Sunday, 27 August 2017

Trinity 11: Sober Judgment

“ I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement.”

This time of year is a time when, for many young people the chickens come home to roost. Over the last week or so A level and GCSE results have come out, and as ever there have been scenes of young people in tears of delight or of disappointment as they have opened the fateful envelopes to find out what the examiners’ judgment is of their work.

Of course, it’s not just students who feel the weight of judgement. Most jobs include some sort of appraisal, formal or informal, annual or ongoing. People may be judged on how many sales they’ve made, how many patients they’ve treated, what their customer satisfaction rating is.  Even Jesus, in our Gospel reading, wants to know what judgements people are making about him. He reveals a surprising judgement on Peter too. Much to Peter’s surprise Jesus sees in him a rock-steady character which no one else seems to have recognised so far.  

Often, of course, the judgements that are most crucial are the ones we make of ourselves. We are often our own harshest critics, comparing our bodies against those of models or sporting heroes we see in the media, our families with others at the school gates, our lives with those who seem so much more certain and sorted out than we are. We’ve all got an “inner critic” asking  “what do people think of me? “ “what do I think of myself?” “Am I doing ok, or just kidding myself?” “Am I a good enough parent, child, spouse, friend worker, Christian…?” 

That inner voice may be negative, but it can also be falsely positive too, convincing us that we are fine and that all is well, when really it isn’t. We are shocked and indignant when someone else points out a failing we need to deal with. It’s a tricky business coming to that “sober judgement” Paul talks about.

Paul has a particular situation in mind when he makes this comment in his letter to the Romans.  He’s heard that divisions have broken out between the Christians in Rome. Some had Jewish backgrounds, others had Gentile, non-Jewish backgrounds. Each group thinks they are better than the other. Jewish Christians assumed that they ought to have the biggest say in shaping the church. After all, Jesus had been Jewish, and they shared with him that deep knowledge of the scriptures and traditions that had shaped him. But the Gentile Christians had embraced the good news that God was doing something new, and they believed that their voices counted for just as much as those of the Jewish Christians.

To complicate matters, a few years before this letter was written, all the Jewish people, including the Jewish Christians, had been forced to leave Rome by the Emperor Claudius.

That meant that the Gentile Christians, the ones who didn’t have all that Jewish heritage behind them, were left to cope as best they could. And guess what? They did just fine – that’s how it seemed to them anyway.

When the Jewish Christians came back a few years later, they found that these Johnny-come-lately Gentiles were disregarding all their treasured rules.  They’d begun to shape a Christian community of their own, and they thought it was all the better because it had cast aside its Jewish roots. God was done with all that history, the Gentile Christians said. Judaism was old hat. Why would God be bothered if you ate pork? Hadn’t Jesus put an end to all that nit-picking?

The Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians were locked into a war of words with each other, each thinking they had it right, and the others were missing the point.

Throughout the letter, Paul comes back to this tension between them again and again. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”,  he says. Neither Jew nor Gentile is perfect.  God is making a new creation, but it’s one in which Jews and Gentiles are equally valued.  Here in chapter 12 he tells these warring groups that whether they like it or not, they are now one body. Everyone brings something unique and valuable.

“Get down off your high horse!” says Paul to both groups. Learn to see yourselves as God sees you, as people with gifts, people he loves, but also people who are flawed and incomplete, people who need others to find the fullness of life God intends for us all. 

It’s good advice. Like most good advice, it’s not exactly rocket science. The interesting question is why we find it so hard to live like this, to come to that “sober judgement”, that realistic reflection on ourselves which would enable us to see ourselves and others clearly.  We puff ourselves up or pull ourselves down. We hide from others and we hide from ourselves. We treat others as less than they are, so that we can feel bigger.

So how can we find the courage to look in the mirror honestly and acknowledge what we see there?

Paul gives us some more clues if we have eyes to see them. Notice how, in this passage,  he talks about the mercies of God, the grace of God, the will of God, the gifts of God. We aren’t just one body, according to Paul. We are one body “in Christ”. What’s he trying to tell us? It is that first and foremost, we are God’s children, God’s creation, people who belong to God, not to ourselves. The gifts we are so proud of aren’t really ours, they are God’s, which he has given to us. The failings we berate ourselves for are just evidence that God’s work in us isn’t finished yet, not a sign that we are intrinsically bad. Or maybe it is even just that we’re trying to be people he never meant us to be. He may not have created us to be Olympic athletes or scientific geniuses or supermodels, so why do we judge ourselves harshly for failing to reach those goals?

Present yourselves as a “living sacrifice” says Paul to these warring Christians. Sacrifice was a familiar part of their world, in a way which it isn’t to us. Essentially, though, when you sacrificed something in the ancient world you were acknowledging your relationship to the god you sacrificed to, your dependence on him. “All things come from you, and of your own do we give you” said the Bible, words we repeat when we offer the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

So Paul tells the Roman Christians that the only way they can come to a healthy sense of themselves is by acknowledging that they don’t belong to themselves anyway. They belong to God. They are God’s possessions. The gifts of the Gentile Christians, their insights, their ideas, which they think are so brilliant and necessary, aren’t theirs at all. They come from God, who is working through them. And that means that the gifts, insights and ideas of the Jewish Christians are also God’s too. Neither group needs to push their own agenda aggressively to silence the other. It’s quite the contrary. They need to listen to each other, so that they can hear God’s wisdom in all its completeness.

We don’t have to be anxious about what we can and can’t do, what gifts we have and haven’t got. We don’t have to pretend to be something we aren’t. God is doing his work, in his way.

The image Paul uses of the body is a good and helpful one, not least because bodies aren’t fixed, static things, machines that can only do one task in one way. Bodies can do all sorts of different things, in all sorts of different ways, to meet all sorts of different circumstances. What has your body done this week? Gone for a walk? Baked a cake? Hugged a friend? Played with a child?  Thought an interesting thought? (Brains are part of bodies too!) Bodies can adapt and learn, and often have to. Most bodies are, or will be, disabled in some way at some time in life, either permanently or temporarily. Illness and injury may limit our bodies, but every body can be a blessing,  to us and to others, in what it can do, whatever that is. Stephen Hawking’s body is almost completely paralysed, and yet, look at what he has achieved.

That’s a very timely message for us here at Seal Church. Several significant people have moved on, or shortly will, from Seal Church over this summer. We’ve lost the Harvey family with their move to Hadlow. We’ll soon be losing Stephen Bloxham, who has shared his many gifts with us so generously over the past 8 years or so - musical, community building, fundraising . As ever, there are members of our congregation who aren’t able to be as active as they would like to be because of illness. And each year, there are some we lose through death. “How will we manage?” people ask me, whenever we have these significant losses to our little church family. “I have no idea”, is the honest answer, but I am sure that the God who gave those people to us in the first place is still at work here, and that he’s providing the gifts we need to do what he wants to. Things may change. They may not be as we expect or are used to. But if we trust God, welcome others and open our eyes and our hearts to what he is doing in our community we will end up with a church that is alive with his life, whatever it looks like!

One commentator on this passage said, “God doesn’t want something from us, he wants us”*. We were created by God. We are his children. When we present ourselves to him as “living sacrifices,” all we are doing is putting ourselves back where we belong – in his hands. And that is all we need to do. This, says Paul, is our “spiritual worship”– the only kind of worship that can really heal us where it matters, straightening out our distorted judgements and enabling us to see ourselves and one another as the beloved people we really are.


*Ben Witherington: Paul’s Letter to the Romans p.85

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Trinity 10: What has God put into your hand?

There’s a story told of the sixth century Irish saint, St Kevin, a man known for his feats of heroic prayerfulness. He was a hermit who lived in a cave by the side of Glendalough, a lake in County Wicklow. According to legend, at the beginning of Lent one year, Kevin settled down to pray. He stretched out his hands, as he was wont to do, and sank deep into prayer. So deep was his prayer, that he didn’t notice when a blackbird landed on his hand. So deep was his prayer that he didn’t notice either when she flew away and came back again with a twig in her mouth. So deep was his prayer, in fact that he didn’t notice her going to and fro for all that day, hour after hour, bringing twig after twig, weaving them together. He didn’t notice her bring dried grass and weave that into the twigs either. He didn’t notice until right at the end of the day, when he opened his eyes and realised that there in his hand was a perfectly woven nest, and the blackbird sitting in it. And underneath her were three sky-blue eggs.

“Ah!” thought Kevin. “Now what shall I do? Sister Blackbird has honoured me with her company, trusted me with her young. Hmm! Well, there’s nothing for it but to wait, and while I wait, to pray”. So Kevin did. According to the story, he prayed for days and days, sitting quite still, not stopping to sleep or to eat. One week passed, and two, and in the third week he saw the eggs crack open, and little by little the blackbird chicks emerge. But that didn’t mean he could move. Far from it. Now it was even more important that he stayed still as the parent birds brought food to their chicks. So Kevin just carried on praying. By the time the chicks were ready to fledge and fly the nest, Lent was nearly over, and as Easter Sunday came he celebrated the new life of resurrection, and the new life of the chicks that had grown in the nest of his outstretched hands…

Well, you can believe it if you like, but it’s a good story, whether it happened or not.

I like it because it makes me wonder what unexpected thing God might have put in my hands to deal with. Perhaps it is something which I would rather not handle – maybe Kevin had at least the odd moment when he wished that blackbird had nested somewhere else. Often in our lives there are situations which seem to us to get in the way of what we really want to be doing with our lives. We could be so much better, holier people if only… If only, we didn’t have that awkward boss at work, that difficult relationship at home, that illness to deal with, these cares and worries, those doubts and fears. These things seem to us to be distractions, diverting us from the path we planned to take.

And yet, it is often in facing up to and dealing with these awkward realities that we find the greatest blessing. We find our hearts and lives expanding because of them. Sometimes we may find a solution to them. Sometimes we may end up having to live with them, but what looks like a diversion from the straight road we’ve mapped out can be the pathway which leads to life in all its fullness, if we are prepared to let it be.

The Gospel reading we heard today reminds me of that too. Jesus is in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, foreign territory. Tyre and Sidon were Canaanite port towns to the north of Israel. What was he doing there? We aren’t told. Not having a seaside holiday, that’s for sure. Tyre and Sidon were a byword in Israel for sin and trouble, rackety towns where all sorts of people came and went, where sailors did what sailors have always done on their runs ashore. Maybe the father of the little girl whose mother comes to Jesus was a sailor. It’s certainly unusual for a woman to be out on her own like this, taking the initiative in challenging a male leader. Maybe he was a sailor who had gone away to sea and never come back, a sailor with a girl in every port, and she just happened to be the girl in this one. We don’t know. But she is obviously a nuisance, even to Jesus.

His disciples beg him to send her away, and he seems inclined to try, but she keeps on at him until he gives her what she wants - her daughter’s healing – and he doesn’t just do this, he also acclaims her faith.

It’s an awkward story. Commentators have puzzled over it ever since it was written. Jesus seems so rude. They have tried to say that perhaps he doesn’t really mean what he says when he compares her to a dog and tries to send her away, but I don’t buy that, and I think if the Gospel writers meant us to read it like that they would have said so. I think it is what it seems to be; a story about Jesus learning and growing. I think that’s precisely why he went to Tyre and Sidon – to challenge himself. And I think he found there the challenge that, even for him, felt like a bridge too far. But, helped by this woman, who had just seemed like a nuisance at first, his vision expanded to encompass this Gentile. The Gospel writers, I believe, included this awkward story as an encouragement to their hearers, who were also often struggling to accept those who found their way into the early Christian community,. “Even Jesus found this tough, and yet, what a blessing there was in accepting the stranger – however strange!”

So. I wonder. If we stretch out our hands in prayer today, as St Kevin did, what or who will we discover that God has placed into them? What are the inconvenient, awkward, puzzling realities that we struggle to hold, that we would rather put down somewhere and walk away from? Perhaps, like St Kevin, like Christ himself, we might find that, in God’s economy, there might be blessing hidden in the pain, new life hatching in our hands, if we have the patience and the faith to hold still and watch?


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Trinity 9 : Being saved

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” said St Paul in our second reading, from his letter to the Romans. It’s familiar Christian language. You’ll hear the words “saved” and “salvation” a lot in churches. It’s there in hymns and prayers. But what does it mean?

If you’d been a Christian at the time this church was built in the Middle Ages, you’d have had no
Detail from Doom Painting, St Thomas, Salisbury.
doubt. Salvation was about where you were going when you died. Many churches would have had a huge visual reminder of that too, in the shape of what was called a “doom painting”. They were often painted right here on the chancel arch, where you couldn’t miss it as you sat in church. On one side you’d see the saved rising up to heaven; on the other side would be people going the other way, stuffed down into the jaws of hell by gruesome looking demons. Being saved meant being on the right side of that divide, and you’d want to do everything you could to make sure you were. Salvation, as it was commonly preached and believed, was about having a ticket to heaven when you died. But although doom paintings have, thankfully, gone out of fashion, that view of salvation is still quite common.

But if that’s all that being “saved” means to us, then I think we’re missing something, because what the Bible says about “salvation” is much wider and richer than that. It is wider and richer in two ways, in particular, which I think we often miss.

The first is that “salvation” in the Bible isn’t just, or even mainly, about what happens to our souls after death. It is also about what happens to our bodies before it.

We can see that in our readings today. Peter calls out in our Gospel reading “Lord, save me!” – there’s that word again - but it’s nothing to do with the state of his soul. He’s sinking fast in a stormy sea, literally out of his depth and facing imminent death. The rescue he needs is a physical one, but when eventually climbs, coughing a spluttering, into the boat with the rest of disciples, I am sure he is in no doubt that he has been saved.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ healing work is often described as salvation, “‘Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ says Jesus to a father whose little daughter has just died. (Luke 8.50) “‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” he says to a blind beggar who cries out to him for help. There may be spiritual change for the people involved. When the cheating tax-collector, Zacchaeus, repents and repays fourfold what he has stolen from people after Jesus has invited himself to tea, Jesus says to the crowd, “today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19.9).  But often the physical healing is all we hear about and yet it’s still described as salvation for those concerned.

Even Jesus’ enemies taunt him as he hangs on the cross with the words, “‘He saved others; let him save himself “(Luke 23.35). It’s the real, tangible changes he has wrought in people’s lives they are talking about. They know they’ve seen salvation happening as he has healed people. What baffles them is that he doesn’t rescue himself. Salvation, throughout the Bible, is as much about physical as well as spiritual things, about the things people are struggling with right there and then, not just what happens after death. The people of Israel are described as being saved by God from slavery in Egypt. (E.g Exodus 15.2) ;and saved again by God from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 45.17) . The Psalmist pleads for salvation from his enemies, and thanks God when he has been rescued from death or disgrace.

There’s a prime example of someone who needs salvation in our Old Testament reading today. Elijah is running for his life. The Queen, Jezebel, is after him. He’d challenged the prophets of her God, Baal, to a contest, and he – or rather his God – had decisively won.  But Jezebel isn’t the kind of woman to accept defeat gracefully. She is spitting tacks, and she’s after Elijah’s skin. So he runs away, as far as he can, out into the desert. And eventually, after a long journey he finds himself at Mount Horeb, huddled in a cave, despondent and exhausted. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” asks God. It’s a good question. He doesn’t really know how to answer it. All he knows is that he has done all he can to stand up for the God of Israel, to defend the faith of his nation, and it isn’t enough. Elijah feels that it is all over for him, and for the people of Israel too. But God has other ideas. To begin with, he reassures Elijah of his presence. It comes to him not in anything dramatic – wind, earthquake and fire – but in the “sound of sheer silence”, or a “still, small voice” depending on your translation. After all the terror and the tumult Elijah has been through, when he has come to the point where he can’t be the big, brave prophet anymore, he lets himself fall into God’s hands and discovers that in God’s presence all is well, whatever else is happening to him and around him.  And then God shows Elijah, that though he thought there was no way forward, God has a plan. He’s already lined up Hazael and Jehu as kings, and Elisha to take up Elijah’s mantle as prophet too. Elijah is saved from his despair, given the strength and the hope he needs to go on. That is what it means for him to be saved by God. 

Salvation, in the Bible, isn’t some nebulous spiritual thing far off in the future, high up in the heavens. It is practical, personal, immediate. It comes to people as they need it, making a tangible difference to their lives. That’s the first thing we often miss.  

The second thing is that salvation, in the Bible, isn’t just a personal possession.
Paul describes salvation again and again in his letters as something which happens in communities, and in the whole of creation. In the passage we heard today he talks about salvation as a state in which “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” . That echoes his message throughout his letters that God’s saving power destroys the divisions of class, ethnic background and gender that beset his society. A few chapters earlier, he had talked about the whole of creation “groaning” to see the new thing God was doing in the world through the Christian community.  (Rom 8) Salvation wasn’t something you could enjoy in a private bubble, but something which affected everyone and ultimately could heal everyone.  God was “reconciling to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”  he said in the letter to the Colossians (Col. 1.19) . The Psalm we read this morning spoke of salvation bringing God’s glory to the land, creating a place of where mercy and truth met together, and righteousness and peace kissed each other. In the Bible, salvation is something we discover together, or not at all. It’s about our relationships with each other just as much as it is about our relationship with God, about politics and economics, the way we work, and shop and shape our families and treat the natural world around us.

So – two dimensions which we often miss when we hear the words “saved” and “salvation. The first is that it’s about the here and now, not just the afterlife. If salvation doesn’t make a difference to our lives right now, it isn’t salvation in the sense the Bible talks about it.  The second is that it isn’t just about us, a personal possession, a private matter; it’s something which is for, and about the whole of creation.

There’s a verse in Psalm 18 which has always summed up salvation for me. The Psalmist says, “[God] brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me because he delighted in me.”  Being saved means being brought into a “broad place”, a place where we find life in all its fullness, where we are freed from all that has bound us and made us less than the people God means us to be.  What that might mean in your life right now is going to be different to what it means in mine, but my salvation can’t be complete unless yours is too. And our salvation can’t be complete unless everywhere else in the world the hungry are fed, the poor lifted up, the oppressed set free, all people enabled to find that “broad place” for themselves too.

And if that makes us feel as if the task is completely impossible for us, then that is just as it should be, because if we could do it, then we wouldn’t need saving.  Whether we are trying to eliminate world poverty, stop North Korea and the US blowing us all to smithereens or just trying to cope with the pressures and demands of our own lives, we’ll inevitably come to a point where we realise, like St Peter, that we are out of our depth, in over our heads. We try to look strong, stay in control, keep all the plates spinning and everyone happy, but we’re not up to it. Life is too hard for us to go it alone. We are saved when we come to the limits of our own power and discover the limitless power of God beyond them.  We are saved when we come to the place of “sheer silence”, when we have run out of words and yet discover that God understands us anyway. We are saved when we finally give up thrashing about in the water on our own, and find the courage to allow other hands to lift us up.

Salvation isn’t a ticket to life after death; it’s a way of life before death. It is found in the journey, not the destination. Walking in the way of salvation day by day brings us into a right relationship with God and one another, a relationship of humility and openness. As we call out “Lord, save us!” again and again, we gradually learn to trust that God is beside us anyway, ready to pull us up from the seas that overwhelm us. And if that is true, then we don’t need a ticket to heaven, because heaven is where God is, and God is where we are, in life and in death, which is right where we need him to be.