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Is there anybody there? Bad tenants and a more humble church

Matthew 21:33-46

‘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.

Isaiah 5

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;
righteousness,
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;

  1. What does the Gospel of Christ look like, feel like, taste like, smell like – what are you looking for?
  2. And how gracious do you truly believe God is in evoking, provoking and waiting for this kingdom to be received and understood?
  3. Who hold the keys of this kingdom; who truly are its prophets and activists – working both in the church or outside of the church?
  4. 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?

 

Gary Collins October 2017

 

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Crossings, Connections and Compassion

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.

 

Richard Croft

Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16

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DaZzled!

Exodus 3:1-17. Matthew 16:21-end.

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.

Dazzle-Ships-22
Dazzle Design

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.

 

Gary Collins

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The Canaanite woman and the conversion of Jesus

Matthew 15 v 21 – 28

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

Conversation

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.

A Prayer
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

RingTheBells

Ring The Bells

Genesis 28:10-19a, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Ring the bells

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.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

Yoke-Presentation!

The yoke is sunny side up.

Gospel Sermon. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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 might do 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 live fully 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
my letters
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!

Gary

series-f

The meaning of the magic hands

Guest Speaker: The Very Revd John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry Cathedral

Gen 21.8-21, Matthew 10.24 – 39

Gary’s First Communion

I’m delighted to be here today, to be part of this awesome occasion – awesome for Gary, for all of us, for God who comes amongst us and becomes present in our midst in a particular, a real (tangible) way in this communion we are soon to share.

Many of us here have been privileged to share with this extraordinary man though many years of journeying to this stage. Some of you will have walked the journey for longer than I have, but my first encounter with Gary was around 1995, over 20 years ago, when a very long haired young man turned up on my doorstep in Uxbridge, West London. We had both been told that we would enjoy meeting, and sitting down together was rather like putting a match to dry kindling as conversation immediately took off into areas of exploration, mystery, wonder, excitement, possibility … out of which some of my most precious and stimulating experiences of creating and leading worship emerged.

Over the years of love and friendship, conversations turned increasingly towards ordination – and the Tiny Tea tent at Greenbelt was witness to increasingly urgent questions of ‘could I’, ‘should I’ – do I really believe enough? That of course was mostly me – Gary’s vocation was never seriously in doubt. And over the years his wonderful and precious family have continued to shape and direct that vocation, and to ground it in its own context.

So here we all are, ready for something new. Gary will speak words of offering and blessing, and those of us who dare will receive the precious life of God afresh into our mortal bodies. All are invited, by the way – there are no barriers imposed upon us here.

What’s going on? What has given Gary ‘magic hands?’ What’s changed since the service yesterday afternoon?

Well, everything and nothing. The ministry that Gary has as a priest is not ‘his’ – it’s Christ’s, and Christ has committed it to the church. The church, in its discernment and wisdom, has recognised that God has called the church to ask Gary to be one of its representatives, to bring that ministry to life – to make it real and present, here and now.

Sometimes we imagine that ordained ministers are God’s special envoys, a bit like mini Terry Waite’s. That a priest is the direct representative of Christ. That’s quite a dangerous idea: it places too much responsibility on the individual, and not enough on the church. It’s the church as a whole that are the body of Christ, the church as a whole which has been given Christ’s authority to absolve, to bless, to break bread in his name. Gary’s task is to speak the words – to move his hands – but they are all our words, all our actions, given us by Jesus Christ himself. And it’s his task to help us never forget that – to lead and enable the church to be the church, the body of Christ.

Sometimes that won’t be easy, Gary. It won’t have escaped your attention that today’s readings reflect the reality of conflict in the human and Godly family. All too often, the conflict we have to bear as ministers is within the Christian family, not outside it. Sometimes we are responsible. How and why is that? How come that the peaceful Jesus, meek and mild, comes out with such extraordinary statements as those in the gospel today – I have not come to bring peace, but a sword?

There are many reasons, and over the coming years you will experience and sometimes suffer many of them. Perhaps the key now is the constant difficulty of keeping God’s family outward facing – welcoming, embracing, including. It’s always a struggle to welcome the person who presents as an outsider, who may become an insider, and through whom we change. The church tries to offer a model of how to live for God and others, and someone who suggests that the way we have learned to live for God, perhaps even the way we have believed, is not, after all, the only way – maybe not even the right way – is never going to be an easy, comfortable thing to hear.

To talk to Gary is often to be disturbed, stretched, embraced, by truths which seem somehow just out of sight. It does appear to be his particular and delightful calling in the life of the church – to bring colour, surprising and different patterns, love and joy into sometimes dusty corners.

When Gary takes the bread in a few minutes, as we gather around this altar, in this holy place, let’s thank God not only for him, and for Rachel and all the family – but for one another, and the word wonder of ourselves and God’s work within us. As he takes the bread, perhaps we can see in it signs of our lives, and all that we have done with them, made of them, offered afresh to God to be broken open again to his light. As he takes the wine, mingled with water, can we see it as signs of all that we have lived through – the joy and the pain – transformed in the love of God to reflect his passion for us and the world. As he has already spoken words of absolution, and as he comes to speak words of blessing, may we know ourselves known and loved and held by God, and filled once more with his life and light for the world.

Above all, may Gary’s ministry help us to be the church that Jesus calls us to be, to the Glory of God and in the life and light of the Holy Spirit.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Trinity-Slides

Trinity – “The One Who Cannot Suffer is a Loveless Being”

Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-end, Matthew 26.16-end

May I speak in the name… of the mystical Trinity; Father Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Liberator, Sustainer; the one, the three, the many; the immanent – the economic; the divine dance; the crucified God; the endless relationship, the dance of atoms; quarks, protons, electrons; plants, planets angels, and God. The love that invites, welcomes, calls us to participate; that sends us out; the love that baptises our humanity in the task of being human, and surround us in an ocean of holy love.

As an ordained minister it’s funny, (and challenging) to discover what people presume you to be about… we’ve spoken before about the Magpie; the recipient of all kinds of projections, folklore, superstition etc. I am often told what I believe by other people, only to then throw them off balance by telling that I don’t believe those things at all! “No I’m not against homosexuality, yes I do know what Grime music is, no I don’t believe in a seven day creation, I do believe in climate change, I don’t know why God allows suffering, and no I’m not sexist.…”

Often I am also told “well you believe in a higher power”.. (well that’s more straightforward isn’t it?).. I mean we might – in this church – be tempted to agree to ‘believe in a higher power’.. but I have a confession to make. I don’t.

I really don’t believe in a higher power.. in fact ‘I’ needs a cross, ‘believe’, needs a cross, ‘higher’, needs a cross and ‘power’ needs a cross… the whole statement I totally refute. And on this day, Trinity Sunday it’s a good day to come clean and make my confession known… and to explain why it is the Holy Trinity that makes me deny my belief in a higher power, and may might inspire you to do the same!

It’s the classic curate’s sermon; the test of one’s mettle.. how can they explain this infinite mystery in a fifteen minute sermon. It’s usually the point that three ropes, or an egg, an ice cube or some clover gets taken out and used to explain things… But actually, they don’t work.. the metaphors are weak and distracting, (plus often heretical!) so sadly I wont be trying to explain the Trinity this morning… what I want to suggest is that the Trinity is not for us to understand…the Trinity is God. We cannot understand God, as the Isaiah passage so eloquently reveals, but the Trinity yet provokes us to live richer, deeper and more vivid lives; we are invited to participate in the Trinity of God, and to share what Jesus is talking about in his commission.

If this is unfamiliar language, or sounds daunting, don’t let it be. The Trinity is the way we describe God as both one God and Three persons; Father Son and Spirit. It is—I believe—the most exciting thing about Christianity, it is where the distinctive and compelling vision of faith emerges.. it is within the Trinity that we find our energy to face some of the most challenging issues of our times. Why we have a ‘Trinity Sunday’ seems so odd, when every day, every moment, every thing is entwined in God’s self-giving relationship.

So let’s step back briefly into the very early beginning of the church and ask where did this idea of God as three in one emerge? (Hold on to your hats – this is a whistle-stop tour!)

The Mediaeval theologian Anselm speaks of Christianity as “Faith seeking understanding”. And that is how the early church began it’s work. “Father Son and Holy Spirit” are only mentioned twice in the Bible, yet the teaching of Jesus, the rumours of the Hebrew Bible and most importantly, the lived and prayed experience of the early church began to reveal a Trinitarian understanding of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It took 400 years, (and a shed load of arguing) to (roughly) agree, but it was the work of Ireneaus, and these guys—The Cappadocians—who finally developed a clear theology of God in response to the question, “how can God be one and three at the same time?”

Their work was stunning really, and we repeat a lot of it in the creed which we will soon say together; all of God is all of God, all of God is involved in the life of God.. The father creates, the son creates, the spirit creates – or saves, or love, or inspired or tenderly hold us like a mother to a child. Let’s think on that for a second; we speak of the Spirit of Christ, or the Spirit of God, but we can equally speak of the Christ of the Spirit… what new images might develop in our faith and life if we can imagine Father Son and Holy Spirit as equal and mutual but different..

Furthermore the Cappadocians developed these words; ‘eternally begotten’, ‘proceeding’… ways to say that God has always been Trinity; there was never a Father before the Son.. Christ is begotten of the father—but eternally.. always begotten, and the Spirit too, proceeding – always.

What the early church was struggling to achieve was a way to explain; to define the ‘Essence’ or ‘Being’ of God. What the Cappadocians gave them was a language to express this;

God is one essence (ousia) existing as three persons (hypostases): Father, Son and Spirit.

But to develop a Doctrine is different to believing, and to seek understanding is different to believing. Although a doctrine of the Trinity emerged, it was a doctrine for a mystery, (for the Cappadocians, a love that flowed and binds together). As much as reason was applied, the Trinity remained beyond the grasp of understanding, beyond knowledge.

It wasn’t until the enlightenment era that things started to evolve again… Culture often influences theology… and around the 16 & 17th century, belief in absolutes truths began to dwindle; The place of experience and subjectivity began to grow, as did thought about humans as individual, self-determining people, and how we might begin to think of a ‘Divine Being’. This too began to influence how we understood God as Trinity.

Four significant thinkers in the modern age have affected our thinking. The father of modern liberal theology Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a huge volume on theology and left the Trinity to almost an afterword. ‘it is not part of the lived Christian experience’, and therefore irrelevant to most Christians – he said.

Yet Karl Barth, (you may have heard of him!), set himself in opposition to Friedrich and began his even bigger work, “Church Dogmatics’ with a full treatise on the Trinity.. This is how God chooses to reveal Godself… and that’s it – don’t worry about experience – just deal with it!

It was Karl Rahner who suggested that what we experience of God, might be the same as who God is; using a technical term, ‘The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity”.. We can begin to glimpse that whatever divine intimacy exists as God relates to Godself, we are also enabled to experience that in prayer, action and thought.

Jürgen Moltmann – to whom we will return a little later, was to have a major impact also. But let’s remember what these thinkers were doing was still an attempt to define the ‘Essence’ or ‘Being’ of God. It was still an examination of God, a way to describe the nature of God.

So lets get back to my confession about a higher power. We may already begin to see that this self-giving, mutual relationship of God to God contradicts the idea of an unchanging higher God. The Cappadocians were struggling to form a theology that could respond to Greek philosophy, (which understood God as higher, un-moving and unchanging). The foundations they laid enabled John of Damascus to use the term ‘Perichoresis’ as a way to speak of a ‘Divine Dance’, an eternal, giving and loving inviting. A relationship not enclosed – but outward facing.

Theology lags often behind philosophy however, and the thought that God is somehow higher – the legacy of Greek thought – remained deeply influential.. However, through existentialism, the idea of the person began to change from an individual self-determining unit to a relating self, from me to we… we began to understand as caught in a circle of relationships, that we are because of others around us. “I am because we are”. So this affected theology – finally.. An individual self-contained vision of personhood, (‘persona’ means mask), sees the world—and God—very differently.

It was Jürgen Moltmann who may have most deeply affected our present thinking about the Trinity. Moltmann experienced the horrors of war, but also the hospitality of the British as a POW. He also had to come to terms with the horrors of the holocaust in his home country. He picked up on an old phrase from Martin Luther, ‘Deus Crucifixus’, ‘The Crucified God’, to point to something truly compelling about the Trinity. If Jesus has died on the cross and suffered human pain, then Father and Spirit has suffered too. The cry of “My God, why have you forsaken me” is eternally present within the Trinity; a rift, a tear, a constant ache. A voice of suffering humanity, and indeed all of creation, speaks within the Godhead, and God is understood as embodying weakness and vulnerability, as well as resurrection hope.

“The one who cannot suffer is a loveless being” Moltmann.

U2’s Bono at Love Manchester last week said something similar; “grief will not end, because love does not end.”

So Power, and Higher Power are deeply challenged by a deeper thinking into the Trinity, and this too is where Belief comes into question. Because in the end, we are not invited to believe in the trinity, we are invited to participate in the Trinity.
Rublev’s famous Icon, (and Michael L Radcliffe’s reinterpretation – below) shows an open inviting table.. but I want to suggest we are all icons of the trinity in our outward loving, and giving, and living.

Trinity-RadcliffeIt has been suggested that the three points/characters of the Trinity could be removed and instead we simply recognise that our worship and our lives focuses on a divine relationship. The relationship which holds the universe together has icons everywhere; in diversity and unity; in planets and stars; in atoms and molecules; and in young people and communities gathered together in Manchester and London to say ‘we will continue to live, and to laugh, and to love, and to welcome others despite the fear of violence and hatred’.

Icons of God’s loving relationship emerge in feminist theology, disabled and queer theology, black and liberation theologies; where ‘norms’ and ‘binary divisions’ break down. The Trinity is saturated in exuberant lavish passionate love and overflows into life.

So my confession stands.. (you don’t have to take it on board yourself – it’s simply a suggestion), a chance to say something profound and meaningful about faith in the strange of times; to ask again what does God really mean to us – what does God provoke and inspire in those inside and outside the church;

‘I’ really don’t ‘believe’ in a ‘higher’ ‘power’.
But instead, maybe, our confession would say ‘we’ ‘participate’ in ‘vulnerable’ ‘love’.

Endless Trinity; beguiling mystery, enthralling, inspiring and provoking– invite us always to delight in the wonder of God, to turn our gaze outwards… and to hear once again these words of Jesus; to go into all the world, participating and inviting others into God’s vulnerable love.

Amen

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Beyond the Rules

Sermon Deut.30.15-end, Matt 5.21-37

If, like my mother, you were divorced and then remarried you may have been shifting in your seat at Jesus words about committing adultery with your new partner. If you found yourself aroused by a sexy photo of a favourite actor or actress you may be feeling alarmed at Jesus violent words about pulling out your offending eye. If you lost your temper with a family member this week you might be alarmed at the threat of hell fire, and so on.

In our church calendar we are starting to gear up towards Lent and the readings set for today reflect that. In Mathew’s gospel we are part way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew pictures Jesus sitting on a mountain, like Moses, and teaching his followers. In our OT reading Moses is instructing the Israelites. His aim is to get them to ‘choose life’, to live according to those commandments given to them in the desert – the 10 commandments; God’s rules for life giving relatedness to himself, to others and to the earth. Jesus is pictured as another Moses. He wants his followers to choose life. They are to lead the way for others, just as God had intended Israel to do. Just before this he’s been telling them that they are like salt and light for others. They have a high calling. Now he gets down to the nitty gritty.

For myself as I sat with this passage of scripture I was disturbed on two counts. First because the talk of cutting off your hand or pulling out your eye sounds like the worst aspects of Sharia law. Secondly, this week especially, because this kind of language can encourage the kind of abuse that was reported in the media of a Christian leader who saw it as his task to beat the wickedness out of young boys. I want us as followers of Christ to grapple with what looks like harsh teaching. So today, I won’t be doing the equivalent of tucking you up in bed with your teddies (if I ever do that!).

You are probably all aware that there is good religion and bad religion. The line between the two is often very fine. It’s easy to distort aspects of any faith, twisting them ever so slightly so that they then skew the whole. And we all do this to some extent because we home in on those aspects of our faith that best please us or fit in with our politics or temperament. We can’t be totally objective when we come to scripture; we see it through the eyes of the person we are. Having said that, we are encouraged to develop alertness, to have eyes that see and ears that hear, to use bible language.

Jesus teaching here is partly about developing this alertness. The violent language is a way of getting across the importance of what he is saying. Exaggeration of this kind was characteristic of the teaching style of rabbis in Jesus time. When elsewhere Jesus speaks of hanging a millstone round the neck of someone who leads astray children or the vulnerable we don’t take it literally, we understand that he’s making a point. Here, too, he’s not advocating literal amputation of offending limbs but underlining the importance of what he’s saying. This is not Sharia law.

So what is he saying? It’s here that distortions come in. The probably small distortions you and I make and the much bigger ones that abusers make. Part of the problem is that we think small. We just want to get by. But sitting on the mountain side with Jesus is to be drawn into a bigger picture. It’s rather as though he’s saying that being human is a heavenly calling, far grander than anything we had imagined, and now is the time to enter into that calling fully. The disciples had their rules for life – the 10 commandments –and doubtless many of them, like the rich young man, could say that they had kept them from their youth, so what more is there? Jesus is saying that they have to inhabit the rules fully. Only that way can they see the glory of God’s intentions for humanity. His example of divorce illustrates that. Divorce was easy in those times. It was something only a man could do, and for the most trivial of reasons. A wife was one of a man’s possessions. The implication of what Jesus says here is that marriage confers a higher status on the woman and requires a correspondingly higher standard of behaviour from the man.

The act of murder doesn’t come from nowhere, it starts with murderous intentions inside us, anger very often. This is where alertness comes in. Follow the trail; stop it at source and be ruthless about stopping it. If being unfaithful to our partner starts with lustful thoughts about another, then be ruthless about stopping these thoughts at source. Let’s notice that this is something we do ourselves – it’s not something that Jesus is asking others to do to us. Unfortunately a distortion the church can make and has made is to act as a moral policeman for others. Remember Jesus saying that we deal with the plank lodged in our own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s.

That still, however, leaves another distortion. Jesus is asking us to be ruthless with harmful thought patterns. Where does being kind to ourselves fit in with that? From the very early days of Christianity there were those who inflicted physical discomfort or pain on themselves as a way of letting their bodies know that they were subject to a higher authority than their physical needs. St Aidan, one of the Celtic saints, was said to have stood waist high in the waters of the north sea in winter for hours as part of his monastic discipline. Aidan is one of my heroes in the faith, but I wouldn’t be copying this particular habit. St Benedict, the founder of the dominant model for monastic life in the west, counselled against excesses of this kind, emphasising instead the importance of balance in the practice of our faith.

Jesus himself did not inflict pain on others or on himself. It’s clear, though, that he faced internal battles (temptations in the desert, Gethsemane) and that his followers would too. It’s also the case that he was tortured to death on a cross and that in our baptism we are invited to die with Christ before rising to new life with him. We may expect suffering as we follow Christ but he doesn’t invite us to go looking for it.

So, there are several distortions that can emerge from our interpretation of scripture, all leading to bad religion; one is that we take an unhealthy interest in the shortcomings of others and set out to correct them. Another is that we may unduly punish ourselves for our own shortcomings. Or we seek the most difficult and painful path for ourselves, seeing that as the way of sharing Christ’s suffering on the cross. Some signs of bad religion are excesses, secrecy and blocking our relatedness to others.

Like all distortions they keep us from recognising who we are in God’s eyes – beloved, heavenly(!) human beings. They keep us living in a shed when our true home is in the light and space and warmth we see as we sit next to Christ on the mountain side.

Of course there will always be times when we have angry feelings, or lustful feelings or the desire to harm others, or any number of other destructive thoughts. What Jesus is encouraging us to do is to be alert to this. So we say, ‘Ah yes, I can recognise you and I’m not following you.’ Rather like one of those computer games where you have to thwart the enemy intruder at every point. This may involve some concrete action, like sorting out a disagreement we have with someone before matters can get out of hand (v23-24). Or not visiting certain sites on our computer.

At this point we may throw up our hands and say, ‘I can’t be on 24 hour alert to all those impulses driving my behaviour. Jesus sets the bar too high.’ You’re right. The call is an upward call and we soon realise we can’t manage it alone. Even Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ won’t get us there. Good religion is when we look at that landscape in front of us with Jesus next to us and see more and more that it is grace and mercy. It cannot be earned, manipulated or consumed like a product. It can only be received as a gift.

 

Christine Bainbridge, Feb 2017

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The Gift of Light

The gift of light: Matthew 2:1-12

I wonder if you are using any of your Christmas gifts today? Anyone own up to wearing a Christmas or other item given at Christmas?

This is one of my treasured gifts I was given at Christmas – Sue calls it my dog harness! It’s simply a useful way to distribute the weight of the saxophone across the shoulders and prevent it damaging my neck.

It might seem strange we are talking about gifts today when Christmas might seem a long, long time ago.

Last Friday, church celebrated the feast of the Epiphany and the story of visitors bringing gifts to Jesus. This marks the beginning of the season of light in the church year. Each of the gospel stories over the next few weeks, such as Jesus’ baptism and the wedding at Cana, have this common theme of light. They are all moments of epiphany, shedding light on the true nature and purpose of Jesus. Today we are looking at how this gift of light reveals the remarkable generosity of God at work: a gift for all to share.

The details about the visitors bearing gifts to Jesus is very sketchy. Many of the Christmas cards you may have received last month might have looked like this one, with three kings on camels following the star to the stable. But we don’t really know if they were kings, wise men or Magi, or how many there were. And it’s unclear whether they visited a baby in a stable or, what seems more likely, an older 18 month old Jesus in a town dwelling.  What we are told is that these are visitors travelling from the East. The Greek word used here for ‘East’ is anatolai meaning ‘the rising’ or from the place of the rising sun. So we have the people of the rising light, being guided by the light of the star, to visit the king of light. It seems to be emphasising a point here! These people of the rising sun are the first of the Gentiles, or non-Jews, to worship Jesus and demonstrate that the gift of light is for everyone. And this is a theme that Matthew takes throughout the gospel, up to the very last section, where the disciples are sent out from Galilee to make disciples of all nations. The gift of light is for everyone, not for an exclusive membership. It’s a generous gift of life for all.

In my family, one of our most treasured possessions is a gift that was originally given to my grandfather. It’s a bloodstone signet ring, weathered by the years, but was a gift that literally saved his life. My grandfather was serving in the navy during the first world war’s largest naval battle, the Battle of Jutland. At one point, his boat was hit by the German fleet and he was flung into the icy cold water where many thousands of sailors sadly drowned. One of the boats threw out a rope to my grandfather, but it was too slippery for him to hold onto, until the signet ring was able to grip and give traction with the coils of rope. Ever since, our family has treasure it as the gift that saved his life.

In our gospel reading we read of the gifts that the visitors bring Jesus: gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh fit for a king. But the focus of the story is on the extraordinary gift that God has given to us all in the person of Jesus.

Later in the gospel, Jesus said of himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” It’s a gift that shows the extraordinary generosity of God to us, freely given without any conditions and without any restrictions.

And it is this gift of light and life that stands in stark contrast to so much else we face in the world.

Here is a photo that’s been given the title ‘the three modern wise men’ and you may recognise them. They are Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf and Dumbledore, the wise old heroes from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. What they have in common is how they act as symbols of light against the rising darkness; the threat from the evil Empire, Sauron and Voldemort. You might have seen the recent Star Wars film, where a small band of rebels fight against the rising darkness of Darth Vader and the Death Star. Or you may remember the famous scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf with his staff of light confronts the Balrog with those immortal words: You shall not pass!

The generosity of Jesus’ gift of light and life was challenged from the very beginning. If you read on in the gospel past this story of the visitors from the East, you’ll hear about the bitterness and horror of infanticide, of a powerful leader prepared to kill innocent children in a desperate attempt to hold onto power. It could be a scene from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, where the force of light seems to be encountering almost impossible odds to survive against the coming darkness. On one side are the power and might of ruling authorities spreading the darkness of mistrust and evil, on the other side are a small band of shepherds, visitors and a young baby.

How do we respond to this challenge of the rising darkness?

You may have received a number of Christmas newsletters from friends and family. These can sometimes be lovely to read and at other times can be a bit overwhelming, listing all the great things that have happened to them during the year.

Sue and I were struck by one in particular. It was written with touching honesty about the challenges our friends faced during 2016. What shone through the letter was how they’d responded to the challenge to bring light in their own community, through working with homeless and those in need. They concluded their newsletter with a well-known quotation from Edmund Burke that says: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.’

How is God calling us to challenge the triumph of evil in 2017?

Whether you feel the darkness we need to confront is the wilful destruction of our planet, our modern political situation, the way we treat refugees and the homeless or the challenges we face each day at work, home or in our community, we are being called to respond with God’s generosity of spirit to the needs of our world.

It’s this spirit of generosity that was highlighted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in his New Year message. He illustrates it through the story of a refugee called Sabir, that he met in Coventry.

‘I met Sabir Zazai many years ago and I was delighted to have an opportunity to visit the centre for refugees he now runs. He came as a refugee from Afghanistan in 1999, and his sheer courage and ability are extraordinary.

There are people like Sabir all over the country, and they are a blessing to our way of life. They are embracing all that is good. And that doesn’t just enrich their lives, it enriches and deepens ours too. If we’re welcoming to those in need, if we’re generous in giving, if we take hold of our new future with determination and courage, then we will flourish. Living well together despite our differences, offering hospitality to the stranger and those in exile, with unshakable hope for the future – these are the gifts, the commands and the promises of Jesus Christ.’

The light of Christ opens us to God’s generosity of spirit and kindness and the example of how we are to treat one another.

Christina Rossetti, speaks of this generosity of spirit in her famous carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’. The final verse says:

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

 

To end with these beautiful words from an old Scottish blessing about this gift of light and generosity of spirit:

‘May the blessing of light be on you – light without and light within.

May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire,

so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it.

And may light shine out of the two eyes of you,

like a candle set in the window of a house,

bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm.

And may the blessing of the rain be on you,

may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean,

and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines,

and sometimes a star.’ Amen

 

Hamish Bruce

8/1/17