Sunday, 23 September 2018

Trinity 17: Restless hearts

“Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”. Today’s collect – the special prayer for the day – is one which many people love* I’m always glad when it comes around. Like many of the best prayers it has a long pedigree. It is based on the words of St Augustine of Hippo, a fourth century Christian leader from North Africa, and it is from a book which is basically his autobiography, called the “Confessions”. To sum it up in one sentence, it’s the story about how his “restless heart” finally came to rest in God.  

Augustine had  been born and brought up in the Roman town of Thagaste in North Africa in the dying years of the Roman Empire, by a Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan father, Patricius. The young Augustine didn’t look remotely saintly, though. He was looking for meaning and happiness, as we all do, but he tried whatever came to hand in order to find it. He tried wild nights out with his mates, wine, women and song… but fun though they were, they didn’t really hit the spot. All he ended up with was a rather tangled personal life, which included a child, born when he was 17, by a woman he never got around to marrying. So he looked to religion and philosophy – and there were plenty of options to choose from. We may think we live in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, but it was nothing compared to the Roman Empire.  All sorts of ideas jostled for followers. There was Christianity, the newly declared the official faith of the empire. There were the old Roman and Greek religions with their multitude of gods and goddesses. There were mystery religions with strange secret rituals and beliefs. Who had the truth? What was life really all about? By the age of twenty, Augustine’s “restless heart” had led him to a group called the Manicheans, who were followers of a Persian philosopher Mani. Like many groups we now tend to lump together under the name Gnostics, the Manicheans believed that the created world, the world of matter and the flesh, was at best inferior, the work of a lesser god, and at worst evil. The soul was a divine spark, they said, which had been imprisoned in the body, and longed to be free of it. To Augustine, who often felt like a battleground of conflicting impulses and desires, it all sounded very convincing.  

But after a while Augustine started to feel unsatisfied with the Manicheans too. Their accounts of creation seemed too far-fetched, and he suspected that many of their teachers didn’t really understand their own teachings. So he looked once more at Christian belief, and gradually came to believe, at least in his head, that this was the faith that made most sense to him. But it was still just in his head, not his heart. He believed things about God, but putting his life into God’s hands, letting his faith make a difference to his life was a different matter.    What might he have to give up? How might he have to change? It was as if his “restless heart” had led him to the brink of the ocean, but would he have the courage to jump into the water and trust it would support him?

He struggled. He thought big and complicated thoughts about faith and philosophy, but in the end that wasn’t what really changed him. It was this. One day he was sitting in his garden, he said, in despair, when he heard the sing-song voice of a child from somewhere nearby.
 “Take it and read, take it and read…” sang the child. Puzzled, he picked up a Bible. It fell open at the letter to the Romans…”Let us live honourably, as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealously. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus…”

Somehow those words went right to the heart of his struggle. Living well wasn’t just about changing your mind, adopting a new set of philosophical beliefs; it was about letting God change your life – and his life needed to change.

But he hadn’t worked this out through his own cleverness, or through the teaching of some great spiritual teacher; he’d been directed to it by the words of a child, who didn’t even know that they were doing it. He’d been striving to find the way to God with his restless heart, but all the time God had been right there waiting for him to stop striving and to fall into his arms, into the place where he really belonged. It was God who had found him. Indeed God had never lost him.

There are plenty of restless hearts in the readings today too.
James writes to a church full of people who are tossed about by their fears , by the “cravings that are at war within them” . They covet things they can’t have. They are ruled by “bitter envy and selfish ambition” . They grasp for power, and they don’t care who gets hurt along the way. And why? Because they are struggling to find peace and meaning, not realising that what they seek is theirs already, if they will only “draw near to God.”  .

James talks about the “harvest of righteousness, sown in peace” which they long for. Peace, in the Bible – shalom in Hebrew - is always about far more than the absence of war or the absence of noise.  It’s about everything being as it ought to be, in its proper place, healed and whole. And it starts inside us, in our hearts. We can’t have peace out there, if we haven’t got it in here.  We strive for wealth and status, for lots of “likes” on our facebook post or our Instagram feed, for constant affirmation, we work our fingers to the bone to get that promotion, but when we get them, we find that, actually, we don’t feel any better at all because whatever we have gained we can also lose. It’s only when we realise that we are held in God’s love, when we are centred and secure in that, that we find the peace that can’t be destroyed or taken away. “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you” says Augustine, and his words make as much sense now as they did 1700 or so years ago when he first wrote them.  

That’s a lesson which Jesus’ disciples had to learn too. In our Gospel story today, he tries to teach them, yet again, that he will be betrayed and killed but that he’ll rise again. But they still aren’t ready to hear it. As they walk along the road, Jesus is aware that they are squabbling among themselves. He knows what it’s about. It’s what squabbles are always about.  Who is the greatest? It doesn’t matter whether it’s children fighting for the biggest slice of cake, or nations fighting for land and political influence, our squabbles are always, in some sense, about  wanting to feel bigger and better than others, because then we think we will feel more secure and more significant in a world which is so much bigger than we are, beyond our understanding and control.

For Jesus’ disciples it was no different. Like all their fellow Jews they lived under the perpetual threat of Roman takeover, and longed for a Messiah, God’s anointed one, to deliver them from that threat, to make Israel great again (and if that sounds familiar, it’s meant to). They want to believe Jesus is that person, and that he’s about to take his throne, but the problem is that their vision of greatness is one patterned on the empires they see around them. All they can imagine is that Jesus will be like the Roman Emperor only infinitely bigger and better. And when that moment comes, each of them wants to be his right hand man, the one who will share the biggest slice of his power and glory…  That person will have it made. They’ll never have to worry about where the next meal is coming from ever again. They’ll have won the lottery of life.

But when they shamefacedly admit that this is really what they are thinking, Jesus simply takes a child, a small child, a vulnerable child with not  a scrap of power, and puts it in their midst. If you want to really have that security you crave, the ultimate peace you are trampling over each other to find, you need to take a lesson from this little one. It’s only when you can welcome littleness and vulnerability, when you can own and embrace the stuff in you which feels helpless, when you can accept that actually, you really have no more power to control your life than this child does, that you will discover that God is with you, at work in you, that he loves you, and that there’s nothing you need to do, nothing you can do, to make him love you more – or less – than he does already. Discover that and you won’t need to worry about who is the greatest at all.  

That’s as hard for us to learn as it was for Jesus’ disciples and  for those whom James was writing to  and for Augustine, who struggled with it all his life, but it’s the key to finding what we all need, the peace of God  that passes understanding.  The restlessness of our hearts may show itself in all sorts of ways. We may be anxious about our lives or the lives of those we love. We may be constantly distracted, never able to trust that we have chosen the right path, or that what we have will be enough. We may be locked in feuds or burdened by grudges which we can’t let go of because we can’t imagine life without them. We may be relentlessly competitive, in ways that drive others away from us.

Whatever form our restlessness takes, though, Augustine – and James and Jesus – would tell us that the answer to it is the same. “Lord, you have made us for yourself” says Augustine. We don’t have to compete for God’s love, or work for it; we don’t have to push others out of it in order to gain it. It is ours already. There is an “us-shaped” place in the heart of God, an “me” shaped place, a “you” shaped place, a space shaped like each of us, a space for  each of us. All we have to do is fall into it and learn to trust it, and our “restless hearts” will find the true rest they have been craving.

* Almighty God, you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself,
and so bring us at last to your heavenly city
where we shall see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, now and forever.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Trinity 15: God-given voices

Audio version here

Those of you who took part in the Lent discussion groups on the five senses earlier this year may recall one session when we thought about the sense of hearing. The Wednesday morning group was an especially chatty group, as I recall. Often everyone talked at once. But for this session I particularly wanted us to listen to each other. So I produced  a shell and said that people could only speak when they were holding it – so only one at a time. It’s known as a magic microphone in the trade. You might think that everyone in this chatty group would have made a mad grab for it, but that’s not what happened. Instead a deathly hush fell. No one seemed to want to hold that shell. A few people made contributions, but many, suddenly, stayed silent. Why? As we talked about it after the exercise someone hit the nail on the head. “The thing is that if you are holding the shell, and everyone’s listening, you feel you really have to have something worth saying!”

Speaking and listening ought to be simple – we do them all the time, but often they’re not. Today’s Bible readings might help us to understand why.  

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah looks forward to a time when God will rescue his people from exile in Babylon. And what will it time be like? It will be a time when the “ears of the deaf will be unstopped… and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” This isn’t really about physical healing; it’s about the healing of a whole nation, the restoration of hope.
Deafness and speech impediments can often leave people feeling cut off and marginalised, disempowered, unable to take part in conversations that shape the future, unable to make their opinions known, and that’s how Israel feels, says Isaiah.  No one is listening to their voices. They aren’t hearing words of hope, words that give them dignity. They’re at the mercy of the powerful rulers of Babylon. But it won’t always be so, says Isaiah.  God hasn’t forgotten them. He has been listening, and he has a message for them - “Be strong, do not fear”. And God’s word will be the word that will prevail. It will turn out to be far more powerful than anything the Babylonians say to them. Babylon will be defeated, and they will indeed go home. God’s word, after all,  had brought Creation into being – “Let there be light”, he had said, “and there was light” – so why should his word be any less powerful now? He is the one who can make the deserts of their hearts, the deserts of their hopes, blossom with new life.  

There’s a lot of hearing and speaking going on in the Gospel reading  too. A deaf man is healed and enabled to “speak plainly”. A Syrophoenician woman’s voice is heard – eventually – and honoured.  
But the Gospel writer tells us that even for Jesus this can be a struggle. To understand why, we need a bit of background.

Jesus is in Tyre, a seaport on the Phoenician coast. What’s he doing there? We’re not told. It’s a puzzle. Tyre was outside Jewish territory. Like most seaports, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural place, with sailors and travellers from all over the world passing through it. There would have been temples to pagan gods and goddesses on every corner, food that was unclean for observant Jews, behaviour they would have found offensive.  This isn’t a seaside holiday.

Jesus is deliberately, putting himself outside his comfort zone, quite literally going to a place where he knows he will be challenged. It’s a bit like the forty days he spent in the wilderness – the wild place, the haunt of demons, before his ministry started. Tyre is another wild place, but Jesus knows he needs to be here. He’s been preaching that God’s love is for everyone, but it seems as if he feels the need to test out how deeply he believes that. But they say you should be careful what you wish for because you may get it, and that’s exactly what happens.  

Perhaps he’s prepared for the foreign temples and unclean food, but for a Gentile woman – apparently on her own – to throw herself at him, as this woman does is clearly more than even he is expecting. In a society where respectable women kept to the home, and their male relatives normally spoke for him, there is something suspicious about this woman from the start. Perhaps her daughter’s father is a sailor, long departed across the sea? Whatever has happened, Jesus is clearly uncomfortable at first. His words to her seem harsh. They are harsh. People have tried to suggest that he is just testing her faith, but what kind of person tests someone who is so desperately in need of help. The most likely explanation for them is the obvious one – that Jesus needs to learn something from her. This is the lesson he has come to Tyre for. Her refusal to be fobbed off and his acknowledgement that she is right to persist  is the challenge he needs, the confirmation that God’s love is indeed as broad as he has said it is.

The surprising thing is that this story is here in the Gospels at all. It shows Jesus in a bit of a bad light, after all. But the Gospel writers evidently believed that their readers needed to hear about this moment when Jesus learned something from a Gentile woman, so they were prepared to put it in anyway.  Their readers were struggling to make a new community in which Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slave and free, were all included on the same terms. This story tells them that even Jesus struggled to do this, but that the struggle was worth it because if we don’t listen to the voices that disturb us, we will miss the voice of God that speaks through them.”

In the second part of the Gospel reading we meet a man who is literally speechless, and deaf as well. Imagine what his life might have been like. There was no sign language at this time. There were no hearing aids. He’d never have the chance to join in a conversation. He’d have been vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – after all, he had no way of complaining. After he’s healed, we are told he “spoke plainly”. I often wonder what he said. I’m sure he would have expressed love and gratitude to some people, but maybe also there were wrongs to be righted, as well. Maybe some people heard painful home truths from him. Just like the Syrophoenician woman, his voice might not have turned out be one everyone wanted to hear. Jesus didn’t just give him the power of hearing and speech; he gave him the power to challenge, to confront, to make his opinions known, and there’s always an element of danger in that.

Both these stories ask us powerful and disturbing questions. Whose voices do we pay attention to today, and whose do we discount? How willing are we to do what Jesus did, to put ourselves in positions where we might be challenged, or have to change our minds?  Can we bear to hear the voices of people who don’t share our politics, who don’t see the world as we do? Can we bear to the hear the voices of people who may have hurt or offended us in the past, and who we now can’t believe could ever do anything right or good?  We may like to think of ourselves as loving and inclusive, but there will always be people who we close our ears to, whose opinions we disregard before they’ve even opened their mouths. These stories call us to be honest with ourselves, to ask God to show us where our unconscious biases are. They call us to accept that we need to hear voices that disturb and challenge us if we are to grow into the people he wants us to be. If Jesus needed that, then how can we not?

But I think these stories might also ask us how we feel about our own voices and how we use them. Like those who were so reluctant to take hold of that shell in our Lent Group, we may not be sure that we have something to say that is worth hearing.

We may have learned that lesson early, if no one seemed interested in what we had to say as we were growing up, or if we have been repeatedly ridiculed and silenced by powerful voices around us – a domineering parent, sibling, friend or partner. We may have been shouted down by a society which looked down on us or disapproved of us for some reason - poverty, gender, lack of education, mental health issues, family circumstances, sexual orientation. We may have learned that it was safer to keep our mouths shut. We may talk endlessly about everything and nothing, but never take the risk of saying what we really mean.

If that’s the case, then these stories are a reminder that the voice each of us has is unique, and God-given. Jesus enables the deaf man to speak plainly, to say what he needs to say. And in honouring the voice of the Syrophoenician woman, in letting her teach him, he gives her a dignity which her society would never have done, recognising her strength and her courage.

The world needs to hear what each of us has to say, however tongue-tied and insignificant we feel. The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, said that “every creature is a word of God, and a book about God.”  That means you, and me. You’re a word of God. I’m a word of God. Each of us is something unique that God is saying to the world. When we speak our God-given truth with our God-given voice, however hesitant and inarticulate we feel, God speaks through us, and God’s word is a word which brings worlds into being, which makes streams flow in the desert, which heals the broken-hearted and gives hope to the hopeless.

So, today, tomorrow, this week, let’s be aware of the people we hear and the people we fail to hear, of the words we speak, and the words we fail to speak. Most of all let us be open to the voice of God which tells us to “Be strong, and do not fear!” and let’s encourage other people to hear that message too, in what we say and in what we do. Amen