Monday, 19 July 2010

Trinity 7: Knowing your place

Col 1.15-28, Luke 10.38-42

The rich man in his castle/ the poor man at his gate./God made them high or lowly/ and ordered their estate.
That’s a verse of “All things bright and beautiful” which you won’t now find in the hymn books – and just as well too. But when Mrs C.F. Alexander wrote it, it would have seemed an entirely normal sentiment. “Knowing your place” was considered to be a good thing. Early suggestions that the poor should be educated were widely resisted; it would just give them ideas above their station. Even when they were educated there was far more emphasis on reading than writing. They needed to read in order to read their Bibles, but writing – self-expression – was a dangerous tool, something they might use to make their voices heard. It’s hard for us to understand now, after a century or so of universal education and an emphasis on equality of opportunity, but that’s how people saw the world, with fixed positions, fixed destinies established from birth.

In today’s Gospel reading it isn’t social class which is determining the expectations of the people in it, but gender. The position of women in Jesus’ society was fairly strictly drawn. Women’s lots varied quite widely across the ancient world. Respectable Greek women lived more or less in seclusion. Roman women had more freedom. Women in what we would now call Turkey often ran businesses and had considerable independence. But women in ancient Judah, Samaria and Galilee lived lives that were among the most restricted of all in terms of their position outside the home. Within the home they had great influence and respect, but that was where they were expected to stay. In particular, they weren’t expected to have any opinions on religious matters. One Rabbi of the time famously said that it was better to burn the Law than teach it to a woman.

The story of Martha and Mary needs to be read against that sort of background. We often see it as about the tension between busyness and contemplation, but that’s not really the point at all. Martha is doing exactly what her society expects of her. She would be seen as a good role model, a perfect example of womanhood. Jesus and his disciples descend en masse on her house. She welcomes them and shows them hospitality, which has to have meant a great deal of work for her. Mary, however, instead of fulfilling the role that her society (and her sister) expects, sits down at Jesus’ feet and listens to what he was saying. It is a significant phrase because she takes up the classic position of a disciple to his master – one who was learning about the Law. We still talk about having “sat at the feet” of someone we admire as a way of saying that we have learned from them. This was what Jesus’ male disciples, and the disciples of any other spiritual teacher of the time, would have done. But women wouldn’t have been among them. Martha is not only tired, she is also probably deeply embarrassed. How could Mary shame the family by acting like this? It brings dishonour on them all.

But Jesus praises Mary. She has chosen the better part, the thing that is really essential, to listen to him and learn from him. It will not be taken away from her, he says, firmly. There is a message here not only for Martha, but also for those who first read the gospel of Luke. It is clear from some of the early writings of the church that some people found it difficult to accept the ministry of women on an equal footing to men, despite the fact that they clearly did take a very prominent part in spreading the Gospel, leading churches and teaching. Some things never change! But Luke points his hearers back to the way in which Jesus behaved, explicitly praising Mary for taking what was to Martha, and to her society generally, a role restricted to men.

It isn’t just an issue of male and female, however. This story invites us to reflect on the ways in which we restrict ourselves and others by our expectation that we or they should behave in a certain way because of their background, race, disability, and a host of other things. Sometimes it can be as simple as family tradition – “we don’t do that sort of thing in our family!” Jesus, though, sees not the label but the person. Whoever we are, the one thing we really need is to listen and to learn from him so that we can follow the unique path that he has for us, no matter how far it takes us from the expectations of our society.

In the silence tonight perhaps we could reflect on the social expectations which might have restricted our lives, and the ways in which we might restrict the lives of those around us too. Are we so busy trying to fit into the mould the world has for us that we can’t sit at Jesus feet? Or have we found the courage to focus on the “one thing only” which we need, the discipleship which Jesus calls us to?

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Trinity 6: The Good Samaritan or the Needy Jew?

Col 1.1-14, Luke 10.23-37

Jesus told a story in today’s Gospel reading, so I shall begin by doing the same.

It is a story from India, about a simple grass cutter called Wali Dad. He was an old man, who had no family and lived by himself in a little hut in the forest. He earned his living by cutting grass for fodder. Each day he earned twopence halfpenny for his labours – not a lot. But actually his life was so simple that he only needed twopence to live on. So all his life he had saved the halfpenny left over in a jar under the floorboards. This went on for years and years. Wali Dad was quite content and wanted for nothing.
One day, he fell to wondering how much money he had in that jar under the floorboards. He pulled it out and counted it – there was a vast pile of halfpenny pieces – a tidy sum. “Good gracious – what on earth shall I do with all this money – I have no need of it!” said Wali Dad.
He thought and thought, then he took the money and went down into the village, where he paid a goldsmith with all the halfpenny pieces to make him a fine gold bracelet. Then he went to a friend of his, a rich merchant, and asked him if, on his travels he had met anyone to whom he could give the bracelet – someone good enough to deserve it. “Why yes, “ said the merchant. “The princess of Khaistan is generous, kind and loving – she would be a worthy recipient.”
So the merchant, on his next journey, took the bracelet, and gave it to the princess, explaining only that it was a gift from someone who loved virtue more than he loved wealth.
The princess was delighted, but also a little worried – how could she repay such kindness? She insisted on giving the merchant twelve bales of silk cloth to take back to the anonymous giver.

When the merchant turned up on Wali Dad’s doorstep with a cartload of silks, the old man was horrified. “I was trying to get rid of my wealth,” he said, “not add to it! What need have I of all this? Who can I give it to? Who else do you know who is good enough to deserve it?”
The merchant thought. “Well, “ he said, “there is a prince in the neighbouring country of Nekabad. People say he is a good man.” “Fine,” said Wali Dad,” Take some of the silk for yourself as payment, and give the rest to him.
The prince of Nekabad was just as overwhelmed as the princess had been when the merchant turned up with the gift, but again, the merchant simply told him that it was from someone who valued virtue more than wealth. But the prince, like the princess, felt that he could not accept this gift without giving something in return. “Fetch twelve of my finest horses,” he said, “and take them back in thanks to the person who gave this.” So off went the merchant – back to Wali Dad with the string of horses…

Now the story, in its original form, goes on for a very long time…and we don’t have time to hear it all, but suffice it to say, as you might predict, the exchange of gifts did not stop there. The prince and princess couldn’t bear to be indebted to the mystery donor, and for every gift given a more lavish one was returned. Soon there were processions of elephants with silver saddles and silk canopies adorned with pearls, and camel trains loaded with precious jewels landing on Wali Dad’s doorstep, but he just sent each one on as before. Eventually the princess’s father decided that whoever was sending these gifts must be in love with his daughter, and surely she could do worse than to marry him, whoever he was. He had the merchant followed all the way to Wali Dad’s hut, and not long after when Wali Dad looked out of his window he was horrified to see a huge wedding procession bearing down on him. He protested that he was far too old for the princess – and I don’t suppose he would have been all that keen on palace life anyway. Fortunately for Wali Dad, though, he knew just the man for the job, and, as you knew would happen all along, the princess married the good and handsome prince of Nekabad, and the two kingdoms were united. And Wali Dad lived out his days, just as he wanted, in simplicity and peace.

Jesus once said that it was more blessed to give than to receive, but it often seems to me that it is a great deal more difficult to receive than to give. Often when we give we aren’t really giving at all, just trying to even up the score between us – like the Prince and Princess in the story. A gift from someone makes us feel we are in their debt – we have to give something back of equal or greater value. We all know how awkward it is at Christmas if we get a splendid Christmas present from someone who we’ve just given a cheap box of chocolates too – or worse still have forgotten completely. The same is true for gifts of time, energy and love too – especially true when they are gifts given in a time of need – money to tide us over, emotional support when we are in pieces. We don’t like people to see us as vulnerable and weak – in need of help. We hang onto our dignity by trying to repay them, even though that is often impossible.

So what has all this to do with the story Jesus told?

The Good Samaritan – it’s a story about how we should help others, whoever they are – isn’t it? Well, no, not quite.
We’ve called it the Good Samaritan – we’ve made the helper the focus of the story – but that’s not how Jesus tells it. He focuses on the victim – the man bleeding and naked by the roadside as the centre of the story. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” begins Jesus. We are supposed to see the story through his eyes – this Jewish man, attacked by robbers on a lonely, dangerous road. It’s not a story about the Samaritan; it’s a story about a very needy, vulnerable, powerless Jew. That’s who Jesus wanted his hearers to identify with. So what do things look like from his perspective?

We may never have been beaten and left for dead, but perhaps we know what it feels like to be made helpless through illness, redundancy, depression or family trouble. The initial problem is bad enough, but often it is the sense of humiliation and indignity that is the last straw. Most people struggle when they find themselves dependent on others. That’s how this beaten-up Jewish man feels; he’s not just hurt, he is also embarrassed at his powerlessness.

When he sees a priest and then a Levite coming towards him it must be a bit of a relief. If anyone had to see him in this state, it is better that it be a Jewish priest or Levite. It is their job to be holy and caring, and they are of his own race and religion. But the priest and the Levite walk on by.
What now? There’s someone else coming – but that’s no good, it’s a Samaritan. He is not only a total stranger; he is the wrong kind of total stranger. Many Jews wouldn’t even have accepted a cup of water from him. He’s the last person this victim would choose to look to for help – surely he will gloat, rub salt in the wounds… But he doesn’t. Instead he cares for the man, and pays for his stay at a nearby inn.

The trigger for this story was the question of a Jewish lawyer “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “love God and your neighbour”. We have tended to assume that loving your neighbour is about imitating the Good Samaritan – helping those less fortunate than yourself. That’s a role most of us like – helping others. We still have the power if we choose that role. But actually, if you read the story Jesus told, rather than the story we would like him to have told, he is setting us a much more difficult challenge. Loving our neighbour – in the context of this story- is about having the humility to see our own neediness and be open to the possibility that our help might come from unlikely sources. It means accepting that sometimes other people have wisdom that we don’t, or strength that we need, that we are the ones who are naked and bleeding by the roadside.

I have heard people say to me, “I’d rather die than accept help from him or her…” - the relative they have fallen out with, the rival who beat them to a job or to the partner they wanted, the person whose lifestyle offends them. It seems extraordinary, but there are people who would rather carry on suffering than put themselves in a dependent position by asking for or accepting help, especially from someone they don’t like or don’t approve of.

My guess would be that the lawyer who asked Jesus the questions that triggered this story was used to striving for power – always trying to win his arguments. He was used to having the answers, having right on his side – or at least sounding as if he did. I suppose that’s fine in a court of law – but it isn’t the way we are called to be in the rest of life, with each other and with God. In our second reading today, Paul gives thanks for the Christians at Colossae because they have “truly comprehended the grace of God”; the grace of God, God’s generous love for them. They have recognised their need for strength, patience, love, forgiveness, wisdom, things they could not have found by their own efforts and it is this which enables them to give to others

“What must I do,” asked the lawyer, “to inherit eternal life?” He expected an answer that demanded something costly or clever from him. Instead Jesus tells a story which is all about receiving, even from those who he might have thought had nothing to give. Only then will he, and we, be able to live the lives – eternal and full – that God wants for us.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Evensong sermon: Trade or Trust?

Gen 29.1-20, Mark 6.7-29

Today’s Old Testament reading sounds like a simple love story. Boy meets girl. They fall in love, and by the end of the reading there’s a wedding in the offing. That’s nice. But the central figure in this tale is Jacob, and if you know anything about him you’ll realise that there’s not going to be anything straightforward about this romance, because there is nothing straightforward about him. He is a trickster through and through, and his whole life is a saga of deception and the problems that come from it.

“Then Jacob went on his journey,” the story starts. Well, that should start us wondering; his journey from where? To where? For what reason?

The truth is that Jacob is on the run, as well he might be, having tricked his older twin Esau out of the birthright that should have been his - his father’s dying blessing and his position as new head of the family. This was one of the most valuable things you could have in their society. A father’s blessing was a solemn business, not just a vague matter of sentimental well-wishing. Essentially it was like a last will and testament today, and once the blessing had been given it couldn’t be taken back or altered. Jacob had tricked his father and brother in order to get it, but that made no difference. The words had been spoken. Esau was furious, and was after Jacob’s life. So his mother, who had connived in this deception, sent Jacob away, back to her relatives in the east, hoping perhaps that he might find a wife there and sit out the storm till it was safe to come back.

In the story we heard tonight he had just arrived at his destination, and as soon as he got there he came across a lovely young woman who, as it turned was his cousin. Cousin marriage was very popular – as it still is in many societies. It keeps property in the family rather than spreading it about, and strengthens family ties. So this was perfect. Good luck is just falling into his lap. His uncle Laban welcomes him with open arms. “So, you want to marry my daughter, Rachel – that’s fine. You come and work for me for the next seven years and she’s yours”. But perhaps Jacob should have realised that he might not be the only trickster in the family. On Jacob’s wedding day, Laban substitutes his elder daughter Leah, concealed beneath the wedding veil, and Jacob finds he has plighted his troth to the wrong sister. If he wants Rachel too, he’ll have to commit himself to another 7 years labour. There’s a neat symmetry here. The story starts with two brothers, and a dispute in which the younger disguises himself as the older to supplant him. Now we have two sisters, but this time it is the older one who is disguised as the younger to take her place. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Jacob at this rough justice now that the boot is on the other foot, so to speak, but I have plenty for Leah and Rachel who are just pawns in all this.

In the end, Jacob gets the girl he wants, and manages to escape Laban’s control by even more trickery. He returns to Canaan and makes a sort of peace with Esau, but the whole story is a warning about the tangled web which deception creates. In attempting to manipulate his way to success Jacob causes far more problems than he solves, problems that last for generations. It is Jacob, of course, who plays favourites with his own children, and gives his second youngest, Joseph, that famous coat of many colours; Joseph ends up a slave in Egypt, and Jacob grieves for years for the child whose death he must, in some sense, have believed himself to be responsible for.

Why does he act this way? Who knows for sure, but it feels, when you read the whole story as Jacob never quite feels secure about his place in the world, so he grasps at whatever power, love and wealth he can to make up for it. The irony is, though, that the story tells us he had the security he really needed all along.

Just before he met Rachel, as he fled from Esau’s wrath, he had a dream, a dream of a ladder stretching up into heaven, with the angels of God coming and going on it. “God is with you,” says the vision, “even out here, on the run, in the middle of nowhere” God was with him. The assurance he really needed was already his; what a tragedy he never really learned to trust it, but instead felt he had to manoeuvre and wrangle his way through life.

In the New Testament reading, we have a man who could be said to be the absolute opposite of Jacob. John the Baptist doesn’t have a crooked bone in his body. He tells it like it is; the raw, uncompromising truth. It doesn’t matter whether you are a king or a pauper to him. If John has something to say to you he just comes right out with it. And he pays the price for his straight talking; beheaded on the whim of a teenager and her scheming mother. John doesn’t try to help himself by currying favour, even when he already in prison. He goes on telling the truth. How does he find the strength? Perhaps he’s just obstinate, but I think it is more than that. He knows that security bought at the cost of integrity isn’t worth having – he will end up having to play this game forever if he gives in to the threats from Herod’s family. So he sticks to his message, and in doing so he retains his self-respect and honour. He has done what he has been called to do by God, and that’s all that matters to him. The rest is in God’s hands to sort out.

I wonder which of these two men we most readily identify with? John or Jacob? My guess is that while we might wish we had John’s courage and integrity, most of us will find quite a bit of Jacob in us too. It often comes more naturally to us to trade than to trust, to believe that we must somehow bargain our way through life, manipulating those around us in order to get them to do what we want. In a dog-eat-dog world, our society tells us, you need to make sure that you are the fiercest or most cunning dog around if you want to get to the top of the pile.

It is interesting to note that there is nothing in these stories that challenges that view. They don’t tell us that that honesty is the best policy if you want human success and safety. Jacob lives to be old and rich, with a large family and a respected position. John, the only son of his elderly parents, dies at little more than thirty years of age, with nothing to show for his life at all, in worldly terms. What these stories do ask us to think about, though, is whether the achievements we gain by stealth will really have been worth the price we have paid for them, and whether, in the end we will want the prizes we have won. They don’t offer us an alternative route to the top – they ask us to consider whether that’s really where we want to go at all.

John’s story is prefaced in Mark’s Gospel by Jesus’ instruction to his followers as they begin their ministry. Take nothing for the journey – no bread, no bag, no money, no spare clothing. They aren’t to set out with the question “what’s in it for me?” running through their heads, but to go out open to whatever they find – good or ill. That will lead them, says Jesus, to the goal that really matters, the security they truly crave, the discovery that God holds them in his hands, in life, and in death, and therefore they have nothing to fear. John or Jacob? As we look in the mirror tonight, who do we see looking back, someone who must deceive and manipulate their way to an illusion of self-worth, or someone who knows that wherever their journey leads them they are safe and loved, travelling in the company of God himself?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Trinity 5: Packing for the journey

A sermon by Kevin Bright

Luke 10.1-11, 16-20, Galatians 6.1-16, Isaiah 66.10-14

The weather has been hot and sunny for a few weeks now, exams are coming to an end and those of us tied to school holidays are beginning to think about the great getaway. I’ve been hearing from many who have already been away on their holidays but for those of us lucky enough to still be looking forward to going away this year thoughts will soon turn to packing our bags.

On the assumption that the weather is warm we don’t really need to take a lot of stuff do we. No big coats, wellies or thick jumpers, just a few pairs of shorts and some tee shirts.

But somehow it always ends up being just a bit more than that doesn’t it. Are you a person who likes to write lists just to ensure nothing important is forgotten? What if the weather turns unseasonably cool, then there are all the creams lotions and potions not too forget a few things to wrap around ourselves on the beach so those impossibly toned bathers all around us can’t see our lumps and bumps. Don’t forget some good English tea because they don’t have proper tea in Foreign countries and when you go finally go to put a few tea bags in why is it that you have to get someone else to sit on the lid of the suitcase so you can close it properly!

On our reading from Luke today Jesus is appointing 70 (or some translations may say 72) people to be sent out in pairs. Previously to this Jesus himself has been through towns and villages, curing people telling stories and drawing huge crowds. Then he sent out the 12 disciples with instructions similar to those given to this 70 whose turn it now is to go out and make God’s love known.

Interestingly they are not given a list of things to carry for their mission but are told to leave all the things they would most naturally pack at home. ‘Carry no purse, no bag no sandals and greet no one on the road’ Jesus tells them. A bit like being told to take no swimming costume, no towel, and no toiletries on your holiday, if you were told this you would think this must be urgent stuff, this is no holiday, I’m going to have to rely on people I meet when I get there. All this was of course true for those sent out.

The 70 were clear that they had to focus on their mission but what did Jesus mean when he said ‘greet no one on the road’? I don’t think it was so much about blanking people if they said hello more a case of stressing that they were to get to their appointed towns at top speed without time for idle chit chat and usual courtesy’s, nothing was to distract them from their appointed task.

Focus, dedication, determination, courage, purpose, faith, love. When these things come together surely it’s inevitable that there will be a remarkable outcome in the vast majority of cases. And so it is as we hear that they returned with joy saying ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us’.

For all the benefits that new technology has given us I also think it is one of the major reasons we, and particularly ‘the we’ younger than me, find it hard to focus on tasks. Whilst working on the computer all sorts of messages and updates pop up automatically, then you can give in to the temptation to check your Facebook, MSN, news, sports scores, share prices and much more. You can have them all open at the same time if you like and have the TV on in the background.

Whilst I appreciate that there are always some who have too much quiet time on their hands for many there is a real need to rediscover the ability to separate time and focus on important matters one at a time.

There’s a BBC 2 programme called Rev (10.00 pm Mondays) which is a sitcom that has a sense of coming from the vicars perspective and the view felt as if it were straight from the pulpit as a we observed a ‘worshipper’ sit down for the service with a Starbucks coffee and a copy of the Sunday Times.
On thought for the day last week Oliver McTernan stated that our own use of personal technology can change the way in which our brain works. The constant use of the internet, mobile phones and video games, it is claimed, can lead to a loss of the ability to focus properly on a single task like reading a book. Extensive research carried out by neuroscientists at one of the top universities in America has reached the conclusion that despite what we may think, it's impossible to focus fully on two things at the same time as our brains, they claim, have a limited capacity for processing information - in other words we're not wired to multitask. (Evidently this even applies to women!)
And here’s the serious bit…It was the eighteen century French Jesuit and ascetic writer, Jean Pierre de Caussade, who became acutely aware of the need to focus entirely on the present moment, which in his writing he describes as a sacrament in the sense that it offers an opportunity for a real encounter with the divine. He believed it was to the degree that we learn to be fully engaged in the present we can discover the God given purpose for our lives and our full human potential. "The present moment", he wrote, "holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams".
Surely it has got to be worth regaining some self discipline and setting aside even 10 minutes of time a day which can become sacred to us in many ways if we don’t already do so.
The riches which Jesus speaks of for the 70 who focus on the task he sets them is ‘that your names are written in heaven’. But he also wants them to teach many others about God’s love for them, about his kingdom and what it could mean.
Jesus told the seventy to tell others that the kingdom of God had come near, but what exactly does that mean? Note that Jesus also tells them to heal the sick, one of the signs that God was at work in the vicinity. Jesus' idea of evangelism had little or nothing to do with getting people to believe the right things about him. Instead, evangelism was all about letting people, especially the poor and excluded, know that God loved them and cared about their problems. Healing their illnesses was a concrete way of showing God's love.
If we take a little time to focus on what Jesus stands for then it’s hard not to respond positively. There is no shortage of opportunities share God’s love through service or support. All around us we can see ways that we can make peoples lives better, it can be as simple as making time for a ‘phone call or a letter to let someone know that we care about them, right through to providing practical care and support.
The prophet Isaiah points out that all love is from the Lord even love like a mother’s and we know how, at its best, that involves considerable patience, care and guidance and forgiveness.
There’s also the small matter of how we deal with each others shortcomings. In his letter to the Galatians Paul offers realistic and timeless advice when he encourages a spirit of gentleness among us to those who are struggling to follow Christ’s ways. So, realistically that’s all of us. It’s so much easier to observe someone’s behaviour and condemn it than it is to engage with the person in an effort to make Christ like choices a realistic option for them. It would help to think about relating to each other in Christ rather than confronting others with what we interpret as Christ’s view of another’s opinion or behaviour.
All in all I’d say today’s readings give us an excellent reminder of what Christian life is all about, an invitation to reexamine our lives and make necessary changes. An inspiration to win time and space back for God from the multi media intrusions we’ve created and rediscover something far deeper. Most of us here have a good idea what we need to do but sometimes the baggage of life gets in the way. Maybe we haven’t learnt to travel light and focus on the important things yet.
Jesus had his reasons for installing urgency in the 70 but we also need a sense of urgency for our own lives. Time is not unlimited and good intentions will come to nothing if we don’t get focused, set time aside for God and find the joy of his ways.
I was amused to note that Paul wrote ‘see what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!’ As this comes at the end of his letter it seems it could have a number of possible meanings. It could simply be that he personally writes the final part as a mark of authenticity, with more than a hint that his sight is not all it could be. However there is also a sense that, since bold type hasn’t been invented yet that he wants to emphasise whole heartedly that Christ should be the focus, that the time to hedge your bets is over.
At the strawberry tea and in Maggie’s garden yesterday many of us have eaten delicious strawberries, lovely cakes and drunk much tea outward signs to many of what they expect from a church, particularly the Anglican Church.
Yet we also know that through the people of this church Christ’s important messages are being spread, people are being served and supported and forgiven, often in a typically understated way. The Church of England will always provide good material for a sitcom but we are the very people who can make it real and relevant to others around us today. So let’s focus on God, separate some sacred time and rediscover the joy of his service.