Sunday, 29 September 2019

Angels all around: St Michael and All Angels

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, the day when we think about and celebrate those
Raphael's depiction of the Archangel Michael
shows him making short work of a demon.
Louvre: Paris
strangest of biblical creatures, who weave mysteriously in and out of many of the stories of the Bible. Some of you may remember that last Advent, I wrote a series of daily reflections on angelic stories from the Bible, a separate one for each day – I have reprinted a few copies of the booklet in case anyone missed them, or you can find them on the church blog. I chose that theme because angels often feature in the imagery we see around Christmas time, and in the stories we tell, but it seemed to me that angels weren’t just for Christmas, and I thought it was worth looking to see where else in the Bible they cropped up. It turned out that they were almost everywhere . My challenge was how to choose just 24 stories.

The angels in those stories came in many forms. They rarely had wings. The angels in today’s Old Testament reading needed a ladder to climb between heaven and earth – if they’d had wings, presumably they would have flown! Often in the Bible they looked so ordinary that it was only afterwards that the people who’d met them realized that they were angels at all.

Angels perform many different functions in the Bible too.
Sometimes angels are described as part of the community of heaven, singing God’s praises in the heavenly courts, attending him like the courtiers of an earthly king. Jesus describes them as rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, just as a shepherd might rejoice when he finds his lost sheep, or a woman when she finds a lost coin.

Sometimes they’re the heavenly army, ferocious warriors who defend God’s people, like the archangel Michael himself, who led the armies of God in today’s New Testament reading . Or there’s the wonderful Old Testament story about the prophet Elisha. The king of Aram wants to get rid of Elisha because he thinks – quite  correctly - that Elisha is tipping the king of Israel off about his battle plans. So the Aramite king’s army surrounds Elisha’s home during the night. Elisha’s servant boy wakes him in the morning, terrified at the sight of all these troops, but Elisha seems ridiculously calm.  “There are more with us than there are with them,” he says, dismissively, and sends the boy out to look again. Sure enough, when the boy lifts his eyes above the soldiers in front of him, he sees the angelic soldiers of God’s heavenly host  arrayed in the hills all around, far more powerful than any earthly force.

There are guardian angels in the bible too, angels who care for people in trouble like Hagar, the slave woman with whom Abraham had fathered a son, at the instigation of Sarah his wife. When her own child is born, Sarah and Abraham drive Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert where they would certainly have died, if an angel hadn’t pointed them to water. Angels feed the prophet Elijah in the desert too, and minister to Jesus after his temptations there.

And finally there are the herald angels, like Gabriel, the angel who appears to Mary, and to the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside, telling them about Jesus, or  the resurrection angels who tell the women who come to anoint Jesus that he has been raised from death.  

Whatever they’re doing, though, the Bible is clear that angels act on behalf of God. In fact, sometimes it’s not quite clear whether we are meeting an angel or God himself. When Moses stumbles across a bush burning in the desert, the voice that calls to him out of it is first identified as the voice of the “angel of the Lord”, but later on it’s clear that it is God himself who is speaking. Jacob wrestles with an angel as he tries to cross the ford of the Jabbok, but the mysterious figure eventually tells him that he has “striven with God and has prevailed”.  It might confuse us a bit, but it probably wouldn’t have bothered those who first read the Bible. In their culture, messengers of important people weren’t just postmen, neutral delivers of the messages of others, they represented the person who had entrusted the message to them.  

Angels throng the pages of the Bible, so it’s not surprising that our hymns and prayers are also full of them. In the Eucharistic prayer we pray “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” They’re all over the place in our architecture too. I had a quick look around this church earlier this week and I counted 64 angels in the stained glass – yes, you heard that right, 64 – you can count them for yourselves after the service – and 9 carved angels to spot too.
Two of our stained glass angels, announcing the resurrection.

Angels are all around us, and yet my guess is that most of us don’t really think much about them. They don’t often feature much in our understanding of our faith. Perhaps we are a bit embarrassed to talk about them. They are a bit non-rational, new age, great for children to dress up as at Christmas, fine as a decoration on a card or etched on a gravestone, but not really to be taken seriously, even as an idea or a metaphor.

That’s a pity, because it seems to me that something that was so important to those who wrote the Bible, shouldn’t just be ignored. The word angel comes from the Greek angellos, and it means messenger. It was the word used of any sort of messenger, human or divine. The Hebrew equivalent used in the Old Testament, malak, means the same. Whatever else these creatures are, they speak of God, meant to speak to us of God, to tell us something which we might not learn by other means.

The angelic stories in the Bible were signs that God was at work.  “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it”, says Jacob in surprise. They might be fleeting, appearing and disappearing, glimpsed out of a corner of your eye, but they told people that they weren’t alone, not forsaken, not abandoned.

The book of Revelation was written by an anonymous Christian leader on the dry, dusty island of Patmos, where he had either been exiled, or had fled during a time of persecution. The world looked grim. He and those in his community faced turmoil and suffering. Was it all over for them? His vision told him that it wasn’t. The final outcome of this time of struggle wasn’t in doubt no matter what it looked like. There was no contest. God is stronger than death and hatred and chaos. Love will win, says this story. Just like Elisha’s servant boy, if you lifted up your eyes you would see that “those who are with us” – the mighty forces of God – “are more than those who are with them” – the forces of hatred, envy, deceit, and chaos. It can be very hard to hold onto that belief when everything seems to be falling apart, which is why we need to learn to look for those glimpses of God, maybe just the rustle of an angels wing, or the whispered notes of their songs. The small things are the big things when you’re in trouble; a hug from a friend, a word from the Bible, a unexpected momentary feeling of peace may be all we need to tell us , like Jacob, that “God is in this place, and I did not know it.”

It’s a message that is marvellously underlined by Jesus when he meets Nathanael, in our Gospel reading today. He takes the story of Jacob and tells Nathanael that he is the place where the angels of God will now ascend and descend, where heaven and earth meet, in his flesh and blood. That’s a surprise to Nathanael. If we’d read the beginning of his story we’d have discovered than when Philip initially called him to come and see Jesus he had exclaimed, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Whatever he expected the Messiah to look like, it wasn’t this! And while we may take for granted that it ought to have been obvious that Jesus was a good guy, we forget that he didn’t actually have a halo, and that an uneducated carpenter, who sits light to the rules and argues with the religious experts wouldn’t have looked like ideal Messiah material. A man who died the shameful death of a rebel, a man who has, at the end, only a handful of rather flaky followers, really wouldn’t have looked like ideal Messiah material. And yet his followers discovered that God was in that place, the place of failure, shame and disgrace, even in that place, especially in that place.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what we think of angels, whether we think they are fact or myth or metaphor, history or mystery. What matters is that we hear the message they proclaim. It’s the message that matters, not the messengers. But angelic stories can be good reminders that our God is a God of surprises. He doesn’t necessarily show up in the way we expect him to, but he always shows up.  Angelic stories remind us that heaven and earth are not as far apart as we might imagine because nowhere, and no one, is God-forsaken, a place where God cannot be, and where God is, there is heaven. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that that we should not “neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares”. (Hebrews 13.2) In a time like this, when we are seeing huge polarisation of opinion, on Brexit and on many other things as well, when people are digging themselves into entrenched positions, demonising others, retreating into fear and prejudice, it is especially important we remember that message, and learn to look for God in the places and people we might be inclined to write off. 

On this feast of Michael and All Angels, then, and in these troubled times, I pray that we will have the grace to open our ears to the message of the angels – not just the 64 in our stained glass but  the ones who can be found wherever we are, if we have eyes and ears to perceive them - angels who proclaim God’s words afresh to us,  “Do not be afraid. God is stronger than death and hatred and chaos. Love wins.”  I pray that, hearing that, we’ll discover that God is in this place, our place, too.   

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Shrewdness : Trinity 14

Luke 16.1-13 & Amos 8.4-7

I’m not a huge Simpsons fan but I thought they could be onto something which would encourage more young people into church when I saw their sign outside the First Church of Springfield which read ‘free wi-fi during sermon’. Clearly it’s to enable worshippers to search biblical text and historical context as they follow the preachers words intently.

Upon hearing today’s gospel reading did you think to yourself ‘well it’s pretty obvious what that is all about?’ If so then you have done a lot better than I did upon my first reading! The rest of us might wish we could start googling but hold on and hear what I can make of it first.

Having read numerous commentaries and websites it’s clear that people with far greater theological knowledge than me can’t really agree what it’s about either, at least not in its entirety.

Should this bother us? Personally, I don’t think we have to resolve every point, it’s about finding some meaning which is greater than the story itself, about seeing whether we find ourselves in any part and whether it speaks to us.

Perhaps try coming at it from a different angle, if we were to ask Jesus whether we should cheat the taxman or steal money from others we probably know what the answer is. But if we were to ask Jesus ‘what about money’ would he answer ‘watch that Martin Lewis chap, you know the money saving expert he has a lot of useful advice or he might just answer with a parable which begins…’There was a rich man who had a manager and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.’

The parable, sometimes called ‘The Parable of the Shrewd Manager’ is told by Jesus to the disciples, but we also hear that ‘The Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all this’ and there were probably others as well, it’s quite likely that some of them were tax collectors so any story about money changing hands would have made their ears prick up.

In essence we’ve got a guy whose job is to manage land, probably, for an absentee landlord and he’s about to get the sack for poor performance or maybe dishonesty. Naturally he’s worried about this and knows that alternative employment options will be virtually nil. So he thinks I’m going to need some people who will owe me some help once I’m out of here and calculates that if he falsifies the records to reduce the debts of some of the people who owe his master that they will repay him later when he is in need, or if not he could always blackmail them for being complicit in his cheating! His master sees that payments have been made in wheat and oil and says good job.

Jesus tells the disciples, and obviously I paraphrase, see how these boys use their imagination to get things sorted, a little bit of false accounting here, a bit of dodgy dealing there and everyone’s happy. You need to sharpen up like them, get a bit of the action and use the money to get yourselves some new friends who will owe you when it runs out.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see Jesus face when he said this. Was there a glint in his eye, a wry smile maybe or possibly he was absolutely deadpan serious leaving the disciples to look at each other until the penny drops and they say ah he doesn’t really want us to do that does he, he’s being ironic again, as they descend into the type of nervous laughter that often results from relief!

One thing we can be sure of is that all these characters were putting a lot of effort and ingenuity into their ducking and diving. It’s a fact that a lot of the most successful fraudsters are very clever, working hard to come up with new scams, devoted to their horrible work in a way that many people in regular jobs are not. So when Jesus says that’ the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light’ he is challenging those who hear to put as much effort into Godly things as the dodgy people are into their cheating.

We need to be aware of the lengths to which some will go in order to obstruct God’s will and be prepared to go further to uphold it. We need to use our intelligence and our energy to promote peace and justice but most of all to show love for each other.

Being a Christian means using our God given talents to serve each other. It means using our experience to ensure that we are getting best value, wheeling and dealing for God in an honest but shrewd way. Not getting stitched up and caught out by those who would take advantage of our community given the opportunity.  One of my old school reports suggested that the teachers would have more chance to see whether I could live up to my surname if put half the effort into study as I did into sport.

It falls to us all to consider whether we have a little energy we could divert from other activities into making God’s love known to others.

So where do your sympathies lie at this stage? Are you most angry with the cheating manager or the people paying less than their debt. Perhaps you feel it’s all the fault of the landowner because he really should have been taking more interest and then he may have known that he was being cheated?

Anyone who has ever lost their job without another lined up will know the anxiety this brings and may sympathise with the man being fired, don’t forget that begging was his only alternative.

Jesus' hearers would have had the benefit over us of being only too familiar in their knowledge that the debt contracts probably included exorbitant interest hidden from the illiterate peasants. Think today of payday loan companies charging sky high interest rates to those least able to afford it.

We also need to remember that that charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited the poor and vulnerable. So when we come across the manager in his role as debt collector reducing the amount to what may have been payable before the interest was rolled up does this change the way we see him even though he may have got into trouble in the first place because he’s been taking a slice for himself and leaving his boss to account to Rome for their share?

How do we feel about something that has an apparent element of justice when cheating is involved?

Hopefully by this stage we are starting to see what a truly brilliant parable this is, all the more so because we cannot neatly resolve it. If we fully immerse ourselves it’s hard not to consider other possibilities for the characters involved.

Possibly the debtors are long overdue and it’s better to get something rather than nothing in payment. Perhaps the rich man starts to get an insight into the world of those without much wealth and becomes more sympathetic, perhaps a bit of corruption was so commonplace to those hearing the story that few care about a bit of dodgy dealing, or maybe the debtors believe that it is the rich man that commanded the reductions and he wants to maintain this illusion of generosity to save losing face. 

If you ever think everyone has forgotten you, borrow some money, miss a repayment or two and the ‘phone will start to ring again.

If we feel someone owes us, be it money or anything else we may think they will behave in a certain way but how often do we hear people say things such as ‘after all I’ve done for him you think he would at least have, I don’t know, washed up after the meal, paid back what he owed, not left me for my best friend! Perhaps the parable is provoking us to think where am I going to invest my energy and resources for my eternal future?

If nothing else it shows us that people don’t always behave predictably.  This story immediately follows the parable of the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel where we are told that once the younger son had squandered his property he found that none of those who enjoyed helping him do so were interested in him when famine struck and he found himself skint. While we don’t get to know the conclusion in today’s story I strongly suspect that the ‘friends’ and favours that the manager hoped he was securing for the future simply led to him being let down and disappointed. Real friends can’t be bought.

It’s clear that we still don’t need to look far to see that money or its equivalent has always caused problems and it continues to do so today with corrupt business dealings, the expenses scandal and unfair interest rates charged on loans to the poorest countries to name but a few.

Even around 750 years before the time of our Gospel reading the prophet Amos was addressing corruption and seeking social justice. The scene he describes in today’s reading sounds like it needs an urgent call to trading standards as the traders cannot wait for the Sabbath to be over so that they can start fiddling people with short measures and worthless goods.

Jesus knew that dilemmas surrounding money were not simple when he walked the earth and nor are they today.

However money isn’t all bad, apart from buying us essential shelter, for parents, it keeps you in touch with your children who have left home and in return you can keep photos of them in your wallet or purse, you know where your money used to be.

There are the super rich such as Bill Gates. If he spent a million dollars a day it would take him 218 years before he ran out of money. Thankfully he has the wisdom to use it as a force for good, improving the life chances for the less fortunate through his foundation.

Then there are those who never have a spare penny as they struggle from month to month.

Arguably the greatest dilemma falls to those in-between, trying make responsible decisions about family support, mortgages, education fees, pensions and provision for later life care whilst balancing this against charitable giving and the use of money in ways which benefits the wider community.

Our decisions about money will be personal and varying but when we make them let’s try to do so prayerfully.


Kevin Bright

22 September 2019

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Sheep and coins and precious people: Trinity 13

There’s nothing that concentrates the mind more than impending disaster. This morning at All Age Worship, we thought a bit about what we would take with us if we had to leave our house with a few minutes notice, like the people of Whaley Bridge earlier this summer, or those made homeless by Hurricane Dorian.

Some opted for useful things. The front door key. A phone and phone charger to let people know you were safe. Others thought first of things of sentimental value. The family photos which were now the only reminder of family members who had died, things that were irreplaceable. Of course, it went without saying that people were the most precious of all.

These were the things we valued the most.

When Jesus tells his stories of the lost sheep and lost coin, he is tapping into that instinctive sense we have of what matters to us and how desperate we are to preserve it. It’s not actually very sensible to leave 99 perfectly good sheep in the wilderness in order to find one which is lost, but the shepherd couldn’t bear to think of it being vulnerable and alone. The woman who used up good lamp oil to find her lost coin and then probably spent its equivalent on rejoicing with her friends also seems to have got things a bit out of proportion. The woman’s coin wasn’t worth a huge amount, but it was probably part of her dowry, the only thing which truly belonged to her and which she would keep if her husband divorced her. It was a symbol of her independence.

The amount of effort both characters put into their search may seem disproportionate, but that’s the point. People behave like this. We all do. People will even put their own lives in danger in order to save what is precious to them – spending those extra minutes gathering their precious possessions up, in the knowledge that every moment they delay is actually a moment they are risking their lives when disaster threatens. Disaster movies often play heavily on that – the wall of water is advancing, the asteroid is approaching but, no, the protagonists decide that they just have to go back for this thing, that person, the dog or cat they can’t bear to leave behind. We want to shout “no, leave it – just go!”, but it doesn’t work like that.

And, Jesus says, if people behave like this, how much more so will God?

The difference between us and God is in what, or who, we think is valuable enough to merit this “do or die” treatment.

The Pharisees and Scribes are clear about it. The valuable people are people like them, people who are at least trying to keep the rules, respectable people. They are aghast at Jesus’ apparent insistence on spending his time – wasting his time as they see it – on tax-collectors and sinners. Tax collectors collected taxes for the Romans; they were collaborators. ‘Sinners’ was a vague term that covered anyone whose behaviour, or simple misfortune, put them beyond the pale. This was an age in which illness, disability and poverty were thought to be punishments from God, so “sinners” covered many, many people who had just found that the wheels had come off their lives, so to speak, and that they were floundering in some way. What’s the point in trying to help them? If Jesus is God’s Messiah, surely he should be more careful, wiser, in choosing his associates!

That’s why Jesus tells them these stories. He gets his audience to think of what they value and how far they go to rescue and safeguard these things. But then he challenges them to imagine that God might feel exactly the same when he looks at the people they have written off.

"What if God felt about a tax collector the way you felt about a sheep that was lost and found, a coin which you had treasured as a symbol of your independence, a safety net if life went wrong for you? What if each of these people whom you have written off as a waste of space were actually worth so much that God would be prepared to give all he had, even his own life, for them." And that is exactly what Christians believe that he did in sending his son, who refused to turn back from his commitment to those who needed him.

The letter to Timothy, from which our first reading came, probably wasn’t written by Paul – it was probably written after he died -  but it is meant to read as if it was. It was  the kind of thing he would have said; we know from other letters that were written by him that he regarded it as astonishing that he, someone who had persecuted Christians, would ever be accepted by them, and by God, forgiven, loved, regarded as part of the family. But that was what had happened, and it transformed him completely. Love has a way of doing that. He was the “foremost of sinners”, and yet the grace of God overflowed for him.

Tonight we may be feeling like the lost sheep – “Can God really love me?” Or we may be feeling like one of those 99 who thought they had it all sorted out – “Can God really love him or her, the one who has wandered off?” But either way, the answer is “Yes!Yes!Yes!” and all the angels in heaven rejoice when we start to hear that answer and believe it.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Trinity 12: Life and Death choices

Audio version here

“You’ve got to hate your family” says Jesus in today’s Gospel. What?! That’s not what we come to church to hear, even if Auntie Mavis is rather irritating!  Whatever happened to family values, or loving your neighbours – and surely that includes your family?

Has Jesus gone mad?

Of course, there is more to this than meets the eye – you expected me to say that – but this sounds like pretty shocking stuff, and in a week like the one we’ve all had, watching our politicians tear each other apart, and with no end in sight, we may not feel in the mood for such a tough message. It’s more love we need, not more hate.

I doubt whether Jesus’ first hearers found this any easier to hear than we do, so why does he say it?

“Large crowds were travelling with him,” Luke tells us. They were travelling with him, tagging along to see what he would do next. But Jesus knew perfectly well that many of this crowd were going to melt away when trouble came, as it inevitably would. You don’t have to be the Son of God to work that out. It’s what always happens when the Next Big Thing comes along, whether it is Greta Thunberg or the latest Soap star. They are pushed up onto a pedestal, whether they like it or not, the embodiment of our hopes and dreams, but rapidly knocked off again, or simply forgotten, when they don’t deliver the magic solution to our problems. The truth is, of course, that there are no quick fixes. It takes hard graft and steady commitment not just from one superstar, but from all of us, to see the changes we need, and even then, it will turn out to be more complicated than we hoped, with reverses and failures along the way. But that’s not the message we want to hear, because it means work and possibly suffering for us.

The people Luke wrote his Gospels for, around AD80, knew that all too well. They’d witnessed the imprisonment and death of many of the first disciples at the hands of the Roman authorities. On top of that, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70  and expelled its Jewish inhabitants, forbidding them to live there. This included the Christians, because they were just another Jewish sect at this point. This catastrophe created a crisis of faith for the Jewish people. Every group fought with every other group, blaming them for the chaos and destruction. It would have made Brexit look like a walk in the park. Families were divided. People had to choose. Who would they follow? Whose opinion would they trust? Which way would they go? Whichever way they chose, they had to accept that others – perhaps their own families – would choose differently, that there would be division.

That’s the backdrop to Luke’s Gospel, written in the 80s AD. Of course Jesus isn’t telling us to hate our families, but he is warning that living life with integrity will inevitably mean making decisions at some point, and our decisions might put us at odds with those around us. It’s tempting to choose our path in life simply by following the crowd, but in this passage we aren’t just called to be followers, passively tagging along for the ride. We are called to be disciples. The word “disciple” literally means a “learner”. Learning – all learning - changes us. It changes our way of thinking, maybe our way of being too.  If we want to be disciples of Christ we need to be open to being changed by the experience of knowing him. That means making an active, intentional choice, counting the cost and accepting the consequences.

The letter to Philemon, which formed our second reading today, is an illustration of one early Christian who is asked to do just that. Philemon has a slave called Onesimus who has either run away or been sent away. Somehow he’s found his way to St Paul, and Onesimus has become a Christian himself. But now what? Paul can’t keep him; he’s in prison. But he is obviously anxious about sending him back. Roman heads of households, like Philemon, had the power of life and death over their slaves. Philemon would be entitled in law to punish Onesimus, even to kill him, but Paul wants him not only to accept Onesimus back again, but to accept him as a brother in Christ, not as a slave. It might seem obviously right to us, but it would have been a big ask at the time. What would Philemon’s peers have made of this, slave owning, well-to-do men like himself? What if it gave their slaves ideas above  their station, incited them to run away or rebel? What about the financial implications – the economics of the ancient world depended on the vast army of unpaid slave labour.

Philemon has to make a choice, and though it might seem an easy, obvious one to us, it wasn’t for him, and might have profound consequences. We don’t know what happened next, whether he did as Paul asked or not. It would be fascinating to discover.

Christians throughout the ages have faced similar dilemmas. During my sabbatical researches into saints I came across many who had had to step out of the niches their society expected them to occupy, to swim against the tide, and who paid the price for it –Santa Rosalia of Palermo was typical. She was a twelfth century Christian nobleman’s daughter who felt called to become a hermit, praying in solitude. Her family were horrified. They had a marriage planned for her, which would enhance their power and secure their dynasty. In her society women, especially noble ones, didn’t expect to have a choice about whether or whom they married. But Rosalia was determined. She ran away into the mountains that surrounded Palermo, and made her home, her hermitage, in the caves there, moving from one to another to hide from them.

It wasn’t until many centuries later that her bones were discovered, and miracles began to be attributed to her, but whether Rosalia’s afterlife as a miraculous healer is true or not, her first life, as a religious fugitive from a forced marriage is entirely likely. It’s a feature of many saints’ stories. Women who felt called to a religious life, to ministry, to study, to prayer – to anything other than marrying and having children to further their families’ interests - often paid a very high price for it, as they still do in some communities. The stories of early female saints, and many male ones too, are stories of resistance to the political and economic demands of their society. For men too there were often tough choices, refusing to fight for an unjust cause, rejecting their families’ pressures to gain or maintain status and wealth. The stories, of the saints, I discovered, are stories of people who were prepared to be changed by their faith, to learn, to be disciples, not just travelling with Jesus as long as it suited them, like the crowds in the Gospel story, but in it for life.

Today the pressures on us to conform are usually far less stark, but they can be just as powerful because they are so insidious. We fall into step with our friends, agreeing with their opinions even if we think they’re wrong privately, because we fear losing their friendship if we challenge them. We do what others want us to do because we don’t want to look uncooperative or uncaring, even if we don’t think it is the right thing for them or for us. We follow the train tracks laid down by our class or social group, because we can’t imagine our lives if we didn’t.

And does it really matter? Yes, says Moses, in our first reading. It does. In fact, it can be a life and death decision, not always physically, but certainly spiritually, both for us and for those our decisions affect. Moses was speaking to the ex-slaves who he had led out of Egypt. They were on the brink of entering the Promised Land, but how would they live when they got there? Would they remember the lessons they’d learned in the wilderness about the kind of society God wanted them to be, a society where there was love and respect and care for the poor and oppressed, as they had once been? It all depended on who they looked to for guidance. Would they fall in with the societies around them, who, let it be said, practiced child sacrifice amongst other things? Or would they keep their eyes on the God who had rescued them from oppression and faithfully nurtured and cared for them in the wilderness?

It’s up to you, said Moses. However great a leader he was, he knew that this next bit was out of his control, out of the control of any leader, just as it is today; no one can make anyone else do anything.  Every one of us shapes the society we live in day by day by our own decisions, our own choices, our own acts, however small they seem. When we stay silent in the face of injustice, prejudice and hatred, we choose death, not only for ourselves but for our communities. When we choose the cheapest deal rather than the fairest, we choose death, not only for ourselves, but for workers we’ll never see in nations far away, and maybe even for the ecosystem we all depend on. When we demonise others because they’re different from us, we choose death, not only for ourselves, but for any chance of a peaceful future for the world.

“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked” says Psalm 1. Of course, the right path isn’t always obvious, and people may legitimately differ on how to get to where we need to be, but today’s readings call us at least to ask whose counsel we are listening to, what pressures we are giving in to. They call us to be aware of the choices we’re making and take responsibility for them, so we can count the cost, and be ready to pay it.

We might prefer to hear something comforting and escapist this week, with so much chaos and confusion around us, but these passages don’t offer us that option. Along with their challenge, though, comes a glorious invitation; to be that tree standing by the waterside, to sink our roots deep into the soil of God’s love, to let our roots be watered by his Spirit, so that we can stand firm in times of trouble, and be fruitful whatever happens.  

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Trinity 11: Knowing your place

Everybody’s watching everybody else in today’s Gospel reading. The Pharisees, religious experts, are “watching Jesus closely”. But Jesus, we are told, is watching them too. “He noticed how the guests chose the places of honour”.

We talk about living in a surveillance society these days, but people have always watched each other, noticing the subtle visual clues that help them make judgements about others. Are they friend or foe? Rivals or allies? Wanting to talk, or wanting to be left alone? Interested in what we are saying or dying to get away? Some people are more observant than others, of course, and some people are easier to read than others, but actions reveal what words may try to hide.

In Jesus’ case, the people-watching was happening in the course of a Sabbath meal which he’d been invited to at the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, a high-up, important person in this particular religious movement. It was obviously a reasonably formal do, with all sorts of etiquette to observe, and the first and greatest hurdle was where you sat. How important were you? Where did you come in the pecking order? Who got to sit at the top table? Who was on the host’s right and left hands? There was no seating plan; you had to work it out for yourself. It sounds as if it was quite entertaining to watch as people jockeyed for position, gave way to others, or didn’t.

It’s the same in most gatherings and groups. There are the Alpha males, the Queen Bees,  the ones who set the trends and make the rules, who head straight for the best seats, buoyed up by an indelible sense of entitlement, whether they are really entitled or not. Then there are those who aren’t sure they’re meant to be there at all, newcomers who hover by the door watching for the slightest hint that they aren’t welcome so they can beat a hasty retreat. Then there are those in between. There are the ones with “imposter syndrome”, who find themselves a little higher than they are comfortable with, and can never quite relax in case they get found out. And there are the “humble braggers” the ones who ostentatiously insist that “no, no, I couldn’t possibly sit there – you take that seat – I’m really not important enough for it!”, while making sure that everyone else notices them doing it.  

Anyway, eventually the people at this dinner settle down. Everyone has a place. The “imposters” have come to the conclusion that if they’ve sat in the wrong place, they seem to have got away with it, again. The humble-braggers are content that everyone has noticed precisely how humble they are. The hoverers-near-the-door have perched themselves on the end of a bench, and the entitled ones are surveying the scene with satisfaction, congratulating themselves on being so important.  All is well…until Jesus opens his mouth and says what most of them have actually been thinking for the last half hour or so anyway.

“Are you sure you’re in the place you are meant to be? What if the host were suddenly to say, right now, with everyone looking that you – or you – or you – had taken a seat which was meant for someone more important than you? What if you – or you – or you – were suddenly told to get up and go to the back? What if you’ve got it wrong?”

In any culture, in any group of people, this would be very embarrassing; in Jesus’ culture, a culture where honour and shame were the guiding principles, it would never have been forgotten. You would probably never feel able to show your face again. His little parable of the banquet where the guest is made to take that “walk of shame” would have hit home very powerfully. How do you know you are in the right place? How do you know that you have got the right measure of your own worth? How do you know that you aren’t thinking too highly of yourself? Suddenly everyone is unsettled, looking at each other out of the corner of their eye, wondering if they are about to be humiliated.

This can all get very confusing, though.  Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted, but if you humble yourself so that you will be exalted, is that really humility at all?
If we put others before ourselves, are we just “virtue-signalling”, trying to look “holier than thou”?  If we put ourselves down are we actually “humble-bragging”, fishing for compliments and admiration? If we are proud of our humility, how can it be humility?
And aren’t there times when we should take pride in ourselves, take up our space in the world? Of course there are.

We can end up going round and round in circles, getting more and more self-obsessed, but if we do, I think that might be because we have missed the point completely.  

Jesus isn’t just trying to upend the social norms, here, substituting a new pecking order for the old one. He’s doing something far more radical. He’s telling us that it isn’t about us at all. The problem is our self-obsession, which creates this burning need to have a pecking order in the first place.

The guests at this dinner are using other people simply as objects to measure their own worth against. They aren’t looking at them as people in their own right, with fascinating stories to tell, burdens or joys to share, who are either more or less important than them, above or below them. That’s the only thing about their fellows which matters; whether they make them look better or worse. It’s like picking your friends because they are fatter and uglier than you are, so that you look slimmer and more beautiful by comparison.

For Jesus, though, each person, whoever they are, is precious, a unique creation of God, just as they are. “Don’t invite those who can repay you,” he says. Invite those who seem to have nothing to give you. Invite those who are vulnerable and in need, because they are vulnerable and in need, those who would have found it hard to provide for themselves in Jesus’ time, and still do today. Invite them for no other reason than that they are hungry and you have food. Invite them for their sakes, not for yours, to meet their need, not yours. Of course, when we do this, we may – almost certainly will – end up feeling blessed, because we will discover that those we invite are blessings in themselves, but if that’s why we do it, for our own good, then it will always ring hollow. Jesus talks about God rewarding those who do this “at the resurrection of the righteous”, at the end of time, but that it will be the  reward of seeing the whole world made right, not some special prize we can, or will want to, hug to ourselves.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews has the same message for the community he is writing to. “Let mutual love continue” he says; love that is based on equality, on the assumption that the other person is as valuable as I am. “Show hospitality to strangers” – people you don’t know, so you can’t tell whether they have anything you need. It’s about them, not about you. Identify with those in prison or being tortured– don’t treat them as if they are some other sub-human species who don’t need the same things you do. In marriage – and remember this is a society in which women were treated as property – show respect for each other. Don’t treat your partner as if they are just put there for your own convenience, to be picked up and dropped as the mood takes you.  “Be content with what you have”; don’t take more than you need because someone else will miss out, and greedy acquisition nearly always rests on exploitation. It’s a message we desperately need to remind ourselves of at this time, when greed and self-seeking seem to be getting the upper hand.

Treating others as people who are as valuable as we are is difficult though, which is why we so often fail to do it.

That’s why I am glad that the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t end there. “Be content with what you have” he says, “for God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’”. He’s quoting from God’s words to Joshua, the Old Testament figure who led the people of Israel from the wilderness into the Promised Land, a scary and daunting task. (Joshua 1.5) “So we can say with confidence”, he goes on, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Why are we self-centred? It’s because we’re anxious about ourselves and our security. It seems like a dog-eat-dog world out there, if we don’t look out for number one, who will?  We can’t live generously, confidently, open-handededly unless we deal with that anxiety, that sense of being alone in a hostile world, with no one to rely on but ourselves. As our first reading put it, it is when our hearts have “withdrawn from their Maker” that we get into trouble, and the consequences can be dire, not just for us, but for everyone.

We need to remember what the letter to the Hebrews reminds us of, that we are not alone. As well as the other members of their community, with whom they are called to share that mutual love, this writer points them back to the first Christian leaders – the likes of Peter, Paul, James and John. They coped with the challenges and fears they faced because they’d come to realise that God would always be with them.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,”   That doesn’t mean that Christian faith can’t change and develop, as some people interpret this verse; it means that God will always be faithful to us. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were the proof of that. God doesn’t pick us up and drop us on a whim, when it suits him, like some paranoid despot. He sticks with us, whatever happens.   

That’s the key to living in the way Jesus teaches. We need to learn to trust that the only opinion of us that really matters is the opinion of God, and that his opinion is always that he loves us with a never-ending love. If we can do that we’ll never need to put others down in order to raise ourselves up, or measure ourselves anxiously against them, because we’ll have nothing to be anxious about.