Sunday, 10 July 2016

Trinity 7: Let me not be humiliated?

AUDIO VERSION I've been playing with the possibilities of recording sermons. You can find my first attempt by clicking on the link. Let me know if you find it helpful and if there are any problems with playback!

There’s a story told about an early Christian theologian called Origen. He lived around 200 AD, at a time when the Roman authorities were still persecuting and sometimes killing Christians. His own father had been killed in one wave of persecution, and although Origen felt sad, he also felt proud of his father. Martyrdom seemed like a noble thing – to give your life for your beliefs. Origen was fired up with enthusiasm. He decided he wasn’t going to hide away. He was going to go out there in the streets and declare himself as a Christian and embrace his fate.

Origen’s mother felt differently.

She’d already lost a husband, and she wasn’t about to lose her son if she could help it. But how could she stop him? She hit on a brilliant idea. As he slept, she took away all his clothes. In the morning, he literally didn’t have a thing to wear. It worked. Martyrdom was one thing, but having to run through the streets naked was quite another. Origen stayed at home and wrote theology instead.

Whether that really happened or not we don’t know, but it has a ring of truth about it. Humiliation is a powerful thing. People often cope better with physical pain and danger than with humiliation. If I asked you to tell me your most frightening experience, you probably could, but most people are extremely reluctant to talk about the times when they’ve been made to look a fool.  We’ve all got memories that make us cringe when we recall them… and if you think I’m going to tell you about mine, you can think again.

So perhaps we can empathise with the Psalmist’s desperate prayer in our Psalm today. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated” Ps 25.1

He’s not just afraid of falling on his face while everyone watches, or being the butt of some practical joke, though. He’s talking about the humiliation of being defeated by his enemies. Humiliation has always been a powerful weapon of war  – remember those photos from Abu Ghraib? It often breaks the spirit more quickly than physical pain.

Our Gospel story this morning is about humiliation, though it might not seem like that at first glance.

It all began when a lawyer stood up up to test Jesus. Lawyers then, like now, worked in adversarial ways, debating and disputing.  Like lawyers today, he knows he has to look strong and in control, to believe he’s in the right, so he can convince others of that.  

He poses what he thinks is a challenging question to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wants to test Jesus, to find out what his core beliefs are, to get into a philosophical debate. He knows how to handle that. But Jesus responds to  his question with another question, and the lawyer is forced into giving an anwer a child could have given. “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbour as yourself” was so basic, that it probably felt a bit insulting. So to try to “justify himself”  - to take back the moral and intellectual high ground the lawyer follows up smartish with another question. “Ok then, Mr Clever-Clogs Jesus, answer this one! Who is my neighbour?”

But still Jesus won’t be provoked into arguing back. Instead, he tells a story – the story we call the Good Samaritan.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” We don’t know why. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know what nationality or religion he belongs to. We don’t even know  for sure at the beginning that he is a man – the Greek word is anthropos, which just means “a person, a human being.”  This is everyperson – it could be anyone. It could be you. It could be me. Someone commented to me recently that this person is like a blank canvas. That’s a great way to describe him. Jesus means us to identify with this man. The story’s told from his view point. We aren’t told anything he wouldn’t have known and experienced as this story unfolds.

He’s going down the notoriously dangerous road, about 18 miles long, that winds down from Jerusalem in the hill country, through rocky, deserted wilderness to Jericho, near the Dead Sea. Like many travellers on that road, he’s set upon by robbers, who beat him up and leave him lying by the roadside, naked and half-dead.

Don’t forget that Jesus means the lawyer, and us, to identify with this beaten up victim; so what would we feel in that situation? We’d feel helpless, exposed and probably foolish as well, full of regrets; why hadn’t we taken more precautions?  

But all is not lost. A priest and a Levite come along – our countrymen. Surely they will help. But they don’t even come over to investigate. Why? We aren’t told, because the man lying by the side of the road wouldn’t have known either, and we’re seeing this through his eyes. Maybe they were afraid they would be beaten up too. Maybe they didn’t want to risk the ritual uncleanness they’d contract  from touching a dead body. They both had important religious roles after all. Or maybe they just didn’t care. We can only speculate, because that is all desperate man could have done as he watched them disappear into the distance.

But here comes a third traveller; this would have been good news, except that he’s a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans, near neighbours in the land we now call Israel,  hated each other, for reasons too complicated to explain. They just did. They had no time or respect for each other. Each believed that the other was just plain wrong, wrong in their beliefs, lifestyle, everything.  

So how might the victim of this mugging feel as he sees the hated Samaritan coming? If you were vulnerable, helpless and naked – especially naked -  who would you least like to see you in that state? Maybe it would be your boss, or a colleague who is always trying to get one up on you, or some relative you don’t get on with, or a member of some group you mistrust, and maybe have cause to mistrust.

The Samaritan is that person. The victim in this story might be half-dead, but he’d rather be completely dead than have this man see him in this miserable state. What is the Samaritan going to do? Gloat? Put the boot in further? Take some photos and post them on Facebook?

But, of course, that’s not what happens. He comes near, says Jesus, and he’s moved with pity, not with triumphalism. To the priest and Levite the man may as well have been a lump of meat. But to the Samaritan he was a real human being. He was prepared to have a real relationship with him, commit time and money to his care, now and in the future. Thank God he came along.

I’ve read and told this story many times. I’ve explored it with countless groups and I’ve discovered that a funny thing tends to happen to us as we think about it.  You’ll remember that I said that Jesus means us to identify with the man who was beaten up, that blank canvas of a man. But my experience is that somehow or other by the end, our attention has always slid away from him. We end up either identifying with the Samaritan, or aspiring to, hoping that we would have helped, or we identify with the priest and Levite, and feel guilty because we fear we wouldn’t have done. Somehow or other, we make it a parable about them, because it’s more comfortable that way. They may respond or not to the needs around them, but at least they are in control, they have a choice. We miss the fact that Jesus’ focus is on the victim, that’s where he wants us to put ourselves in this tale.

“Which of these three was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” he asks. “The one who showed him mercy” says the lawyer – the one who helped him. So who is the neighbour we are commanded to love? It is the one one who helps us. This isn’t a story about loving and helping those in need, or failing to. It is a story about acknowledging our own need, our own humiliation, and accepting help wherever it comes from.
Christians ought to have a head start in understanding this. After all we follow a humiliated leader, one who was himself ridiculed, beaten, and left to die on a cross. Christian faith starts, or should do, with an acknowledgement that we need God, that we need help, that we can’t do it ourselves. But that is as challenging and uncomfortable for us as it was for the lawyer who asked that question.

Perhaps it might help us to remember that  the word “humiliation” shares a root with the word “humus”, that good rich soil which grows the very best crops. Humiliation brings us “down to earth”, but in the end, the earth is the place from which true life grows.

That’s the message the hot-shot lawyer needs to hear. He doesn’t have to be in the right all the time. He doesn’t have to win the argument, to show his strength and competence. In fact, if he is determined to act like that he will never find the life he was asking about at the start.

A few weeks ago Boris Johnson promised people an “Independence Day”, but, whatever we feel about the EU referendum result, there is no such thing. There never has been and there never can be. We can’t be independent, none of us, no matter how strong and clever we are. We need each other, whether we label each other friends or enemies. Everything we do affects others, and everything they do affects us. We have one planet to share. There is no planet B, nowhere we can ultimately separate ourselves from those we find inconvenient or troublesome.

That sometimes feels like bad news, but it is really the best news of all. Eternal life isn’t a trophy to be won and owned independently. It is something we discover springing up in us and around us as we learn to see and accept each other  – friend or foe – as human beings made and loved by God.


Sunday, 3 July 2016

St Thomas the Apostle: God in the darkness

There is a fascinating man in one of our Bible readings today, a man who found out the hard way what true faith looked like. I’m not thinking of Thomas, whose feast day it is today, and who features in our Gospel reading. The man I’m talking about is Habakkuk. Who? The prophet who wrote the book from which our first reading came. 

If I pressed you to name some famous figures from the Bible you might come up with Jesus, Mary, Peter and Paul, Abraham, Noah, Adam and Eve, but my guess is you wouldn’t think of Habakkuk. The book he wrote is only three chapters long and it’s sandwiched between Nahum and Zephaniah, equally obscure writers, in the section of the Old Testament known as the minor prophets, but it’s a real gem and it has words which seem to me to be spot on for the times we are now in, times of turmoil and uncertainty.

Habbakuk was a prophet who lived around about 600 BC in Jerusalem and probably worked in the Temple. It was a frightening time for his city and nation. The mighty Babylonian army was advancing on Jerusalem, and it was obvious to everyone that the prospects for the future were grim. People tended to assume then – and some  still do now – that when bad things happened it meant that you’d done something wrong and that God was punishing you. So what did the looming catastrophe mean? Had the people brought it on themselves? Most of Habakkuk’s contemporaries probably thought so, and you’ll find that view in some of the other prophets writing at this time. But Habakkuk wasn’t convinced. Could it really be as simple as that?

His book begins with an angry lament. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?...Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”  We could all cry out like that sometimes, in a time of personal crisis, or just watching the 10 o’clock news. Habakkuk is honest with God. “Why… are [you]  silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?   It’s that age old question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” That can be the question that kills faith completely for people, but Habakkuk doesn’t give up.

This morning’s reading follows on from that anquished question.  Habakkuk isn’t going anywhere till he has an answer. “I will stand at my watch-post” he says
, “ I will keep watch to see what [God] will say to me.” 

God doesn’t leave him waiting long. “Write this down” he says.  “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie” It might look to Habakkuk as if it is all over for his nation, but God takes a longer view. This looming catastrophe is just a chapter in the story, not the end of it. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come!”  

Those people who are proud, the reading goes on- literally puffed up – sooner or later will discover that their self-centredness has eaten away at them. “Their spirit is not right in them” says God to Habakkuk. But those who have put God at the centre of their lives, those who do right to their neighbours, they will live – and the word “live” doesn’t just mean exist. It’s about fullness of life, purposeful life, life that reflects the life of God. There’s no arbitrary punishment or reward going on here. People are shaping their own lives by the choices they make. “The righteous live by their faith” – literally it means they live faithfully, steadfastly, and that makes all the difference. Their lives may not look successful or glamorous to anyone else, but they have a kind of life that will sustain them through whatever trials come their way, and overflow to bless others too.  That’s Habakkuk’s message.

And that brings us onto Thomas, that doubting disciple in the gospel reading whom the church celebrates today. Thomas too seems to believe that worldly success is a sign of God’s blessing.  It’s not just that he doubts the physical fact of the resurrection; it was that he couldn’t believe that God could be in the awful events he’d just witnessed at all, the agonising death of Jesus on the cross. The Old Testament taught that anyone who was crucified was cursed by God, so surely he would never let such a thing happen to his Messiah, the one he’d chosen. The crucifixion wasn’t just an emotional, personal blow to Jesus’ followers; it was a spiritual and theological blow too. They had believed that Jesus was sent by God, that God was in him, but how could that be if he’d met with this awful fate?

So, when the rest of the disciples say to Thomas “We have seen the Lord”, he’s shocked. It isn’t just the possibility of resurrection that he can’t grasp, but the fact that they are calling Jesus “Lord” – giving him that status. How can he be Lord, if God has let him die on a cross?

That’s why it isn’t enough simply for him to see Jesus, raised from death. He needs to see Jesus’ wounds too. Only then can he get his head around the idea that his crucifixion wasn’t a sign of rejection and failure. Only then can he start to believe that God might be at work in disaster, in woundedness, in brokenness.

And it was going to be vital for Thomas to understand this. According to tradition he went on to take the Gospel to India and was martyred there. His death must have looked like failure too, just like Jesus’, yet the Indian church which still bears his name, the Mar Thoma church, sees it as the beginning of their story. As Habakkuk said,  “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” and it isn’t the kind of vision we have, a short-sighted, limited vision, but one which is rooted in the endless love of God, which sees things we are blind to.

We need Habakkuk and Thomas’  message, because we struggle just as much as they did to see God’s presence in times of trouble. This week, the people of Turkey suffered another appalling attack, at Istanbul airport. Many people were killed and injured. Where is God in that? And that’s just one in a long litany of disasters in a world that is wracked with hatred.

Closer to home I expect we have all been watching with concern the ripples spreading out in the aftermath of the EU referendum. Whether you were a “leaver” or a “remainer” or didn’t vote at all, anyone with a heart would be concerned about the reported rise in racist harassment which has happened over the last week. Many immigrants are reporting verbal attacks and intimidation. None of us can feel happy, either, at the spectacle of our two largest political parties fracturing, effectively leaderless. That can’t be good for the nation.

Many people who have spoken to me this week have expressed shock – including those who voted to leave. We struggle to see God in all of this – it just feels like a mess. We’d rather it all just went away. Our instinct is to smooth things over, to try to ignore the turmoil. But that may not be the best way forward.

The former bishop of Tonbridge, Brian Castle, wrote a very thought provoking blog post in the aftermath of the referendum. It was rather oddly titled, “Now is NOT the time for reconciliation.” That seems strange, and anyone who knows Bishop Brian will know that he is a very peace loving man, so what can he have meant? Here’s an extract from what he said, which might make it clearer.

“Working for reconciliation now would be like putting sellotape on a septic wound.  It may hold everything together on the surface, but beneath there is poison festering away, ready to break out once it has built up pressure and momentum. While we need to be kind and charitable to one another, aware of the deep hurt and divisions caused by this divisive campaign, we should not try to bring about reconciliation.  Reconciliation can only happen when the roar of battle has died down, when all involved regard themselves as equal (there can be no ‘victims’ when pursuing reconciliation) and when people can talk to each other about their hopes, aspirations and fears.  Reconciliation also requires all parties to be open to change for the sake of the other. To do all this requires an honest look at the campaign and a willingness to face up to some of the demons that were and are prowling in the darkness.”              

What he is saying is that rushing to make it all feel better means ignoring the real issues, the mess, the demons in the darkness. We want to do that because it feels more comfortable to us, but real healing means staying with the hurt, staying with the difficulty, believing that God can be in that hurt and difficulty, the God who gives life in all its fullness, who brings Jesus through the darkness of death, rather than sidestepping it. Jesus suffers the wounds the world inflicts on him, so that he can open the way for us all to find in our woundedness new life that is real and lasting. 

Habakkuk’s prophecy ends with one of the most beautiful bits of poetry in the Bible. It is a hymn of praise, to be sung in the midst of trouble, not denying it or skirting round it, a hymn which affirms that God is present even when there are no easy answers and no miraculous escapes on offer.
I’ll leave the last words to him.  

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold  and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;  he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights.                                (Habakkuk 3.17-19)