Sunday, 30 August 2015

Trinity 13: The Tradition of the elders

“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” the Pharisees ask Jesus. Tradition: it’s a strange thing, but very powerful.

A few years ago I was taking a wedding rehearsal. It was one of those weddings where there were a lot of bridesmaids, and I’ve tended to find that the more bridesmaids people have, the less use they are collectively – they all stand around comparing their nail varnish, rather than looking after the bride. So I took special care at the rehearsal to remind these bridesmaids of the essentials of their job, which is to look after the bride. In particular I told them that it was really, really important that when the bride got out of the car at the lych gate they made sure that her dress didn’t touch the ground until she got into the church. They looked at me wide eyed,  “Why? Is that supposed to be bad luck?” “ No,” I said, “it’s just that it will get dirty if you don’t.” I thought I was stating the obvious, but I can understand why those bridesmaids assumed this must be a tradition they had missed out on somewhere, because weddings are festooned with traditions, many of which have no apparent sense to them. I’m glad I managed to prevent another one being added inadvertently, because, my experience is that it is easy for traditions to become superstitions, and for people to feel that they have blighted the marriage somehow if they don’t keep them.

The word “tradition” literally means something that has been “handed down”. It’s from the Latin “tradere” – it gives us trade and trader too. Traditions can be very good and useful, ways of conveying important knowledge and skills. Our ancestors passed down traditions about which plants were poisonous and which good to eat –things they’d discovered by trial and very painful error. They handed down skills, like how to make a wheel, so that we didn’t have to reinvent it in every generation.  But the trouble with things that are handed down, like all those wedding traditions, is that it is very easy to forget why they were important in the first place. Out of context they become hindrances rather than helps. That’s what had happened to the Pharisees who accused Jesus and his followers of disregarding the traditions of their ancestors.

Jesus’ disciples, they say, aren’t washing their hands before eating. Now it’s important to stress that this isn’t about hygiene. We know that handwashing is very important in order to kill the bacteria and viruses that would otherwise make us ill. But the Pharisees didn’t know anything about germs, and that’s not what this is about. This is about spiritual impurity, which you got by coming into contact with a whole host of things; dead bodies, skin diseases, discharges of any sort, or by breaking the ritual laws in other ways – or associating with those who did. If you weren’t ritually clean you were excluded from God’s presence.  Ritual washing would make you clean again, though, and the Pharisees seem to have taken to washing before every meal, just in case. You never knew, after all, what might have been going on in the lives of people you had bumped into in the marketplace. You could have been inadvertently contaminated without even knowing it. Better safe than sorry. But just imagine how that felt to the people they were trying to avoid? They felt judged, stigmatised and excluded.

No wonder the Pharisees disapproved of Jesus and his followers. They knew perfectly well what kind of people they associated with - lepers, foreigners, tax collectors, prostitutes – people who they thought were walking bundles of uncleanness. If ever there were people who ought to be washing, it was surely them. But they didn’t, and Jesus didn’t seem to be at all bothered. It was as if he was saying that these sinful people were loved by God just as they were. Which, of course, he was.

Strictly speaking, then, according to the law of Moses and the traditions of Judaism, the Pharisees were right to be concerned. And it wouldn’t be the only time Jesus had broken the law, or at least seemed to sit very lightly to it – working on the Sabbath was another recurrent gripe they had with him.

It’s not that Jesus didn’t care how people lived – in fact the standards of love and service he called people too were often more demanding than the law of Moses. As he says in this passage, never mind what you put in your mouth – that’s an easy thing to control – it’s what’s in your heart that matters, and we all know that that is far more complicated to sort out.  What distinguishes Jesus from the Pharisees, though, is that instead of telling people that they have to change before they can draw near to God, he starts by telling people they are already loved and welcome. The change in their lives will come as a response to God’s love. 

One of his later followers – the author of the first letter of John – said “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4.19). And in the second reading today, James tells us that a right relationship with God is his gift to us, not something that we create through our own efforts. Change is a result of God’s love, not a precondition for it.   

That’s the heart of the good news of the Christian Gospel – God’s gift of grace to us -  but it’s not the only good news that we can find in these readings we have heard today.

The second piece of good news comes in the very fact that Jesus is clearly prepared here, and elsewhere, to argue with the traditions and laws of his people, to wrestle, and sometimes disagree with what was regarded as sacred truth. It is good news because in doing so, he gives permission for us to do so too.

Moses said to the people of Israel in our first reading, “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” He’s talking about the lists of rules which God had given for this fledgling nation, rules which covered every aspect of daily life.  It sounds very straightforward. Here are the commandments – now keep them. No more, no less.

If we want to treat the Bible as a simple instruction manual, a book of rules, here is our justification for doing so. But it’s clear from today’s Gospel reading that this wasn’t how Jesus treated it. He respected and paid attention to what had been handed down – the traditions , written or verbal, which his ancestors had found valuable – but he was prepared to reinterpret them, or even set them aside if they were getting in the way of the healing and the growth of the living, breathing, hurting human beings in front of him. In him God was speaking to us through a Living Word. Jesus was a flesh and blood reminder that God can’t be pinned to a page of print, but comes to us anew in every time and place.

If you like your religion simple, as some of these Pharisees did, that might feel a bit unsettling, but it really wasn’t all that revolutionary, even at the time of Jesus. In fact, if we look at what we now call the Old Testament we find it often argues with itself. It speaks with a variety of voices and gives us many different viewpoints.

The law of Moses, for example, forbade marriage between Jews and non- Jews (Deut 7.3). Some Jewish leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah fiercely upheld the law, making those who had intermarried put aside their wives and children, no matter how good and loving those marriages were, or the impact on their families. But alongside that example of strict adherence to the law we also have the book of Ruth, a foreigner from the land of Moab, who married the Israelite, Boaz. Their love story was celebrated in the Scriptures, and she became the great-grandmother of King David. She was highly honoured in Jewish faith.  There was no condemnation for her.

If it surprises or disturbs us when the Bible doesn’t fit neatly together, that’s probably because we think of it as one book, which we feel ought to tell one story. But it wasn’t written like that at all. Instead it’s a library, composed over a long period. The list of books regarded as sacred which were eventually bound together into what we call the Bible, wasn’t agreed on for several centuries after Christ, and even then it wasn’t completely settled. Today’s epistle, the book of James was almost thrown out by the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, who famously called it a “strawy epistle”. Different branches of the Church still don’t see eye to eye on the Bible; the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have eighty-one books in theirs to the sixty-six of Protestant Churches.

So the very make-up of the Bible, with its baggy, inconsistent, but fascinating assortment of writings, should  tell us that we can’t simply pick out individual verses and apply them unthinkingly to contexts and circumstances far removed from the ones they were written for, especially if we use them to judge and condemn others. If we are serious about following the pattern that Jesus left us then, like him, we need to learn to see under the surface of these ancient stories, and listen for the voice of God speaking today, in our language and for our world.   

The Bible can be many things to us. It can provide inspiration and food for thought. It can open the doors of our imagination. It can bring comfort, and challenge. It can help us to be more aware of God in our own lives by showing us God at work in the lives of those who met him long ago. But it can’t be a simple book of rules, and when we try to make it one, it often becomes dangerous and damaging.

I began by talking about tradition – the things which are handed down to us. The Bible is part of that tradition for Christians, a precious gift for us to pass on to others. But let’s make sure that we are passing on not a collection of dead rules, but something through which we can discover the Living Word of God afresh.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Trinity 12: Choices

“As for me and for my household, we will serve the Lord” says Joshua. He and the people of Israel have reached the end of a long journey, the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan. They had been in Egypt for 400 years, and they had all but forgotten the land, and the God, of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But God hadn’t forgotten them. He sent Moses to speak for them. He sent plagues to persuade Pharaoh to let them go. He sent a strong east wind to part the Red Sea. He sent manna and quails to feed them on their long trek across the wilderness. And finally, after 40 long years they made it to their destination. They crossed the River Jordan under Joshua’s leadership and started to carve out a space for themselves in this new land.

Perhaps they thought it would all be plain sailing from now on. Perhaps they thought the challenges were all over. But Joshua knew that this moment was the most dangerous of all. In the desert, it was manna or nothing, God’s way or no way. They couldn’t have survived without his help. But now they were in the land of milk and honey, with fertile land and abundant crops, and abundant choices too. God had called them out of Egypt to form a new nation, founded on his Ten Commandments, but would they follow his ways or not? They could revert to worshiping the gods of Egypt; these were the gods they were most familiar with, after all. They could assimilate with the tribes who were already living in Canaan, adopting their Gods and customs. In an era when people thought of gods as territorial, just like human chieftains, it made sense to keep the local deities happy. The hardest option would be to stick with this God of Joshua and Moses who had brought them across the desert, and live according to the laws he had given them.

The details of some of those laws can seem very odd and outdated to us, of course – complex food laws or laws rooted in a very different understanding of gender, family relationships and sexuality than we hold now.  But the principles that underlie them are still accessible to us.  God called on the Israelites to love him and one another, to care for the poor, to lift up the powerless, to welcome the stranger. Some commandments are as counter-cultural now as they were then. “Don’t reap to the edges of your fields,” say the commandments, “so that there is grain for those who have no land. Let them help themselves to it.” (Leviticus 19.9) I can’t imagine that going down too well with today’s food producers – it hardly sounds like efficiency. “Every fifty years return any land you have bought to its original owners. Land isn’t yours to buy or sell or own anyway; it all belongs to God.” (Leviticus 25) Imagine how that would go down with those whose wealth comes from inherited property.

Whatever we think of individual commandments today, the emphasis of the law as a whole was that what we do matters. If each of us lives well, day by day, we will have communities and nations that are good to live in too. We shape our world by the way we live.

So Joshua and the Israelites had choices to make. And each one of them had to make their own decisions. Joshua knew what he was going to do. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” He was going to stick with the one who had rescued, fed and guided them across the desert, who had kept them alive through their long years of wandering.

In the Gospel reading, Simon Peter is presented with the same sort of choice. The passage we heard is the end of the discussion that followed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. It was fine when Jesus was handing out free bread and fishes. Then everyone wanted to be his friend. But that was just a meal for a day. What he really wanted was to give people food that would feed them for life, and that meant feeding on him, following him, letting their lives be shaped by him – we are what we eat. Suddenly it all began too sound a bit too much like serious commitment, and the crowds began to evaporate. Jesus looked around at his closest followers. “What about you? Will you go too?” But Peter had already made his choice. “Who else can we go to? You have the words of eternal life.”  He didn’t have to follow Jesus, but it clearly made no sense to him not to. Not that it was always going to be easy; Peter doesn’t say that Jesus has the words of eternal happiness. But he knew that Jesus had brought him to life, with a life that he had never found before, a life that  somehow shimmered with the glory of God - eternal life.

Eternal life in the Bible isn’t just, or even mainly, about getting into heaven when we die. It is something that starts here and now. It is about quality and depth and meaning and it seems to me that it is something we all long for. It is about discovering that we matter to God, that we aren’t just numbers, cogs in the wheels of the universe, disposable collections of atoms, but people who are unique and beloved and called to love in return.  This was what Peter had found in Jesus, and he wasn’t going to give it up just because the crowds have abandoned him. Later on there would be one occasion when he turned away from Christ, when Jesus was arrested and tried. Peter denied even knowing him then. But as soon as he had done it he realised it was the worst mistake of his life, and wept bitterly. And after the resurrection nothing – not even his own suffering and persecution – deflected him from his allegiance to Jesus.  Like Joshua, Peter had made his choice.

We live in a society that is full of choices; choices in the supermarkets, choices between schools and hospitals and jobs. In reality, of course, many of those choices are only open to you if you have enough money, but for those who can choose, those multiple options can become as much of a burden as a gift. How do you know you are choosing the right thing? Would that other brand of coffee, that other school or hospital, that other job be better?
If those choices feel tough, it is even harder when it comes to choosing a way of life, a pattern for living. Fewer and fewer people want to tick a box on a census form that identifies them as following a particular faith, but for most the “atheist” box isn’t the option they want either. My experience is that the vast majority of people put themselves in the “spiritual but not religious” category. They are open to the possibility that there are dimensions to life that can’t be grasped entirely by the mind, and they are looking for meaning, but they don’t want to commit themselves to one specific way of exploring what that might mean for them. Perhaps they fear it will cut off other avenues. Perhaps they are afraid of the impact the decision might have on their lives. Perhaps they are afraid that others will just think they are odd.

I can understand those fears. Organised religion has a bad name, and it is partially justified. It has been and can still be used as a tool to oppress and harm. But the fact is that all of us, whether we like it or not, find in the end that we have walked one path through life rather than another whether we chose that path consciously or not. We are guided by these values rather than those. We see the world through this framework rather than that. We travel with these companions rather than those.. As Bob Dylan perceptively sang, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/ But you're gonna have to serve somebody.”
If we don’t make our choices deliberately, we find in the end that we have made them by default, swept along by the tides of life. Resisting commitment is just as much a choice as choosing it, and when we look back, wondering how on earth we got to where we are, maybe not liking it much, we may wish we’d been paying more attention to those moments when we could have taken an opportunity which has now passed to give ourselves whole-heartedly to something or someone.

Some choices can’t be revisited; we can’t go back and undo the past, but the good news is that however far we’ve come through life, we still have choices to make for the future. Today we will have choices about the way we spend our time or our money, the way we treat those around us, the way we think about ourselves and others, the words we speak – words that build up or tear down. This week we will have decisions to make at work or at home or in our communities which will shape them in small ways or large. Which will be the right ones?

There are no easy answers, but if we are wise we will at least try to make our choices consciously, and one of the keys to choosing well is surely the same  for us as it was for Peter. Which of the options before us sounds like “words of eternal life”? Which path leads us towards a life in which we, and others, can find their dignity and true identity as beloved children of God? Which choice takes us beyond ourselves and our own narrow interests to a world in which there is justice for all? These are the paths which Jesus took. May we find and follow them too, so that we can walk in the footsteps of the Holy One of God, and know that eternal life which was so strong, that even the cross couldn’t snuff it out.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Trinity 11: Eat this bread

John 6.51-58

“The one who eats this bread will live forever”, says Jesus in our Gospel reading. This passage comes after the story of the feeding of the 5000, but it isn’t the bread he has just distributed to the crowds that he means. He is talking about his own flesh and blood. We are so used to this imagery that we probably don’t stop to think about it too often, but if we do it’s not hard to  see why it was so baffling and offensive to those who first heard it. It said in the Old Testament law that eating flesh with the blood in it was forbidden. People believed that the blood contained the life-force, given by God. It was sacred, not to be eaten or drunk. That’s why animals for food are still killed in a manner that allows their blood to drain away. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus seems to be suggesting here that the flesh and blood he wants people to eat is his own body.

One of the accusations levelled against the early Christians was that they engaged in cannibalistic rituals – their opponents took these words literally. Of course Jesus doesn’t mean this at all, but he is drawing on the symbolism  of blood as a life-force in what he says here, though. We are invited not just to be spectators, but to share in his life, to take that life – the life of God – into ourselves. You can’t get healthy by just looking at a plate of broccoli, and you won’t get fat by looking at a slice of cake. It’s only when you put these things in your mouth, chew them up and swallow them that they make a difference to your lives – for good or ill. We are what we eat, the saying goes, and that is just as true spiritually as it is physically. Eat our five a day and we will be physically healthy; feed on Christ and we will be spiritually healthy, fit for the work he calls us to do.

So how do we feed on Christ? We do it through prayer, through reading the Bible, through coming together to worship, through the Eucharist, the most direct reminder of God’s longing to be part of our lives by giving us his own. But if “eating Christ” really means sharing his life, we can also be nourished by doing the things he did, treating others with dignity, loving and being loved, working for justice, recognising his presence in those at the bottom of the heap and giving all people their true status as children of God.

At this morning’s All Age Worship I gave out small lumps of bread dough for people to take home. I often say that my sermons are intended to be a bit half-baked. What I say always needs to be taken away and put into the context of your real lives if it is to be anything more than empty words, but this sermon wasn’t baked at all. That was the point. It emphasized, I hope, that it’s what we do when we leave the church that really makes a difference. Whatever we have heard and thought when we gather together can only really change us if we take it home with us, ponder what it means for our lives and apply it. I don’t know how people got on with that exercise. The rolls I made worked, and I have one here for us to use in place of our normal, rather tasteless, wafers tonight, but the point was that each of us has a responsibility, to make real in our lives what we hear with our ears and say with our lips. Each one of us has a glorious opportunity to embody God in the world, a blessing for ourselves and for others.

And that is the bread that makes us live for ever, the bread of his life which can nourish us not just for a day, for one holy moment, but forever.