Sunday, 30 August 2020
Sunday, 23 August 2020
The original builders of Stonehenge knew where to find the stone they needed, and it didn’t take magic. They did import some of the smaller stones, somehow, from Wales, but those huge uprights were local. They knew their land, and they passed on the knowledge of where to quarry the right kind of stone from one generation to another as the monument took shape. We’re more used to getting our building materials from Wickes or Homebase, shipped in from all around the world, but until very recent times, most people just used what they had nearby, stone from quarries on their own doorsteps which they returned to again and again.
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn” says God, through the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament reading today. “Remember where you come from, who has given you life, where you belong” in other words.
He’s speaking to people in exile in Babylon, where they’d been taken many decades before when the Babylonians conquered and destroyed Jerusalem. Many had given up hope of ever going home, thinking that God had abandoned them, but Isaiah says that it isn’t so. “The Lord will comfort Zion” – that’s another name for Jerusalem – “he will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord”. Again and again, Isaiah hammers it home. Babylon may look all powerful, all controlling, owning you, body and soul, but God sees it differently. It’s the little word “my” which gives it away. “Listen to me, my people” says God. “Give heed to me, my nation.” He goes on to talk about “my justice, my deliverance, my salvation , my arms that rule. These people don’t belong to Babylon, they belong to God. Who is the rock from which they were hewn, the one who has shaped them? It isn’t Babylon; it is God, who has faithfully loved and supported them from the days of Abraham and Sarah, long in their past. Babylon’s power may look outwardly impressive, but it’s nothing compared to the eternal and indestructible love of God. God is the one they should look to if they want to find their true sense of belonging.
In the Gospel, Jesus also talks about belonging and allegiance. He’s walking with his disciples towards Caesarea Philippi, a mainly Gentile town to the north of Galilee, in an area where many Roman troops were stationed. The name of the town tells us a lot about it. It’s called Caesarea after Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor – and Philippi, from Philip, one of the sons of Herod the Great – that’s the Herod who massacred the children of Bethlehem. Philip ruled this area after his father’s death. So Jesus and his disciples aren’t just heading for any old town. They’re heading straight into a vortex where two major powers swirl around each other – Rome and the Herodian dynasty.
So Jesus asks a question to make his disciples think about what they are heading into, and whose voices they should pay attention to in the power-ridden environment of Caesarea Philippi. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he asks. It’s an ambiguous question, in two ways. Firstly who are “people” he’s referring to? Is he talking about the people on the streets, his opponents, friends, strangers? – or is he talking about the disciples themselves? And what does he mean by “Son of Man”? It was a phrase that could refer to the Messiah, the long-awaited deliverer, sent by God, but it was also a commonly- used, roundabout way of referring to any human being, especially yourself. It could just be used in place of “I”, like we say “muggins”.
The disciples flounder about, throwing out whatever names come to them first; John the Baptist, or one of the Old Testament prophets. They know this is an important question. They know there is something deeply significant and different about Jesus, but they don’t really want to nail their colours to the mast and say what it is.
So Jesus puts it more bluntly. Ok, so let’s be clear - who do you say that I am? It’s Simon who comes straight back with the answer that’s in his heart. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God! “ There. It’s out. He doesn’t explain exactly what he means by the word Messiah, or the words Son of God – later theologians would have to puzzle over that, and still do – but he recognises that God is at work in Jesus, that Jesus is, somehow, a chip off the old block, if we go back to Isaiah’s image, revealing the essence of the nature of God more perfectly than any of those illustrious names the other disciples have come up with. Simon decides to throw in his lot with Jesus, right there, right then. Jesus is going to be the authority, the influence, the power that will guide him.
They’re about to enter a town which glorifies the powers of the age by its very name, but this disciple sees that the glory of God, the true source of his life and strength, shines from this carpenter from Nazareth, not from their mighty armies. He has none of the usual trappings of power, but his voice is the only voice Simon wants to listen to.
And Jesus responds by affirming that in saying this, Simon too is showing that he is hewn from the rock of God’s love, reflecting God in his own little way. Jesus nicknames Petros, Peter in English, which means Rock. Jesus says that Peter will find himself holding the keys of the kingdom, the privilege and responsibility of helping others draw close to God, providing a firm foundation for Jesus’ followers as they deal with the power struggles around them, the pressures that distort and twist their common life.
We may not have to deal with Caesars and Herods, but we’re still surrounded by powerful and destructive forces, within and without, which pull us this way and that. It can often feel like they have the upper hand, the last word on our lives. Political pressure groups, persuasive leaders out for their own glory, social media “influencers” who tell us that we’re only really acceptable if we look a certain way or have certain possessions, friends and family who we go along with because we’re afraid of rejection or ridicule if we don’t. We hear these voices loud and clear, passing judgement on us, telling us who we are and who we should be, naming us as winners or losers in the game of life. It is easy to find ourselves trying to belong somewhere that isn’t our true home, trying to be people other than the true selves God meant us to be.
Friday, 21 August 2020
There’s a story told of an Irish saint from the sixth century, St Kevin, a man known for his feats of heroic prayerfulness. He was a hermit who lived in a cave by the side of Glendalough, a lake in County Wicklow. According to legend, at the beginning of Lent one year, Kevin settled down to pray. He stretched out his hands, as he always did, and sank deep into prayer. So deep was his prayer, that he didn’t notice when a blackbird landed on his hand. So deep was his prayer that he didn’t notice either when she flew away and came back again with a twig in her mouth. So deep was his prayer, in fact that he didn’t notice her going to and fro for all that day, hour after hour, bringing twig after twig, weaving them together. He didn’t notice her bring dried grass and weave that in too. He didn’t notice until right at the end of the day, when he opened his eyes and realised that there in his hand was a perfectly woven nest, and the blackbird sitting in it. And underneath her were three sky-blue eggs.
“Ah!” thought Kevin. “Now what shall I do? Sister Blackbird has honoured me with her company, trusted me with her young. Hmm! Well, there’s nothing for it but to wait, and while I wait, to pray”. So Kevin did. According to the story, he prayed for days and days, sitting quite still, not stopping to sleep or to eat. One week passed, and two, and in the third week he saw the eggs crack open, and little by little the blackbird chicks emerge. But that didn’t mean he could move. Far from it. Now it was even more important that he stayed still as the parent birds brought food to their chicks. So Kevin just carried on praying. By the time the chicks were ready to fledge and fly the nest, Lent was nearly over, and as Easter Sunday came he celebrated the new life of resurrection, and the new life of the chicks that had grown in the nest of his outstretched hands…
Well, you can believe it if you like, but it’s a good story, whether it happened or not.
I like it because it makes me wonder what unexpected thing God might have put in my hands to deal with. Perhaps it is something which I would rather not handle – maybe St Kevin had at least the odd moment when he wished that blackbird had nested somewhere else. Often in our lives there are situations which seem to us to get in the way of what we really want to be doing with our lives. We could be so much better, holier people if only… If only, we didn’t have that awkward boss at work, that difficult relationship at home, that illness to deal with, these cares and worries, those doubts and fears, this Covid19 pandemic. These things seem to us to be distractions, diverting us from the path we planned to take.
And yet it’s often in facing up to and dealing with these awkward realities that we find the greatest blessing. We find our hearts and lives expanding because of them. Sometimes we may find a solution to them. Sometimes we may end up having to live with them, but what looks like a diversion from the straight road we’d mapped out turns out to be a pathway which leads to life in all its fullness.
The second part of the Gospel reading we heard today reminds me of that too. Jesus is in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, foreign territory. Tyre and Sidon were Canaanite port towns to the north of Israel. What was he doing there? We aren’t told. Not having a seaside holiday, that’s for sure. Tyre and Sidon were a byword in Israel for sin and trouble, rackety towns where all sorts of people came and went, where sailors did what sailors have always done on their runs ashore. Maybe the father of the little girl whose mother comes to Jesus was a sailor. It would certainly have been unusual, a bit disreputable, for a woman to be out on her own like this, and even more so to be taking the initiative in challenging a male leader. Maybe he was a sailor who had gone away to sea and never come back, a sailor with a girl in every port, and this woman just happened to be the girl in this one. We don’t know. But she is obviously a nuisance, even to Jesus.
His disciples beg him to send her away, and he seems inclined to try, but she keeps on at him until he gives her what she wants - her daughter’s healing – and he doesn’t just do this, he also acclaims her faith.
It’s an awkward story. People have puzzled over it ever since it was written. Jesus seems so rude. It’s especially ironic coming after the passage before, when Jesus tells people to beware of what comes out of their mouths, the unguarded words which wound others! Some commentators tried to say that perhaps he doesn’t really mean what he says when he compares this woman to a dog and tries to send her away, or that he is just testing her faith, but I don’t buy either of those explanations. There’s a child’s life at stake after all. I think if the Gospel writers meant us to read it like that they would have said so. I think it is what it seems to be; a story about Jesus learning and growing, in response to the challenge of this brave and desperate woman. I wonder, in fact, whether that’s precisely why he went to Tyre and Sidon – to take himself out of his comfort zone. He may have realised, in theory, that God’s love included the Gentiles, those who didn’t share his cultural upbringing and background, but encountering that difference in the flesh was another matter. Was God’s love really so broad as to include her. Yes, yes, yes, Jesus discovered.
The Gospel writers didn’t have to include this awkward story in their Gospels. It would have been much easier to leave it out. But they were writing for early Christian communities which also struggled to accept the sheer variety of people who found their way into this new movement, to live together, loving each other, just as we often do. They needed the encouragement of this story. “Even Jesus found this tough,” they might have said “and yet, what a blessing there was in welcoming those who were different”
So I wonder. What is it that God has placed in our hands today, as we stretch them out in prayer, like St Kevin did? What are the inconvenient, awkward, puzzling realities that we struggle to hold onto, the things we wish we could put down and walk away from, but which we know we can’t? Perhaps, like St Kevin, like Jesus himself, if we let them sit there, accept them for what they are, we might find that, in God’s economy, there can be blessing hidden in challenge, new life that hatches in our hands, if we have the patience and the faith to hold still and to watch for it?
Sunday, 9 August 2020
“It’s all in the timing”, they say. We all know how important it can be to pick your moment, whether you’re delivering the punchline of a joke, or giving some difficult news to a colleague or family member.
As evening falls, though, a storm blows up, and the little boat, far from land, is battered by wind and waves. But this is the interesting thing, because although that word “immediately” comes three times in this passage, it doesn’t come here. In fact, the story tells us that it isn’t until the early morning that Jesus sets off to help his friends. From evening to early morning is a lot of hours to be straining at the oars, rowing against the wind, drenched by the waves, getting nowhere.