Eph 2.19-22, John 15.17-27
Today’s first reading was all about building. That’s very appropriate as it happens, because we’ve just had our Quinquennial Inspection here at church, the five-yearly survey of our building to see what needs repairing. Last time round the architect spotted Death Watch Beetle – we’re hoping there won’t be another nasty surprise like that this time. Quinquennial Inspections and the work they lead to might not seem like riveting stuff - personally, I am always grateful to the churchwardens and treasurer who do the lion’s share of the work on this! But we all know that these things are important, if we don’t want the building to fall down around our ears. After 800 years, it would be a shame if that happened on our watch. It is a building that many local people value, even if they don’t come to services. If you pop in on a weekday you’ll often find someone here who has wandered in for a moment of peace and quiet, or to say a prayer in some time of crisis.
Buildings matter to us. Places matter to us. We are flesh and blood people, not disembodied spirits, and that means that we have to be somewhere. Understandably, then, we care about the places where we are. Our homes matter, our workplaces matter, and of course our places of worship matter. We want them to be beautiful – warm and comfortable too, if that can be managed. Most of all we want them to be places where we feel we can encounter God, places we can pray, places we can hear his word and think about it, places where we can meet one another and learn together, places where people can feel welcome. We can worship God in our own back gardens, but human beings tend to want to create special places, set aside for reflection and peace, for worship and celebration and the marking of significant moments in our lives. Over the years places like this church seem to pick up a spiritual life of their own, as if the prayers offered here have soaked into the walls.
So, buildings matter to us. Places matter to us. But the Bible tells us that, understandable though this is, we need to keep our attachment to the bricks and mortar around us in perspective.
The people of Jesus’ time and culture had one building above all which they treasured; their temple in Jerusalem. It was the third Temple on that site, and it was pretty much brand new. King Herod – the one who features in the Christmas story – had begun remodelling the old Temple many decades before, but you know what building work is like… it always takes longer than you think, and by the time Jesus was grown up it was only just finished. It was one of the biggest and most splendid buildings of the ancient world, but the Jewish people didn’t just delight in it because of that. It was, to them, quite simply the dwelling place of God on earth. The Bible actually taught that the whole earth belonged to God, and it told stories of people coming across him in the most unlikely places; burning bushes and caves in the wilderness. But, as we’ve established, people like their sacred buildings, and if you had asked Jo Public on the streets of Jerusalem where you had to go if you wanted to meet with God, I am sure he would have pointed to the Temple, shining on the hilltop.
You can imagine the shock, then, when in AD 70, just a generation after Jesus, the Romans invaded that beautiful Temple and destroyed it completely. It was a trauma which went deep; where could you meet God now, if he had no Temple to dwell in? Many Jewish people longed for its rebuilding, and some still do. But other Jewish groups, even before the Temple was destroyed, had already begun to wonder whether it was really as important as they’d been taught. They’d started to question the way the elite groups that ran it used and abused their power, and the emphasis the Temple placed on ritual and sacrifice above everything else. Some of those dissenting groups withdrew into the desert, like the community at Qumran which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Others shifted their focus to looking for God in the words of the Bible, devoting themselves to the study of Scripture. One group, though, took a different line completely. They were a little band of people who followed the teachings of a carpenter’s son from Nazareth called Jesus. They believed that in him they’d seen God in a new way. God, for them, didn’t dwell in the Temple anymore, nor in the words of a book, but in flesh and blood, that of Jesus himself, and the lives of those who followed him. Because of this they’d come to believe that he could be found as much among the outcast as among the respectable religious folk, as much in the needy as in those who seemed to have life all sorted out. This belief threw them into conflict with the Temple authorities and many other Jewish leaders, and when the Temple finally fell, they were finally excluded from the Jewish faith. After all, hadn’t their leader said “Destroy the Temple and in three days I will build it up again?” Wasn’t this one of the principal charges against him at his trial? Many of these Christians weren’t Jewish by birth and didn’t follow the Jewish law, so they’d never have been allowed past the outer courtyard of the Temple anyway.
For some of the Jewish Christians, being rejected by their faith of origin must have been painful and disorientating. We can feel some of their tensions in the rather sharp words attributed to Jesus by John in the Gospel reading. But it wasn’t a fatal blow to their faith, because they had already started to accept the idea embodied by the image Paul uses in his letter to the church in Ephesus. You are the Temple, he says, one that is being built together as you learn to love each other and welcome each other, with all your differences. You are God’s dwelling place, says Paul. God doesn’t need a house of wood and stone to live in; he has you.
So, that’s fine then! But I wonder, do you feel like a Temple this morning? It’s one thing to imagine the Christians of Ephesus hearing these words, quite another to realise they apply to us too.
If someone stopped you in Seal High street and asked you to point them to somewhere they could meet with God what would you say? Would you direct them to the church building, reassuring them that it was a lovely place, tranquil, beautiful and always open during the day? It wouldn’t do any harm to do that, but according to this passage it wouldn’t be the whole answer, because they should be able to meet with God in you, and in me, and in anyone who claims to follow him. They should be able to see glimpses of him in the love and care we give them, in the welcome they receive from us, in the integrity with which we treat them, in our readiness to listen. Not that we have God exclusively to ourselves. He isn’t our property, under our control. Those of us who have been involved with Christian faith for a long time sometimes need reminding of that. We need to find him afresh all the time in the lives of others, those who come questioning and seeking, those who come to us for help, because the lovely truth is that they often help us to see God in new ways too. But if we believe we can find God in others, then it also has to be true that they can find him in us – not just in the vicar or the Readers or the Pastoral Assistant, but in all of us. If we don’t believe people can find God in us, then perhaps we need to take another look at ourselves.
It might be that we are starting to feel a bit uncomfortable about all this. “Don’t be daft,” we might want to say, ”who am I that God should live in me? what do I know? what do I have to give to anyone else?”. If so, then perhaps it is a good moment to mention the two saints whose feast day we celebrate today. St Simon and St Jude. Who were they? What did they do? Frankly, no one really knows? They’re listed as two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, but that’s about the sum of our knowledge. Simon is called “the Zealot” or perhaps “the Canaanean”, and Jude has one speaking line in John’s Gospel, oddly in the chapter before the one we heard today. And that’s it. Tradition has it that they eventually went to Persia and were martyred there together, but there’s no real evidence, and not much even in the way of legends, as if they weren’t even interesting enough to make up stories about.
These aren’t “A” list saints like Simon Peter, James and John, who have big parts in the Gospel story. They aren’t even “B” listers, These are “Z” list saints, and their stories, if they were ever known have now been thoroughly forgotten. St Jude is supposed to be the patron saint of lost causes, and some people suggest that is because he is really the saint of last resort, the one you go to when you’ve tried all the rest and there is nowhere else to turn. You don’t think anything will come of it, but you might as well give him a go.
And yet, whoever they were, and whatever they did, the fact that their names live on is a reminder that someone somewhere encountered God through their ministry. They were the dwelling place of God for someone, somewhere who met God afresh in them and was changed because of it. They are a reminder that each of us, however insignificant and unknown we might feel, however much of a Z lister ourselves, might be the place where someone gets that vital glimpse of God that changes them.
This building is always open during the day, because we want to make sure that anyone can come in, seek God and find him here. Our Quinquennial Inspection aims to help us keep it that way. But perhaps we need to do a Quinquennial Inspection on ourselves from time to time too, to make sure that our hearts and lives are equally holy and welcoming spaces where people can discover the God who dwells in us.
Thursday, 25 October 2012
“Some are born great, some become great and some have greatness thrust upon them”.
That’s probably a familiar quote which came to mind straightaway when I read today’s Gospel reading. Here are the disciples, who were definitely not born great – they are ordinary fishermen, tax collectors, peasant farmers, caught up in the story of an extraordinary man, Jesus. They see the crowds flock to him and they start to entertain the thought that perhaps, if not born great they might at least become great.
“Let us sit at your right and left hands when you come into your kingdom,” they say. Their minds are full of grand visions of gold thrones and fine robes. But it’s not going to be like that, says Jesus. The only greatness they will find by following Jesus will be one like his, a life service that will lead for many of them to a painful death, as it does for him. The cross is Jesus throne, and the only crown is made of thorns. If this is greatness, it isn’t the sort any sensible person would choose if they had an alternative. It will definitely be thrust upon them. Perhaps greatness is best avoided, we think, reading this?
It is interesting to reflect on where that quote actually comes from. “Some are born great…” It is from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act 2, scene 5), from a letter read by Malvolio, the rather priggish head-servant in the household of Lady Olivia. He is very strait-laced, and the other servants decide to play a practical joke on him. They arrange for him to find a letter, apparently from his employer, Lady Olivia, whom he is secretly in love with. The letter seems to indicate that she returns his feelings. It is actually a forgery, of course, but he is taken in. The letter tells him to dress and act in some rather bizarre ways as a demonstration of his love, and he goes along with it, putting on ridiculous, cross-gartered yellow stockings and generally making a fool of himself. And if it feels to him too good to be true that such a fine lady could love him, the letter urges him to “be not afraid of greatness – some are born great, some become great and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Of course in this case, it is all a joke, one which leads to Malvolio’s downfall, but it is a cruel joke, one with an edge to it, and Shakespeare means us to notice that. In a way Malvolio stands for that part of all us which is a bit ambivalent about ourselves, aware of our dreams – perhaps very worthwhile ones – but also afraid that if we give voice to them or act to try to achieve them we too will be slapped down, exposed, ridiculed. Who do we think we are? “Be not afraid of greatness…” says the letter, but I suspect that most of us are. Sometimes that leads to us shrinking from some task that we are actually being called to do, a task we have the gifts for, if only we dared use them. “I couldn’t possibly…” we say with false humility. Sometimes, though, our lack of self-confidence can lead to us behaving in quite the opposite way, throwing our weight around or manipulating others, like little Napoleons on our own personal mission of conquest. It is as if we are shouting very loudly, because we don’t really believe, deep down, that we have anything to say which anyone would really want to hear if we didn’t force it on them. The symptoms might seem different, but the disease is the same. Either extreme – false modesty or arrogance – reflects the fact that we haven’t really learned the most important truth about ourselves, that we are made –each one of us - in the image of God, called to his service, given a space in the world and a unique task that is our own to fulfil.
The truth which this Gospel passage underlines is that God does indeed call each of us to “become great”, not in the sense of lording it over others, but by being rooted and grounded in God, confident in using the gifts he has given us for the good of others. That is a greatness we should indeed not be afraid of.
Sunday, 14 October 2012
It feels to me that this week’s readings demand that we work extra hard to interpret them and what they might mean to us.
Camels and eyes of needles may well be familiar to us and conjure up a ridiculous or impossible image but are we left thinking that if we’ve got any money we may as well give up this Christian lark or if you are feeling hard up this morning should you assume that you can relax?
The thought of a double edged sword representing the word of God and piercing joints from marrow doesn’t exactly leave us sitting comfortably does it.
I can’t promise that I can make sense of all this for us but let’s start with the rich, young, important bloke. We all know someone like him he’s probably really kind and good looking as well, just the sort of guy most mothers hope their daughter will bring home. He’s the typical person lots of people will look at and say he’s got it all. He would have been a pillar of respectability in his community, keeping the commandments and apparently being blessed by God with great wealth. You can imagine that at parties, weddings, functions of all sorts and not least in the temple community he would have been used to being among the first, certainly not among the last.
Like many who to the outside world appear to have it all worked out he sensed that there was still something missing so imagine this man in all his finery plunging to his knees in the dust to ask a humble prophet ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’? Jesus tells him, sell your stuff, give your money to poor people and follow me!
We know how the man responded but how would we respond to such a challenge. Would we say I’ll have it all on eBay by the end of the day, accept the best bid and be with you ASAP? I’m not sure it would be my immediate reaction.
At this stage I admit to thinking I really need to look at the readings rather than just the dates when I select my turn to preach. I find it so much easier talking about all the stuff that leaves us with a warm glow as we head off for Sunday lunch rather than wondering whether I should be going home via the estate agents office.
If you would also find it hard to give up everything if Jesus asked you to why do you think this is. Are some of us simply so comfortable that following a homeless radical preacher holds little appeal?
The fact that the man calls Jesus ‘good teacher’ is important in all this. If he’s hoping flattery will work he’s sorely mistaken. The other possibility is that he is he acknowledging that Jesus is God’s son? If so then why can’t he accept Jesus authority and trust him? After all we know that wealth will be of no use to him if he follows Jesus in the Kingdom of God. But the man may also have known that Jesus journey would lead him to Judea where it would be dangerous for his followers who could be persecuted by those who hated him. Ultimately he was being asked to follow Jesus to the cross.
Jesus was showing us that this is what the commandments to put God first and give up idols means when lived out rather than solely observing the ‘shall nots’ Jesus urges us to be positive in living out our faith knowing that it can be costly, but trusting that we can share with him in the age to come.
If you were asked to consider what defines you what would you come up with? Think of how you might describe yourself. Perhaps if we think of how we introduce ourselves when meeting new people it may help. It may be our academic achievements, professional standing, family responsibilities, community involvement, sporting prowess. These things as much as the trappings of wealth have the potential to become who and what we understand ourselves to be. Without these we may feel our life has lost direction, purpose, or that our identification is eroded.
Would we describe ourselves in the same way if we were trying to explain to God who we are? My hunch is that our description would be shaped more around the person we would like to be and the values we would like to uphold.
It’s important because there must have been the possibility that such things were going through the rich man’s head.
To follow Jesus instructions would have meant losing the standing and identity he had built up over many years. His friends and associates would be puzzled as to why he would give all this up, they may think he has done something wrong or simply lost his marbles.
We know that Jesus wants us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick and that in doing these things for each other we do them for him. To intelligently respond to this we have to consider what gifts we have been given by God, including money, and how we will use them.
In the 1980’s film ‘Wall Street’ Michael Douglas plays the part of a man obsessed with money and the notion that he can never have enough. His distorted values are revealed in his definition of mixed emotions which he describes as being like ‘watching my mother in law driving over the edge of a cliff in my new Maserati’.
A while back I read the biography of Warren Buffet the legendary investor. It’s the most expensive book I’ve ever bought. Not because its 900 plus pages make it costly, its more to do with the fact that, in my own very modest way, I followed his tactic to keep buying when the share price is going down and I’m left waiting for it to come back up some considerable time later.
That aside it’s fascinating to consider his relationship with money as his wealth grew into tens of billions of dollars. In brief rather than leave a family foundation in 2006 he decided that he would give away most of his money with 85% of his long held stock, worth 37 billion at the time, going to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He did so requiring that the money was spent as it was given.
The second richest person on the earth was giving away his money without leaving a trace of himself. No building, no foundation, hospital wing would be named after him. He felt fortunate that he would ultimately let go of his money to people he trusted to spend it wisely in the relief of suffering around the world. Their annual expenditure is now similar to that of the 193 countries which comprise the United Nations World Health Organisation.
Buffet acknowledged that he was lucky in what he described as the ‘ovarian lottery’ born in a place and at a time where his skills paid off disproportionately, acknowledging that in a poorer country and a different time the outcome would have been much less favourable.
This scale of philanthropy was unprecedented and had immediate effect with Jackie Chan the Hong Kong actor announcing he would give away half his 19 billion dollar wealth and many others followed. To date 69 billionaires have taken similar action.
We will not have billions but it’s the action not the scale that matters. If we are motivated to respond positively by our Christian faith but want to wait until we feel we have things worked out with God before acting then we may as well forget it. In amongst all the confusion and failure let’s get on and do the things we feel to be right, otherwise life will pass us by and our belief will have made no difference.
We need to reflect positively about the sharp two edged sword, not seeing it as something that inflicts damage and pain but as the possibility that God’s word can still pierce through things we thought couldn’t be penetrated, revealing a reality where we can truly be ourselves rather than being constrained by the person others think we should be.
God in Jesus knows what it is to be human. He also understands that our devotion to him is often conditional and subject to limits. Few of us are able to assess what we have and who we are and then risk it all for Gods glory.
It has been suggested that ‘the eye of the needle’ was possibly the name given to a small gateway in Jerusalem but this feels like an attempt to find a more palatable explanation for a tough message. I feel happier accepting that it’s simply not possible for the camel to pass through otherwise it implies that a person could enter the kingdom of God on their own terms.
God knows that we find his will for us difficult to fulfill, that we often find it hard to let go and follow him. Hebrews recommends a bold approach, attempts at concealment are farcical, trust in what Jesus has done for us and in God’s love and approach the throne of grace.
Sunday, 7 October 2012
How big do you feel today?
That’s not a rather rude personal question about whether you should have eaten that second doughnut … It’s just a recognition that some days we can feel really quite grown up, in control, capable, and on other days we can feel as if there is really no way we are equal to the challenges life throws at us - like ants in the pathway of a herd of elephants.
The person who wrote Psalm 8 was having one of those growing and shrinking moments as he contemplated the vastness of the world around him, and became aware of his own place within it. This ancient poem is probably at least 2500 years old, but it can still communicate as vividly to us as when it was first written. In fact, bearing in mind the huge advances in our scientific knowledge it is perhaps even more relevant now than it was then.
The ancient Israelites assumed that the cosmos consisted of the earth as a sort of flat plate across the middle of a sphere. The dome of heaven arched over it, studded with sun, moon and stars, and a shadowy underworld was below it. Outside that sphere was water, which leaked into the world through the windows in the heavens and rose up in springs and oceans. Beyond the waters was the domain of God. But though it was big, but it was nothing like the size of the universe astronomers contemplate now. Arguments rage over how big it is, and whether it has any end at all, but everyone agrees that it is quite mind-bogglingly huge. At the other end of the scale we are now aware of tiny subatomic particles – quarks and Higgs Bosons and the like - which even a hundred years ago were unthought of. And all the time we are learning to see further out into space, and further down into the structure of atoms.
To give us some ideas of scale that we now know about, did you know that you could fit a million earths into our sun and still have room left over? It is over a million times bigger. Did you know that to get to the nearest star to us in the fastest space ship we now have would take over 10,000 years? And that is just the very nearest star; our next door neighbour. My husband, who is a physics teacher, tells me that the biggest thing we know about, the universe itself, is 10 to the power of 40 bigger than the smallest thing. If you are as numerically challenged as I am that might not mean too much to you, so perhaps we need to get some idea of what that number looks like. [Unfold numbers printed on long sheet - 1 with 40 noughts after it - it looks like this 10000000000000000000000000000000000000000]…. And that is just the things we know about. The universe could be infinitely big, or there could be an infinite number of other universes for all we know…
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have ordained, what are mortals, that you should be mindful of them; mere human beings, that you should seek them out? says the Psalmist.
Amen to that…!
When we think of these sort of immense distances, immense sizes, it is no wonder that we feel overawed and overwhelmed, completely insignificant.
That isn’t the end of the story, or the end of the Psalm.
However small we sometimes feel, we aren’t actually at the bottom of this scale, right down at the tiny end. Philip tells me that we are almost half-way up. See that 0 with the blue stars around us – that’s us. While the universe may seem unimaginably big to us, we are unimaginably big in comparison to much of the rest of creation. And we are by no means powerless. In fact, we have a power that is in some ways apparently unique. As far as we know at the moment, we are the only being in the universe that can make truly conscious, free choices about how it treats the rest of that universe, the only being that can think about what it is doing, philosophize about it and make moral judgements. The sun has no option but to shine. The oceans have no choice about battering the shore line. Non-human animals don’t sit about pondering and discussing ethical dilemmas. Sure, some of them may have more powers of communication, reasoning and learning than we have suspected, but it is only us who seem to be inclined really to wonder about ourselves and our place in the universe. It is a human trait. Volcanos are destructive because they are volcanos. When people are destructive, it is because they choose to be, and they can, equally choose to be creative, caring and loving, even if it doesn’t seem to be in their own interests.
As the Psalmist put it, we look up into the heavens and think that surely we are beneath God’s notice, utterly insignificant. But actually that’s not the case; not only does God notice us- something which Jesus reminds us of in our Gospel reading - but he has also entrusted us with power over many of the other creatures he has made – the cattle, the oxen, the fish in the sea…power we can use for good or ill.
The Bible often uses the sort of language of dominion that we see here, and there has been a tendency to feel a bit embarrassed by that, as if it is an invitation to lord it over the rest of creation. Certainly in the past it has been used to justify the indiscriminate exploitation of the Earth’s resources, the ill-treatment of other animals, and of people too. But it’s no good us pretending that we don’t have power, because we do. We may not be Masters of the Universe, able to do everything, but we can really make a difference not only in small, but also in big ways. We are learning, perhaps too little and too late, that we are having a real impact even on something as vast as the climate, and we are realising that we need, urgently, to take seriously that power. This year the Arctic icecap shrank to its smallest extent in modern history, and scientists are increasingly sure that is because of the greenhouse gases we are pumping into the atmosphere – it is not just a natural variation. That shrinking icecap is likely to have all sorts of effects on the sea temperatures around the world, and that will affect ocean currents, the winds that blow over the oceans, the moisture they pick up, and the patterns of rainfall in lands far from the Arctic… These sort of changes are already being felt, and are having a profound impact on the most vulnerable people in the world, those who don’t have our buffer zones of money in the bank or insurance policies against disaster.
That’s why I am glad to see that many of the Poverty and Hope projects that our harvest collection will go to support have a very definite focus not just on alleviating individual poverty, but on restoring and sustaining the ecosystems on which those individuals and communities depend. So, there is a project in Sudan which enables local people to pass on sound agricultural techniques to others. These include things like planting trees which prevent soil and water run-off. It’s simple, but it works. Or there is a community association in the Dominican Republic learning to make its own organic fertiliser rather than depending on expensive artificial fertiliser made in oil-hungry factories. Or the ultimate in recycling, a scheme in Cambodia helping people to turn the dung from their pigs into biogas for cooking and lighting. I don’t know how it works, but apparently it does, and presumably it doesn’t smell as bad as you might think it would! Certainly the families who have started using this are great fans. One woman, a shopkeeper, says it has transformed her family’s life. She can keep her little shop open later, she no longer has to spend hours each day looking for firewood and their home is free of the unhealthy wood smoke that used to choke them. Her daughter can see to do her school work in the evenings… and the pig dung no longer has to be disposed of! Success all round. It is a small thing, in many ways, but that family’s life has been changed completely by the ingenuity of those who designed the simple engineering it relies on, and the donations of those who funded it – people who had never met those who benefitted and perhaps never will. That’s an example of using the power and responsibility that comes with being human in the way God intended us to.
Harvest time is always a time for thanksgiving; thanksgiving for the glories of creation, for the immensity of the universe, for the turning seasons, produced by the circling of planets and stars, for the whole great interdependent web of life, from the smallest sub-atomic particle to worms and whales and worlds beyond our world. But it is a reminder too of the skill and compassion which are God’s gifts to us, gifts we are called on to use generously and with care. We are not simply insignificant, mindless cogs in a vast machine but creatures made in God’s image, reflecting his nature, capable of love which can change the lives of others, love which can enrich and sustain them. The best harvest thanksgiving we can make is to do just that.
Wednesday, 3 October 2012
Someone asked me last Sunday after church whether Jesus had ever told any jokes. Often the picture we have of him is rather a serious one, it's true. There didn’t seem a lot to laugh about in today’s Gospel reading, for instance, not at first sight anyway. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off!” Well, that’s not going to have them rolling in the aisles is it? Sometimes, though, as I said to the questioner, it is the way you tell them that matters, and I think that what we see in cold hard print often misleads us. The fact is that people flocked to hear Jesus. Children loved him, and as someone who works a lot with children, I know that they are a very discriminating audience. If they are bored, you will rapidly have chaos on your hands. It might not always come across on the page, but if Jesus didn’t have a sense of humour, I don’t think they, or anyone else, would have bothered to listen to him.
It’s not just Jesus who I think we sometimes take more seriously than he meant us to, though. There are many other places in the Bible when we are in danger of missing the message by being too pious about the whole thing. Some Christians insist that every word has to be literally, factually true and are then forced into the deadening exercise of making it all add up as a scientific, historic document, something its writers never intended it to be. But even those of us who don’t think that way can squash the life out of it by approaching it with too devout an attitude. Just as we might have a telephone voice, quite different from our normal one, we can also put on a “Bible” voice – reverent, solemn and very dull... But the Bible wasn’t born in a hushed church, or in an ivory tower among academic theologians. It came out of the oral storytelling cultures of the Middle East, cultures which also gave us the folk tales of the Arabian Nights, stories of myth and magic, sex and violence, love and justice, stories which people were eager to hear and tell. In those cultures, folk-tales, shared around the hearth or in the bazaar, were the most common way of passing on the values and insights that people held dear. Storytellers, professional or amateur, were skilled at holding the attention of their audience, making the stories live through suspense, drama, and humour too. The stories we read in the Bible come from that tradition. That’s why they are so often full of ridiculous exaggeration, extraordinary characters, prat-falls for the pompous and unexpected victories for the small guy, tender moments and terrible tragedies. It’s stories like that which I tend to choose as “Stories of the Week”, not for their deep theological meaning, but because I like them. I hope those who read them will let them be what they are, let them live as stories. You can argue with them, or disapprove of them, but if they are allowed to live, then I am confident that God will be found alive in them too, sparking a new thought, giving you something to pray about, lament about, or laugh about.
Anyway, all that is really just a long-winded introduction to our Old Testament reading today, a story which, I am sure, would have been a crowd pleaser, a story which is far more “Monty Python” than Royal Shakespeare Company.
Moses has finally managed to haul the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. It’s been an epic struggle against a Pharoah who has cruelly oppressed these people, forcing them into heavy labour, goading them on with whips. There has been high drama, mass slaughter, and finally they have got away by a whisker into the safety of the desert. Poor old Moses has had to fight every step of the way, and it wasn’t even a job he wanted in the first place – in fact he had tried as hard as he could to run away from it.
But now, here they all are, with Egypt behind them, heading for the freedom of the Promised Land. And are they grateful? Are they heck! The author pulls no punches. “The rabble among the people had a strong craving…” It’s not a polite description, but it’s an accurate one. “Freedom is all very well, but what’s for supper,” they say? Guess what? It’s manna, again! Boiled manna, baked manna, fried manna, manna kebabs, manna surprise…except there’s no surprise about it, because manna is all there is, all there has been, and all there is going to be as far as they can see, forever and ever.
“I could kill for a nice, thick, juicy steak” says someone, and that opens the floodgates of nostalgia. All of a sudden their taste buds have taken them straight back to Egypt, the Egypt of their fantasy anyway – in reality it was never like this. “…and the fish we used to get for nothing...” pipes up someone else. “… and the cucumbers…and melons…and leeks… and onions…, and garlic…” They can smell it. They can taste it… but actually it is just manna again for them, dry, tasteless manna…
And they all start weeping and wailing, howling their eyes out for that lost land, a land of fear and back-breaking labour. But what was a bit of oppression if it was accompanied by a tasty range of fruit and vegetables? Better that, they think, than this endless manna. They weep and wail till the sound of it all brings Moses out of his tent to see what’s going on.
We are told at this point that not only is Moses displeased, but that God is very angry too. In the world of this storyteller, Gods were expected to be angry so this is no real surprise. We’re not actually told who God is angry with. But Moses leaps to the conclusion that it must be him.
One of the things I love about Moses is that, by this stage in the story, he has entirely given up on being polite to God. He just tells it like it is. “It’s no good being angry with me, God” he rants – missing the point that God never said he was. “Am I their mother?! “ “Did I conceive this people? Did I give birth to them that you should say to me , “carry them in your bosom like a nurse carries a sucking child,” to the land that YOU promised on oath to their ancestors. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once so that I don’t have to see my misery…”
And God waits till he’s finished, then ever so gently says. “Moses, have you ever thought of delegating a bit…?” It’s not rocket science, but no, somehow that thought had never crossed his mind. Moses gathers up seventy of the elders and God shares out the work, and the power to do it…Job done, problem sorted. Moses regains his sense of perspective, and his sense of humour too, because no sooner has he let go of his overactive sense of control than he has a chance to pass on that insight to others. People come running to him to tell him that there are two chaps prophesying who didn’t ought to be. They haven’t passed their Grade One Prophesying exam – shouldn’t someone stop them? Relax, says Moses – it’s God at work, and there’s really no point telling him what he can and can’t do… He always seems to have the last laugh.
Someone once said that there are only two things we really need to know in life. The first is that there is a God, and the second is that it’s not us. That's the lesson that Moses learns here.
So, what about that question I started with? Does Jesus ever tell a joke? Well, there’s nothing aloong the lines of “a Pharisee, a Samaritan, and a Roman went into a bar…” but the art of irony didn’t die with the person who wrote Moses’ story. Jesus tells tales of pompous Pharisees who pray ridiculous prayers in public places and don’t realise how silly they look, and rich men with more money than sense, who build ever bigger barns for their wealth, but haven’t cottoned on that they can’t take it with them when they die. There are tales of laughably extravagant love too – shepherds who abandon 99 perfectly good sheep in the wilderness to look for one that is lost, or women who sweep the house from top to bottom to find a lost coin, and then throw a party so huge that it surely must have cost them more than the coin was worth. These are stories which absolutely demand to be hammed up in the telling, and I am sure that Jesus did. My suspicion is that Jesus is hamming it up in today’s Gospel reading too. The disciples come to him, full of self-righteous indignation. Someone is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He’s not even one of us…! He’s not in our club. How dare he! … it’s disgraceful, Jesus. They want Jesus to put a stop to it, to rain down punishments on this man. I mean, what’s the point of them putting in three years worth of hard discipleship if this chap is just getting up and doing his own thing?
But Jesus points the finger straight back at them, and suggests that before they condemn this unfortunate, unauthorised disciple, they might first take a look at themselves. If they want people to be punished for their sins, here is a gruesome list of punishments for them to consider for their own sin, the sin of trying to police the boundaries of God’s love, the sin of trying to make their own rules about who is in or out of his kingdom, the sin of failing to see good just because it comes in a package they didn’t create. I don’t suppose for one moment he expected, let alone wanted, anyone to take him literally – it would have been completely out of character for him to do so, but I guess the disciples got his point, and since the material in the Gospels came originally from these same disciples, we have to assume that they eventually saw the funny side of their own self-righteous pomposity too.
So if we are tempted this week to take ourselves just a bit too seriously, to assume that everything in the world depends on us, let’s remember Moses, and these hapless disciples, and God, who longs for us to find our own sense of holy humour again. Amen