Sunday, 14 July 2013

Trinity 7: "Go and do likewise"

“Go and do likewise” says Jesus at the end of the parable we call the Good Samaritan. Here’s a familiar story we might think, and one with a simple meaning and message that everyone can assent to. We should all be ready to help one another. Perhaps I should just sit down at this point and leave it at that. But you know I’m not going to…

The thing is that if this were just an uncomplicated instruction to be nice to one another, it would be a very unusual. Jesus’ parables are often very simple in form, but they aren’t usually just morality tales. Like all really good stories they have many more layers than they seem to have at first glance, and this story is no exception.

“Go and do likewise” says Jesus, to the lawyer who has come to question him. But what, actually, is the “likewise” that he is being told to do?
Jesus is inviting him to identify with this story, to step into it, to shape his life on it in some way, but in what way?

Is he being told that he must pick up every waif and stray he finds by the roadside? That would be fine if you only came across one or two of them, but trying to meet everyone’s needs is a swift route to complete burnout, an impossible task. Those of you who commute to London on a regular basis are probably faced with dozens of homeless and very genuinely needy people every day, huddled in doorways or begging in tube stations.If you stopped to take them all to the nearest hotel you’d never get to work, and you’d soon be penniless yourself. It was the same in Jesus time –worse in fact. With no welfare state, no NHS, destitution and begging would have been an ever present reality.

But if Jesus isn’t saying that, what is he saying? Is this lawyer being told to stop being prejudiced against Samaritans – a group regarded with suspicion by Jews? Or is this parable, as Margaret Thatcher once suggested, a subtle endorsement of capitalism. If the Samaritan hadn’t had any money he’d have been no use to the man by the roadside at all…?[i]

Hmm!  Perhaps what looks like a simple story might not be so simple after all, but it’s worth looking at more deeply, because if we do, we’ll find it is much richer than it first appears.
The context, as ever, is the key.

Jesus doesn’t just tell this story to pass the time. It is told in answer to a specific question from a particular man who has his own agenda, a lawyer who is trying to catch him out in some heresy. As it turns out though, his question reveals more about him than it does about Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks.

That word “inherit” is the first clue. The Greek word he uses isn’t limited to the property you might get when someone dies. It’s about anything to which you have a legal entitlement. In modern terms we might think of an insurance payout or a pension, perhaps – something you’ve paid for or earned and have a legal right to claim. If the insurer or pension provider doesn’t pay up, you can sue them, because that money is yours, not theirs. That’s all very well in human terms, but this is eternal life we are talking about; God’s gift.  I’m sure this lawyer doesn’t realise it but he is actually asking, “What do I have to do to make God realise that he owes me…?” It is as if he wants to wave some spiritual claim form in God’s face, demanding his rightful payment. It might sound obviously upside down, put like that, but most of us do it sometimes. We think that if we pray enough, give enough, do enough, God will have to do what we want.  

The lawyer’s question also implies that he is thinking of eternal life very much as a commodity, something which can be owned and passed from hand to hand, a “thing”, like a trophy to be displayed on the mantelpiece.

Jesus, though, directs him back to the commandments he’s already familiar with – love God, love your neighbour. Now, love is not a “thing”; it’s a process, something you do, something you experience, something which can never be owned, something which is only real and tangible when it is happening. Love is its own reward. It is in the process of loving that we find what we are really looking for.

But still the lawyer isn’t satisfied. He wants Jesus to say something more controversial than this. So he presses the point. “Who is my neighbour?” Surely Jesus will say something now that will get him into trouble.  I don’t know what the lawyer expected, but all he gets, as we know, is a story to ponder.

A man goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho, on a notorious road through a barren, rocky wilderness. He is set upon, beaten and stripped, and left half-dead by the side of the road. We aren’t told anything else about this man. We don’t know his name. We don’t know if he’s Jewish or not, whether he’s rich or poor,. We have no idea why he’s making this journey, whether he knew the dangers or just wandered carelessly into trouble. I’m sure Luke’s vagueness about him is deliberate. He’s just an anonymous victim, no one the Priest, the Levite or the Samaritan could be expected to recognise or identify as he lies there. There are no obvious signs of his race, religion, language, or tribe, so no reason for them to feel any obligation of kinship to him.

The Priest and the Levite seem to feel that  absolves them of any responsibility towards him. They see him, we are told, but they pass by on the other side of the road and leave him there. Commentators speculate why that might be. They could be reluctant to make themselves ritually impure by touching what might be a dead body, which would mean they couldn’t do their duty in the Temple, or they could be afraid it’s a trap, or they could just be in a hurry, but in the end it doesn’t matter what their reasons are. The result is the same. They do nothing.  Though they see this man, actually they don’t see him at all. He never becomes real to them as a person. If he had, then they couldn’t have just ignored him.  Imagine they’d suddenly realised that this was their child lying there, or their brother, or their father. They would have stopped then. They would have done everything in their power to help, but he’s just A.N. Other, and somehow that means he doesn’t matter to them.

It ought to be the same for the Samaritan. In fact, he ought to have even less reason to stop. He’s in Jewish territory, so he might well assume the man is Jewish , and there was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans. To add to that Samaritans, were, if anything, even more precise in their observance of the purity laws than Jews were, so if that was the problem, he should be even less willing to pollute himself. But when he sees this anonymous bundle of suffering by the road he is moved with pity; the Greek actually says he was gutted, moved to the depths of his being by the sight of this man. Unlike the priest and the Levite, he starts from the assumption that this person, like any person, is his concern, his business, just as much as it would if he’d been his child, or brother or father, so he can’t just leave him there. Jesus calls him a true neighbour. The Greek word, like the English implies someone who is physically near to you – from the old word “nigh”. A neighbour is someone who shares your space, someone whose life is intimately tied up with your own. What happens to them affects you too. For this Samaritan, every human being matters, and he acts accordingly.

But that still leaves us with the same problem we started with. What does it mean for us to “Go and do likewise”, when the reality is that we can’t help everyone?

And that’s where I think we need to look even deeper into the parable.

Remember that this started with the lawyer’s question about eternal life, that life which God wants for all his children. What does that life look like, and how do we find it? asked the lawyer. This story tells us that we find it wherever love is at work.  In these places, God is at work too. They are holy places, these encounters and experiences which transform us and those around us. When the Samaritan turns aside from his journey to care for this wounded man, despite the dangers, despite the cost to him we are witnessing one of those holy moments.

Although God is never mentioned in the story at all, it is a story which is full of his life. We could see the Samaritan as representing Jesus, who comes to a broken and battered humanity, who takes the risk, and pays the cost of loving us, because he sees us with God’s eyes, not as a nameless lump of trouble, a massa damnata, but as - each one - his precious children. But we could also see the victim as Jesus too, naked, bleeding, half-dead, while the people who ought to recognise him as one of their own pass him by. That’s how it will be when he hangs on the cross, despised and rejected just like the outcasts he spent his ministry championing, and perhaps Luke is reminding us of that here.

This story, then, is far, far more than a simple tale of moral instruction – important though it is to be reminded of the need to help others. It is also a story about one outsider rescuing another, a story that reveals how God can be present in those pointless, squalid diversions from the straight path to success we’d rather be on. It’s a story that reveals how God can be present in those the world calls losers, and in our lost and broken places too. The Samaritan and the victim in this story find God, holiness, life which nothing can destroy, eternal life, in one another as they give and receive love, and recognise their shared humanity.
“Go and do likewise” says Jesus to us.

[i] “No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well.” TV Interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World (6 January, 1980)

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Trinity 6: Eat what is set before you...

“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few”, says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that text quoted over the years I have been involved in the church, but it is nearly always in the context of evangelistic campaigns and is usually accompanied by dire warnings that if we don’t get out there and spread the word, the church will die.

And of course that’s true. We are always only one generation away from oblivion, and the Church nationally doesn’t have anything like the numbers and influence it had back in the 1950’s. It is no good us being complacent about its survival. People won’t just fall through the doors by magic. It is up to all of us who love the church to invite and to welcome others into it – use it or lose it. It’s a message we need to hear.

The problem is, though, that it isn’t actually the message Jesus is trying to convey here.

Jesus sends out seventy of his followers with a task to do. But it’s not a recruitment exercise. It’s not about getting people into church, or synagogue, or even to get them signed up as card carrying members of the Christian faith. When we look at his instructions more closely we find that actually they are far more to do with receiving than giving. He isn’t calling them to take the light they have out to a world of darkness, but rather to open their eyes to the light that is already shining beyond the protective walls of the safe enclosure of faith, to spot and to nurture the signs of the kingdom wherever they find them.

Jesus starts by very deliberately stripping away from them the props they might be tempted to take with them on their journey. They aren’t to take any money – they will have to rely on the hospitality of those they meet. They aren’t to take a bag, so they can’t accumulate anything along the way that they think might come in useful in their encounters with others. They aren’t even to wear sandals to protect them from the ground on which they tread. It’s a very exposed and vulnerable mission.

All they are given to offer to others is a greeting of peace. There is no great secret or clever idea or carefully constructed programme of teaching. There aren’t any superstar preachers or celebrities to draw the crowds. They don’t have a handbook of “Ten Simple Ways to Spread the Gospel and Answer Life’s Tricky Questions” to refer to. There will be no bells and whistles, no gimmicks to impress people, because that’s not what this is about. It is just them as they are out in the world as it is, looking for God wherever they might find him.

Isn’t this approach a bit risky? Yes, it is. As Jesus says “I am sending you out as lambs into the midst of wolves”  Lambs among wolves! Won’t they just be eaten up? Maybe they will, but Jesus knows what he is doing. This is, after all, the pattern of his own life. He was born, naked and helpless, as any child is, and without even his own crib to lie in,utterly dependent on the generosity of others, and he will finish it on a cross, a lamb eaten up by the wolves of hatred and suspicion in the hearts of  the Roman and Jewish authorities who crucify him. And yet, out of that powerlessness will come rich blessings. It’s no surprise that those he sends out in his name are sent in the same way.

They are told to heal the sick, it’s true, but they aren’t told how, and the impression is that somehow that healing will simply follow on naturally as they share their greeting of peace.  That makes sense if you understand healing as the Bible does. Peace – Shalom in Hebrew - was about far more than the absence of noise or strife. It was about wholeness and justice and reconciliation, healing in its broadest sense, physical and spiritual, for individuals, communities and nations. We can see that imagery in our first reading, from Isaiah. The greeting of peace they were to use as they met people was a sign of their commitment to that vision of a world set to rights. If those they met shared the vision, then healing was bound to be the result.

Of course that greeting of peace might not be welcomed and reciprocated, but that wasn’t their concern. Their job was simply to offer it. That injunction to shake the dust from their feet if they weren’t welcomed might sound harsh to us, but actually what it says is that it isn’t their responsibility to coerce or cajole people into responding to God. All too often Christians – and especially church leaders - panic when they think their message isn’t being heard and simply shout it louder in the hopes that will produce the right response. Insisting on the rights of Christians to wear symbols of their faith or have public prayers at the beginning of council meetings, whether others want them or not, seems to me to be a modern manifestation of this, and it rarely wins us any friends. At least it is fairly mild, though. In the past we have resorted to forced conversions, burning at the stake and public pillorying of those who differ with us in an attempt to make them see the world as we do. This is not your business, says Jesus – offer peace, and work with any who are prepared to work with you.

There is a lovely detail in Jesus’ instructions which, it seems to me, says it all. When they are welcomed into someone’s house, they are to eat what is set before them. The first Christians would have heard a very specific and literal message in this. Most were Jewish and observed Jewish food laws, but as the Gospel spread out they were forced into close contact with Gentiles who ate things they’d been brought up to shun. What should they do? Eat it anyway, says Jesus, because these people, however strange they seem, are your brothers and sisters.

For us, it might not be food that is the problem, but we are still called to deal with the world as it is – whatever it is that’s on our plates, the people who are standing in front of us, the issues we have to deal with. Differences of culture, social class, sexuality, gender or political outlook can blind us to the blessings other people bring to us because they don’t come in the package we expect.  We only see the differences, and not the gifts. Or it might be that what is on our plates just looks too ordinary to contain the seeds of God’s kingdom, too insignificant for God to show up in. But Jesus’ words to these seventy as he sends them out remind us that the kingdom of God is close at hand, ever-present, in all the places where we are, in all its ups and downs, in the petty quarrels and set-backs of our lives, in the small acts of kindness and the unexpected reconciliations, in the everyday words and actions which affect our communities.

So this great mission on which the seventy are sent out is not about the church at all. The harvest Jesus talks about is not a harvest of souls to be gathered into the protective bubble of a congregation where they will be safe from the world. Quite the reverse. It is about learning to spot God and work with him wherever we happen to be, whatever we happen to be doing, and to spot him in others and work with him there as well.

But if that’s the case, you might be wondering, what is the point of the church at all? Haven’t I just argued myself out of a job?

Well no, I don’t think I have. This task Jesus gave to the seventy, and to us, is one which is far from a stroll in the park.  To be as open and vulnerable as this is no easy task. To love others enough to leave your comfort zone takes some doing, and it probably isn’t going to come naturally. Where do we find the strength, the courage, the inspiration, the support to do this? Like most things, it is practice that counts, and the church is the place where we can, quite literally practice our faith, learning and deepen it. The stories and symbols of faith equip us with tools to help us see our own lives more clearly. The relationships we build, and those we struggle with, help us to learn what it is to love and be loved.

The church isn’t an end in itself, but just as those first disciples needed the time they spent with Jesus and with one another to be ready for this task, so do we. In fact the more we are committed to living out our faith in action in our everyday lives, the more we need to make sure we are fuelling and focusing it in the church. What we do here on a Sunday matters, because what we do out there from Monday to Saturday matters even more. Neglect this, and we impoverish that.

I don’t know what is on your plate this week, what situations you will find yourself having to deal with, who you will meet as you go about your daily life, but one thing I am certain of. God will be present in those people and situations somewhere, and if you have eyes to see him you will find yourself richly blessed in ways you could never have predicted.

Monday, 1 July 2013

St Peter and St Paul (with baptism)

Baptisms are often times when people give gifts to a new arrival in a family, traditionally things like silver bracelets, cups or spoons, or perhaps something more obviously religious like a Bible or prayer book. Whether or not there are any physical presents given, there are always less tangible gifts being offered on a day like today, the prayers and good wishes of those who are here – both family and friends of the one being baptised and those who are members of our regular congregation too.

In the old folk tales, the gifts given at christenings are often very significant. They are magical gifts given by magical godparents to a child destined for great things – grace, strength, goodness, a loving heart– things that will make a real difference to their lives.
What we are doing here today isn’t magic, but we hope that it will give Daisy gifts like that too, the tools she needs to live well. We hope it will remind those who care for her that she is God’s child too, and part of a community that cares; they aren’t on their own. We hope it will remind them that when she gets in a mess, as we all do, there is always forgiveness and a new start; the waters of baptism tell us that it all comes out in the wash, in God’s love. We hope it will help to set a good direction for her life, pointing her towards all that is good and life-giving. These are the most valuable gifts given in baptism, gifts that will keep on giving throughout her life.

As it happens, today is a double celebration. It is also our Patronal festival, the feast day of the saints to whom this church is dedicated, St Peter and St Paul. In a way, Patron Saints are a bit like the church’s own godparents, and they have gifts to give us too, inspiring us through the stories of their lives. We heard snippets of those stories in our readings this morning, but I probably need to do a bit of unwrapping if we are to discover the gifts those stories contain, because they aren’t always obvious.
The Gospel reading featured the first of our Patron Saints, St Peter. It is set just after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – that is very significant, because Peter hadn’t exactly distinguished himself when Jesus was arrested and killed. He’d been so sure of himself beforehand. He’d been by Jesus’ side throughout his ministry as he had travelled around teaching and healing. He was a bluff, strong, impulsive man who said what he thought, often without thinking too much about it first, but he saw himself as loyal and brave, as Jesus’ best friend. But when the soldiers came for Jesus he’d deserted him, like all the rest. Worse than that he had denied even knowing Jesus at all, not just once, but three times by the time the cock crowed next morning. Some friend he turned out to be!

It looked like the end of everything, but three days later the disciples started seeing Jesus again, risen from death. It should have been pure joy for Peter, but… he couldn’t forget how badly he had let Jesus down, how far short he’d fallen. How could Jesus ever trust him again? How could he ever hope for Jesus’ friendship and love again?

So Peter went back to something he did know how to do, or thought he did. He went fishing. But even his old skills seem to have deserted him. He fished all night, but caught nothing. Just as he and the others were about to give up, though, a figure appeared on the shore and called to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Rather sceptically they did, and to their surprise, the nets were filled with fish, so many they could hardly drag them in.
Peter twigs straight away that it is Jesus, and jumps overboard to swim to shore, but after breakfast, Jesus takes him aside for the conversation he has been dreading. This is where he is going to get torn to shreds for his disloyalty and cowardice isn’t it…? But that’s not what happens. Instead Jesus asks him three times if he loves him, and three times, hearing that he does, he tells him “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs”…Look after those who will follow me in the future, it means. Be the leader of this group. And that is what Peter becomes, a towering figure in the early Church, and for the Church ever since.

Jesus had called him the Rock – that is what Peter means in Greek – but it wasn’t the loud, bold confidence of the old Peter he was pointing to, but the much deeper resilience that came through getting it wrong, really wrong, and discovering that wasn’t the end of everything, but the beginning. He discovered that the weaknesses and the failures in our lives often matter far more than the apparent strengths and triumphs. As he learned to see himself anew - fallible, but forgiven - he also learned to see others anew as well, recognising God at work in those who didn’t fit the mould of success his society had given him.

Our other Patron Saint, St Paul, is another man who doesn’t look at first sight like someone you’d want to follow. The first reading was about him, though in it he was called by his Hebrew name, Saul. He’d been one of the most bitter and sworn enemies of Christian faith. He sincerely believed that it was a dangerous perversion of the beliefs he had grown up with, and that it ought to be stamped out firmly. He was a man on a mission when he set out for the Syrian city of Damascus, but it was a mission of destruction. On the road to Damascus, though, he saw a blinding light, and heard a voice, calling out “why do you persecute me?”

He couldn’t understand it at all. He thought he was doing God’s work, and yet here was a voice, apparently from heaven, challenging all that. It wasn’t just his physical sight that he lost that day; nothing looked the way it should anymore.

But along came someone – one of the bravest people in the Bible – to change all that. Ananias, the Christian who God sent to pray for his healing knew perfectly well who Saul was when he set out to visit him. He knew he was someone famous for persecuting the church, but he went anyway, because here was someone in need of his love and prayer. No wonder later on St Paul wrote so much about love – that famous passage often heard at weddings is his “ If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but have not love I am nothing…Love is patient and kind… Love believes all things, endures all things.. Faith, hope and love abide and the greatest of these is love.” He had discovered this for himself, as Ananias responded to him not with the hatred he might have expected, but with kindness and care.  

Peter and Paul both got it wrong, spectacularly wrong, before they got it right, but that was how it had to be.

And that’s often the way with us too. It’s when our lives fall apart, when we have to let go of the shiny self-image that we have clung to for dear life, that we start to really appreciate those around us. We open ourselves up to the help that those around us offer – we have to. That help may come from unexpected sources, unlikely people, places we’d never thought to look, as Paul’s help did in the shape of Ananias. We discover the love that was always there, the love of others and the love of God, which we were too tied up with ourselves to notice before. And having discovered it by accident, perhaps we learn to search for it deliberately, looking at all those around us as children of God, places where God is at work, people who just might have gifts to give us, gifts that we need. That is what Peter and Paul learned – the hard way – through their lives, they each came to realise in their different ways that God was far more generous than they had thought, giving freely of his love to all, even to those they thought were failures or beyond the pale, and intending that all people should be gifts to one another too, gifts to be treasured and welcomed.

So, today is a day full of gifts, whether they come wrapped in shiny paper or not; the gifts that come from the saints who inspire us, the gifts of love and prayer we give to Daisy, the gift that she is to us and to the world, the gifts that we can all be to one another, and learn to find in one another if we have eyes to see. I pray that not only Daisy but all of us will go home today laden with gifts to sustain and bless us.