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

Exodus 17:1-7

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

coins

Evening Prayer 20 September 2020

Matthew 6.19-end

Tomorrow is the day we remember St Matthew and our lectionary encourages us to start celebrating him with evening prayer today.  The collect, with its prayer that we ‘forsake the selfish love of gain and the possessive love of riches’, reflects Matthew the tax collector’s willingness to leave his lucrative, but corrupt, job and follow Jesus.  Matthew, Levi, Zacchaeus were all caught up in the economics of running the Roman empire.  They were recruited as tax collectors, and the way they earned their wages was by commission, if you like – collecting what was demanded by the Romans, but adding extra to cover their living expenses.  It was open to abuse.

We probably feel fairly complacent thinking about Matthew.  After all, none of us are tax collectors and we’re probably not too bound up in ‘the selfish love of gain or possessive love of riches’.  Nevertheless, like Matthew, we are caught up in an economic system, not necessarily of our choosing, that favours accumulating wealth at the expense, not only of those struggling financially in our own country and even more so in poor countries, but also at the expense of the earth as we relentlessly deplete its resources in order to fuel the way of life to which we have become accustomed.  And it’s a way of life that feeds on worry about whether there will be enough – a point Jesus makes here.

Once you become accustomed to something you can stop seeing it clearly.  It becomes the norm.  It affects the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you travel and perhaps most damagingly, how you view people who don’t seem to fit that norm, who are outside the norm.  I think this may what Jesus is getting at when he speaks about the eyes in this reading – if your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light (v22).  You start to see more clearly;  to see things differently.

In this season of creation tide we are being challenged to open our eyes to how our way of life may be damaging our planet and so many of God’s people.  Because we are part of the system we can feel helpless.  Matthew, Zacchaeus, Levi, all offer hope.  They all found themselves exposed to a different set of values from the ones they had learnt to accept as the norm in Roman Palestine.  Almost certainly they would have heard Jesus’ teaching, seen how he was with his disciples, seen his followers dancing to a different drum, as it were, from the one which they had to follow.  They were faced with a new story, a different narrative, and it attracted them. With all 3 men the result was movement.  They were sitting, but now they get up (or get down from the tree – Zacchaeus!) and they move.  Matthew moves from his solitary seat in the tax booth, he stands (thus becoming more visible, like Zacchaeus) and joins the community of those following Jesus and, like the others, so importantly, practises generosity – he has a party, sharing his food and home. Zacchaeus of course says he will pay back double what he has taken dishonestly.  They have moved way outside their comfort zones.

We too can hear a different narrative from the one that drives our current western lifestyle.  We can be exposed to what the writer of Matthew’s gospel might have called kingdom values.  And we can respond by doing what Matthew does- joining with a group of like minded people, those disciples following Jesus.  We are part of a church that seeks to live differently, that upholds values that may be at odds with our current economic system.  Look out for some of the things this church is doing and join in, whether it’s through a walk round the parish with eyes open, or monitoring our use of plastic or energy, or joining in national protests, tackling investments in fossil fuel….  We can no longer continue living as though the poor don’t matter.  It’s costing us the earth.

 

Christine Bainbridge

vineyard

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

  1. Jesus was a shocker

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. No way to run a business!

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

  1. A digression – about parables

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

So be it!

 

 

 

forgiveness

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Richard Croft

cross

Living the cross shaped life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three suggestions.

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

 

Loving AND canny about evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open and Undefended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Willing to let go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

004-lumo-syro-phoenician-woman

Inclusion and Exclusion

Trinity 10A for St John and St Stephen Zoom Church.

August 16, 2020.

Romans 11:1-6; 11-20; 29-32 and Matthew 15:20-28

INCLUSION AND EXCLUSION.

To what extent do you feel included in the story of Salvation?

We start with a story about exclusion – about someone who was sadly given the message that she wasn’t included in the story of salvation, but how reconciliation came some 50 years later. The story is recounted by Karen Gibson, leader of the celebrated Kingdom Choir, who sang at the wedding of Prince Harry to Megan Markle last year. It is about Karen’s mother, who came to Britain in the 1960s from the Caribbean. Missing the familiar, she found herself looking up local churches and located an Anglican one nearby. After attending for several weeks, the vicar made a point of shaking her hand at the door after the service one day, saying as he did so, “Thanks for coming, but don’t come back, please”.

Karen writes: ‘it was a slap in the face (for my mother) to have been invited to the country to work, only to find ignorance and discrimination in all areas of society, and further, to be so casually dismissed from the one place in which she should have found refuge’.

The story continues in the Church Times here: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/24-july/comment/opinion/this-precious-moment-of-healing

Inclusion, and its opposite, exclusion, are strong themes both in Scripture and in society today. We can sometimes find opposites in the bible that seem hard to hold together. There have been themes of judgment in some of the recent parables of the kingdom. Many of these contain the idea of separation at the time of harvest – the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad fish. How are we to read them?

Meanwhile in society, while we’re discovering all the ways it’s wrong to exclude people on the basis of race, class, gender or sexuality, we’re still vexed about how to deal with people who exercise such exclusion towards others.

I learnt a new phrase recently: ‘Cancel Culture’.

You may or may not have come across it. It originated on Twitter, where celebrities with objectionable views are ‘called out’, and others who are offended by their views (either on their own behalf, or on behalf of others) call for the offending celebrity to be ‘cancelled’. This would mean their views would be blanked, they would not be followed anymore, and hopefully people would forget all about them. In some cases, they might no longer be able to get work. It’s a kind of digital equivalent of being sent to Coventry.

They are effectively excluded. Some, we would probably say deservedly, will face legal proceedings because their attitudes have led to actions that are in fact criminal.

For the Christian, it highlights an inherent tension within inclusivity; namely, how far does your tolerance stretch? Can you, or should you include and welcome the person who is non-inclusive of others? With a Saviour who shared bread with his betrayer, the bar is set rather high…

Exclusion and inclusion are important themes in the Romans reading we had this morning. I wonder how you feel about the book of Romans? What comes to your mind when you hear of it? Hard; Paul is difficult; dense; don’t understand it; used by Christians to excuse judgmentalism?

 And I wonder if you’ve noticed that churches tend to prioritise different parts of Scripture, according to their churchmanship? I’m not going to go into it here, but it’s an interesting reflection! Of course, we’re Anglicans and the lectionary is set up to give us a balanced diet, but within that framework all preachers tend to make theological choices, and we might as well to be aware of it.

For my money, I try and see the epistles in continuity with the gospels. Paul is the link – he met the resurrected Christ on the Damascus road and so claims kinship with the first apostles who walked with Jesus. The Church was officially born at Pentecost, and God continued to speak through the ministry of Peter and Paul via their letters.

Though the Canon of Scripture is closed, God’s story of salvation continues through you and I and all believers.

And it’s a BIG STORY: today the gospel embraces the issues that we face here in the 21st Century, not just the ‘cure’ of our souls, but how we live a faithful life in the face of climate crisis, racial and economic inequality, pandemics and the rise of artificial intelligence.

With regards to the lectionary it can be very fruitful to look at both our Sunday readings alongside each other and it struck me this week how well they dovetailed.

I asked at the beginning, To what extent do you feel included in the story of Salvation?

Another question might be: ‘how well do you know that story?’

Because, let’s face it, we have some weird stories in our faith book. How do you feel being part of a story that includes the calling of Israel and her battles, the miracles in the early church and the Revelation of the end by John the Divine on the island of Patmos? When we say in the Eucharistic liturgy: “This is our story, this is our song” do we mean just the Jesus bit, or the whole confusing thing?

As someone has said, “it’s not the bits of the bible that I don’t understand that worry me; it’s the bits I do understand…”

Someone recently asked the question “how will the Church survive the pandemic?” What do we offer that other humanitarian agencies don’t offer, after we’ve all agreed that we must help the most needy and look out for our neighbour, as so many organisations have done so effectively through the Corona crisis?

The reply was interesting: “How will the Church survive? By telling its strange stories”. By telling its strange stories. To tell the stories we have to engage with them honestly and sometimes be prepared to ask questions of them. We can’t preserve the bible in aspic and read it without comment.

So in Morning Prayer, when we read about Saul pinning David to the wall with a spear, there are raised eyebrows. When King David, a man described as ‘someone after God’s own heart’, goes off to collect 100 foreskins so he can marry Saul’s daughter, we are forced to re-think what a messy thing our faith story can be.

So to what extent do you feel included in this messy STORY?

Paul’s purpose in Romans 11 is to address a pressing cultural issue of his time; the relationship of Jews to Gentiles in light of their differing responses to Jesus, who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. Our cultural standpoint is different – we carry an awareness, as we read Romans, of 2000 years of anti-Semitism – some of which was propagated by the Church itself.

The misunderstanding that God had in some way ‘rejected’ the Jewish people by including Gentiles, is something that Paul refutes. ‘God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew’. He cites the story of Elijah, who thought he was the only one not to have bowed the knee to Baal, but God reminded him that there was still a faithful ‘remnant’ through whom the story would continue.

Paul shows how neither Jew nor Gentile can boast: Gentiles are grafted into the tree of the Jewish faith and we inherit their stories as a result. But in a reciprocal move, Gentile faith in Jesus will provoke some Jews to turn to him yet. This is Paul’s hope. His heart is still with the Jews, but his vision has expanded to become universal.

And it seems to me that how we navigate the specific, in relation to the whole, is behind a lot of problems that society faces, not least Brexit.

And then we have the puzzle of the Canaanite woman in our gospel, and the apparent unwillingness of Jesus to include her in his healing and saving work.

How many ways this story has been interpreted down the years! You know how it goes: Jesus is looking for respite and takes himself off to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are both port cities located in modern day Lebanon. In Jesus’ day the Jews saw these as pagan regions, places where there was unforgivable ignorance of God.

A woman from this region has heard that Jesus is a healer and she desperately needs this for her daughter who is sick. She shouts: ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David’, a genuine faith response that many in Israel have been so far incapable of. She’s following the group of disciples, shouting, and they urge Jesus to send her away. It doesn’t occur to them that she might be included in the scope of God’s salvation.

And Jesus comes out with his famous (infamous?) response: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Is he testing them, or does he not yet sense the opening up of the vision that was primarily for Israel? (Or, to be more provocative, would he today be ‘cancelled’ as a racist?)

The woman is persistent and kneels before him, saying ‘Lord, help me’. He addresses her directly: ‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’. It reads uncomfortably. If you were a director, putting this on the stage, I wonder what tone of voice you’d give to Jesus? Is he being downright rude (it’s hard to imagine) or is he drawing her out; in effect saying, ‘you and I both know this is irregular; what’s the scope of your faith here; if I come to meet you, how far can you come to meet me?’

To put a very positive literary gloss on the encounter, it makes me think of Jane Eyre to Mr Rochester: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you!”

Both women claim equality of opportunity. Perhaps one way of reading this encounter is to see a faith exchange of great potential, where the woman pushes on the door marked ‘inclusion’, to see how wide it will open, and where Jesus ends up praising her for her great faith, in contrast to his usual epithet for the male disciples as ‘you of little faith’ (lit. ‘mini-faiths’).

She takes on board the metaphor of children’s food not being wasted on the pets and extends it to herself: ‘but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’, thus enshrining her response in Anglican Eucharistic liturgy: ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table’.

So after this exploration of inclusion and exclusion, how wide is your vision on inclusion in the kingdom? How included do you feel? This is really to ask questions about our calling, our vocation in life. You yourself are a gift to the church, however many rotas you’re on, or not. What matters is not how much you can ‘do’, but how you’re growing in your faith; to what extent you are still hearing the call to follow Jesus at this stage of your life.

As we journey through the summer together and out into the strange new chapter of the story we’re all in after Covid-19, may we continue to discover God’s calling together, and our own cherished place in the strange but wonderful story of salvation.

 

For further exploration, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon Press: 1996) born out of the Balkan conflict, is highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sailing boat

Walking on Water

Trinity 9, 9th August 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the signs here?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

 

 

seeds

Sermon Sunday 26 July 2020 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christine Bainbridge July 2020

wheat

A Timely Parable – Sunday 19th July 2020

Background

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Parable of the Tares

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Consider the source

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

 

The example of Pope Francis

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

welcome

Welcoming – Matthew 10:40-42: Trinity 3, 28th June 2020

We have been looking at Matthew 10 for a few weeks now.  It is Jesus’ commission to the twelve disciples before he sent them out.  He tells them to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to drive out demons.  It quite some apprenticeship and, I imagine, a somewhat terrifying prospect for the disciples.

 

And it is not made easier by Jesus’ words.  This is no pep talk to the team before a match, or a rousing speech to send the troops into battle.  Jesus starts by giving them instructions on who to go to, what to say, how to behave.  But most of chapter 10 is Jesus telling the disciples how tough it is going to be.  They will experience opposition from the powerful, be arrested, be brought before kings and governors.  Relationships will be broken by the message, brother against brother, children against parents…  “All men will hate you because of me.”  When you are persecuted in one place, move to another.

 

So, off you go, then.  (Some of this clearly looking forward to the time after Jesus ascension, because we do not know of serious opposition to the disciples during Jesus’ ministry.)  There is some comfort from Jesus, with promises that the Spirit will give them the words to say, that God the Father knows them and values them, that with God on their side, they have nothing to fear from men.

 

Then we come to today’s three verses.  “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me”.  And those who did welcome them, in however small a way, would be rewarded.

 

We get the impression that disciples were a somewhat ragged crew.  We know remarkably little about most of them.  We do know that four or five of them were fishermen, one was a tax collector; we do not know about the rest.  The gospels are remarkably honest about their failings, but do not say a lot that is positive.  We know of their arguments, of Jesus chiding them for their lack of understanding, of them sleeping when Jesus needed them most, or them running away after Jesus’ arrest, of Peter’s denial.  This cannot be the whole story.

 

Jesus chose the disciples, relied on them enough to send them out in his name.  Relied on them enough, humanly speaking, to put the whole spread of the gospel in their hands.  During Jesus ministry they did go out and preach “everywhere”.  Without them, there would be no church; we would not be meeting this morning.  He saw in them goodness, faithfulness, character that he could work with.  They stayed with Jesus for three years, got to know him well, and he also got to know them well.  They were, it seems, normal people, without privileged or promising backgrounds.  Yet they became friends with the Son of God, and he trusted them.

 

What was the message they preached?  “The kingdom of God is here”, but then what did they say?  Luke says they were preaching the gospel [9v6], which does not help much either.  It is tantalising.  I wish Matthew had written down a bit more.  Like Jesus’ conversation on the road to Emmaus; I would really appreciate it if Luke had it verbatim.  I suppose the disciples’ message would have been based on Jesus’ preaching, some of which we do have recorded.  But it would have been good to know more.

 

So, back to our three verses.  “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”  It was Jewish tradition that you treated an emissary as if they were the person they represent.  There was apparently a saying that “He who receives a learned man, or an elder, into his house, is the same as if he had received the glory of God.”

 

Jesus is sharing his authority with them.  It is a good example of delegation.  No micro-management here.  They go off in all directions, without Jesus to check on them.  This is trust, and Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit to be working in them too.  It is a message to us to allow people to do things, to take responsibility.  Jesus gave them plenty of time with him to learn, both from what he told them but also from being with him.  But then he let them go.  It is a message to us, too, to be open to doing things for God.  I very much doubt the disciples would have felt confident, ready, qualified, or able, but they went.

 

The last verse is “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (using the NIV version as it is a bit clearer).  Calling the disciples “little ones” may sound a bit pejorative to our ears, but it seems to be a term of endearment.  These were not, at least at this stage, great prophets, well known righteous men.  They were humble people with open hearts.

 

Doing something as simple as giving those serving God a drink of water will not be forgotten.  While the disciples could expect opposition, they could also expect support.  There would be those who would recognise what they were doing, recognise God in them and respond.  God will recognise even that small response.

 

Jesus’ words reflect the generosity of God.  Not judgemental, demanding total perfection from us before we are accepted.  Any movement toward him is welcome.  Of course, he wants more, our full hearts given to him, but any movement towards him is graciously accepted.

 

Jesus’ words here remind me of some more later in Matthew.  The chosen stand before Jesus at the end of time and say ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  He replies, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these [little ones] who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  [Matt. 25vv37-40].

 

So, be welcoming to those doing God’s work, to those who you see doing what is right, to those who need it.  In a time of coronavirus, this may not mean opening your home, but a welcome may be a kindness, words of support, a gift, a meal given, even a thought.

 

Do it out of love, and the God of love will love you for it.

 

 

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)

 

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”