal that we are in for a roller-coaster ride of triumph and tragedy.

John’s Gospel begins with words that tell us equally clearly what we are going to be hearing about – the key themes he wants us to keep in mind. This is going to be a story about the Word, about God speaking to us. But this word won’t be written on a page; it is going to be expressed through flesh, and in that flesh we will see God’s glory.  God is going to speak through a human being, through the whole of his life, all the physical stuff that all human people go through – being born, growing, eating, sleeping, rejoicing, suffering, dying.

We will see Jesus sharing a wedding feast at Cana,  thirsty at a well in Samaria, asking a woman for a drink because he hasn’t got a bucket, being anointed just before his death. We will see Jesus caring for the flesh of others too, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, washing feet. And, ultimately we will see Jesus’ flesh beaten and crucified, Jesus’ flesh, the flesh of the Word made flesh, dying and being laid in a stone cold tomb, while his disciples, afraid for their own flesh, hide away.

Today’s Gospel reading comes from what was originally the very end of John’s Gospel – another chapter, a sort of extended P.S. was added very early on – but it was meant to end here, with Jesus, standing among this disciples, God’s Word having the last word, a glorious word, stronger than death, but  a word which is still very definitely flesh, the same flesh as they had seen crucified. Jesus still bears the marks of the nails and the wound of the spear in his side. He isn’t some incorporeal ghost, a wispy spirit, or a figment of their imagination. He is a body, a flesh and blood body. I can’t explain that, but it is what the story insists on. His wounds haven’t been airbrushed away. So his resurrection isn’t about transcending the limitations of the flesh. It is a glorification of that flesh, a declaration that - just as it is - wounded and battered, flesh that has literally been to hell and back, this is flesh which is full of God’s glory.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”. That doesn’t just refer to the baby lying in the manger, shining in the darkness of Christmas nigh – in fact John doesn’t tell any birth stories of Jesus, so it probably doesn’t refer to that at all. It is really about this moment, when a wounded Jesus stands before his friends , in flesh which has suffered and died, and been  raised from death.

Whatever else we might draw from the story of the resurrection we are meant to draw the message that bodies are blessed, that God, in his glory, chose to dwell in them, just as they are, wounded, beaten, scarred. Our bodies are not prisons for our spirits – however much they may sometimes feel like that. They aren’t a second best, from which death will set us free. Our flesh, our day to day bodily existence, just as it is, can be a message of God’s glory, of God’s love.

But to be that, our flesh, like Jesus’, needs to be filled with God’s life. Jesus breathes on the frightened disciples in that locked room. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says – there’s no waiting for the Day of Pentecost for the coming of the Spirit in John’s story. The Spirit is given right now, to this bunch of stunned disciples , who aren’t ready for it in any sense, who are conscious at this moment only of their own failure and misery. Fine friends they turned out to be, deserting Jesus just when he needed them most. But it is into their frail flesh that God’s Spirit is breathed.

The Gospel writer surely means us to remember the story from the book of Genesis of the creation of Adam. God makes a creature out of mud. It’s fine. It’s God’s handiwork, but it’s lifeless. So God leans over and breathes into it his own breath – his Spirit – the words are interchangeable in Hebrew -  and the creature stirs and sits up and lives. Adam becomes a living being, a “nephesh” in Hebrew, the living being that God intends him to be, a combination of God-created flesh and God-breathed Spirit. Both are essential, both are blessed - and both are holy.

The story of Jesus isn’t the story of a comic book superhero, who swoops down with his special powers to save the day. It is a story of a flesh and blood person, who shows us how much God loves our flesh and blood, in all its wonder and its woundedness, in all the joy and sorrow that comes to it as we are born, grow, grow old and die.

That’s a vital message for us to take in, for ourselves and for others.
The ancient Greeks, whose thought world shaped the thinking of John’s first readers, still shapes our world. In Greek, the word for beautiful – kalos – is the same as the word for good. To be beautiful was to be good; to be good was to be beautiful. We have never really moved on from that; heroes and heroines in films are still rarely ugly. Young people obsessively post selfies online, trying to produce the best version of themselves, anxiously watching for their peers to “like” the pictures they’ve posted. Older people fight the signs of aging. Many of us really don’t much like our bodies.  “Keep young and beautiful; it’s your duty to be beautiful . Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved,”  says the old song. Well, no, not in God’s eyes. The resurrection shows us that God loves us, wounds and all, warts and all. God uses us wounds and all, warts and all. God’s glory can shine from us, wounds and all, warts and all. In fact, it is the wounds and the warts which are the most powerful testimony of his life at work in us, the times of failure and weakness in which his glory is most powerfully seen.

The Easter story isn’t just about the resurrection of Jesus’ lifeless body from the grave; it is also about the resurrection that comes to his disciples when he appears to them. Jesus isn’t the only one in this story who has known death.   His disciples are stuck in the death of hope, so fearful of what might happen next that they daren’t even stir from the room where they are hiding. Jesus may have been held fast in the tomb by the stone across its entrance, but they have locked themselves in a tomb of their own, in a sort of living death. They need the breath of life to be breathed into them just as much as Jesus did if they are going to get up and go out into the world to become living Words themselves, ways in which God can speak to others and tell them that God loves them.

We often need the same, as we huddle in our own locked rooms – the locked rooms of depression or anxiety or hopelessness. And we pray today especially, of course, for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, whose church services have been cancelled, and who have been told to worship at home instead, literally shut in their rooms for fear of those who might harm them. We pray that they will feel the breath of God giving peace to their wounded souls and bodies as they read this story today.

An ancient Christian writer called Irenaeus famously said  “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.”  The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t just show us God’s glory in him; it shows us the glory that can shine from all our frail and battered flesh if we will let him breathe his life into us and raise us from our deaths.

I started with the beginning of John’s Gospel. I will finish with its original end, the words that end today’s reading, John’s prayer that we may know, and show, the glorious life of God.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. Amen