Sunday, 27 October 2019

Highways to Zion: Last Sunday after Trinity

A Pharisee and a Tax Collector walk into a Temple…

It does sound a bit like the beginning of a joke, and maybe Jesus meant it to. There’s something wonderfully over the top about his description of these two men. Jesus is definitely hamming it up in his description of the Pharisee’s pomposity and the Tax Collector’s humility. This is a tiny satire, just over a hundred words long, but with a world of meaning in it.

Who are these people? Jesus’ first audience would have known very well, but we might not.

The Pharisees, who often feature in the Gospels, were one of the main religious groups of Jesus’ time, one of many factions within Judaism fighting for their version of the true faith.  Their name is thought to come from a root which means “to separate”, and that pretty much summed up their approach to faith. They wanted to be distinctive from the culture around them.  They placed a high priority on observing the laws of Moses in every detail, at home, in business, in daily life. separating out right from wrong behaviour, good from bad, holy from unholy. But that often meant separating people into good and bad too – those who kept the law and those who didn’t, those who were ritually pure and those who weren’t. They often get a really bad press in the Gospels, but many of them were , no doubt, good and genuine people, who took their faith seriously. They saw the law as a joy, not a burden, a gift from God to help them live well. They delighted in it, debated it, argued about it zealously.   

But zeal can easily slide into legalistic puritanism, excluding and vilifying those who can’t meet its demands. In the Gospels the Pharisees are often baffled and offended by what they saw as Jesus’ laxity in welcoming all comers and accepting people as they were. “This can’t be right,” they thought! “It makes a mockery of God, who is, above all, the Holy One.”

The Pharisee Jesus describes in his little story is, on the face of it, a good man. If we take him at his word - and I think we are meant to - he isn’t a thief, a rogue or an adulterer – and we can hardly argue that it would be better if he was. Thieves, rogues and adulterers cause no end of heartbreak.  I can understand why he wants to point out that he isn’t a tax collector too, because they were despised for very good reason. They collected taxes on behalf of the Romans, to fund their occupation. They were seen as collaborators, traitors, people who lined their pockets at the expense of their own people, making them pay for their own oppression. No wonder they were hated. When the Pharisee in Jesus’ story says that he is not like one of these, most right-thinking people would have nodded in approval.  

But however good he looks superficially, there are hints in the story that he isn’t going to turn out to be the hero. There’s that little phrase “standing by himself” for a start. Translators have struggled to be precise about what it means, but they all agree that it implies that he’s making sure that the crowd in the Temple notice him. He is taking a stand, or grandstanding, we might say, making sure that everyone can hear and see him.

But however loud his voice and prominent his position, there’s no real conversation with God happening.  He might as well be talking to himself.  It’s the tax-collector, Jesus says, who “went down to his home justified”, not this apparently pious Pharisee. That word “justified”, in this context, is far more than a legal judgement.  It means to be “made right” not just declared to be right, to be sorted out, straightened out . The tax collector, for all his sins – and they probably were many – goes home having done the business with God that he needed to do, but the Pharisee, goes home exactly the same as he came in. Nothing has changed in his heart, so nothing will change in his life, because he doesn’t think there is anything to change. God can’t do anything with him, because he won’t admit that he needs help.

John Donne, the seventeenth century poet and priest, once preached a beautiful sermon on the shortest verse in the Bible - Jesus wept – in which he talked about the value and importance of tears. He quoted the famous vision of heaven in the book of Revelation, where it says that God will “wipe every tear from our eyes”. What a wonderful thing that would be to have God himself wipe away your tears. What a lovely, tender moment. Who would want to miss it? , but, says Donne “what shall God have to do with that eye that hath never wept”.
If we refuse to cry, how can we be comforted? If we don’t acknowledge our need, how can God meet it? If we don’t accept that we need to change, how can God change us?

Prayer can seem complicated, but basically it is just us as we are meeting God as God is. But if it is going to be that genuine encounter it has to start with the realisation that the one we are meeting is the Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, the Almighty, the Lord of Hosts, and that we who are praying are finite, fragile little creatures who spend most of our lives falling over, getting it wrong and generally not having a clue what is going on. That’s the reality. That’s the fact. But this Pharisee doesn’t seem to have cottoned on to that. It sounds as if he thinks he’s doing God a great favour by talking to him,  what with all his virtues. God can’t get a word in edgeways. What is there for him to do in this perfect man’s perfect life? He’s been made redundant before he starts!

But the tax collector, knows that he needs God. He knows that he can’t do it – this whole messy business of living – on his own, and he’s not pretending that he can. He comes to God because he has to.

The Psalm we heard this morning, Psalm 84, is thought to be a song that was sung by Jewish pilgrims on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem for one of the big festivals there.  Zion is another name for Jerusalem. As they slogged along the path in the scorching heat, they sang to remind themselves of why they were making this journey. They were going to the place which was, for them, their true home. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My souls longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord.” Even the birds were welcome to make their nests there!

It wasn’t the physical beauty of the place which drew them, though. It was the fact that this was the place where they expected to meet with God. It was his dwelling place. These were his courts, his altars, and although there is no Temple there now – it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and eventually replaced by a mosque, Jewish people still go to its last remnant, the Western Wall, to pray, and they do it  for the same reason.  It’s the symbol of their relationship with God, the reminder of his presence, which is with them wherever they are.

The first Christians believed that they met with God in the person of Jesus. He was their new Temple, raised up in three days, not in stone, but in his body, raised from death. (John 2.19). Early Christian writers talked about the Church, us, being a living Temple, a place where people could meet God through his Holy Spirit in us. (Ephesians 2.21, 1 Cor 6.19) And Jesus told us that we could also meet with God when we fed the hungry, loved the outcast. He is there in the least of our brothers and sisters. (Matt 25.40)

The true Zion, the true Temple is wherever we meet with God, honestly, without pretending, like that Tax Collector, whether it is in an ancient sacred site, an ordinary parish church, at home, at work, out shopping, on the weary commute on the train, in a conversation with a friend, or even a confrontation with an enemy conducted with integrity. It’s wherever we are when something real happens between us and God, the thing that needs to happen, when we do the business that needs to be done, when we truly hear that word of comfort or challenge, or welcome, or guidance that we need to hear, when we take it in, when we let it change us.

Sometimes that moment will come to us out of the blue, when we least expect it, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave it to chance. “Happy are those in whose hearts are the highways to Zion”, says the Psalm.  “Happy are you” in other words, “if you have, deep within you, well-trodden paths, familiar routes that lead you into God’s presence”. Highways aren’t made by accident. They take work, and time. There’s likely to be mess and disruption too. Our pathways to God are no different. Sometimes God has to dig around in us, blast away the obstacles, move tons of spiritual earth. We have our part to play too. We need to let him get to work in us. We need to open our ears and our hearts to his voice, put ourselves in places where we might hear him. That might be through time spent in prayer and silence, in worship with others, in Bible study. It might be through serving others, fighting injustice, asking for forgiveness, admitting our weakness, wrestling with our doubts, lamenting our sorrows.  These are the ways in which those highways are established that take us into God’s presence.

A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a temple… and so, if we want to, do we. But will we go home, like the Pharisee, the same people we were when we came in, or will we go home justified, changed, even just a little, like the tax collector?  It will depend on whether we are willing to do the business we need to do with God,  telling it like it is, hearing it like is. Only then can he wipe away the tears we’ve been hiding from him and start to set us right.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Genuine Gratitude: Trinity 17

Today’s Gospel story has often been a favourite of Sunday School teachers and parents too. After all, it is a simple story about saying thank you, isn’t it? And saying thank you is a basic social skill which we all want to drum into our children as early as possible. If you are a parent, and you are any good at it, you sit your children down straight after Christmas to write those thank you notes to people who’ve given them presents. Alas, I never quite was that parent – it was always an uphill struggle.  But we all know that it’s important to say thank you, and it’s good to be thanked. I’ve been very grateful and touched by all your kind messages of thanks and appreciation over the last week or so, to mark my 25th anniversary of ordination, and the sizeable gift of garden tokens, which I shall enjoy spending very much! Thank you for those.

Saying thank you matters. That’s why this story has so often been used to ram that home to children, and adults too. Look these ten men with leprosy. They are all healed, but only one comes back to say thank you! How rude!

The problem is, though, that the story isn’t really about rudeness and politeness. We trivialise it if we make it just a moral tale about good and bad manners.  Jesus doesn’t focus on the thanks of the Samaritan who comes back – in fact, he doesn’t even mention it. He says , “Was none of them – the other nine -  found to return and give praise to God.” That’s the point, that they don’t seem to have recognised where their healing came from, or given a moment’s thought to what that might mean for them in the long term. They are quite content with a healing that is, literally, skin deep.  

The thing about saying thank you is that it can just be a formula, something we feel we have to do if we want to look polite and well brought up regardless of how we really feel about the gift we’ve been given. We can write the most beautiful thank you letters without them meaning anything at all, for gifts which we don’t really want or need – we’ve probably all done so from time to time. All the proprieties will have been observed, but not a word of it is really meant, and that gift doesn’t make any real, lasting difference to us.

Genuine gratitude is far more than a simple thank you, however posh the stationary it is written on, and it’s this genuine gratitude which Jesus recognises in this Samaritan who has turned back. Genuine gratitude recognises not just the gift, but the love of the giver who gave it. Genuine gratitude is something which leads us into a deeper relationship with someone, because we see that they’ve given something of themselves in their gift. Genuine gratitude isn’t a momentary thing, something to be ticked off a checklist – thank you letter written – tick!; it changes us in the long term. It’s a recognition that a bond has been formed, that our lives have been reoriented, set off in new directions, influenced permanently for the good by someone else’s generosity to us.

That’s what this Samaritan leper is expressing when he “turns back and praises God.” He doesn’t just go back to his old life, as the other nine do. Something has shifted permanently in him. He has learned something that will change him forever. He has recognised in Jesus the wellspring of life, a place to which he can return, a place to which he must return, again and again.

The Gospel tells us, very carefully, that these lepers are living in the region “between” Galilee and Samaria, in the buffer zone, the nomansland, between these two states which normally didn’t get along. They had to live there. They’d been banished from their towns and villages because they were viewed as unclean. When they are healed, nine of them can’t wait to get back to their old lives. Showing themselves to the priests is the way they can be formally declared clean again and readmitted to their communities. That’s all they want. Only this Samaritan – a foreigner to Jesus – realises that there is something far better on offer than just a return to the way things were before he got this disease. And it comes, not from this tribe or that tribe, this religious system or that religious system, but from this man, Jesus, who embodies a God who is bigger than any clan or tribe, for whom there is no no-man’s-land, nowhere that is beyond the pale. That’s why he comes back and  throws himself at Jesus feet and praises God. Jesus tells him to “go on his way”, a new way into a new life, made whole not just in body, but in spirit too.

Genuine gratitude for a genuine, love-filled, gift can transform our relationships with one another. We know what it feels like when we find it. The same is true of our relationship with God, who gives us the best gift of all; himself. That’s why, week by week, we come together to celebrate this service - the Eucharist . The word eucharist  comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving, so the Eucharistic prayer, that prayer I pray asking God to bless the bread and wine of Communion, is a thanksgiving prayer. There are eight different prayers I could choose from. I put two in each of the service books we use at different seasons of the year and then choose which ever seems most appropriate as I come to it, but they are all the same in essence. They give thanks to God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. They all say, in different ways, “this stuff we have, of which bread and wine are a reminder, all of it comes from you. Without you, God, we have nothing. With you, we have everything - heaven and earth and all that is in it!” In the Eucharist we are invited, like this Samaritan leper, to turn back to God, to acknowledge our need of him and put ourselves in his hands once again. And when we do that, we find that, in the shape of a small wafer, he has actually put himself into our hands. That  realisation, if we take it seriously, can reorient us,  transform us, just as it did the Samaritan leper.

But if it is so great, why did those other nine lepers not do as this Samaritan did? A new life sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it, but they didn’t seem to want it? Perhaps there’s a clue in our Old Testament reading, the story of Naaman, the Aramean military commander, who also had leprosy. What we find in his story is that receiving gifts, can be complicated and threatening,  especially such an important gift, transformative gift as healing. It means, for a start, admitting our need of that gift, and that can feel humiliating.

When Elisha sends a message to Naaman, telling him to bathe in the River Jordan, he is infuriated and offended. Elisha hasn’t even come out in person to greet him, and the River Jordan? Pah! There are far better rivers back home…

Philip and I went to the River Jordan earlier this year, and I can see Naaman’s point. It would have been bigger in his time – water extraction upstream has diminished it now – but it was never very wide, and it is one of the muddiest rivers I have ever seen. You’re dirtier when you come out than you were when you go in. It was bad enough that this big-shot, battle-hardened soldier had been laid low by leprosy, but the treatment must have sounded even more humiliating than the disease to him. He wanted something magical, esoteric, a cure that was grand enough to match his status. All he was offered was a remotely delivered prescription for a quick dip in a muddy stream. Naaman wasn’t used to being needy, powerless. He was usually the strong one, in command of others. This must have seemed like a particularly cruel practical joke, deliberate mockery. It is only the intervention of his servants which persuades him that, having come this far, he might as well give it a try.

But when he does, and is healed, his response is the same as that of the Samaritan leper who comes back to Jesus. He recognises that this God, of this place – strange though it seems – is the source of the life and healing he needs. If we read on, we discover that when he goes home, he takes some of the soil of Israel to stand on so that he can pray to Israel’s God, a symbol that would remind him that this unlikely place, this muddy river bank was where he found what he had needed all along. “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel,” he says

I started by saying that the Gospel story isn’t a story about saying thank you, not in any simplistic sense anyway. It isn’t there to remind us of the need for ritual politeness. But it, and the story of Naaman, do have something to say to us about genuine gratitude, the recognition of the grace of God. Grace is God’s unmerited, unearned gift of himself to us. Grace comes to us not because we have deserved it but because we need it, often turning up in unexpected people and places, in foreign territory, out beyond the pale.

The Samaritan leper finds grace in a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth, who goes into no-man’s-land where only the rejected and despised make their home.  Naaman finds grace in the strange instructions of a scruffy foreign prophet, and in the muddy water of an unprepossessing river. He struggles to accept it, but when he does, his life is transformed. Both of them are made whole in spirit as well as in body, set on a new course, by the gracious gift of God. Their stories are reminders that we can be too, that day by day, we are offered God’s gift of grace, his help for our need, if we can find the courage to accept it. And for that, we can be truly thankful.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Do not worry: Harvest 2019

“Do not worry,” says Jesus, “about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” Do not worry.
Great words, but I wonder how many of us might be thinking – that’s all very well, but I’ve got a family to feed and care for, and plenty to be worried about.
I wonder too, how his words might be heard by some of the people that we’ll be helping through our contributions to the Diocesan Poverty and Hope appeal, which we collect for at every harvest, people like Esperance Gakobwa, a 30 year old widow and mother of six, who lives in Burundi, one of the poorest nations on earth. She’s a member of the Batwa people, a group which is often discriminated against. The Batwa used to rely on selling clay pots to make an income, but the government has restricted the extraction of clay, so people like Esperance, who were only just surviving, now have no way of making a living.
Or there’s Deborah, who lives in Zimbabwe, and has HIV. There is real stigma around HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe, which is a precarious place to live at the best of times.  Access to the drugs that would suppress the virus are way out of reach of many sufferers like Deborah in Zimbabwe.
Or there are the children who have been affected by war in Syria, and those who are being exploited in Sri Lanka who also feature in this year’s appeal.
“Do not worry” says Jesus, but I am sure that they are worried. And we are worried too, when we look around at our world, or if we’re not, we probably should be. Time is rapidly running out to do anything about the climate crisis. In fact it already has run out for some people in communities where they are losing their homes to rising floodwaters or the increasingly strong and frequent storms , or their livelihoods as previously fertile land becomes desert, or the forests on which they depended are felled.
“Do not worry?” It would be understandable if our response was to say “Come off it Jesus. Of course we are worried. These are worrying times!”
So why does Jesus say this? After all, the people he was talking to faced difficulties too. His disciples were ordinary fishermen, peasant farmers – not well off members of the elite. The crowds that came to him were disproportionately made up of those in extreme need – vulnerable, poor, disabled. Just being told not to worry wasn’t going to help them. Of course they were worried. Their lives were worrying.
It’s important that we remember, as we grapple with this passage, that Jesus wasn’t a man given to pie in the sky, cloud-cuckoo-land thinking. He didn’t peddle false hope. He faced his own crucifixion with a courage that most of us couldn’t even dream of, so we can be fairly sure that when he said “don’t worry” he must have had good reason to do so. Perhaps the clue to understanding his words comes later in the reading, when he tells people why they shouldn’t worry. “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” He tells us not to worry because worry doesn’t work. There’s nothing wrong with the kind of concern that leads us into action; what he is talking about here is the kind of crippling anxiety which paralyses us, about things we often can’t do anything about.  That kind of anxiety is worse than useless. Not only is it miserable to endure. It prevents us doing anything to change what we are worrying about. It stops us reaching out for help, or taking some other action that will make a real difference, whether that is in ourselves or in the world around us.
So what did Jesus tell his disciples to do when they found themselves worrying? He wasn’t, obviously, able to offer them anti anxiety medication, or professional counselling, both of which can help if we suffer from deep anxiety disorders, but he did have a very good prescription to help with the everyday worrying which we all fall prey to sometimes, and it’s one which is available to all of us.
He told his disciples to look around them. “Consider the ravens, consider the lilies,” he said. He invited them to connect not only with the problems of the world around them, but also with its delights, and most importantly with the God who had given them those delights.
At our Messy Church a few weeks ago we tried to do just that. We prepared for Harvest by exploring our five senses and the way they helped us to perceive the world. We made colorful pictures. We made (and ate) fruit kebabs. We made musical instruments, and played them with gusto in our closing worship. We played with scented playdough, and we made the pew ends you can see decorating the church, exploring the different textures of the grasses and seed heads and beech mast – and the glue – with our fingers. We literally got in touch with the world around us, and in taste, smell, sight and hearing of it too. We didn’t have any ravens or lilies to consider, but we did what we could with what we had.  And in doing so, we found, as we always tend to, that it took us out of ourselves. I watched children and adults, spend ages pouring out gloopy, golden glue and selecting with care the things they stuck to it. I watched babies discovering that, actually, watermelon and kiwi fruit and pineapple are wonderful, extraordinary tastes – perhaps tasting some of them for the first time. And as we made, we chatted, remembering autumn walks we taken, or beautiful sights we’d seen. It did us all a power of good. However terrible the problems of the world, or our own problems, there was also this, this array of delights, this reminder of good things, these good gifts given by God whose love and faithfulness were bigger than our worries.
Harvest time literally brings us down to earth. It grounds us. Harvest isn’t an idea or a theory. It is an apple, or a bunch of grapes or a pumpkin. It is the soil which grew them, the water which nourished them, the sun which ripened them. Harvest reminds us that we are part of all this too, each one of us is a creation of God, a gift of God. We are linked to the earth. We come from the earth. We return to the earth. We are connected to each other.

Christian faith, like the Jewish faith from which it grew, isn’t about wispy spirits floating about in an ethereal heaven. The Bible starts with God making stuff, trees and hills and antelopes – and us – and calling them all good. It continues, for Christians, with Jesus, the Word made flesh, God with us, properly human, earthy, eating and drinking and suffering and dying, telling us to see God in him, and in one another too. Christian faith is all about getting down to earth, because that’s what God did in Jesus.
And it’s what he calls us to do too, to consider the lilies and the ravens, and one another, to see that these are all God’s gifts. Because when we do that, when we learn to see God at work around us, even if it is in a weed which grows up and dies in a few days, but looks beautiful in its moment, we will realise that we are not alone, that God is with us.
“Don’t worry”, said Jesus to people who had every reason to be worried. It wasn’t that nothing bad would happen to them – he knew that there was all sorts of suffering ahead – but they would never be abandoned or forsaken. God was with them and in them, at work.
That’s what Esperance has discovered – remember Esperance, the Batwa widow with six children to support. She discovered God at work in the form of the Christian Aid project our collection is going to support. This project helped her learn to grow her own food, to feed her family and have some to sell.  
Deborah, the lady from Zimbabwe, discovered it in the local support and savings group she joined, established by the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. It enabled her to buy a garden to grow the fresh food she needs to be healthy, but also brought her into contact with others with HIV and AIDS. “The church has helped us to get our dignity back,” she said.

The projects in Sri Lanka and with Syrian refugees are showing the children they help, in very practical tangible ways, that they are not forgotten either. And Bore Place here in Kent, engages with our worried children, who see with clearer eyes than many adults the challenges that lie ahead for our world. Bore Place works to give them the tools they need to begin cope with them. “Don’t agonise, organize” said a postcard I used to have on my wall. It’s great advice, but you can only do it, I think, if you know you are loved by someone, held by  hands which are bigger than yours. Considering the world around us, its landscapes, plants, creatures – including one another – reminds us of the hands which made them all, hands which are big enough to hold anything and everything.
So today, I wonder what your five senses will tell you that will give you hope and remind you of God’s presence. Perhaps it will be the intricacy of a flower, or the spots on a ladybirds back, or one of the scarecrows in our Scarecrow Safari cheering you up and reminding you that this is a good place to live,! Perhaps it will be the sound of a friend’s voice asking how you are, or the sound of rain on the windowpanes – not always a welcome sound, perhaps, but we can’t live without it! Perhaps it will be the feeling of a hug from someone who cares about you. Perhaps it will be the smells and tastes of our Harvest Lunch. Whatever it is, the real things we see, hear, taste, touch and smell are all reminders of a God who created the stuff of life, and blessed it and called it good, and will not abandon it.
“Don’t worry”, says Jesus, but of course we are all worried, all of us, sometimes, yet God calls us to seem him at work, to put our worries into his hands. If we can do that we may find we are released from our anxious paralysis, so we can play our part in caring for his world.