Sunday, 27 October 2013

Last Sunday after Trinity: The Pharisee and the Tax-collector

Last Sunday after Trinity 2013

“Two men went up to the Temple to pray”, says Jesus, but only one of them went home again actually having achieved anything by this.

In some ways this is one of Jesus’ simplest parables, with characters that are easy to recognise. The first is a stock figure from comedy. His words invite us to ham them up, as I am sure Jesus did. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” He’s a pompous, self-righteous fool who sounds as if he thinks he is the bee’s knees and that everyone – including God – must surely be aware of it. No sitcom is complete without someone like this. He is Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty  or Hyacinth Bucket, destined for greatness, if only they weren’t surrounded by idiots, people determined to keep up appearances, but always coming a cropper in the end. We know when we hear this Pharisee’s words that there’s a banana skin just around the corner.

If the Pharisee is a stock character from comedy, the tax collector is equally familiar from tragedy. He is the broken man who’s hit rock bottom, the man with no reputation to lose, for whom redemption seems like an impossible dream. We’ve met him in a thousand soap operas, popular dramas, films and books. He is the maverick detective, one of those gloomy Scandinavians – with a broken heart and too much fondness for the booze. He’s the flawed hero who is always on the edge of breakdown and disgrace. He’s the person who has apparently wasted his life, but at the last minute manages to do just one noble, right thing. He is Sydney Carton, if you are familiar with Dickens “Tale of Two Cities”, whose love for the innocent Lucie Manette is the sole ray of sunshine in the inner darkness of his dissolute life. Since she is married and unattainable, the only service he can render her in the end is to take the place of her husband on the guillotine, It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." For all his failures, at that moment his life is made worthwhile.

We recognise these characters in Jesus’ story, just as his first hearers would have done. And the point Jesus is making is equally clear. Only one of them goes down from the Temple justified, and it is not the Pharisee, despite his fine opinion of himself.

It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t say that God didn’t hear the Pharisee’s prayer, nor did he say that God didn’t love him as much either. He says that it was only the tax collector who was justified – literally that meant “straightened out, set to rights, made just” –not simply counted as just, but really changed.  The changes might be small, but they are a start, and that’s why Jesus commends him. The Pharisee, on the other hand, goes home exactly as he was when he arrived; he might as well not have bothered.

Jesus is being deliberately provocative with this conclusion. Tax collectors were widely hated at the time. They collected taxes to fund the Roman occupation, and were suspected of creaming off a percentage for themselves along the way. But Jesus is quite clear; it is better to be like the tax collector than the Pharisee, and the difference he is calling attention to is really to do with the way these two men deal with sin.

Sin is a word which has rather fallen out of fashion these days. Even within the church it is something we tend to shy away from talking about. It’s important, of course, to get the balance right, and the Church often hasn’t, using the language of sin and guilt to control and oppress, but if we deny the reality of sin, insisting that “I’m ok, you’re ok” and “everything in the garden is rosy” we do ourselves no favours at all, because it is patently obviously not true. There are times when I’m not ok and you’re not ok and the garden is full of weeds.

There can’t be a single one of us who doesn’t at some point in life get a wake-up call, some moment when we get a clear view of ourselves and wonder what happened. How did it come to this? We might have done something which we thought we’d never stoop to, or perhaps something has happened to us which we haven’t dealt with well, and we have passed on that hurt to others. It might be that we have simply drifted away from the things we thought mattered to us; our priorities have all gone awry. Or maybe we’ve grown disillusioned with the world after one too many grim tv news bulletins, one too many tough days at work, one too many compromises that leave us feeling just a bit grubby, and we realise we’ve stopped caring, stopped trying.

That’s the truth about life. It is the truth about me and about you, and about the many people who talk to me in the course of my ministry. That nagging sense that things aren’t as they should be is part of the human condition, common to us all. It doesn’t matter how hard we try to do the right things, sooner or later we will get it wrong, foul it up, because we live in an imperfect world, full of imperfect people like us who are also getting it wrong and fouling it up. That’s what sin is, not chocolate or sex, something “naughty but nice” to be trivialised, nor something dramatic and dark, the preserve of psychopaths and monsters. It is the everyday wrongness that sucks the joy and colour out of us and renders life small, grey and lonely.

Acknowledging and naming it is the first, and vital, step to doing something about it. That’s what the tax collector does, and what the Pharisee, with all his self-righteous bluster, cannot bring himself to do. Instead he papers over the cracks in his life with the glossiest paper he can find and hope that no one will notice. The reason these two men respond so differently to the sin in their lives is because they believe very different things about God.

The tax collector has somehow dared to think that God might love his creation, just because it is his creation, and that he can – and wants to – fix it when it is broken, even the miserable twisted bit of it that is himself. He has dared to believe that this is true even if he has nothing to give in return. How has he come to believe this? We don’t know. Maybe it is just desperation, or maybe someone in his life once loved him for himself before – his mother or father perhaps - so he has a model to look to.

The Pharisee, in contrast, is convinced that the only way to get God to love him is by manipulating and bargaining with him through ritual, through good behaviour, through giving. There might be no word of a lie in the things he says – he might indeed live a virtuous life – but the fact that he has to say so as loudly and publicly as he does tells us that deep down he knows that isn’t the whole truth about him, and that he is not nearly as secure as he wants to look.  “Do not offer God a bribe” said the book of Ecclesiasticus in our first reading, but the Pharisee obviously hadn’t read it, because that is just what he was doing. He thinks he has to, otherwise why on earth would God want to help him?

He’s not alone in this - it is a common human tendency. I was watching a documentary earlier this week on the Medieval attitudes to death.  There was a fascinating section on the last will and testament of Henry VII. Like most people at the time he believed he would have to spend time after death suffering in purgatory, and he wanted to make sure that he was delivered from it as swiftly as possible. So he left an enormous sum of money, and ordered that 10,000 Masses should be said for him as soon as possible. It was the detail that was fascinating though. He set down that 1500 should be dedicated to the Trinity, 2500 to the five wounds of Jesus, 2500 to the five joys of Mary, 450 for the nine orders of angels, 150 for the patriarchs (obviously he didn’t think they had much clout in heaven), 600 for the 12 apostles – 50 each, so they weren’t much use either – and 2300 for All Saints –there were a lot of saints to cover. In life he had always needed to buy loyalty, influence and power, and he assumed it would be no different in the heavenly courts.

But when the doctrine of purgatory and masses like these were outlawed – ironically through the Reformation in which his own son, Henry VIII was a prime mover - for many people the situation felt even more hopeless. Now what would they do to keep God on their side? Believe the right things, live the right lives, pray the right prayers in the right sort of churches, plain and unadorned with images… A new set of bribes was put in place of the old ones. They still didn’t get it, and we very often don’t get it either. That’s why we are so scared of owning up to our wrongdoing.

The truth that the Bible proclaims, that this parable proclaims, is that God loves us anyway. That’s the Gospel message, the message the tax collector dared to believe, the message that Jesus’ death spelled out. Human beings did this to him, nailed him to a cross, and yet still God loved them and loves us too when we do things that nail him to the cross all over again. We can’t make God love us any more than he does by anything we do. We can’t make him love us any less either. He loves us anyway. That’s the Gospel.

Why does it matter? It matters because if we dare to believe this, it is then safe to acknowledge our sin. And if we can acknowledge it, then the things that need to change can start to change. And if that happens then we, like the tax collector, might also go home justified, straightened out, a little bit more set to rights, and that will be good news for everyone.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Trinity 20: Real healing

Like a lot of other people, over the last week or so I have been suffering from a cold. If you haven’t had it you probably will – it seems to be doing the rounds fairly comprehensively. Of course it’s a fairly trivial illness,but I’d just as soon not have had it, thank you very much, and if someone could have waved a magic wand and made it go away I would have been very happy to let them. For those with serious or long term illness and disability life it is even harder, of course, and the longing to feel better is many, many times more intense.

No one likes being ill; we would all feel there was something really wrong with anyone who enjoyed it.

If we feel like this now about disease, just wanting it to be taken away.  we can only imagine what it might have felt like to be ill in centuries gone by. Until very recently there were no treatments for many diseases, and very little in the way of pain relief either. You might get better. You might not. But you would certainly suffer along the way.There was very little that could be done about it, so anything that seemed to offer the slightest hope would be something to grasp at.

The people in our Old Testament and Gospel readings today were suffering the double whammy of leprosy. The term used in the Bible actually covered a whole range of skin diseases, so we don’t know what the diagnosis would be today, but in Bible times the prospects for them were grim. Not only did they suffer the physical symptoms of their disease, but also the social and spiritual isolation that came with it. No one knew what caused leprosy, so sufferers were often made to live apart from others, not just  because people thought they might catch the disease but also because there was a widespread belief that it was a punishment from God, something they had deserved in some way, brought on themselves through their own sins.

It is no wonder that Naaman, whom we met in the Old Testament reading, was so desperate for a cure. How could he command the army of his king, the king of Aram, if he was an outcast? When the little Israelite slave girl he had captured in a raid on Israel blurts out to his wife that there is a prophet in Israel who could cure him, he leaps at the chance. His king is just as keen, sending the king of Israel treasures to persuade him to allow Naaman to seek Elisha’s help.

This presents the king of Israel with an awkward dilemma though. Aram is a mighty nation, the dominant force in the region, but they are Israel’s enemies. If the king of Israel says yes, he will be giving succour to the enemy. If he says no, he will risk bringing their wrath down on the nation. And what if Elisha can’t actually come up with the goods…? It seems like a no win situation to him, but Elisha sees the person not the politics. If Naaman needs healing, let him come and ask for it.

But although the diplomatic complexities have been sorted out, it soon becomes clear that the psychological complexities are even worse.. Naaman wants to be healed. He really wants to be healed. He wants it so much that he would give anything to be healed, do anything to be healed – engage in some complicated ritual, go through some costly procedure, take all the time and energy it might take. But when he gets near Elisha’s house he finds himself met by a servant with a message that all he needs to do is bathe seven times in the rather muddy trickle that was the River Jordan. As his servants eventually point out, there is something to be said for the simple approach – why makes something difficult if it doesn’t need to be? But I think we can understand why he is so offended by Elisha’s prescription. Somehow it seems to him to trivialise both him and his disease. What was the point of coming all this way and abasing himself to do so if it was going to be as simple as a dip in a river?
But of course it was the journey – psychological and physical – which brought him the healing he really needed, a re-evaluation of his life, a reorientation of his spirit. That was the costly and difficult thing – complex rituals and great financial outlay were one thing, acknowledging his need and his vulnerability, putting down that image of the great and mighty leader was quite another, but it was this which was vital in leading him to see beyond the narrow militaristic nationalism he had lived by to the God that was both Elisha’s and his.
He came for the healing of a skin disease, an illness that was literally skin deep. He went home with healing that reached to the root of his being.

In the Gospel too, a sick person receives more than he bargained for. It is important to note that this isn’t a story about saying thank you – important though that is. Of course the one leper who comes back to Jesus is grateful to him, but that isn’t what Jesus singles out for comment. What he actually says is that this one – and he was a Samaritan, adds Jesus – has come back to give praise to God. The others have done just as Jesus told them. They have gone to show themselves to the priest. That was the way in which those with leprosy were declared officially to be cured from their diseases and allowed to associate with others again. They are clearly overjoyed and relieved, but all they are concerned to do is to go back to the lives that they had before they got ill. The Samaritan, though, realises that there is more to this than simply the immediate relief of finally being rid of this awful disease. He saw that in Jesus God was doing something entirely new, and that through his healing God had called him to a whole new way of life, not just to go back to the life he had.

There are actually three different Greek words used in this passage to talk about healing. The first one, which describes the moment when all ten lepers realise they have been cured is katharizo – we get our word  “catharsis” from it. As this translation suggests it literally means to be “made clean”. The visible signs of the leprosy have gone, the symptoms have cleared up. This was all that mattered if they wanted to be reintegrated into their society.
The Samaritan though, sees that he is more than made clean – he is “healed”. The word is  “iathe” – it is a word linked to the word for doctor – “iatros”. It is not just the symptoms that have gone, but the disease itself. Something fundamental has changed in him, even if he isn’t quite sure what.

But when Jesus speaks to him he goes even further than this. “Your faith has made you well”, Jesus says to him, and the word he uses is sozo which is more usually translated as “saved”. This man’s life has been turned around. He has found a new purpose, a new direction through his encounter with this man who was prepared to come to him where he was, on the margins of society among the unloved and rejected.

The message of both these stories is the same, and it isn’t too difficult to see what it is.

When something is wrong in our lives, whether it is a physical disease or some other trouble that has befallen us, it is entirely natural that all we want is for the problem to go away, for the pain to stop. It is entirely understandable that we look for the quickest fix we can find. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But sometimes in our longing simply to feel better on the surface we miss the deeper healing we really need, the changes that might help us in the future to deal better with trouble and pain. Naaman was desperate for a cure for his skin disease, but actually what was going on in his soul needed attention just as much, if not more, and in the end gave him healing that went much more than skin deep. The Samaritan, like the other lepers, wanted relief from his suffering, but he recognised that in Jesus he had found far more than that, someone who could make him “well” at the core of his being.

I don’t believe that God sends illness to test us, and I don’t think that it helps much when people are suffering to exhort them to look for the blessing in it. In fact I think it can just add insult to injury. But I do believe that God is with us in every part of life, every circumstance, both good and bad, and that means that in everything that happens we can hear his voice if our ears are open to it.  It can be just as much a struggle for us as it was for these sufferers from Bible times to hear the deeper messages that come to us in times of trouble though. We might need to hear that we should slow down and look after ourselves better, but that goes against our need to be needed and to look busy. We might need to think again about what we are doing with our lives instead of just pressing on regardless in the same old pathways, but it’s hard work to get out of the ruts we are stuck in. We might need to face up to something we’ve been hiding from – like Naaman we might struggle with the idea that we too are vulnerable, mortal and needy.

Whatever the messages we need to hear, if they come from God they will be worth paying attention to, because they will bring us healing that is more than skin deep, not just taking away the superficial signs of what ails us, but turning us around, as they did to Naaman and the Samaritan leper. They will enable us to see the loving presence of God whatever is happening to us, and that is what will make us truly “well”, in sickness and health, in life and in death.


Sunday, 6 October 2013

Harvest Thanksgiving: One world, one family

Psalm 148, Matt 25.31-end

I wonder what Harvest Festival means to you? The truth is that it can have many different meanings, many different themes.

It can be all about the tastes, smells and sights of fruit, vegetables and flowers – thank you to those who decorated the church so beautifully for today. “Cauliflowers fluffy and cabbages green,” Autumn Days when the grass is jewelled…” – if you have anything to do with children, you will now be humming along… or perhaps from an older generation “All things bright and beautiful.” Harvest can simply be a time when we enjoy the world around us and give thanks to God for it.

It can also be a time to celebrate and pray for the work of those who “plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land…” Modern Harvest Festival services originated in the 19th century, growing out of Harvest Home celebrations – boozy, raucous affairs put on to mark the end of the harvest season, the moment when “all was safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin”. In a village like this, that’s actually a real part of our community life – there are those in our congregation who do make a living from the land. But for many that’s not the case, and Harvest celebrations can be about whatever kind of daily work we do. Depending on what you do for a living the fruits of your labours might be educated children if you’re a teacher, healthy people if you work in the medical profession, people who’ve received justice if you’re a lawyer, people who are cared for if you are a carer, people getting from A to B if you work in transport, and of course there are many things we enable by voluntary service too. Our labour matters, paid or unpaid, humdrum or dramatic.

But both those themes have their shadow side as well. They make us aware of the threats to our environment, something we are increasingly aware of as the world warms and many people already suffer the effects of droughts, floods and hurricanes. We hear about species becoming extinct as their habitats are destroyed, and we realise that our own species is not immune to that. And as we give thanks for the fruits of the world’s labour we remember as well those who have no job and those whose jobs are poorly rewarded, little valued, those who are exploited or given the message that there is nothing useful they can do and then condemned as scroungers when they need help and support.

So Harvest Festival can feel like a real ragbag of ideas, and it’s not always easy to hold it all together.
It seemed to me, though, that the two readings we’ve heard today might help us to do that.

The first reading was the one we read together – those words from Psalm 148. It’s a wonderful hymn of praise, and everything gets to join in; angels, animals – wild and domesticated – trees, plants and even natural phenomena like fire and hail, snow and mist and tempestuous wind. I love it that even the sea monsters get a look in. If ever there was a celebration of creation this is it. In fact it is creation itself that is doing the celebrating.  Quite how this works is a question we could ponder. How does a sea monster praise God? Is there a hymn book where they can choose their favourites …”wide, wide as the ocean,” perhaps…? What would a prayer written by snow and hail look like…?
I don’t really think, though that this was what the psalmist had in mind, even if we do find the occasional “creeping thing” in church, and birds on the wing if we leave the doors open.

The person who wrote this psalm had a serious point to make and that was that everything in God’s world had its place and its dignity and that God’s ideal for the world could only come to pass if they were treated like that. The creation story that the Bible begins with tells us what God thinks of what he has made. “God saw everything that he had made and indeed, it was very good!” says the story. We take the goodness of the created world for granted, but you wouldn’t have found that sort of attitude in the creation stories of other cultures around the Middle East at the time.

There are shared features, because they have shared roots. The Bible stories were influenced by Babylonian tales the Jewish people heard when they were in exile in Babylon 600 years before Christ , but the Bible stories have a very different message. The Babylonians told a story of the world coming into being as a side-effect of the union between the chief male and female gods. It was then shaped by battles for power between their offspring. The Greeks and the Romans have similar stories. There’s no real affection for the world in itself, let alone for the human beings that populate it. It isn’t “very good”; it just is. The idea that the world was loved by its Creator, that it was the summit of his work, his pride and joy seems to be quite distinctive to the Bible, and of course it makes all the difference to the way we regard the world, and God, too.

The gods of these other cultures didn’t come walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, longing to spend time with the people they had made and crying out “where are you?” as the God of the Bible does. Although, like them he is portrayed as angry sometimes, they never make themselves vulnerable or experience anguish in the way the God of the Old Testament does.  When his people reject him and drift away he keeps on calling to them.  “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?....My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” he says through the prophet Hosea. (Hosea 11. 8)

The point is that his creation matters to him, not just as some sort of trophy which reflects his greatness, but in and of itself, from the creeping things to the sea monsters, from the humblest child to the greatest king. Everything has a place; it is meant to be here. You are meant to be here. I am meant to be here.

And that brings me onto the second reading we heard today, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats.  In the first century it was common to believe in a Day of Judgement, a literal moment in the story of humanity, perhaps just around the corner, when God would break into human history and sort the world out. Two thousand years later most people probably think of this more as a metaphor, a symbolic reminder that our actions have consequences and that sooner or later we discover this – sometimes in ways we would rather not. When hard times come upon us and our communities – wars, recessions, civil strife, natural disaster – we soon discover whether we have the resources to cope with them. These resources are things we have built up beforehand through living together with justice and compassion. They are things like a cohesive community where people know and care for each other, a just distribution of wealth and land, the personal maturity that enables us to let go of status and possessions and not let people’s worth be defined by them.

Jesus’ parable reminds the people of his time, and us as well, that when the chickens come home to roost – whatever that moment of crisis might look like – it is whether we have learned to treat others as if they matter, as if they have just as much right to be there as we do that will make the difference in how we cope, whether we believe that God has created us in all our rich diversity as brothers and sisters, rather than strangers, rivals or enemies.

In the parable both groups are presented with identical scenarios – people in need of food and drink, homes, help, love - but how they see those people is very different. One group sees the needy people around them as nothing to do with them, not their concern , hardly worth noticing at all. The other sees that they are all – rich and poor, strong and needy –part of one family, with a connection to each other that means they can’t turn away. I was deeply touched this week at the reaction of the people of Italy to the drowning of African refugees off the island of Lampedusa. They called a national time of mourning, even those these people had never even made it to their shores at all. They recognised that what had happened to them was the business of everyone.

It’s a message which is as old as the hills, but which we continually need to rediscover. We belong to one another – not just the people, but the animals, the plants, the very rocks and oceans which form our planet. We know now, though, that this is not just pious sentiment, it is scientific fact. When we forget it, when we stop caring for the world around us and the people and other creatures who share it with us, we are all impoverished and we are all endangered as a result. If the sea monsters – the great whales – are struggling and declining, it is a sign of trouble for all of us, of changes in the oceans which sustain our lives too. At Messy Church last week we made the displays you see on the pillars, thinking about the different habitats in the world and the creatures that lived in them. We thought about long words like “camouflage” and marvelled at how creatures often had the same colouring as the landscapes they lived in – they belonged there, they had a place there, which we should honour. To go back to the question I posed early – how do sea monsters praise God?- perhaps that’s the answer, by being sea monsters, being themselves. Our job is to let them take up their space in the world. It is the same for each of us, and harvest reminds us of it. We are part of one another, part of one great whole, whatever we have to give, or need to receive, and if we forget that, the harvest is poorer for us all.