Thursday, 29 March 2018

Maundy Thursday: Words fail us

Maundy Thursday 18

Have you ever come to a point when you have just thrown up your hands and said “words fail me!”? My guess is that most of us have. Perhaps something terrible has happened, something we just can’t get our heads around. Watching the news yesterday I saw those grieving parents in Siberia whose children were killed in a fire in a shopping mall, a fire that they should easily have been able to escape, but couldn’t because the fire alarms had been turned off and the emergency exits were blocked. Whole families had been killed, when they’d just gone out for an afternoon’s shopping or a visit to the cinema. Some of them had phoned loved ones, knowing it would be their last conversation. How could this happen? Words fail us.

Or there was an interview with the parents of three teenage men in London killed by a drunk driver as they walked along the street to a birthday party, with all their lives ahead of them. The reporter asked the usual inane questions about how they felt. One mother said “excuse me, I’ve just got to fetch something,” and returned with a bag containing a plastic jar which I recognised all too easily, because I see those jars often. “This is all we have left of him,” she said “my son’s ashes in this jar.” Words fail us.

Words can fail us sometimes in happier circumstances too. If you’ve ever been in love, if you’ve ever felt enormous gratitude, if you’ve ever been overcome with wonder, words may have failed you.

I love words. I work with words all the time. I love to read and to write. Words matter to me. But sometimes they just can’t say what needs to be said. Words fail us.

It seems to me that that’s what happened on the night before Jesus died. He’d spoken many words to his friends in the three years they’d been together. Sometimes they’d seemed to understand. Sometimes it was clear that they didn’t have a clue what he was going on about. But now the time for words was coming to an end. If they didn’t get it now, if they didn’t realise what his message had been, no matter how clearly he spelled it out then there was no way of explaining it .“Love one another, even your enemies. “ “God is with you, whatever you’ve done.” “I have come that you might have love and have it in abundance…” “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit…” If they didn’t understand that it had all been about God’s generosity, God’s inclusive love, then there were no words which could make it any clearer.
The time for words was coming to an end anyway. During Christ’s trial and crucifixion he says very little, not defending himself, not explaining, knowing that what was going to happen was going to happen anyway, whatever he said. The early Christians saw echoes in the words of the prophet Isaiah.  “He did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers is silent.” Words were no use. Words failed.
So, at this moment, Jesus abandoned words in favour of actions, abandoned ideas in favour of physical experience, washing feet, sharing bread and wine.

If you’ve been part of our Lent groups this Lent, or have been following the daily Lent reflections online or in print, you’ll know that it’s all been about physical experience, as we’ve explored faith through our five senses. We’ve thought about the woman who reached for Christ’s cloak, thinking that just to touch it would bring her healing. What did it feel like in her hand? We’ve thought about the fragrance of the ointment of nard which Mary of Bethany poured over Jesus’ head, a gentle, tender gesture which said to him, “I’m with you. I get it. You’re going to die, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, but I can let you know that I’m with you, not trying to fix things, but simply acknowledging them. We’ve looked at the Bible through sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste as they feature in the many stories in it. I don’t know what that has done for you, but it has been a reminder to me of the reality of those stories. It has brought them home to me in a new way. It has got me out of my head, out of the world of ideas, and into flesh and blood experience, which is so much more powerful.

That’s as it should be. After all, John’s Gospel begins by telling us that Jesus is “the Word made Flesh”, God in the reality of everyday life, in a person who you could touch and see and hear and smell and taste too, I suppose, if you were determined! People sometimes joke that God went to great efforts to turn the Word into Flesh, only for theologians and preachers to spend the following two thousand years trying to turn him back into words again. I hope our sensory explorations have helped to set some of that right.

The thing is, you see, that however clever our words are, when it comes to Jesus, when it comes to the love of God, when it comes to understanding his presence in our life words will always fail us, because words tend to get stuck in our heads, and God wants to be more than just an idea to us. He wants to be the smell of new life, the sound of hope, the sight that transforms us, the touch of love, the taste that sustains and delights us. He wants to be known in the whole of our lives, not just in the things we believe in our heads and say with our lips.

That’s good news, because it means you don’t have to have the words to explain God, even to yourself. You don’t have to understand all those complicated ideas in the creed we’ll say in a minute. You don’t have to have explored every opinion on every theological belief Christians have argued about over the centuries.

You just have to be prepared to let Christ wash your dusty feet, gently taking them in his strong, carpenter’s hands. You just have to be prepared to open your mouth and taste the bread and the wine he gives you, letting him nourish you with whatever it is that you need right now to grow strong. There’s nothing clever about any of that. We can all be washed, and eat and drink from the moment we are born to the moment we die. I share communion with small children – we can admit children to communion at any time after baptism here at Seal, if they are hungry for the bread and wine. I share communion with people with dementia, who have forgotten all the words they used to know, but are still aware that this is something that is special and comforting. It doesn’t matter whether we know what it is about. It doesn’t matter whether we agree what it means. All that matters is that we eat and drink. Christ tells his followers to “do this” in remembrance of me, not to “understand this” in remembrance of me.

So tonight, as we go with Christ into the darkness and silence that surround the last night of his earthly life, may the taste of the bread and the wine remind us that when words fail us, God doesn’t fail us. He goes with us into that darkness and silence, still nourishing us with his life and love if we will let him.

I’d like to finish with a poem by Malcolm Guite, called Love’s Choice.

Love’s Choice
by Malcolm Guite

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,
A little visitation on my tongue,
A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.
This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung
A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,
Even its aftertaste a memory.
Yet this is how He comes. Through wine and bread
Love chooses to be emptied into me.
He does not come in unimagined light
Too bright to be denied, too absolute
For consciousness, too strong for sight,
Leaving the seer blind, the poet mute;
Chooses instead to seep into each sense,
To dye himself into experience.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Lent 3: The household of God

I wonder how many different households you’ve lived in during your life. In my case, I grew up in a rather rambling, eccentric house with my mum and dad and older brother, and a succession of lodgers who lived in a flat at the top of the house. They were mostly single, male, post-graduate students, and they were rather indistinguishable one from another. If the phone rang for them, we’d go to the foot of the stairs leading up to the flat and shout out “Dave, Steve, Paul…” until someone responded…
Lots of different households followed though. Student houses, sharing with complete strangers, when I went to university. Family homes when I married and children arrived and grew up.
By the time they were teenagers I was divorced, and lone parenting them. It was just the three of us, and Pickles the cat, who you may remember. When they left home for uni, it was just him and me for a while, but then Philip came along, and the rest you know… Most of the adult households I have lived in have also been vicarages, of course, households where you never quite know who you’ll find on the doorstep, needing to come in for coffee and a chat.  

Households vary enormously in shape, in size and in feel. They often change over time, as mine have done. Sometimes they’re happy places, sometimes not. Sometimes the people in them get along; sometimes they don’t. But whatever they’re like, they matter to us. They give us a sense of identity and belonging . They shape us, for good or ill, and they all have their own rules, spoken and unspoken. Is yours a household where you eat at a table, or on your laps in front of the telly? Is it a “shoes off at the door” household, or not? Is it a quiet household or a riot of noise?  

If we want to understand our readings today we have first to think about households and what they mean to us. In the ancient world, households were often much bigger than ours. They included extended families, several generations and often servants and slaves too. But they mattered just as much to people, and, like ours, they all had their own characters and cultures, just as ours do.  

Households weren’t just about individual families or tribes, though. The nation was seen as one giant household, and it was the Ten Commandments that established and expressed what it was meant to be like. They are the household rules of the household of Israel.  

According to the Bible, they were given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai so that he could pass them on to the rag tag bunch of ex-slaves he’d led out of Egypt, as they headed for the Promised Land. Their forty years of wandering would give them plenty of time to ponder them! “I am the Lord your God” they start. These people  belong to God. Why? Because “I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That’s a powerful phrase – the house of slavery – that was what their previous experience of being a household had been. Slavery had shaped their whole lives. It wasn’t just about their outward status, but about the way they saw themselves, their dreams and expectations, or rather their lack of them. What was the point of dreaming if you were someone else’s possession, theirs to do what they liked with? As Moses soon found, taking the people out of slavery wasn’t the same as taking the slavery out of the people. Again and again they looked back to Egypt. “At least there we had food to eat – leeks and garlic and cucumbers and melons. Now there is only manna! If this is freedom, you can keep it !” they said.  Freedom is challenging and difficult. Better the devil you know than the devilyou don’t. Whose household did they belong to now? Who was responsible for them?

The Ten Commandments, told them the answer to that question. They hadn’t been set adrift in the world. They still belonged to a household, but it was the household of God, a new community which would be very different, and far, far better than the house of slavery.

And what would it look like, this new household? Again, the Ten Commandments showed them. They start with the fundamental truth. The head of this household is God. Not Pharaoh, nor any other human ruler. And God was beyond their imagination, the commandments said, bigger than they were. That was why they weren’t to make statues to worship, even statues of God, because when we do that we often end up reducing God to a size we can manage, this big, that wide. He becomes our possession, not we his.

For the same reason, the Israelites are commanded not to “make wrongful use” of his name, using it as a sort of lucky charm or a magic formula, or even as a token of our honesty. When we do that we treat God as if he is our servant, at our beck and call, and it can never be like that. Keeping a Sabbath day matters for the same reason. It reminds us that we’re in God’s hands. It’s easy to get swallowed up in the idea that it’s all down to us, that we need to strive and work endlessly, that if we don’t help ourselves no one will. We try to be big and strong, even when we really aren’t. We forget to rest in God and on God.

The rest of the commandments spell out how people should treat one another in God’s household, but they depend on the first four commandments too. If we are God’s children, members of his household, then so is everyone else; they deserve to be treated with respect and care.

One of the distinctive things about these Jewish commandments was that it didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, powerful or powerless; the rules applied to everyone equally. In the legal systems of many of the nations around Israel, the punishments for murder or stealing or adultery were different for different social classes. A rich man who killed a poor man might have to pay a fine to his family. A poor man who killed a rich man would be executed. In Israel it wasn’t so. There was one law for everyone. Of course, it often didn’t work out that way, human nature being what it is, but that was what was meant to happen, and when it didn’t the prophets thundered their rebukes to the people. They’d forgotten who they were, and whose they were, and nothing but trouble would come of that.  

When Jesus stormed into the Temple in our Gospel reading, people must have felt as if they were in the presence of one of those ancient prophets. What was he angry about? This was the place which symbolised God’s presence with his people. It was God’s house, the place where his household gathered, the place where you could be sure he would hear you and see you. If people weren’t keeping his household rules in this place, they probably weren’t keeping them anywhere else.

The traders in the Temple had almost certainly set up their stalls in the Court of the Gentiles, the only place where a non-Jewish person could worship. They were robbing people of the possibility of coming close to God. It also may be the case that they were exploiting those who had no other option than to buy the animals they sold, and change their money at the rates they set. You couldn’t easily bring your own animals to sacrifice at the Temple. Imagine dragging a reluctant sheep all the way from Galilee. So you had to buy them when you got there. And you had to change your money from the coins used for ordinary trade, into the coins specified for paying the Temple tax, Tyrian Shekels. It’s highly likely that some, at least, were making the most of the fact that they had a monopoly, that people had to trade with them.

Scholars argue about what, specifically, had so enraged Jesus, but it’s clear that he saw people being treated badly, people being excluded from God’s household. If they weren’t being treated with respect, then God wasn’t being treated with respect either. And the fact that this all took place in the building which symbolised God’s presence with them, the focus of his household life, made it even worse.  

People were shocked when Jesus overturned the tables and scattered the livestock. It must have been pandemonium. But that was nothing compared to what came next. Jesus said that soon people wouldn’t need the Temple to meet with God and to be his household. The old systems would be destroyed . But a new Temple would rise in three days. It was only after his death and resurrection that his followers understood that he was talking about his own body, and his opponents never did, so it’s not surprising that they were horrified.

What Jesus is saying – and it was quite revolutionary – was that in the future, people would meet with God through meeting with him. This had happened in his physical presence, but it would also happen as they shared the bread and wine of the Eucharist, his body and blood, and as they gathered together in the new household of the Church.

Just like those Israelite ex-slaves in the desert, the early Christians discovered that they belonged to the household of God, whoever they were, whatever their backgrounds. As they loved each other, helped each other, prayed together, wept together, rejoiced together, they found God amongst them.

And our great privilege is that each of us is called to be part of that household too, finding God in our midst. Whether we meet in twos or threes, or in hundreds, whether we worship in the splendid medieval building across the road or here in the hall, God shows up when we get together. He shapes us into his household, if we will let him, teaching us to live, not in the house of slavery, not in fear or in condemnation,  but surrounded by his unquenchable, everlasting love. Whatever the other households we belong to are like, the household of God is one in which we can be richly blessed, and through which we can richly bless others.