Sunday, 28 August 2011

Trinity 10 : Let love be genuine

Romans 12.9-21, Matthew 16.21-28

There’s a story from the Muslim Sufi tradition which runs like this.

There was once a traveller, who was walking along the road when he happened to see an old holy man, a dervish, sitting beside the road praying. As the traveller watched, he saw a rich young man come riding along the road on a powerful horse. When the young man reached the dervish, he stopped abruptly, jumped down from the horse and began shouting insults at the dervish and beating him with his whip. Then as abruptly as he’d started, he jumped back on the horse and rode off down the road in a cloud of dust.

The traveller looked on, horrified, wondering if the dervish had survived this apparently pointless attack. But the old man struggled to his feet slowly and painfully, and when he was finally upright, he looked sadly down the road after the young man. He summoned all his energy and shouted after him, “May you find all that your heart desires.”

The traveller was puzzled and said to the old man, “Sir, why did you shout those words at that young ruffian who has treated you so shamefully? It is not at all what I would have shouted at him…!”

“Ah,” said the old man, “the thing is that a person who has what his heart desires will not need to go about the world beating up dervishes.”

What should we do in response to evil? What should we do about people who beat up dervishes - or riot in the streets, or hack into other people’s phones, or abuse those with learning disabilities, – all things which have hit the news this summer. What should we do about those who commit atrocities like those being uncovered in Libya at the moment? That dervish certainly knew what he thought. Maybe you agree with him, or perhaps you think he was a na├»ve old fool, and that what that young man really needed was a sound thrashing in return.

Whatever you think of it, though, that ancient story tells us that soul-searching over the problem of wrongdoing is nothing new, and neither is the wrongdoing which provokes it. Politicians may tell us that we are in the midst of some unique moral decline, but history tells us that cruelty, thoughtlessness and greed have always been present and that people have always felt that the world is going to the dogs.

The Roman lawyer, Cicero, lamented fifty years before the birth of Christ that things weren’t what they used to be. “O tempora, o mores,” he proclaimed – “the times, the customs!”. On another occasion he was called on to defend a young man called Caelius who was charged with inciting violence, damaging property and being an all-round bad lad. Cicero’s best attempt at defence was to say that, frankly, Caelius was only doing what all young men did, sowing some wild oats – it went with his age – and anyway, it was only because he had fallen in with bad company… It could have been a story from last week’s news rather than one from 2000 years ago, even down to the fact that the court which tried him had to meet out of its normal opening hours on a public holiday.

The fact that these are ancient problems is no comfort to those whose houses or businesses have been ransacked this summer of course, but it should warn us against expecting a quick or simple solution. If there was an easy answer someone would have found it long ago. But nonetheless our ancestors’ struggles with these issues may well provide us with food for thought, wisdom which is worth hearing as we struggle to deal with wrongdoing today.

In our first reading today we find St Paul tackling the subject of how we are to live in a world where people are often cruel and thoughtless. He was writing to a small group of Christians in Rome, the heart of the Empire, a place where its brutal power was always on display. The main road into the city was often lined with the crucified bodies of those who had been executed by the state – “Welcome to Rome, but remember who is in charge!” The Emperor’s powers were almost unlimited and many of them were as mad as Gaddafi, and even more violent. As well as the arbitrary cruelty of the state, there was plenty of common or garden lawlessness among the population of this crowded, teeming city. It wasn’t an easy place to live a peaceful and civilised life.

St Paul’s words aren’t soothing platitudes for people living in comfort, they are urgent instruction to a people who were confronted with the reality of evil on a day to day basis. How should they respond?

Let’s have a look at what he said.

He starts out with what are really the most important four words of the passage. Let love be genuine. Actually in the Greek it simply says “love is genuine”; if it isn’t genuine it isn’t love, is the implication. And the word for “genuine” literally means “not hypocritical”. What we need is not some superficial niceness. Paul is talking about something that goes to the heart of us. Nothing else will do.

In a sense the rest of the passage spells out what that genuine love looks like. We could spend hours unpicking all its detail, but you’ll be relieved to know that I just want to highlight three facets of what Paul is telling us.
The first thing he says is that genuine love takes evil seriously. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” We need to be careful to note that he doesn’t say “hate those who are evil” - he isn’t advocating a “lock them up and throw away the key” policy here. In fact his words suggest quite the opposite. If your love for others is genuine then you won’t be able to abandon them to the power of whatever is twisted in their lives, write them off, pack them away and forget about them. It doesn’t work anyway. Throughout human history we have executed criminals or banished them to far-flung places, yet there always seems to be more evil where theirs came from. We might need to keep them apart from others to keep the rest of society safe, but genuine love means sticking with those who do wrong, helping them to change what is bad in their lives – to hate the evil - and making sure that what is good in them is not lost – holding fast to it. Genuine love takes evil seriously; it doesn’t just pretend it doesn’t matter, or give up on those who are in its grasp.

The second thing Paul says is that genuine love takes other people seriously. It is based on the conviction that they are human beings, made in the image of God no matter how distorted and spoiled that image seems to be. He quotes the Old Testament book of Proverbs. “If your enemies are hungry, feed them…” They are not somehow a different species from you, but people with real needs which you can and should meet, human beings who feel like you - subject to hunger and thirst. Unexpected love, hints the proverb, might even disarm them, making them aware and ashamed of their own behaviour too. But whether that happens or not, our enemies, just as much as our friends, are children of God. That’s not to say that he doesn’t care about the evil people do, but it is ultimately his job to judge and heal, not ours, and his judgement is rooted in love, not anger.

If we call ourselves Christians we give up the right to label anyone as scum, however tempting it might be, or to treat them as if they were less than human, as if their feelings and their thoughts didn’t matter anymore. This is probably the most challenging demand of Christian faith. We may feel stretched by the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, but this absolute unqualified insistence that following Christ means loving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us, that is what defeats most of us in practice. It seems all wrong. It makes us feel vulnerable and weak, but it is one of the clearest messages of the New Testament, the essence of Jesus’ life, that God loves all people – even those whom no one else can bear to love. It’s the message Jesus was living out when he went to the cross, praying for forgiveness for those who were crucifying him even as they drove the nails into his wrists. In our Gospel reading today Peter can’t get his head around this apparent reckless determination to stick to the path he is on – “God forbid!” he says. But Jesus’ commitment to humanity means this is the only way – to turn back would be to deny the all-encompassing love of God which he has come to show. Either everyone is loved by God, or no one is loved by God. Either all people are his children – even those who commit the most appalling acts of brutality – or no one is. It is that simple, and that challenging – and calling ourselves Christians means walking the same path.
Genuine love takes others seriously – each one of them, made in God’s own image and equally precious.

And the third point follows on from that. Genuine love takes ourselves seriously. God loves me with the same undefeatable love that he gives to the rioter and the looter. They are accepted by God, and so am I. I’ve never looted or rioted, but I don’t have to pretend to be perfect so as to distance myself from those who have. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are,” says Paul. Why? Because you don’t need to. It is safe to admit to my own faults and failings, because God will never give up on me, or on you either. That truth liberates us from the need to scapegoat others, and it allows us to let God heal what is broken in our own hearts and lives and to address our own part in the problem of evil.

Let love be genuine – our love for others, our love for ourselves – just as God’s love for us is genuine and never ends. Perhaps if we could live out that truth, we would go some way to creating a world in which no one needs to beat up dervishes, or anyone else for that matter.


Thursday, 18 August 2011

"Doubts and loves dig up the world" A sermon by Anne Le Bas

Trinity 8 and Baptism
Matthew 15.10-28

A woman comes to Jesus in the story we’ve just heard, a desperate woman, a mother whose child is ill. What do we expect? We expect that Jesus will be full of sympathy and love, that he’ll leap into action, healing the child with no further ado. But what actually happened was very different, and very puzzling. Far from helping her, at first Jesus tries to send her away, just as the disciples have done. Her concerns have nothing to do with him, he says, it would be like throwing the children’s food to the dogs. Ouch! That’s not the Jesus we expect to encounter in the Bible.

In the end he does heal the child, and affirms this woman’s faith in no uncertain terms, but only because she has refused to take no for an answer. She teaches him far more than he teaches her, and that is something that we may find hard to deal with, especially if we think of Jesus as fundamentally different from us, always in control, always in the know, always getting it right, rather than a fully human person like us.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this story is that it is in the Bible at all. The most natural thing in the world would have been for those who wrote the Gospels to have quietly edited it out. It doesn’t show Jesus in a good light. But no, both Matthew and Mark put it in, loud and clear, without apology, and that tells us that they think there is a message here which is so important that we just mustn’t miss it.

That message is that Jesus learns and changes through his encounter with others. Being human, really properly, fully human, means that we don’t always have perfect knowledge. We don’t always react in the right way first time off. That’s as true for Jesus as it is for us. We are shaped by the world we live in. We are shaped for ill by it, taking on prejudices without even knowing it. But we can also be shaped for good by it too, if we are prepared to listen and to learn as we go along. Jesus is just as embedded in his own context and time as we are, but he has the courage to consider that he might be wrong. He is prepared to open his ears, and his mind, to the voices of others, even if it is sometimes a struggle.

In this case it is the voice of a distressed mother which he learns to hear anew. He is in the district of Tyre and Sidon, we are told. That’s a very significant detail, because it tells us that Jesus is not on his own home ground. Tyre and Sidon are coastal towns over the border from Israel in Syria. Frankly it is a very peculiar place for Jesus to go. Tyre and Sidon are the home of Israel’s ancient enemies, the Canaanites, sometimes called the Philistines in the Bible. Goliath was a Philistine and so was Jezebel. Even if we don’t recall much of the stories, their names probably still carry overtones for us of brutality and wickedness.

Tyre and Sidon were seaports, and like sea ports the world over, known for being rackety, dissolute places, full of sailors on shore-leave spending their wages on wine, women and song. There were people from every race and nation here too, practicing every religion under the sun in every way you can imagine, and some you probably can’t.

There were a lot of reasons why a good, observant Jew would have felt very uncomfortable in this place. Jesus has certainly not gone here for a quiet break by the seaside. So what is he doing here? The only really plausible answer is that he has realised that he needs to take himself beyond his comfort zone, so to speak, just as he takes himself out into the wilderness before his ministry begins. This is another sort of wilderness for him, a place where he knows he will be challenged, even if he doesn’t quite know how much.

And sure enough, he finds himself catapulted into a situation which profoundly challenges him.

The woman who comes to him presents him with a perfect storm of disturbing factors. She is a Canaanite, which is no surprise since he is in Canaan. But she is also a woman, and in Jesus’ culture women weren’t expected to go out and about meeting unrelated men like this. Respectable women were always under the protection of men. Where is the man who should be looking after this woman? Even if she is a widow, it would have been expected that she would have a man to speak for her – a father, brother or uncle. She seems to be having to fight her own battle here, though, and whatever the reason, that would have looked very suspicious to a respectable Jew. Perhaps the father of her child was one of the sailors with a girl in every port, long gone on the tide now from Tyre and Sidon, leaving her to fend for herself and her daughter. She’s not quiet and respectful either. She is loud, persistent, embarrassing. The disciples are fed up with her trailing after them, and Jesus doesn’t at first seem to be able to summon any more patience and compassion than they do. But at least he gives her a hearing, has the conversation they have been avoiding, and it changes his mind completely. By the end he isn’t just giving her what she wants – the healing of her daughter – but praising her faith too. God really is at work beyond the pale, outside the comfortable confines of the respectable Jewish faith he has grown up with. This woman is just as much his child as Jesus’ own people are. God really can dwell wherever he wants to.

Jesus seems to have started out thinking that this woman’s concerns really aren’t his business. They are nothing to do with him. But now he sees that he is connected in love and compassion to a far wider community than he had first thought. He has preached about a God whose love is broad and limitless; now he learns what that really means in practice, and sees how much of a struggle it can be to live out that message of limitless love. There was no way he could learn this lesson except through this painful and disturbing encounter. He had to get it wrong in order to get it right.

There’s a poem by the Jewish poet Yehuda Amichai. It’s called The Place Where We Are Right

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

“Doubts and loves dig up the world.” That’s what’s happened to Jesus. His world has been dug up by this strange, foreign woman, with her insistent demands. He has to think again about himself, his mission and his God as he learns to see her as his sister, someone who connected to him, whose concerns are his concerns too. And in doing so he begins to form a new sort of community which crosses lines of nationality, culture and gender.

If ever there was a week when we needed reminding about the importance of community it is surely this one. There are no doubt many factors which led to the riots we have seen this week, but one of the things they have revealed is how little some people seem to feel connected to their own neighbours and neighbourhoods. The rioters terrorised people, burned and looted, as if the communities in which they themselves live have nothing to do with them, as if it just doesn’t matter if the shops in their High Streets have to close, or families like their own find themselves homeless.
We’ve also seen, of course, the way in which these events have woken up the good that is often hidden in our communities, as people came out to join in the clear up. Armies of broom-wielding people swept the streets clean as soon as they were allowed back into them, declaring by doing so that these were their streets and they cared about them. People realised how important it was to see those around them not as strangers but people to whom they have a responsibility, to whom they are connected, however different from them they might seem to be. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Today we are baptising Isabella as a member of our community in this place and a member of the world wide community of the church. In this baptism, as in every baptism, we get a chance to declare our support for her and for her parents, to affirm that she, like every child, is part of God’s family, and therefore part of our family too. She’s not just a number, a free-floating individual in a sea of other free-floating individuals, she belongs to us all, and we belong to her.

It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes, and in baptism we try to provide at least a bit of that village for Isabella, a group of people who care about her, and who want her to grow up knowing she has a secure place in the world as well as in her own family. We have resources to share with her, stories of faith and long experience of trying (successfully or not) to live alongside one another in love. We can offer her, as she grows, opportunities to serve others too, to find ways of giving back to the community. And we hope that through these things she will know that she matters to us, and come to feel that we matter to her as well, so that she learns that all people are her brothers and sisters.

In the face of all that disconnects and divides people - greed, selfishness, fear, envy – baptism is a declaration of hope for the future, a recognition that each one of us is indispensible to the whole, each one of us makes a difference to the world.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

That Sinking Feeling. A sermon by Kevin Bright

1 Kings 19.9-18, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33

What was going through your head as you heard our Gospel reading this morning?

Possibly you were thinking miraculous acts of healing, of feeding I can relate to, I can see their point but walking on water, why does Matthew tells us about that, was Jesus just showing off?

Or perhaps like me you struggle to accept the literal interpretation of these events but want to go beneath the surface, not like Peter was about to, but to see if they have any relevance to us and our lives today.

It strange isn’t it, I do believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and that there is hope for us to be at peace with God after we die, yet walking on water I just can’t get my head around it. Maybe it’s something to do with personal experience. Most of us have seen people healed from sickness, sometimes beyond the expectation of the medical experts but I guess that if we are in the sea or the pool we know we need to get swimming or otherwise experience that sinking feeling.

The first useful thing we can learn from what we heard today about Jesus is how important his quiet time is. A useful tip for everyone who feels they are under pressure with family, work, school or other matters is find yourself a place and time where you can be quiet, clear your head, relax, reflect, pray and prepare for the things that need to be done.

Jesus has skilfully carved himself such a space by telling the disciples, and I paraphrase, ‘ you boys jump in the boat while I finish up here and I’ll catch up with you later’, knowing that with the crowds dissipating and the disciples on their way he would be able to find some peace if he walked up the mountain. He knows that the pressure is building as Herod and the Pharisees are starting to take more notice of him and that he really needs time to think and pray.

I don’t want to labour the point too much and I know boats aren’t readily available to most in Sevenoaks but the quiet time to pray, read or reflect might have to be skilfully carved out by some of us too. When others from our household are engaged in work, shopping, study, sport or any activity that keeps them busy seize the opportunity, spurn trashy TV shows, switch off all means of communication and grab 10 minutes with God.

In our Old Testament reading we heard God speak to Elijah saying the Lord was not in the great wind, earthquake or fire. The temptation is to expect to find God in the dramatic events of the world or to take on great challenges hoping to find God in them and whilst God is present in all things the silence and ordinariness of each day are not too small to meet with God, in fact they offer a perfect opportunity to experience the Holy intimacy that God wants to share with each one of us.

Move your mind from the peace of the mountainside to the busyness of the boat. Having been packed off by Jesus how do you think the disciples were feeling? I could imagine that spirits were high. After all the disciples had just played their part in feeding masses of people who we are told left with full stomachs and food left over when at one stage they must have feared a disgruntled crowd sent away to find their own food.

Perhaps the disciples had that post event feeling, like after an exam, a presentation, a wedding. You know the sense of relief you have when the big event is over and has gone well, you have a buzz about you, the pressure is off, you enjoy some banter with your friends or maybe just a sense of relief. Often our confidence and belief grows after things have gone well yet it doesn’t seem long until the disciples are in trouble again as a storm starts to build while their boat is far from land.

I’m no great sailor but I did used to spend most of my weekends racing sailing dinghies when I was a lot younger. On one occasion when the wind was strong we were towards the front of the pack cutting through the sea with a full sail, the boat tilting about 80 degrees and me with my feet under the toe straps, back arched, counter balancing like a true athlete. For a brief moment we were masters of the sea when suddenly the toe straps snapped and I plunged into the ocean with a backwards dive that Tom Daley would have been proud of. A shocking change in circumstances as I tumbled downwards swallowing water and, for a moment, not knowing which way was up. When I did work it out and my life jacket started moving me in the right direction I put my hands over my head hoping that I wouldn’t be hit by the boats which were behind us. A frightening experience.

Luckily my skipper decided to turn around and follow his man overboard drill rather than go for maximum points and see if I was OK later so I was able to gratefully grab an outstretched hand and clamber aboard.

Even professional fishermen know that being overboard in rough seas can be extremely serious so it’s no surprise that Peter panics and cries out for help as he begins to go under.

We are told that the disciples were terrified at what they first thought to be a ghost walking on the lake. Peter accepts the invitation he has requested from Jesus and steps out of the boat apparently with initial success only to lose his belief, perhaps it was a ghost or perhaps his imagination was running wild and he gets that sinking feeling before gratefully grabbing the outstretched hand of Jesus.

Christ utters those familiar words ‘You of little faith’ and I suspect that this is the point at which we see ourselves in the story.

Like most of us Peter does what Paul is trying to tell us not to do. That is that he is unable to confidently accept God’s grace and so flounders in his efforts believing that his will and effort can secure God’s power.

If we are to mature as Christians it means letting go of some things and accepting that God is more than we can see or understand or even believe in much of the time so there is a real possibility that we could fail to reach our full potential if we feel we must always be in control.

It’s difficult for us to grasp but Paul is urging us not to turn faith into a strenuous pursuit and to recognise it more as acceptance of what God has already done. Jane Williams says that ‘God is already closer to us than our own breath, our own heartbeat’. If this is true then seems that to be still enough to hear our own body will also give us a chance of God’s presence becoming a reality.

You could view events positively and say that at least Peter stepped out towards Christ when beckoned to do so. What might our reaction be if we felt we were being called by Jesus?

There is always the possibility that we question whether it really is Jesus that calls us just as the disciples initially did.

But even if we are convinced that it is Jesus who calls us to do something it’s unlikely that we immediately step forward without considering everything that can go wrong. How is this going to work out, could I get hurt, and what is this going to cost?

We should take comfort from the sinking feeling which Peter experienced, when his faith failed him and he began to falter Jesus did not abandon him to his fate but reached out his hand. Like Peter we may have to recognise an unpalatable rebuke about our lack of faith if we are to learn from our mistakes, but we will not be not left to perish.

Above all we should not view our faith as a test. Christianity is not about passing a selection process like those for a team, a school or a career. Paul says that ‘there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.’ There is no exclusivity to be obtained and the good news is that places are unlimited.

Maybe we feel we are called to do something that seems impossible. I don’t mean performing miracles but far more everyday things like conquering sinful behaviour that is getting between us and God or developing a pattern of reading and prayer despite what can sometimes be hectic and disorganised lives

What can initially seem beyond us can come within our reach if we approach it day by day with prayer that seeks to involve God.

Jesus beckons us, come, so rather than seeing the waves which will knock us off course and give us that sinking feeling let’s try to keep our heads up, our eyes fixed straight ahead on Christ and keep moving closer to him. There’s a real prospect that we will be joyfully rewarded but it’s up to us to take those first steps however tentative they may initially be.