Sunday, 25 October 2015

Last Sunday after Trinity: Throwing away the cloak

“Throwing off his cloak, [Bartimaeus] sprang up and came to Jesus.”  Sometimes there is a small thing in a Gospel story which suddenly stands out as you read it. It was the cloak that did that for me this week, a cloak that seems like a completely unnecessary detail. The thing is, though, that Mark doesn’t do unnecessary details. His Gospel is very short, just 16 chapters. There’s no room for waffle. If Mark includes a cloak, then we can be sure that the cloak matters.

I’m going to come back to the cloak later, so don’t forget about it, but before that I’d like to look at a couple of other perplexing details in this story, because they might help us make sense of that cloak.

The first is Bartimaeus’ name. The Gospel writers don’t usually name the people who come to Jesus for healing or help; they are usually anonymous, “everyman” figures – a woman, a rich man, a widow, a centurion. But Mark tells us Bartimaeus’ name. Why might that be?

There’s been a lot of scholarly ink spilled over this through the centuries. Some commentators have looked for meaning in the name itself. Bartimaeus literally means “the son of Timaeus” as Mark points out, “Bar” means son. But what does Timaeus mean. Some have linked it to the Greek word for “honour” – timao. They think it’s an ironic statement about this beggar, who is far from honoured. Others reckon it comes from a similar sounding Hebrew word which means “unclean”. That would fit. Sickness was regarded as a sign of God’s displeasure, and it made you ritually unclean. If you were sick or disabled they believed you must have done something to deserve it. Either way, these theories say that Mark is telling us what people thought of this beggar.

Well, maybe… But I’m a bit sceptical.  As I’ve said, Mark doesn’t normally name people who come to Jesus for healing, and he doesn’t tend to use names symbolically either. He is usually far more straightforward than that, and I think there’s a danger that we can try to be so clever that we miss another, more obvious possibility. The simplest reason for Mark to call this man Bartimaeus is that he knew Bartimaeus, or knew of him, and that he expected the Christian community he was writing his Gospel for to know him too. Mark wrote these words only about 30 years after the events he describes. Many of those who’d been there were still alive. These things had happened well within living memory, so this is an entirely possible explanation.

It wouldn’t be the only time Mark did something like this either. It is Mark who tells us that Simon of Cyrene, who helped to carry Jesus’ cross, was the “father of Alexander and Rufus” .Who were they? We haven’t got a clue. But Mark obviously thought his readers would recognise their names, otherwise there was no reason to mention them at all. 

Of course Mark did reshape his material, and relied on stories passed on orally which may or may not have been accurate. We don’t have to assume that everything we read was literally true – people didn’t write history the way we do today. But the fact that Bartimaeus is named is a lovely reminder that at the core of the Gospels are real people who had real life-changing encounters with Jesus.

The second detail I’d like to focus on in this story underlines that.  It comes right at the end of the reading. Mark tells us that after Bartimaeus had regained his sight, he “followed [Jesus] on the way”.

Long before Christians were called Christians they were called “Followers of the Way”. That is what Jesus had taught – a way – not a set of doctrines, but a way to live your life so that God’s love could be seen in it. It was all about action, not philosophy. That was obvious from the pattern of his own ministry. You literally had to be a follower if you wanted to learn from him, because he was always on the go, healing here, teaching there, meeting needs and challenges as he came across them on the road. His message propelled people into movement – physical and spiritual.

When Mark tells us that Bartimaeus  “followed [Jesus] on the way”, he isn’t just saying he walked along the road out of Jericho with him, he is saying that he  set off on a spiritual journey that day too, that he found a new direction and purpose for his life.  If Mark’s readers knew his name that implies that he had stuck to that journey, stuck to his commitment to “following the way” long after the day when he first started out from Jericho with Jesus.

This isn’t just a story about a miraculous healing – one of many in the Gospels. It’s a story about a real, living human being, whose life had been turned around by Jesus, and who was never the same afterwards. It is a story of a lifetime of discipleship, which all started at the moment when Jesus called to him, and he found the courage to respond.  

And that brings me back to the cloak. You hadn’t forgotten the cloak, had you, that cloak that Bartimaeus threw off when he came to Jesus?  As I said, Mark doesn’t include details for the sake of them. The cloak, and what Bartimaeus did with it matters, because without that moment, none of what followed would have been possible.

To understand why, we need to imagine a beggar today, sitting on a London street perhaps.  Sadly that’s a familiar sight. How do we know that they are begging, not just sitting there? We know it because they’ll have in front of them something to collect money in - maybe a hat, or a discarded coffee cup. In the first century, beggars spread out their cloaks as they sat on the ground to catch the cash people threw to them. Their cloaks were the tools of their trade – they needed them, and they also kept them warm when they were sleeping rough, but they also marked them out as beggars, just as the empty coffee cup with a few coppers in it marks someone out as a beggar today. My guess is that they had a bit of a love-hate relationship with those cloaks, probably rather stained and shabby garments – they symbolised their dependent status, but they couldn’t live without them.

When Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and leaves it lying on the ground he doing far more than simply casting away a bit of cloth so he can get up more easily. He is throwing away his old life to begin a new one, throwing away his shame and dependency, but he is also throwing away his security, burning his bridges. And we need to remember that he does this before Jesus heals him, before Jesus  has even asked him what he wants. He is still blind after all, and there’s no guarantee he will be able to find that cloak again once it has left his hands. But he throws it off anyway. Whatever it is that Jesus can do for him, the fact that he calls to him, that he recognises and cares about him is a sign that it will be better to risk life with Jesus and no cloak, than have the cloak, but let Jesus pass him by. Throwing off his cloak is a profound statement of faith and commitment.

His cloak is quite literally a security blanket. It has enabled him to get through from one day to the next, but what kind of life has it been? He throws it away because when Jesus calls him he realises he doesn’t need it anymore. Jesus has given him the security he really craved, the knowledge that he is known and loved by God, not cursed by him. Later he will also be known and loved by the community of Jesus’ followers, the ones who will remember his name and pass it on. They will celebrate the faith and courage that led him to throw that cloak away.

That cloak fascinates me because it makes me wonder what our security blankets might be. What do we cling to to keep out the cold, to protect us from the vagaries of life, to bring us comfort? They might seem like good things –possessions, money,  status, jobs, achievements – or they may be things we’re not so proud of. We can find ourselves lugging around old resentments, chips on our shoulders, dysfunctional patterns of behaviour and distorted images of ourselves. We don’t like them, any more than Bartimaeus liked his stained and worn out cloak - but we can’t imagine life without them either. How can we find the courage to throw them off and leave them behind, as Bartimaeus does?

Bartimaeus’ message to us might be that though it might seem impossible that anything could change in our lives, if we listen, we will find that Christ is closer to us than we think, that if we cry out, he will hear us and will call us to him. And his call won’t just be to find a moment of healing, but to set out on a whole new journey with him which will change us completely.

So three little details, but what a difference they make. This is the story of a real man, whose life is changed for ever by his meeting with Christ, and whose message to us is the same as it was to those who first knew him. Whether we can see the way ahead or not at the moment, Christ calls us to throw off our cloaks and head towards the voice of the one who knows and loves us, who will guide us on the way that leads to life. Amen.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Trinity 19 : Hard words

Last week at our Good Book Club session we had some deep discussion, as we often do. We’ve been looking at the Epistles, the letters in the New Testament from early Christian leaders. We decided on Wednesday to focus on one particular book – the entire book – which sounds impressive until you know that it was the letter to Philemon, which is only 25 verses long…

It is a fascinating little gem of a book though, a very personal letter from St Paul to Philemon, the leader of a small church somewhere, who’d become a Christian through Paul’s preaching. Paul has a dilemma. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away from his master and taken refuge with Paul, who is in prison, probably under house arrest in Rome. While he was with Paul Onesimus too had become a Christian, but what is going to happen to him now?

Onesimus was very vulnerable. He couldn’t stay with Paul indefinitely – it was illegal for a Roman citizen like Paul to harbour a fugitive slave, and he was under arrest himself anyway.   But if Paul sends him back, Philemon has the right to punish him, even to put him to death, and he may be under pressure to do so from his society. Slavery was deeply ingrained and went unquestioned in the ancient world, and despite Paul’s teaching that the Christian community should be egalitarian – neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female -  old habits die hard. Neither Paul, nor Onesimus, could be sure that Philemon would  be merciful.

So Paul wrote a tough letter, using every means he could – subtle and not so subtle - to persuade Philemon not only to take Onesimus back, but to treat him as a brother in Christ, not as a slave.

And that is where our discussion got quite energetic at Good Book Club, because we wondered about how Philemon would have taken Paul’s hard words. “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…”  Who did Paul think he was, to interfere in his life like this – to behave as if he had the right to command Philemon to do something, even if he hoped he wouldn’t have to? We wondered whether Philemon might have felt like just ripping the letter up?

The fact that we still have the letter hints that Philemon did as Paul asked, but we could appreciate how difficult it might have been at first to read this letter. No one likes to be criticised, even if, deep down we know the criticism is justified. Our defences go up, our hackles rise. We instantly think of all sorts of reasons why the person challenging us is wrong. We stick our fingers in our ears, or we bite back.

That discussion came to mind when I looked at today’s readings, because there are more hard words in them too. The Old Testament prophet Amos thunders at the people of Israel in the first reading. They are “turning justice to wormwood “and “trampling on the poor”. They think they’ll get away with it, but they’re wrong. God will “break out against the house of Joseph like fire” It’s not exactly a feel-good message, and they don’t seem to have taken a blind bit of notice. Eventually the Assyrians obliterated their nation, weakened by  injustice and inequality, just as Amos had warned, but I doubt anyone thanked him for his warning.

There are more hard words in the Gospel reading, and someone else who doesn’t want to hear what he needs to hear. The man who comes to Jesus is sincere in his faith, sincere in wanting to live right. Like Philemon, his heart is in the right place, but like Philemon he is wealthy, and that will be his downfall. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks Jesus, as if eternal life were just one more possession to add to those he already has - the ultimate gift for the man who has everything. He’s wrong, though. Eternal life isn’t a ticket to heaven when we die; it is something that grows in us as we live in the way God calls us to now. If we live justly, lovingly and generously, our lives will gradually become heaven-shaped, shot through with the justice, love and generosity of God. That’s what eternal life is all about. But this man’s possessions are getting in the way of him living like that. His hands are so full of them, that he can’t take hold of the life God wants to give him now. He goes away grieving. He knows that what Jesus is saying is right, but he can’t bear to let these words into his heart. They will cost him more than he wants to pay.

It’s quite possible that many of us, by now, are starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, because maybe we’re more like this man than we’d like to admit. We may not always feel rich by comparison to our peers, but we are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of many in the world. We tend to struggle with the clutter we accumulate while they struggle for even the basics of existence. Could Jesus’ words be directed at us too? Is he calling us to give away our possessions too? We are probably hoping rather desperately at this point that he isn’t.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions about this passage and often they’ve included some elaborate attempts to prove that it isn’t really saying what it sounds like it’s saying. We want to find a loophole to excuse us from its demands. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” says Jesus. There’s a “loophole” explanation of that which says that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle” which was too small for camels to enter unless their cargoes were unloaded first. Bingo! Camels can get through eyes of needles after all, so maybe riches aren’t always as much of an obstacle after all. We just need to do some rearrangement. Unfortunately it is bunkum. There’s no historical or archaeological evidence for such a gate; but isn’t it telling that we’d like there to be.

Another “loophole” interpretation points out that Jesus didn’t call everyone to this way of absolute poverty. His fishermen disciples didn’t actually sell their boats – we find them going fishing from time to time.  Martha and Mary had a home to offer Jesus when he needed it, and food for him and his disciples, and his mission was bankrolled by wealthy supporters.  Phew! we think. That’s a relief. If he didn’t call everyone to be poor, we’re off the hook!

But if we find ourselves looking for loopholes and relieved when we think we’ve found them, we’ve probably missed the point. Our reluctance even to consider giving up our possessions tells us that we are probably more attached to them than we should be, and that they mean more to us than they should. Material things aren’t intrinsically wrong; God made a material world full of riches and called all of it good. We need food to eat and clothes to wear. But if our possessions are starting to possess us, if we look to them to give us a sense of status and worth, we have a problem.

Jesus’ words feel challenging because we need to be challenged. Challenge can be painful. As our second reading put it, “The word of God is …sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow”. Ouch! “Before God,” it goes on,” no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Ouch again!

Sometimes we need radical surgery – that two edged sword – but if we can’t even bear to hear God saying that, nothing will ever change in us. So how can we find the courage to keep listening to God even when it feels difficult?  What do we need to enable us to do that?

Today’s Bible readings tell us that the key lies in relationship. Let’s go back to Philemon. Deep down Philemon knew that Paul loved him. That’s what made it possible for him to trust what he said, even if it was tough.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews points us to an even deeper relationship – the relationship we have with God through Christ. In Christ God has been where we are; he knows what it feels like to be us.  “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness”  says the letter. However terrifying it might feel when we know something is wrong, ultimately God’s presence is the safest place for us to be, the place where we “receive mercy, and find grace to help in times of need.”

If our ears are open to God’s voice, there will be times when he challenges us with tough words that we’d rather not hear.   They may come from the depth of our consciences. They may come through people we trust. They may come in the stillness of prayer. They may come in our worship and Bible reading. They might even come from the pulpit from time to time! We need to weigh them that touch a nerve, of course.  Are they really God’s words or not?  One simple test is that God’s words aren’t just sharp, they are also living, according to Hebrews. They bring life rather than destroying it.

But we often know all too well that we are doing something we shouldn’t, or not doing something we should – we just can’t bear to acknowledge it. Like that rich man, it will cost us more than we want to pay.

Today’s readings tell us that it is our relationship with God that is the key to helping us through that reluctance.  Do we believe that God “looks at us and loves us” as Jesus did to that rich young man, or not? And if not, why not? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves, the place we need to start if we want to let go of the junk that clutters our lives – material, emotional or spiritual - and let the kingdom of God take root in us. Let’s not “go away grieving” today, but come to God, in whose hands we are safe forever.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Harvest Festival on the Feast of St Francis: All creatures of our God and King

Today is a double celebration. It is our Harvest Festival, but it is also the Feast day of St Francis of Assisi, the great medieval saint who is so much associated with the natural world.

Francis hadn’t grown up saintly. Quite the opposite. He was the son of a rich cloth merchant  from Assisi, who really only lived for profit. It was a time of growing material wealth, a Medieval boom time. Wealthy people wanted fine clothes, which was good news for people like Francis’ father. Francis was a golden boy, handsome, a great musician, who enjoyed nothing more than a night out with his friends drinking and living the high life. But that all changed when he was taken prisoner during a war between Assisi and the neighbouring city of Perugia. He had plenty of time to think while he waited to be ransomed, and when he finally got back home he had started to change.. He’d come face to face with the suffering and poverty which his father’s wealth had protected him from till then. He began to sell his father’s cloth – he had nothing of his own – and give the money to the poor. But sooner or later his father was bound to find out, and when he did he was furious. He hauled his son before the Bishop of Assisi and demanded that he be punished. The cloth hadn’t been his to give away. Francis could see only one way to resolve this. Calmly he took off every stitch of clothing he had on and gave it back to his father. The Bishop hurried to find Francis something to cover himself with, just a rough tunic, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Francis went on to live a life of radical poverty, serving the ordinary people he’d once looked down on, and living simply with others who soon came to join him.  

Alongside that loving service towards other people, though, Francis became famous for his attitudes to the rest of creation. In the hilltop town of Gubbio he tamed a wolf that had been terrorising the population. While they cowered within their town walls he went out to speak to the wolf, and came to an agreement with him. If the people of Gubbio promised to feed him, he would promise not to eat them. The wolf, it is said lifted up his great, grey paw and shook on it, and much to the surprise of the townsfolk the wolf stuck to his side of the agreement. In turn they not only fed him, but took him into their homes, and when he died of old age they mourned his loss.

Then there was the fish he was given, still alive, by a fisherman. Instead of eating him, Francis put him back in the water, but as he prayed, the fish jumped back out of the water into his arms. Only when Francis insisted did it swim away to safety. Then there was the falcon who had a nest near his hut. Early every morning, at the time for morning prayer, the falcon would call out to Francis as if to wake him, but when Francis fell ill, the falcon kept silence, seeming to know that he needed to sleep.

One of the most famous stories about Francis is of the time when he was walking along the road with some of the other brothers in his order and came across a flock of birds. He told the others to walk on, while he turned aside to the birds. When they came back to see what was keeping him, they found Francis preaching to the birds, telling them about the Gospel passage we heard today.  “God has given you food to eat, my little sisters” he said to them. “You don’t have to do anything to earn it. He’s given you water to drink, mountains and valleys to take refuge in, trees to build your nests. You should never forget to thank him.” And the birds sat stock still, listening to his every word, not even moving as he walked among them, his cloak brushing their feathers.

That’s what the stories say, anyway! Did it really happen like that? Who knows? The point is, though, that those who told the stories, people who had known Francis, knew it was the kind of thing he would have done. It was all of a piece with his character. Francis had been brought up by his father to think that only the rich and the beautiful mattered, but he’d learned that this wasn’t so, that every creature – human or animal – was created by God and loved by God. Wolves, fish and birds, lepers and beggars – all were precious in their diversity.

We don’t just have to rely on second hand information from  those far-fetched legends  to know what Francis thought, though, because we have his own words in many letters and songs he left. His most famous song is one we’ll be singing later in the service.  All Creatures of our God and King is a version of Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun”. I’ve printed a translation of his original words on the back of the service sheets. Francis talks about all of creation praising God - the Sun, the Moon, wind, water, fire and earth. All of them were his brothers and sisters, made by God just as he was.

If that starts to sound a bit sentimental – a bit “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” – it helps to know the background to this song.  Francis didn’t write it as a piece of romantic escapism while sitting in some glorious flower-filled meadow. He wrote it in in the last year or so of his life, when he was almost blind, bed-ridden and in constant pain. He was worrying about the order he’d founded, too, the Friars Minor. Arguments had broken out among them and many had abandoned or watered down the rule of life he’d given them. But as he lay there, too ill to do anything practical to sort the problems out, this Canticle gradually took shape in his mind. He started with those verses about the natural world, but by the time he died he’d added extra verses. There was a verse about those who forgave, prompted by a reconciliation he’d brought about  between the mayor and the bishop of Assisi who were bitter enemies. There was a reference to those who were suffering, as he was. And finally just before he died he even added a verse which celebrated “Sister Death” , not the enemy, but the blessed gateway to eternal life with God. Darkness, suffering and conflict were real, very real, to Francis, but so was God’s presence in them, and that meant that however loud the cry of pain, the song of praise rang louder in his heart.

His inspiration in this came from Jesus himself, of course. He had told his followers to  “Consider the lilies” and not to “worry about tomorrow” . Maybe that sounds a bit unrealistic too – how does contemplating nature help us face that awful commute to a job we hate day after day, or the nagging symptoms that we know might be something serious, or the signs of trouble we try to ignore in a relationship that is special to us?  But we need to remember that the man who said knew he was likely to end up being tortured and crucified. He was all too aware of the reality of the world. His words weren’t soothing distractions from it, they were vital tools for dealing with it. He wanted his followers to learn what he’d learned, that nothing was beneath God’s notice, not the lilies, here today and gone tomorrow, not the birds who were two a penny. If God held these insignificant things in his hands, then surely he could hold a man on a cross in those hands too, and be with him as he suffered.

Mindfulness seems to be very much in vogue at the moment; meditative exercises designed to make us aware of ourselves and our world. Bookshops are full of books about it claiming it will bring health and happiness and personal fulfilment. Maybe it will – it does us all good to slow down and take notice.  I do have to take issue with one definition of it that I read online recently though, which said that  “Mindfulness is a very simple form of meditation that was little known in the West until recently.” Oh no it wasn’t. Francis, and numerous other saints and mystics, taught it centuries ago, and so did Jesus before him. “Consider the lilies. Look at the birds of the air ” What’s that if it isn’t mindfulness? And someone like Francis who could hear the cosmic songs of praise of the Sun and the moon, not to mentions those of the suffering and the dying, seems to me to have reached a level of mindful living way beyond that promised by the best-sellers.

Christian faith is meant to be an affirmation of the present moment, an affirmation of the things of this world, not a distraction from them. That’s why God’s most complete word about himself came in the form of a child in Bethlehem, a very real, earthy, messy baby. It’s why his message of salvation came not through hosts of angels swooping down from heaven to lift us out of our troubles, but through a man on a cross, who came to share the worst that human beings endure.

This harvest, then, let’s be mindful, notice what is real and true, here and now in our lives and our world. Let’s listen for God’s voice in all those things. Let’s ask him for his grace to see and celebrate him at work in the whole human family, in those like us and those different from us. Let’s ask to see him at work in our fellow creatures, so that we can learn to treat them with dignity. Let us ask to see him at work in all the times and seasons of our lives, the joyful and the sorrowful, so that we can find the gifts they have to give us . If we can learn to do that, then tomorrow won’t hold any terrors for us, because we’ll know that God will be with us then as surely as he is today.