Sunday, 28 October 2018

Bible Sunday: Hearing God speak

I went to a fascinating exhibition last week in the British Library at St Pancras. It was an exhibition of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, some of them over 1000 years old. There were all sorts of documents, but quite a few of those on display, inevitably, were bits of the Bible – Psalters, or Gospel books. They’d obviously been very precious to those who had originally commissioned, owned and used them, rich and powerful people – you had to have been to have been able to afford them. Some were beautifully illustrated, others were plain, but each one would have taken a huge amount of work to produce.

First you had to make the vellum they were written on. It was made from calf skins, carefully scraped and processed. Then you had to make the ink, from oak galls – the hard substance which forms on oak trees around the larva of the oak gall moth. They had to be crushed up and left in water for several days in the sun to make the ink.  When that was ready you had to make your quills, from goose feathers – first catch your goose! – and not just any feathers either. Only the first five flight feathers could be used. Then you had to score and mark the lines on your vellum. Only then, laboriously and slowly, could you start to write, but only if there was natural light to write by, or perhaps the precious light of a candle. Progress would have been achingly slow in the winter months, and cold, because that natural light would come through windows that were without glass.  

No wonder books were a luxury item, not something ordinary people would every have owned, even if they could read. The books that were most often produced, of course, were books of the Bible, but usually only selections from it – Gospels or Psalms perhaps. One volume Bibles were vanishingly rare, because they would have taken such huge resources to produce, and been enormous themselves. In fact, the oldest surviving one volume Latin Bible in the world is on display in that British Library exhibition. It’s called the Codex Amiatinus, - I’ve put a picture of it on the pew sheets. It’s one of three which were produced in the great double monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the North East of England, around 700 AD. Only this one copy survives and it is normally kept in Florence, but it’s come back to the British Isles for the first time since 716AD for this exhibition. It’s an impressive piece of work which took decades to make . It took 515 calf skins to make.  It’s about a foot thick, and 18 inches tall. It weighs over 5 stone – apparently about the same as a fully grown Great Dane, if that helps.  This one copy survived because it was sent to the Pope of the time as a gift – a great and costly book for a great and very important person.  It would have been a rare treasure, even for him – a bible in one volume.

It wasn’t until the invention of moveable type by Gutenberg that most people would ever have had a hope of reading the whole Bible for themselves, providing they could read at all, of course. Thankfully, it’s now easily available to most people in a language they can understand. A quick sweep around my house revealed at least 20 Bibles, in a variety of translations and in several languages too. I’ve also got one on my Kindle, and often use an online Bible as well.

So - job done, we might think; the word of God, in everyone’s hands.

But it’s not as simple as that, because having access to a Bible is one thing; reading it and understanding it is quite another, and in some ways the production of one volume, printed Bibles can complicate the way we read it, and bring its own problems.

That’s partly because it was never really intended to be a book at all. The Latin word from which we get Bible was Biblia, and it meant library, not book. It’s not meant to be one story but lots of stories, many different types of writing – poetry, history, law, prophecy, folk tales – all written to be read in different ways. Binding the Scriptures into one volume makes them seem, literally, black and white, static, fixed.  It gives the impression too, that the Bible tells one unified story, as if written by one hand, at one moment, that it will be internally consistent and always say the same thing, and the Bible just isn’t like that. It is the record of many different people wrestling with their faith, glimpsing God, struggling to work out what it means to live as the people of God. It isn’t a book, it is many books, many voices, many viewpoints, some of them in dialogue, or even argument with each other. It doesn’t always even agree with itself. That’s why it has been used to justify slavery and to inspire the campaign against it. That’s why it has been used to oppress women and LGBT people but has also encouraged them with stories of people who went against the grain of their society and found new ways to live and to love. That’s why it has been used to send soldiers to war but also to inspire those who work for peace.

I’m always suspicious when people say that they are “Bible-believing” Christians, because I want to know which bits of the Bible they believe in. Usually it is the bits that bolster whatever they already think, not the bits that challenge or confuse them. In a sense we expect too much of it – that it will give us easy, consistent answers to life, the universe and everything – but in doing so we also expect too little of it, missing the richness of its diverse bagginess, its living, breathing power to reveal God in the here and now.

The diversity of voices in the Bible are its strength and beauty, but they call us to be brave when we read it, to give up our longing for simple answers to complicated questions. They call us to look through it as well as at it, and most of all, to be alert to the moments when we feel the breath of God coming from its pages.  As Jesus says in the Gospel, to the Jewish leaders who are challenging his claim to have come with a message from God. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life… Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  They are so busy reading the words that have become sacred to them, beautifully inscribed in their sacred scrolls, that they miss the living Word of God who is standing in front of them in flesh and blood reality. We do the same when we put law before love, ancient texts written in contexts unimaginably different from our own before the real needs of living, breathing people around us.  

Anyone who knows me at all will know that I’m a huge fan of the Bible, and I spend a lot of time and energy encouraging people to read it and enjoy it, but it is really important how we read it. It isn’t God. We mustn’t put it on a pedestal and worship it. Whenever we read it we need to ask not, “What does the Bible say?” but “what might God be saying to me, today, through the Bible”. Our collect for today, an ancient and beloved collect adapted from the Book of Common Prayer tells us to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” – and it’s that last bit that really makes the difference. Undigested food just produces pain; undigested Bible texts do the same. Digestion takes time, but eventually - we are what we eat – it nourishes and shapes us, giving us life, rather than just heartburn.

There are many ways of reading the Bible which encourage digestion, but a technique that works for me, that helps me to slow down and engage with the Bible with the whole of myself is to remind myself to read it with my head, my heart and my hands – apologies to those whom I have bored to death with this technique over the years!

First we read with our heads. We ask what the context is of what we are reading, what’s happening, who wrote it, why, for whom, when? We ask factual questions of it. Who are these people? Where are these places?

Second we read with our hearts. What do we feel about what we are reading? What happens when we imagine ourselves in the story? Where does it comfort us, or discomfort us and why? What bells does it ring with us? What experiences of our own does it touch on?

Finally we read with our hands. What response does it call for from us? That might mean prayer, or action, change in our own lives.

The head, the heart and the hands…  It’s not magic, but it might just help us to engage honestly with what we hear and read.  What really matters, though is that we start out with the expectation that we will discover God in the scriptures, not a set of rules, that we will encounter the living Word, not simply the words on the page.

That’s what happened to one small girl, about ten years old, who one day heard a teacher in her school reading the passage from the prophecy of Isaiah which we’ve heard today. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” he read, “call upon him while he is near.” Those words hit that little girl between the eyeballs. They made her think, “perhaps I should look for God now, whatever that means. Maybe this is a moment that really matters”. That started a lifetime’s journey in the company of God, whom she often encountered in the words of this ancient collection of books, which strengthened her, comforted her, challenged her, inspired her, sometimes amused her or amazed her. I know all this because I was that little girl, and that experience, the experience of hearing God speak through the words of the Bible, was the first step on the road that has brought me to where I am now.

The Bible is a wonderful treasury of wisdom and of folly, inviting us to find ourselves within its ancient stories of love and hatred, of joy and despair, but inspiring us , too, to be part of the story God is telling now, through our lives.

I wonder what God might be saying to you through it today?

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Trinity 20: What do you lack?

Amos 5.6-7, 10-15, Hebrews 4.12-16, Mark 10.17-31

I was on a preachers’ discussion forum earlier this week, and noticed that a fellow preacher had asked for a quick yes/no vote on what we were planning to say about this week’s Gospel reading. He’d set up an online poll. The question was quite simple. “Are you going to tell people that they should give up everything and live in radical poverty, as Jesus told the rich man – sell what you have, give everything up? Yes, or no? Last time I looked the poll was running at about 50/50. I’m not telling you what I voted. You’ll have to work it out from what I say!

This is a very tricky passage, one that can make us feel very uncomfortable. Some Christians have heard a simple, literal message here. St Anthony heard this story in the fourth century, and gave up all he had and headed out into the Egyptian desert to live as a hermit. St Francis heard it and abandoned all his wealth, even taking off the clothes his rich father had given him and handing them back to him in the public square at Assisi, so that he ended up standing there stark naked. Jesus’ words to this rich man went straight to Anthony and Francis hearts, and they took them absolutely literally, just as I am sure Jesus intended this rich man to do. But does that mean we should all be doing the same?

The reason my online colleague asked the question was that he knew there is a real temptation for preachers – for all of us – to try to explain away Jesus’ challenge. Perhaps it only applies to the rich, we say – by which we mean “someone richer than I am”.  Or perhaps Jesus doesn’t mean us to give away everything, like St Francis? (Actually I do hope you don’t suddenly feel moved to take all your clothes off, if you don’t mind! ) But how rich is too rich, and how poor is poor enough?  Perhaps it only applies to those called to be saints or those with a troubled relationship to possessions? We can breathe a sigh of relief if that’s not us. One of the most desperate attempts to remove the sting from this passage is the oft-repeated story that there was a gate in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus called the “eye of the needle” which was so small that camels had to be unloaded in order to pass. Camels could go through eyes of needles, but only if you unloaded them first. Unfortunately there was no such gate. The story was pure wishful thinking. Jesus was simply using an image well-known across the Middle East to describe something that was completely impossible. In India it was an elephant and the eye of needle.

The truth is that we all want to wriggle off the hook of this passage. Most of us know that we have too much stuff, and feel faintly guilty about it. So we try to tame Jesus’ words convincing ourselves that they don’t really mean what they sound as if they mean, or that he didn’t really mean us.  

I wonder, though, whether we are actually starting in the wrong place completely with this story. We are so caught up with the second part of what Jesus says to this man, that we miss the first part.  Jesus doesn’t just say “go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor…”. He says, “You lack one thing; go sell what you own….” “ You lack one thing.” I don’t think this is a story, primarily, about what we have. I think it’s a story about what we lack, and how we feel about that lack. Get that right and some of our questions about what we have might solve themselves.

What does this man lack, the man who already has so much -  wealth, fine clothes, the latest chariot, and a lot of virtues, it seems too, if we take him at his word about all those commandments he’s kept? What does he lack? In his own words, it is “eternal life”. That’s what brings him running to Jesus, throwing himself at his feet – he doesn’t saunter or even walk purposefully. He runs. It’s his longing for eternal life which makes him run. What is he looking for? It sounds as if he wants to know that he is right with God, accepted, secure, but he sees that assurance as something he can “inherit” and that's very interesting. An inheritance is something which is paid out to us after someone dies, something coming to us in the future. It’s a sum of money, or a house, or a collection of original Beatles records. It’s something we can put in a bank or on a mantelpiece. This man, who has so many possessions, assumes that eternal life is just one more, the possession that will complete his collection. It’s the ultimate gift for the person who has everything, something which he can put in a display case, store in a safe deposit box, reassured that it’s there for the ultimate rainy day of his death. It’s a common misunderstanding. Many Christians still see eternal life as just a ticket to heaven, the assurance that when the time comes, St Peter will wave them in through the pearly gates.

But Jesus doesn’t talk about it like that. When, later in the passage he says that “in the age to come” his followers will have eternal life, he isn’t talking about life after death, he’s talking about the Kingdom of God, the time that he is ushering in there and then, a new way of living, a new awareness of the presence of God in this world as well as the next. Eternal life isn’t something you “possess”, like a Rolex watch or a Ferrari. It is something you live. Perhaps it would be better if we called it “eternal living”. It’s a quality of life, a way of life, in which everything is tinged with the divine, in which we find God at every point. Those who live “eternally” assume that they are walking on holy ground all the time – when they go to the shops, meet with a friend, respond to someone in need. they are people who have learned to expect that God will show up in every area of their lives, and learned to welcome him there.

The rich man who comes to Jesus has found that all the wealth in the world and all the virtues he can cultivate don’t bring him the sense of inner peace he craves. But as long as he sees it just as a bolt on to the almost perfect life he has, like the final, rare stamp that will complete his stamp collection, he will never find it . Jesus knows that his whole life needs to change, his whole perception of himself. He will have to learn to acknowledge his lack, to see himself as needy, poor, helpless, powerless, in order to be open to the riches of God, and the only way that can happen is if he gives up the comfort blanket of his possessions, all of them, and comes and follows Jesus, in whom all those riches dwell. The tragedy is that, in the end, he can’t bring himself to do it.

Jesus may call us to give up all our possessions, or he may not, but he certainly calls us all to be at home with our need, at home with the idea of ourselves as beggars, people who, for all our possessions, can never come to a point where we are self-sufficient, people who will always need God and always need one another.
That’s what eternal living looks like.

As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, we need to be “laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account”, which sounds horrible, but is actually the beginning of the good news, because when that happens we are able to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The prophet  Amos thunders at his people to stop thinking they can do whatever they want because they happen to have money and power. “Seek God and live” (live -there’s that word again). Dethrone yourself, he says. Accept that you aren’t the great  “I am” and put yourself into the hands of the one who is.

So, back to that poll I started with. Was I going to tell people they should live in radical poverty?  What did I vote? I voted Yes, but not because I think we should all give up all our possessions. The message of the Bible, taken as a whole, isn’t that there’s anything wrong with material things in themselves. I voted Yes because I think that until we discover and accept that we are all basically poor and helpless,   no matter what power and wealth we may seem to have on the surface, we'll never find the treasure we really need, the knowledge of God’s ever present love. If we always live in the bright light of our own strength and capability, we'll never find the God who dwells in the darkness with us. Sadly, it’s usually only when our lives go wrong that we discover that. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus in the Beatitudes. Or, as someone else translated it, “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”

Today you may have much, or you may have little. You may have come here today knowing there is money in the bank, food to put on the table, health and strength to deal with life. Or you may have come here today feeling lost and lonely, at your wits’ ends, racked with doubt or debt. But in God’s eyes we are all the same. We are all people who need his love, whether we know it or not, people whom he longs to lavish his love on, people who have nothing that is truly our own, and yet people who, because of him, have everything we could ever truly need.

If we want to be rich in the things that matter, we first need to recognise what we lack, the thing we can never truly possess, but which is given to us in full measure, packed down and overflowing, the grace of God, his presence, which enables us to live eternally, here and now, right where we are.


Sunday, 7 October 2018

Sowing generosity: Harvest Festival

Today’s Gospel story is a strange one – at least it seems so to me because I am a keen gardener. Let me explain. A sower went out to sow, said Jesus. In those days that meant walking up and down with a bag of seed and throwing it out around you.

Some seed fell on the path, where the birds ate it, some fell on rocky ground, where it didn’t have enough soil for its roots so it withered when the sun shone on it. Some seed fell in the midst of thorns, great big thorny thorns – it didn’t stand a chance. But some seed fell on good ground, grew well and produced a good crop.

Now it seems to me, as a gardener, that that sower was pretty rubbish at his job. Why on earth was he scattering seed around in places where it must have been pretty obvious it couldn’t possibly do well. I suppose it is just conceivably possible that he didn’t know about the stony layer under the soil, or that the thorns sprang up after he’d sown the crop – though a good gardener should know their soil before they start sowing – but the path at least must have been obvious, trodden down, leading straight across the land. He can’t have missed that. What did he think he was doing? Farming or feeding the birds? Three quarters of the seed went to waste. There are all sorts of perils a seed faces when you put it in the ground, and you can’t always guard against all of them, but this sower seems to me to have been very careless, scattering his seed in completely hopeless places. And Jesus must have known that, because most people in his society would have had to grow at least some of their own food. They couldn’t just go down to Tescos for it.

But maybe the daftness of the story is the point, because Jesus isn’t telling us about gardening. He’s telling us about God.

No sensible human gardener or farmer would behave like this. Seed is precious. There’s only so much of it.  You sow it in places where you at least think it is likely to have a fighting chance of growing. The only person who can scatter seed around like this sower does is one who has a great deal of it, an unlimited supply in fact. It doesn’t matter to this sower that some seed doesn’t grow, because there is plenty more where it came from.

What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about the unlimited love of God, the love that never gives up, that is given freely and abundantly, that there is no end to. He’s talking about love that is given to us whether we know what to do with it or not, whether we appreciate it and nurture it or not. And when we get it wrong, when we are stony, thorny people, people who are all trodden down, unable to let his love take root and grow in us, like that path, he doesn’t give up. He keeps on sowing and sowing and sowing, until one little seed lodges somewhere in a bit of good ground and puts down its roots and produces a crop.

In the first reading we heard today, we heard that “God loves a cheerful giver”. That’s because God is a cheerful giver. Giving is what he does. It’s in his nature, even if people don’t notice, and don’t thank him.

And of course, Christians believe that every one of us is made in the image of God. We are meant to be like him. If it’s in God’s nature to give generously, then somewhere, however deeply buried, it’s in ours too. Being made in the image of God means that we are truest to ourselves, most like we ought to be when we are living – and giving - as God does.

But sometimes it can feel hard. What will happen if we give away our time and money, or energy and love? Will we have enough for ourselves? Paul says yes. “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”

We can only give away generously what we have when we have realised that it was never ours in the first place, that it all came from God, and was given to us out of his generosity. Of course, we have to take our financial planning seriously, and honour our commitments to those who depend on us, but we don’t have to cling anxiously to what we have, says God. We can pass it on, let it go. We can learn to live with hands that are open to give by making sure that they are also open to receive.   

That’s why this festival, Harvest Festival, is so important, because it ties together the receiving and the giving. First we recognise all we’ve been given – we’re reminded of God’s generosity to us in the glories of the flowers and the abundance of the fruit, and in each other too and the fun we can have together – the scarecrows, the Harvest Suppers. We recognise our dependence on the earth, the gift of God. We remind ourselves that we didn’t do anything to earn or deserve this gift.  It is a gift, not an entitlement.

And then, when we’ve got that firmly in our heads, Harvest Festival tells us to look around and realise that there are other people in the world, who are no different to us, no more or less deserving, no more or less loved by God, who need us to pass on what we’ve received, to live as generously with them as God does with us.

Some of them are in our Poverty and Hope leaflets today. There’s Moussa, in Burkina Faso. A small gift to him of goats, chickens and sheep from Christian Aid and it has turned his life around. The sheep pay the children’s school fees, and provide his family with a financial cushion if the harvest isn’t good. That means the children don’t have to work underground in dangerous mines – their only other option. They can get an education which will unlock all sorts of opportunities for them, their families and their community. A little bit of generosity, a small seed, landing in the right place in Moussa’s life has transformed not only his life but the lives of many others too. Then there’s Gogo, who is living with HIV. USPG has supported her as she challenges the stigma that diagnosis brings in her community. Because of their help – our help – she’s been able to develop farming skills which others want to learn from her. A seed of dignity has borne a rich fruit for her and those around her. Or there’s Nevedita, in Sri Lanka. She’s working with children who’ve been abused and exploited. Supported by CMS, she is establishing safe houses for children whose childhood has been stolen from them. A seed of hope gives them a future. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Christian Aid is supporting Leonard, as he works to create a peaceful democracy through a grassroots movement in his local area. A seed of justice carries the promise of peace for his land.

Stories like this abound. Often it doesn’t take much to begin to change a life. We know that ourselves. A kind word or a well-timed offer of help can make all the difference to us when we are in need. But for that to happen we have to be living with open hands – open to receive God’s goodness and open to pass it on to others.

So, this harvest, we give thanks for what we have received. It’s not ours. We don’t deserve it. We didn’t earn it. But God, in his ridiculous generosity gave it to us anyway, just because he wanted to see us enjoy it. Like that sower, he throws around his love as if there was no end to it, because there isn’t. And he calls to us to do the same, to trust in his generous love and to pass it on.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Trinity 18 : Liberation

Mark 9.38-50, James 5.13-20 & Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-29

The God we know will never be known better by any attempt to confine, restrict or keep to him or her to ourselves. Jesus reinforces this view through Mark’s account today. In essence his message is that our behaviour should do nothing that restricts our own faith, the faith of others or those who may give faith to others.

Each of today’s readings, in their own way, remind us that God is a liberating God who doesn’t want his people trapped in suffering, either physically or in our minds.

Though in our gospel reading today we hear Jesus speak of hell originally he would have used the word Gehenna which would have held horror for those hearing him. It was the valley outside Jerusalem where the Romans burnt bodies and where Jerusalem’s rubbish was also burnt, smouldering as a symbol of death, suffering and filth. Some will choose to understand Jesus words as a literal indication of what lays ahead for many but the context speaks more loudly of Jesus saying ‘don’t lead lives that are empty, trashy, sinful, fit only for the waste disposal, more akin to us saying ‘don’t live life in the gutter’.

The teachers and political campaigners among you, not to mention anxious parents, will know that there is a time for knowledge to be imparted in a calm routine manner and there is a time when dramatic effect is needed to urgently make a point that sticks in the mind. Jesus’ reference to Gehenna and cutting off body parts clearly falls in the latter category.

Who hearing his words could want a rubbish life for them or their friends and family, fit only for the sad stenching place they went out of their way to avoid?

Similarly Jesus did not want to encourage people to self harm, it’s important to contrast chopping off body parts with Jesus entire mission to bring healing and wholeness in every way. He is using the horrific image of self-mutilation to stress how very important it is not to ignore our failings that might lead us into sin and also obscure Christ from others. Personally I’d rather he hadn’t used this example but maybe the fact that we are forced to wrestle with it is the point.

It’s essential we are clear that even though we can sometimes feel full of self-loathing the answer is not to inflict further pain on ourselves, but to seek healing. James letter goes on to point out that this can be achieved by wise counsel, loving support and prayer. Jesus’ stark message was that the habits, customs and weaknesses which are at the root of a problem keeping us from wholeness with God need to be identified, faced up to and then urgently dealt with, cut them out of our lives. A clean break with sinful ways is what Jesus wanted as a result not a clean break with our body parts.

It seems likely that at least part of Jesus address to the disciples is an angry response to John’s whingeing that people outside our group ‘have been casting out demons in your name.’ Jesus confronts the insularity of this view disappointed at this lack of understanding, he wants the disciples to know that this is not some exclusive club with special rights to play with God’s power but that God’s love and power for good are there for all. The message for people to understand was that this is not something to be dabbled in like witchcraft it is a holistic way of life with God involved in every aspect. There is no part time Christianity, nor is it a faith where we can pick and choose the parts we like and ignore the aspects we find more challenging.

The disciple’s behaviour reveals our human weakness to fear those who are different from us and, for this reason, to insist on a level of conformity which can manifest itself in such limited thinking, such tiny expectations. This in turn limits our expectations of God and our ability to recognise him at work in others.

I admit that I had to look twice, read the livery on the side of a mini bus which identified it as belonging to the local church, and then at the driver, a distinguished looking Sikh man with full turban and beard. Does Jesus look at this and think ‘at last they seem to be getting it’? I expect he’s grateful for someone willing to drive through the appalling south London traffic and happy that the people can get where they need to go. And, unless the driver had nicked the bus, with all the relaxed looking passengers in it, it seems that the people running the church were chilled about this as well. This is good isn’t it? A tiny example of collaboration that makes the kingdom of God, as each of us understand it, a little more real to others.

In Numbers we heard again of attempts to control God and keep him for only a pre-approved group, in this case the elders Moses gathered in the tent. An unnamed young man and Moses assistant Joshua were complaining that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. Moses responds by teaching them that he doesn’t control what God chooses to do but wouldn’t it be wonderful if his spirit fell upon all his people. The more evidence of the Spirit at work the better as far as he is concerned.

It seems pretty clear that people have always whinged, whined and complained. Aussie friends of mine used to say that we Brits are famous for it when visiting their country, making a fuss about little things like a snake in the garden, unbearable humidity or a red back spider under the toilet seat. They claimed that they could always tell when a plane load of Brits had arrived because the whining noise didn’t stop when the engines were switched off!

Perhaps the next time we feel like complaining about a situation we should consider the impact on the person who is doing their best to run something, provide for or facilitate others. Maybe their generous efforts are a result of the Spirit at work only for our complaining to come along and smother it.

I’ve certainly seen many volunteers running scouts, football clubs or clubs for the elderly at great personal sacrifice only to be the recipient of whingeing and complaining that they are not doing things right or how others expect them to be done. Of course the natural reaction might be an impolite reply and who could blame them? ‘If you think you can do better you are welcome to have a go’ seems a fair response. Certainly I’ve seen a volunteer football referee taking abuse from parents on the touchline walk up to them and offer his shirt and whistle, needless to say the loud mouth people shrunk back from taking responsibility.

So it seems reasonable that Moses has had enough. Perhaps, in the way that people ask ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’ the rhetorical question the Israelites have here is ‘what has God, through Moses, ever done for us? Well one or two things come to mind, surely the people haven’t forgotten that he led them out of slavery, that God protected them and they have seen the waters of the sea part just for them, water has sprung forth from rock and food has been provided in the desert. So rather lot of incredible things it seems, yet all they remember is the delicious food that had been available to them in Egypt, glossing over the fact that they were enslaved. Selective nostalgia remembers all the lovely food as being available for free conveniently forgetting that the true cost of this was slavery and hard labour.

I suppose that as soon as our immediate needs are met we often simply think of the next thing that will make our life more pleasant without stopping to be truly grateful for what we have. Mind you it made me hungry hearing of cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic, I guess the ingredients would have made their daily meals a lot tastier. But the point of the passage is not about the culinary options available, it’s about recognising our blessings and about discovering liberation in God’s love. The people who sit back and expect to be provided for without any contribution to their community might no longer be physically enslaved but neither have they found true freedom. That’s why the 70 elders are given a share of responsibility from then onwards, freedom to criticise also means freedom to take responsibility, it’s time for the Israelites to understand the need to be active participants in the relationship with God.

This is highlighted further by James as he encourages shared times of joy as well as support for each other when our faith is tested and prayer for each other that recognises the real potential for God to work through any one of us. In doing this we move closer to the freedom that God wants for us and share in Christ’s healing mission.

I finish where I started. Our readings remind us that we need to be Christians called to an active faith reliant on God’s grace, followers of Jesus who allow God to be free in our minds, open to meeting with her in unexpected ways, places and people. Where we can we must open doors, clear obstacles and make God’s love available to others, encouraging each other through life’s challenging times but also recognising and celebrating the gifts we are blessed with. If we can do these things we are taking steps towards the liberation and healing available to us in Christ.

Kevin Bright                                                                                     
30 September 2018