Sunday, 25 August 2019

Trinity 10: Unbending

Today’s Gospel reading is a beautiful one, a story of a woman who is given back her life by Jesus, quite unexpectedly. But as with all healing miracles, it isn’t just physical healing which is going on here, and it isn’t just the woman who needs that healing.

The story takes place in a synagogue, probably somewhere in Galilee. Crowds are flocking to Jesus, out of need or curiosity, but not everyone has made up their minds what to think of him. Is he a good teacher, a healer, an inspiring leader, or is he a troublemaker intent on causing mayhem? The jury, for many people, is still out. On this particular Sabbath day he’s been invited to teach in the local synagogue, the place where that town gathered for prayer – a bit like we do in our parish churches. Maybe the synagogue leader who invited him was under pressure from the crowds to do so, maybe he wanted to see for himself what the fuss was all about.   

But anyway, here is Jesus, preaching to an eager crowd, when suddenly a woman  “appeared”  who was clearly suffering.  Where did she appear from? Was she lurking quietly in a dark corner, or hovering at the doorway?  Was she a regular, or someone who had just come because she’d heard Jesus was there? We don’t know, but she doesn’t seem to want to push herself forward. She doesn’t seem to have any expectation that she will be healed. After all, she’s been like this for eighteen years, so why should today be any different. It is Jesus who notices her and calls her into the centre of the synagogue.

She was bent over, according to the Bible. Just imagine what that would have been like. As well as the pain and discomfort, it would have meant that she couldn’t see what was going on around her easily, that she couldn’t look people in the eye or join in their conversations easily. She probably felt lonely and excluded.  And to cap it all, in her culture, disability was often seen as a punishment from God, a sign that you’d done something wrong, so there would have been a religious stigma associated with it as well. It must have been a miserable existence, but after eighteen years of it, she seems resigned– this was her life, how it was, how it always would be.

But Jesus noticed her, and Jesus called to her, and Jesus brought this woman centre stage where everyone could see her. And then he laid his hands on her, and as he did so, for the first time in eighteen years, she stood up straight. The words the Greek original text uses to describe this are interesting. She’s described first as “sunkuptousa”, literally bent double – kupto means “to bend”.  But when Jesus heals her the word that’s used “anakupsai”  usually translated as “straightened up”, but really meaning “unbent” – you can hear that word “kupto” in the middle of “anakupsai”. In the Greek, Jesus literally unbends this woman, and in doing so he gives her back her “standing” within her community of  faith, as well as straightening her up physically.  He declares that she is a “daughter of Abraham”, part of the Jewish family, equal in dignity and honour to anyone else there.

Jesus unbends her. But as it turns out, she isn’t the only one in that synagogue who needs unbending, because we soon discover that the leader of the synagogue, the one who was responsible for its smooth running, is just as twisted up psychologically by anxiety and anger because of what is happening as she had been physically. Whatever he thought Jesus would do, it wasn’t this!

I have some sympathy for him. If I invite someone I don’t know to lead worship or preach here I’m always aware that I’m taking a risk. What if they say something homophobic or sexist? What if they tell you that you’re all going to burn in hell?
I was confident that you were in safe hands with Adie and the others who led services and preached here during my Sabbatical because I knew them. I knew that they were people who’d do a good job, and would respect the values that are special to us. But an unknown preacher is another kettle of fish.  I’d have been  mortified if I’d come back to find that anyone had been hurt by what they’d heard from this pulpit.

This synagogue leader was not a bad person. He was just unbearably anxious about what he was seeing unfold in front of his eyes in the synagogue he was supposed to be in charge of, because it seemed all wrong to him.
His problem was that Jesus had healed this woman on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was supposed to be a day when everyone ceased from their work, just as God had done on the seventh day after he had finished creating the world. Observing a Sabbath Day is good. It reminds us that we don’t have to work 24/7  to prove our worth – in God’s eyes we are beyond price anyway. It’s a day when we can enjoy God’s goodness, treasure one another, a day when we can stop doing and discover that just being is enough. It all sounds simple, but, of course, in practice it isn’t. 

What counts as work? That was the question which bothered the religious experts of Jesus time. Was cooking work? Was carrying something work? Did  that apply to everything? Could you stir a pot? Could you move a chair?  If so, how far? Agricultural labour was certainly work, but cows still needed to be milked, animals needed to be fed.  Taking a Sabbath is a great idea - but as with so many things, the devil is in the detail.

It is those devilish details which are causing the problem here. This synagogue leader had come to his own conclusions about where the lines should be drawn and in his mind, healing was work, so it shouldn’t be happening on this day. When Jesus healed this woman – and who knew how many others there might want healing – he was overwhelmed by anger and anxiety. This was all wrong, and no good would come of it, and he would get the blame because he was supposed to be the one in charge.  “There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured, not on the Sabbath day”. He “kept saying” it, we told. He sounds frantic. The situation is slipping out of his tidy-minded grip, and he is trying desperately to get the crowd on his side, to regain control.  But all he succeeds in doing is tying himself in even tighter knots, bending himself even further out of shape.

He’s the one who really needs to unbend here. His rigidity isn’t just hurting him; it’s hurting everyone.  This poor woman has lived for eighteen years hardly able to lift her eyes from the ground, but he is living his whole life with his eyes bent downwards over his precious rules and that means he can’t see the effect those rules are having on the real, flesh and blood people around him. 

Now, it’s easy for us to judge him, but the truth is that we’re all a bit like him sometimes. We call it “sticking to our principles” or being singleminded in our commitment, but often the things we refuse to bend on are really just the fruits of our own anxieties and resentments. We want life to be tidy, black and white, with simple rights and wrongs, and we lose all sense of proportion as we try to make it so. We suffer, and so do those around us as a result.

Christian history is littered with vicious infighting and bitter schisms over things which in the long run look very trivial. Christians burned each other at the stake for centuries over what, precisely, they believed happened to the bread and wine at communion. In church communities people take offence because someone else sat in “their” seat, or because they didn’t happen to like the hymns that day, or they were inadvertently left off an email list. Families are torn apart by things that, in the long run are ridiculously unimportant - an unintended slight, a unwise remark - and one branch of the family never talks to the other again. “There’s a principle at stake” we declare, self-righteously, as we turn our backs on each other. Small wounds become running sores that never heal. We can’t see the wood for the trees anymore.

This synagogue leader wasn’t wrong to value the Sabbath day and want to keep it holy. It is a precious thing to set aside time to rest and to worship. But his devotion to the Sabbath had blinded him to this woman’s needs, and to the love of God which brought about her healing. He held tight to his principles, but she paid the price for them. 

The Sabbath was meant to be a foretaste of God’s kingdom, a mini-Eden, a day when people could catch a glimpse of the peace and freedom God wanted them to enjoy all the time, but the synagogue leader had missed that completely, because the rules had become an end in themselves to him, and a dead end at that.  In truth, this woman’s healing wasn’t an interruption of the Sabbath, it was the Sabbath, a glimpse of God’s power at work in the world. It wasn’t just about one individual being enabled to stand up straight, but a part of the unbending of the world, the unknotting of the tangles of sorrow and trouble which twist us all out of shape.   

It is, as I said, a beautiful story, one which speaks to the twisted up places in all of us, which calls to us to let God unbend us, release us, show us his freedom.  The story ends by saying that the entire crowd rejoiced at the wonderful things he was doing. I like to hope that maybe that included that anxious synagogue leader, that he, eventually, was unbent too, and stood up straight and looked around him and saw God at work, and found it in him to rejoice.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Gifts of God: Trinity 8, with baptism

It’s a great delight to be baptising Isla this morning, not least because I am going to be one of her godparents. But it’s always a delight to baptise a child.

When we do so, we are doing lots of things. We are praying for her, of course, and for those who care for her. We are making her part of the gigantic family of the church, through all time and space, declaring that she belongs to us all, and that we are all there for her. We are reminding ourselves, so that we can remind her, that there’s nothing we can do, nothing that can happen to us which can separate us from God. I may just pour a trickle of water on her head in a few minutes, but the water of baptism is a symbol of the love of God which is ever-flowing, which can never dry up. No matter how badly things may go wrong for her, as they can do for all of us, it all comes out in the wash of God’s love, so to speak. 

But one of the most important things that baptism tells us is that the child we baptise, before all else, above all else, is a child of God, his gift to us. We don’t give Isla to God in baptism, he gives her to us. She, like every child, like every person, is a reminder of the generosity of God, of the giftedness of all things. She is born as a gift, unique and precious, into a world which is all gift.

Do not be afraid, little flock, says Jesus to his anxious disciples, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom, he doesn’t just, or even mainly, mean life after death. It is far broader and better than that. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus talks about it as “life in all its fullness”, life in the here and now that is rich and deep, life that is beyond our expectations, beyond anything we could kid ourselves we had earned or deserved. It may not always be easy – neither Jesus’ life nor the lives of his first followers were easy – but it will be full of meaning, full of treasure, because it will be lived in the company of God. And this kingdom, this new place to live, is given to us, by God’s good pleasure.  All we need to do is to learn open our eyes to see it.

Jesus tells a parable about slaves waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet. Of course, they would need to be awake to look after him when he arrived  – they would expect to get into trouble if they weren’t. But Jesus turns that expectation on its head here.  He goes on to say , “He – that is the master -  will fasten his belt and  have them – that is the slaves - sit down to eat , and he will come and serve them.”  The slaves don’t need to be awake so they can work; thgey need to be awake so that they can share in the joy of that wedding he had been to, hear the stories, feel the excitement. They are going to be part of the celebration. Who, in their right minds, would want to miss it? Everyone hearing this parable would have known what the life of a slave was normally like, a life of drudgery, hardship and often fear. But in the kingdom of God, the ordinary things of life, even its darkest, middle-of-the-night moments, can be transformed into places of delight, when we learn to see God at work in them, God who wants nothing more than our company.  

It’s not always easy to trust that and to learn to look for that, of course. In our Old Testament Reading Abram longs for a child. God has promised that he will be the father of a multitude, but right now he’s not even father of one, and according to the Bible he’s almost a hundred years old, and married to a woman who is well beyond child-bearing age herself. He’s set out into the wilderness, enticed by God’s promise, to a new land that God has said his descendants will fill, but there are no descendants, and Abram is starting to despair, quite understandably. It looks as if all he has will eventually go to a distant relative Eliezer, and what of God’s promise then?  Abram is no hero. Trust doesn’t come easily to him. He tries all sorts of tricks of his own to achieve his aim in life. Twice he gives his wife away to others, to save his own skin. He fathers a child with Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar, at Sarah’s suggestion – perhaps that’s the way to create descendants they think – but that ends in disaster. Poor Hagar and her son, who have done nothing to deserve it, are cast out in the wilderness, where they have to be rescued by God. Abram is no hero. It’s a huge struggle for him to trust in the generosity and faithfulness of God, to see life as a gift, rather than as something he must negotiate through by his own anxious striving, just as it is for most of us.

But God sticks with him, reassuring again and again when he struggles. Look towards the heavens says God on this occasion, taking him outside his tent. Count the stars if you can!  Of course he can’t – it would be hard enough in our light–polluted skies, but impossible in the star-filled darkness of the desert. So shall your descendants be! And so it turns out to be. Eventually his son Isaac is born, and he goes on to have children of his own and soon it is as God has promised.  Abraham is the father of a multitude, despite this inauspicious beginning.

What we see, as we follow his story, is someone who is slowly, painfully, through many ups and downs, learning to trust God’s generous heart, rather than his own abilities and strengths. His story is an encouragement to us to keep going when times are tough, to keep daring to trust that we are in God’s hands, even if we have no idea what he is up to or where he is leading us.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

To be honest, if we know that, we know everything we need to know. This is one of the most comforting and encouraging verses in scripture, and one which we should all have graven on our hearts, so we can find it easily in dark or desperate moments. It’s not just that God grudgingly thinks he ought to look after us, now we are here. There’s nothing conditional about it, no qualifications; we don’t have to know anything, do anything, figure anything out. He doesn’t say that he’ll give us the kingdom if we are good, or say the right prayers or live the right way. Giving us the kingdom, life in all its fullness, is something which is in his nature to do, his good pleasure, his delight.

I pray many things for Isla today, and for the rest of the family, but most of all I pray that she’ll grow up knowing the generosity of God, that she’ll grow up knowing what we all struggle sometimes to believe about ourselves, that we are gifts of God – each one of us - that life is a gift of God, that everything around us is a gift of God. I pray that every day she’ll hear God’s call to her to sit down and eat with him, just because he wants her company.  I pray this for her because if she knows that, she’ll have that purse that never wears out, she’ll have found the treasure that never fails, and she’ll never need to be afraid.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Rich towards God

Audio version here

Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14,2.18-23, Psalm 49.1-12, Colossians 3.1-11, Luke 12.13-21

“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain and their work is a vexation?” The writer of today’s first reading sounds like he badly needs a break, a good long one, like I’ve just had. Maybe he did his research for this on an overcrowded, overheated commuter train coming back from London to Sevenoaks at the end of a long day…

It’s a blisteringly honest reflection on what most people feel sometimes, and some people feel all the time, questioning what on earth all their hard labour is really for. It’s a window into the mind of the person who is working multiple boring and backbreaking jobs and yet still not earning enough to be financially secure, or the person who has spent their lives climbing the greasy pole of a precarious career, at terrible cost to the family who never see them, and when they finally get to the top they wonder what it was all for. And even if you make a shedload of money, you can’t take it with you. “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?”  Is this all there is to life? Whether you end up rich or poor, the days have slipped through your hands, and what is there to show for them?

It’s not just paid work which can seem pointless. There’s an old folksong called the Housewife’s Lament, which came to mind as I read this Psalm.

Life is a trial and love is a trouble [sings the housewife in the song]
Beauty it fades and riches they flee
Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double
And nothing is as I would wish it to be.

There's too much of worriment goes to a bonnet
There's too much of ironing goes to a shirt
There's nothing that pays for the time you waste on it
There's nothing that last us but trouble and dirt.

There are worms on the cherries and slugs on the roses
And ants in the sugar and mice in the pies
The rubbish of spiders no mortal supposes
And ravaging roaches and damaging flies

The song goes on, and on, like the work, but the final straw for the housewife is when she realizes that when she dies she’ll be buried in the same dirt she’s been battling all her life.

We can all come to the point where we wonder whether the game is worth the candle. But, I don’t think the writer of Eccleisastes means this to be a message of hopelessness, and  neither does Jesus in the rather grim story he tells in our Gospel reading today.

Like a lot of Jesus’ parables, it’s meant to be over the top. I bet he hammed it up a bit as he told it, that there was a twinkle in his eye. We often miss that when we read his parables. But however ridiculous it is, it’s carefully told – every word counts.

Imagine for a moment that you were staging it, acting it out. How many actors would you need? Just one, really, until the very last line, according to the story. This rich man seems to live in a world in which he is the only inhabitant, despite the fact that this can’t be true. The land of a rich man produced abundantly, it begins. What? All by itself? I don’t think so. There are surely armies of unseen farm labourers working this land to make those crops appear, perhaps a family too – but this man seems blind to them.

When he realizes he has nowhere to store all this abundance, he says to himself  “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones…” Again we ask, what? all by himself? Is he a master builder now as well? Is he going to be lugging around all the timber, man-handling it into place single-handed? I rather doubt it. But as far as he’s concerned, he’s the centre of the universe. In fact he is the universe. It’s only at the end that he realizes that he is wrong.

He addresses his soul again – he talks to himself a lot -  he has to because  there’s no one else in his world to talk to. Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, he says, relax, eat, drink be merry.  But that’s the point when his self-centred, self-obsessed world comes crashing down. All of a sudden, another voice booms out, another character comes crashing into the scene. You fool, says God This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?… His life isn’t his to do what he wants with – it never has been. It isn’t his to possess and control – it never can be. No man is an island, entire of itself, said the poet John Donne. We exist in relationship, to others, to God, to the world around us. We can’t go it alone. 

Jesus tells this story in answer to a question he’s been asked about a family feud. It’s all about inheritance, money, as family feuds often are. But Jesus says that these rowing brothers are missing the point. Their argument about money is destroying something of infinitely greater worth, their relationship with one another. One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, he tells them.The worth of a life, the worth of a person can’t be reduced to the bottom line in a bank statement.

Jesus’ words here, and the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, can sound very grim and gloomy, but in reality they are words of hope and life. They release us from the burden of thinking that we have to create our own sense of worth, whether that is by heaping up money, clinging onto status, chasing celebrity or self-righteously signalling our own virtues. Our desperate scrambles to prove our value, divert us from the truth God wants us to know, that we are already as precious as it is possible to be to him. Nothing we can do can make God love us more, or less, than he does anyway.

As the Psalmist puts it “We can never ransom ourselves, or deliver to God the price of our lives. For the ransom of our life is so great that we should never have enough to pay it,” The imagery is that of slaves buying themselves out of slavery, so they can be free to do what they want. We think we are independent, in charge of our own lives, but that’s an illusion.  We are all actually interdependent, relying on each other and most of all, reliant on God, who gave us life, who gave us the earth we live on, the crops that feed us, the rain to water them, the sun to ripen them. Our lives are a gift, not a reward for anxious labour. We may have to work to earn the money to feed and clothe ourselves, but we don’t have to work to earn our worth in God’s eyes, and we can’t anyway, because our value is so great to him that we could never afford it. The good news of these readings is that our place in his heart is already secure, his gift to us. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the proof of that to us.

So the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes points us us beyond ourselves to the truest and most lasting source of our value. Jesus reminds us that if we want really to feel rich, we will only do so when we are “rich towards God”, when we invest ourselves in the things that connect us lovingly and compassionately to God and to one another. 

How might  we do that? We do it by spending time with God in prayer and reflection, opening ourselves up to hear what he says to us – not leaving it to the last minute, like the rich fool in Jesus’ story. We do it by opening ourselves up to others – if we are priceless to God, so are they. We do it by treasuring and caring for all that God has made, that precious creation we see all around us, which is his delight and his gift to us.
 We do it by looking for the path he calls us to tread and walking it with him.

Our lives are hidden with Christ in God, says Paul to the church in Colossae. It’s a beautiful phrase, which always comes as a great relief to me when I hear it. God knows us. God holds us. God wraps us in love. God cherishes us in the deep and secret places of his heart. God calls us out on a great adventure with him, just as we are. There is nothing we need to do except enjoy it, and let our joy spill out of us into the world around us. That is what it means to be “rich towards God”, to look to him for meaning rather than to our own anxious strivings, because the meaning he gives to our lives isn’t here today and gone tomorrow, slipping through our fingers like the morning mist, but lasts for ever, and can never be destroyed.