Friday, 30 October 2020

Bible Sunday

Nehemiah 8.1-12, Matthew24.30-35


Today is Bible Sunday, the day in the church calendar when we ask God’s help, as today’s special prayer put it, to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture.


I wonder how you feel about the Bible? You may be an old hand, who’s been reading it for many decades, but for many people it’s a closed book – in every sense of that phrase – a baffling tome that seems so irrelevant and outdated. What on earth is it about? Where do we even start? How can we understand it? Do we need to take it all literally if we want to call ourselves Christians? If these are your questions, then you aren’t alone.


It probably won’t surprise you to hear me say that I think reading the Bible is a Good Idea. That’s not just because I’m a vicar, but the Bible records the voices of countless people who’ve gone through the same human experiences and trials we all do, and encountered God within them. As we listen in, we can often hear that “still small voice” speaking to us too.


The Bible isn’t a simple instruction manual, though. It’s not even one book, but many different writings put together over a period of more than 600 years. It’s not always internally consistent. Why should it be? No one who wrote the books that made it up ever imagined they would all be bound in one volume.


It’s often in dialogue with itself. Jesus himself argues with the Scriptures. “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” he says, quoting the Old Testament book of Exodus(21.24) . “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  In fact the ancient law was intended to place a limit on the retribution people could inflict if they were hurt – they could only take an “eye for an eye”, not more, as they might be tempted to – but Jesus calls his followers to show generous mercy.


He wasn’t doing anything new in reinterpreting the words he’d grown up with. It’s what serious students of the Hebrew Bible were expected to do, weighing up the many different images of God it contained, different understandings of life and death, and what comes after it, different ideas about how people should relate to each other, arguing with one another, reinterpreting in the light of new experience. If we want to read the Bible seriously, and feel the breath of God coming off its pages, we need that same open-minded, open-hearted approach to it.


The Bible is a treasure chest to delight in, and if ever we needed its rich array of stories, poetry and wisdom it is now, because it was almost all written in times of crisis and trauma, times when its writers and readers had their backs to the wall, when the future looked bleak - times like our own, in other words.


The books of what we call the Old Testament – the Hebrew scriptures of the Jewish people – were largely drawn together just before, during and after their deportation into exile in Babylon. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, and taken its people away across the desert. In a foreign land, powerless, often brutalised, many of them became convinced that this was the end for them. But others looked back at the ancient stories that they’d heard and told around their camp fires for centuries and found new meanings in them in the light of the present disaster. Eventually they shaped them into a new narrative which spoke to them of God’s love and faithfulness. The world had been created good, and God had delighted in it, said the stories. He wanted nothing more than to be close to his people and have them close to him. But  soon things went wrong – the story of Adam and Eve cast out of Eden symbolised that. But did God give up on them? No. He went out into the wilderness with them, calling to them, guiding them, forgiving them, turning up again and again, looking for goodness amidst the self-inflicted chaos of the world, nurturing small seeds of hope. Even when the people became slaves in Egypt, said the story, God didn’t forget them. He raised up an unlikely hero, Moses, to confront Pharaoh and lead them out of slavery. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.


Imagine hearing those stories, reframed by this new time of trial in Babylon. “God was with us then,” they said, “even though we didn’t always know it at the time. Even when we’d given up on God, God never gave up on us. And if he didn’t then, maybe he hasn’t given up on us now either.” It was a message of hope in a time when hope seemed all but extinguished.


Today’s Old Testament passage told the story of the reading of those old stories of Moses shortly after the exile, when some of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. How should they rebuild? What could they make of the ruins they’d been left with, along with those who’d been left behind, abandoned to try to survive amidst the rubble?  The ancient tales, reshaped, brought them to their knees in mourning and repentance for what had gone wrong, but also gave them hope for the future, which sent them home rejoicing.


The New Testament too was written against a backdrop of trauma. It was written for small, scattered groups of Jesus’ followers who were trying to live out the message he had taught against a backdrop of intermittent persecution. The Gospels date from between 30-50 years after the time of Jesus crucifixion – a bit like writing about the 70s and 80s now - far enough away to reflect on with a bit of perspective, but well within living memory for many. By the time the Gospels were being written, the beautiful city of Jerusalem had been destroyed again, this time by the Romans, and its people driven out around the ancient world, This disaster resulted in savage arguments and infighting in the Jewish community, and the followers of Jesus were often caught up in this, because Christianity was still just a reforming group within Judaism at that point. It looked as if this tiny new movement would be swept away before it had a chance to grow. But the Gospel writers, like those earlier Hebrew scribes, pointed their readers back to the story that had begun their movement, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was a story of apparent failure and hopelessness, his humiliating execution, but it had become the well-spring of their faith. Jesus’ resurrection had upended the expectations of the world, which said that the might of Rome, like that of Babylon, would always rule, and that cruelty and hatred would always have the last word. “Heaven and earth will pass away” says Jesus in the passage we heard today, “but my words will not pass away.” His words would be the words that endured.


And so it has proved to be. The Roman Empire, like the Babylonians before it, is long gone, but people still find life and hope in the words of Jesus.


So, should we read the Bible? Yes, we should. That doesn’t mean taking it literally, and certainly not looking to it for easy answers, but if we read it with open minds and hearts, we can still feel the breath of God come from its pages to breathe his life into our weary souls, to revive us and give us hope amidst the fears and troubles of our present age.


St Luke


Today is the feast of St Luke. He’s the patron saint of doctors, which isn’t surprising, because, according to the Bible, he was one – St Paul calls him “the beloved doctor” in his letter to the Colossians. (Col 4.14). Rather more curiously he’s also the patron saint of artists, because according to legend, he painted an image of the Virgin Mary on visits he made to the house she shared with St John in Ephesus after the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus had entrusted Mary and John to each other’s keeping as he hung on the cross, and tradition says they lived together for the rest of Mary’s life. Quite why Luke painted her isn’t spelled out in the legends, but they say that as he did so, she shared with him the stories of Jesus’ conception and birth – you have to talk about something while you’re being painted! That’s why, say the legends, Luke’s Gospel’s the only one to have the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, the manger and the shepherds. Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that this legend is true, but if Luke didn’t paint Mary in pigments, he certainly painted her in words far more vividly than the other Gospels.  


Luke seems to have been a companion of Paul, and he’s traditionally thought to have written the Acts of the Apostles, which tells Paul’s story, as well as the Gospel that bears his name. Whoever wrote them seems either to have been a Gentile, or what’s called a Hellenistic Jew, a Jewish person who’d grown up in a Greek-influenced environment. Luke’s Gospel shows a particular care for those who were outsiders in some way, as the Gentiles were, and for those who were sick or disabled, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched to think it was the work of that “beloved doctor”. But if the author was a doctor, he was certain one who believed that healing was about more than curing individual bodies of individual diseases. The healing of souls mattered just as much to him, and so did the healing of society, and ultimately the healing of the world. It’s in Luke Gospel that Mary sings of the God who has “put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek” , who has “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.


Isaiah has the same sort of vision for the world in our first reading. He looks forward to a time when not only the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, but also waters will break forth in the wilderness, a time when healing will come to the whole of creation.


In Hebrew, this vision of wholeness is called “shalom”. It’s often translated simply as “Peace” but it means far more than just an absence of war. God’s shalom is the state where everything is as it ought to be. And don’t we just long for that right now? On this day dedicated to Luke the healer, we’re all aware of how much the world needs healing, not just physical healing from coronavirus, but healing for all that this pandemic has revealed about our society; the inequalities it’s exposed, the precariousness so many are living with, the strains in communities and families. The effects of this tiny germ have been, and will continue to be, profound. We long for shalom, for peace, wholeness, healing.


In today’s Gospel reading, shalom is the first thing that Jesus’ disciples are told to announce to those they are sent to. “Whatever house you enter,” Jesus says to his disciples, “first say ‘Peace to this house!’. In fact, peace is the only thing they’ll have to  give, because Jesus tells them not to take a purse or a bag, or sandals, with them. They will be turning up on people’s doorsteps destitute, powerless and barefoot.


They’ve even got to leave their personal scruples behind. They’re to eat and drink whatever they’re given – a challenging thing for people brought up to keep the Jewish food laws. What if their hosts give them unclean food to eat?


Jesus doesn’t pretend it will be easy. They’ll be like lambs amidst wolves – a combination which usually isn’t too promising for the lambs! And there’ll be more to do than they can ever manage – the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. If this is meant to be a pep talk, I wouldn’t have been feeling very “pepped”.


But Jesus’ advice has wisdom in it. With nothing to offer, they’ll be the ones in need, and they’ll have to be open both to the people they’re going to and to God. And because of that they’ll be much more likely to discover God’s presence, to find that he is already there, close at hand, wherever they end up. They’re told not to move about from house to house, looking for a more congenial place to be.  Wherever they are, God will be there, and where God is, there is peace.


They’ve seen this as they’ve watched Jesus at work. They’ve seen the peace of God in him, in the midst of storms, in the face of opposition, as he’s crossed boundaries to heal and welcome people who others shunned. They’ve seen Jesus go into all these unlikely places, trusting that his Father will be at work. Now it’s their turn to find that out for themselves. This mission is a “great God hunt”. Jesus isn’t going to equip them with “quick fixes” or pre-packaged answers to impose on people – In fact, the less they have to offer the better. But he’s hoping rather that they’ll discover that God is already there. All they will have to do is join in with what God is doing, and they will discover that “the kingdom of God has come near.”


It is so easy to feel we should rush in with our own solutions when we’re trying to help people, rather than listening and waiting with them, trusting that God has the situation in his hands, that it’s his job to do what needs to be done, in his time and his way. We get anxious. We’re desperate to do something, to look useful, but our quick fixes usually turn out not to fix much at all, and quite often we make things worse. The best helpers are usually those who realise they have little to offer but themselves, their time and attention. In the space we make when we do that, often, often, we find the healing peace which is God’s gift to us, peace within the storm, peace which gives life to the spirit, even if the body dies.  


There’s a wonderful challenge for all of us in this story. How would it change our lives if we greeted each day, each place, each person with the words “Peace to this house. Peace to this time. Peace to this place, this person” expecting that we’ll find God, the God of peace in it? What difference would it  make to that conversation we’re dreading,  the task that seems beyond us, or the dull grind of something we’ve done a million times before, if we go into it trusting that God will reveal himself to us in it? Perhaps this week, we should try that. Perhaps we should say those words to ourselves as we pick up the phone, or compose that email, or start a new shift at work, or set out on a journey? “Peace to this place”. Perhaps if we did so we might discover more often that the “kingdom of God had come near?”  and that the healing we long for is already growing within us.



Sunday, 11 October 2020

Getting Changed: Trinity 18

Audio version

 Isaiah 23.1-9, Matthew 22.1-14


There are two versions of the story we’ve just heard in the Gospels. Both Luke and Matthew include it, but they tell it slightly differently. In Luke’s Gospel, it’s a simple tale of a rich man who throws a feast, and invites other rich and important people to it.  But they send excuses, and don’t come, so he invites all and sundry to take their place, dragging bewildered beggars in off the streets to make sure the food is eaten and the feast enjoyed. It’s a story about inclusion and welcome.


The story in Matthew’s Gospel is much darker, though, and it’s set at a much darker point in Jesus’ ministry. It’s the last week before his crucifixion and he’s in the Temple, speaking to the priests and the Pharisees – we’ve heard a series of readings over recent Sundays from the same extended conversation. These are the people who have the power in Jesus’ society, political power as well as religious power. They’re the ones who expect to be listened to and obeyed, and they’re offended that this carpenter from Nazareth seems to be attracting a following.


The story Jesus tells them challenges their sense of entitlement.

The main character in Matthew’s story isn’t just a rich man. He’s a king. And the feast isn’t just a feast. It’s a wedding banquet for his son and heir. In the Bible, weddings aren’t about love – two people’s eyes meeting across a crowded room, undying affection, hearts and flowers and all that stuff. Biblical weddings, especially royal ones, are about alliances, dynasties, politics, property, kingdoms. They’re specifically about the future of the kingdom, because after the wedding, it’s hoped, a new generation of rulers will be born.


So this is a royal wedding. And that means that when the invited guests refuse to come, it wouldn’t just have seemed rude; it would have looked like treason. The king would have seen it as a deliberate, public refusal to support him at a crucial turning point in the nation’s life. Imagine doing this to Henry VIII at one of his many marriages. You soon find your head was literally on the block.


It’s no wonder that the king in the story is furious. Matthew’s hearers would have expected him to be. No king worth his salt in the ancient world would have put up with what looked like a deliberate snub like this. It’s important to understand at this point that Jesus isn’t saying that the king is God, or that God would behave like this. Parables aren’t supposed be point-for-point comparisons like that. He is telling a story – a rather exaggerated, over-the-top story – to make his audience think, to open a door into their own hearts and minds.  These powerful people Jesus is talking to claim that God is their king, and that their power derives from God, but they’re so busy with their own agendas – like the guests who went off to their own farms and businesses – that they’re missing the moment when God actually shows up in their midst.


But they aren’t the only people to come in for stick in this story. Right at the end there’s a detail which many people find deeply puzzling and disturbing. A man is found in the banqueting hall, who isn’t wearing a wedding garment, and the king is as furious with him as he was with those who didn’t turn up at all, ordering him to be cast out into the darkness.


This sounds unfair to us. What if he couldn’t afford special clothes? After all, he wasn’t expecting to go to a wedding that day. He’d just been dragged in off the streets. Is God really bothered about what we wear? Commentators have suggested explanations. It would have been fairly common for hosts to provide clothing for their guests at a wedding, for example, so perhaps he’d been given something, but wouldn’t wear it.. But the truth is that we’re probably just asking a twenty-first century question of a first century text. The implication is clear. This is a man who doesn’t want to recognise the importance of this wedding. He’s sitting at the table, eating the food, but he’s not prepared to get changed, to enter into the joy of the occasion and the future it promises. And perhaps that’s even worse than refusing to come at all, because he’s quite prepared to enjoy the party, without investing anything in what the party is for.


We don’t have to openly rebel against God in order to sabotage the work of his kingdom. We can do it just as effectively, perhaps more so, by paying lip-service to it, by turning up, by calling ourselves Christian, but not letting our faith make any difference to our lives. Like this man, we can refuse to “get changed”, to address the parts of our lives that we know aren’t right. We can sit in the pews, or stand in the pulpit, or even sit on a Bishop’s throne, but not live out the kingdom’s values.


This week, the Church of England – and especially its leadership – was heavily criticised in the latest report from the Independent Inquiry into Childhood Sexual Abuse, which has been looking at abuse in many sectors of society – education, politics, the care system but also in churches. Those involved with children and vulnerable adults in churches will know that safeguarding has become a huge priority over recent decades, as it is here at Seal, with DBS checks and safeguarding training mandatory for a wide range of people. The Inquiry recognised that progress, but it found that it was all too often stymied by the culture which pervaded some parts of the Church, a culture of deference, cronyism, Old Boys Networks, attitudes to those with power which made it hard for the voices of those without it to be heard - particularly the victims and survivors of abuse . The Inquiry report makes for painful reading, but I’m afraid I wasn’t at all surprised by its contents. Wherever there has been power, throughout human history, there has also been abuse of power. The Church ought to be different, but it isn’t, and it can only become different if each of us who calls ourselves a Christian is prepared to “get changed”, to let God transform us. Christian faith is meaningless if it doesn’t change us, but it’s easy to become complacent,  to enjoy the wedding banquet, but not be prepared to live the life of the kingdom it’s meant to herald.


Matthew’s story is a big story, a deep story, a challenging story.  Do we want to be part of what God is doing? Or not? Are we prepared to let God change us, as we need to be changed? Or not? Are we up for new life, new beginnings, new hope for ourselves, for our communities, for our world? Or not? The choice is ours.



Sunday, 4 October 2020

How was your harvest?

 Audio version

Video version (Collect, readings and sermon)

Isaiah 5.1-7, Matthew21.33-46


What’s your harvest been like this year, and what are you doing with it? Back at the beginning of lockdown, many people seemed to be taking up gardening for the first time. There was quite a run on compost and seeds. Growing things is a sign of hope for the future, and profoundly good for the soul.  

But here we are, at the end of the season, with whatever harvest our little patch produced.


In my garden the Runner beans and courgettes were fruitful, and I’ve had a bumper crop of tomatoes in the green house, so the freezer is bursting at the seams.


One thing that nearly always does well – and hasn’t disappointed this year – is our grapevine, which is ironic, because I didn’t really plant it for the fruit. I just wanted something to grow up a trellis as a windbreak, but within a couple of years it was bearing wonderful grapes, and it would take over the world if I didn’t keep up with the pruning. I sometimes make grape and apple jelly with the glut and suppose we could produce some Chateau Le Bas wine, but we usually regard this particular harvest as largely a gift to the birds.


Grapevines twine their way through all three readings today, which isn’t surprising, because they were, and still are, a very important crop in Israel. Often in the Bible the vine is a metaphor for the nation, God’s people are likened to a vineyard he has planted.


But as today’s readings remind us, vine growing is not always straightforward.


Isaiah writes of a vineyard that is in trouble. He is writing at the time of the cataclysm of the Exile in Babylon, and the destruction of Jerusalem. God is heartbroken, he says, because he loves the vineyard of Israel, and hoped for so much from it. But his love has been thrown back in his face. He wanted his people to enjoy the fruits of peace and joy, but it hasn’t turned out that way. “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” The vines he planted with such hope have produced small, hard, bitter wild grapes, no use to anyone. Isaiah goes on in the next few verses to describe the way people have heaped up possessions for themselves – joining house to house, adding field to field – leaving no room for anyone else to share in the goodness they have been given. In the end, though, says God, we can only truly thrive when everyone thrives, and has a fair share of the world’s resources. This vineyard has been left to go to wrack and ruin, so wrack and ruin will claim it.


In the Gospel, Jesus speaks to the religious elites of his time. He tells them a story about a vineyard which had been let to tenant farmers. Their rent was a share of the produce. They were just tenants – it was still the landowner’s property. But they refused. They behaved as if it was theirs to do what they liked with. All those who he sent to collect his fair share of the harvest were ill-treated  and when he sent his son, they thought that if they got rid of him, they would then inherit the vineyard themselves – how they thought that was going to work isn’t at all clear. It’s pretty obvious they would be the last people the landowner would choose to leave this land to. But when we are consumed with greed, logic and common sense often go out of the window! So, they killed the son….


At that point Jesus turns to the religious leaders and says, “what do you think happened next? How would you expect the landowner to react?” They are the ones who come up with what they think would be the inevitable result – the tenants would face a miserable death, and the vineyard would be given to others – that’s the kind of thing that would have happened in their world. At this point they start to shift uneasily from foot to foot, realising that this story was about them, people who think somehow that their nation, their faith, the gifts they have been given ,are theirs to possess and control. Prophets like Isaiah had warned – like the slaves in the story – but they had taken no notice.  


This is a story we have to be careful with. Christians have sometimes read it as a condemnation of the Jewish faith, and permission to regard themselves as the true heirs of God’s promise. It has been used to justify anti-Semitism. But it’s really not saying that at all – Jesus was Jewish and didn’t ever seem to intend to found a new religion. This is a warning to anyone who thinks that they are entitled to own and control the world, to own and control faith, even to own and control God, and people of all faiths and none are more than capable of thinking and behaving that way.


It’s a nonsense to think it’s possible, though. All that we have, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the life we live is a gift to us, from a power that is infinitely greater than we are.  We are dependent on the earth, and on the God who gave it, not the other way around. We are tenants, not owners, called to produce fruit, and to share that fruit, but always remembering who it was that made it possible. When we forget that, it brings disaster on all of us – economic disaster, ecological disaster, and spiritual disaster too, because we cut ourselves off from our true source of life.


So, what’s your harvest been like this year – not just the tomatoes and beans, but the fruit of the Spirit of God working in you, the Spirit that brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self- control? What have you been given? What have you been entrusted with to nurture and to share? And what will you do with it now?


I’m going to hand over to James Langstaff, the Bishop of Rochester, to talk about one initiative, the Poverty and Hope project, which seeks to spread the goodness of God’s harvest among some of those who need it most.