Sunday, 10 June 2012

Trinity 1: "Where are you?"

…And they all lived happily ever after… Most good fairy tales end with a marriage, a long awaited union of two souls who have found each other after many trials and tribulations. The prince finds his princess, and they stroll off into the sunset together into a life which we are left to assume will be coated with magic dust forever after, a model of peace and harmony. Life, however, is not a fairy tale, and the Bible, thank goodness, recognises that from the outset. Our readings today are perfect examples of its realistic view of the trials and tribulations of family life. 

In our first reading, the gloss of true love has worn off pretty quickly for Adam and Eve. She may be the only girl in the world and he may be the only boy, but that doesn’t stop them falling out almost as soon as they have got together, amid bitter recrimination. The Bible tells us that Adam was with her when the serpent tempted her to eat the forbidden fruit, but did we hear him trying to argue her out of it? Not a bit of it – he was quite happy to join in, munching away with enthusiasm, and was just as responsible as she was. Now that God is confronting them, though, it is a different story. He doesn’t just blame her, he blames God as well. “The woman that YOU gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit from the tree…” Eve’s reaction to this is not recorded, though God’s, of course, is. This couple have no sooner found paradise than they have lost it.

And then in our Gospel reading we see another family having one of those little moments most families would rather the world didn’t witness. A son gives his family the brush off in a way which makes me wince, as a mother myself.  “Who are my mother and brothers?” he says, ignoring them in favour of the friends he has gathered around himself. The problem for us is that this particular son is Jesus himself. If you are looking for a poster-boy for traditional family values, Jesus is not the obvious choice, and his treatment of his anxious family here underlines that. He doesn’t seem ever to have married. He doesn’t appear to care about what would have been considered his sacred duty to continue the family line, and his message throughout the Gospels is consistent with what we see here; nothing should come before your commitment to God, not even your family.

The early church seems to have been equally sceptical of conventional family relationships. What was the point of getting married if Jesus would return any day, as they believed?  Live faithfully and lovingly with your spouse if you have one, St Paul told them, but think carefully about taking on such responsibilities if you don’t need to. For many of them, too, choosing to follow Jesus had cut them off from their families and communities – they had to create new networks of support among their fellow Christians. Family, in the traditional sense, just wasn’t as high on their agenda as many Christians like to think.

So what are we to make of all this? Should we be throwing away all our family ties? I earnestly hope not, because I am rather fond of mine, but this story is a reminder to us that the Bible doesn’t put family or marriage on a pedestal. What matters in the Bible isn’t what form a household takes – Biblical households were as varied as modern ones – but what happens within that household, the quality of relationships, the love that is shown by its members, or the lack of it

That was something, of course, which Jesus was passionately concerned about. His central message was about love – whether within or outside family life – valuing others as the precious children of God which they really are. He treats those who are weak and vulnerable in his society’s eyes with particular care and honour, welcoming children, healing the sick and disabled, making it clear that they are not burdens but equals. He calls his followers to take seriously their responsibilities to those who depend on them – supporting elderly parents, not casually divorcing unwanted wives who will have no way of providing for themselves.

His attitude to women was especially unusual in his time. In a culture where they were largely confined to the home, Jesus encourages them to take a full place as his followers. His male disciples, John tells us, were shocked to find him sitting by a well in Samaria, talking theology to a Samaritan woman. It was the fact that she was female, not that she was Samaritan, which scandalised them. No respectable Rabbi would talk to a woman on her own like this. But Jesus sees no problem at all. And when Martha of Bethany complains that her sister Mary is sitting at his feet listening to him instead of helping her with the domestic chores, it isn’t just that she wants some help in the kitchen; she is affronted that Mary is taking the position of a disciple, sitting at the feet of the teacher, questioning and learning. Who does she think she is? This is a role reserved for men. But Jesus praises her – “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it shall not be taken away from her.”   

So Jesus is deeply concerned for families in the Gospels. After all, families are the context in which most people live most of their lives, whether they are under one roof or scattered far and wide. But the focus of Jesus’ concern isn’t on the outward appearance of the family – what shape it takes, whether it conforms to the patterns his culture expected it to. It is the inner, real experience of the people in it that he cares about. Families, then as now, could be wonderfully supportive and liberating, or they could be prisons in which the God-given gifts of their members withered and died.

That’s why Jesus reacts as he does to this visit from his own family which we heard about in today’s Gospel reading.  Opposition to his message is starting to mount. He is challenging the religious leaders, and they don’t like it. They accuse him of being inspired by Satan, not by God, and the rumour on the streets is that he has gone mad. His notoriety is bringing shame on his whole family and in an honour-based culture where conformity was highly valued, that was a serious matter. They come, says the Bible, intent on restraining him – the word that is used implies force. They want to drag him away, and put a stop to his preaching. Perhaps we can sympathise – they are bound to be anxious. But just because they are his family, even if they are motivated by care as well as shame, that doesn’t mean they are right. Children aren’t the possessions of their families. They are God’s gifts to the world, with callings and tasks of their own, and Jesus is the prime example of this. He needs to resist the temptation to fit in with the wish of his family that he should come home, keep quiet and do his duty as a good son, because if he does that he will have to abandon his message and his ministry. Of course, there are times when we should listen to those nearest and dearest to us – they may be telling us things we need to hear – but we also have to learn to trust ourselves and our own perception of God’s calling.

St Paul knew these tensions too. He’d given up a respected position in the Jewish religious elite in order to follow the way of Christ, joining those he had once persecuted. No doubt old friends and family thought he was crazy, or wicked. But Paul couldn’t ignore the call of God even if it meant rejecting attitudes he had been brought up to consider right and proper and finding himself at odds with his old religious allies. It’s clearly a painful business. He writes about his “outer nature” wasting away. But while that is happening, his “inner nature” is being renewed. He was being created anew, from the inside out. Tthe “earthly tent” of the life he has known – a flimsy and temporary shelter - was being replaced by God’s own building, something authentic, that went right to the heart of him.

Paul knew what it felt like to be pulled in two directions, and my guess is that most us do too. We like to fit in, to be accepted by family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. We don’t want to find ourselves out on a limb, regarded as odd or awkward or different . The pressure to conform can be a strong one.  For Jesus it was the pressure to fit in with family expectations. For Paul it was pressure to fit in with the religious circle he was part of. We are all sensitive to the voices which call to us to be the person others want us to be, the person they are used to, especially if those voices come from people we care about.

But there is another call, beneath and beyond those voices, which is often hard for us to hear amid their clamour. It is the voice of God, calling out to us “Where are you?” calling us back to himself, back to ourselves too, to become the people he created us to be, each with unique gifts to give to the world, and a job to do. Perhaps we are called to challenge prejudices which those around us simply aren’t aware of. Perhaps we are called to stand up for someone our friends have written off – “not one of us”. Perhaps we are called to make some radical changes to the way we spend our time, talents, money and energy, to refocus our lives in some way. All these things can be hard for those around us to accept or understand, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them.  In the end, the families, neighbourhoods and societies that are founded on lives lived with integrity, where each person heeds the call of God, will be ones where everyone is more richly blessed with his blessings and can thrive together.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Trinity Sunday & Diamond Jubilee 2012

One of the things we British tend to congratulate ourselves on is the fact that we know how to put on a good spectacle. The weather might not be very reliable, we might grumble about the trains and all sorts of other things, but when it comes to processions and ceremonies we’ve got it sussed. Give us a Jubilee, or a Royal Wedding, or just changing the guard at Buckingham Palace, and we know what we are about.
Of course, we’ve had a lot of practice; a thousand years or so of coronations and court life. And we’ve got all the right stuff – the golden coaches, the crowns, the robes, the protocol set down for centuries. It’s just there waiting to be wheeled out when we want it. If there’s one thing we can get right, it is majesty. We’re famous for it.

Kings at the time of the prophet Isaiah knew all about majesty too. If you wanted respect, if you wanted to make an impression on those you ruled, and those who might threaten your rule, you had better look splendid; huge palaces and monuments, elaborate clothes, costly jewels, the more bling the better. The great powers of Isaiah’s day were Assyria and later Babylon. You can see some of the relics of their empires in the British Museum in London, vast stone gateways and statues, fearsome winged creatures – guardian spirits - and great carved scenes of battle triumphs, with enslaved people coming to bow before their conquerors. There is nothing retiring or modest about these monuments to royal force – they were designed to strike awe into those who saw them.  

It’s not surprising, then, that when Isaiah visualises the courts of heaven, and God enthroned in his Temple, his vision is definitely in the mould of the earthly courts of his time, even down to those winged guardian spirits. It is majestic, mysterious, unimaginably grand – and utterly terrifying. I am sure that any ordinary person who found themselves summoned to the court of a king at the time would have had their hearts in their mouths; one false step and you might find yourself on the wrong side of all that power.

Isaiah paints us a picture of God, enthroned as the King of Kings, with all the trappings that went with that status in the ancient world. But this particular royal encounter turns out not to be quite what Isaiah expects. He is overwhelmed by the grandeur at the beginning. He piles up the images, the supernatural beings, the smoke, the vast train, the Temple literally shaking on its foundations. Isaiah thinks he is going to die, and who can blame him, but that’s not what God has in mind at all. Isaiah might feel like he has no business being there, that he is no more to God than a rather grubby nuisance to be swept aside, but God has other ideas. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?” he cries out. To Isaiah’s surprise it seems that God needs him; his presence is not a mistake, but precisely what God wanted, someone who will take his message to the people of Israel.

That might sound strange – surely God doesn’t need anything or anyone if he is almighty? But the God of the Bible is not a God who is content with self-sufficiency, sitting in his heaven in splendid isolation. From the very beginning we see him reaching out of himself, creating a world full of independent creatures who have freedom from him, who can choose to relate to him or not. In the book of Genesis we see him walking in the Garden of Eden, looking for Adam and Eve, not forcing them to come to him, but wanting their company.

In our Gospel reading John tells us that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” – God’s prime gift to us isn’t a list of rules or statements of faith; it is a person, a relationship. And when Jesus is no longer physically present that relationship is experienced through his Spirit, which draws us into the heart of God, so that, as Paul puts it, we can call out Abba, Father, and know that we are heard.
God is a God of relationships; it seems to be fundamental to his nature. And because of that it is fundamental to our nature too. He made us to be in community, with him and with each other. That’s why there is so much in the Bible about justice, about caring for those who are poor, about treating people with dignity; God cares about how we relate to each other. Serving God, obeying God isn’t enough for God; we have to serve each other as well. God himself seems to say, quite genuinely, that he doesn’t want it all to be about him.  And if God didn’t feel complete, in some sense, until he had reached out beyond himself, then how can we be complete without reaching out beyond ourselves either?

Isaiah starts with a vision of God in majesty, God enthroned, God high and lifted up, but the point he is making is quite the opposite. God’s desire is to be with his people, close to them, woven into their lives and weaving their lives together too.

On this weekend when we celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee of course we can expect more than a little gold and glitter, more than a little pomp and ceremony, but these trappings of power, impressive though they are – and fun– aren’t really what it is all about, and I am fairly confident that the Queen would say that too. She has quite deliberately made the focus of her life the service of the people of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. She has a very genuine commitment to bringing people together and using her public profile to draw attention to the service that others give to their community. Ultimately all the gold coaches you can muster, all the red coated guardsmen marching in perfect formation, all the trumpeters playing their pitch-perfect fanfares can’t make a nation great; it is something that whole communities are involved with. It has to do with each person – not just monarchs but us too – saying, day by day as Isaiah does, “here I am , send me”. Send me to do the job that I can do where I am. Send me to build the relationships that will make my community strong. Send me to help out with the local Scout troop. Send me to care for my elderly neighbour. Send me to welcome the immigrant family who have moved in nearby and speak no English. Send me to look after the fabric of the church so it can be a welcoming space for people to drop in on. Send me to… Well, what is he sending you to do? For each of us the answer will be different, but none of us is irrelevant, superfluous. Even if you feel you can’t do anything very active you can still say to God “Send me to pray for and encourage others who can.” That’s a really important ministry too. It doesn’t matter how old or young we are, what our qualifications and abilities are. God needs us and we need each other.

It is entirely appropriate that we should be celebrating Trinity Sunday and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on the same day. Both of these occasions could just be a celebration of the trappings of power, the aura of majesty, but both could and should be far more than that. Trinity Sunday celebrates the relationship which is at the heart of God - the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit, loving and being loved, which spreads out into the world and weaves us into the dance too as we serve and love one another. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrates one woman’s commitment to her community, the community of this nation, but in doing so it reminds us – as I am sure she would herself – that every one of us also has a part to play. 

I am earnestly hoping that, whatever the weather, our village celebrations today go well – come along and join in! Our homemade bunting is being put out on the Rec. The beer tent is all stocked up. I have boxes of royal craft materials ready to be turned into corgis and patriotic spinners. But at the end of the day the success of our celebrations will be measured in the number of strangers who have become friends and neighbours who have seen the needs of those around them and decided to help, and I pray that as that happens we will see within it just a glimpse of the Trinity, dancing for joy alongside us.