Do you recognise who this is? Apparently this little figure has been selling like hot cakes in Germany.
It was 500 years ago this year that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and university professor posted a paper to the church door in Wittenberg. He listed some questions he felt needed to be discussed. What followed was a controversy that split the Christian Church in Western Europe and set off changes that still profoundly affect our life today. The passions were so strong that for the next 150 years or so Europe was plagued by a series of religious wars, not least events like the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot and the Civil war in our country in the 1640s.
Luther wrestled with the question of whether or not he was saved, forgiven of his sins. The conclusion he came to was that it was not by good deeds that he was justified in the sight of God. He was saved by faith or we could use the word trust, in Christ and his death on the cross. Good deeds could never be enough to gain us salvation, however hard we tried. Faith alone was what was needed, in Latin SOLA FIDES. This was the conclusion he came to after his study of the bible, especially the letter of Paul to the Romans.
Luther was emphasising this – that we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We can never be good enough to be forgiven and accepted by God purely by our own efforts. Our justification, or being accepted and forgiven by God is pure gift. This is a very important Christian insight. Luther cut through a lot of accumulated church tradition and an insistence that the church alone could pronounce what is the right interpretation of scripture. And one of Luther’s passions was to enable ordinary people to read the bible in their own language, rather than in Latin. His translation of the New Testament into German and the invention of the printing press had a huge impact and that is why he is such an important figure in German history and culture.
However, the idea of salvation by faith alone is not the whole story. The Christian faith is a supple tradition that brings together different strands. Often opposites and paradoxes, like one that I think Gary often talks of – presence and absence. The Gospel reading today paints a rather different picture and different emphasis. This is sometimes talked of as faith and good works. Are we saved by believing and trusting God’s mercy and forgiveness, or are we saved by living the way of Christ, living a good life. But these are not mutually exclusive. It is more a case of both and rather than either one or the other.
In our Gospel reading we have a picture of Christ coming at the end of time, sitting on his throne of glory and judging the nations. It is a bit like the sorting process at Hogworts in the Harry Potter films, but on a grand and cosmic scale. And the main point at issue is how people have responded to those in need; to the hungry, the thirsty the outsider, the sick, those who cannot afford proper clothes. The question is; did you feed the hungry? Did you visit the sick? Because when we do that we are encountering Christ himself. We are not just reaching out to individual people in need, we are actually responding to Christ himself. We encounter Christ in other people, especially when we are responding to people in need.
Today’s Feast of Christ the King is observed in the C of E on the last day of the church’s year. Next week we begin Advent which is the beginning of a new year for the church.
Due to a mix-up too dull to go into, I got hold of last week’s lectionary readings for today. By the time I noticed, it was too late so the gospel reading from last week – that for Remembrance Sunday – is the one I worked with. With its prophecy of the destruction of the temple, the threat of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, martyrdom and false prophets, it’s not exactly the sort of passage you might turn to looking for comfort and help, neither is it one of those purple passages that the Gideon bibles point you to in times of distress. But it’s easy to see why it is the gospel for Remembrance Sunday. However, the verse that stands out for me is verse 9: ‘Then you will be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.’ Now listen to this. The source is Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Christians_in_the_modern_era ‘Fiorello Provera of the European Parliament called the Middle East “the most dangerous place for Christians to live” and cited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who blamed the international community for failing to deal with what she considers a war against Christians in the Muslim world.Former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel stated in 2011 that Christians had become the target of genocide after dozens of Christians were killed in deadly attacks in Egypt and Iraq.
According to Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, in the hundred years leading up to 2010 the Middle East’s Christian population dwindled from 20% to less than 5%….In Egypt, Muslim extremists have subjected Coptic Christians to beatings and massacres, resulting in the exodus of 200,000 Copts from their homes; in Iraq, 1,000 Christians were killed in Baghdad between the years 2003 and 2012 and 70 churches in the country were burned; in Iran, converts to Christianity face the death penalty and in 2012 Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death; in Saudi Arabia, private Christian prayer is against the law; in the Gaza Strip, half of the Palestinian Christian population has fled since Hamas seized power in 2007 and Gazan law forbids public displays of crucifixes; in the West Bank, the Christian population has been reduced from 15% to less than 2%.’
It would easily be possible to turn to other areas of the world: to South Asia, SE Asia, China, even countries like Mexico and Colombia and find similar stories. Persecution can come from other religious groups – for example Muslims in the ME and Hindu fundamentalists in India; or state-sponsored persecution, as in North Korea or China, where religious faith is seen as undermining the state; or by illegal militia, who target Christians taking a stand against evil, as in Mexico. Here in the UK, and generally in ‘The West’, we live in a very safe haven where we are free to practice our faith without fear of persecution. And by and large, we take it for granted. I don’t want to make anyone today feel bad or guilty, but I do think today’s gospel invites us to step outside of our comfort zone, face reality and take in what is happening to our brothers and sisters in Christ in different countries across the world. In the Creed we profess faith in the ‘communion of saints’ – meaning the fellowship we have with followers of Christ across time and space. Here’s a short video produced by Open Doors which, in 3 minutes, gives us a flavour of life in the 5 countries in the world in which it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Let me introduce a good friend of mine, Sukha Debnath. [Sukha is a doctor I worked with in Bangladesh. He and I have known each other for nearly 30 years. He became a Christian from a Hindu background and talks about some of the difficulties he encountered]
Hearing the quote, watching the video and listening to Sukha, it’s possible to think that it’s all Christians who are persecuted and everybody else who does the persecuting. Especially Muslims. But we should remember with humility the appalling things that Christians have done to everybody else – especially Muslims and Jews. This year marks 500 years since the German monk Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 31st October, 1517, sparking the Reformation. Which in many ways has been a good thing, especially if you count yourself a Protestant in the best Reformed tradition. However, it also sparked about 100 years of war, dreadful violence and persecution directed both ways between various Catholic and Protestant groups and countries. Absolutely no-one came out of this smelling of roses. That was Christians persecuting other Christians!! And it is our history. After 500 years at least we can be thankful that we are no longer killing each other and there is a real warmth between Christian churches of different traditions.
So what do we do with all of this? Firstly, I think we should be aware of it. Aware that the church in many parts of the world is truly hated, and suffers greatly. Aware that what Jesus said would happen, is a daily reality for many. Secondly, we could, in some ways, stand with them. That may mean praying for them, or writing letters to foreign governments, signing petitions. There is lots of information about the situation in various countries, and what we can do about it on the internet but I would direct you to three places in particular: Open Doors (who produced the video), Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Amnesty International. Thirdly, we should resolve never, in any way, to behave in the same way towards people of other faiths or none. We cannot possibly want persecution to ease up against Christians if we do not show generosity of spirit to people who profess faiths other than ours. Finally, we should reflect that despite tremendous hardship, Christians in countries facing dreadful persecution not only hang on to their faith but continue to share it with others, often at great cost. In its first 300 years of existence, the church faced enormous persecution in the Roman Empire. However, the faith continued to spread and grow until in AD313, the Emperor Constantinople declared Christianity to be the Imperial religion. Everything changes.
The tension rose, the ringleader-guy’s face right in my friend’s face.. “right, lets have it, right now, right here, you and me”
how did we get here – let’s go back!
Many (many) years ago I helped lead a church youth group with the youth worker and (still) great friend Barry. We had taken the young people – all of us friends and in our late teens – to the skate rink in Slough.. much fun ensued, (despite my total inability to skate and my various collisions with both wall and floor). As we left however, laughing and joking, we were approached by a large gang of local youth, who clearly wanted trouble. A ringleader stepped forward and asked what we doing in their area… my friend Barry, (who was not scared of a confrontation), stepped up too…. The atmosphere was tense, our laughter turned to that creeping sense of unease, and wondering how we would get out of this. Barry explained ‘we were a church group – Christians’, we weren’t expecting a big scrap in a Slough car park. And worse still if Barry was decked- I’d be next up! This wasn’t what we were imagining. The tension rose, the ringleader-guy’s face right in my friend’s face.. (oh no) “right, lets have it, right now, right here, you and me”
Now Barry wasn’t afraid of a fight, as a boy he loved nothing more that a good scrap. But we had spent some time together thinking about how the gospel affected all of our lives, how the inspiration of Jesus called for something new. He recognised that this was a key moment, he was a leader and how he responded was important…
“I’m a pacifist” he said, “I don’t believe in violence.. but I do believe in running; if you want to prove yourself against me, I’ll challenge you to a race.. lets run around the carpark, and we’ll see who wins”
The reaction was one of stunned awe.. “what?!” Barry repeated himself.. clearly his response was so unexpected the first time it needed repeating! The aggressive gang laughed among themselves.. they could believe this.. “are you serious?” said their leader.. laughter spread. He began to laugh too. Not at Barry, but at the absurd turn this confrontation had suddenly taken. The guy backed down. “nah your alright mate; I don’t want to race, you must be mad.” The tension eased.. Barry turned the table, “scared of a race? C’mon!”
“nah don’t worry. You are crazy” the laughter continued among them – and us.. the ringleader shook Barry’s hand and the gang walked away. The confrontation was resisted.
What had happened was not by an accident. Barry had for years recognised his own delight at a good fight, but also recognised it wasn’t consistent with his faith. He had begun to ‘prepare’ and ‘rehearse’ alternatives.
On this day of remembrance we gather to recognise the outcomes of direct conflict. We give thanks that we are most privileged to live in a free country, and we give mourn for the many lives, ordinary lives, lost in the task of defending such freedoms. We give thanks that fascism was defeated, that the many aggressive forces across the world (which still seek to dominate and oppress) are resisted. And we recognise realistically that we are still protected in many respects by a military presence – and military history.
However we must also acknowledge a problem; and the problem is violence. Violence maims, kills, destroys families and communities; violence brutalises and dehumanises; it scars communities and creates long-standing division. And in the lives of the armed forces – as I have seen even in recent years – it leaves young children and grieving partners placing poppies before memorials where they would much rather their husbands, wives and mummies and daddies could be.
Violence, can never the answer – surely we must lament. There must be a better way to resolve conflicts. It cannot be right in this day and age that we settle disagreements by sending young people to war.. and in this context of church – where we hear the words of Jesus telling us to love our enemies – we must ask what the churches response is.. We attempt that uncomfortable straddling act where we try to reconcile violence which has helped us, and a quest for non-violence and peace…
I’m not here to offer easy solutions as much as to recognise the problem … to name it. In the end, as obvious as it might be to say; violence kills, it kills our humanity and sense of compassion, it kills the planet and the earth resources too, our capacity for violence could well be the end of us all.
And we often see no alternative; ‘what would you do if you saw someone attacking your family?’ We see no alternative I want to suggest because maybe we’ve never considered an alternative. We rehearse the same story again and again that conflict is tackled head-on… and that violence can be redemptive.
Human culture is steeped in the history of war and conflict; lands and nations often exist because of war; our comic books, films and story books tell us over and over again about violence being overcome with – you guessed it – more violence. We even allow religion to be guided by this with talk of and angry god calling for divine justice, (and yes, read that as the killing of another). We are prepared and rehearsed to use violence.
But can we prepare ourselves to resist in different ways, can we rehearse a different story?
In the parable of the ten virgins Jesus/Matthew is telling us about being prepared for the coming kingdom, though we don’t know when it will arrive.. Matthew tells this to an already waiting community who have witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection and are wondering, ‘what now?’. The parable has many interesting layers.. but for today lets stay at the simple message – be prepared for the arrival of the kingdom… the same kingdom which Jesus said was already in their midst…
So hold on… be prepared for the kingdom – which is already here… hmmm
We are now in kingdom season and our service sheet (at the back) expresses that strange tension which theologians, priests and all of us wrestle with all the time; the ‘already but not yet’. The tension that exists between an ideal world and the one we live in; and the implied message from Jesus that the kingdom might just come if we act like it has…
So back to violence, and the simple question I wish to ask – on this day when we mourn the terrible tragedies that violence and conflict brings – can we prepare ourselves for the kingdom by preparing a different response to violence? And if so – how?
How do we resist the oppression and violence of others, whilst not repeating the same patterns of violence and abuse.. or as far as we can?
The theologian Walter Wink speaks of the cross as the ultimate act of non-violence. Whereby God resists all the powers of domination and violence through – not giving in – but resisting; by subverting the notion of fighting fire with fire, force with force. God’s nature is the opposite of force and God empties Godself because (despite the stories of the OT) God is not in the business of ‘defeating opposition’; instead God’s love overwhelms us; reaches to all. In God’s reign their can be no enemy – no other; only the power which seeks to create enemies through domination and violence.
There are times when it seems that violence is unavoidable.. (for example) Dietrich Bonheoffer was aware of various plots to kill Hitler but he never suggested that this act was anything other than sin. He refused to allow himself the comfort of thinking this was somehow divinely authorised.
Last year Fr. Vincent spoke about how we come to church to be overwhelmed; the place where our ego is silenced by an awe which goes beyond us.. and this we remember each week by feasting on the body and blood of the same. This day is an overwhelming day.. when we face the terrible things our species can do to each other. And to reflect on so many battles and wars is overwhelming.. yet we are overwhelmed too by this presence which calls us back to being more fully human; which forgives, restores, heals and entices us into something new.
So can we learn from the ten virgins preparedness – or lack of? Can we become prepared for an alternative way to think about conflict. Is there an alternative to violence and can we prepare for it by rehearsing a different story? Well I suggest a yes… I mentioned the skate rink story, as a way of describing the disorientation and diversion of something new and unexpected.
There are powerful stories of people prepared for non-violence. Martin Luther King & and the civil rights movement; Ghandi and non-violent resistance; the Suffragette movement… and when we look there are many small acts of non-violent resistance all over the world. Violence is not the only way to overcome oppression.
But how can we make a difference when moves to war are made (usually) by men in power or with uncontrolled twitter accounts. Men who – unlike the military – have no real idea of what conflict actually means. How can our voice be heard, (especially when we remember the vast numbers who marched against the Iraq war to (seemingly) no effect?
Well maybe in the same way we face many challenges in life. We recognise and act out the small steps, whilst still challenging the big things. ‘Be the change you want to see’ – goes the slogan; we all face conflicts and challenges.. but can we begin to plan, to prepare, to imagine and rehearse alternative responses? Sometimes we’ll fail; sometimes we’ll do well. But how do we begin?
First we see the other as human.. ‘love your enemy’; they may be different but still deserve humanity.
Maybe to love an enemy is to remind them of their own humanity.
Then look for ways to break the cycle of violence against violence, look for a third way. And this helps when we may already have practiced ideas in our head, or read stories of non-violent resistance.
Walter Wink, (again), points to the subversive and disorientating nature of Jesus teaching on going the extra mile, giving a cloak as well as a coat – an alternative reading if you like;
“Should anyone press you into service for one mile,” Jesus says again, “go with him two miles.” Roman soldiers forced the poor to carry their heavy packs for them. By law, however, the soldiers were not permitted to force the poor to walk more than one mile with their packs. Jesus shows them a way to nonviolently resist the soldiers. “Go an extra mile”, he says. His audience would understand that any soldier would be shamed and possibly arrested for breaking the law. He teaches creative nonviolent resistance to transform the situation.. he empowers the oppressed.
Again, if a poor person was sued in court for their outer garment, and gave away his inner garment too, they would be naked before the court, which was not only taboo in Judaism, but criminal, it was illegal to look upon a naked person. Jesus teaches the oppressed not to be awed by power, but to respond creatively, disarm their opponents and nonviolently liberate themselves. Jesus offers, in Wink’s words, “a practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed.”
Indeed; satire humour and imagination, reveal and embarrass the power of oppression for what it is.. It’s one of the reasons why totalitarian regimes often imprison artists, writers, intellectuals (and even comedians) first.
And as we gather here today; we recognise the subversive– even absurd – nature of the Christ’s crucifixion. Taking a sideways step, (a third way), which resists the forces of oppression without de-humanising.
When we feast on broken bread and wine outpoured we are already beginning to rehearse and participate in a non-violent resistance; God’s desire drawing all to the feast.
So here we are… on Remembrance Day. The day when we remember that we fail; we remember that to achieve the hope of peace we have often used the very opposite. The day when we give deep thanks and gratitude for the sacrifices of many; as we remember to avoid complacency and to resist the militaristic arrogance of leaders who don’t think. The day when remembering is met with love, forgiveness and understanding. The day when remembering stirs our conscience and challenges us to be both prepared and preparing for something better.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed. God help us… And maybe it’s right to feel overwhelmed. God help us all. Amen
500 Years ago a young monk in the German town of Wittenberg left his lodgings. It was a cool, calm but crispy evening, and there was a chill in the air. He walked through the market square up to the imposing doors of the large dominating church and nailed a piece of manuscript which contained his ‘95 thesis’, 95 criticisms against the Roman Catholic Church. Little did he know that his act was to begin a revolution which changed the church, society, Europe and the world…
The Monk’s name, as I’m sure you know, was Martin Luther. He wasn’t trying to start a new religion but just to clear the air of religious abuse and arrogance. He was a good Catholic, and intended to stay as such… but his questions, opened up a way for all to question the church, government, society, assumed positions. Everything. Everything was changed.
I was hoping this morning to find something clever or insightful to say about this passage.. something novel, something different, maybe provocative or intriguing. Looking for something new in the text… But I couldn’t find anything…
It’s not that this text is not deep and rich already… it certainly is! It’s just that there is—in many ways—nothing more to say about it… Jesus has said all that needs to be said… his case is made simply and eloquently.. and he leaves the Pharisees and Sadducees silent and beguiled… (lets face it – and probably us too).. because when all is said and done.. when all the theology has been read and digested, when all the prayers have been said, when we strip Christianity to it’s basic fundamental level.. we are left in no doubt of what Jesus is saying… love God, love others.
Except that’s the problem we all face and generation and generation before have also faced.. what are we going to do about it? The question leaps off the page and into our lives, (a bit like the question earlier in Matthew (ch16) ‘Who do you say I am?’)
Some interpreters suggest that the Pharisees by this point had actually worked out who Jesus was… they had played him (so they thought) with many questions about his authority.. and each time Jesus had responded in deep love, but in a thorough and rigorous exposure to their own hypocrisy. His understanding of the Torah showed knowledge – but crucially wisdom too. A God-authorised interpreter of the tradition.
The Pharisees might have realised who Jesus really was.. but the same deeply uncomfortable question too; what are they going to do about it?
Today is one of those days when a whole set of events combine; it is the end of our creation season, which began with the Dazzle festival… it is also the feast of all saints and all souls – where we remember the lives of all who go before us, and in whose company – during our Eucharist prayer we join and sing ‘holy, holy, holy’; it …. So there’s a lot to pack in and I’m looking for a way to combine these events, our gospel reading and the final glimpse of Moses… atop Mt Nebo realising he would not see the promised land himself..
Well I wonder if there might be some link here? Something in the way that Jesus sums up of all he was about in these two commandments, and by drawing on the imagination and faith of his fellow Jews. He evokes Moses laws..
The sh’ma (“Hear O’ Israel”) is so desperately important to Jewish faith it sums up everything.. it is the centre piece of morning and evening prayer, recited every Sabbath, at every festival. It is the first thing a Jewish baby hears and the last words on the lips of the dying. Jesus was being tested.. he knew this, the debate at the time was over whether any Jewish laws (613 – not 10) were more important than others.. but Jesus once again subverts the question. Though this time, not with a parable, or even an illustration. He simply speaks.. simply,
Love God – wholly, love others – wholly. This is what it’s ALL about.
But Jesus goes further.. the ‘golden rule’ from Leviticus ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ had long been recognised as important in Torah, but Jesus is countering a notion that that love of God and love of neighbour are two parallel but separate spheres of human responsibility. Rather, ‘the second is like it’ they are the same thing (like – homoios ὅμοιος,).
The Jewish laws are not important in themselves.. that’s a distraction; they were ways to express the deeper wisdom of Sh’ma, ‘Love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind’ – all of your selves. Similarly today; religion, statements of faith, worship services, christian socks (I’ve seen them)… even great works of charity and care.. are not worth anything; (echoes of 1 Corinth 13) if they are not about a deeper love for God.. real love, deep, rigorous and evolving; Christianity can seem like a set of rules, or self-righteous holier than thou behaviour.. when all it really needs to be is a simple open-hearted ‘yes’ to God. We call this grace.
So we may sometimes struggle to know what ‘loving’ might mean here, and ‘loving God’ is even harder… but Jesus gives a clue; with your heart, your soul/life, your mind… and your neighbour as yourself… to love God is about desire; it’s not brash, proud or boastful, it does not even adhere to the 39 articles – it is instead an exuberant love which goes beyond borders, a love which cries, delights, questions, doubts, argues, hopes, gives, cares, desires and desires and desires.
But Jesus then asks a question of his own.. a question about what kind of Messiah is hoped for? Who were the Scholars and Priests expecting to see?
I asked what are we going to do about it? But is it about what we do? when I say something like ‘the love of God’, we might ask; is that or our love for God – or God’s love for us? We can hear both these commandments and think that we are to respond as if it’s all down to us… the same with loving our neighbour.. as if this is something we are to do to others.. it might do… but what if loving our neighbours also means to allow our neighbours to love us? If we balance doing with being, if we allow God’s love to infiltrate us even as we desire God.
Whenever anyone (me) dares to speak of G-d, I always want to ask about pain and suffering… how does that fit (realistically) in a world as complex as ours?
Maybe there is something in loving God and neighbour which does allow for vulnerability; and what if—on the final Sunday of Creation season—we include the earth and her creatures as our neighbours too? If we allow our neighbour to love us, even as we love our neighbour. We begin to open ourselves to love, to become vulnerable, open, welcoming. Neighbour helps neighbour, gives, shares, discovers their own generosity – fosters ‘community’. Neighbour becomes saint – saint becomes neighbour. The task and challenge ‘what are we going to do about it?’ remains but it’s different now… no longer ‘us and them’, but ‘we together’. This might make sense of pain and sorrow too.. the cries of suffering shared together.
Jesus offered the greatest vulnerability divine vulnerability… Martin Luther and all the saints offered vulnerability and we are aware of ours too. But vulnerability has a strength too.
And that vulnerability is risky – the silence of the departing Pharisees (we realise) means the ‘what are we going to do about it?’ has an answer. (The plot to kill Jesus begins).
We can so easily feel/be led to believe that loving God is getting things all sown up.. but love of God is never complacent – there is always space for new light to break in the apparent darkness of complacent faith… (and yes that does sound challenging!)
Martin Luther found this when his eyes were opened to the abuse and control of the Roman church – his church – which he loved – and things could not be the same again. Like Jesus – in the end – before the Sanhedrin speaking plainly – Martin Luther had to speak, and when the full realisation of the danger hit him – challenged and accused of blasphemy his response ‘here I stand, I can do no other.’
From a small moment of insight, a small moment of doubt and question and challenge a new way of seeing emerged.. From a small life in Galilee some 2000 years ago – a whole new universe emerged.. The world forever changed.. a glimpse of a kingdom, a promised land… a homecoming for our desire…
So … now I’ve made some noise, I’ve spoken words… even tried to sound poetic.. but the question is still there – insistent, irritating, magical and rewarding, for me and for you; what are we going to do about it?
Well maybe one saint that I will invoke today. The early church father Iranaus, (2nd Century) says ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. Can we put this idea of loving god – giving god glory, worship and praise with the task of being human and fully alive? Well maybe – given the second commandment (‘like this’) – loving neighbour, human, housing, situation.. then there is something we can work with;
To love God is to love others – to love others is to love God, to live fully is to love God, to love God – the mystery, the dazzling mystery the hope of the ages, the ancient of days, is to love is to live is to love…
The love of God seems to be often cheapened by the church – over-simplified or made superficial – yet loving is the same as living, (who has a simple life?), love demands everything from us, loving means weeping too, lamenting and grieving.. and gives everything to us.. it is endless mystery, and it is here in our midst… like our collect prayer says, ‘Your unifying love is revealed in the interdependence of relationships in the complex world that you have made. Save us from the illusion that humankind is separate and alone, and join us in communion with all inhabitants of the universe.’
Following Jesus simple, yet profound words, Martin Luther challenged the church.. Reminded her, all of us, that Love is the most important thing.. and that the nature of God’s love is always full of grace. Ironic then that we turned that into an even more judgmental ‘puritanical’ understanding of religion which seems so much to lack that very grace. A fundamentalism which achieves splitting the connection between loving God and loving people.
Yet Jesus words call us again and again to respond.. to love God and to know the love of God as we love and are loved by our neighbours.
But it’s not easy. It really is not easy… the challenge remains always; grace …
It isn’t easy to push aside judgment to make room for grace.
But that is our constant challenge – to open up to love.
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
My sister-in-law recently decided she was going to buy a boat…
‘Ah how exciting, a boat!’ we said…
‘Well not like that, she said, something for a canal, she said
Ah – a canal boat we said… well no, not quite she said;
May I introduce Clementine… A oil-rig rescue vessel!
And there i was yesterday taking large granite slabs from skips in Southall to use as ballast. The stone that was rejected….. the perfect sermon illustration!
“No more beating about the bush – get on with the parable!”
Parables are the primary teaching method for Jesus, picture-making stories; simple, short, and always inverting expectation; subverting the usual reading of the world around us.
This parable is complex and challenging; its violent, puzzling, and apparently full of judgement. It provokes a response, provokes action and enables listeners to recognise God with new perspectives.
Jesus is responding (for the third time) to the Pharisees question ‘by what authority are you able to speak these things?’ They are pulling rank on him… but he raises the stakes by invoking God himself! He responds to the question with a more probing question woven into a story.
It’s worth noting from the outset that Jesus is unmistakably alluding to a song in Isaiah 5. This song—from God—concerns a vineyard which is built (including a tower, hedge and wine vat) to bear fruit. But the fruit does not come – only wild grapes, God laments the way that the land and its inhabitants have been exploited, as greed and arrogance have taken over;
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
And so God allows the hedge to be taken down and the land turned back to the wild.
We must remember that for the Hebrews, land was deeply integral to God’s covenant. The land belonged to God, but Israel would remain on the land as long as they could be a blessing to other nations. Breaking the covenant, breaking Torah, (as summed up in the commandments of Exodus), meant that God broke down the blessing given to both the land and to the people of the land.
1, A True Ending?
The key to a parable is often hidden in the detail… let’s look
Jesus method is to use everyday scenes and characters –familiar to the rural and agricultural villages he visited. Everything would be familiar, and stories would unfold in familiar ways.. but then a turn; something unexpected.. something different to the norm inverts the expectation. That’s how Jesus understands the kingdom of God – it’s common place, everyday, (“in your midst”), yet radically different to what we see and expect – it turns order upside down, disorientates and surprises us!
The parable starts believably… sending collectors, (a common practice), and resentment grows, (realistic that the tenants would resent the vineyard owner who had perhaps bought up their family plots and turned them into a vineyard, a common practice at the time). But then… violence and no reprisal? That is suddenly hard to believe! And then more violence? And a idea that having by murdering the heir they would receive an inheritance? The plot has now become absurd and surreal!
Like with all of the parables Jesus allows the listeners to reflect on what they would do… (and in turn what we would do).
So a question arises – did the writers, (evangelists), add the ending – and was it necessary? Jesus way was usually to allow the question to linger. Certainly a version in the Gospel of Thomas simply stops at Jesus question, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” allowing it to probe.
It’s almost like we don’t need to hear the vindictive response, whoever listens the story will always provoke anger – this parable cuts deep!
2, Who is the gospel speaking to?
It may well be true that if you were a Pharisee listening in… you might think literally; ‘well the landowner is us’.. they were often landowners with many servants, (although maybe hadn’t acknowledged they too might have broken the woes of Isaiah 5 and built field upon field and house upon house – they would have exploited the land, the people, and the tradition they were charged to care for). They might have gloated at the punishment given to the tenants…
Which means many peasants listening would recognise themselves in the angry tenants.. this was their story; being exploited, unfairly taxed – like many people struggling today. The expulsion of tenants may have been a retribution they were already familiar with… a typical story of a bad landowner.
The sending of a son may appear naïve, but– in a culture based on shame and duty – it would have been a significant challenge to any wayward tenant. This could be read as further exploiting authority and religion.
However in later years, as Christianity gained influence, another reading took centre stage.. The landowner was God and the (beloved) son Jesus. This interpretation said that the responsibility of salvation was given to the Jews, but they mishandled it… and now it is given to ‘others’; the church! Tragically this reading has allowed both anti-semitic actions in the historical church, and fostered an arrogance that came when the church regards itself sole custodian of God’s gospel.
Jews, So who’s who? It’s not clear.. the parable is actually open to many interpretations… and it is the listeners only (or evangelists) who suggest an ending,
40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They (not him) said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
But Jesus neither confirms nor denies their response, he simply allows the parable to germinate inside the minds and imaginations of those around him… The point is given if the fruit does not grow, (Isaiah5) or if the workers are arrogant or abusive, then the landowner will try to be reasonable, and try again, always gracious always ready to give… but eventually the kingdom is shared elsewhere. (But to where?)
The question is turned over to us too, as contemporary listeners of Jesus’ words… we all become ‘the other’….and we too are asked about fruit. How do we respond to the radical call of God’s reign? What harvest emerges in our lives?
With its focus on grace, patience and rejection, what would this parable have to say to the troubled relationship we have with our child, or parent, or awkward friend? What does it have to say to our inability to forgive others, or ourselves? What does this parable have to say to our reflections on criminal justice, ecology, business, politics, education and health? What relevance would it have to guide our responsibility to helping people in society who, (some say), have brought their troubles upon themselves?
Think on this for a moment
3, Fruits of what? We spoke already of the gospel being given to the church.. and began to ask.. how effective that actually might be? Negatively it can breed a complacency and protectiveness around ‘the gospel’, which makes the same Gospel ineffective? Who looks after God’s mission; the church or God?
I was recently at a training event about Mission and Evangelism – (it was pretty painful)…. Missio-Dei, is a mission-theory that simply says ‘mission is finding out what God is doing in the world – and joining in’, but that didn’t go down so well among some colleagues. “It must be believers who bring the gospel!” But I ask you, how limited or expansive is the Gospel? When we consider groups like Friends of the earth, Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics, Art that inspires, Amnesty Oxfam, Readifood, Communicare, kindness in the community. Is this the Gospel? What is God doing – breaking down borders?
The logic of saying God only works in the church echoes an arrogant from the past; ‘you cannot trust God with Mission! We know better.’
43 “And so I tell you,” added Jesus, “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.”
The actions of the landowner show a remarkable goodwill and trust towards the tenants, even when they create such havoc and use such violence. Owner/God show compassion and mercy, ready to give and give again – endlessly naïve – endlessly generous? (Jesus reaching out to the Pharisees?)
We cannot control God. The church cannot contain God. And we cannot control mercy. (two weeks ago we heard… “are you envious because I am generous?”
Ultimately the parable points towards the kingdom of God, its surprising and ever-giving emphasis on mercy, grace and trust, yet it remains realistic about the world and those who seek to exploit it;
In coming to reclaim what belongs to his Father, the Son sets out to restore the world to its divinely created order. Jesus brings wholeness to a broken world, providing glimpses into the kingdom of heaven. This is what God’s creation is supposed to look like.
But the restoration of God’s creation meets opposition from those with a vested interest in the brokenness of the world.
This final cornerstone reflection (Psalm118) becomes a reminder too that all things will be ‘judged’ in the light of Christ, (all things, made through him and for him – as our Eucharist prayer says), a ‘judgement’ which will cause many to stumble. It’s worth reminding ourselves that this judgement refers to understanding and reconciliation – it calls to account those who have exploited and abused both people and the earth. Judgment is the inversion of world order where oppressors are bought low and the humble lifted high. This cornerstone has been rejected, but will in the end become the most significant thing of all, the centrepoint of all creation. The light by which all is truly seen.
How do we end this morning?… with four questions maybe – questions which reframe the deep question at the heart of this parable, and ask something of us;
What does the Gospel of Christ look like, feel like, taste like, smell like – what are you looking for?
And how gracious do you truly believe God is in evoking, provoking and waiting for this kingdom to be received and understood?
Who hold the keys of this kingdom; who truly are its prophets and activists – working both in the church or outside of the church?
And finally, The wicked tenants try God’s patience. Do we really dare to let God be God? In our lives, our world, our desires and our hopes.. will we look, and recognise, and be transformed—as Christ inspires us—to see the fruit-bearing kingdom emerging in our midst?
There are, throughout France, Spain and Portugal, winding paths that cross fields, towns, industrial areas and woodlands, cut across major highways, railway lines and go right through shopping malls. They are not obvious, you have to follow small yellow arrows painted on lampposts and walls to find your way. Those who walk these paths are walking to a different drumbeat, a slower rhythm; calmer, harder work, more connected with the landscape and with fellow travellers. You can only take enough food for a day or your rucksack will be too heavy. To follow these paths is to bear witness to a different way of living, as the trucks and busy shoppers rush by. In 2012 Rosemary and I walked one of these paths from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, and on Friday night we got back after walking from Lisbon to Porto. We hope to complete the walk to Santiago next year, starting in Porto.
Today I want to make some connections, some of which I will simply leave hanging in the air for us to reflect on and do with what we will. And then I want to think about what rhythm it is that we walk to, what compass we hold to direct us as we make the journey of our lives. I am very struck by the depth of both of today’s readings to help us as we think about this. The OT reading from Exodus is a famous passage where the Israelites, having escaped from slavery in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, are now starting on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land, led by Moses and Aaron and more importantly, by God, YHWH Himself. But they are hungry! They start to complain bitterly, ‘send us back to Egypt! At least we had food there!’ YHWH promises he will rain food from heaven for them. In the story, quails come up in the evening and cover the camp; in the morning something flaky falls to the ground, manna, for the Israelites to eat. They are literally being fed from heaven. It is, bread from heaven. We didn’t read on this morning, but the story goes on to tell us that they just received enough for each day. If people tried to collect for the next day, it went rotten. I hope you’re starting to make connections. Journeys. Bread. Just enough for the day. ‘Give us this day…’
Jumping on to today’s gospel reading, we find the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. It is so connected with the Exodus reading. And so startling. But to understand it, we have to step back 2000 years to an agrarian economy, where people just queue up for work for that day and hope for the best. The context, the background to Jesus’ parable, is the grumbling of the religious leaders of the day about Jesus’ open-hearted attitudes towards the poor and people who were ‘sinners’. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard…’ This landowner goes down to the market first thing in the morning and hires workers for his vineyard…and then he goes again, and again, hiring more workers each time – five times in all! The last time, it’s only an hour before sunset but there are still guys hanging around so he hires them too. And then, he gets his manager to pay all of them the same wage! Not surprisingly, the ones who have worked all day are not too pleased – why are those who worked only an hour getting the same as us?? Listen to the landowner’s answer: ‘Friend, I am doing you know wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (vv.13-15)
Each of Jesus’ stories, or parables, has at least one shock in them that would certainly have made the hearers sit up and take notice. This parable is loaded with shocks, each one like a hammer blow, breaking up the hearers’ ideas of what is right and just. The first shock is in the first line, it’s the landowner himself who goes out early in the morning to hire labourers. Landowners were rich, they had people to do that for him and we know he had a manager because he crops up later in the story (v8). What kind of a landowner goes out himself to hire these common, poor people? And then, to add insult to injury, we find this landowner going out 5 times throughout the day! What’s he doing? Can you hear the muttering? ‘What’s he talking about? Didn’t he hire enough the first time? Ridiculous!’ But then, to add insult to injury, this extraordinary man pays the same wage to everyone, regardless of how long they worked! His listeners are on their feet now, shouting, ‘Jesus, you’re off your head! No-one does that!’ But this landowner has a different logic, he dances to a different tune, walks to a different drumbeat. He is quite right, it is up to him to do what he likes with his money, and he agreed the same wage with everyone. So what is his motivation?
Right at the end of the parable we have the clue: ‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ This landowner is generous and compassionate. The reason why he goes himself to the vineyard is because he is actually concerned for the people who will work for him. And he goes again and again to check if there are any more hanging around because he is generous and full of sympathy for the poor – he worries that they might not get work. And he pays them the same amount as the labourers who worked all through the day is because it is ‘the usual daily wage’ (9,10,13, actually a denarius). He knows that if they get less than that they won’t be able to feed their family. Compassion rules his economics. But it’s not fair! Hang on. This is not the cry of the underpaid: no-one is underpaid. This complaint is from the justly paid who cannot tolerate generosity, what is called grace, the free, generous and shocking compassion of God.
The vineyard stands for the kingdom of God here, and the landowner of course stands for God. Jesus is telling us that God is like that. Let that picture erase any misconceptions we may have about God: that he just rewards us for what we have earned, how good we have been. No, God is far, far better than that. In many ways this parable is a kind of microcosm, a summary of the life of Jesus – it’s what he did. His invitation to follow him, to enter the kingdom of God went out to all – to the religious leaders who lived and breathed the scriptures, like the labourers who spent all day in the vineyard – and to ordinary people – and to the scum of society, the rejected and the poor – even to a thief dying on a cross next to Jesus, the ultimate last minute – all are welcome, all invited into the kingdom. I like the way that this parable brings it together.
Did you find any connections? Again, enough for the day. Enough for the day, echoing the wilderness experience in Exodus, the Lord’s prayer. Another connection is the grumbling: those who spent all day in the field in the parable, and those who complained about no food in the wilderness: ‘The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness’ (Exodus 16:2). Did you notice the landowner’s strong rebuke of the moaners? ‘Take what belongs to you and go!’ (14). Pretty short shrift! These men were trying to censure the landowner, they were trying to dictate to him how he ought to behave, forgetting that he is the landowner, the guy with all the cards in his hand! The parable is a rebuke to the religious leaders who were trying to dictate to God how to behave. Me first! He vindicates the gospel against his critics.
So what do we do with all of this? Firstly, let this parable enlarge our understanding of the width of the generosity and compassion of God. God is like that landowner, Jesus tells us. And what we believe in our hearts will affect how we behave. If we hold the view that God is some tight-fisted tyrant who rewards us only for what we do right and punishes us for the rest, that will form how we behave: it usually leads to either smug self-righteousness if we are convinced we do what is right (like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day) – which at worst, leads to violence against those we perceive to be ‘sinners’; or it leads to despair if we think we are hopelessly bad.
The theme of receiving only what is needed for the day is an important one too, from both readings, echoed in the Lord’s prayer and on our experience walking crazily long days in Portugal and Spain. I’m not going to enlarge on this as I haven’t time but it’s a rebuke to our economics based on acquiring as much as possible and banking for the future. I just leave that with you.
But if we hold this view of God, that he is compassionate, kind and generous in a way far beyond our just desserts, that we are freely loved by Him whether we are early or late to the party, then that will affect our attitude towards ourselves and to other people. It can be hard to hold on to this. While we were walking, we were aware of news in the world – the Mexican earthquake, the battering of hurricanes and storms in the Caribbean and Florida, the escalating tensions over North Korea. I guess the lesson from the Camino is simply this: ‘we continue our journey. We wake up in the morning and walk the next bit’ That’s all we can do! We carry on, holding faith. Faith is not the same as certainty, in fact it might even be its opposite. It might be full of doubt. Our faith in a loving, compassionate and generous God, and all that flows from that, does not rest much on reason or rationality but because we choose to trust the words and actions of Jesus and to say: Sometimes there is more darkness than light but I have hope in something, in someone much, much better.
The bible is odd isn’t it… sometimes when we look upon the words we might ask how they got there. How many times were the stories told before committed to writing, how many generations were they passed through?
The story of Moses and the burning bush is one such occasion. We are told that Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up….” It’s all rather diplomatically spoken, “i must turn aside”.
But an newly discovered early document reveals that what Moses really said was closer to this, “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaarggh!”
The story of the burning bush is iconic. It’s a deeply instilled image, it speaks of wonder, awe and mystery right before our eyes. It speaks of something bewildering, confusing and yet deeply divine. It speaks of what the bible calls holiness, (or something other).
But what does wonder, awe, mystery mean to us in our lives?
Well today we are on day three of our Dazzle festival, a celebration of community, imagination and ideas. We hope that members of this congregation can join us at many events through the week. And that as we work with outrider anthems, local theatres, pubs and local activists that we can begin to explore something together about our lives as a community and our hopes for a future of partnership, creativity and love.
Dazzle is a festival which we have said is ‘in conversation’ with Outrider’s ‘Festival of the Dark’.
But a church dealing with darkness? Surely that’s not right is it.. aren’t we all about light? The light of the world, the light of God?
Is there a tension here? Shouldn’t we be careful ‘of the dark-side’?
Well the church here at StJ&StS is well aware of ‘Realistic Christianity’ we discuss it once a month in sermons, and try to live it every day. We recognise that risk and discovery go hand in hand. Nothing happens if without some kind of risk.
The first step of realistic Christianity is realising that life is more complex than simple black and white categories. A religion with no capacity to speak of darkness is not a religion dealing realistically with the world or its people. Darkness is all around us, it invades our lives, sobers us and tempers us. It slows us down and hinders us. It is a place known well by G-d, a place known well by Christ. Our lives are all affected by darkness of one sort or another, so why do we avoid speaking of it in church?
When we spoke with Jennifer a few month back we spoke of the need for ‘a conversation’ about the dark. For those of us familiar with being human, (most of us) we quickly realise that darkness is part of what makes us human, and there are many forms of darkness – grief, depression, trauma, but also uncertainty, unknowing and fear. We might throw the word mystery into the mix here as well.. When we think about darkness we also think about what Jung called shadows – the parts of ourselves we repress.
Let’s get back to Uncertainty, unknowing….\
One of the design themes in DaZzle is based upon the Dazzle Ships of the first and second world war. These designs were not intended to camouflage in a classic sense, instead they were intended to dis-orientate an enemy ship; is it one ship, two, is it coming forwards, backwards, moving sideways? It shifted perception, challenged the knowable.
The closer we are drawn to God the less we know; we are caught up in a wonder beyond words, a dazzling splendour, the glory of humanity, a cloud of unknowing..
Moses later in his life was to encounter God directly again, but as one he could not gaze upon, instead God was a dark cloud over Mt Sinai, a realm of wonder – but terror too. God would not, could not – be contained.
And here in this moment we read that Moses drew near to God and saw a burning bush, something impossible, something beyond reasoning. And Moses his his face because he knew one could not look upon God and live. And a name is requested, ‘who shall I say?’
אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, ehyeh ašer ehyeh, “I am, who I am” I am, I exist, I am being, I will be.
God cannot be named, wonder cannot be contained.
The ‘I am’, being…The event, not the name, The impossible, not the visible.
The ‘I am’ is the source and ground of all being, of all things; light and dark, angels and atoms, stars, planets, children, artists, politicians, cleaners, forests and homes. The ‘I am’ of being calls Moses to speak a word of liberation – a word of freedom.
So what of Dazzle?
Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of the luminous mysteries of God lost in a dazzling obscurity of silence. Denys who then inspired many contemplative and mystical traditions spoke of the Dazzling Darkness of God; in other words all we can know of God is so enthralling so captivating, yet so beyond our knowing.
To hear God reduced and contained in simple arguments about provability and non-provability, existence or non-existence, or reduced to neat simple statements about ‘if only you had more faith’, is a million miles away from this splendid awe we are speaking of….
The ‘cloud author’ says God ‘lives in the cloud between knowing and unknowing’.
Denys; “The truly divine knowing is that which is known by unknowing”
But what this darkness is calling us too is not stupidity, but wisdom. When we speak of unknowing we speak of how we cannot contain or control. It may be God, (or our ideas about God) or it may be people, and their infinite, beguiling and sometimes frustrating mystery. It’s like trying to examine a poem under a microscope – how does this collection of words affect me so deeply? Poetry and art and imagination transcend the rational.
Rachel and I – 25 years anniversary. What a mystery! I see I understand, but the mystery grows deeper; the cloud of unknowing is enticing!
What lies at the heart of this broader understanding is not about dominance but about reverent bowing before love. The unknowing of God is all about the compulsion of love.
If we seek understanding, (and we should – Anselm) then we have two choices; to allow understanding to be read as control and domination, (tell the Earth), or we allow it to be the starting point of more wonder.
So we are moving beyond only knowledge – towards wonder and devotion.
But unknowing is also not the end of the story…
In the dialogue, the God of mystery reaches out to humanity – there is a connection;
“Moses, Moses!” a personal / phenomenological encounter.
“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” A call from history.
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry” – The call of justice.
“I will be with you” a gift of encouragement.
Unknowing does not mean a faith beyond us. We encounter the mystery, the delight, the fun and action of faith in our daily lives. We live and move and have our being in God.
But what of the risk of uncertainty?
We see in the Gospel dialogue a simple description of the tension between sensible security and the risk of letting go. Peter represents here the desire, (very reasonable) to keep everything/everyone safe. Stick with what we know, lets stay safe. We might say in churches ‘Lets keep out theology secure’ don’t let doubt creep in’.
But Jesus offers a startling rebuke!
This is not his way. Typical to everything Jesus has been about he turns toward risk, unknowing uncertainty. He is determined to enter his own cloud of unknowing as he heads towards Jerusalem.
Jesus inverts our expectations – again;
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Jesus knows where he has come from, he knows the scripture, he has read of Moses and the cloud. He knows of the pain-filled laments of the prophets, the dark prayers of the broken psalms. He knows that uncertainty, darkness and doubt are part of the story, they are Israel’s history with Yahweh, their God.
He knows that to follow the divine way is not to stay in certainty, but to embrace risk. He knows that pain may well come, (and it does in silence, loss and even abandonment). But he trusts also what CS Lewis called ‘The deeper Magic’ that in the midst of loss comes the greatest surprises of all.
Life returns in the most unexpected places.
So DazZle is about this; looking again – for a time – into our lives. Art, imagination and creative – even provocative – ideas do this. They call us to think, to reflect, to wonder and maybe remind us of a love which captivates and enthrals beyond understanding and knowledge… a love which is hopeful and compassionate; a love which dreams new dreams for our children, our families, our streets and our communities.
And what are we to take from this?
When we see someone in need, when we seek to improve our community, to enrich the lives of those around us, to care, to give, to share, we are moved by the rich and wide depths of our humanity and the image of God seen within that.
We are all in thrall to this love, it confronts us, challenges, entices us in a dazzling darkness. We are called to live with risk and love and passion.
So come along this week, lets think about our world, and the people who share it. And let’s give thanks to the source of being, who goes beyond light and dark, and who holds all in a radiant wheel of broken and hope-filled love.
Ten Marks of Consequence
Take the paper and pencil that you chose as you arrived and I am going to give you 10 instructions, one at a time, about making marks on the paper. Please carry out the instruction in any way you choose and after each one we will pass our sheet to someone else near us and receive one from someone else too and do not be anxious about this, if you don’t know how to make your mark it is my fault for not explaining it properly
1. Draw a line from one edge to any other edge ….now swap paper with someone close to you
2. Draw 2 triangles, that is three sided shapes, they can be any size that don’t touch the line or each other….and swap with someone else
3. Draw three circles, rounds, of different sizes, two that overlap the triangles. Swap
4. Draw a big s shape that begins and end meeting another line ….swap
5. Turn the paper through a ¼ turn and draw your initials in any way you like that slightly disguises or hides them….swap
6. Pick an uneven shape that has now been created and make some parallel lines inside it of any width and number and spacing…swap
7. Draw some zigzags of any kind you like somewhere within the biggest space on the paper…swap
8. Turn the paper a half turn, upside down and draw 4 semicircles that begin and end meeting another line…swap
9. Draw a wavy line diagonally across the page from one corner to the opposite corner
10. Draw the initials of someone you’ve met who is very different from you, again in a way that disguises the letters
Now take a moment quietly to look at the pattern on the paper you now have and on those around you
What do you like about it?
How did it feel to keep making your marks alongside what others had done?
Can you still see any shapes or lines that you made…how does it feel to see them among the mixture of other peoples marks?
We followed the same instructions….we all responded in our chosen ways.
There would be no point or purpose in judging who did it right or who did it wrong.
Now share a short conversation with those around you, perhaps prompted by our pattern making exercise, about what you find delightful or what you find difficult, about living in a world of such diversity
Over both the referendum last year and the election this year I was initially proud that my news feed on social media was unanimous, everyone agreed with me. But as events unfold across this country and elsewhere in the world I have become profoundly disturbed by the stratification of society ,ashamed to admit my friends are so uniform. it is a huge threat to community and kingdom today that so many feel marginalised, as if they have no voice, each group is walled in by their own supporters. We live in a divided society and have little to do, if we can help it, with people who are different.
We change not so much by telling ourselves that we ought to change but we change when we begin to see things differently, when someone or something opens our hearts and minds. We are changed not by oughts but by delight and curiosity and love. That is what happened to Jesus in the encounter we heard earlier. This Canaanite woman in her need and with her persistence opens Jesus eyes to a wider ministry. He thought he had come to serve the people of Israel only, he leaves her knowing his ministry is far wider.
This is a story of Jesus’ conversion
Matthew calls her Canaanite, that is like calling a modern day Norwegian a Viking, for all his hearers it would have taken them straight back to some verses in Deuteronomy 7 where the 7 tribes who inhabited the promised land are named including Canaanites and the people of God under Joshua believe that God tells them to slaughter them all , to refuse to show them any mercy.
Is this the God that you have encountered?. This God is terrifying , not who I see in Jesus. Surely this was a false god that was created to justify punishing of those deemed evil, thus burying the God of mercy whom Jesus reveals. Matthew has caught a glimpse of the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah that they would be a blessing not just to one tribe of people but to the whole world, it is suggested in his very first chapter where the non Jewish women Tamar Ruth and Rahab are included in the genealogy of Jesus, and his gospel concludes with the challenge to take the gospel to the ends of the world, to all peoples, no one is beyond grace. And here today we see the turning point as Jesus meets a feisty subversive gentile woman. She exposes the narrowness of his vision, in humility and with patience and humour and immunity to the offence of being called a dog .She asks for mercy, the very thing her kind were forbidden in Deuteronomy…..and Jesus is open to change, he has come to bring mercy, in his manifesto blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy….. and begins to realise that God’s unconditional love is for all, not just his own nation.
This is a message our world desperately needs to hear after watching the events of Charlottesville in the States. There is a growth in both hate and racist crime in our own country Those very verses in Deuteronomy are still used to day by Zionists to justify oppression of the Palestinian people. Violence like slavery and racism has been normative in our past, and is still all too common in our present. We must expose and challenge such narrow and bigoted talk wherever we meet it, in the name of Jesus we proclaim God prepared to show mercy and reveal grace to absolutely everyone.
God delights in variety and difference, just look around you. God is not utilitarian. So difference does not need to bring fear to us, we can learn to celebrate and rejoice that not everyone is just like me…or you. Not everyone makes marks like us.
It is very hard to know what you do not see, to be aware of our own prejudices, we need one another, people who make different marks in the patterns of our world, to help us become aware, to wake up and to have ongoing conversion, just like Jesus.
God, our creator, you have wonderfully made us
You have planted in us different gifts, no two of us the same
On our own we may or may not shine
But together, in your company,
You turn us into a kaleidoscope of grace
Lover of all and of each
Enable us to be fully open to you and to one another,
to all you and they have to offer
and to all that you ask of us….Amen
prayer from the new Iona Abbey Worship Book Wild goose pubs, the Iona Community
It’s good to be home. Rosemary and I got back yesterday after nearly 6 weeks covering the leave of absence of 2 Korean doctors at LAMB Hospital, Bangladesh, where we used to work some 30 years ago. Times have moved on, as they do. The project has grown hugely, now employing some 1700 staff in hospital and community activities. Medicine has changed too, and these two retired GPs found themselves frequently out of their depth and it was with relief that their Korean colleagues arrived back from leave and they were free to literally fly away. Thank you so much for your prayers and support over this time, we have needed it.
A couple of weeks in, we came across this short verse from the song ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen. You may know it, you may even think it’s a bit clichéd, but it spoke to us: Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in. It’s funny how a few words can really help, and they did. Instead of being overwhelmed by what we couldn’t do, we did what we could – we rang the bells that still can ring and forgot our ‘perfect offering’. I want to try and tie that in to today’s gospel reading, what is known as the parable of the wheat and weeds.
A parable is a short story that conveys a deeper meaning, often spiritual or moral. Jesus told 46 parables that we know of, and most of his teaching is tied up in them. His stories used images that would have been very easy for his hearers to connect with, even if understanding them was another matter. But the stories stuck with people, as good stories do, and the hearers would mull them over, talk about them, trying to mine the real meaning. Jesus’ disciples often missed the point, and with this parable they couldn’t work it out and asked Jesus directly to explain it to them. I believe that this parable confronts us with a very relevant and up to date question: why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it?
First though, let’s understand the context. In ancient times, there were often rivalries between farmers. One way of ‘getting back’ at your rival might be to sow weed seeds in his fields. So Jesus is hitting on his hearers’ experience here, and there were probably a few wry smiles and mutterings along the lines of ‘that so-and-so did that to me last year’ and perhaps a few red faces too, of people who had done exactly that. It’s thought that the weeds might have been darnel, and you can see in the picture that they do indeed look like wheat. So, a farmer and his farm hands wouldn’t know until it was too late that this had happened. In the parable, the farm hands report that there are weeds in your fields! Shall we go and pull them up? No, says the master, you’ll uproot the wheat as well. Leave it until the harvest, then we can sort them out. Well, Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what the parable meant, so they asked him to explain it. In a few words, Jesus tells that the one who sows the good seed is Jesus himself; the field is the world and the good seed are the ‘children of the kingdom’; the weeds are the children of the evil one, the one who sowed them was the evil one, and the harvest is the end of the age. He goes on to explain that there will be a fierce and fiery judgement for them. In black and white terms, it’s about how can it be that good and evil exist together, and what do we do about it?
Now I am going to put the judgement bit on the ‘back burner’ for now, and I want to stick with the question, why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it? First to explain a bit about the ‘children of the kingdom’. The ‘Kingdom of God’ is the dominant theme of Jesus teaching. Despite that, there isn’t universal agreement about what it means. Here’s the explanation, in a nutshell, that at least fits with this story! At that time, the Jews were expecting or hoping for the arrival of the Kingdom to do away with the Roman occupiers and re-establish a King in Israel, a bit like in the times of David and Solomon. That was not what Jesus was about. What the Kingdom, according to Jesus, may mean is that God’s sovereignty and presence was made real in the ministry of Jesus and in those who followed him, the ‘children of the kingdom’. But there’s an ‘already but not yet’ quality to it; although that’s true, the full reality of the kingdom has not dawned. That is still in the future.
So, if the followers of Jesus, the children of the kingdom, are the good seeds, the real wheat, who are the seeds of darnel, the weeds? Everyone else? Other religions? Men with long beards and women with headscarves? Heretics? Islamic terrorists? Climate change deniers? People who don’t agree with us? Atheists?
The first point of this story is that you can’t tell. The wheat and the weeds look the same. The second point is that even when you can, you are not allowed to do anything about it. You simply wait. Who really knows who is a child of the kingdom and who isn’t? Who knows if this person is wheat or weeds? God alone is the judge of that, and the parable tells us that sifting out will happen, just as at the harvest the weeds can safely be separated from the wheat. I used to be so sure who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. And now, I have no idea. Our recent time in Bangladesh, meeting Muslims and Hindus who all ‘walk the talk’ – live lives of sincerity and integrity, who forego considerably higher salaries to do their best for people who have next to nothing – makes me realise that the kingdom may be bigger than I thought.
We Christians – and for that matter, people of other religious traditions as well – we are at our worst when we draw lines, when we say, ‘I’m in, you’re out’. When we make subtle or not-so-subtle judgements like this, and then start to act on them, we fall into the trap of the farmer’s servants who wanted to start ripping up the weeds right away. It’s too soon. We risk our own downfall by failing to behave as children of the Kingdom. And the King, like the farmer in the parable, is patient.
On a large and horrible scale, we can see the folly of drawing lines between people being played out in the Middle East and then across the world in London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Madrid, Berlin and New York by misguided people who have been overtaken by an ideology that sees the world only in terms of black and white and believes that it is their role to enact the judgement of God on people they deem to be ‘out’, however violent that is. And then there’s the knee-jerk reaction of drawing our own lines. That reaction is behind the travel ban in the US, and closer to home, creates pain amongst communities and individuals who do not share our way of life. This is not the way of the Kingdom. And look, could there possibly be a clearer proof of how destructive pulling up the weeds can be? Just think of what is politely called ‘collateral damage’, the vast numbers of innocent civilian casualties as various military powers – including our own – attempt to ‘root out’ terrorism. ‘Root out’. How ironic.
The Kingdom of God can be an uncomfortable place. The rules we play by are different. In his parables, Jesus lays before us simple stories that paint a different picture. There’s a temptation to think the parables are purely a sort of tale with a moral, a bit like Aesop’s fables. They are much more than that. The parables each have a twist, a point where the story turns towards the unexpected, not at all what the listeners were thinking might happen. In this parable of the weeds and the wheat, it’s at the point where the farmer’s servants come charging in, breathless with the announcement that an enemy has sown weeds in your field and just look! I guess at this point the farmers in the crowd listening to Jesus might have expected him to say something like this, ‘Go and find that enemy and bring him here, I will deal with him! And get to it, get rid of those weeds from my field!!’ In fact we don’t hear a word about the enemy, and the servants are just to do nothing and wait until the harvest, because it was so much the opposite of what they expected. Just what kind of a farmer is Jesus? I wonder if that’s why the disciples couldn’t understand the parable at first. What kind of a doormat is Jesus, letting his enemies walk over him like that? Can we even see here a prefiguring of the cross? For Jesus let the story play out in his own life, he did not fight his enemies back, going to his death which turned out in the end to be not the end.
This is the Kingdom. The sovereignty, the rule of God, manifest in the life and ministry of Jesus, is not played out by going for the enemy, or by drawing lines: ‘I’m in, you’re out’, or by trying to uproot those we perceive to be ‘the enemy’. No, we are to continue doing what wheat is supposed to do: stand straight, grow, and bear fruit. Sometimes we will find that very frustrating and paiful. It is difficult to be faithful, to hang on, in a world with so much mess and violence and pain.
So I come full circle. I know it’s a bit trite, a bit of a cliché, but these words of Leonard Cohen’s contain a profound truth, a message to us, the wheat struggling to grow in a field full of weeds. Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.
I wonder how you like your yolk – Sunny side up? Flipped? Anyone for the oil splashed across?
But hold on, are speaking about a Yolk, or a Yoke?! (no yoke jokes please)
A Yoke is a burdensome tool. A way to carry heavy loads or to pull working animals together in order to pull a heavy load.
(In Jewish tradition it’s a grace to have the Torah put upon you as a Yoke, Bar-Mitzvah)
But today i want to ask, is Christianity a burdensome religion?; Is religion a weight to carry?
Often when I tell people I’m a Priest you can see that creeping incredulity in the response, ‘why?’ – ‘why give up so much, why adopt archaic rules to your life? Why put yourself through so much …. hassle.?’
I imagine I’m not alone in this, you may have experienced something very similar. For Christians gathered here this morning the view from ‘the inside’ seems very different to the view that many people have of religion from ‘the outside’ – it’s not for me, all that … religious stuff.
Maybe that’s fair enough. What does the Church look like from the outside? What do we seem to suggest our priorities are? Is there even a remote way those priorities chime with ‘the real world’? Why are we here?
I recently had a conversation with a young person, who simply couldn’t see why Christianity would be relevant to her life, she was a passionate young women; committed to education, family, to global politics, to sport and to music and festivals. The idea of ‘adopting religion’ seemed utterly alien. Like taking on some form of life from another time….
Yet it’s an irony isn’t it.. (I wonder if you might feel the same), watching something like Glastonbury footage, or participating in Amnesty International campaigns, or great art, or the Gay Pride march, and thinking, “that’s where I sense passion and justice and imagination too – and that passion is what connects (this person) to God”
That’s me, my perspective – it’s not universal. Jesus suggests here that it’s different for different people how they understand and respond to God. “God is all these things and none of these things”, (pseudo-Dionysius). God is not contained; God calls cajoles, inspires and invites. There is no right way, there is only Jesus’ way, where rules do not oppress or exclude – a way of passion and love.
Yet Jesus says he has ‘come to bring life – and life in its fullness’, (John 10.10). The life he seemed to suggest, (as far as I can see) is a life of passion and commitment. A commitment to wonder, to awe, to the divine, (who we call God – but others don’t); a commitment to other people, (especially the poor and the oppressed), a commitment to life—to all life—which is so deeply passionate that he was prepared to die for all of life, (and to return it in a surprising way).
But the Church through large parts of its history seems to have taken that life – and made it dull!
The life marked by the avoidance of fun, bad fashion, and cultural malaise? If we want to respond to God by giving things up – that’s fine, but if we feel somehow obliged, or pressured to – then something is wrong.
What does it mean to live as Jesus inspires us too?
Service to the poor, the hungry the oppressed – certainly. To live a ‘good moral life’, possibly. To help others.. well of course.. earlier in Matthew we see where Jesus deepest priorities lie; “blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
Christianity is deeply practical, it is a ‘doing religion’… But before all of the things we mightdo I believe Jesus is calling us to simply live! To live is the greatest thing we can do!
But how to live? This passage seems to point to two very different responses; “Wedding Music and Funeral Music”
John came before Jesus to point the way to Jesus, but John was wild, harsh, scary; his was a voice from the wilderness, calling, cajoling… but everyone apart form his most determined followers thought it was too hard – too harsh. John’s way was not about the rules of the Pharisees or religious leaders – certainly not. But he was about renunciation of worldly pleasure; his was a wild-eyed, passionate, fervour… he must have a demon!
But then Jesus came in an almost opposite way; food, drinking, enjoying hospitality, hanging out with all kinds of odd people – the wrong kinds of people!
In contrast to John, Jesus seemed almost frivolous… yet of course we do see moments when fervour emerges, the wild-eyed passion is there and usually in confrontational moments with oppressive authority figures. Yet even here, Jesus’ confrontation often takes the form of subversion, parody, mischief and satire.
Jesus’ frustration is that people want neither; – they prefer to complain or stand at a critical distance.
But he is saying something different to us; whichever way we choose to do it – we are to live life fully, ‘The Glory of God is a human being fully alive”, (St.Iraneus)
The Pharisees and scribes gave a heavy burden to people with religious rules, (who was in/out etc.), they shut down life. .… but Jesus simply offers an invite “Follow me”; the ‘rest’ he speaks of is a rest of salvation and liberation from such things. The reign of God to livefully and do—as best you can—the things he talks about; (even those things which are often less than clear!?!); those who are blessed, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are weary, they get it; and maybe in the smallest ways we live that too.
The gospel liberates us because it’s an invitation to life. I am convinced of that. And a different kind of life – based on a different way of seeing the world. “God’s wisdom, however, is shown to be true by its results.” Jesus brought liberation healing and announced the coming reign of God in the everyday. The call is to live; to discover life, to welcome life, to embrace its many sides – the good the bad, the dark the light, and to give thanks. I’m not suggesting self-obsessed individualism though – certainly not – to live fully is also to live together, and so there is a restlessness written into the script; for community, for love, for justice – it becomes political, it becomes social, it becomes exciting!
I just don’t get the caricature that Christianity is a set of alien rules; (well ok!) I find it odd when I see that look in the eye. Of course there are demands and obligations but they are about loving and living together… people are demanding, love is demanding. However, in the end we see that the other brings life as a gift. – coming to church is an obligation – to one another and to attend to wonder to God, but that obligation sets us free! (Kierkegaard and the ducks.)
For me Christianity is about diving more fully into a life with God, the divine, the impossible; diving into questions, thoughts, inspirations and hopes. It’s easy (trans. good, kind) – but also.. most definitely not easy!…. For it means facing more honestly the hard questions of life – not avoiding them. It is about taking the hand of the one who says “follow me”, and doing that tentatively in a way which embraces life as much as he; to dance before a sunset, to sing songs under a starlit sky, to feel that ‘umph’ when you are moved by a painting, play or film; the ecstasy of music; to weep with those who weep, laugh with those who laugh, to mourn with those who mourn. To live sensually, bodily, and with com/passion.
John Witcombe spoke two weeks ago about the Eucharist; saying we bring our lives to this table – gifts, broken and shared. Yet in this breaking there is an intimate exchange with God; we give our lives away and they are given back to us; fuller, richer, deeper; blessed, loved and affirmed.
And that includes our darkness too; we can hide ourselves from God, bringing only ‘the good child’ to the table, but God calls us to be confronted with ourselves; all are welcome – even the shadows; all are welcome, all are transformed.
God Says Yes To Me | Kaylin Haught
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
There are many ways to live in response to God. Jesus shows that the ‘task’ we face is really, simply, the task to live – as humanly as possible. The ‘yoke’ is the shared ‘gift and call’ of being human – together; not bordered or hemmed in by religions or ideologies, but liberated by God to break out in a loving exuberant response to life.
Love God, love others. (Love the wonder, love our shared life). I wish there was more I could say… but I think that’s it!