Sunday, 3 September 2017

Trinity 12: Bitesized wisdom

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

But on second thoughts, maybe not!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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