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Lessons for the Journey – Sunday 27th September, Trinity 16A

Lessons for the Journey

Exodus 17:1-7

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

In the Lectionary we’ve been in Exodus for a few weeks now. This morning is no exception. The alternative was a short passage from Philippians, which is a message about being of one heart and mind, and in Matthew’s gospel we have an exchange between Jesus and his accusers on the subject of authority.

 

At first the readings don’t appear to have much in common, but I think there’s a lesson in each for us at this time as we simultaneously emerge from lockdown and head perilously close to it again.

 

So I’ve called this talk: Lessons for the Journey. In Exodus the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, and this seems rather a good description, I think, of what it’s felt like to be church in the last six months. We’ve had to leave what we knew of as normal, without really knowing what our destination will be. It is certainly difficult to make plans whilst in this in between stage, so do keep praying for the Church Wardens, Christine and myself as we navigate this period, with the help of Tanya and the music leaders and IT gurus amongst us.

 

The escape from slavery in Egypt is one the foundational stories of the Old Testament, but it’s about a lot more than gaining physical freedom. There must be some human tendency, I think, to forget the gains we have made and the blessings we have received. It seems that as soon as we get what we longed for, we want to go back to what we had before.

 

The Israelites had longed for freedom; they’d no doubt prayed for it over many generations. And God heard their cry and sent them deliverance in the form of Moses and Aaron, to get them out of Egypt.

 

But it seems no sooner were they out of Egypt, they wanted to return. ‘The people complained against Moses, and said “why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our livestock and children with thirst?”’ This was one of the first of a catalogue of complaints against Moses that would continue for 40 years.

 

As Danielle Strickland has pointed out, in her book about Exodus, you can take the people out of Egypt but you can’t take Egypt out of the people. The Israelites’ wanderings in the desert turned into a long lesson that God was trying to teach them: that is, where God leads, he always provides. The wilderness taught them the very hard lesson of trust. I’m not sure they even got it by the end.

 

And perhaps that’s a good place for us to start in terms of lessons for our journey. Many people feel like they’re in the wilderness at the moment. It’s an in between time – we’re not out of the woods yet as far as Covid goes – but at the same time, we’re in a different place than we were six months ago. I’m not sure if to you it feels worse or better than in March when all this began…

 

Being in between demands a spirituality that can thrive in a liminal space. Liminal comes from the Latin ‘limen’, meaning a threshold. A liminal space is where you have left the shore of the old place, but have not yet arrived at the new place. You have to let go of what you had before, but before you can embrace what is coming, you are living with neither one thing nor the other. That was me this time last year as I spent exactly two weeks not technically being the minister of either Whitchurch or St John and St Stephen’s! Being in liminal space can be daunting, but it can also be liberating.

 

In the wilderness the Israelites were free outwardly, but it would take a lot longer to become free inwardly. They had lived in subjugation for so long, they had forgotten how to take responsibility for their own moral actions, and they complain to Moses like children. Instead of trusting God’s provision they feel God has abandoned them to an early grave.

 

As we are in between what we remember as normal, and what things are beginning to feel like now, we are also in liminal space and need to trust that where God leads, he also provides.

 

I wonder, what has been your experience of God’s provision?  Do you feel that you need to take matters into your own hands when it comes to a crisis, or do you find it easy to trust that God will provide? I don’t know about you, but my experience of God’s provision is that sometimes it feels as though it’s a bit last minute; it doesn’t necessarily look like how I imagined it would be, and it tends to emerge piecemeal rather than ready-made.

 

But emerge it does, and often when we are listening to one another and sharing what we really need from each other. This is what we’re trying to do as a leadership team as I meet weekly with Christine, Ian and Rosemary.

 

Our church family is being moulded through this crisis. New IT skills are emerging (painful though it may feel sometimes!); we are making new connections with people who have not felt able to come to church in recent years, and we are thinking about a more diverse worship offering.

 

I wonder how your spirituality is developing in this time? Maybe you can find someone to talk this through with. On Tuesday a group of us met to be trained as encouragers/mentors so that eventually you will be able to have a one to one conversation with someone who’s mature, about your walk with God, and it might prove quite life changing in this liminal time.

 

So to briefly look at the other two readings: and here’s one thought from Philippians and then one from Matthew. “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

 

Boris Johnson read this passage at a recent Battle of Britain Commemoration Service (slide).

 

This is basically our country’s mantra at the moment, straight from the bible! Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer has said it is our ‘collective responsibility’ to manage the present Covid upsurge and Boris Johnson has said we must ‘Act now together’. The gift of the church to the world is that we know where the impetus to consider others before ourselves comes from. Its origin is not a begrudging sense of duty, but nothing less than the self-emptying of Jesus Christ – technical term: ‘kenosis’. If Christ, who was divine, emptied himself of power in order to serve others, we can take our example from him.

 

Which leads us finally to Matthew, and the true nature of authority. Authority is also a hot topic at the moment. It is alluded to in each of the three readings; in fact you could say it’s the thread that ties them together. In complaining at Moses, Exodus makes it clear that the people were really complaining at God, and rejecting his authority. They do the same when later they ask Samuel for a king to be set over them, like the other nations have. And the moral of that story was: be careful what you wish for.

 

Christ’s authority is predicated on his self-emptying. Only by going down, can he go up, as it were (to use the language of Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards). Death precedes resurrection and only Christ’s sacrificial death disarms the principalities and powers. Yes, every knee will bow: this is the wish of all tyrants that every knee would bow to them, but only Christ will legitimately receive universal homage.

 

In Matthew, Jesus is challenged to defend his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” is the Pharisees’ question. He answers with another question and a parable. In effect the three readings pose these three questions: Was Moses’ authority from God? Was John the Baptist’s authority from God? Was Jesus’s authority from God? The answer in all three cases is yes. But only those with obedient hearts were able to perceive this. That’s why following God is less about ‘can you answer these questions correctly?’ and more about ‘is your heart in the right place?’

 

It’s like a man who had two sons, says Jesus: their father asked them for help in the vineyard. The first said okay, but didn’t go. The other initially said no, but later he went. Which one is heading into the kingdom, is the question. The Pharisees didn’t recognize God in John the Baptist and they don’t recognize God in Jesus. And they’re the religious ones! All is not as it seems in the kingdom, and all is not as it seems with regards to authority.

 

Authority is being tested in our public life as never before. The safeguarding of our common life in this country depends more than ever on people being obedient to political authority. It’s something we may not have given much thought to before Covid, but when our personal and social freedoms are limited by rules pertaining to the virus, the authority of our leaders, and our own obedience, is really tested.

 

We don’t easily follow leaders who seem, for whatever reason, not to deserve our obedience. That’s why when public trust in leaders is low we’re in trouble. As well as structural authority, we recognize authority based on experience and then inner authority, which is harder to define. The crowds followed Jesus, not because he had authority bestowed upon him by an outward structure, and not even because he had the relevant life experience, but because he had that inner authority – wisdom-authority. The word ‘authority’ in Greek is ‘ex-ousia’ meaning out of one’s being.

 

We tend to recognize spiritual authority when we see it in someone. It’s often not vested in the loudest person, but in the one listening, the one waiting for the right moment to offer a pearl of wisdom. It’s not something we can manufacture; instead it is born out of lives joyfully submitted to Christ.

 

So, Lessons for the Journey: Firstly we need a spirituality that is able to deal with liminality. Secondly in our present crisis, it is noteworthy that being unselfish is suddenly very much in vogue. And finally, the kingdom is indeed, as Peter pointed out last week, a topsy-turvy one: like Christ, we have to go down before we can go up. Spiritual authority comes from an inner attitude of humility and obedience to Christ. This is only kind of authority with which we can speak or act as Christians at this time.

 

 

 

vineyard

GOD’S TOPSY-TURVY, CRAZY, WONDERFUL KINGDOM – Sunday 20th September 2020

 

  1. Jesus was a shocker

 

Jesus was a shocker, and I use the word not in that playful way which I might use when my grandson has done something naughty but actually quite clever.

 

No, Jesus was deep down shocking, truly taking people’s breath away, as when he called into question the legitimacy of long-held religious traditions, or challenged commonly accepted displays of pride, pomp and prejudice.

 

The chapter before the one in which today’s gospel comes provides three very striking examples of this and provides useful background for the gospel we shall study in a moment.

 

The first arose out of a question put to him by a group of Pharisees and was listened to most attentively by Jesus’ disciples.

 

Can, went the question, you divorce your wife on any grounds? (And the grounds could be something as simple as burning the evening meal or being observed chatting with a strange man in the street) At that time divorce could only be initiated by the husband and was, if anything, easier than today. Jesus took his hearers back to the beginning, to God’s words of a man ‘leaving and cleaving’ in an enduring relationship that might – and only in very particular circumstances – be ended in divorce. So stunned were Jesus’ disciples by his words that they joked that it might be better after all not to be married than to be saddled with a marriage from which one could not escape!

 

The encounter with the Pharisees was followed by the appearance of children brought to be blessed by Jesus whom his disciples did their best to chase away. Jesus stopped them and said that it was to ‘such as these’ – the very young but also the vulnerable, powerless, forgotten, side-lined, ignored and sometimes abused – that the Kingdom belonged. They remain deeply challenging words.

 

If Jesus’ attitude to casual divorce and his commendation of children and the like stunned his hearers, his statement, ‘Truly it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,’ left them flabbergasted. The words were, of course, Jesus’ sad comment on the departure of the rich young ruler. To the disciples the words sounded so hard; the young man was zealous and enthusiastic, and wasn’t wealth a sign of God’s blessing anyway? Peter remonstrated, ‘We’ve left our boats and business. What’s in it for us?’ Jesus assured him that he and his fellows would be rewarded in due course and ended with the words which introduce our gospel, ‘The first will be last and the last first.’

 

  1. No way to run a business!

 

The setting for today’s parable is grape harvest. Palestinian vineyards were famous and their wines popular. A conscientious vineyard owner comes early in the day to recruit labourers from the local market square. It is still a familiar scene in many a Middle Eastern city. Carpenters can be seen standing with a bucket, saw and spirit-level, decorators with a paint roller, others with shovel and pick.

 

It is striking that in this parable it is the vineyard owner himself who hires the labourers. He agrees with the first ones he hires the wage for a day of one denarii. It was, I gather, a reasonable wage. We may remember the Good Samaritan in that parable left the innkeeper with two denarii for the lodging of uncertain length of the one whom he had brought to the doorstep.

 

Three hours after the first hiring, the vineyard owner himself is back again to hire more workers with whom he agrees an appropriate wage and he returns again and again at intervals to recruit more. It is extraordinary behaviour. There is no suggestion that he was incompetent, and he would surely have known at the beginning of the day just how many men (possibly women) he needed. And then, incredibly, as the day cools and the sun begins to settle, he returns again to the square and there he finds some men still

there, desperate and dejected, wondering how they can return home to their hungry families empty handed. Similar thoughts must pass through the minds of millions of day workers deprived of work around the world today.

 

The vineyard owner asks why they are still there? ‘Because’ they say, ‘no one has taken us on,’ – perhaps it was because they looked already pretty spent and useless. Have you ever had that feeling of being the last one selected in the playground for a team? I have. The owner of the vineyard took them on, furthermore, he respected their dignity; he did not give them a handout but rather a hand up. It was compassion not necessity that drove him back to hire labourers.

 

  1. A digression – about parables

 

Last Sunday I was almost at church when I realised I had not got my face mask, and I turned home not wanting to look forgetful in front of the churchwardens, whom I was actually quite sure would have made provision for forgetful people anyway, and I was really quite keen to show off my nice bronze coloured face covering. As I walked home to get it, I remembered Jesus telling a parable of the fate of someone who was ejected from a wedding for not being properly dressed and wondered if he would tell a parable of face masks.

 

He probably would not repeat his one about the lost coin because coins are getting to be obsolete, but missing car keys or the mobile would surely feature. Little matches the joy and relief when they are found and that, amazingly says Jesus, is how the joy is in heaven when someone turns back to the firm and tender grasp of God. (Luke 15 vs 7)

 

Helmut Thielecke, the German theologian, philosopher and most courageous pastor to his Stuttgart congregation through the Second World War said of this parable, ‘The setting is very worldly. It tells us nothing that is religious – of incense or miracles – and on the contrary it speaks about the labour market, – the unemployed, an employer and the talk is of hourly wages, labour contracts and rates of pay.’ Jesus was where people were at, so often the church is not.

 

Near the beginning of lockdown some months ago, we listened to John Bell of the Iona Community – sometimes controversial, always worth listening to – addressing the situation of the pandemic and considering what the response of the church at large might be to it. ‘Are we aiming to go back to the old normal?’ he asked. He drew his listeners’ attention to the ministry of Jesus, whom, he said, spent a hundred times more energy in dealing with people – teaching, healing, evangelising, comforting and befriending – than he did on bricks and mortar. John Bell went on to ask, ‘Are we going to shape the life of our churches according to the priorities of Jesus or remain obsessed with the upkeep of buildings and structures, some of which have long been obsolete?’

 

Yesterday, Nancy and I were introduced to a delightful Iranian Christian couple, who have been living in the UK for just 18 months, having been forced from Iran by the regime after 15 devoted years of service in the leadership of the church in Iran, which with no buildings, its members subject to constant harassment and intimidation, has yet learned to live courageously with deprivations and uncertainties, and through the blessed Zoom and continuing ministry in tens of thousands of homes, added some half million new Christians to the church in the last 10 years.

 

  1. Last thing – The parable concluded, and an understanding offered

 

The parable concludes with the vineyard owner’s steward settling the wages in accordance with the owner’s instructions, beginning with the last hired who were paid exactly the same as the first leading to cries of protest, which we can surely imagine. A fair wage for a fair day’s labour! The unions will hear of this! What was Jesus getting at? And who had he in mind when he told this story? Some say he was getting at the disciples who resented the attention given to very new converts. Some suggest it was Jesus’ Jewish followers who objected to the inclusion among their number of Gentiles. I am not sure who he was getting at – perhaps neither of these groups. I do think it is all about grace and the amazing, undeserved generosity of God, who gives us more than we can imagine or deserve.

 

The 70 year-old Christian, who has seen a thing or two, known grief and disappointment, slip-ups and folly, but also the over-arching, unfailing kindness and faithfulness of God, does not for a moment resent the exuberance of new-found faith of a teenager, thrilled that he or she has come to know Christ. Such cannot be earned; it can only be accepted with wondering gratitude and awe.

 

These continue to be uncertain days in which we live but heaven is not under lockdown; the lines are open; God’s voice is not muffled by a mask. He still, like the vineyard owner, turns up in the heat of the day to the weary, and at dusk to the discouraged and, by others, forgotten.

 

Paul, in prison, longed for friends he could not see, his life was precarious and could be ended at any moment with the swipe of a Roman sword, but from his prison he wrote to friends he loved, these words: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4 vss 4-7)

So be it!

 

 

 

forgiveness

September 13th 2020, Trinity 14 –  To err is human, to forgive, divine

 

This is a difficult passage. Difficult for two reasons. Firstly, because the subject matter, forgiveness, is difficult. None of us find it easy to forgive. And forgive 77 times, as Jesus said? Really? What am I, a doormat? Secondly, because it’s quite a tough parable, ending as it does with these harsh words: ‘In his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or your sister from your heart’. Does that really seem like Jesus? A few weeks ago in our home group meeting, we read the Lord’s prayer and reflected on it. That line, ‘forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Mt 6:12), underlined in Matthew’s gospel, ‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (6:15) caused much heartache. Here’s a thought: Matthew was a tax collector for the Romans before Jesus called him. He knew from bitter experience exactly what happened when people didn’t pay their debts. He was also deeply conscious of his own unworthiness to be called to follow Jesus, to experience forgiveness, acceptance, love and a new mission in life. I wonder if a bit of Matthew’s past is colouring his telling of this parable. This parable doesn’t appear in any of the other 3 gospels. The other gospel with the Lord’s prayer in it, Luke, doesn’t have the line at the end that Matthew does, ‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’. I wonder if it’s Matthew’s way of underlining the message, don’t miss this!! Bearing all that in mind, let’s listen to what the parable is telling us.

 

Each of the parables of Jesus contains a ‘what??!’ moment where his listeners would have gone, ‘what? Did he say what I think he said? In today’s parable there are two! The first is where the slave, who owed his master 10,000 talents, was let off the hook, released from his debt, forgiven. This amounted to 100 million denarii. A denarius was a day’s wages for a labourer. So, billions of pounds in today’s money. Jesus’ listeners would not have expected that – they expected the slave to be sold, along with his family, made to somehow pay the debt (which he never could have done). God is like that master who forgave the debt! We cannot pay our way into his favour, release ourselves from the debt we owe: it is given as a free gift, and must be received in the same way. There is no other way. The second ‘what??!’ moment is where the forgiven slave goes out and promptly screws over a man who owes him a few measly pounds. The callous injustice of that catches up with him and his master sentences him to horrible punishment. Unforgiveness has a dark, negative energy that can infect our souls and kill them; it can take is into our own personal hell, and we all know this. We know too that to lash out and exact retribution will just start off a cycle of resentment and retaliation. Someone said this: ‘Not forgiving puts both parties in prison’

 

I had a lovely patient, a Filipino lady. Her husband had died, and she had met another man and started a relationship. At first all went well and she told me how happy she was. But things turned sour, and the man stole her money. She left him, but became deeply unhappy and angry, and would weep with me and express her bitterness when I saw her. Months passed, then one day, she came to see me for no other reason than to tell me that it was all behind her. Radiating joy, she told me what had happened. As a devout Catholic, she attended mass every week. That week, the priest, in his sermon – on forgiveness – quoted these words of Alexander Pope: ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine’. Those words changed her. She saw that she could not forgive, to let go, without the help of God. And there she was, in church, at prayer, at communion, and she handed the whole sorry story over to God and received, in that moment, the grace to indeed, forgive and let go. To not let that man’s actions continue to have power over her, to steal the joy and contentment in her life. It was a deeply moving moment. The grace of the moment spilled over into me. It still does. Look, it’s spilling out here, now.

 

And there it is. This is a one-point sermon, and the point is that what may not be possible for us, can be possible for God, if we will let him. Forgiveness is not easy, it is hard and it takes courage and resolution. It goes against our natural instincts. If we don’t do it, it will suck the life out of us. We will need to pray. Richard Rohr suggests that we should take time to actually feel in our body the pain and hurt of whatever it was that happened and then, gradually and with intent, bring that to God. Quite often, I think we’re not very good at actually telling God what it is we want. But this could be a very clear prayer: ‘Lord, I have been really hurt by this. I can feel the pain in my body, in my heart. I don’t want to live like this any more, I want to let it go. Please, take this away. Give me the grace to forgive.’  We may need to do that many times, it may not be as instant as it was in my lovely patient’s experience. We could even then go the extra mile and pray for the person who hurt us. This is to go even further against our instinct. It is like trying to straighten out a bent metal bar: we have to bend it in the opposite direction in order to straighten it.

 

So what do we make of our gospel reading, its harshness? Well, let’s not tune in so much to the negative but take into our souls the positive, the great good news – the unconditional, free, full acceptance by God as loved daughters and sons. Let us heed the warning, though, and take the time to come to God with what and who has hurt us. Do I think we can be consigned to everlasting torment because of something someone else has done, and our failure to forgive? No, I don’t. In the end, I believe that mercy wins. But let me end with these words: ‘To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to find that the prisoner was you.’

bread and wine

Returning to Church

Please contact the office if you’d like to come to a Eucharist in the building, as numbers are limited; or email for the link if you’d like to join us online at Zoom.

office@stjohnandststephen.org.uk

or phone 01189263633

Below is the pattern for September, as we try and offer a mixture of online and physical worship.

 

September 6: 11.30am Zoom Church & 4pm Evening Prayer in the building for non-Zoomers

 

September 13: 10.30 Eucharist in the building

 

September 20: 11.30 Zoom Church & 4pm Evening Prayer in the building for non-Zoomers

 

September 27: 10.30 Eucharist in the building

 

cross

Living the cross shaped life

Today we’re thinking about something I’m calling the Cross-Shaped Life.

What does a cross-shaped life look like and what is it like to live one?

I’ve taken the phrase from the gospel today where Jesus warns his disciples he’s going to the cross. Peter, after scoring an A in discipleship last week, gets downgraded by the algorithm to a D, after clashing with Jesus over this.

Peter rebukes him: ‘God forbid that this should happen to you Lord.’ Basically he doesn’t want Jesus to suffer, but Jesus has to point out to him that the Messiah will embrace suffering in order to redeem it.

But Peter doesn’t understand, and none of the disciples really get it either. I’m sure if we had been in their shoes we wouldn’t have understood it. It’s only with two millennia of reflection on the cross and resurrection that we can even begin to spot what Richard Rohr calls this ‘universal and deeper reality at the heart of things’ (The Universal Christ, p.91).

Our reading from Romans is headed ‘Marks of a True Christian’. Sometimes it’s obvious that some of the things that apparently parade as true Christianity are not. One of the worrying things about the US Christian scene is the huge over identification of the Evangelical Right with the Republican Party, which tends to lead to a highly suspect kind of Christian Nationalism. Its general support for President Trump leaves many UK Christians totally bemused.

Conservative Christians in Korea, meanwhile, have been attending mass anti-government rallies and spreading the Corona virus as they do so: is this the mark of a True Christian? We might admire their desire to stand up for their beliefs, but are they just bringing the gospel into disrepute? It’s sometimes less easy to see what is or isn’t true Christianity.

So we have this morning a practical list in Romans of the qualities Paul assigns to a Christian fellowship, and in Matthew, we have the way of the cross that Jesus actively embraces; and not only embraces, but encourages all his followers to embrace.

What does it look like for us to live a cross shaped life, in the footsteps of Jesus?

Three suggestions.

  1. A cross-shaped life is one where we’re loving, but also canny about evil.
  2. A cross-shaped life is one where we’re open and undefended.
  3. A cross-shaped life is one where we’re willing to let go.

 

Loving AND canny about evil.

All you Scots out there will know that to be canny, means to be knowing: it can also mean pleasant or nice; but canny in the sense I’m using it means that we’re not simpletons about evil. Whilst we pursue goodness and peace and all the other qualities one would hope for from Christians, we also have insight into the things that are profoundly wrong in the world: ‘hate what is evil, hold onto what is good’.

There’s a balance here. There will be resistances to the love of God and some of them are violent. The Christian way, though, is to bless enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

With the advent of social media it’s become increasingly hard to resist the easy polarization of goodies and baddies. Putting people into camps is much easier than being honest about our own shadier side. To overcome evil with good, and to pray for enemies, is a very high calling, and somewhat marks the New Testament out from the Old.

But to save us all from becoming like the elder brother who felt superior to his younger prodigal sibling, being canny about what’s wrong should start with our own self-awareness. The person of faith, one would hope, puts their own house in order before starting to demolish other people’s.

That’s why we have a moment of reflection before the Confession each Sunday. I don’t know about other service leaders, but I never quite know how best to introduce this part of the service. There are official words of course, but you can invite people in your own words too.

Ideally we need a balance between being constantly reminded that we’re sinners, and being glib and shallow about confession, because the words are so familiar.

The trouble with a general Confession is that it is general. It’s designed to be said in community and that can be a powerful thing. But where does it leave us as regards to the specific ways we each avoid God and pursue our own programmes for happiness?

I think about the Epistle of James, where the faithful are encouraged to ‘confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed’ (5:16) and the Roman Catholic practice of confessing to a priest. Maybe we each need to find a confessor? How well do you know yourself that you might be able to notice an area of your life that has yet to be redeemed? It might be an uncomfortable thought. Perhaps you feel it wouldn’t be appropriate. Mostly we need other people to point out our failings, but who has the courage or the diplomacy for that?

I think of an unwelcome time in my thirties when a close friend and I fell out over something, and she told me, on no uncertain terms, that I was moody. I was horrified, and also surprised because I thought of myself as very sociable; but after a while I realised she was right. I had to re-think some aspects of my behaviour that I had not been aware of.

And there was an equally unwelcome time in my twenties when a work colleague whom I was supposed to be supervising told me I was bossy. I was horrified on that occasion as well; especially as she then went on to say she wasn’t the only person in the staff room who thought so.

Moody AND bossy. It’s rather an unfortunate combination really. In my 40s I studied the Enneagram, and for those of you who have an acquaintance with Enneagram wisdom I can say that being moody and bossy just about sums up being a FOUR with a THREE wing. Although it was painful, those two observations by a friend and a colleague proved humbling, and I still remain grateful to them for their insight and courage.

Do you know which are your blind spots? The people who do know them, probably better than you, are the people you live with and work with, the people you spend the most time with (and especially your grown up children!) It’s rare to find someone who can tell you without losing you. But to be loved even when our faults are known, is the only love worth having at the end of the day.

So a cross-shaped life is about being loving AND canny, particularly about our own stumbling blocks. The genius of the Enneagram, for anyone who wants to look into it further, is that those very stumbling blocks can become your pathway into greater wholeness, as you allow them to come into the light of Christ.

Open and Undefended.

When we’re conscious of so much that is evil in the world, it’s often hard to remain open and undefended.

We’ve all met highly defended people. They’re like a fortified castle, prepared at all costs to defend borders. They’re difficult to get to know and wary of sharing themselves for fear of rejection.

Understandably, defences come up when we’ve been wounded or we feel our personal security is compromised. But in order to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’ we need to remain open. It’s a very hard balance.

It’s never easy to walk a difficult path alongside someone who’s in pain or difficulty, and we see in the gospel the deep and understandable unwillingness of the disciples to identify with Jesus as he heads towards his Passion.

Peter is rebuked in the strongest words, for trying to prevent Jesus from suffering, words like those Jesus used to Satan in the wilderness: ‘Get behind me!’ He is told ‘you are setting your mind, not on divine things but on human things.’ Human things here, I presume, are the normal human impulses: to minimize pain and maximize happiness. That is the programme we’ve all been on in the West for at least the past 300 years. But the Christian is on a different programme.

Undefended people don’t plan to get back at those who have harmed them. They might distance themselves completely from the one who has done them harm (and it might even be vital to do so) but they don’t plan revenge; that would only eat them up from the inside. With a firm belief that justice originates in the heart of God, the Christian can know that justice will be done, but done God’s way.

There’s an interconnectedness in the Christian vision of humanity that acknowledges that everything we do impacts somebody else. Issues of climate and race are issues for all of us. There’s an African name for this interconnectedness: Ubuntu – everything you do affects me; everything I do affects you. It’s the opposite of the kind of zero sum games that students have been forced to play as they scramble for university places. It’s the opposite of how our parliament is arranged with one side versus another facing each other across the benches like adversaries trying to score points off each other.

During the Pandemic, we caught a glimpse of how life might be if we didn’t live as though there was only one winner, but if we acknowledged that we are all reliant on each other; on our delivery people, our shop assistants, our cleaners and our health workers, simply to navigate day-to-day life. We’ve realised during these times that the more a role is about caring for others, the less it seems to be paid.

So living a cross-shaped life means living an open life, an undefended life as far as it is possible.

 

Willing to let go.

In Jesus’ own words: ‘if any want to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. It’s an important principle for individual Christians but we might try as well to think what this means for a church congregation – to deny itself, take up its cross and follow Jesus.

At this time, as we try and imagine what it’ll be like to go back to worship in the building it might mean we need to let go of certain expectations, and empty ourselves to receive whatever it is God wants to give us.

If you’ve visited the church on a Saturday for private prayer you’ll have experienced sitting very quietly, a little apart from anyone else, with your facemask on, and being still and prayerful. It’s actually been an experience that’s grown on me. Wearing a facemask tends to limit your speaking, and maybe we have to attend more closely to the other, as we cannot make out their expressions in the normal way.

My personal experience in shops has been that this doesn’t make people any less friendly. You can normally tell when someone is smiling, by looking at their eyes.

I can’t help thinking that less speaking and more paying attention to ‘the other’ might be a very good way forward for the Church of England. Jesus chose silence before his accusers, and his inner potency was not lessened because of it – rather it was increased.

If we feel, once we’re back in the church building wearing our masks, that we’ve been effectively gagged in worship, it might be an interesting reflection to consider what that means for our inward communication with God and for how well we listen, and for the state of our hearts. It will certainly not be the case that ‘the still small voice’ is in any way gagged in our midst.

As Jesus said ‘whoever wants to save their life will lose it; but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. That’s the ultimate letting go. And it leads not to death, but through death to life.

So, the cross-shaped life: Loving but canny about evil; open and undefended; willing to let go. May these qualities mark our church together life as we go into the months ahead.

Amen.

who do you say

Who do you say I am?

*It’s the annual fortnight of examination results. They’ve even reached into our Gospel reading. Peter is clearly sitting GCSE discipleship, for he’s given a multiple-choice question rather than an essay: “Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus. “Some say, John the Baptist, others Elijah… [I say] you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”, answers Peter for an A.

*Last week I spent two days in a makeshift call-centre on campus helping out with clearing. I was answering enquiries from students whose grades were not what they were predicted and who were searching for alternative universities. As you’d expect there was a frantic element to it – often parents in the background acting as support as young people tried to plan their next move.

*This year there was the added unhelpfulness that a few days later the government changed the goal posts. I know that I personally declined several students who did not make the required grades for Reading with their algorithm-adjusted results, but who would have met them with their teacher-assessed grades. Reading, like many Universities, will now be trying to navigate this mess.

Tensions continued in many households, including ours, as families then awaited GCSE results. Two days before they were due to be released, the assessment criteria were also revised. We now await the result of BTecs.

*You may have noticed in news reports at the time young people speaking of their lives being ruined. Despite the hyperbole, I have some sympathy for we have created a society where social advancement is strongly linked to academic achievement. In short, there are some professions and routes of life that will not be possible to enter unless you can demonstrate you have achieved certain benchmarks – as I was sadly all too aware, as I told several sixth-formers that they hadn’t met these and couldn’t come to Reading.

The debacle of exam results has shown one thing quite clearly, and it follows on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in the year: and this thing is that behind the façade of meritocracy (that idea that individuals are judged on the basis of their own merits) there can lurk deeper social judgments that are beyond a person’s control: judgments based upon a person’s skin colour; assumptions about that quality of students a particular school can be expected to produce. These hidden judgments – by race, by postcode – can skew matters in such a way that the talents of an individual are overshadowed in profoundly unfair ways.

*It’s an insidious form of injustice and perhaps even an unintentional one. In the case of the A-Levels my brother-in-law, who is a statistician, put it this way: ‘sure, you can make a statistical judgment based on previous years about what level candidates at any given school might be expected to produce overall. But it’s impossible to take that figure and break it down and then individual pupils grades. It leaves no room for acknowledging the achievements of individuals.’ (The error of this approach is indicated in the cartoon on the screen: “Average depth 3 feet”, reads the accurate but completely misleading sign).

*Individuals pupils aren’t statistics. It’s the theme, ironically, of this year’s Orwell Youth Prize short-story by Jessica Johnson, A Band Apart (it’s online, by way, and worth a read).

A friend shared their response to these kinds of hidden injustice in the form of an icon and an accompanying version of the Hail Mary prayer:

*’Hail Mary,
full of grace and courage,
destroyer of Babylon,
defender against White Supremacy, injustice, hatred…
pray for us who suffer under the powers of algorithms…’

‘Who do you say I am?’ Is a person the grades they have received? As useful as testing may be, examinations (it seems to me) should be the servant not the master of our children. They ought to be a way of tailoring further study to meet the existing needs and talents of a student. They should not be a life-long verdict on someone’s worth.

*It ought to come as no surprise to us that many of the dystopian novels and films produced over the last 20 years have focused on stories that pit young person against young person in some imagined competition where only one can win (think of the Hunger Games). But we read this morning in Paul’s Letter to the Romans that society is best described not as a race, but as a body. There are many members in this social body, all of whom are valuable in different ways, all of whose gifts are essential.

*We, who several months ago found ourselves queuing outside supermarkets desperate for toilet roll and pasta, we who now rely on delivery van drivers (like these photographed by Richard Mackenzie), we have perhaps had a brief glimpse of a different order of social value that the examination system entirely overlooks; and it’s an order of real value that is entirely overlooked in the way we pay people.

*Paul writes, ‘do not think of yourself more highly that you ought… but with sober judgment’: Covid might well have sobered us up to think more clearly about what is really of value. Perhaps, perhaps, there may be lasting adjustments to the way we assign value to particular occupations and those who do them.

*‘Who do you say I am?’ We Christians struggle and yearn for a just society where individuals are rightly valued – in their salary, in their social status, in their legal rights – and with that we find common cause with others who are discontented.

But we add something else to the question of true identity that is distinctive: who God says we are.

*‘You are the messiah, the Son of God,’ says Peter of Jesus. He echoes a statement about Jesus’s identity that crops up at key times in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Jesus’s identity as God’s beloved child is revealed at the start of his ministry in the baptism, and it is affirmed in the middle of his ministry at the Transfiguration. And alongside these public moments, it seems clear from the intimate way Jesus had of speaking of God as ‘Abba Father’, and from his habit of spending time alone in prayer, that Jesus chose to focus on this identity, to nourish it, inhabit it, make it his own.

Whilst other identities – other value judgments – were passed upon him (‘you are a prophet, the messiah, the son of David’), Jesus chose to accept this particular answer to the question of who he was above all other answers. And, firmly rooted in his identity as God’s beloved Son, he was freed up to transform the lives of those around him.

*Identities, labels, exam results, all these and other voices clamour to assign meaning to our lives – yes: they open some doors and close others. But amidst all these voices which claim to answer definitively the question of who we are, it is shown to us Christians that we can choose to learn to listen, as Jesus did, to another voice: the voice of God. And this voice will proclaim our deepest identity, our true worth, as beloved children.

*I am speaking, of course, about the form of prayer called contemplation. Contemplation is simply to practise learning to listen to God speaking to us as beloved… Each of us will do this listening in different ways, some sat still; others walking in nature; some reading scripture and so on… But the key to contemplation is to listen, again and again, in such a way that all other identities, all other values placed upon us are set in their proper place, and we are freed up, from tugging fears and anxieties, to be our creative selves.

Exams will come and go; successes and (so-called) failures will pass; but in the end, ultimately, we trust in the everlasting arms of the God who truly knows us, and loves us. And this morning that is the God into whose arms we commend ourselves, and our brother Bill. ‘Who am I?’ ‘You are my beloved child’.

sailing boat

Walking on Water

Trinity 9, 9th August 2020

Jesus must have been extraordinary.  This week I was reading, not today’s passage, but one from Luke (7:36-50) about the woman who came to Jesus when he was eating at a pharisee’s house.  She wept at his feet, wiping them with her hair and putting precious ointment on them.  The book I was using focused on the woman’s forgetfulness of herself, unembarrassed, lost in her devotion to Jesus.  But it made me wonder just what Jesus must have been like to inspire such devotion.  It is a story we have heard many times, and we know what happens, but suddenly you see it with fresh eyes, and think, this is really unusual.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus walking on water, is similar, familiar from Sunday school onwards, but extraordinary.  It follows the feeding of the five thousand.  Then, it was late in the day when Jesus fed the crowd, and they would have gone home in the last of the daylight.  Jesus sends the disciples off too, and it say that by evening he was there alone.  He went up into the mountains to pray, and must have been there for many hours, because the passage tells us that it was early in the morning when he came walking towards the disciples on the lake.  (And note, this was what he did after teaching the crowd for a whole day.)

These events take place at the north end of the Sea of Galilee.  There are slightly different locations in the different gospels, but the feeding of the five thousand seems to have been on the north-east side of the lake, around Bethsaida (Lk 9:10), and the disciples sailed across to the north-west, around Capernaum (Jn 6:15) or Gennesaret (Mk 6:53).  It is about 5 or 6 miles.  The wind was against them, so it was slow progress, and the boat was fighting against the waves.  This is not a storm, and unlike the story of the calming of the storm, they were not in trouble.  Many of the disciples were fishermen and familiar with the lake and with boats, but they are in a workboat, stable but slow.  John’s gospel says they had gone 3 miles or so when Jesus caught up with them, after rowing much of the night (Jn 6:19), so they could not have been making much headway.

When Jesus approached them in the early hours (the original says it was in the ‘fourth watch of the night’, which is between 3-6am), the disciples could not work out who, or what, he was.  You would not really be expecting someone to be walking on the water, and they thought he was a ghost.  Jesus calls out to let them know it is him, and to tell them not to be afraid.

So what is this about?  Is it just Jesus using his superpowers to take a shortcut?

I am reminded of other improbable abilities.  One I really like comes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent, the main character, learns how to fly.  The Guide helpfully explains that, “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack.  The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.  Clearly, it the second part, the missing that presents difficulties.”  Arthur manages it by falling, and then being distracted on seeing his towel, which was lost some time and several planets before.  This causes him to miss the ground, and he finds himself flying.  It is a great bit of invention by Douglas Adams, in that is manages to sound strangely plausible.  But it is not something you should try at home.

The Hitchhikers Guide is fun, but not meant to be taken seriously.  Presented with the story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, we need to look for something deeper.  The gospels do not give us magic.  This is not waving a wand to save effort or do the impossible.  And this walking on water is a one-off.  Jesus does not do it again, and we have no record of the disciples or the early church using it as a means of getting about.

In the miracles we generally see some other purpose.  In Jesus’ healing there is both compassion for people, but also signs of God’s presence and power.  There are a few miracles, like the transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8), the coin in the fish’s mouth (Mt 17:24-27), or the cursing the fig tree (Mk 11:12-25), that seem simply to be signs.

What are the signs here?

The sea was seen in Judaism, and by many of the societies around Israel, as a force of chaos, home of monsters.  In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth by overcoming this chaos and putting the waters in their place.  Psalm 29 says You rule the raging of the sea, when its waves surge you still them.  In the Old Testament, God alone has the power to subdue the seas.  Here we see Jesus walking on the sea.

When Jesus approaches the terrified disciples, he calls out “Take courage!  It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”  The “It is I” in our translations hides the force of the Greek, which is literally “I am”.  “Take heart, I am; have no fear.”  This points through the Aramaic Jesus spoke to the way God refers to himself in the Old Testament, “I AM”.  Jesus is able to do this because he is God.

This is certainly how the disciples took it.  Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.

Peter joining Jesus on the water is not in the other two gospels that record this miracle (it is not in Luke).  It is often presented as the meaning of the story: keep your eyes fixed on Jesus; have faith; if you feel overwhelmed, call upon Jesus and he will save you.  These are all good lessons, but seem secondary to the main meaning.  Even in Matthew the passage ends with the disciples’ awe at Jesus.  Their response is worship.

At the end of the calming of the storm, which appears a few chapters earlier (Mt 8:23-27), the disciples’ reaction was Who is this man?  Even the wind and the sea obey him.  This time, they have moved on, Truly you are the Son of God.  Again, we are so familiar with these stories that we forget that this is an extraordinary thing to say about, or to, someone you know.  The disciples came to believe, however imperfectly, and through however many misunderstandings, that this man they had spent years with was actually God.

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

JacobRembrandt1

A masterclass in prayer – Jacob wrestles at Peniel

August 2nd 2020, Trinity 8

I wonder if you have found the last few months a struggle in any way? Struggled with the lockdown, with loneliness perhaps, illness, uncertainty, loss, or struggled with faith? What about struggled with God? This morning we come to one of the most unusual stories of the entire Bible – the story of Jacob wrestling with God – and winning!  The Bible is peppered with stories of direct encounter with God – think Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 2,3), Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3), Isaiah before the throne of God (Isaiah 6), the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), The revelation to John in the last book of the Bible. These direct encounters, direct experiences of God shape the course of subsequent faith history – as you might expect. I just heard from God!

 

The story of Jacob’s wrestling-match with a man who turned out to be God is perhaps the most mysterious encounter of all. The story is set early in the Bible, in the first book, Genesis, probably around 1500 BC – 3,500 years ago, long before Jesus. Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah, was a cheat, and a bit of a mummy’s boy, unlike his huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ elder brother Esau. Jacob cheated Esau out of his birth right as firstborn for nothing more than a bowl of porridge when he came in hungry after a day’s hunting, and then had to flee Esau’s wrath when the truth dawned. Jacob ran to his uncle Laban, who cheated him back in a long and complicated story involving switching brides on honeymoon night – can you imagine? No lights on, one fancies – so he marries Leah first, the eldest. Poor Jacob works for another 7 years to finally get lovely Rachel too. And as the story goes on, Jacob becomes rich and powerful, eventually leaves Laban and goes on his way – only to find his past catching up with him in the form of his brother Esau, coming to meet him. His worst fear is going to be realised – the wrong he did to his brother is about to return to haunt him. Not only that, 400 men will be with him! (32:6) He fears the worst. He prays for deliverance (32:9-12), sends gifts to Esau to try and appease him, sends his wives and children away to safety, and crosses the Jabbok river on his way to face down his fear in the person of his brother Esau. On the way, he meets a ‘man’ and wrestles with him until daybreak. When the man sees that he cannot prevail against Jacob, he puts Jacob’s hip out and asks to be let go. Jacob refuses, ‘unless you bless me’. The man gives him a new name, ‘Israel’, which means ‘one who strives with God’ but will not give Jacob his own name. Jacob realises that it is God, or his angel, he has been wrestling with. How can this be? How come I am still alive? But he is blessed, and limps on his way as the sun rises. As the story goes on, Jacob’s fears come to nothing and there is reconciliation between the two brothers.

 

What on earth do we understand happened here? An important message in terms of the history of the Bible, is in the change in names – from Jacob to Israel, the one who strives with God. For all their mistakes, the nation that sprang from Jacob, Israel, remained intertwined with God, struggled with Him, wrestled with Him even, but was blessed by Him. In other words, the wrestling-match was a sort of picture of what the relationship would be like between Israel and God. A struggle. With pain.

 

But what do we make of it? What do we do with it? This story is, I believe, given to us because it tells us something profound about the relationship between God and humanity – by humanity, I mean you and me. It is called a ‘mystical’ encounter, where the word ‘mystical’ means that it is a felt experience of encounter with God. It is contained within a story because stories are so much better than mere descriptions, they touch us and stay with us, they have depths that sometimes you can’t even get to the bottom of, and even if you think you have, there’s more. I want to reflect on this for a few minutes and make some suggestions that we could even take into our own lives. In fact, into our lives of prayer, because this story is a masterclass in prayer.

 

I wonder if poor Jacob, scared half to death by the thought of meeting Esau, actually thought to begin with that it was Esau he met and wrestled with? For he did actually face his fear, he was on his way to meeting his fear, personified in Esau. But it turned out to be God he ran into. What is it we fear most? What is it you or I fear most? Illness? Abandonment? Failure? Death? Or what is it we are trying to ignore, to escape from, to run away from, like Jacob running away from Esau? What is the nightmare? For all his weakness, his deceitfulness, Jacob faced his fear and found he was facing God at the same time. I just wonder if in facing our own deepest fear, we would find God there?

 

As I looked at some of the pictures that have been painted about this encounter, I was immediately struck that wrestling – unlike boxing – is an experience of being held! Sometimes our relationship with God might indeed seem like a struggle – so much is happening to us, so much going on, we are wrestling, but we are held. Could there possibly be a safer place?

 

This experience of Jacob’s was intensely physical. Wrestling is perhaps the ultimate contact sport with skin-to-skin, body-to-body full-on contact, every part engaged. There was even physical injury, poor Jacob’s hip was put out, perhaps sprained or even dislocated. We too are physical beings, not disembodied spirits or just minds on legs. Our bodies tell us so much, react and respond in all sorts of ways. This is of course very familiar to us. We walk into a meeting and the pit of our stomach tells us something is wrong. Our throat tightens as we choke with emotion, we weep with sadness or joy, it seems like our heart literally goes out to someone, our heart sinks as we hear bad news, our gut tightens with anxiety. We actually speak of ‘being touched’ when we hear a lovely story. We listen to a beautiful poem and we are stilled, our heart stops as we are gripped by it. Gripped! Look at how physical that word is! If these ordinary, everyday things literally touch us, does not God do this also, as we walk with him?  So, when we come to prayer, when we are still before God, we may perhaps begin to become aware of what is happening in our bodies, of how God is touching me at this moment. What is God saying through this experience? After all, as Paul asks us, ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?’ (1 Corinthians 6:19).

 

The final thing that speaks to me from this story is that Jacob knew what he wanted. He wanted God’s blessing. In fact, it wasn’t the first time he had sought for that. In cheating his elder brother Esau out of his birth right he was seeking all the rights and blessings which came with being the first born in that ancient culture. Now, as he faced Esau again – even perhaps as he thought that to begin with it was Esau he was grappling with – he feared losing that privilege that he knew was rightfully not his. ‘No, don’t take it from me! Bless me! Give me that which I have wanted all my life!’ And God did give it to him, but not without pain. Sometimes, or perhaps often, when we come to prayer, we don’t ask for what we really want. Maybe we don’t even know what it is we want. It is something to think about, to reflect on. What is your desire? Imagine that you answered the front door to Jesus himself. As you welcomed him, he asks you, what do you want?

 

I have taken this encounter of Jacob with God as a picture, a parable of conscious relationship with God – by which I mean prayer. Whenever we move away from our anxious thoughts and preoccupations and acknowledge God – whether in silence, in contemplation, in spoken words, in weeping, in song, in reading, in body posture – kneeling, standing, in gestures like arms raised, dancing, reverently crossing oneself – whenever we do this, we are at prayer. Mysteriously, as we face our fears we can find ourselves facing God. We are held in our struggle with him. Prayer can be physical too, what is God saying through my body experiences? What is it that you want, you desire?

 

I wonder how all this leaves you? You might like to hold on to just one insight from this strange story we have read and explored. Perhaps you can find a moment today to read the story again in a quiet place and find if there is a phrase, a word that touches you – that causes something to happen to you physically – that may be a nudge from God: take note! You may find that there is something about this story that maybe calls you to a deeper place of encounter with God yourself and you want to explore that. Plenty of reading material here – Richard Rohr is always a good place to start, I would suggest his little book ‘Just this’. You may want to find a partner to share with and perhaps spiritual direction is a route you would like to try.

 

Here are Jacob’s words to end with: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me!’

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

 

seeds

Sermon Sunday 26 July 2020    

I want to consider Jesus’ parables in our gospel today, with a passing reference to that wonderful passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

I’ve never found the idea of process very easy.  By that I mean that I struggle sometimes with the idea that things take time.  On the whole I’m more interested in my destination when I’m travelling than in the journey.  I’ve found our present circumstances hard sometimes because I’d like to be there (wherever that is) rather than be in a seemingly endless process of emerging.  I would be the one to say, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ when I was a child.

So, here we are today with parables that are about slow growth, slow emerging and waiting and hiddenness.  O dear!

This is now the 3rd Sunday that we have followed Jesus’ teaching about what Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven (Kingdom of God in Mark and Luke).  Jesus is teaching about a way of life right now, not after death (Matthew uses ‘heaven’ as a typically Jewish way of avoiding naming God – a sign of respect).  We might paraphrase entering God’s kingdom as being about living a life that is at one with his best desires for humanity and for the whole of creation.  And, Jesus seems to be saying, how this happens takes time, the process might be hidden, it can be costly, and we might mistrust some features of it.

Then at the end of this section Matthew and only Matthew, includes this observation about teachers who are in tune with God’s kingdom bringing out from their store of wisdom what is old and what is new.  This is generally reckoned to be how Matthew the gospel writer understood his task.  But as we approach scripture we too can draw on old and new wisdom in order to better see what is going on around us.

So I thought we might start by looking at some events that might illustrate the wisdom in these parables – the mustard seed growing into a tree, the yeast spreading through a lump of dough, the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price and the net full of fish.

Nearly two years ago Greta Tunberg, age 15, stopped going to school once a week and sat instead outside the Swedish parliament holding a placard saying ‘School strike for the climate’.  It was a very small action, but it started a world wide movement.  It raised awareness of our climate emergency.  Not everyone applauded her.  There were concerns about children’s education as young people in other countries started staying out of school.  Nevertheless she had planted a tiny seed, like the mustard seed Jesus refers to in the first of today’s parables.

As lockdown began Green Christian, a very small environmental charity, recognized that a prolonged period of inactivity could be an opportunity for nurturing a vision of how we might better cherish the earth.  They launched a series of weekly online conversations called ‘Radical Presence’ where Christians and others might engage together on ways forward.  They offered resources to stimulate reflection and action.  Now on its third round of conversations, Radical Presence has reached Christians from every denomination and from all over the British Isles.  It is stimulating a range of actions and further conversations – community gardening, lobbying MPs, opening new forums for discussion on climate change.  Radical Presence is like the yeast in Jesus’ 2nd parable.

In the 1850s a middle aged Jamaican widow, Mary Seacole, volunteered at the London War office to go to the Crimea, to join Florence nightingale’s hospital for soldiers injured in the Crimean war.  She had a particular calling to nurse soldiers, having been brought up in a hotel cum hospital in Kingston run by her mother.  She was experienced in treating cholera and yellow fever, both of them diseases that ravaged military camps at that time.  Mary was persistent, but the War office in London turned her down several times.  She didn’t give up easily.  Rather like the men in the 3rd and 4th parable she sold everything she had in Jamaica and travelled to the Crimea independently where she set up a hotel/hospital similar to the one she had run with her mother in Kingston Jamaica.  She helped 100s of soldiers and was so loved and respected by them that when she eventually came to London virtually destitute after the war they did the equivalent of crowd funding for her so she had something to live on.  Her calling was like the treasure in the field, or the priceless pearl and she had been ready to give up everything for it.

St Peter, having a nap on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house (Acts 10.9-23), dreams of a big net holding all kinds of creatures, many of which would have been considered unclean by Jews like himself, and hears a voice telling him to kill and eat some of them.  ‘No’, he says, ‘some of those are not ok for us’, and God (it is after all his voice)tells him that it’s God, rather than Peter, who determines what is clean or unclean.  I wonder if Peter’s dream took him back to the story of the net in Jesus’ 5th parable today?

We might perhaps imagine Peter looking back to those days when he and the other disciples were with Jesus on the road and at the end of a long day where they’ve been alongside Jesus as he taught and as people followed them round, one of them says to Jesus, ‘Have you noticed some of the people in the crowd following you?  I’m not too happy about some of them.  There are tax collectors, for a start, certainly some prostitutes and other dubious characters who might give us all a bad name.  There’s danger too; what about those two who look like spies from the Jewish authorities?  Shall we ease them out?  And Jesus tells the story of the net.  In effect he’s saying, ‘You are called to fish for people (remember my calling you by the lake?) you just get on and do that.  You know how to sort fish, but people are a different matter. Leave God to sort out that catch’.

Or another evening after a long day mainly taken up with vigorous arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees which seem to lead nowhere and a visit to a small village where there was little interest one of the disciples says, ‘I’m wondering if we should try something a bit more ambitious, a sort of Jesus roadshow, sending some of us ahead announcing your arrival, with suitable publicity, perhaps arranging a flotilla of our boats on the lake and some music.  Let’s go large’.  And Jesus tells the stories of the mustard seed and the yeast as a way of saying they don’t have to try so hard.  The kingdom of God is a given.  It’s actually woven into the way creation works.  It’s a natural outworking of God’s grace.  It will happen, however small its beginnings might be.  ‘Fear not, little flock, it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’, Jesus says to them in Luke’s gospel.  ‘You just do what I called you to do and leave the rest to God.  Or as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, written some time before Matthew’s gospel, ‘We know that everything works together for good for those who love God….If God is for us, who can be against us’?

In these parables, as in so much of Jesus’ teaching, there is an implied invitation to trust in God’s good purposes for ourselves and our world; a trust that the working out of these purposes can take time, just as nature takes time, that responding to God’s call to us to share in working out those purposes will involve taking a risk, however small, and might be costly in other ways, and that we may well find ourselves co operating with people we wouldn’t usually associate with.  And yet, as we do so, we find what is for us the equivalent of the pearl of great price or the treasure in the field.

I was wondering what mustard seeds might have been sown in our church during the last few months.  Perhaps one might be the 30 minutes with the children before the main zoom service?  But there will be others.  In the week ahead I invite you to look back over lockdown, holding up perhaps two (or more, if you like) of today’s parables and seeing where they might be illustrated in your life and the life of our church.  Sit with the parable.  Express gratitude.  It may be too, that there is a calling somewhere in there for you.  Like Mary Seacole you get in touch with something you really want to do.  Stay with that desire, voicing it to God in prayer.  We are all in the process of becoming.  We haven’t yet arrived and as we ponder the events around us in the light of wisdom old and new, turning to God in prayer, we can trust, St Paul says, that the Spirit helps us in our weakness..the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  Again, that invitation to trust.

 

Christine Bainbridge July 2020

wheat

A Timely Parable – Sunday 19th July 2020

 

Background

Just when I thought this week that I could hear no more tales of misery and grief from poor, wretched, starving, bombed and disease-wracked Yemen – where cholera is rampant and Covid 19 claims the lives of a quarter of all those that contract it, I did.

 

Incredibly, this year already some one hundred thousand desperate Ethiopians fleeing famine and fighting in their own country have crossed by boat to Yemen hoping from there to travel into Saudi Arabia and find work. But in recent months, gangs of Yemeni thugs and traffickers have rounded up exhausted Ethiopians as they have stumbled on to Yemen’s shores, imprisoned, abused and tortured them, releasing them only on payment of money from their families back in impoverished Ethiopia. The cruelty is mind-numbing.

 

Last week, in his most helpful and beautifully illustrated talk, Mark cautioned us against listening too often to the news. I have tried to heed his counsel but did watch a documentary about elections in Kenya and of the courageous attempt of a young Kenyan of great integrity running for Parliament. He was not elected – the bribes of the bullies won the day – and thirty or more who had threatened their election chances were murdered. ‘For how much longer must we endure this?’ shouted a disappointed supporter of the young man who was not elected.

 

And it is out of a background similar to this, charged with the same emotion that prompted Jesus to tell the three parables which are before us today. Each deals with growth and all emphasize the need for patience.

 

Let me explain! Jesus was hugely popular. The crowds enormous. His teaching riveting, while his touch brought sight, help and hope to thousands. It was a time of great excitement and expectancy.

 

But if his hearers were travelling a road in Palestine, they had to get off it to make way for Roman soldiers, the greed of the empire’s hated, quisling tax collectors knew no bounds, while at many crossroads there hung on crosses the moaning bodies of their fellow countrymen who had offended Rome.

 

In the hearts of many of his hearers and on the lips of some, would have been the anguished cry, ‘How much longer?’ And there would have been some, even among his own immediate followers, urging him to ‘go for it, rout the Romans and bring in your kingdom.’

 

Parable of the Tares

The Parable of the tares sounds strange to our ears and with its later detailed explanation some may feel uncomfortable. But apparently, the practice of deliberately sowing weeds – and the text here actually indicates poisonous weeds in a rival’s corn field – was common. Roman law actually covered such an eventuality. The farm labourers – so keen to uproot immediately the weeds and cautioned against doing so, represent perhaps, the hot heads, the up and at ‘ems among Jesus’ followers.

 

The message of the parable is simple – there will come a day when all people will be called by God to account, and while for some that will be glorious – for others it will be bleak. It is a message that runs throughout Jesus’ teaching and is especially prominent in the parables. It is not a topic often spoken of or addressed. Graphic medieval pictures featuring the torments of the occupants of hell and, the threat of hell sometimes held over congregations by fervent preachers hoping to persuade their people to opt for heaven have caused many to jettison judgement from their thoughts of God altogether. Many opt instead for an indulgent, genial God of their own making, ready to overlook our prejudices, infidelities and cherished grudges and their consequences. But that’s not an option Jesus leaves us, nor do I really think is one we would want him to.

 

There comes to mind that challenging refrain about Aslan, in several of CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, namely, ‘He’s not a tame lion!’ And some words in a similar vein come in that wonderful book The Go-Between-God: ‘We are looking for a sensible family-size God dispensing pep pills or tranquilizers as required with the Holy Spirit who is a baby’s comforter; no wonder the Lord of terrible aspect is too much for us.’ The theme of judgement is inescapably there in the teaching of Jesus and I have suggested we would not want it any other way.

 

What otherwise of the murderers of Srebrenica, the tyrants and despots who strut the world’s stage causing misery to millions of their own, or those who from the comfort of luxurious, air-conditioned offices can do the same through manipulating the world’s money markets? But lest we grow smug, we would be wise to remember Jesus’ caution that we will be called to account for every reckless word we utter. (Matthew 12.36)

 

Consider the source

This is a popular saying in our family, especially after hearing a particularly outrageous statement. They are good to ponder when thinking about Jesus and his solemn words on judgement, for the one who spoke them was the same one who with infinite tenderness said to a frightened woman in a jostling crowd, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’ And who, standing on a hillside, wept for a city whose destruction he so accurately foresaw. There is about Jesus both an aching tenderness and compassion but also at times a terrible severity.

 

The example of Pope Francis

There is much speculation today on, ‘What after Covid 19? – globally, nationally and in our churches and I don’t think we have even begun to see the extent of the fallout from it. Pope Francis has spoken of the need now for conversion in our care for the planet, urging us ‘not to go back to where we were’, and John Bell of the Iona Community recently asked, ‘Will we continue to live so irresponsibly that we will have to take our grandchildren to see the insects and animals we once enjoyed in the wild?’

 

I have, over the past months of lockdown, spent many long nights at the Samaritans listening to calls – fearful, bewildered, frustrated, angry and desperate – cries growing more shrill with each passing week.

 

One day after one such night, I read some other words of Pope Francis; they seemed so timely. ‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security. If there is something which should rightly disturb and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation borne of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life… My hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security… within habits which make us feel safe while at our door people are starving while Jesus does not tire of saying to us; ‘Give them something to eat.’ (Evangelii Gaudium, Joy of the Gospel)

 

May God give us the grace, faith and courage with the Pope to both embrace and help heal a gasping planet and , to point its anxious and desperate people gladly to Jesus Christ our Saviour and our Judge.