Sunday, 28 September 2014

Trinity 15: By whose authority...?

A friend of mine told me he was once arrested by the police for impersonating a priest. This was somewhat ironic because he was, in fact, a priest. It was back in the 1970s and to be fair his long hair and probably rather scruffy jeans were quite unusual among the clergy at the time. I can understand why the lady he was trying to visit was a bit dubious and dialled 999. I assume that eventually someone vouched for him, because he went on to have a long and successful ministry, but it was a dodgy moment.

Most us these days at some point have to prove our identity and our right to be in a particular place or do a particular task. Many workplaces issue ID of some sort , even if the Church has still not got around to it.  I do have a Seal School governors’ badge, though, which I am supposed to wear in school, like all the other governors. It not only tells people that we have that particular role, it also reassures them that we aren’t strangers who have wandered in off the streets and might be up to no good. In a previous parish I had an unpaid role as a chaplain to our local Asda store. I would stand with the welcomer at the entrance to the shop and chat to people who wanted a listening ear. And just like the welcomer, I was given my own official Asda name badge, emblazoned with the cheery greeting “happy to help!” It told shoppers that I was a bona fide member of staff, albeit unpaid and part time, if they should wonder what a vicar was doing hanging around in the foyer – which they often did.

The badges we wear say to anyone who might question us “this person has a right to be here, the authority to be doing what they are doing.”

In the Gospel reading today Jesus is asked for his “badge” by the chief priests and elders as he stands in the Temple, teaching the crowds. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”

This incident takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life, and the battle lines have already been drawn with these religious leaders. They know Jesus is going to be trouble. He’s ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, in a deliberate imitation of an ancient prophesy from the book of Zechariah which looked forward to the time when God would send a new leader for the people.  He’s overturned the tables of the traders in the Temple precincts. He’s annoyed a lot of powerful people. Who does he think he is to be creating such a stir? After all he’s just a carpenter from the province of Galilee. He’s not a priest. He’s not from some recognised rabbinical school. He isn’t a member of the ruling council. There is nothing about his external appearance or his background which says “Messiah” as far as these temple officials can see. He doesn’t have the right badge. And yet he’s acting as if he has a right to be there, proclaiming what he says is God’s word, doing what he says is God’s work.

I can see why his presence made the Temple authorities nervous, not just for themselves, but for their nation too. The Romans didn’t look kindly on anyone who seemed to be whipping up a revolution. If the Jewish authorities couldn’t put a stop to Jesus, there was every chance that the Romans would come down on them all like a ton of bricks. These Jewish leaders probably wanted God to act – of course they did - but they wanted him to act in ways that they were comfortable with, ways that preserved the status quo as far as possible. And so, probably, do most of us. We have just prayed in our collect that we might be “fervent in the fellowship of the gospel” . I said the words but you said the amen, so you agreed to it. My guess is, though, that we would prefer it if that fervency didn’t disrupt our routines too much. After all, we have jobs to do, cars to wash, lawns to mow, families to look after. We don’t want to miss Downton Abbey, or the golf, or a quiet nap with the Sunday papers or whatever else is on our agenda for today… I don’t think most of us would have welcomed what looked like a revolution either.

There’s another way in which these religious leaders are probably more like us than we’d like to admit. They struggled to know whether Jesus was the  genuine article or not, and so, I think would we. It isn’t always easy to tell whether we should follow this person or that, take this route or that. We look back at Jesus with the perspective of 2000 years of Christian faith. We think of him with a halo gleaming round his head. We don’t see the ordinary, poor, provincial preacher that the Temple authorities saw, someone who’d been on the road for a while and probably hadn’t had the chance of a decent wash or a change of clothes.

I can understand why my priestly friend found himself answering awkward questions from the police. How was that woman supposed to know if he was genuine? Anyone can make themselves a dog collar – all you need is an old washing up liquid bottle…

So why should these religious leaders have been able to tell a real Messiah from a fake? Jesus’ response gives us a clue. Instead of answering the question he throws one back. “By what authority did John baptise?” If these leaders say John the Baptist had God’s authority, why didn’t they follow him themselves? The answer is that it would have angered Herod, who’d had John killed. If they say, though, that John was just acting on his own misguided initiative, Herod might be happy but the crowds who had flocked to John will have their guts for garters. Jesus’ question exposes how they are trying to distinguish which path they should take in life. It is all to do with which badge they will find themselves wearing as a result, how others will see them, what will be happening on the exterior. It has nothing to do with the reality of the work John did at all.

That’s why Jesus goes on to put to them another question, this time in the form of a parable, which is all about reality.
A man has two sons. One says he won’t do the work his father’s asked him to, but then does it anyway. The other says he will do it, but then doesn’t. Which son would you rather have? The first son, of course, because at least at the end of the day the work has been done.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Ultimately it’s not the badge you wear, but the work you do that matters, says Jesus.
That applies in all walks of life. You can call yourself an architect, but if everything you build falls down, someone will soon be disputing your right to the label.

“The tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you,” says Jesus. It sounds pretty offensive to these leaders, but that is because they are thinking of the kingdom like some royal court room into which you might process in order of precedence. But for Jesus, God’s kingdom was simply the place where he was at work, wherever that was, changing, forgiving and healing people. The tax collectors and prostitutes who had come to him were already in that kingdom because God was already healing them, changing them, forgiving them, doing the work they needed him to do. That’s why they flocked to Jesus. It wasn’t just his words but his whole way of life that transformed them. He came and ate with them when no other respectable person would. He insisted that they were equal members of his new community, and stood up for them when others questioned that. Ultimately he died rather than going back on that message. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… He became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” says Paul in our first reading.

Jesus didn’t need a badge that said “Messiah” on it, because it was written right through him. It was his authenticity that convinced those who followed him. You can’t fake that, and you can’t disguise it either.

But now comes the really scary part, because that beautiful hymn of faith that Paul writes is introduced by these words: “Let that same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. Paul isn’t writing to the Philippians to tell them who Jesus is. He is writing to them them who they – and we – are meant to be. He is calling us to live with the same authenticity, the same love and trust and humility, that Christ himself displayed. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” he says. He doesn’t mean “work out” in the sense that we might “work out” a sum or the answer to a crossword puzzle. It is more like the “workout” you might have at a gym. It is about putting into practice the message of God’s love, living what we believe.

Do this “with fear and trembling” he says “for it is God who is at work in you”. When we let God do his stuff, heal us, change us, love us, as he wants to and as we need him to, something awesome can happen – something that really might make us tremble. That is what those tax-collectors and prostitutes, and all those others who first followed Jesus discovered. People who felt like nobodies discovered they were children of God. Lives that seemed to be heading for a dead-end were transformed.

If all this sounds challenging, then I think that is because it should.  Either our faith matters - this faith we come together to celebrate and ponder week by week – in which case we should be doing everything we can to live it, working it out in our lives, or it doesn’t matter, in which case why do we bother to come at all?

Badges and labels have their uses, but it is the testimony of our whole lives which ultimately tells others who we are, and whose we are – people in whom God is at work, citizens of his kingdom, part of his family, growing in his likeness day by day. Let us pray that it will be so for us.


Sunday, 14 September 2014

Holy Cross Day

“We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles...”

Today is Holy Cross Day. It’s the day when we commemorate one of those ancient events in the Church’s history which you may want to take with a pinch of salt. According to legend, in 326 AD the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Constantine was the first Christian emperor, of course, and his mother was also a Christian. While there it is said that she “found” the cross on which Jesus had been crucified, along with those of the two thieves who had been crucified with him, and the sign which had been placed above his head. They knew which cross belonged to Jesus because a dying woman who was touched by a piece of it was instantly healed - allegedly. Believe it if you like.

The people of the time certainly did believe it, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was soon built over the site.  On September 14 of the year it was finished, the cross was brought out of the church so that people could venerate it for the first time, and it then became a must-see on the newly established pilgrim route to Jerusalem. An early pilgrim to the site described how it would be brought out with great ceremony, held by a bishop and guarded by deacons, so people could file past and kiss it. The guards weren’t just there for decoration. They were there because on one occasion a rather over-enthusiastic pilgrim had gone further than kissing the cross, and bitten a chunk out of it instead. Everyone wanted a piece of this relic, quite literally in some cases.

If that early pilgrim found that the cross was a bit tough to chew on – and way too hard to swallow –there’s a sense in which he isn’t alone. The cross has always presented problems for people. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians Christ’s crucifixion – his death on that cross - was “a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”

The problem for Jewish people was that the idea that God’s Messiah might die, let alone die in such a humiliating way, was completely at odds with their understanding of what the Messiah should be like. If this was God’s chosen one, why would God let him die?  They took Jesus crucifixion as proof that God had rejected him.

The problem for the Greeks was rather different. These were people who had grown up with a world-view shaped by the classical Greek philosophers – people like Plato. They weren’t necessarily living in Greece or even ethnically Greek. Greek thinking had spread around the civilised world in the time of Alexander the Great. If you rated yourself as a sophisticated person then you thought like a Greek about life, the universe and everything. The Greek idea of God was of something perfect, distant, unchangeable, above suffering. A man dying 1on a cross, humiliated, messy, helpless – how could there be anything holy about that? As Paul said, it was foolishness to them.

So, whatever background you came from the cross was a problem. It just seemed all wrong that a holy person, a person favoured by God – let alone God himself – should suffer and die like this.
It’s easy for us to lose sight of how offensive the cross seemed then; we don’t see people being crucified. We bejewel the cross and use it as a decoration, but when we look beneath the glittering surface the cross can still pose the same problems for us as it did for our ancestors. Why did Jesus have to die like this?  Of course the resurrection changes our view of the cross, but it doesn’t cancel out the pain of Jesus death. Why couldn’t God have rescued him at the last minute, prevented him from having to go through this. Why did his followers have to witness it, and have their faith so brutally challenged? Why did the early church have to wrestle with this stumbling block, this folly? Those are questions that are just as powerful now as they were then.

Christians over the ages have come up with all sorts of answers to that question of why Jesus had to die, often explaining it in terms of some sort of cosmic transaction, a deal done in the heavenly places. They have used the imagery of sacrifice – Jesus as a pure offering which opened up the way to God.  They’ve used the image of Jesus as a triumphant warrior, going in to fight a heavenly battle on our behalf – that was popular in the warrior societies of the dark ages and the early medieval period. They’ve used the image of Jesus as a sort of ransom paid to release humanity from the prison of sin and death. There’s yet another image, that of the cross bringing healing, in our Gospel today, which echoes the story in the Old Testament reading. The predominant image in Protestant churches over the last few centuries, though, has been that of the law court. Our sins separate us from God, says this image, and a penalty must be paid for those sins, just as it would be in a human court, to put us back into the right relationship with him and bridge that gulf. Jesus pays the fine that is too large for us to pay.

All these images have their strengths. We still understand the idea of sacrifice; someone laying down their life for others. That warrior imagery is great if you feel you are facing a mighty foe, and need a hero on your side. Jesus as the ransom works if you are feeling stuck in a prison of sin or despair. Many people have found healing as they have looked to Christ. And if you are weighed down with guilt then the thought that Jesus has paid a price that you can’t can bring you the sense of forgiveness you need to find new life.  

But these are just images, models we have created, and they break down when you push them too hard. Why did God need Jesus to sacrifice himself? Who is that ransom paid to – God? Satan? How can a death bring healing?  

The image of the law courts raises a whole raft of questions.
Why does someone have to pay a fine at all – couldn’t God just forgive if he wanted to? And  how can it work for one person’s death to wipe out someone else’s sin – doesn’t it give the message that we can do what we like, without consequences for us? This model also assumes that we are hopelessly and permanently alienated from God in the first place, when throughout the Bible we are told that he is as close to us as our own heartbeat, whatever we have done, walking beside us, loving us with a love that nothing can defeat.

The trouble is that whenever we use imagery to talk of God we run the risk of trying to make those images bear more weight than they are able to. We can end up worshipping the image rather than worshipping God. In fact, these cosmic theories can distract us from the real, and very earthy, human event that happened in Jerusalem on that  first Good Friday. Why did Jesus die? Basically, because people killed him. And we don’t need to find a complicated theological explanation for this – it was entirely predictable that it would happen. He proclaimed a message which was good news for those who were oppressed, but bad news for their oppressors, which threatened to overturn political and religious applecarts. Jesus’ death happened because he wouldn’t go back on that message. He wouldn’t turn away from those he had come to help. He died for our sins in the sense that it was a sinful world which made his death inevitable.

Jesus’ death was part and parcel of his life, a life dedicated to proclaiming  that God was with humanity, a life in which he showed what it looked like when God was one of us, what it looked like to be truly alive, fully human, as well as divine. That was never going to go down well with those who had a vested interest in treating others as if they were less than human. And if he came today we would kill him all over again because we are no different.

From the moment of his birth, Jesus was “God with us”, Emmanuel - in the vulnerable baby in the manger, who only narrowly escaped with his life from the murderous rage of Herod, “God with us”, in the everyday life of the carpenter from Galilee, and “God with us” even in suffering and death, the times when all hope seems lost.

The power of the cross is its message that even there, at the lowest moment, the lowest place, the place where all you can see is failure, God is at work, God is with us. In fact, especially in these times, God is at work and with us. That was a vital message for the early Christians who often faced brutal deaths themselves – “the power and the wisdom of God,”as Paul put it –  and it is a vital message for us too.

A very wise old priest once said to me “there are two types of people; those who have been crucified and those who haven’t” and it was the crucified ones whom he thought had the richest possibilities in their lives. These were the ones whom life had broken in some way, who couldn’t pretend they had it all sorted out, who often looked like failures to others, and yet in falling into the abyss had discovered that they had fallen into the hands of God. They had learned, as you never can when you are clinging onto a fa├žade of success, that however fickle life was, God’s love was deep and indestructible. The cross of Christ is the place where God gives us what we most need – all we really need - the knowledge of his presence.

That cross that Helena found in Jerusalem might have been the one on which Jesus died’, or it might have been that of some forgotten victim of Roman oppression whose name we’ll never know. I think she may have been right to proclaim it as holy though, because whoever suffered and died on it, the message of Jesus’ crucifixion is that God was there too, even in the darkness of death, and that he can be just as present with us, bringing us through the darkness to new light and life.


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Trinity 12: Where two or three are gathered

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” said Jesus.

I read a wonderful post on an Christian blog this week, and I’d like to read you the first part of it. It might make you scratch your heads a bit, but don’t worry, because when I read you the second part of it later on, it will fall into place.
There is no doubt that going to Church is a waste of time.

After all, you could be on Twitter. You could be in B&Q or digging the garden or in bed. Or watching Great British Bake-Off on BBC iPlayer. Or checking the emails on the work Blackberry so you can respond to your boss's responses, and make it look like you're dedicated before the boss checks again. Or you could be replaying the highlights of the latest England game.

[If you go to church] You will have to share your time with at least one, and possibly hundreds, of people who often don't have much in common with you…

You will be asked - though not forced -  to donate money - partly to fund a building, partly to pay the person whose talks you don’t like. And then you will frequently be asked to donate money to help people who have never heard of you and may not thank you. You may well be asked to give your time to help people whose position in society means they are unlikely ever to return the honour in this life.

You will spend an hour or more in singing and expressing the praises of what you cannot see, and cannot prove exists…. You will often then drink poor quality coffee.
As I said, I’ll read you the rest of it later. It’s a provocative piece, but it asks a good question.
What are we doing here? Why do we bother to turn up? Is it a waste of time? Many people would say it is – that’s why they’re not here. If you think that time is money, that everything you do should make you a profit or buy you some influence, then maybe they are right, because there’s nothing very obvious to be gained by giving up your Sunday mornings to worship.

Church can be a hard sell. Why should you want to confess your sins, listen to baffling bits of ancient writing which you might not understand or agree with, and end up on your knees at the altar rail next to people who you don’t know  - or perhaps know all too well!  - and be expected to give up your hard-earned cash to fund it. It doesn’t surprise me that so many people, given the choice, opt for a long lie-in and a lazy breakfast instead.

And yet, here we are, and for many of us this is a regular habit. We know what it’s like, but we still come back for more. 

From what people tell me, there are all sorts of reasons for that. Some of you come for a moment of quiet reflection in a busy week. Some come to see friends and be part of the local community. Some come for the music and the shared rituals. Some come for the nourishment of communion, or the nourishment of the Bible. Whatever the reason, though, being here clearly matters to you, because here you are.

People often say that you can be a Christian without coming to church, and in a way they’re right. It’s quite true that you can pray wherever you are, and live a good life too. But in a way they are also wrong, because it’s clear that if we follow Jesus – and that is what being a Christian is about – then we are following someone who was profoundly committed to being with others, exploring faith with others, creating communities that were marked with love and where all were valued. He had no great marketing scheme for doing this, no slick publicity. His entire method was to gather a bunch of people together, talk about God a bit and see what happened next.

Of course there was nothing new or unusual about people coming together as communities.  People were used to being part of a group. It was hard to survive on your own in the ancient world. You needed the support of your family, household, tribe or village. But these communities were usually strictly hierarchical, rigidly structured and fundamentally unequal. Husbands, wives, children, slaves, clients and patrons; as long as everyone knew their place in the pecking order and stuck to it everything was fine. But if you didn’t fit the space allotted to you, you’d be in for a hard time.

The community Jesus built was very different. He started off by choosing a few people to form its nucleus, but they were strange choices, fishermen and tax-collectors among others, people with no real qualifications for being leaders – or even followers. But then more people started to show up, and they were even stranger; women and children and foreigners, sick and disabled people, prostitutes and other outsiders, as well as those who just plain curious, or even up to no good, like Judas. But that seemed to be fine. The only qualification for being part of Jesus’ community was that you wanted to be. There were no interviews, no entrance exams, no security checks, no CVs required. And, stranger still, according to Jesus, everyone in this community was of equal value, with a voice that needed to be heard. He put a child in the midst of his disciples when they squabbled about who was the greatest among them. “This little one is”, he said. “This is the one you need to be like.” And when the members of his community got things wrong he didn’t chuck them out, or relegate them to some outer circle of belonging. He forgave them, loved them and helped them to grow. Being together with others mattered to him. That’s why it should matter to us too. That’s why I am so glad that a couple of members of the congregation have decided to start a Home Group – details on the pew leaflet.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. Something holy happens when we come together; that was his message. And it doesn’t happen despite our failings and fallings out. In an odd kind of way, it happens because of them. We learn to forgive, to listen to one another, to discover gifts in each other. We stop thinking we know it all, but we also stop thinking that we know nothing and have nothing to contribute. We are given the chance to find out what needs changing in our lives, because we get to know ourselves in relationship to others in ways we never could on our own. Holy things happen, things that make us grow, things that lift our eyes and widen our horizons. Whether there are two or three of us, or forty or fifty, Jesus shows up in our midst when we come together, healing us, setting us straight, sending us off in new directions.

Being together can be challenging, though, and as that piece I began with pointed out, there are plenty of other things we could do on a Sunday morning which might seem like more fun. It was no easier for the early Christians either, as our readings today remind us.  Alongside Paul’s warnings about “revelling, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness,” he also warns the Christians in Rome against “quarrelling and jealousy”. It’s a sure sign that this was exactly what they were getting up to – he wouldn’t mention it otherwise.
He reminds them, too, that they are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another”. It seems they were lapsing back into those old hierarchical ways of relating that they were used to, treating their relationships as a series of favours and debts, rather than being open and generous with each other.

In the Gospel reading Jesus’ words give a very practical way of dealing with times when things are going wrong like this. The “church” he refers to didn’t exist until after his resurrection, of course, so we can assume that Matthew was putting words into his mouth, but they are in line with the way he worked. He talks about responding to problems in a proportionate way, rather than leaping straight to the nuclear option. The aim is reconciliation, not simply coming out on top or shaming the one who has offended against you. There‘s a delightful irony too, when Jesus says that, if all else fails you should treat the offender “as a Gentile and a tax-collector” . After all, Jesus counted Gentiles and tax-collectors as friends. He consistently loved and welcomed them, so even when all attempts at reconciliation are spent, it seems that all is not lost.

Come together, be together, is the message of these passages, even when you don’t agree or don’t see the point or feel bored or frustrated. Come together, because when we do, Jesus shows up in the midst of us, whether we are at peace or at war with each other. Whatever’s going on, whatever’s going wrong, Jesus shows up and holy things happen if we are prepared to let them, things which set us off in new directions, bringing us freedom and peace and changing us for ever.

Let me finish with the end of that blog post I started with, and its provocative question, “Is going to church a waste of time?”

[When you come to church, it says] You will be expressing for this short period of time - even if it's the only time this week - that the world does not revolve around you. That you are, if rich, obliged to help those less privileged. If you are on the floor, you can pretend [or maybe believe] for one hour that you are able to be raised up. You will be saying, even if the echoes of the working week have rung around your head from time to time, that making money and climbing career ladders [are] not all that matters. You will be showing that it is possible for a varied group of people, with different lives, political views and priorities, to come together with a common purpose. You will have had the chance - in a limited way - to express love to other people. And you will have the chance to dream the impossible dream that, although this world is [awe-filled] and beautiful, there is a future that will be more [awe-filled] and infinitely beautiful.


Monday, 1 September 2014

Trinity 11: What is, is

There is a theme running through all our readings today, and it could be summed up in the three words, “what is, is”. They are all about facing reality, and our reluctance to do so. The prophet Jeremiah has been called to warn his people of the advancing armies of the Babylonians, who will eventually destroy Jerusalem, but no one wants to hear his message, and he’s been shunned. St Peter, in the Gospel reading, is horrified when Jesus says that he will suffer and be killed. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Peter just can’t imagine how this could be. He thinks that Jesus has just got it wrong.
The passage we heard from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the Psalm have also got something to say about dealing with what is – the things that turn out be non-negotiables – but I’ll come back to them later.

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality”, said the poet T.S. Eliot, and I think he was right. If it all seems too much, or too difficult, we just decide not to see what is there in front of us. The report this week exposing child abuse in Rotherham is a case in point. A lot of people seem to have known it was going on, and yet somehow they were able to put it out of their minds, to pretend it wasn’t really happening, or wasn’t really so bad. The only people who couldn’t discount it like that were the children who were being abused – everyone else’s reluctance to acknowledge it left them carrying the burden of that reality on their own.

We are all capable of refusing to acknowledge the truth of the world around us, though.  A relationship that could have been repaired fails because we’d rather pretend everything was fine. A health problem becomes serious because we’d rather not think about it. People self-medicate with alcohol or drugs or comfort-eating in an attempt to blot out what they’d rather not see or say, but only end up making it worse.

In the science fiction film, The Matrix, the hero, Neo, gradually comes to realise that what he thinks is reality – a comfortable, normal existence - is actually a sort of communal dream. Everything seems normal, but in fact the human race has been enslaved. People are being kept dormant in a sort of virtual reality – the Matrix of the title – while the energy their bodies produce is harvested to fuel the machines that have taken over. The crucial moment in the film comes when all this is revealed to Neo by someone who turns out to be a resistance leader. “The Matrix is everywhere,” he says. “It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

And then Neo is offered a choice. He can take one of two pills. The blue pill will send him back into the dream world, where he will forget all he has learned and be happy, but enslaved again. The red pill will mean that the dream vanishes and he’ll have to face reality, and fight against the system that has enslaved him.
Which will he choose?
Which would you choose?

It’s a powerful moment because, although this is science fiction, the choice between illusion and reality – the blue pill and the red pill - is one which we all have to make throughout our lives. Will we accept that “what is, is” and deal with it, or do we prefer to pretend that everything is fine and look away from anything that disturbs us. Most of us, at least some of the time will choose not to see what we don’t want to, even though in the end reality will almost certainly catch up with us.

Why do we act like this? For all sorts of reasons.
Sometimes we are afraid we’ll be overwhelmed and won’t be able to cope if we acknowledge that all is not well. We don’t know what to do about that broken relationship, and we’re afraid that if we say something it will all go pear-shaped and then what? Or that situation at work which needs to be dealt with – but what if we find we’ve put our own job on the line by doing so? It’s too much of a risk. We worry that we’ll be left on our own, out in the cold.

Sometimes we struggle to acknowledge a problem because it means admitting that we aren’t the person we’d like to think we were. We’ve always thought of ourselves as capable, able to deal with life, successful – how can we be feeling depressed or anxious? How can we be failing?

And some things challenge our view of others, our view of God, our world-view. We have a creeping suspicion that some opinion we’ve held all our lives just might be wrong, but we can’t acknowledge our doubts. If we do, the whole edifice might come crashing down around us.

That is what is happening to the people of Israel when they hear Jeremiah’s doom-laden words. They’ve always assumed that because they were God’s chosen people, they would be protected from real disaster. Plagues and famines and wars might threaten them, but when push came to shove, God would always rush to the rescue at the last moment, because if his chosen people went under, what would that say about him?  

It puts me in mind of a childhood friend of mine. Those of us over a certain age might remember the Tufty club, a road safety initiative that was big in the 1960s, headed up by a squirrel called Tufty. My friend , when a child, was utterly convinced that because she belonged to the Tufty club, she could never be run over. It was a dangerous delusion…though I have to say she never actually was run over.

Jeremiah’s compatriots were operating under the same sort of delusion. They were in the “God of Israel club”. They were convinced they were invincible. It was only when  the Babylonians fell on Jerusalem and razed it to the ground, that they are confronted by the truth they couldn’t bear to see.

Peter seems to have felt the same way about Jesus. He’s the Messiah. He can’t die. God wouldn’t allow that to happen to his chosen one. Surely not…

Both Peter and the people of Israel eventually discover that they are wrong, but the good news is that they also discover that reality, however painful, is actually the gateway to a new life they couldn’t have imagined.

It is while the Israelites are in exile in Babylon, that they start to think more seriously about their faith, to gather their scriptures together, to figure out what really matters to them. They discover that God has not deserted them, despite what feels to them like disgrace. He is with them in this time of trouble, and eventually brings them home again.

Peter resists the idea that Jesus will die right up to the moment when he is arrested and put on trial. When that happens his whole world seems to crumble. He denies even knowing Jesus, let alone following him. But though he seems to have given up on Jesus, Jesus has not given up on him. After the resurrection, far from being angry with Peter, Jesus makes him the leader of the new movement that will follow his way. Who better than Peter, the one who knows for himself that the most abject failure, the most awful reality, can lead to the most glorious new beginning? What is, is, and whatever it is, God is at work in it, to be found in the worst of troubles once our eyes are open to see him.

Of course it would be very much better if we didn’t have to wait for disaster to fall before we were able to face reality, and that brings me to the other two readings we heard today. St Paul writes to the church in Rome, a church which is trying to follow the way of Christ in a very hostile environment. Their reality is very bleak. Many will face death. We could understand them not wanting to think about it, not wanting to see it, wanting to run away, to distract themselves in any way they could. But Paul’s advice to them is quite the opposite. Instead of running away, they need to put down roots, be where they are – persevering in prayer , being patient in suffering . Instead of closing their eyes, they need to open them, to see clearly how in all the small things they do they can build each other up, establish their community, so that they have the resources and strength to be ready for  whatever tests might come. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another. Do not be haughty. Don’t run away from evil, or close your eyes to it, or repay it with more evil .  Instead, overcome evil with good.

The Psalmist says “I have lived with integrity” and that is what Paul is telling these Roman Christians to do. Integrity doesn’t just mean telling the truth, but living truthfully, seeing what is there and dealing with it, day by day, every day. When they do that – yes - they will have to acknowledge the pain around them and in them, but they will also be able to see the good things that surround them too, the love of one another and the love of God.

Today’s readings aren’t comfortable ones. In a sense they are like that pill that strips away the illusions. But they are good news for us as we look at our own lives and acknowledge that “what is, is” because they remind us that whatever that “is,” is, whatever our reality contains, God is too, and he is the ultimate reality which no amount of evil can defeat.