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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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Can you really boast about suffering?

Sermon for Zoom Church, June 14, 2020, St John and St Stephen, Reading.

Romans 5:1-8

 

5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Matthew 9:35-10:8

The Harvest Is Great, the Labourers Few

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

The Twelve Apostles

10Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

The Mission of the Twelve

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

 

Recently my husband lent me a book about listening. Now, I don’t quite know what I should make of that – is he trying to tell me something?! I don’t know if you’ve thought much about listening recently? The book is called “You’re not Listening”, subtitled: “what you’re missing and why it matters”.

I wonder if you can think of a time when you had to listen to somebody. There are some relationships, aren’t there, where you always find yourself as the listening one. In other relationships perhaps you’re the talker. In any mutual relationship one might hope for a balance of listening and talking.

People often talk about their troubles to a minister, which is fine; that’s what we’re here for. People talk about the ways in which life has been tough for them. And life is often tough. Sometimes they talk about how suffering has prevented them from believing in a loving God.

How can there be a God in a world where there’s so much suffering? This is often a question put to Christian people.

And it’s a very good question. A lot of Ministers are asking themselves that at the moment (I’m guessing).

Our sense of suffering has without doubt heightened in the global pandemic. I have had to limit my uptake of news stories because they have been so very painful. There’s only so much we can take. We can indeed feel ‘harassed and helpless’, as Jesus says of the crowds in today’s gospel.

No one likes thinking about suffering, but, surprisingly in our reading today, St Paul wants not only to remember his sufferings, but to boast in them.

To boast in his sufferings? It seems like a bizarre concept, doesn’t it? He writes about boasting of the hope we have of sharing in the glory of God (that’s a bit more understandable) but to boast in his sufferings?

I can understand boasting about hope: ‘We’re going to be grandparents!!!!’ (that’s not actually true of us, I hasten to add). ‘I can go on holiday this summer after all!!!’ (I’d like to boast of that hope but I’m not sure if I can yet).

We all boast of our hopes, but why would anyone want to boast of their sufferings? Normally people either hide their sufferings, offload them onto a good listener, or try to forget them. In our society sadly too, we self medicate to numb our sufferings, in addiction to alcohol, or in digital addiction, the late night mindless scrolling to try and forget the present or past suffering.

So in this short passage in Romans we are faced with an unusual concept – boasting in one’s sufferings. It’s not something we have done in this country during the Covid-19 pandemic either. We have reported our sufferings, in endless graphs of outbreaks and deaths; we have cried over our sufferings and the sufferings of others dear to us; we have been ashamed of our sufferings in our high number of deaths, and bemoaned the fact that they could’ve been lower if we’d done things differently.

But we have not boasted of our sufferings. At Church level, we have panicked about the surge in funerals, panicked over the bleak financial outlook, and moaned over the closing of church buildings, and now we’re stressing about their re-opening. But we haven’t boasted about our sufferings.

As far as we know, as a society we hide or repress our sufferings. I don’t know if you watched the programme where Prince William met some men who’d started a special football team for dads who’d lost children at or around the time of birth. It was on the back of statistics about the death of men age 16-45, where the biggest single killer is suicide. When we don’t share our sufferings because we are ashamed, or can’t think of who to turn to, they can drag us right down.

But I still don’t know anyone who boasts of their sufferings.

Why does Paul do this? Is he, as I’ve often suspected, just in a different league to us more banal Christians?

Well, on the plus side, he writes about suffering in a way that is eventually hopeful. Suffering, he says, produces endurance (that’s the first link in the chain). We know this to be true, even if we resist it. I have wanted to strongly resist the idea that the suffering I’ve experienced due to the lockdown will produce endurance. I don’t really want suffering; I don’t want to be told I can’t go to work, or that work re-starting will never feel the same again and will be full of risk and confusion.

I mean I like the sound of endurance, but unfortunately you can’t buy it and stick it on you like a plaster; to get it you have to suffer. Endurance means I become resilient despite suffering. Most days, if I’m honest, I’d just rather not have either, because suffering is hard and everything in me wants to resist it, even if it does bring a gift in its wake.

But Paul ploughs on. Endurance produces character. Deep down, we know this to be true. When you’ve come through something hard, or are learning ways to live with something hard, you are often in a position to become more patient, more grounded, more humble, and more able to receive help from others.

These are all Christ like qualities and tend not to develop when we’re rushing through life from one successful enterprise to another without a backward look. I’ve noticed in church life that it’s often the people who have endured the most suffering that are the most sensitive to others’ suffering and the ones who intercede for others meaningfully. They have a depth and a steadiness about them that is most attractive.

So, suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; and character, according to Paul, produces hope. It’s less clear to me how this one works: character produces hope. It must be something perhaps to do with how we’re being changed into the likeness of God. If we’re becoming more like God, we are heading towards God, and will be fully united with him eventually. The hope in our hearts is poured in first by God, Paul says, and so we are sustained in our suffering because God has taken the initiative.

God doesn’t just save us from our sins (although he obviously does that) but he saves us for himself. This is the theological concept of theosis, or divinisation. By grace, we human become like God. We are made in God’s image, but we must grow into his likeness. God made us for himself and that’s to do with so much more than saving us from our sin. In fact the NRSV in this Romans passage seems to use ‘sinners’ and ‘weak’ interchangeably which is interesting. ‘While we were still weak at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly’ (verse 6).

I’ve often felt in our liturgy that we beat ourselves up too much about sin. There, I’ve said it now. We are always getting it wrong, of course, but that is often because we are weak, not BAD. Some of us are bad, of course, but in my experience generally, Church people are trying pretty hard to be good.

As salvation and wholeness and healing are the same word in Greek, it seems we are in danger of putting people off when we over stress the sin bit, because it’s just as true that we’re people who need healing. We need forgiveness AND healing! We need saving in order to be made into the likeness of God. That’s a two-fold process.

Whenever people cut it off at the ‘thank God I’m saved, I can do what I like’ side, and don’t progress to the much harder work of becoming holy – the world knows that’s phony. (My mind is drawn to footage of a world leader scowling and brandishing a bible on camera for no apparent reason while behind him police fire rubber bullets into a crowd peacefully protesting about racial injustice). Nobody is going to buy that. It’s about the worst advert for the Christian faith you could possibly imagine.

I don’t know what this last three months of extraordinary living has brought you in the way of suffering. I don’t know if I’ve yet got to boasting about my disturbed nights, general fatigue and occasional anxiety. I don’t know if you could boast about yours either

But as we try and make sense of Paul’s extraordinary thesis about how suffering brings endurance, character and thence hope, I pray we can be strengthened today and have the assurance that we have obtained access to ‘this grace in which we stand’.

Amen.