Sunday, 27 September 2015

Trinity 17: Little ones

The end of today’s Gospel reading is so gruesome and vivid that my guess is that it’s easy for that to be the only bit we remember. Plucking out eyes and cutting off feet, unquenchable fire where the worm never dies: no wonder Christianity has a bad name among some people. But it’s important, as always with the Bible, not to let our first impression be our lasting impression, and to set what we hear into context.

When we do, we find that this passage isn’t really about life after death at all, but about life before it, In particular it’s about what Jesus thinks his followers – people like us – are meant to be doing.

Let’s clear up a few facts for a start. The word that’s translated as hell in this reading is actually “Gehenna”. It’s the name of a valley near Jerusalem where, in Old Testament times, people had worshipped the Phoenician God Moloch. Worshipping Moloch involved the practice of human sacrifice, as many ancient religions did. In particular it involved the sacrifice of children, something which probably seems incomprehensible to us.  This was absolutely forbidden by Old Testament law, but  the prophets kept denouncing it which tells us that it must have been happening anyway. By the time of Jesus, the Roman occupying forces were also using Gehenna as an open-air cremation site, something that was abhorrent to Jewish people. It was a grim place, full of terrible associations, a place of suffering, a place of smouldering fires and the stench of death. It was a symbol that stood for pain and suffering to the people of  Jesus’ time, like Auschwitz does for us, but that was all it was – a symbol. Jesus wasn’t trying to give us a systematic theological description of the afterlife here – the Jewish people had all sorts of different ideas about heaven and hell at this point anyway. He was just using an image that he knew would shock his disciples, an image that would convey to them that they’d just done something so wrong in his eyes that only this sort of language could express the depths of his feelings.

So what had been happening that provoked such a violent reaction in him?

We need to look at the beginning of the passage to find out. One of his disciples had said to him “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  That  might seem like a minor faux pas to us, if it seems wrong at all, but it was this that had got Jesus so worked up that he started talking about unquenchable fire and worms and the plucking out of eyes.

Jesus’ disciples had been following him for some time by this point. They’d listened to him, watched him, even been sent out to preach and to heal by themselves. But this comment told Jesus that there was something very basic that they hadn’t  understood at all, and unless he sorted it out, it would undermine everything they did. Listen to what John said again. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  It is the “us” that is the problem. Somehow they’d decided that the kingdom of God was all about them and the select little club they’d formed around Jesus.

Let’s imagine that scene they witnessed. They’d seen someone healed, someone who was severely disturbed, “possessed by demons” in the language of the day, someone who’d been tormented, miserable, frightened, shunned, maybe for some time, but who’d gone home that day at peace, restored to themselves and to their family. Isn’t that great. I don’t know how it happened, but what rejoicing there must have been that day!  But all the disciples could think and talk about was the infringement of the Jesus “brand”.  What was worse, they weren’t even really offended on Jesus’ behalf, but on their own.  Deep down, they thought they owned the franchise, the copyright, the trademark. Jesus had sent them out to heal in his name, and they thought they were the only ones licenced to use it. It was all about them, not about Jesus, and still less about the compassion of the healer, or the need of the one he healed.

They were misusing Jesus’ name in a far worse way than the healer  they’d complained about. At least he’d used it to heal. They were just using it to determine who was in and who was out, who was a member of their tribe and who wasn’t.

Evolution has hardwired us to live in tribes. Tribalism presumably developed as a protective measure way back in human history when we first came up against other groups who were competing with us for land and resources. How could we tell who was friend and who was foe? We learned to recognise those who looked like us or shared our cultural markers. That told us who was in our tribe, and who wasn’t, who we should defend and who we should attack. There were understandable reasons for this. Tribalism springs from a fear that there won’t be enough of what we need to go around, but while that might sometimes be true of land and food, it is never true of the love of God. There is more than enough of that to supply us all in abundance, and if we understood that perhaps we wouldn’t fight so bitterly over land and food either.  But tribalism so deeply embedded in us that we jealously guard things we don’t need to guard at all, just out of habit.   That was what had happened here. The disciples had formed themselves into a new tribe, and they thought that gave them the right – and the duty - to put a fence around God and control the access others had to him.  

Jesus was furious. This was exactly the thinking he’d condemned in the Pharisees, but here it was alive and well in his own disciples.
They thought they were doing a good thing, protecting God against those who would waste or spoil his love, those who didn’t keep the rules they had thought up, but they were the ones who were in the wrong, and Jesus needed to tell them so in the strongest possible terms.

 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,” he says,” it would be better if a great mill-stone were hung round your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

The concept of the “little ones” was important in the Bible. The Hebrew word was anawim, a word that is usually translated as “humble” or “afflicted”, and the Old Testament talks about them a lot.  They were the poor, the sick, the widows, the orphans, the slaves , those who seemed to be of no account in the world’s eyes, who always ended up at the bottom of the pile. But the Bible tells us again and again that God cared for them and expected those who claimed to follow him to treat them with respect.  When Jesus called this healer and those he ministered to “little ones” he is telling us that they were people who were desperate for help, too desperate to care whether they were getting what the disciples consider to be authorised, licensed ministry or not. All that mattered was that it worked. And it had worked, no matter how lacking in credentials this healer had seemed to the disciples. God had used him, whether they liked it or not, because God went wherever he wanted to.  

This is as hard for us to grasp today as it was for Jesus’ disciples. Put a bunch of people together and sooner or later they will build a fence around themselves and try to control who is allowed into their group. Churches are no exception to this.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a passionate believer in the value of churches, groups of people learning together, worshipping together, listening to God together, encouraging each other to serve and to love.  It matters that we are here. We need each other.
But the minute we think that being here means we own God and his truth, we are in trouble. The minute we start imagining we can control other people’s access to God, rationing his love to those we think deserve it, we are in trouble. When we behave like that, just like the disciples, we become worse than useless. Not only do we damage others by our dismissive attitudes, we miss the love and life of God that is in them too, and so we impoverish ourselves. “God is love,” says the first letter of John, “and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them.” (I John 4.16). How much of God’s love do we miss if we only look for it within our own four walls, among those who look like us, talk like us and think like us? Love is the only trademark that identifies the work of God, the only brand name worth bearing, and there’s no copyright in it.

The fierce words of Jesus in this passage may sound uncomfortable, but they point us in a direction that is profoundly hopeful. There is more love than we can imagine in the world, he tells us.  God is at work all over the place, if only we have eyes to see him. He has a particular tendency to turn up among those the world calls “little ones”. The struggling single parent, the homeless refugee, maybe ourselves if we are feeling low or suffering; when we look at the “little ones” at first glance all we see is need, but look closer, look with respect, look with the expectation of finding God at work and he will be there. That’s been my experience of many years of ministry, and of my own tough times too. Until we understand this,  that God works in littleness and humiliation – even in a man crucified on a cross – we haven’t understood anything.

So this week, let’s go out on a “God hunt.” Let’s not decide in advance what God should look like or where we’ll find him. Let’s pray instead that he will open our eyes to see him at work wherever love is given or received.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Trinity 15: Who do you say that I am?

“Who do people say that I am?” asks Jesus of his followers. They proceed to give him the lowdown on the gossip in the bars and markets of Galilee. There’s obviously a whole lot of speculation going on. He is John the Baptist, people are saying, or Elijah, or one of the other Old Testament Prophets. It’s likely that there were other opinions too. From hints in the New Testament we think that some saw him as a new Joshua, the great leader who brought the Israelites into the Promised Land – Jesus and Joshua are the same name in Hebrew. The name means “God saves”. Some saw him as a new Moses, especially when he fed people miraculously on loaves and fishes in the middle of nowhere, just as Moses had fed them on Manna in the wilderness. For others, Jesus may have been seen as a new King David; born in David’s hometown of Bethlehem, descended from his family. He talked a lot about the kingdom too, so maybe there was going to be a return to the glory days when Israel had been at its most powerful. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus knew that everyone had their own pet theories.

But this question, with all its potential for theological argument and learned discussion is really just a conversation starter.

“Ok, so that is the gossip that’s going around about me, but what about you? Who do you say that I am?” he asks his disciples.  That’s what really matters. When the rubber hits the road and they have to stand up for their faith, it will be no good if all they have are second-hand opinions. Their understanding of Jesus will have to be their own.

It’s Peter who jumps in first with an answer – he’s often the one who is first to open his mouth, even if it is only to put his foot in it. But this time, for once, he is spot on. “You are the Messiah” he blurts out. What does he mean? And how does he know?

Let’s start with the first question. What does he mean? We can’t be completely sure. Ideas about the Messiah varied. But the essence of it was that the Messiah was God’s representative, chosen to do God’s work. Messiah means “anointed one”. You were anointed for a task – as a king or a priest, for example, set aside for something distinctive. In Matthew’s version of this story, Peter doesn’t just acclaim Jesus as Messiah. He says “ You are the Messiah, the son of the living God”. Again we can’t be sure what he understood by this. When the early Christians called Jesus God’s son they weren’t talking about biology or genetics, because they didn’t have any knowledge of them. They knew at some deep level, though, that when they  looked at Jesus, they saw a family likeness to God, someone who was at home with God, at one with God, someone who knew the family business and did it. That is probably what Peter meant by his answer.

Peter had travelled with Jesus, eaten with him, seen his exhaustion at the end of the day. Above all he had seen the constant stream of people who had come to meet Jesus, people who had gone away changed. With very few exceptions when people came to Jesus they went away different.   People met him and were healed. People met him and were welcomed and accepted. People met him and were called into new ways of life. He didn’t just change their ideas, what happened in their heads. He changed their hearts, souls and lives. They left their fishing nets and their tax collecting booths. They gave away their money and their security. They turned their backs on destructive ways of life in which they had felt trapped. They learned to see themselves and others in a whole new light. They didn’t just end up with a new theory about who Jesus was, or with new ideas about God, but with lives that had been transformed because of his love.

Peter hadn’t only seen this happening to others. It had happened to him too. He had been changed. Jesus had called him, an ordinary, impulsive fisherman who didn’t seem to have given a moment’s thought to anything religious in his life. As far as we can tell all he had cared about  before was making a go of his fishing business and looking after his family. But Jesus had given him a new sense of purpose, a sense that his life mattered.
Changing people, creating and recreating. This was the kind of thing God did, and Peter knew that. As our psalm this morning put it “you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.”  (Psalm 116) Jesus was doing what God did, and Peter had seen it and known it for himself .  It was real, it was authentic, and that was what mattered.

And I think it still matters to people today. My impression is that despite the difficulty people may have in engaging with organised religion, or at least, turning up in church on Sundays, they are still as spiritually hungry as they ever were. They want something real to happen in their lives. The conversations I have with people who may never darken the doors of this place, or who perhaps just wander in when they think no one will be here are often very deep and full of desire for the work of God; for healing and guidance, for inspiration and forgiveness, for engagement with the real, pressing problems of life and the world.  

That is what Peter saw and acclaimed in Jesus. Here was someone who was the real deal, doing God’s work, transforming lives.  He had seen it in action, in his own life; that’s why he knew Jesus was the Messiah.

But Peter’s acclamation wasn’t the end of the story today, and we soon realise that he still had a lot to learn. He had seen the truth, but not yet the whole truth. He had just got it spectacularly right, but in the next breath he got it just as spectacularly wrong.

Jesus started to talk about how he would have to suffer and die. Peter couldn’t get his head around that at all.  Why would God let such a thing happen? Surely if God was at work in Jesus – if he was the Messiah -  it should all be plain sailing for him now. Miracles all the way to the throne of God’s kingdom.

Peter acclaimed Jesus as Messiah , because he saw him doing great things and meeting with obvious success. But Jesus warned him that soon he would have to see the man he had acclaimed pinned to a cross, and lying dead in a tomb. There would be no success to see then, no last minute rescue. If success was the mark of the Messiah in Peter’s mind, what would happen then? Predictably, when the time came, for a while Peter thought the whole thing had been a lie and tried to distance himself from it. It wasn’t until he saw Jesus raised from the helplessness of death that he really understood what Jesus had been saying, and why it mattered so much.  God could be with someone, working in them and through them not just in strength but also in vulnerability, not just when they were doing deeds of great power but also when they were completely powerless.

And that brings us to ourselves, because Jesus’ question is just as much for us as it was for those first disciples. “Who do you think I am?” says Jesus to us. “Do you think I am a miracle worker who will wave a magic wand over your problems and make them all go away if only you pray the right prayers and believe fervently enough? Do you think I am a teacher who will give you some inspirational pointers about how to live your life better? Do you think I am an interesting conundrum, a historical puzzle, a philosopher whose ideas you can argue about? Do you think I am your ticket to heaven, to be safely stored in a pocket somewhere and produced at the vital moment?”

Jesus has been seen in many ways – these are just a few of them. Maybe they are all useful, all true at some level. But when push comes to shove, they aren’t enough. Deep down we know that. They aren’t enough when the going gets tough. They aren’t enough when we start to wonder whether life is worth living. They aren’t enough when we are swamped with regrets about the past or hopelessness about the future. They aren’t enough when we are confronted with the complexities of problems that are beyond our power to solve, and perhaps beyond anyone’s power, like the tide of refugees sweeping across Europe or the bitter wars that have driven them from their homes. At those points we need a faith that isn’t just there when the going is good, but is just as real when everything is falling apart around us. We don’t need a faith that depends on simple answers or a quick fix, but a faith in the God who will sit in the darkness and confusion with us until the morning comes and brings with it resurrection.

“Who do you say that I am?” That’s a question we all have to answer for ourselves in the end. As Philip will tell you, I spent a long time chewing over this sermon – some sermons are stubborn like that. In particular, I struggled with how to end it. Eventually, though, I concluded that that was the point. It isn’t mine to end. I can’t make sense of someone else’s faith for them. We each have to do that for ourselves, finding out what our real questions and real hungers are, being honest about ourselves with God and open to his Spirit. That’s not always easy – as Jesus said, there can be crosses and sacrifice involved – but it is worth it. So all I can do at this point is sit down and shut up, and pray that each of us has the courage to let the God who “rescues our lives from death, our eyes from tears and our feet from stumbling” get to work in the reality of our lives.


Sunday, 6 September 2015

Trinity 14: Unheard voices

There were two stories in our Gospel reading today, but it’s not just a biblical “buy one get one free”. They are meant to be read together, because they have a common theme. They are both about hearing and speaking. In both stories someone is given the ability to hear and speak properly.

In the second story that theme is obvious. A deaf man who has an impediment in his speech is healed. “Ephthatha”, Jesus says to him. “Be opened”. And that’s what happens. His ears are opened, his tongue released. We are told he then “speaks plainly” – the Greek word is “orthos” which literally means “rightly” or “correctly”. For a long time no one has been able to make out what he is saying when he speaks, but now he can tell it like it is. We don’t know what he says when he “speaks plainly” for the first time – perhaps words of love or thanks, but perhaps there are some home truths to deliver too, things he wants to say to those who may have sidelined or ignored him over the years, as so often happens to those who can’t hear or speak properly. Whatever he says, though, his life is transformed.

So it’s easy to see where the hearing and speaking comes in that second healing miracle, but I think it is just as important in the first; in fact, one leads on to the other.

To understand this, we need to know a bit of history and geography.
Jesus is in the region of Tyre, we are told. But why? It’s not an obvious place for him to be at all. If you look at the map I’ve handed out, you’ll see that Tyre is to the north of Israel, and it’s in the land of the Phoenecians. Tyre was a thriving international sea-port; the Phoenecians had always been great maritime traders and people from all over the world came through Tyre. It was multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-everything sort of place. It was just the kind of place, in other words, which good Jewish people were taught to avoid. In Tyre you’d be sure to come face to face with foreign gods, foreign customs, foreign food, things which Jewish people wouldn’t just have found strange but thoroughly unclean. So what’s Jesus doing there?

He may have been trying to get away from trouble in Galilee. He had been arguing with the religious authorities, challenging their interpretation of the law, and things were starting to get heated. But all the same, there must have been more congenial places to take refuge.

He is heading out of what should be a land where he feels at home into one where he definitely won’t, where he is bound to encounter things that will challenge and disturb him. Perhaps it’s a bit like the time at the beginning of his ministry when he went into the wilderness. People saw the wilderness not as a place of peace and quiet, but as the haunt of demons, the frontline of the spiritual battle. There Jesus confronted Satan, the tempter, the one who challenged him to look deeply at himself and his own motivation. But Jesus also discovered that in these challenging places his Father was close at hand; angels were sent to minister to him.

We don’t know much about the Syrophoenician woman who comes to him to beg for her daughter’s healing, but what we do know is important, because it explains Jesus’ initial reaction to her. At first glance she probably seemed far more like someone sent to try him than a ministering angel.

She is a Gentile, not a Jew, for a start; we can assume she worshiped the foreign gods of Phoenicia. She seems to come to Jesus on her own, which was uncommon. Respectable women stayed at home; their husbands, fathers or brothers spoke for them, especially to complete strangers. But where is the man who should be speaking for her? Where is the child’s father? She might be widowed, but the Bible usually tells us if this is the case. So perhaps the father was a sailor or a trader, long disappeared over the horizon, just passing through. Whatever the story, the fact that she comes to Jesus alone, tells us that there is something about her background that is suspicious.

And sure enough, Jesus seems to be completely wrong footed by her . His first response is dismissive to the point of rudeness. That can seem shocking if we expect Jesus to be some sort of all-seeing, all-knowing perfect superhero, but he wouldn’t be human if he never had to learn anything, and no one can learn without getting it wrong. Some commentators suggest he is just engaging in playful banter, testing her faith, but you don’t playfully banter with someone whose little daughter is desperately ill. That would reflect even more badly on Jesus.

Jesus must have realised he would face unknown challenges when he set off towards Tyre, but that’s the problem – unknown challenges aren’t things you can’t prepare for, and he wasn’t prepared for this one. It’s a bit like those reality TV programmes that put people in extreme situations – marooned on a desert island or having to live in some gruesome historical re-enactment. They must  know when they sign up that they’ll be asked to eat apparently inedible foods or do things that will terrify them, but presumably they think they’ll be able to cope. Predictably, they are all caught out sooner or later, when they reach the limit they didn’t know they had – the TV producers rely on it to make these programmes interesting. If the contestants rise to the challenge, though, it is often a moment of transformation, the moment that makes the struggle worthwhile.  

And that’s where we come back to that theme which unites the two stories in today’s Gospel. I said at the outset that they were both about hearing and speaking. In the second story Jesus heals a deaf man’s so that he can hear and “speak rightly”.  But it seems that before Jesus can do that, he has to have his own ears opened and learn to speak rightly himself.  This determined, desperate Syrophoenician turns out to be a ministering angel after all, someone whose words change Jesus’ ministry,  just as much as Jesus’ words change her life and the life of her child. Because of her he learns that his message is for the Gentiles just as much as for the Jews.  In fact he seems to put that lesson into practice straightaway, because the deaf man he heals may well be a Gentile too. He lives in the Decapolis, among the ten Greek towns on the east side of the Sea of Galilee founded by Alexander the Great. Jesus seems to be taking a very roundabout and strange route home. But this Syrophoenician woman has taught him that he is just as likely to find God at work in these places as he is in the heartlands of Jewish faith.

These stories were important to the early church because they had to face the same struggles as Jesus. Most of his first followers  were Jewish, and they found it really hard to welcome on equal terms Gentiles who wanted to follow him. They argued bitterly among themselves about whether Gentile followers should have to follow the Jewish food laws and be circumcised. They battled too over the place of women in the Church, struggling to get their heads around the very egalitarian vision of the Kingdom Jesus had left them.  At gut level it was difficult to change attitudes they had grown up with and never questioned. But stories like this reminded them that even Jesus had needed to grow in his understanding of his ministry too, and that it hadn’t always come easily to him either.

For that reason they are important stories for us. We probably like to think of ourselves as open, caring, tolerant people – and I’m sure we are. But I’m prepared to bet that there are still some people whose voices we fail to hear, people we dismiss as having nothing to say that’s worth hearing, people who we haven’t even noticed are trying to speak. We may be deaf to whole groups who seem different to us. We may fail to hear the voices of the poor, or close our ears to the rich, assuming they know nothing about our struggles. We may write off those older than us as hopelessly out of date, or those younger than us as na├»ve. We may talk over people, speaking for them rather than letting them speak for themselves. We don’t trust them to know and speak their own truths. This week many have heard afresh the voices of refugees, seeing them for the first time as real individuals, people like us, but it took a shocking picture of a drowned toddler to forge that human connection.

The same deafness can affect our relationships with individuals too. We can probably all think of people whose voices we tend to screen out and avoid. Perhaps we’ve fallen out with them and can’t believe they have anything to say that we want to hear. It is bound to be loaded with their own agenda. We stick our fingers in our ears and turn away. But if we can’t bring ourselves to listen to each other, nothing can ever change.

It seems to me that our deafness to each other – conscious or unconscious - usually springs from fear; fear that giving ground to others, giving them space in our lives– will leave us without what we need for ourselves. Jesus’ own concern seems to be that if he gives his attention to Gentiles, there won’t be enough for the people of Israel. But the woman’s response reminds him that there’s no need to ration the love of God. Only those who know they have plenty to eat would let scraps fall to the floor for the dogs. There is more than enough to go around; the table of God’s love is laden. It’s a message which is central to Jesus’ teaching, but it seems that even he needed to be reminded of it from time to time. And if he did, then surely we do too.

It might sound like asking for trouble, but perhaps this week we should pray that God would send us a Syrophoenician to disturb us; someone whose voice we have found it hard to listen to in the past. Let’s pray that God will remind us that it is safe to let go of what we cling to, because our God is infinitely bigger and far more generous than we can imagine.