Sunday, 27 September 2020

Who do you think you are?

 Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-32, Matthew 21.23-32

 

I wonder if you’re a fan of the BBC programme “Who do you think you are?”, as I am.  It’s been an unexpected hit for the BBC, with 15 series so far, starting many people on a journey to find out more about their family trees. But the title’s an interesting one, because it implies that at least part of the hook is the search not for our ancestors, but for ourselves. It’s not called “who do you think they were?” but “who do you think you are?” It’s based on the premise that we’re all shaped by those who’ve gone before us, whether through genetics or the way their life choices and the things that happened to them have affected future generations. The subjects of the show often seem to find ancestors who were, say, in show business, or were political movers and shakers like they are. “That must be where I get it from,” they say.

 

It's tempting to look backwards to explain ourselves, whether that’s basking in past family glories, or blaming our parents or grandparents or even more distant ancestors for what’s not so good in our lives.  The people who wrote the Bible knew that too. They saw that people’s lives were often affected by what previous generations had done. In the Old Testament reading, Ezekiel quotes what was obviously a well-known proverb. “The fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”.

 

The Israelites were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been destroyed and people thought it was a punishment from God for their nation’s faithlessness. But it was the current generation and their children, born in exile, who were suffering, not those who’d been in power in the old nation. They believed they were doomed from the start, because of the sins of their forefathers.

 

But Ezekiel challenges that view. Everyone’s responsible for themselves, he says. The past doesn’t have to define the future. God wants to give them “a new heart and a new spirit”, to take them in a new direction.

 

The Gospel reading talks about origins and destinations too – where people have come from and where they are going to. It was the last week of Jesus life. He’d ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, in a deliberately provocative gesture which echoed ancient prophecies about the Messiah, God’s chosen one, who would bring liberation to his people.  Ordinary folk had flocked to him then, as they had done in Galilee, especially those who were on the margins; the poor, the outcasts, prostitutes and tax-collectors who were shunned because they were seen as collaborators with the Roman occupying force.

 

In this passage Jesus is in the Temple courtyard teaching, and word has reached the Temple authorities that a crowd is gathering - always a danger sign in the powder keg that was Jerusalem. “Who do you think you are?” they ask Jesus. Who has given him authority to teach here, in the place which was at the heart of their faith and their nation’s life? Jesus doesn’t come from one of the leading families – like every society, power and authority tended to be hogged by those who had been brought up to it and Jewish priesthood was hereditary. He’s just a carpenter from the Galilean backwater town of Nazareth. What right has he to speak as if he’s speaking for God? And look at the kind of people he’s attracting! The dregs of society. What’s the point of that? What use will they be in God’s kingdom?

 

Jesus isn’t fazed, though. By what authority did John the Baptist baptize? he asks. John, was still regarded as an important popular figure, although he’d been beheaded by King Herod. If they diss him, the crowd will have their guts for garters. But if they admit that John spoke God’s word, and did God’s work, why hasn’t his challenging message changed their lives? Why didn’t they speak up for him at the time? They can’t win. They know they’ve been bested by this man, carpenter’s son though he is.

 

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, says Jesus, essentially. It’s not where we come from that matters, but where we are going, not our past, whatever failures it might contain, but what we do now and in the future. He tells a little story about two sons, one who says he won’t work in his father’s vineyard, but does it anyway, the other who says he will, but doesn’t. Which one of the two does his father’s will? Which one acts as a true son, part of the family, taking on the family work? The first, of course. He might have looked a bit dodgy, and sounded disrespectful, but he was the one who did the work in the end.

 

Looking good, having the right credentials, the right family background is neither here nor there, says Jesus. Whatever our family background, whatever our past, whatever we’ve done, whatever has happened to us, is irrelevant. “Truly, I tell you, the tax-collectors and prostitutesare going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” he says to those who are challenging him. Prostitution and tax-collecting for an oppressive power weren’t career choices anyone would have made willingly if they had any other option. They are signs that life has gone badly wrong for these people, and probably many of them were the product of cycles of deprivation in their families going back generations. Their lives seemed blighted from the outset, as if they’d never amount to anything. But they’ve found something in Jesus - love, hope, a sense of calling – and they’ve accepted it, seized it, stepped out into a new future with him. The kingdom of God is at work in them. They are already part of it. They’ve already entered it. Their lives are being made new as they learn to love and be loved, to serve others, to spread the hope they have received.  Like the first son in the parable, they might have looked like unlikely material – just as Jesus himself did to the sceptical religious elites -  but they’re what the kingdom of God is being made of.

 

These are readings which challenge us all. It’s very easy to assume that the past determines the future, for ourselves and for others. Of course, there’s a certain comfort in that. It can be easier to blame our ancestors for the situation we’re in than take responsibility for our own lives and futures, our own homegrown faults and failings. If we say “it’s not where you come from, but where you are going to that matters” then we have to actually set off in a new direction, put one foot in front of the other, start the journey,  and that can feel like hard work, more of a challenge than we want. It’s easy to write others off too, to assume they’re not going to amount to anything, that they’ll never change. But when we do that, we miss the chance of finding God at work in them, that little patch of his kingdom which they have entered into while we are sitting looking down our noses at them.  

 

These readings call us to take another look, at ourselves and at others. Who do we think we are? Who do we think others are? And perhaps even more important than that, who does God think we are? Beloved children – that’s for sure – each and every one of us.

Amen.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

It's not fair! Trinity 15

Audio version here

 Jonah 3.10-4.11, Psalm 145.1-8, Matthew 20.1-6

 

“It’s not fair!” I wonder how often we’ve heard, or said, those words. Children are especially keen on fairness, in my experience, and will squabble over almost anything… “He’s got a bigger slice of cake than me. She always gets to press the button at the zebra crossing…” But adults can be just as sensitive and just as unreasonable, especially if we’re feeling a bit insecure for some reason.

 

I’ve noticed the language of “It’s not fair” quite a bit during this coronavirus. “Why is someone else’s favourite activity permitted but mine isn’t?” “Why are we in lockdown, while the people in the next postcode aren’t” “Why a rule of six, not seven, or eight, or some other random number which suits my family situation better?” In our heads we may understand that it’s not personal, these are public health decisions, but it doesn’t feel like that in our hearts. We feel like we’re being punished, or that someone’s making a value judgement about us, that we don’t matter as much as the next person. It’s not fair!

 

Of course, there are legitimate questions to be asked about government decisions. Balancing all the risks is a very imprecise art, but if we start feeling personally targeted, crying out “it’s not fair” in anxious anger, it’s usually a sign that at least some of the problem is within us, not the fault of those we’re angry with.

 

It’s the same cry we hear in today’s Gospel story, a story that’s puzzled and infuriated people ever since Jesus told it.  We can surely sympathise with those workers in the vineyard who’d slaved all day in the heat of the sun, only to find that the people who’d worked for just an hour got paid the same as they did. “It’s not fair” cry the first set of workers. Of course they do! And yet, Jesus’ story challenges us to look at the situation from a radically different angle. Those who’ve worked all day aren’t getting any less than they were promised. Logically it shouldn’t be any skin off their noses that the other workers get the same. But it doesn’t feel like that. They take this as a slight on them, a devaluing not only of their labours, but of themselves. It’s no accident that we use words that come from the world of finance, like worth and value, to measure our personal standing in the pecking order of the world. We talk about our sense of “self-worth”. We “value” those who are dear to us. They are “treasured” – like gold and silver and precious jewels. The language of money is often used as shorthand for how much people matter.

 

This parable forces us to confront that assumption. What would the world be like, it asks, if we didn’t think like this?

 

Ironically the key to understanding Jesus’ story lies in the coin with which each of these workers is paid. In the original Greek, and in many translations since, we are told its value. It is a denarius. The version we heard today deliberately translates it in a looser, rather more descriptive way, though. Instead we are told that it’s “the usual daily wage”. A denarius was what an ordinary person would expect to be paid for a day’s work- the living wage, if you like. It was enough to keep a person going for the day. That’s the point the story is making. This landowner isn’t interested in creating a hierarchy of worth among his workers. All he wants to make sure is that each has enough for their needs at the end of the day, so they can survive till the next day. Those who weren’t hired till the end of the day still need to eat. Paying them any less than the living wage would mean they went hungry and ultimately, that’s a life or death matter.

 

This landowner’s pay policy may seem controversial, but it’s consistent with the message of the rest of the Bible. When the Israelites wandered in the desert after they’d escaped from slavery in Egypt, God fed them with manna, which appeared miraculously each morning. Everyone was told to gather enough for that day, but no more than that. If they did try to gather more, they found that what they’d hoarded was full of worms the next morning, except on the eve of the Sabbath, when they could gather twice as much, so they wouldn’t have to work on the day of rest. Jewish law insisted that farmers shouldn’t reap their fields right up to the edges, so that the landless poor could glean enough for their needs. It might not have seemed fair to the farmers concerned, but it allowed those without land to survive. It declared them to be of “worth to their society, ” – there’s that money word again – even though they might have seemed “worthless” to many.

 

Jesus’ parable isn’t just about physical survival and material provisions, of course – though it is about those things, and we shouldn’t spiritualise them away. But it’s also about the time and energy he expended – there’s another financial word – on people who many thought didn’t deserve his attention; Gentiles, the poor, women, the sick and outcast. He treated them as people of value to God, part of God’s family, called to his work and its rewards.  He invested in them – more money language - because their views, their lives, counted just as much as anyone else’s in the divine economy, even if they seemed like Johnny-come-latelies who didn’t know the niceties of religious law or one end of the Bible from the other. Jesus offered everyone the love of God, because everyone needed that love. It is daily bread that keeps our spirits alive.  And because God’s love is infinite, lavishing it on one person doesn’t mean there will ever be any less for anyone else. 

 

Knowing that we are infinitely valued, loved with a love that can’t run out, sets us free to live the lives God means us to, free from the anxiety that we might be abandoned, forgotten, without the support we need to see us through the trials of life. It gives us the security we need – or salvation if you want to give it it’s theological name – so that we don’t need to grasp or hoard, but can live with generosity to others. God’s love isn’t rationed, because it doesn’t need to be. We don’t need to deny it to others because God can love other people without loving us any less.  That’s the lesson Jonah struggled to take in, as he watched God forgive his enemies, the hated Ninevites, who’d oppressed and enslaved his people. That’s why he ran away from his calling at first, only to end up thrown overboard and swallowed by a big fish. Now God has forgiven the Ninevites, he’s consumed with anger. “It’s not fair” that they are loved by God, he howls. It takes a rather ridiculous episode with a plant that grows up only to shrivel again, to show him his own pettiness.

 

It’s not fair! We cry, and no, life often isn’t. We don’t always get what we deserve – of good or ill. But God’s love for us is never less than infinite, and he can afford to be infinitely generous, not only to us, but to others too. If we can learn to trust that, we might not need to cling to our status, what we think of as our entitlements. If we can learn to trust that, we might be able to allow  others to have and to enjoy what they need too, food, shelter, a place in the world, and the eternal the love and security that is God’s gift to them. Amen

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Forgiveness

 

Matthew 18.21-35 & Genesis 50.15-21

When you hear Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s gospel today how does it make you feel?

If you are like me your first reaction may be that you sink down a bit and wish that you were naturally a bit more forgiving.

Whilst I’m sure that God does want us to forgive each other the message we take away from the parable all depends upon where we find ourselves in it and also in the story of Joseph and his brothers. When we open up the situation we are often forced to think a bit harder and reflect truthfully on how we might have behaved.

A business contact was recently telling me how a newspaper with a certain political bias was fed some numbers which made a good story and which was rushed to press instantly. When she took the trouble to feed the full facts together with some context the journalists were far less interested.

I guess it’s nothing new but it’s a reminder to us all that context and reflection on the different perspectives of the characters involved will give us some chance of finding real meaning in our bible. Otherwise, it’s so easy to hear words in a way that suits us and then jump straight on that bandwagon of condemnation.

Just to start with, have you ever had a really annoying sibling? If so you might sympathise with the brothers in selling Joseph for 20 shekels without a thought for his welfare.

I guess that’s step too far however there’s probably a greater chance that you’ve looked back on family relationships and been left feeling bad because you wish you had behaved differently.

At the point we meet Joseph today the tables of power have been turned and thanks to him his brothers are living comfortably in Egypt. They think they know how they deserve to be treated and fear what is coming to them when their father dies yet Joseph has grown as he understood his part in God’s plan to help the people of Egypt and he’s not interested in petty, short lasting revenge.

Already we are being prompted to have a rethink about forgiveness. In many circumstances forgiveness can be very difficult, so it follows that we beat ourselves up because sometimes we struggle to forgive others.

The trouble with this approach is that we then often assume that we are judged in the same way.

When I first started exploring Christianity a wise man told me that an important thing to remember about the relationship with God is that it can constantly grow and renew. God is not interested in piling every sin we ever commit into a sack on our backs until we collapse under the weight, becoming dysfunctional and useless. Rather he forgives us in a way which makes our natural response to him one where we walk more lightly as people consciously trying the shed our old ways and not giving up when we fail.

Talking of burdens, it’s all too easy to be left wondering whether we have the capacity to be as forgiving as the king owed a massive debt or whether we would behave more like the servant seeking repayment of a lesser debt.

Perhaps at least part of the problem here is that we have become detached from all the possibilities that God offers and see things in far more transactional terms, where stuff isn’t just granted for free.

The fact that all around us we see examples of closed minds, selfishness and injustice only adds to the complexity of what forgiveness really means.

Take the servant who’s just had his debt cancelled. It may be us that need to be forgiving to him when we consider his circumstances.

His debt may have been erased but perhaps he is still left with nothing and has a family to provide for. The way he sees this may be as a one off chance to get his finances straight, have a little breathing space, know where his next meal is coming from.

There’s no suggestion that the debt to him wasn’t rightly payable it’s just that we expect him to be generous as well because of what he has been excused.

Is he thinking that surely his master will commend him if he never again appears in front of him destitute.

In these uncertain times many may sympathise with his craving for some financial security for himself and his family.

As we start to think about what forgiveness means to each of us personally it’s important that we recognise that we are people who are forgiven by God on a daily basis.

It won’t mean that we in turn are always ready to forgive and it’s even possible that in some really bad situations we may never totally forgive.

A strong starting point is to put ourselves in the shoes of the first servant in our parable, hugely indebted, powerless and fearful for himself and those he loved . Once again we are reminded that God doesn’t judge by the standards we think we deserve but when we encounter his staggering generosity and grace which offers true freedom from the burdens we allow to slow us down it’s something we can only accept in awe, wonder and humility.

It’s sad to think that the first servant was apparently unmoved despite experiencing this life giving generosity, thoughts for his immediate needs took priority, essentially his whole life just changed and he missed it.

His master wasn’t just forgiving the one slave his debt but was showing what forgiveness looks like so that others would come to know that this was also possible for them.

Our challenge is to be people of forgiveness even if we can’t always find it in ourselves to fully forgive. If we recognise what we have received from God then our strength to at least struggle with forgiveness comes from this. The final words in todays Gospel reading make it clear that if we reject any efforts to forgive others then we reject the Kingdom that God offers for all, because ultimately God wants us reconciled to each other and him.

It’s important that we don’t confuse forgiveness with ‘brushing bad things under the carpet’ or entering into some sort of denial where we pretend that bad things haven’t happened.

It’s especially important that we don’t confuse our efforts to forgive with any mistaken belief that we should stay in or return to relationships where harm occurs. Sadly, our attempts to forgive someone’s past actions don’t necessarily meant that the person forgiven has changed for the better. It’s essential that we support each other as we are able in such situations.

There may be deep and disturbing reasons why we sometimes struggle to forgive others but feelings of superiority or self-importance can never be valid.

A final thought, Tom Wright points out that Peter’s question to Jesus of ‘how often should I forgive’ approaches the subject from entirely the wrong stance. This is not really about forgiving someone at all but simply postponing the time of revenge. Jesus’ answer of 77 times exaggerates to make the point that this is the wrong approach entirely, forgiveness becomes part of who we are as Christians rather than being something there is a finite amount of . It’s an integral part of our Christian make up, no matter how much we may struggle with this.

As we approach difficulties and challenges where others have done wrong the message from today is that we should seek to resolve them in a spirit of forgiveness confident that ultimately this will prove stronger than any thoughts of vengeance.

Amen

Kevin Bright

12th September 2020

 

 

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Community Matters: Trinity 13

Audio version here

 Ezekiel 33.7-11, Psalm 119.33-40, Matthew 18.15-20

 What have you learned so far during this time of coronavirus? Most of us, I think, have been on a steep learning curve. People have learned new IT, gardening, or cooking skills. They’ve learned how to home-school their children, or, more likely, have learned that it’s pretty much impossible, and gained a new respect for their regular teachers! Something I think we have all learned, though, is how important community is, and yet how complicated it can be. We’ve missed each other.  We've missed the groups and activities we used to do with others, including worshipping in church. We’ve learned that community matters, knowing our neighbours matters. Those Thursday evening “clap for carers” moments weren’t just about applauding the NHS and key workers. They were the only chances some people had for human company. In many streets, people got to know those who lived around them for the first time, having lived next door for years.  

 The fact is that we need other people. However much we value our independence, we can’t do without others, seen and unseen, to support us, whether that is the emotional support of friendship and neighbourliness, or the unseen support of those who provide the infrastructure, the power, the water, the road system, the phone network, and all the other things that we depend on.  We may like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, ploughing our own furrow, but our lives are woven together with the rest of the world, and it can’t be otherwise.

 Community is a necessity, and it is a blessing, but, as our Gospel reading today hints, it can also be a problem, because it’s made up of people who aren’t perfect, people who fail each other, let each other down, hurt each other, through negligence, weakness and their own deliberate fault, as the confession puts it, people like us, in other words. During this time of Covid, along with the love and helpfulness, there have been increased tension between people. In the “micro communities” of families, existing strains or problems have often been magnified. In the wider community, people have judged and criticised those around them for being too lax or too anxious, as they see it, in the way they have behaved. Scapegoating and stereotyping of certain groups has been rife, sometimes inflamed by the media or political extremists.

 It was no different for those who lived through tough times before us – as most people have in one way or another - people like those Jesus speaks of in our Gospel passage. The word that’s translated – rather misleadingly – as “church” here really means simply “assembly”. There was no church, in the sense we mean it, until after Jesus ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when Jesus’ followers began to organise themselves into a new movement. The word Jesus uses, ekklesia, could have referred to any gathering of people. so I think we can equally hear his words as applying to any group, any community we are part of, from a household or friendship group, to a church or neighbourhood, right up to the  great community of Creation. How do we live together in all these groups, he is asking? With difficulty, is often the answer. You could almost define a community as “a place where people hurt each other…”  because that’s one think we can be sure will happen when we get together, however much we wish it wouldn’t.  

 Jesus words to his disciples acknowledge that. He doesn’t kid them that there’s any magic formula for people getting along. He anticipates that they won’t, and he plans for that. What matters is what we do when we fall out. What he says may seem obvious – try to sort it out privately, one to one. Involve others – carefully – to help mediate if necessary. If all else fails, you may need some measure of separation to protect yourself and others. Reconciliation, like the tango, takes two! But even then, we need to think carefully about Jesus’ advice to treat people “like Gentiles and Tax Collectors”. After all, how did he treat these two despised and outcast groups? He loved them. He welcomed them. He transformed them if they were prepared to let him.

 Jesus’ recipe for dealing with community tensions may seem obvious in theory, but it’s often a challenge to put into practice. It can feel far easier to gossip about people behind their backs, look for echo chambers where our self-righteous anger is reflected and amplified, undermine people with passive-aggressive sniping from the sidelines until they realise they aren’t wanted and they go away. These days, social media adds a whole new layer to this, enabling us to criticise and carp without seeing the damage we do, but it is our human nastiness which is the problem, not that of the internet itself.

 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. Our words, our actions have consequences far beyond what we imagine, for good, but also for ill. We have power to help people heal and grow, or to crush and destroy them. 

 Of course, it is always complicated. There are times when, as I have said, we need to make sure we and others around us are safe, and that does sometimes mean drawing a line. There are times, too, when criticism is justified, when we need to call people to account, as Ezekiel was told in our Old Testament reading, but that doesn’t mean that those we criticise or need to guard against are less human than we are, less worthy of respect and care, less beloved of God.

 Today’s collect, the special prayer for the day, reminds us that God was “in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Jesus didn’t just talk about reconciliation, he lived it. A greedy, cheating tax collector called Zaccheus, who everyone else had written off as no good, was transformed by the simple act of Jesus inviting himself to his house. A Roman centurion, the oppressor of his people, who asked for healing for his servant, was met with compassion, his request granted, his faith acclaimed. Jesus wasn’t a pushover. He didn’t turn a blind eye to behaviour which needed to be called out and challenged, but he looked into the eyes of everyone he met, friend, stranger or enemy, and treated them as someone God cared about, someone who mattered, a child of God, part of his beloved creation. He did that even as he was being nailed to the cross, praying that God would forgive those who were nailing him there, “because they did not know what they were doing”.

 It’s a tough pattern to follow, but, as we struggle to live in community with others, whatever form that community takes, Jesus’ words are just as important for us as they were for his first followers.

 Reconciliation isn’t some grand project. It is made up of a million tiny moments when are offered the choice of looking into the eyes of our enemies and seeing the likeness of God looking back at us, however faint or marred that likeness seems to be. It’s made up of a million tiny moments when, however we may struggle to love people we can at least pray that they will know that God loves them. As we do this, God’s promise is that we’ll find that there is room for us all, and the healing and forgiveness we all need, in the heavenly community of his kingdom.

Amen