Sunday, 24 June 2018

Crossing Over

Audio version here

Mark 4.35-41, 2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Psalm 107.1-3,23-32
You probably know that the Sea of Galilee is Israel’s largest freshwater lake, about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. So when Jesus said ‘let us go across to the other side’ it’s not like nipping across a lake at Chipstead in a sailing dinghy.

Talking of which I used to race sailing dinghies and my lasting memory is being pleased when the wind picked up as this meant that you could really get moving, but having done so on one occasion I was leaning with an arched back to counter balance the craft when the toe straps snapped and an involuntary backward somersault launched me into the ocean giving me an unnerving view of passing rudders overhead. Luckily I managed to avoid them as I surfaced.

Clearly any open water poses dangers. Weather often changes quickly so if the disciples who fished for a living thought that they were in mortal danger it must have been a pretty serious storm.

Initially it seems odd that Jesus would sleep through this but some people seem to be able to relax in conditions intolerable to others. I can recall a time on a small open passenger boat when the sea was so rough ninety per cent of people were being sick and my son Luke just got his sandwiches out and eat lunch like we were on a mill pond.
We could consider that the disciples may have been happy for Jesus to sleep, to not engage with him when all was calm and well, all blue skies and sunshine, in the same way that many of us may do. Of course the power of God in Jesus doesn’t change whether things are calm or stormy and the symbolism of Christ being unchanged when the storm comes should actually offer us reassurance.

But of course when crisis strikes Jesus’ sleeping appears crazy to the disciples, doesn’t he care what is about to happen to them all? But his apparent indifference is due to his knowledge of God’s power. Contrast this with the time shortly before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, when despite his request to do so, the disciples can’t stay awake in Gethsemane, their sleep doesn’t come from peace of mind but physical weakness. ‘Could you not keep awake one hour?’ he asked them.

It’s understandable that the disciples should be anxious if they thought that they were about to perish on the lake but when Jesus scolds them we have to ask ourselves whether it was for their natural fear of the conditions or because they fear God’s power manifested in him. ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

They have answered Jesus’ call to follow him, seen him perform miracles and healing, and heard his teaching so when Jesus asks the disciples ‘why are you afraid’ is he saying why are you afraid of me? Why do you not trust me and the love I have for you?

Despite the assurances that we have of God’s love for us in Jesus I suspect that most of us can relate to the disciples reactions. As their fear became a point to be challenged by Jesus so we should think what we fear and why. It’s a God given emotion which will protect us at times, we would be right to fear putting our hand in a fire for example. But we can also examine our less rational fears and hold them in prayer before God and explore them with him.

In fact we would do well to take all our emotional extremes good or bad and consider them in the light of our faith, they are important to us and God and an essential element of our relationship with him. They are what make us who we are and above all because we can’t falsify them or control them they are an honest representation of what is real in our hearts.

Paul tells the Corinthians ‘open wide your hearts’. It’s a message we would do well to embrace to offer our thanks, hopes and fears but also be open to God to hear his message of love, to know him more deeply and grow in faith.

All our texts today give us good reason to trust God in the midst of life’s difficulties.  Yet this is still not always an easy thing to do because life sometimes feels unjust, draining or we feel overcome by grief and anger to the point that we don’t leave ourselves time, space and energy to consider how God is still involved.

It’s likely that Psalm 107 which we said today comes from the period when Israel had returned home following her long exile in Babylon. The Psalmist invites the worshippers to give thanks to God for bringing them together again after having been dispersed in all directions.

The Psalmist goes on to describe the challenges that people had overcome in order to return home. We heard that ‘some went down to the sea in ships and plied their trade in deep waters’, likely to be merchants. We heard how they faced winds and storms until they ‘were at their wits end’.  When they cried to the Lord he stilled the storm and brought them safely to the harbour.  Ah, so it’s not such a new thing then, a generous God answering prayer when we realise we are not in control. It seems that he’s been doing it rather a long time and I strongly suspect that if we were to ask each other of our own experiences we would find that he is still doing it today.

The notion of ‘going across to the other side’, setting out on a journey with God is still very much relevant to us .

Every one of us will have things in our life we need to change but it’s so much easier to put them off or ignore them rather than to accept Jesus invitation to journey with him. We may ‘stay on the shore’ and do nothing because we fear the transition, the journey and the gospel reading today assures us that it will not always be smooth or comfortable, fear, danger and pain may be unavoidable.
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul talks of the power of God at work as he and other Christians suffer beatings, imprisonments, hunger, sleeplessness and ridicule just to name a few perks of the job! Paul trusts God to define what power looks like rather than insisting on his own earthly definition and it’s something really worth us pondering for our own lives. Being crucified on a cross didn’t look very powerful at the time either.

‘Let us go across to the other side’ beckons Jesus, what and leave my comfort zone, who knows what we may have to face on the journey. Sometimes we are forced to set off on a journey that we wouldn’t choose. Forced to leave home to find work, forced to face up to a health issue, forced to show leadership because no one else will, not knowing what each journey will entail. We need only the tiniest bit of faith to be sure that Jesus will be there with us. As a forgiving, loving father God only wants us to turn to him in our time of need and trust in his unfathomable generosity.

When all in life is calm and tranquil is easy to delude ourselves that we are in control, even that we understand God. But the disciples had to learn, as we do, that we have to trust a loving God that we can’t fully know or understand, but it is a God that has shown us enough that when our trust grows we draw closer and are safer despite the storms we may have to endure.

As we consider people ‘trying to cross to the other side’ we think of the fear of the settled population which often results in closed borders to people fleeing war and persecution, leaving them in fear on unfit boats, sent to sea by traffickers who don’t give a damn whether they complete their journey or end up drowning. They want to cross over to peace and security, prosperity and stable family life but find themselves caught up in international arguments as to which country, if any, should accept them. They are stuck in a storm of neglect and political argument which at times must leave them feeling that God is asleep and doesn’t care.

There are no easy answers, but to ignore those in dire need of help would mean that we are still stuck on the shore ourselves, unwilling to step out with Christ in seeking just solutions for God’s family.

In one of his books, Cardinal Hume the former monk and Roman Catholic Archbishop wrote of how his understanding of God changed over time. For years he thought of God as being like a strict school teacher or policeman who would know if you sneaked into the larder and took an apple and would make sure you paid for it. As an older man he wrote ‘now, many years later I have an idea that God would have said to the small boy, take two’.

It sounds like the words of a man who has truly come to know God’s grace.

Is it something that we can open our hearts to so that we can grow in faith and share this with others?

Kevin Bright
23 June 2018

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Trinity 2: Mad, bad and dangerous to know?

Audio version here

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about cream teas, as you do. The thorny subject came up of whether you should put the cream or the jam on your scones first. Apparently, cream first is the Devonian way, and jam first is a sure sign you are Cornish. I have to say that, coming from the West Country myself, I don’t ever really recall this being a “thing” when I was growing up, but maybe that is because as a Devonian, it never occurred to me to do anything other than what is quite obviously right – cream first. I hadn’t realised it was a tribal marker until recently, but if it is, then it’s clear which tribe I am in! The person I was talking to said “Oh, I see. So there’s a Devonian way and a Cornish way  “No,” I said, “there’s the Devonian way and there’s the wrong way!”

Tribalism – which I was most certainly guilty of - is at the heart of the Gospel reading we heard today. People around Jesus are puzzling over his words and actions, but for many of them the question isn’t so much about the merits of his message, but whether he is like them or not, one of them or not, part of their tribe or not. Does he do things the way they do, see the world the way they do? If he does, he’s obviously a good thing; if he doesn’t then he is mad or bad and probably dangerous to know as well.

Even his family are behaving like this. Mark’s story is topped and tailed by reports of their concern for him. “He has gone out of his mind,” his family say. This will end in tears. They can see that. And they’d like to spare him, and themselves, the inevitable trouble which will come from annoying those in power.

Still, at least they care about him as a person. The scribes are much more brutal,. They accuse him of being in the pay of Satan.

The local Pharisees already have it in for him because of his apparent disregard of the Sabbath laws, but these religious experts have come all the way from Jerusalm to see what’s going on, and their verdict is damning. “ He’s possessed!”  they say. “He’s a servant of Beelzebub”. They can’t argue with the facts. He has been healing and exorcising. But they argue that he’s been doing it through the devil’s power, because they can’t believe that God would use someone like him, a carpenter from Galilee who mixes with sinners.

They demonize him, quite literally, but that’s something we can all do, even if we don’t believe in actual demons at all.  We demonize people by ascribing dark motives to those we’ve fallen out with or whose political  or religious views we don’t share. We suspect them of hidden agendas. Nothing they can do is right or good, even if it really is right and good.  

Our distrust spreads to things that have nothing to do with the real differences between us. Their dress is the wrong dress. Their football teams are the wrong football teams. The way they eat their scones is wrong, wrong, wrong. We forget what we originally fell out about. Now everything becomes a marker of our difference, and the result is that we can’t see anything good in them any more, or hear what they are really saying above all the clamour of all the stuff we’ve decided to hate about them.   

Demonization poisons communities. That colleague or fellow member of the congregation who we disagreed with about something once, or who hurt us or made us look bad, now can’t open their mouths without putting our backs up. Our hackles rise as soon as we think of them.

Jesus demolishes the scribe’s argument with one blow. They’re saying that he’s casting out demons by the power of Satan. But why would Satan give him power to do that? The demons are Satan’s henchmen. It wouldn’t be in Satan’s interest to have them cast out of anywhere. He’d be fighting against himself, shooting himself in the foot. The scribes haven’t got an answer for that, but his clever logic isn’t going to be enough to convince them that God is with him, because they’ve already made up their minds otherwise. As he discovers, you can’t defeat demonization with logic.

Essentially demonization is what Jesus goes on to describe as the “unforgiveable sin”. It’s the sin of calling good things bad, saying that the work of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, is the work of Satan. It’s unforgiveable not because it’s worse than other sins but because when we commit it we don’t see that we are doing anything wrong. How can God forgive us, Jesus is saying, if we don’t think we need forgiveness, if we’re blind to what we are doing wrong? It’s only when our eyes are opened, as Adam and Eve’s are in our Old Testament reading, when we see that we are naked, that God can start to set us right again.  Until we come to that  painful realisation, God can’t get anywhere with us.

The scribes demonize Jesus, and their demonization of him eventually sends him to the cross. But there’s a real danger when we read Gospel stories like this that we do exactly the same to them. Christians throughout the ages have twisted these Gospel stories, lumping together all Jewish people with the few who opposed Jesus, a Jew himself, of course.  It’s true that scribes, Pharisees and other Jewish groups tend to  get a rather bad press in the Gospels, and it’s understandable too. The Gospels were written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70. Bitter arguments broke out within Judaism about why this had happened and who was to blame. Some Jewish groups – the Pharisees in particular – blamed the Christians, still very much part of the Jewish faith, because they said they’d polluted the faith by admitting Gentiles to their fellowship. They expelled the Christians from their synagogues.

Tempers were running high and in the midst of all that, it’s not surprising that the Gospels don’t tell us much about the scribes and Pharisees who supported Jesus, or that those who didn’t weren’t necessarily bad people, and that even when they do, as, for example in the story of Nicodemus, we have often missed those details. In truth, many scribes and Pharisees cared deeply about their nation and their faith and were just concerned that Jesus’ revolutionary ideas would bring down the wrath of Rome on them. They wanted peace, just as the Christians did. They just differed in how they thought it would come about. In the bitterness of the argument, though, the nuances got lost, and what we’re left with is probably far more black and white than it should be.

That’s a pity, because it’s meant that Christians have often done exactly what Jesus warns us against here. Instead of looking at the issues, we look at the tribal markers. Other people are either “our tribe” or “not our tribe” and we declare them “right” or “wrong” as a result. We forget that we’re all, first and foremost, children of God, each of us flawed and failing, but all with something to say that’s worth listening to, part of the truth that we all need.
I’m going to be dashing straight off at the end of this service because I am going to take part in a march in London commemorating the hundredth anniversary of women getting the right to vote. As a woman priest, I know I wouldn’t be here in this pulpit if other women hadn’t lobbied and fought, often at great cost, to win me that very basic right. Looking back now, it seems like a no-brainer. How could people have ever thought it was wrong? But they very genuinely and sincerely did.

I came across a pamphlet written by Lord Curzon, entitled Fifteen Good Reasons against the Grant of Female Suffrage. It sounds very bizarre now. Argument number four, for example, reads:
“Women have not, as a sex, or a class, the calmness of temperament or the balance of mind, nor have they the training, necessary to qualify them to exercise a weighty judgement in political affairs.” It continues in a similar vein through all fifteen dreadful clauses.   [,]

Everything in me recoils from Curzon’s “Good Reasons”, but, but… if I take Jesus words seriously, it matters that I don’t just write off what he says as pompous twaddle, because behind his awful rhetoric, there were concerns that were legitimate have been concerns that were quite legitimate. For example, he thought that giving the vote to women would be the start of the wider emancipation of women, and that this would have an effect on family and community life. And he was right. It has done. Now that most women as well as men do paid work outside the home, the vast army of stay-at-home wives and mothers who once provided childcare, elderly care and all sorts of voluntary community work has shrunk almost to nothing. No wonder voluntary organisations and churches struggle so much for help now.  

Of course, I don’t agree with his solution to this – keeping women chained to the kitchen sink, subservient and silent. The answer lies in men and women together figuring out a pattern of family life that is healthy for them, and all of us together taking responsibility for  sustaining community life , but painful though it is for me to admit it Curzon’s anxieties about this weren’t wrong, even if he didn’t express them in a very helpful way.  Refusing to listen to our opponents, just because they have opposed us, isn’t the way to find the wisdom we all need.

It’s always tempting to think “my family right or wrong”, “my faith, right or wrong”, “my country, right or wrong” but Jesus said “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” even if it’s someone who we’ve always thought was our bitterest enemy.

Christ calls us to look for the real issues behind the posturing, the real person behind the stereotype, to listen for God’s voice amidst the clamour of our rivalries. It’s a calling to humility, a tough calling, which is why we so often fail at it, but it’s only by doing this that we’ll escape the endless cycles of bitterness which poison our attempts to build the kind of world God wants, and we need. It’s only by doing this that we’ll find that we are all one tribe – his tribe, his beloved people.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Trinity 1: "Stretch out your hand"

Audio version here 

Deut 5.12-15, 2 Cor 4.5-12, Mark 2.23-3.6

“Stretch out your hand”, says Jesus to a man he meets in the Synagogue in Capernaum. That’s what caught my eye and my imagination as I read this Gospel reading. It’s an intriguing detail. There’s no real need for this man to stretch out his hand in order to be healed. Jesus often healed with just a word, or even at a distance. But this man seems to need to stretch out his hand to receive his healing.

As I said, it caught my attention, and it led me to think about this action, this gesture of stretching out a hand and what it might mean.

As it happens there’s another outstretched hand – or rather an arm – in today’s readings.  It is in the Old Testament passage from the book of Deuteronomy. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” The outstretched arm here is held out in a gesture of power, of authority, of agency, the gesture of someone who is going to get something done. There are plenty of other examples, in the Bible or out of it, of outstretched arms wielding power. Moses stretched out his arm, holding his staff, to part hands the waters of the Red Sea. In folklore, wizards stretch out their arms, holding their magic wands, to make a spell. Kings hold out sceptres. Priests hold out their arms in blessing.  

Stretching out a hand or an arm isn’t alway a gesture of power, though. Hungry refugees stretch out their hands for food when the truck bringing supplies comes around. A drowning person stretches out their hands in hopes that someone will pull them from the water. And maybe, in answer, someone stretches out a hand to feed and to save them. 

Whether we are giving help or asking for help, casting a spell or making a command, praying or blessing though, the outstretched hand is a hand that is doing something. We stretch out our hands because we believe, or at least hope, that something will happen as a result.  

“Stretch out your hand” says Jesus to this man, but what is it that he wants to happen? Why does he need this man to make such a public gesture? Why can’t he heal him with a quiet word, or a private meeting?

To understand, I think we have to consider what this disability and its healing would have meant both to the man concerned, and to the rest of those present in that synagogue. 

Let’s start with the individual. 

Just imagine what it might have been like to be him. Daily life with a hand that doesn’t work properly is very difficult. We use our hands for so many things; eating, dressing, washing, as well as the tasks we need to do to earn our living. In the ancient world, without the machines and technology we now have, it was even more important to be able to use your hands. How could you grow your food, cook your food, gather firewood, build, make clothes, look after livestock one handed?  The fact that he can’t use this hand probably cuts off any real possibility for supporting himself, and maybe affects his prospects of becoming a husband and father too. He was probably dependent on others, and most people find that pretty tough. 

And to cap it all, he wouldn’t have been able to take a full part in the religious life of his community either. All adult men were supposed to offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem at least three times a year, but no one with a disability was allowed to enter it, because disability was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure, so he couldn’t even worship with everyone else.

What might this disability have done to his sense of himself as a person, as a proper grown-up? We don’t know, but it’s likely that he would have lived with a fairly constant sense of shame and exclusion. And this hand which Jesus is asking him to stretch out, was the cause of it. How difficult must it have been to him to let others see it, the source of his weakness and humiliation? 

So why did Jesus put him through this? Maybe because he needed to acknowledge the problem before he could be healed. As long as we are ashamed, as long as we hide what troubles us, from ourselves as well as others, as I imagine this man might have hidden that withered hand, nothing can change. Sometimes it is making that doctor’s appointment, going to that support group meeting for the first time, picking up the phone to the friend who has offered to help which really matters; that’s the moment , that first step, when change can start to happen.

That may be one reason why, on a personal level this man needs to “stretch out his hand” in this public way before he can be healed. His disability has made him feel helpless, mired him in a completely undeserved sense of shame. When he acts, when he stretches out his hand, he is doing something for himself, taking hold of life and hope and dignity again. It is Jesus who heals him, of course, but his brave, public act is a vital part of the process. 
But it’s not just him who needs healing and change. Equally significant in this story is the change and challenge which Jesus offers to those who witness his healing, because in some ways his society is even more disabled than he is. 

The fact is that the people who should have cared for him, the Pharisees, the so-called religious experts, don’t seem to have seen him as a human being at all. It’s nothing to them that he is struggling and needs help. To them, he is just a lure to trap Jesus. All they seem to care about is their arcane arguments about Sabbath observance. Never mind the miracle, what matters to them is that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, and that, in their eyes is work.

We’ve already seen them get hot under the collar because his disciples have snacked on grains of wheat as they have walked through a field.  That’s harvesting, as they see it, and harvesting is forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus tries to justify it with an appeal to a rather obscure Old Testament story, but they aren’t having any of it. So when he comes into the synagogue they are just looking around for some way to get him into even more hot water. Whether it is just a convenient coincidence that this man is there, or whether they have set him up we don’t know, but which ever it is, they see him just as an opportunity to advance their interests. Their agenda is the only thing that matters to them, not this man and his problems. 

That’s what makes Jesus so angry. That’s why he is “grieved at their hardness of heart”. They can’t see the wood for the trees, and they aren’t even trying to. They are quite happy with the status quo, in which they have power and respect, and they don’t see what damage it is doing to them as much as to anyone else. They don’t see that they are even sicker than the man whose sufferings they are so ready to exploit. 

The man with the withered hand has been disabled emotionally and spiritually by a world view which puts power on a pedestal, because his physical  problems mean he has very little, but the Pharisees are just as disabled by that way of thinking. When people shame or stigmatise those who are poor or disabled, it is usually a sign that they are terrified of losing the wealth and ability they have. They need to put others down so that they can stay on top. It’s a risky strategy though, because no one is immune to the vagaries of illness and misfortune. That’s why tyrants are so often paranoid and fearful. But we can all behave like this, becoming defensive and prickly when our little empires are threatened, and these Pharisees are a perfect example of this. 

Ironically, though, both their lives and the life of the man with the withered hand might have been made much easier if they had really understood the issue at the centre of the stories we have heard today, the Sabbath and what it was meant to be for. 

God’s command that people should have one day of rest in every seven was meant to be a safeguard against the idolisation of power, a weekly reminder that we don’t need to have it all or do it all in order to keep ourselves safe. Only God can do that anyway. Keeping the Sabbath, choosing not to work every hour there is, dares us to trust that we aren’t on our own in a hostile world, with only ourselves to rely on, but in the hands of God who loves us. It dares us to trust, too, that we are part of a community, in which each is responsible for the others. The Sabbath says “enough is enough”; it was intended to provide a built in safeguard against inequality and injustice, stopping the powerful heaping up money at the expense of those who couldn’t keep up.  It reminded those who observed it that it was God who provided, God who empowered, God who gave to each person, whatever their ability, a dignity that couldn’t be taken away, the dignity of being his children frail and fallible but beloved and precious too.  

We are all clay jars, as St Paul put it, but clay jars can still contain treasure; we don’t have to pretend to be solid gold when we’re not and were never meant to be. That’s what Jesus went to the cross to prove. The clay of his flesh was shattered and torn apart.  Like the man with the withered hand, he was despised and rejected by those who saw him die this humiliating death, and yet, in his powerlessness, as his arms were outstretched on the cross, God declared our powerlessness, our failure, our death to be places that could be fountains of blessing, however unlikely that seems to us when we are in those places.

“Stretch out your hand”, said Jesus, and the man with the withered hand found liberation and life when he did so.  “Stretch out your hand”,, says Jesus to us, and maybe, if we do, we can find the same as we discover the blessing that comes from naming our need and accepting his help.