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Mountains and Wilderness

Luke 13 v 10-17 – Jesus heals a crippled woman on the sabbath.

 

Imagine for a moment about the woman in our gospel passage today. She has been bent double for 18 years and cannot straighten up. How do you think she gets on with life, how does she cope with the ordinary day to day things; the washing the household chores. How easy is it for her to go out to travel any distance; to get on in busy places. When she meets people how easy is it to hold a conversation; to talk to them face to face.

What is it that you think she longs for? What is it that she most wants? Of course, she wants healing; to be set free. I wonder how did she come to be in this position; what was the cause? Some commentators consider that this was a psychological thing? So, was it something that somebody might have said to her when she was young a child maybe? Was it some event that made a big impact that shook her to the core of her being? Is it something that just keeps repeating; something she cannot shake off, the more she tries the more entrenched it becomes? Maybe she cannot even remember it has been so long.

What are the other people thinking? Are they blaming her and reinforcing? Are they keeping her on the margins, tolerating her? Has she been coming to the synagogue all that time; nothing has happened, no healing no forgiveness unable to feel a full part?

Jesus enters the picture; he calls out, he touches her and it is all different.

This is a passage about liberation but it also carries a warning. We will come back to the warning but first let’s think about liberation. You will be familiar with Jesus speaking in the synagogue and quoting from the passage in Isaiah

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.” (Luke 4 v18-19)

The new testament overflows with references to the saving work of Christ, liberation is one and it sits alongside side that of reconciliation, the call to repentance, judgement and forgiveness of sins. Think of John the Baptist and his message. To take responsibility for our own actions and to turn and be renewed.

I think this passage represents a second strand; another human experience, the awareness that something has happened to us: we have lost control, we are no longer ourselves, able to choose good. In some instances, the affliction we suffer is brought about by our choices and may be there is an element of self-deception. But you only have to look through history (and not very far) to find this loss of control being forced on us. Think about war, slavery, oppressive systems based on race, class and gender. People find themselves excluded, in poverty without access to the means of making a living and they get exploited against their will.

The gospels have a lot of instances where people are suffering from exclusion and oppression: women, Samaritans, the sick in body and mind, the poor, social outcasts. Jesus encounter with these people is striking; his willingness to accept them invite them to his table and into fellowship. As with the woman in our passage he empowers them to see the coming reign of God. By accepting them he liberates them from what defines them as outsiders and it does not matter what the cause is, he just heals.

I’ve recently been reading a book by Belden C Lane titled The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. The book is part story and part theology. It has arisen out of him trying to make sense of his mother’s death from cancer and also relating to other tragic events that have happened to him. It takes him symbolically and literally to fierce landscapes deserts and mountains where he finds God’s grace at work in unlikely places and circumstances.

Early in the book he is sitting at his mother’s bedside who the doctors say does not have long to live having been diagnosed with cancer and he writes about the discovery of God’s presence in brokenness, weakness, renunciation and despair. Going on to say that it exposes our compulsive fears of being vulnerable in a society that only values competence. Our temptation then is to flee but if confronted you find a new spirituality that exults in woundedness. This, he says, poses a radical challenge to our culture and necessitates a rethinking of our twisted images of God, grace and human nature.

There are three things it will require of us which will be difficult.

  1. First, we will be forced to admit that grace rarely comes as a gentle invitation to change. More often than not it appears as an assault. Seeing someone like the woman in the Gospel may disturb us force us to see and no longer deny our need forcing on us the inescapability of our sin. The irony of the Gospel is that it only becomes “good news” only for those immersed in the bad news of their normal experience.

 

  1. Second, a spirituality of brokenness demands a rethinking of what it means to be human. Our view of the world is distorted and we define the person in terms of rational ability and productivity. We avoid and deny disability and death and substitute and put things in the way to cover it up. Consequently, we need to measure ourselves by something other than performance, despite what our culture has taught us. The weak and the marginalised have little sense of competition and seeing their fragility they invite us to accept ourselves as we were created to be.

 

  1. Third, this spirituality of brokenness is a call to reconsider the way we have pictured God. The God of scripture is equally revealed in vulnerability as in triumph. He is rarely what you expect because it is about love. God was broken for us and to see God this way is hard because it calls us to be broken so that we can be made whole. We cannot accept the plight of those the world considers unfit or weak. This is for us to join with the “groaning of all creation” for a redemption that is yet to be revealed (Romans 8 v 19-21). This is something of a paradox because those who are whole are summoned to be broken and those who are broken are to be made whole.

 

I wonder then if this is why Jesus was so direct, critical and forthright with the official in the synagogue because he was bound up in his world view and had no place in his heart for weak and vulnerable woman. The form of his religion was more important to him than the substance he had his certainty and did not want that disturbed.

The warning for the official and maybe us.

Does this then link us to our other lectionary reading from Hebrews which contrasts mount Sinai and mount Zion and our relationship that has changed through Jesus and the sprinkling of blood. The synagogue official was quoting directly from the ten commandments which were given to Moses by God on mount Sinai. You will be familiar with the passages in Exodus (Exodus chapters 19 & 20) where God comes to the mountain in thick cloud like a furnace with lightning and the people were afraid and could not touch the mountain or they would die; there were definite boundaries. Only Moses could approach the dark cloud and was the go between and the people feared hearing directly from God.

Is the reference to mount Zion to that of the transfiguration where God again spoke from a cloud but with a very different feel; still the same initial fear but the reassurance and the sight of the transfigured Jesus his face shining like the sun.

The inference in the passage is to remind us that this is the same God, a destroying fire with the exhortation to be careful and do not refuse to listen to him who speaks.

You have probably noticed in scripture and Christian tradition the prominence of deserts and mountains when something important is happening. Usually it is also something testing, thinking of Jesus forty days in the wilderness, Elijah on mount Carmel. Both pushing them to the limits of what they could stand.

I am more of a mountain person. If you asked me what would be my ideal break, I would say to you that I would love to spend time either in the Lake District or in the Scottish mountains. This maybe a romantic notion on my part but I have climbed a few peaks and once you are out there any romantic idea disappears fast. The ascent will test you; the weather might change and catch you out, you may pick up an injury and any of these will push you to your limit there will be no safety net, no support systems, nothing to rely on. You quickly find out who you are, the limits of your endurance and what you are capable of. There is real danger present something you do not often experience in the ordinary day to day.

We don’t need to physically be on a mountain to understand our limits and not all mountain climbs will test us. However, I would suggest we all need to have our limits transgressed otherwise where is faith and trust and the potential to grow, change and be relying on God alone as opposed to the comfortable structures we have engineered around ourselves.

Those on the edge of society, those who are feeling oppression, the marginalised, the ill can understand this more easily as they do not have those structures to fall back on to? Is this why the woman in the Gospel reading was able to accept healing and immediately praise God and the synagogue official resist? Were those sharp words of Jesus said with love as well as judgement to shake him from his misunderstanding?

On a retreat earlier this year the theme was change and we were introduced to an exercise about stepping stones. To think about the major changes in our lives and draw them on to a piece of paper not in a straight line. Then to reflect on them prayerfully but without judgement as that might bring our defence mechanisms into play. We were asked to try to learn what our response was to these events what did it teach us about ourselves and about our understanding of God.

This was a difficult thing for me as initially it brought to the surface a lot of points in my life where there had been pain and dark times. I landed on one that happened twenty years ago that had and did still fundamentally affect the way I am and my relationships. I thought I had dealt with it and moved on but that was not the case. The details are, in some senses, unimportant the important thing was to let God into that place to hear him and to be freed.

So be careful then and listen to him who speaks.

 

Photo Credit Guggenheim Museum by Alexandra Nicolae on Unsplash

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Ensamma

11 August 2019           Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, Luke 12.32-40

Ensam – the Swedish word for lonely, also meaning single; sometimes seen on noticeboards – Ensam?  here is this club, network etc you can join.  The picture on our screen today shows a lake a short walk from where our daughter Anna lives in southern Sweden.  There is no one in the picture.  If she and her son go there they will almost certainly be the only ones there.  It’s beautiful, yet it’s also lonely.  Ensamhet – loneliness – is a feature of life in Sweden.  It’s partly the geography – a big country, mainly forests and lakes, with a relatively small population, 1000s of Swedes having emigrated from the countryside in the 19th/early 20th century, especially in Småland where I’m going, because it was almost impossible to scrape a living from the boulder strewn post- glacial land.  Sweden has one of the highest percentages of single person households in Europe.

Perhaps the word stands out for me because I anticipate feeling lonely sometimes while I’m staying in Sweden, away from Richard, my family, my friends, this church, from so much that is familiar.  Sitting in class and learning Swedish will be hard, but I will have to be totally focussed and therefore won’t have space for thinking about how I’m feeling.  In between, though, what will I be doing? I ask myself.  Here, if I’m feeling a bit lonesome I might strike up a conversation with someone walking a dog, or standing at a bus stop.  There, if I want to do that I’ll be doing it in Swedish.  By the time I’ve worked out what to say the moment will probably have passed!

Sweden seems to have developed a culture that tries to counter loneliness in a number of ways.  I don’t know if that is deliberate.  There is a strong emphasis on consensus in decision making, for example; that means people coming together, taking time to reach agreement.  When there is a coffee break at work it is assumed that everyone will sit down together.  The long distances needing to be travelled in order to reach significant events means that often those events are residential – like confirmation- where young people all go off to a confirmation camp for a period of time, living and learning together before the confirmation itself.  St Sigfrid’s college where I’ll be learning Swedish for 3 months is a residential folk high school (‘folkhögskola’) or college, set up in 1942 by the Swedish church as its way of drawing adults together for learning, for community building, and whether deliberately or not, to combat ensamhet, loneliness.  In a country where people are thinly scattered over wide areas building a shared culture, shared values is a challenge.  One small, fun way is by having set days when everyone does the same thing – crayfish day, cinnamon bun day, St Lucia day.  The folk high schools (there are over 150 of them in Sweden) offer a more intensive approach.  The course I’m doing, a basic Swedish language course, is for foreigners who are settling in Sweden (I’m not planning to settle there!).  Staying at the college with a whole mixture of students doing a whole range of courses will help those of us studying there to absorb the values and norms of Swedish society.  Because St Sigfrids is run by the church the chapel is at the centre of life there and I’m looking forward to joining in daily morning prayer there.  And I’ll be praying for all of you there too!

The lectionary has come up trumps today!  I couldn’t have asked for more appropriate readings as I prepare to spend 3 months in a foreign country.  There’s Abraham travelling off into the unknown.  Perhaps I’m a bit like him as I set off for a faraway country, but it’s not unknown to me.  I’ve stayed at St Sigfrid’s before when I’ve visited Sweden with our Oxford/ Vaxjo link committee.  I won’t be living in a tent, like Abraham.  The college is a comfortable place and the food is good.  Nor will I be travelling with my extended family most of whom view my decision to go as, well, interesting, adventurous even, but also a bit bewildering. I do have a sense of call, but to quite what I’m not sure.  That’s where I can identify with Abraham.  Whilst I do know where I’m going, what lies ahead in terms of my call is unknown.

There are some clues though; one is my age.  I’m more aware that life comes to an end, that my end is much closer than my beginning, that I want to travel more lightly, focus on what is most important, on what Jesus calls the ‘treasure’ in our gospel reading.  Where my treasure is there will my heart be also.  This is an inward journey, but it can be helped by an outward journey too, a sort of pilgrimage.  I’d like to see my journey to Växjö in that light and also draw on the experience of pilgrimage in the Swedish church.  They love pilgrimages, even short ones between rural churches!  Even those small journeys mirror that bigger one that we all make through life and eventually beyond death.  But is that why it’s important to them?  I don’t know and I’d like to find out.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples are an encouragement to be ready for God’s call.  It helps not to be weighed down by possessions.  (cf Jeremy’s preaching on the rich fool last week).  They have to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice.  That’s not something I find easy so perhaps this journey to Sweden is a way of testing out what that feels like.  And then, just when I’m thinking that this requires quite a lot from me, can I really manage it, I’m given these words of Jesus’ to his disciples, ‘Fear not, little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.  I don’t have to try too hard.

Another clue to my call, my reason for going, is family.  Our daughter and youngest grandchild live there.  Anna is having a difficult time.  My classes end at midday on Friday, leaving me free to visit Anna for the weekend.  She lives in the same part of Sweden (Smäland) about 50km away.  My Dad’s mother was Swedish, from the far north of the country, a long way from where I’ll be studying.  She emigrated to South Africa where she met my English grandfather.  Shortly after they came to England my Dad was born and a few months later my grandmother died in the 1919 flu epidemic – exactly a hundred years ago.  I’m named after her.  So, there’s a family connection.

The last clue is faith.  I will experience ensamhet (loneliness) sometimes, but like Abraham and I guess most of you, wherever I go I carry within me a place which is a deeper home than the one where I live in Reading or where I’ll be living in Sweden.  I think of it as being a taste of the heavenly city to which the writer of Hebrews refers in today’s first reading. The heavenly city is something already present inside us, even if only in a small way (like when Jesus says, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’), not something up in the sky somewhere or a place that we only enter after death.  It’s the place within us where we are most at home with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with ourselves.  It’s our treasure.  I think it was that inner home, that treasure that kept St Sigfrid and his companions steady as they made the hazardous voyage over to Sweden from England in the 10th century, bringing the gospel to what was then a very inhospitable country.  Now, through our diocesan link with Växjö we enjoy a mutual exchange of good news.

St Paul in his letter to Philemon uses a great phrase when telling Philemon of how much he and others have been encouraged by Philemon’s faith.  He says, ‘You, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints’.  I like to think that is what happens when we foster links with brothers and sisters in other countries.  I’m hoping that when I return in November there might be a mutual refreshing of hearts with my sisters and brothers here in this church.

Image Credit – Swedish Flag by Jonathan Brinkhorst on Unsplash