Trinity to Advent 2020

Homilies by Rev. David Shaw

A series of short homilies reflecting on the readings for our Sunday services


christ the king

readings: ezekiel 34.11-16 & 20-24; ephesians 1.15-23; matthew 25.31-46

So we arrive at the final Sunday of Year A.  Next week being Advent Sunday we move to a new church season and a new lectionary which is the Gospel of Mark.  But now we end this particular year with the Messiah seated on the throne and an affirmation of what God is asking of us, what being a Christian means in reality.

There can be no missing the point as Jesus, or Matthew in his recording of it, repeats it four times.  It is simply that we will be judged by how we have treated others, especially the less fortunate.  It begins with Jesus separating the people into two groups, something the people of the time would have understood.  The shepherds would sometimes separate the sheep from the goats for a very practical reason.  In winter  when he would return the flock to the village after a day’s feeding on the surrounding hillside he would separate them because the goats were unable to cope with the cold nights and were thus vulnerable unless given some cover, while the sheep with their fleece could cope on their own. Any goat left to fend for itself on such a night would not survive. 

In many modern Bibles this is often referred to as the parable of the sheep and the goats when in fact it was an illustration used by Jesus to emphasise a point he was making, a parable is something with a deep meaning contained within it. The emphasis on the sheep and goats somewhat obscures the central message. Many people use this expression in various contexts with no relation to the main thrust of the argument that Jesus was making.

That real point is simply that we will be divided according to how well, or badly, we have treated the less fortunate of the world. The fact that the details are recorded four times should leave us in no doubt that this is the heart of Jesus’s message.  As Jesus is visualised as Christ the King we are reminded of what He did on earth, His absolute concern for the needy, for the forgotten of the world.  During those times we were often instructed to go and do likewise, and now in this discourse the point is hammered home.  Surprisingly it is not any of the major things we could perhaps do, it is the simple things of caring, of giving the necessities of life, looking to people whom the world has shut away and clothing those who have none. These are the very things that everyone can do, it is not restricted in any way.  So acceptance by God begins and ends in what we do for the needy and disadvantaged, and is something which in our own way we must do.

Most importantly it is to be done unconditionally and uncalculatingly.  In the illustration those who are saved wonder why they are there, and  are reminded of the many times in life they actually did those things , whilst those  who are excluded are reminded of the many opportunities they had had which were either ignored or just not recognised as being important.  However, we can be seduced by the description of the periphery and miss this main point. The imagery of King Jesus and indeed the imagery of the shepherd looking over the sheep link our thinking to Old Testament ideas but we must be careful they do not dominate and thus obscure the real message. 

It is the ordinary things that we do in our journey of life, rather than in the major things we would like to do.  Barclay in his analysis of this passage records two events which emphasise this.  He tells the legend of St. Francis of Assisi, although well-born and well-to-do, was still very unhappy with his life. On one of his journeys he met a leper badly disfigured by the disease.  Seeing him in this terrible state Francis embraced him, and in his arms the disfigured face of the leper changed to the face of Christ.   As someone put it in our last week’s zoom discussion, we just need to do something.

The other example Barclay uses is that of St. Martin of Tours.  Again from a well-to-do family and as a young man an officer in the Roman army.  He became involved with the Christian church at the age of ten and was a catechumen, despite being in the Roman Army .  On one fearfully cold day as he was entering the city he was approached by a poorly clad beggar asking for alms.  Martin had nothing he could give him, but seeing  that the beggar was shivering and blue with cold, he dismounted from his horse, took off his tunic and cut it in two, giving one part to the beggar.  That night Martin had a dream when he saw Jesus wearing half of a blue tunic, and when asked about it Jesus replied, “My servant Martin gave it to me.” From that moment onwards Martin was fully committed to his faith, and indeed ultimately became Bishop of Tours.  We just need to do something.

As we approach Advent the legend surrounding Martin of Tours figures powerfully. November 11th is the Feast Day of St. Martin and in a number of countries this was the start of a period of fasting for 40 days (not including Saturdays and Sundays) which eventually became our period of Advent.  Martin as Bishop also formed a rudimentary basis for our parish based system of church organisation, and his little cloak (French: Capella)  he used to further his concern for people in prison by designating their ministers as chaplains, a term now used in a wide variety of other contexts.  Small rural chapels also got their name from the root word of capella, and although Martin is not a Saint in the Anglican tradition what he achieved is still found at the heart of much of what we do.

The image of the shepherd is used frequently in the Old Testament and Ezekiel uses it powerfully in Chapter 34, which contains one of the supporting readings for the day, in which he compares the hireling to the true shepherd, an idea which was later used by Jesus.  The portion we hear today is the prophesy of the Messiah as the Good Shepherd thereby raising  “shepherding”  from the mundane to a Royal calling.  The later prophets began to focus this idea of the true or good shepherd and in the latter part of today’s extract, the details of this Royal calling emerge which match very closely to Jesus’s words in the Gospel text.

The Letter to the Ephesians which is primarily the work of Paul reflects those same values.  It has been referred to “as the remarkable letter that unfortunately mentions the relationship between husbands and wives”, and many people have foregone the wonder of this letter because of this.  But in the portion we read today Paul is affirming the unity of the church, the place of all. It is not based on history or tradition but simply on how we live life.  The section we read is a prayer for the Gentile congregation of Ephesus, that they will know and live in the wonders of that promise of eternal hope, over which Jesus has been given all authority.  The later chapters of this letter offer some ideas of how this can be achieved, although sadly some of these have become outdated and divisive.

So we come to the end of our present reading of Matthew’s Gospel.  We have been left with several images of what the future may be, but with the over-riding idea of what we must do to know it fully, either in this life or beyond.  We will see its glory in what we do for those who need our help, we will see the face and the Kingship of Christ in all that do. Christ the Servant King is the inspiration for the journey and our support upon it.

Prayers

 Almighty God, as you stir up the wills of all faithful people,
stir up our will, O Lord that we may follow your example in life,
that we may see you in your Kingship by doing the things you did here on earth,
that we may care for all in need, that we may share all that we have,
and that we may truly understand the situations of all we meet.


2nd sunday before advent

readings: Judges 4.1-7; Zephaniah 1.7 & 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30

As we approach the end of the year of Matthew’s Gospel we come across a parable which at first reading seems easy to grasp, but there is more behind this reading than we can interpret from just our present understanding of the concept of ‘talents’.   Contextually Matthew has set it apart from its original situation, it ought really to be found in the middle section of chapter 23 which is his blistering attack on  the Scribes and Pharisees.

To understand this parable it is first important to grasp what a talent meant in the context of Israel, and it’s changing nature in the era of the prophets just prior to Jesus.  A talent was traditionally not a unit of currency, it was a unit of weight.  Indeed a significant unit of weight, around 75lbs of material. As a currency unit it became associated with either that weight of gold or silver,  both with astronomical values in currency terms. Even the servant who was given one talent had indeed been given enormous responsibility.  Such responsibility was even governed by Rabbinical  Law, which sought that to protect individuals. In such circumstances the law decreed that anything you looked after on someone else’s behalf should be buried in a safe place, thereby providing legal protection should it be stolen.  This was indeed a shrewd parable of Jesus because the only one doing it according to the law was the third servant who did just that, the other two had risked the amounts on commercial activities which in the advent of anything going wrong would have been their responsibility.  Of course Jesus was drawing a parallel with the law in general which was burying the potential development of mankind and their relationship with God.  The conventional is not the way of God!

Those who defined talents in the then increasingly modern way of monetary terms fared no better, here they came up against the idea of usury.  Usury in our context is the accumulation of excessive profits, but for the Jewish community it was much more fundamental.  A Jew cannot charge interest on money to a fellow Jew.  So again we see the only person in the parable who doesn’t break the law is the third servant with the one talent.  This parable certainly turns our human world onto its head.

 The talent, the weight is the backdrop of the parable, something that had to be carried. For me it emphasises the main thrust of the parable is that it is not a gift but a responsibility.  In our world, and probably long before us, it is easy to interpret a talent which is given for our individual benefit. If that is in sport it can certainly be exploited, and so many other  talents when viewed in this way.  They are rarely seen as a responsibility to others.  Just recently you will have been aware of the debate surrounding the provision of free school meals to poorer children during the holidays in this Covid dominated time.  It provides a supreme example of how Marcus Rashford  used his footballing skills to the benefit of many such children in ensuring they will receive meals during holiday time, the responsibility of talent rather than the gift of talent.  But the resulting change of heart was not down to Marcus alone, it was also very largely reliant upon the talents and living responsibility of the 1 million people who backed his petition and the people who in the end had the influence to make it law.  It seems reminiscent of Paul’s gifts of the Spirit which can only come to fruition when its collective and we treat them as responsibilities to others rather than cherish them as gifts for ourself.  How sad it is that those surrounding President Trump in the White House at present are unwilling to ‘man-up’ to their responsibility, and perhaps save him and his country from the embarrassing course he seems set upon.

Once we go down this way of thinking of talents as responsibilities other issues spring forth.  The idea of being a chosen people needs to be thought of differently, chosen not to a privileged position but chosen for a task.  This parable was indeed life shaking and remains so.  Throughout our own Christian history we too have struggled over similar things, the usury question having appeared in many major Councils of the Christian Church agendas through the ages.  The message of Jesus is stating that individual responsibility is at the heart of every other responsibility in the world.  Here talents extend beyond all that we are and to all that we have.  The parable of the building of barns hints at it, that it is our responsibility to use our gifts, talents or whatever, not for ourselves but for the good of others and the benefit of God’s creation. Our time, our material assets, our whole being needs to  be focussed on  that wider purpose if the world is to grow to the full potential of its creator, rather than our own narrow self-interest.  Issues such as climate change, animal husbandry, waste, care in the community, poverty and so much more are at the centre of its domain.

Knowing the demands, perhaps we have tried to sidestep those responsibilities in so many ways.  Charity is one that springs to mind. Giving to good causes is indeed very laudable but is it always for the greater good?  We are reluctant to hand over our talents into the sea of humanity, choosing rather to share them with causes that are close to our own hearts.  But deep down that is still seeing talents as our gift which we can still maintain control over, rather than just simply offering them to the world. Perhaps there is sometimes even a self-gratification in  the good we hope to do.  In the world many needs could be met provided we shared the talents that we had. Perhaps  these needs could be better resolved if the world and its assets were more universally focussed, that they were shared rather than gifted.

I suppose this is a giant step to take.  Paul’s letter to the Thessalonica is about that step.  They want the Good News but are apprehensive about it, what will it entail?  It is not actually about loving outside of ourselves, it is about knowing how it is that we are being loved unconditionally. Yet in the world we are deluded into thinking that indulgence and self-importance are central,  the step we need to make is to realise God’s unconditional love for us all ,even when we make terrible mistakes.    

Can we really believe in and expect His  love?  Let’s pray that we can because only then will we be able to share it with others through the many talents we have been given. This would really be the way to carrying the weight of the talents we all have been blest with.

As the Archbishop quoted in his Armistice Day sermon concerning Covid,  “None of us are safe until we are all safe”, similarly not one of us can find peace and joy until we all find it. Understanding a little more of the parable of the talents might bring us a little closer to achieving that.

PRAYER
After reading a section from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Giving
O Lord teach us to know that
it is well to give when asked, but better to give unasked, through love;
that there is nought that we should withhold, but should rejoice in the season of giving.
O Lord, teach us that when we are tempted to give only to the deserving,
that the trees in our orchard say not so, nor the flocks in our pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
O Lord, teach us to realise that he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life
deserves to fill his cup from our little stream.
O Lord, teach us to give as in yonder valley the myrtle who breathes its fragrance into space,
that through the hands of such as these God speaks,
and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.
O Lord, teach us to realise that only when we give of our-self do we fully give.
O Lord, may we live in the world, but be citizens of heaven above all else.


third sunday before advent

readings: joshua 24.1-3 & 14-35; 1 thessalonians 4.13-18; matthew 25.1-13

Be prepared, we do not know when he will come.  The reading from Matthew’s gospel this week is directly related to the difficult reading we had last week.  This week, though, is seemingly far easier to understand and is a direct parable relating to the Jewish Day of the Lord.  It is again aimed directly at the Pharisees, who are far more concerned about their own situation than about that day when the Lord will come.

Weddings have some strange customs built up around them, in our society just as much as any other.  What we read today may seem strange to us, but would certainly be well understood in Palestine,  even up to the present day .  We hear of it twice in Matthew’s gospel, firstly relating to the guests who didn’t want to come and in this one in relation to the bridesmaids, each situation being used to put a different understanding upon religious matters.

There is a Jewish saying which says, “That everyone from six to sixty will follow the wedding drum” and emphasises the great importance of a wedding that even in a world dominated by rules and regulations  a man studying the law was permitted to join in the wedding and the following week-long celebrations.  The only problem was that no one knew precisely when it would take place.  The preparations were all made, everyone was ready and they waited until the bridegroom decided to arrive.  Just as in our society it has become custom for the bride to arrive late, so in the Palestinian wedding it was the prerogative of the bridegroom. To add to the difficulty he may even arrive at night, and when he did the wedding would go ahead immediately.  The role of the bridesmaid was simply to keep the bride company until the bridegroom arrived, and to be ready to dash out and welcome him as soon as he did.  There is another twist of course that if this happened when it was dark the bridesmaids would have to light their lamps to go out to meet him, and it was another of those Jewish laws which stated that they could not go out without a light.  So in this parable, the bridesmaids  who had not brought oil for the lamps would have been dismissed, meaning that they not only missed the ceremony but the week-long celebration that went on after it, no doubt facing absolute disgrace.  Weddings had to be prepared meticulously so that when the bridegroom arrived everything was ready.  Being unprepared meant that they missed it all.

Be prepared, be ready is the important message.  In its original telling it was aimed at the Pharisees, comparing them to the foolish bridesmaids who were so intent on their own importance that they had lost sight of why they were there.  But it remains a timeless message to everyone.  To the Jewish nation it drew particular attention to the day of the Lord when all would be judged.  Live life well certainly is the message, but do not for one moment think that you can control it.  Make plans certainly, but always remember that you do not control destiny.  Make sure that in all life you are prepared for it to end.

C,S. Lewis, in his Screwtape Letters, has a senior devil giving advice to a junior, as the latter has the task of diverting the people away from God and to the devil. Whilst the junior comes up with some ingenious ways of doing it, the senior devil is always able to point out the various flaws in those plans and schemes.   In the end he assures the junior that there is only one way of being sure that the people forget their God.  The advice he gives is simply to reassure the people that there is no hurry, that there is plenty of time.  Let them, indeed encourage them, to go on living life as they  want to live it as if there is no end, and then God will disappear from their minds as new wonders of the world appear before them to tantalise and seduce.  Quite a prophetic piece of writing for a world where daily new ideas and aspirations appear before us, we do indeed live as if it will never come to an end. 

Until of course it suddenly does, not least in the Covid situation which the world collectively faces.  Suddenly, almost inexplicably, our world has been stopped in its tracks.  Suddenly there is great hurry to find a solution, to find the golden bullet which will stop it and enable us to get back on the merry go round of life.  But increasingly it is becoming apparent that the magic bullet has as much to do with ourselves as it does with external factors.  The spread has much to do with our own actions, and simply  restricting some of those  will reduce the spread of the disease.  If we reflect on how  we have turned that wheel of life faster and faster, we perhaps have to ask ourselves if this could possibly go on forever.  Or would there be a time when we were exhausted, the planet was exhausted, life was exhausted.  Were we ready for that?  Were we prepared for something that was outside of our control.  In many ways the parable of the ten bridesmaids has an even more powerful message for our world than it did for the people it was aimed at 2000 years ago.  Many of those saw the prophecies coming to light in their own lifetime, will we also be left doing that? Just as those foolish bridesmaids were happy to accept the honour without the responsibility, are we wanting to assert our increasing freedoms without the responsibility in so many situations?

Be prepared, the hour is closer than you think is the message of today’s reading.  Jesus himself made reference to it, and the zeal and hectic activity of the early Christians are based on it, as we see in the Book of Acts.  They expected the new creation to begin in a short while and were determined to spread the word as widely and quickly as they could.  Paul, in particular, was at the forefront of this. After his conversion his mission was to pass on that message and that urgency to the Gentile world, and in so doing visited nearly all of the major towns of the Western world.  The reading today is from the letter to one of these, Thessalonica, and the reading reflects that hope of the new creation when Christ will return. Paul encourages them to console themselves with this hope in the face of their struggles.  Paul’s letters to this and the other fledgling Christian churches tell us something of those early beginnings and the struggles they faced, both from the outside and from the inside.  However, Paul was far from being the only one in spreading this message, in the course of which the message became disparate as each spoke of his own knowledge to communities with differing needs and expectations.

It was to answer these, and in some way to formalise that emerging faith that the gospels were written.  There were many such gospels each, in some way based on accounts of people associated with Christ’s ministry.  Of these just four were included in the Bible, Mark (the earliest) which is a chronological account, followed by Luke and Matthew  which take Mark’s account and present a more theological approach.  Finally John’s account emerges which places far more significance on the meaning of some of these parts of the ministry of Jesus, than it does in trying to record it.  However, the one thing they all have in common is the urgency of action.  At the heart of each of them is the message to be prepared for what will come in the (near ?) future, for that is their hope.  As time has passed where we generally now  place  much less importance on this day of the Lord.  It  can cause us once again to be tempted to live life irresponsibly.  We do not know in reality how or when this will happen but for each one of us it is a reality.  Preparing for it (either in life or at the end of life) is still of utmost importance, and we can do it simply by living out those two great principles of Jesus, to honour God and extend our concern to the planet and to all humanity.

PRAYER
Almighty father whose will is to restore all things,
we pray that we may look forward to the journey of life before us
in hope and anticipation, so that we may be prepared
to see the fullness of your glory in all things and in all ways that we have travelled.


last sunday after trinity

readings: deuternomy 34.1-12; 1 thessalonians 2.1-8; matthew 22.34-46

The Pharisees are far from being defeated, they come back on the attack.  “Which is the greatest of the commandments?” they demand of Jesus.  Before we look at his answer it is worth asking a question of ourselves, how many commandments are there?  The obvious answer of ten would be wrong, for those were just the ones that were given by God to Moses whilst in the wilderness.  There are many commandments which appear in the Torah, the history and reflection on the time when the Israelites had actually completed that wilderness journey and were now settling in the promised land. With these laws relating to a more stable living pattern, and with it a developing system of government, there are in total 613 commandments. Often commandments from the Prophetic period were additionally included and this increased this number still further.  It was a world where there were rules (commandments) to govern everything, even to whether it was lawful to pull an animal out of a ditch on the Sabbath!

I mentioned in last week’s reflection that Jesus was not a person of rules and regulations, that he was a person of principles, and he responded without hesitation in referring their question to one of principle.  Love God and love your neighbour was the answer he gave.  They seemed astounded by that response, strangely since if they had been watching him, as it is portrayed they were, they would have known that these two principles were exactly what he had followed during his earthly life. In truth it was probably this that frightened them most.  If you limit judgement to rules it is relatively easy to determine whether these are kept or not, but principles pervade every aspect of life.

The Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy links in to this theme of rules or principles.  Moses, although somewhat reluctantly in the beginning, had led his people from slavery through a long journey in the wilderness.  He had been a leader who had relied very heavily on strict rules which were necessary for their precarious journey.  Now they stand looking down on the promised land, a land that where they will need to develop in their own way and, a land where they will grow in numbers and in strength, but a land also where they will need to live by principles and vision, rather than rules. It was for them a land of milk and honey certainly, but a land of struggle and hardship too.  Moses style of leadership cannot work there, that would limit their own development.  The time has come for leaders who can put vision and principle to the fore, and let the people grow rather than just follow.  So Moses looks down from Pisgah on to the promised land, but sees a land to which he can never go.

The Jewish leadership are no more capable of this than Moses was, but they have drawn up such a tight sense of rules that God’s people  can only be limited by them.  Jesus once again was leading them to a new promised land, as Moses had done previously, it was here they would need to develop and grow into their place as God’s people.

 In his reply to the Pharisee question Jesus explains that all that is needed is love.  Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. Like the Pharisees it is easy to delude ourselves that we are loving God, even when we are far from it.  Where we fail more obviously though is that we cannot love others as ourselves.   All sorts of things get in the way but mostly it is simply because they are not like us.  How can we love them when we don’t like them, when we don’t understand them, and perhaps when we don’t even want to understand. It is hard to love those who have different values and ways from our own.

Yet God always provides us with opportunities to see things differently.  Real life provides us with those opportunities.  When I was a raw curate in Sheldon I met so many lovable people, but more importantly I was often thrust up against people who were not so obviously or immediately lovable, some of whom even it was almost impossible to love.  Among that latter group were a family who had been involved with the British Fascist movement in the past, and were still very much part of it. One Sunday each year there was a march through the area of similarly minded people from much of Britain, it was a day which the community at large hated, and mostly stayed inside.  But then something quite dramatic took place  in life generally which caused the rest of us to think again  A young family living in the area were thrust into an impossible situation by an accident to the father leaving him paralysed. Whilst the vast community rallied around to some extent, it was that family with those widely hated political values that came to the fore.  Whilst sympathy and help which was so evident in the early stages for the desperately struggling young family gradually ebbed away, it was that family who the community disliked, that continued the support.  Throughout that long, desperate situation whatever was needed to be done they did.  From  organising childcare as mother returned to work, to even repairing a garden fence which blew down,  Joe and his family were never found wanting.  They even paid for the struggling family to take the children away to the seaside for a holiday.  Even where the general community thought it was least likely to happen, real love took root.  God gave us that moment to glimpse that within everyone there is always something that is lovable, even people very different from those around them.

Wherever we have travelled since there have always  been people who in their own way and  mostly unheralded, have quietly influenced life in that place by simply recognising the loveliness and the lovable in the people around them both near and far.  Without that we cannot begin to try to keep the “New Testament” commandments to love, and without that love we cannot find God.

Finding loveliness, seeking the lovable is the heart of those two great commandments which Jesus gave in his reply to the Pharisee question.  We begin by seeking the lovable and when we find it we can begin to love our neighbours, no matter whom or what they are.  They are loveable because they are loveable to God.  Seeing their loveliness, no matter how concealed by human differences or even the grime of life, enables us to progress.  Firstly it enables us to begin to love our neighbour whom we can see, but also causes us to see the wonder of God who is continually trying to bring that loveliness to its perfection.

For Paul loving God and loving his neighbour were intertwined.  There were no limits and no obstructions in the way of that. It is sometimes in the struggles that we are given those wonderful glimpses of God’s vision in his creation. Armed with that vision we can begin to achieve those two great commandments of truly loving God and our neighbours.


19th sunday after trinity

readings: exodus 33.12-23; 1 thessalonians 1.1-10; matthew 22.15-22

So the counter-attack of the Pharisees and the Herodians begins as these two strange bed-fellows  combine to force a response from Jesus which will give him no alternative but to provide an answer which will immediately bring the Roman rulers onto their side.  This very amalgamation of Pharisees and Herodians shows just how desperate they were.  Under normal circumstances they would have little or nothing to do with each other, their political viewpoints were diametrically opposed, with the Pharisees being supremely orthodox and resenting the idea of paying taxes to any conquering power, whilst the Herodians depended upon Rome totally for their influence.  Their joint attack was indeed brilliantly thought out.  Whichever answer Jesus gave to the question of paying the hated poll-tax, he was bound to upset either the Romans, or the great band of people who saw him as the leader who would rid themselves of the Roman presence. One or other of these two would certainly get rid of him, so they thought!  The collusion of these disparate groups shows how desperate they are, and leaves the reader in no doubt of the lengths they were prepared go to.

There were three distinct taxes that the occupied territory had to pay to the Roman at that time.  Firstly they had to pay a ground tax which was a tax on the crops they had produced, this being partly paid in currency and partly in goods.  Additionally there was the income tax which amounted to 1% of an individual’s income.  Finally there was the hated poll tax (yes, it had happened prior to 1989!).  The reason for the strength of feeling is that this was actually a temple tax, which under Roman occupation went to the Roman authorities.  However, that in itself does not fully explain the resentment felt by the Jewish people to this temple tax.  The significant reason was that the role of Emperor was now seen as supreme ruler, taking the place of God himself.  So as a people they were being forced to pay a tax to a god who had been thrust upon them, and in so doing had superseded their own God.  In many ways this was the centre of the great unrest burning in Israel, and their desperate search for a messiah who would rid them of all of this.

However, by the time Matthew was writing of this confrontation, the situation had become significantly worse.  By this time the Temple at Jerusalem had been sacked, and now the tax was still being collected but now used for the benefit of a pagan temple, the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.  The outrage was extreme amongst the Jewish people, and it was to these people that Matthew was predominantly writing.  So in Matthew’s gospel we see this anger and resentment boiling over as he recounts the original confrontation between Jesus and his adversaries.

The coin with Caesar’s image is far more than the rightfulness, or otherwise, of paying a tax, it challenges their deepest faith.  In the early part of the exchange Jesus asks the Pharisees whose image it was. Either a seemingly silly question, since everyone would have known, or as it is sometimes portrayed as Jesus playing for time as he thought out his response.  I think it was neither of these, for by their response that it was Caesar the Pharisees were already admitting to colluding with the downgrading of Israel’s God.  A softening up punch soon to be followed by the knockout blow, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.

Both groups, he is saying, as parts of the ruling groups in Israel are the ones who have compromised all for the sake of their own influence.  They have a duty to the rulers of the country and to God, both of which they have been prepared to set aside for their own advantage.  His wonderful reply begs the question, “Are you citizens of earth, or are you citizens of heaven”, and that is the nub of the response for them, and powerfully for all Christians since then.  Jesus  rarely speaks about rules or regulations, his words are about principles and it is in these principles Christians of all generations  have sought  out their answers to perplexing issues of their own time. 

For Jesus the answer lay simply in living up to our responsibilities, either immediately to the rules and regulations of government, and to the overarching desire of God for us to live our lives in thanksgiving for the gifts he has blessed us with.  Sometimes there is conflict in that, and there are no ready-made answers, just something that all Christians have to work out for themselves. The present COVID-19 situation is one such struggle.  We are faced with changing responses which are demanded of us,  yet sometimes we cannot see the rationality of them, and some people even seem determined to put their own individual situation and freedom at the centre of it.  Yet if we simply live out the responsibilities of loving God, and loving our neighbours,  we can see that our individual wants and needs will have to take a back seat for a while.  We wear masks for the safety of others, we keep our distance for the safety of others, we mix with others as little as we can for the benefit of others,  and others do exactly the same for us.  It is in our responsibility to our neighbours, and what we do for the least of them we do for God.  That is being a citizen of earth and heaven, anything less is simply arranging things to suit ourselves.  It is hard giving up some of our freedom, but we must always remember that freedom is seldom free.  Someone, somewhere has to pay the cost of that freedom, and when many demand that freedom, or act as if they have got it by ignoring all rules, many will have to pay that cost.

Perhaps we can take some heart from the small band of Christians which were emerging at Thessalonica. The letter of St. Paul to these Christians  is testament to their living out their faith in the heat of life’s struggles.  In 51 AD Paul and Silas, along with Timothy who was an assistant to Paul, had visited them and were particularly struck by the manner in which the faith of this group was holding up despite the many hardships they were suffering.  After a few months there Paul and his associates  had to leave under considerable duress caused by the preaching of the gospel (details of this can be found in Acts 17, although Timothy, as an assistant, is not mentioned in person).  Subsequently Timothy returned to find the Christian group holding on to those principles despite even harder times, and indeed knowledge of this group and their faith spread to the whole of Macedonia.  The letters of Paul to the Thessalonians are quite different from his other pastoral letters which are often drawing attention to ways in which things were going wrong. His letters here are much more personal  to the group with a strong  sense of encouragement.  They were indeed succeeding in being citizens of earth and citizens of heaven despite their terrible experiences, and even significantly changing and rectifying things within their community.

The Exodus reading assures us that we will not make this difficult journey on our own.  Moses needs God’s presence and God’s reassurance as the journey through the wilderness continues and wears them down.  God gives to him the vision that will sustain them for the times ahead, and this reading is the lovely story of God showing Moses His glory whilst sheltering him in a crevice in the rock.

 In Jesus Christ we have that vision to sustain us through those difficult aspects of life, even the COVID-19 regulations.  What he gives is the example of self-giving love and if we follow that example we are on the journey to being true citizens of earth and of heaven, living out our thanksgiving to God and by acting responsibly to our fellow creatures.  

Prayer/Meditation
Adapted from Breaking the Rules by Eddie Askew

Lord, you don’t have an easy time dealing with me.
I use the right words,
wear all the appropriate labels
and profess to trust you,
but when the moment comes
to put myself completely in your hands,
my lifestyle, my wants say I don’t.
My words and deeds
don’t seem to synchronize,
their contradictory signals just confuse.

I just think that I am living out your commandments.
I just think that loving you and my neighbour
is at the centre of what I do.
But then, when I begin to see things from your perspective,
 there is always someone in the way
myself and my wants.

I come to you for help,
but when it is offered
I am not sure I want it, after all.
Especially when it limits what I want it to be.
I’d rather chose an easier way.
Your presence sometimes
seems to threaten, Lord rather than to heal my hurts,
and your requests can work out hard.

Lord, all I can do
Is ask once more for help.
Not to take away immediate problems
but to help me cope with them.
To find the grace to put my life and being,
firmly in your care.
Help me, Lord to open my hands, loosen my grip on self.
To let go of self, to share the road and the cost with others
as together we wait for you,
as together we long for you.


18th sunday after trinity

readings: Exodus 32.1-14; Philippians 4.1-9; matthew 22.1-14

Matthew’s gospel account this week gives us two interesting points to ponder.  The first, verse seven, just doesn’t fit into the ambience of the parable.  The king sent out the invitations to his son’s wedding and one by one the apologies started to come in.  This must have been galling to the King, because this wasn’t the first time the invited guests would have heard about it. They would have been told about the soon to happen event, but all had left it to this late stage to say they wouldn’t be there.  Very disappointing for the king certainly, but I can’t but think that his reaction was a bit over the top!  Sending out his soldiers to destroy them and to burn down their city! Disappointment can evoke some strong emotions but this seems somewhat too far, even for a parable.

But this one verse tells us a lot about the Gospel as a whole.  It is certain that Jesus would not have included it in his parable, more likely that the writer of this Gospel had included it as a reminder of a terrible disaster that had actually overtaken them between the parable being used by Jesus and the time that the gospel was written.  This terrible, life-changing event, would have been the destruction of the temple and city in 70 AD.  So the inclusion of this event helped to date the origin of Matthew’s Gospel for us, and it is done in such a way that the actual memory is painful without it being too imminent providing a sound reason for the dating of this Gospel, with 80-90 AD being the usually accepted period.

The second point to ponder is the poor old fellow, one who had been plucked from the highways and byways, did arrive but hadn’t time to put on his wedding robes.  What treatment he received!  He was  cast out into outer darkness. Again, it doesn’t seem to fit with the tenor of the parable, so what is behind it? Simply that this is in fact two parables which Matthew has joined together because of similarity of content.

The first parable has some powerful messages within it, as well as significant challenges to the religious leaders.  Accepting the invitation of God is one thing, but there are expectations which go with it.  You cannot enter that kingdom just on your own terms, or in your time.  This is powerfully emphasised by today’s Exodus reading when the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness waiting for God as He instructs Moses in matters regarding the Tabernacle.  They begin to do things in their way and in their time, and soon the golden calf emerges.  What they create is all about their own expectation, their own idea of what religion is about.  A very similar story to the first part of Matthew’s parable where they have now allocated their time and efforts to their own needs rather than trusting in God. 

The second parable, or the second part of our reading today, is a reminder that God’s invitation extends to all. It is certainly not limited by human expectation. However this also comes with a warning of its own.  Again, it is not sufficient to just accept the invitation, an acceptance includes an expectation also.  The man from the highways and byways was no doubt pleased to have the invitation, but not pleased enough to put himself out in any way.  For him there was an equally fierce condemnation.  Herein perhaps there is a message for our present day church, in its eagerness to fill the pews there is often an invitation to come on your own terms.  Certainly not so for the people associated with Jesus, they were asked always to move on in some way.  As such it is still a message of invitation and expectation.

The parable(s) is certainly all about God’s grace and our response to it. The emphasis is on the spirit in which we accept that invitation into the joy of that kingdom.  It is the joy of being there which should be at the heart of everything, a joy which is greater than the joys or demands outside, a joy so great that we will do everything to share in it completely.  It is the joy that far exceeds the duty.  It is here that the church of our times has struggled. It has, like all human institutions, extended a joy and welcome which they themselves understand, but does it extend a universal welcome to everyone?  It is there, perhaps that the decline of the church began, as the world in general saw the shallowness of the welcome. That joy seems hard to define.  Paul had suffered much for his proclamation of the gospel.  He had been treated badly, imprisoned and beaten so the idea of joy seems far from our understanding of it. Paul in this letter to the Philippians uses the word peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding.  It is a peace that has sustained many Christians, but from the early beginnings has caused great difficulty collectively.  Here in St Paul’s inspired group of Christians we see evidence of differences, differences which can lead to problems.  Paul urges two women to set aside their differences as indeed to other leaders in the church there. Be known, not for your strength of opinion, but for your love of others, is Paul’s advice to them.  Set those differences aside, leave them to the Lord so that together you may rejoice in Him.  Set aside those things which divide, so that you may rejoice in the Lord always.  As our own wider knowledge has grown, so has our tendency to think we know more about God, that this somehow may be the passport to the kingdom.  Not so, the passport to that kingdom is simply your joy in the Lord, a joy so strong that leaves others to find their joy in Him too. A joy of not just knowing it but of living within it.

We can always take heart. All were invited and those who entered into it with fullness found a joy and a peace at its centre.  That is perhaps the story of religious life, perhaps we spend too much time worrying God to keep us safe and secure, that we haven’t the time or the inclination to see the gifts he has surrounded us with.  Our future has been secured, so perhaps all we need to do is rejoice with it, just as Paul advocated to the Philippians.  All we need to do is to come prepared.  

PRAYER

As the potter moulds the clay,
So, Lord, I want to mould my own life.
To mould it into a way which suits me.
I hear your invitation, sense your call,
Yet cannot let go of those things which are so dear to me.
I hold on tight to the way I think things should go, or that I want them to go,
And in holding on tightly, I set my own schedule, my own agenda.

I come to you, but on my terms, not yours.
I listen, but so often I do not hear.

Help me, o Lord, to listen for your voice.
Not just in the storm, but in the wonders of peace.
Help me to hear your way for me, to put them above those things that I would choose.
Help me to do those things which lead to your everlasting glory, rather than fulfilling fleeting desires.

Help me Lord, so that when I come to you, I come as one who will receive.


17th sunday after trinity

Readings: Exodus 20.1-20; philippians 3.4b-14; matthew 21 33-46

A parable which we are much more familiar with, and one from which the message can be grasped easily.  This is a head-on attack by Jesus, and there is no denying the various parts:

God is the owner, Israel is the vineyard and the prophets are the servants.  Here Jesus answers very powerfully who he is, the question the Pharisees and elders had been skirting around for some time.  He is the son of the story, but more he is pointing to himself as the Messiah.

The intriguing part of the parable is the vivid description, so much so that in fact, that we can surmise that it is not just part of the story, but is indeed a reference to something very important in this context between God and mankind.  The general opinion is that it is a very specific reference to the Torah, to the Law of Moses.  It is for this reason that the two readings, other than the Gospel reading, relate to that, to the ten commandments. The Exodus reading is those commandments, whilst the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes something much deeper.  The keeping of the law became the most sacred part of the Jewish faith with laws, laws to explain laws, and laws to explain laws which explained other laws.  Paul challenges this and further challenges anyone to question his credentials or zeal, he goes on to say to them that he could not be saved by those laws, it was only by his faith and by the way he lived his life in Christ.  A little later on in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 22, 34-40 we see the Pharisees challenging Jesus as to which of those laws is  the greatest, to which Jesus reply was straightforward, love God and love humanity. “Everything in the Law and the Prophets hangs on these two commandments,” were his words.  So perhaps those commandments are not as edifying or complete as they might be.

So perhaps  in the parable, the hedge is where we need to look.  Most vineyards had a hedge which was a thick-set thorn hedge primarily to keep out wild animals, and specifically wild boars.  It was a deterrent  to stop anything that would damage or steal the crop, animal or man.  The thicker the hedge the more effective it was.  Unfortunately as well as keeping things out, it keeps things in as well.  What we see emerging in this parable that the problems were not on the outside, but on the inside.  There we find a group of cultivators within whom emerged this idea of not paying their rent, not fulfilling their part of the bargain.  With no contact with the outside world this idea took root and grew, so whoever was sent to them  soon came up against their wrath, and the owner’s servants were either treated very badly or were even killed.  With no external force to modify them, their opinion was right and their actions justified.  And there is the problem with the hedge, there is the problem with any defined barrier.  Isolation can only lead to self-justification.  Barriers can lead to as much imprisonment as to the well-being  they wished to accomplish.

When I was a curate, it was at the time that there was increasing concern about safety in people’s own homes.  Watching the news on television we often heard of  homes being broken into and often with much violence and sometimes worse.  It was only natural to protect yourself.  So in a period of three years I saw waves of self- protection systems going up, but also fewer and fewer people going out.  There was one lady in particular who had a burglar alarm fitted, panic buttons fitted all over the house, online call system to the local police station, and locks and chains everywhere, curtains permanently drawn with just a small gap to look out through..  Whenever I went to see June it would take ten minutes to get in, ten minutes whilst she switched off the alarms, unlocked all the doors, and removed the chain from around the door handles. It was the same for all of her friends who used to visit her regularly, and soon their visits diminished and mostly stopped.  June couldn’t understand why they didn’t come any more and soon wouldn’t even answer the phone to them if they rang.  Worse, her attitude to all human beings changed so dramatically, she became a judgemental, grumpy old so and so.  She died some years later a very negative, and in some ways nasty person, and simply because the barrier, the hedge she had built around herself, had imprisoned her.  Being locked in that house without any other viewpoint except that of the television news which went on reporting one violent incident after another, she was soon convinced that this was the only way to survive.  All joy of life disappeared, and she would even shout angrily out of the window if two people stopped outside her garden to talk to each other. 

This was the problem that Jesus and Paul could see.  By trying to define clearly a barrier, a hedge around ourselves it would, in the end ensnare us, rather than defend us.  The ten commandments were appropriate to their time and place as the Israelites needed to have laws which held them together as they journeyed through the wilderness of Sinai, but as the circumstances changed the laws needed to become much more sophisticated and outward looking.  Otherwise they would become nothing more than unsophisticated indicators, with us on the inside and all others outside.

So just as the hedge does in the end imprison us, the corner stone can become the very thing that crushes us if we do not live it out..   Directly the reference to the corner stone can be found in Psalm 118 but the real meaning of it in this context  is to be found in Daniel, Chapter 2. Here we see Daniel interpreting  a dream of King Nebuchahadnezzer, at the heart of which is the promise that the King of Heaven will establish a kingdom which will never be destroyed, unlike the fragility of earthly kingdoms

There was, however, in the vineyard something that could have changed things.  The wine-press allowed the grape juice to run down from the pressed grapes down to a storage trough below.  Usually it was built as a tower which enabled the free draining of grape juice, and additionally that tower occupied a situation that looked beyond the fence into the wider world and built with this additional use in mind.  By climbing the watch-tower it certainly enabled the occupiers to be aware of the dangers outside but I guess in looking out for those dangers, it actually locked them into a place of fear of their own making. They never realised that the watch-tower gave them opportunities to see goodness outside also.  We live in a world where barriers are drawn up and so often it is easy to rely on those barriers too much and in so doing imprison ourselves with a narrow constricted view of the world.  We need hedges to protect against many things but where we have hedges  we need watch towers to look beyond them, to help us to understand the fullness of God’s world in which we live, to put our lives into a wider perspective.  As Christians that simply means living as Jesus did, in the world but not of the world.

An adaption of two meditations
by Eddie Askew

If I can say the other’s wrong,
it strengthens my conviction
that I must be right.
Helps me to live a comfortable, comforting
Exclusivity.
And adds a little hollow holiness
to my hypocrisy.
It is easier to judge than love.
Easier to pile up the differences,
brick on brick, thorn by thorn
to build a wall, to build a hedge.
To take the wall, and build a house,
and live in it with judgement as companion,
love’s presence elbowed out.
No room, no room.
Then chain the door,
drill through a little eyehole,
which offers me a small, constricted and distorted view
of what stands on the other side.
Give me your strength, Lord,
to face the world un-blinkered.
To make a move that takes me
from the sterile shelter of my fears
into your light outside from the darkness inside myself.
For that is where real life begins and grows,
secure in the love that you have shown us.           


16th sunday after trinity

REadings: Exodus 17.1-7; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

One of the difficulties of the Sunday lectionary system is that we only read part of the story.  Quite large chunks are missed out, though they may well come in subsequent years of the lectionary when events missed out in a particular year are included in future gospels and years.  For me the particular reading of today’s particular part of Matthew’s Gospel suffers from this because we have  missed out the triumphal entry and the actions of Jesus within the Temple.  It is these, particularly the latter, which is the foundation of the Gospel reading of today, and which would explain the significance of both the chief priests and elders in their interrogation of Jesus, and indeed the parable he gave them.

“By what authority do you act?” was their actual question, but the real one which they dare not ask was, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus’s action in the Temple has to be seen not merely as an action to end the bad practices that had crept into that situation, nor indeed of the misuse of the poor.  It was about the authority of Jesus, because the only person to have that level of authority over the custodians of the faith and the Temple was God’s chosen one, the Messiah.   Certainly the actions of Jesus seemed to suggest it, for he came into the Temple day after day, not just the once to throw out the money changers, etc.  His very approach was throwing down the gauntlet, challenging them to make their move.  Jesus was exposing their weakness.

When it came in an oblique way He carefully avoided their question by asking one of his own. In answering it they would need to express their own opinions openly.  And they knew there was danger in whatever answer they gave.  If they agreed that  the baptism of Jesus by John was from God, then they were effectively recognising Jesus as the Messiah, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3,17).  But if they denied that John’s ministry was from God they risked the wrath of the people, and it is worth noting that even then the assassinated John still had a large following, perhaps an even greater following than Jesus did himself, even amongst his disciples, some of whom had been disciples of John.

The high priests and the leaders were indeed between a rock and a hard place.  But their response when it came was the worst possible one they could have come up with, “We do not know”. In a sense they had answered their own question, for as rulers  that was their role, to know the answers and to decipher God’s word and action. Not knowing was not an option for those who  to be God’s representatives on earth. They had now exposed their own weakness in the pursuit of their own power.

And so Jesus pressed home his advantage with the parable of the two sons.  The most intriguing thing about this parable is that there isn’t a good one amongst them!  There is the son who conforms to all the niceties of the demand and agrees to do it, but the moment he is out of his father’s  sight he  had not the slightest intention of doing it.  The other son is an uncouth individual who immediately says he is certainly not going to do it, but on reflection thinks better of it, and in the end conforms reluctantly to what his father wanted. At least this second son did in the end come round to do what his father wanted, and of course relates to the prostitutes and tax-collectors.  The former son has absolutely no interest in fulfilling his father’s request, but will say anything  if it means he can go on doing what he wants.  I am sure the high priests and rulers were left in no doubt to whom Jesus was referring here.  His actions in the temple had every semblance of throwing down the challenge, now there could be no doubt.  The battle-lines were drawn and it was the Jewish leaders who would have to instigate what happens next.  A simple little parable, mostly not remembered even by Christian groups, yet the very one which unleashed the fateful events leading up to the crucifixion.  It is interesting to see that, even with our understanding and help of the Bible, we still miss the significance of so many of the things that are recorded, and this is certainly one of them..

So let us return to the son who refused but who later relented, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes. Perhaps best typified by Zacchaeus on the one hand (Luke 9, 2-8), and Mary of Magdalen on the other (John 8,11)(1).  Yet there is no condemnation for them, as in humility they come to understand their own failures and in those failures and in their weakness they come before God, contrary to the Rulers who wished only to preserve their own power.  So the message is indeed simple, if we acknowledge our own failings we will enter into his kingdom, “Sinners all have a future”. Sadly though although we all can, some for whatever reason just won’t.

It was this temptation, perhaps even for good reasons, that Paul had concern for the people of Philippi.  Whilst he was among them he was able to give some regular guidance, but how would they fare under their own devices.  Hence, as I mentioned in last week’s thoughts, this is not a single letter, but a series of communications from Paul to Philippi just reassuring them and himself that all was still going well.  What he is advocating as the answer to any problems they may face, is humility, the humility of the tax-collectors and the prostitutes, of the surly son, that as we get it wrong as no doubt we will, it will not count against us  as long we go on searching for the truth and reassess our actions.  It is certainty  the pursuit of personal power which  precludes God’s glory, all else He can and will overcome.  The central part of Paul’s thoughts in this passage comes not from himself, but from an earlier ‘hymn’ of the newly forming church which Paul quotes in verses 6-11.  It’s focus is the humility of Christ, who did not claim equality with God but made himself a slave, which is a form of the creed we still use occasionally in our churches, but in fact is the heart of  all our creeds. In these thoughts to the Philippians Paul is reminding them of that humility of Christ, and pointing out what this means in practice through our actions which need to be ‘of Christ’.

The Old Testament readings are a reminder of the danger of the predominance of self, sometimes when we seem to have no alternative , even in very difficult and demanding ways.  Today’s Exodus reading centres around one of those extremely difficult times when they had no water, but by following Moses to the rock which he struck with his staff, God did indeed answer those needs.  Ezekiel’s warning is that God is always just and reminds the Israelites if they give up the wickedness of self, God will act justly with them.

So this little known text has a powerful message for each one of us to ponder.  Which of the two sons are we?  Do we pretend to say yes as long as it suits us, is our faith more about concealing than revealing? Or are we the second son who is often directed and controlled by our human condition that we just cannot comprehend there can be an alternative to what we or the world wants?  Yet, if we can, in the humility of Christ, try to put things into God’s perspective, rather than trust our own then certainly we may know the peace and wonder of the kingdom.

Footnote (1)

In referring to Magdala , the reference I have used does not refer to Mary Magdalene directly, but present scholarship has concluded that the woman caught in adultery must have been her, if indeed there was to be any significance to the risen Lord appearing to her.

Prayer

Last Sundays Morning Worship on Radio 4 had a wonderful prayer of Thomas Merton, a rare treat since he didn’t write many.  I include it her mainly because it is such a beautiful prayer and, hopefully, has some relevance to today’s readings.

My Lord God, I have no idea of where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot for certain know where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you, does in fact please you, and I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire.  I know that you will lead me by the right road, or return me to the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my fears or my journey alone.


15th sunday after trinity

readings: exodus16. 2-15; philippians 1.21-30; matthew 20.1-16

As I sit writing this I hear children outside.  It isn’t long before I hear one of the youngsters complaining that something ‘isn’t fair’!  One of the older ones in the group point out that in this game of developing space frontiers,  it isn’t meant to be fair!

Such wisdom for a young child, it isn’t meant to be fair!  Fair and fair play is a very human concept into which we have somehow tried to dig deeper and deeper.  Even the games which we as adults watch, the concept of fair play has assumed greater and greater importance.  Every line call in tennis is checked by an instant replay.  VAR or its equivalent has certainly dumbed-down my interest in soccer, rugby and cricket.  Such has been the drive for fair play that somehow the excitement of live sport has been diminished, as we wait for the third referee to replay every camera angle of an event, which can go on for many minutes sometimes.  It may be more fair, but we are left with nothing to argue over, nothing to get excited about until the VAR result anyway, and nothing to remonstrate about, not even to suggest the referee needs glasses!  Gone are the reconciling thoughts on the coach home that ‘his foot was definitely in touch’, or whatever. The eternal striving for fair play is removing all the excitement from the things that mattered to me.

Luckily our readings for today speak differently, where people are again  complaining that something isn’t fair.  What is our reaction to them?  What does it tell us about fair play in relation to God and the ultimate kingdom we seek?

The first reading, and the easiest to see, is Matthew’s account of the vineyard owner.  The account is vivid, mostly because this way of hiring labour, particularly at harvest time, was a very common sight in the time of Jesus against a background of dire unemployment and poverty, and indeed for centuries since.  It  was particularly relevant  to the grape harvest in September, when there was a short interval of time between the crop being ripe and a period of very heavy rainfall. Everyone was needed in those few days if the season was to be successful to the vineyard owner, and because of this was a very lucrative time for labourers for whom this was a time of higher wages.  For whatever reason, and perhaps it was simply that he saw the rains coming, the vineyard owner went back to see if others were available for work and hired them, even right up to an hour before the end of the day.  But you can imagine the outcry when he paid them all the same, ‘It isn’t fair’!

There has been much speculation about this parable. Who was it meant for?  The easy answer is that it was meant for the Jews, they were the chosen people and certainly didn’t agree with this upstart Galilean suggesting that all had equal access to God’s kingdom and glory.  I think the Pharisees took particular offence at this.  But if you read this account in the context of the  whole gospel, it comes at a point where Jesus is leading the disciples to question themselves.  Much of this comes out in relation to Peter, but would have been aimed at the disciples as a whole.  Here is a very firm reminder to them that they are not to see themselves as a people of privilege. even though they had given up  much to follow Jesus.  It doesn’t necessarily end there.  During so much of his ministry crowds had been following Jesus, and some of these perhaps were perhaps envious of those he healed, or were even scandalised by them.  Even among the crowds who followed him there would probably have been some for whom healing did not happen, and they would have felt it greatly unfair.  St John overcomes the problem by referring to the healings not as miracles but as signs.

Certainly the Israelites in the early stages of their flight from Egypt were beginning to have second thoughts as we see in the Exodus reading.  ‘Why have we been brought here to die alone and hungry? was a thought on many hearts.  ‘We were beginning to make things better where we were.  It is  just not fair.’ They cried in complaint.  Although Moses and Aaron were totally frustrated by the attitude of the group, God was not, and soon he overcame their immediate plight.

The letter from Paul is an interesting one in that this letter is not a single document.  The considered view is that this epistle is made up of extracts from at least three separate letters which have been combined into this one letter.  Paul was close to the church in Philippi, having met them during his second missionary journey.  He regarded them very much as his partners in mission, and as such the idea of him communicating with them on multiple occasions is reasonable.  The context of the final letter sees Paul writing it to them from his imprisonment (probably his second time of arrest, and much more difficult than the original house arrest) and to a people who were certainly having their own trials.  It isn’t fair would certainly seemed to have been a reasonable response from both Paul and the Philippians, but neither would have anything to do with that state of mind.  The Philippians from their part weren’t down hearted by their own struggles and instead sent supplies to Paul in his troubles, whilst Paul even saw his imprisonment as a more effective way of evangelism than his freedom was.

So these three readings begin to show us that fairness, or privilege, is not something that features strongly in the Bible.  The grace of God is not ruled by fairness, it is ruled simply by the needs wherever they are and God’s love for his people which is at the heart of everything.  The critics of the bible will often use the arbitrary nature of God’s action to attack our faith.  Yet our faith is straightforward in that we should always react to need in the essence of God, for wherever it exists God’s love will come through.  But that has not stopped the church or parts of the church trying to create a model in which the human view of fairness still takes priority

So where do these readings leave us as a church and as followers of Jesus.  In the same place as everyone else, we cannot appeal to God’s sense of fairness or importance. Like Judgement, that belongs squarely in God’s hands.  By his grace all will find his comfort.  On one of the broadcast Morning Services recently I heard a quote which I thought summed it up.  ‘The saint has a past, the sinner has a future’.  We may meet some who seem like saints, some who might try to make us think they are saints, but that past is with God.  We are all sinners, and in that we have a future.  In that future worrying about fairness or privilege will be irrelevant.  As sinners we have a future with God, nothing else matters. That was the heart of Paul’s message to Philippi, and whatever happens ‘I shall go on rejoicing’.  Perhaps it remains a powerful lesson we all have to learn.  There is little to be gained from envying the good fortune of others.  Better to rejoice in the gifts we have been given, and   share them with others. They in turn will share theirs with you.  A difficult message for our world, but one all Christians need to grasp if they are to know the wonders of the kingdom.


14th sunday after trinity

readings: exodus 14.19-31; Romans 14,1-12; Matthew 18.21-35

So Jesus’ comments about reconciliation got the disciples thinking, at least they got Peter thinking.  So how does this work out in practice, he wonders. He comes to the Lord with that great question of how many times he must forgive his brother, and in his exuberance offers the idea of seven times, seven times!  Quite a lot is made of that number Peter uses, seven, and it is certainly a number we see occurring often in the various religions. If there was a religious significance in that number for Peter it would probably have been associated with God’s creation of the world in seven days, but more likely it was an exuberant number to offer. As a Jew the number of times forgiveness would have been asked for is three, so for Peter to offer seven was far and above anything that he or the others would think of. Yet it was not, as Jesus’ response of seventy times seven illustrates.  It is far, far short of what we must aim for. So what is Jesus telling Peter and us in this account.  If love is to be our second nature, then forgiveness must be central to our faith.

We must breathe forgiveness as we breathe air, it has to be the very heart of our faith, and certainly not an add-on or an accessory.  But forgiveness must be given as well as received and so the story of the unforgiving servant emerges.  At its heart is the story of the forgiveness of God for us in terms beyond measure which are contrasted with our own meanness of love for others.  It is a story which speaks plainly for itself and its understanding is gleaned simply by seeing ourselves in the account.  Quite often there are commentaries which focus on the detail of the story, and in particular the number seven is focused upon as a special number, but that for me detracts from the central theme of forgiveness.  That is what Peter had to come to terms with and what we have to come to terms with, and that is where it gets uncomfortable.

It is in that uncomfortable place of living out the faith that the passage from Paul becomes significant.  It is evident from this reading from Paul’s letter that this group of “followers of Christ” were growing in numbers, but in that growth divisions were occurring.  Even at this stage the differences between the traditionalist and the liberals were causing problems.  In this little group who were firmly of the opinion that their future was securely in the hand of God, whilst others believed that could only be achieved by their own actions, by their own ways of doing things.  How do you reconcile this vast chasm of views.  For Paul it was easy, and as he points out these matters are not for our concern, they are for God.  “Who are you to judge another man’s servant” he asks and as all of us are God’s servant the answer is self-evident.  Live together in love with forgiveness ever in your heart is the only choice we have.  It is not important that we think in the same way, or act in same way.  All that is important is that we think and act in matters that are important to us, with conviction.

As the church has developed and grown so have the problems .  There is the lovely Welsh story of a man rescued from a desert island after many years.  When they looked at the things he had achieved in his time on the island they were surprised to find two beautiful chapels that he had built.  “Why have you got two chapels when you were all alone here?” they asked.  Pointing to the first chapel the man pointed out that this was the chapel he attended, whilst the other one he never went inside because they have some stupid ideas there!  Isn’t that the story of our faith, churches and chapels that we go to and others we wouldn’t dream of setting foot in.  Doesn’t the existence of these different places tell us that we are still getting it wrong, that we have still not taken the idea of reconciling differences and tolerance to heart?  Live together in love with forgiveness in your heart is the only choice we have, but it seems we still can’t grasp it.

A much deeper significance develops in relation to this in the wider context of our lives.  The letters of  Paul are often helpful in this context, but it must be remembered that they are letters to churches of his time, and dealing with specific issues.  The particular reading today highlights some of the issues facing the fledgling group in Rome.  In particular one point of conflict seems to be that a sub-group seems to be under the impression that all such directions apply to the particular day of worship, whilst others seem to be of the opinion that “putting on Christ” is universal, we do not limit it to a specific place or time.  This means that love and forgiveness has to be at the heart of all that we do, in every aspect of our lives.  Here it embraces the difficulties.  As we take on Christ, as we endeavour to live his life in ours, his forgiveness must be ours in relation to all aspects of our world.  Something which has already been a struggle when we bump up against individuals and organisations which prove difficult, but significantly increased as a result of modern speeds of communication.  Our first response isn’t always our best, yet so many of us (myself included!) are writing emails or making phone calls before we have had time to think it out fully. One of the things which we tried to do in one parish that I worked in, was to try and leave a time before responding, saying nothing until sufficient time had elapsed for any hurt to dissipate before responding.  It changed the nature of our church and our parish significantly.  Responding as if we were in Christ had significantly more influence in evangelism than anything else.

Martin Luther King Junior summed up what forgiveness was all about for him, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude”.  Nelson Mandela realised that being unable to forgive had a more damaging effect on him than those who had treated him badly,  “As I walked through the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison”.  Confession is a central part to our services, it is  here we can leave behind the things that will imprison us if we let them fester.  Today’s reading from St. Paul reflects upon something the Romans would have known well, standing alone before the  judgement seat, and he is contrasting it with the situation that we will never have to face.  If we put on Christ we will never have to stand alone before any judgement seat, he will be always be with us.  But it is more than acknowledging Christ, it is to put him into our lives, and these difficult testing moments will tell us more clearly  about how well or badly we are doing this than the easy ones or even the joyous ones we can hide ourselves in.  Seventy times seven in the context of life seems a very small number indeed.

A Meditation
from ‘Breaking the Rules’ by Eddie Askew 

Lord, judgement comes so easily.
To skim the surface of another’s life.
To fasten on the bits I don’t understand, or the bits I don’t want to understand
and use as evidence against him.
So easy to divide the world.
So satisfying too,
To crystalize the categories
into us and them.

If I can say he is wrong,
it strengthens my conviction
that I am right.
Helps me to live a comfortable, comforting
exclusivity.
And adds a little hollow holiness
to my hypocrisy.

It is easier to judge than love.
Easier to pile up the differences,
brick on brick,
and build a wall.
To take a wall and build a house,
to live in it with judgement as companion.
love’s presence elbowed out.
No room. No room.
Then chain the door,
see the world through a little eye hole,
which offers me a small, constricted and distorted view
of what stands on the other side.

The trouble is,
That with each day that passes
it’s harder to unlock the door
and to ask love to come back in.
In the end I am left with judgement
when I could have lived with love.

Lord, help me hold prayer
as dear as he,
and leave judgement
where it most belongs,
with you.


13th sunday after trinity

REadings: Exodus 12.1-14, (or Ezekiel 33.7-11); romans 13.8-14; matthew 18.15-20

I would like to begin today by telling you about a man who ‘stopped’ our town.  Like many people in our town, I didn’t know him well. In fact I didn’t know him personally at all, but he was a man who had a dramatic effect on my life.  Let me explain. I first encountered Harvey as I was going on the school bus, feeling rather terrified on my first day in the secondary school at the nearby town.  I disliked school anyway, but going to a school with 400 pupils from a village school with 20 pupils was a big step for me, and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to it.  Just as we entered the town there was a man who, on hearing the bus, stopped and turned to face us.  He smiled a very warm smile and waved, and that little action made that first terrifying day much more bearable.  That, I later found out, was Harvey and day by day during my 7 years in that school Harvey was always there, and his smile and his wave remained a special part of the day for me, just as it was to most of the pupils on the bus as they turned and waved back.  Without knowing us, or knowing him Harvey had a dramatic effect upon many young people on that school bus. But it didn’t end there, Harvey was the same wherever he went or wherever he met people, to such an extent that when Harvey died the whole town stopped, closed down whilst his funeral took place.  Not many of us, I suspect, before or after will have such a testament to life as that.  The secret was simple, Harvey loved life and he loved every one he shared it with, no matter how inconsequential the contact.  I am sure he was welcomed most warmly in heaven, for he had lived out the very wish of God to love.  When we look deeply into this, and merge them with the parts before it and after it in Matthew’s Gospel, it is love which is the heart of what Jesus is leading us to know.

We begin with the gospel reading itself.  Controversy has followed this part of the gospel.  Some have argued that these could not have been the words of Jesus because he uses the word, Church, which in his time and for some time after his death did not exist.  Others would argue that the inclusion of the concept of church, has in fact been changed in translation, and suggest the word that would have appeared originally was assembly, which would have been as appropriate to the little groups who had searched out Jesus, as much as it did to larger synagogue congregations.  I personally tend to accept the second view, but it is something that needs to be thought about.   Also bearing in mind that the Gospel of Matthew was probably written 70 – 80 AD when the fledgling churches, such as those Paul is writing to, were emerging this could have been some ideas which emanated from this particular time with their inevitable differences, could have worked its way into  the oral gospels from which our present documents emerge. 

The essence of this gospel account is reconciliation, it is about those differences which were emerging in these “Christ following” groups and the need to reconcile those differences.  In many ways the wording of the text can seem out of context with what Jesus would say, but pay particular attention to the way he suggests treating people with those differences of opinion.  “Let him be to you as a gentile or tax-collector”.  If we have been careful in our remembering Jesus’s contacts with either of these groups we see him recognising powerful faith where perhaps he didn’t expect to find it.  The woman at the well, the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter, Zacchaeus who climbed the tree and even the disciple Matthew himself are such examples where he responded in great warmth to their situation and their need.  In reality Jesus, like other Jews of his time, would have little other contact with these groups, and the response of the disciples who were accompanying him back-up that view.  If we now hear him telling us to see them as tax-collectors or gentiles, it must have been to his disciples as these he was referring to, and nowhere were they or their situations taken as inferior. 

Reconciliation in the recent church has generally not been handled well.  Even in our one denomination we are a very broad church with a wide variety of opinions on a number of issues including the Bible.  I was fortunate during my ‘active’ ministry to be involved in churches where these differences could be all too apparent, and lead to significant areas of conflict.  I use the word fortunate in that the people there were very largely reconciling people and approached others with different views in a very positive way, and as a result we moved forward together in a constructive way as we became increasingly a wider, inclusive church where even people from outside the church could find a place.  In my ‘retirement’ ministry I have been just as fortunate.  I have ministered in churches with a varied theology, from churches who don’t want me to wear a dog-collar to a Forward in Faith church.  From all of them I have learnt something new. All of them have given me a different  perspective of God, of Jesus and on the gospel.  The highlights often came when I have taken a combined service for a few churches in a benefice, all with differing views of how it should be done.  In the services to see these differences as enriching, whether it be standing or sitting, kneeling or not, some taking the host, whilst others wait to be given it, so many variations. All doing it in their own way, side by side, but by far the greatest joy is seeing them after the service as simply brothers and sisters, differences laid aside and just content to be the people of Christ.

Reconciliation, of course, needs to go much further than the church.  Recently we have been more aware of race and colour, whilst conflicting religious ideologies have emerged as a difficult path for the world to tread.  Again I was fortunate to work in Leicestershire where there was thriving dialogue between the different faiths in which all of us learned something from the other and gave something to the other.  It led not just to a religious coherence, but a practical, city-wide one also.  They had learned long ago in that place that papering over the cracks would not or could not last.  The context of Jesus’ teaching and actions have a resonance to those situations, and perhaps tell us of the role we can play.

The extract we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Romans, sums it up perfectly. Love he says is the complete fulfilment of the Law.  If we love perfectly we do not need the commandments, love will always seek the well-being of the other, not his downfall.  Love, not resolution is the heart of reconciliation.  Reconciliation can only emerge through love, it is the platform on which reconciliation can take place .  “Let us walk in loveliness of life”, Paul says, and we can only walk in loveliness when love is at its centre.   This passage was in fact central to the conversion of St. Augustine, as he realised that putting on Jesus Christ was to put on Christ’s love for the world.

I guess that is where we need to be as Christians, putting on Jesus Christ not fighting battles for him.  We see only dimly in a mirror, but in that dimness we can still pick out the things which were and are important.  Loving our world and the people we share it with is central to that even though they might think very differently from us.  Strangely enough the more we speak and listen (and don’t forget God gave us one mouth and two ears!) it soon emerges that the things that divide us are far less than the things we have in common.

Prayer by William Temple, 1881-1944
Educated at Rugby School and later became Archbishop of Canterbury

O God of love, we pray that you will give us love;
Love in our thinking, love in our speaking,
Love in our doing, and love in the hidden places of our souls;
Love of our neighbours near and far;
Love of our friends, old and new;
Love of those we find it hard to bear,
And love of those who find it hard to bear with us;
Love of those with whom we work,
And love of those with whom we take our ease;
Love in joy, love in sorrow;
Love in life and love in death;
That so, at length we may be worthy to dwell with you,
Who art love.                                                    


twelfth sunday after trinity

Readings: Exodus 3.1-15; Jeremiah 15, 15-21; Romans 12. 9-21 Matthew 16.21-28

Poor old Peter, from hero to zero in a moment, in one statement!  One moment he is the rock on which the church will be built, then in a blink of an eye he has become Satan who is in the way.  The human condition and our individual experiences never go away. No matter how high the mountain top we are lifted to, it doesn’t take  long to push us  over the edge and we find ourselves back on the valley floor.  Our ideas may indeed be well sought out, they may well be our best intentions, but in the end they are the ways of the world, not of God.  That is the message that comes through much of Matthew’s Gospel. Don’t be misled into thinking that even the best of human ideas, the best of human actions can become anything more than aspirations.

To be fair to Peter, this particular reading is not as damning to him as our present translations seem to suggest.  The only things we can compare it to are the temptations of Jesus in the desert, but if we were to go back to the original Hebrew/Greek version we would see a much different inference than we get from our translations.  In that original version we do indeed see Jesus pushing Satan out of the way, “Get thee behind me Satan”, but in that original version he doesn’t say that to Peter.  The words to Peter may have some similarity but are not nearly as dismissive.  His words in that version are to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan be gone”, a very different perspective than we get from present day translations.  It is still a significant rebuke to Peter, but not as damning as our present Bibles would suggest.  (To me it brings some interesting thoughts as to why the translators made this change, was it the style of translation used, was in the cause of brevity, was it to clarify more recent language, or was it a more “political” statement to the church of the time, which certainly wanted to control human minds by denying them direct access to the Bible?  Taken in this context there is a definite reminder of where the church should be, behind Christ as Peter should be, not In front where Satan wishes to be.)  Origen, a scholar and one of the founding fathers of the church around 200AD suggested that this event was a reminder to Peter that, “Your place is behind me, not in front of me”, something that we can all get wrong, particularly when, through the best intentions, we huddle with others of similar views in our own burrows where thinking becomes limited and blinkered, rather than open and expansive.  Origen, by the way, was the first Christian expounder to put forward the idea of the Trinity (I thought  Andrew  might appreciate this small fact, based on his comments about Trinity Sunday! )

We think as people think, not as God thinks, an obvious observance but a timely reminder to all of us.  How often do we justify what we do or what we say by the fact that it is what God would do or say, or by following what Jesus did.  This is a powerful reminder that, although we are precious in God’s eyes, we are nowhere near to making that call. God’s way is God’s way and no particular aspirations on our part will ever change that.  We must follow Christ to the best of our ability, and especially in situations where we do not want to go, or even into situations where we know we are going to fail.  It is like doing things in a mirror. As all of us who have tried to reverse a car, or worse a trailer, using our mirrors only, will probably realise how difficult this can be (or possibly just reversing, or parallel parking!), as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, “At present we see only in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13.12)

St. Paul in all of his letters, strongly exhorts the concept of God’s grace as being our saving influence.  It is not by our own doing but by God’s love that we are saved.  This is Paul’s fundamental premise, and remains so in his letter to the Romans, yet in today’s portion of that letter it is easy to be led into thinking that we have a system of rules to follow if we are to be partakers of this promise. This is not what he intended at all, although again we are quick to latch on to it as if it were.  Throughout this passage Paul is giving us some indicators for our own benefit through which we may know something of God’s ways and God’s grace, but never as a definitive way of achieving it.  In the first part of this reading it is through sincerity and zeal in our actions where we begin to feel something of that Grace in action, and in the second part this sincerity and zeal are defined in their fullness.  If any of us, even the great leaders of the church throughout history, tries to use this as a ladder to the kingdom we are certain to fall.  If, however, we use it an inspiration to what we can be, then we will be rewarded by glimpses of the kingdom to which we aspire.  It is certainly not meant as a definitive list of what we must do to be part of the kingdom, if it were then heaven would be a fairly quiet and quite empty place!  I have written before about the essence of our confession, about it being a place where we are open to our own failings and thus becoming the very place for own growth and newness.  This particular part of Paul’s writing takes us further into this process.

Certainly our ancient past possesses one such person who typifies our human condition in this respect.  As we read a little more about Moses in Exodus we find a man with failures to hide and a great reluctance to go into a future which he felt was beyond him. At the point of our reading this is all in the future, and the Book of Exodus is a rich seam for all of us, some of which we will find in the weekly church readings, but will only be fully appreciated by reading it all.  But even at the early juncture in the life of Moses there is a powerful lesson. Without the part of his mother, Jochebed, and his sister, Miriam this great development would never have unfolded.  But now today in the reading of his calling we see Moses turning aside to see the burning bush, an event probably not so un-rare in the stifling heat of the desert.  How many of us would have turned aside to see it, to ponder it, or more likely pass by regarding it as just one of those things that happen in that situation, a combination of blistering heat and oil being given off by the plant. But Moses turned aside to see it and it is there that the wonder begins. How many burning bush equivalents do we pass by in our lives I wonder?  How often do we take life with its many glimpses, and how rarely do we give them the curiosity and the reverence that Moses did?

Real spirituality, real closeness to God won’t ever be in the things we try to make them or manipulate them.  Those opportunities will be around us always, even if we don’t always like them. Through life, in its joys and its struggles, God is calling to us to step aside, to listen and to follow him.  We fail when we don’t turn aside to see the wonders, or we fail also in seeing them and not attaching relevance to them,  so often caused by the fact that we want to strive forward at the front, thinking that we now know it all.

The message of today’s readings is just to remind us who we are, and more importantly who God is. Throughout history this was a lesson all had to learn before they could fully do his will in the world.

Prayer of St Anselm (1033-1109)
O Lord my God.
Teach my heart where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.

Lord, if you are not here but absent,
where shall I find you?
 But you are everywhere, so you must be here,
 why then do I not seek you…..

Lord I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is no way equal to that,
but I desire to understand a little of your truth
   which my heart already believes and loves.

I do not seek to understand so that I can believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I shall believe I shall not understand.                 

Lord, help me to see your glory in every placeMichaelangelo, (1475-1564)

O God, I am not my own but yours.
Take me for your own,
and help me in all things to do your holy will and follow you.
O God, I give myself to you,
in joy and sorrow,
in sickness and in health,
in success and in failure,
in life and in death,
in time and in eternity.
Make me and keep me your own;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord.       


                                

eleventh sunday after trinity

exodus 1.8 – 2.10 – the birth of moses; isaiah 51.1-6 – my deliverance will be everlasting; romans 12.1-8 – christian service & community; matthew 16.13-20 – but who do you say i am?

The gospel reading is about  the return from Tyre and Sidon and passes through Caesarea Phillippi.  Here Jesus and his disciples stop and rest, and what an appropriate place it was for the events which were soon to come.

Caesarea Philippi had a long an interesting past, stretching back to the Greeks. Most notable was its strong religious association going back to that Greek beginning when it was called Paneas, relating to Pan the Greek god of flocks and shepherds, founded some 300 years before Christ was born.  In the immediate area of Paneas were something of the order of 10-20 major shrines to various baal gods, showing that through its early history, religious quest had been at its centre long before we hear of it in the gospels.  It was a place of personal and religious searching.  It was situated just south of Mount Hermon, again with its religious associations going back to the exile.  It was on a hill itself, with a vast cave under the hill with a large lake under that of unfathomable depth which was the source of the river Jordan.  It was in this place that Herod the Great had built a magnificent  white marble temple to the Caesars in Roman times and hence its change of name (Philippi came later to differentiate  it from Caesar Maritima on the Mediterranean coast). With its history and being close to a major trade route, Paneas became a place of much interest and sanctity.

Following Herod the Great, his son Phillip the Tetrarch became ruler of this part of the empire, under the Romans, ruling it from Paneas, which explains its change of name together with it being close to a major trade route.  It was in addition a major city on  the route from Tyre to Galilee.  It was here that the disciples stopped and the conversation we read of in the gospels took place, in a place heavily laden with the spiritual from the many who had searched for meaning here in earlier ages.  It is not by chance or coincidence that this was the place where Jesus had this deep conversation with his disciples.  The historic sanctity of the place certainly added to the electrifying atmosphere that was about to happen.

After the easier questions of “Who do people say that I am?” which the disciples easily deal with, will come the question that is the very centre, the very heart of it.  But before we rush on to that question it might be helpful to look at some of the things that the disciples reported back. Amongst the responses were John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah. 

Herod Antipas who had John beheaded, was fearful of the extraordinary power of John and lived in fear that he would indeed return.  There were very many who also thought of the Baptist in this way, and certainly explains a strong opinion and feeling within a wide selection of Jewish people of the time.

Elijah was the great prophet of Israel.  In associating Jesus with Elijah they were giving the highest honour to Jesus.  Indeed it was Jewish belief that before the coming of the long awaited Messiah, Elijah  would return.  Some of you who have any knowledge of the Passover meal will recognise the significance of this in that a spare place and seat are laid for Elijah.  The only time that Elijah’s cup is filled is for the final toast and is not touched (some of you may remember the significance that I place on this in regard to Judas and the betrayal).

Finally in these responses there is Jeremiah who had a curious place in the expectations of the Jewish people.  It was firmly believed that before the people of Israel were taken into captivity, Jeremiah had taken  the Ark of the Covenant and the altar of incense out of the temple and hidden them in a cave on a high mountain.  It was their belief that Jeremiah would return them before the coming of the Messiah, and to these people living close to Mount Hermon this could indeed be the very place.

But then came the question which  struck at the heart of the matter, “Who do you say that I am?” I guess there was a very heavy silence for some time until Peter, impetuous Peter, blurted it out, You are the anointed one, the Son of the Living God”. ( The anointed one is synonymous with the term Messiah).  So here we have Peter, going beyond all of the  ideas about who Jesus was, which he and the disciples had heard much and often.  Here was Peter’s own personal response, not measured or looking for ways of covering his tracks, as he uttered what many of the time would have thought to be blasphemous.  I doubt if Peter, or anyone, could have given a rational explanation of his answer other than in Jesus he saw something far beyond any human being.  This answer was the response Jesus was hoping for, here was a person who would not be limited by human considerations or by individual understanding, here was someone who could place his trust in God and in Jesus.  For this, of course, came the supreme reward, and alongside it the supreme challenge, but for now it was sufficient for Jesus that he had found one of them at least who would continue his ministry and his work.  The task was complete and Jesus could now fully turn towards Jerusalem, and that part of the work that only he could fulfil.

In Caesarea Phillippi, the place of much religious searching, Peter had found his own answer and his own commitment.  In our religious quest  we are all searching for answers and for meaning.  Perhaps we should learn from Peter, that it is our own relationship with of Jesus that matters, our own commitment to him that will count.  In  the final analysis, knowledge will be of no consequence, commitment and actions will be of no consequence, and an understanding of every aspect of the bible will be of no consequence.  It is simply to the question that all of us will face, perhaps a number of times in our lives but certainly at its end, “And  you.  Who do you say that I am?”  It is there that we too will know the joy of Jesus’ reply.  It is there that we fully become Christians.

Like Peter we will be totally inadequate to the task , but like him it is only our faith in him that is required as the bedrock of the our faith and our church.  In a great sense nothing has changed.  Our readings from Genesis have had that same theme from the beginning, that indeed God worked with people who in many ways fell short, but the real issue was not that it was real trust in God.  Today the Old Testament readings move on to Exodus and in particular the birth of Moses.  Again we will hear how in so many ways on human terms he would have fallen short, yet his faith in God carried him through to lead the Israelites from captivity, through 40 years in the desert and finally to the promised land. The alternate reading of Isaiah is simply part of his great prophesy that God is doing all these things and will do these things again.

In our New Testament reading Paul is imploring this new emerging Christian community to offer themselves to God, and in so offering themselves fully to use the various and diverse gifts he has bestowed on them to His glory.  Karl Barth wrote a significant commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and one of the great themes emerging from that was “the great disturbance of God”, teasing us out of the holes in the ground that we have begun to make for  ourselves, and in which we may have begun to feel secure and comfortable. Out into the  glorious kingdom of God where together all will be achieved simply by trust in him.

It doesn’t end there. Throughout the history of the Christian church we see countless individual who have done this and have so changed the world. But it doesn’t have to be spectacular.  My abiding memory of parish ministry is not about such raging successes that we read of in the Bible, but about ordinary people who in ordinary, and sometime daunting situations, did just that.  Their actions simply answered the question of “who do you say that I am”, and in so doing make sense of their life and situation.  They may not have been able to express it as well as Peter, but the way they lived their life certainly did.  Just by always remembering that question to Peter will help us in the journey before us  and bring each step closer to the kingdom.  Law and ethics can never do that, but the Holy Spirit will.

Prayer

God be in my head,
    And in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes,
    And in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
    And in my speaking;
God be in my heart,
    And in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.

“Who do you say that I am?”
Lord Jesus, like the disciples we struggle to find words.
Help us to reach forward,
As Peter did,
Recognising not what we can understand but what we can hope.
Where words fail us in answering your question,
May our actions, however simple, reach up to you,
For you are our Lord and our Saviour.


Ninth sunday after trinity

Genesis 37,1-4 & 12-28; 1 Kings 19, 9-18; Romans 10,5-15;
Matthew 14, 22-33

So we arrive at Joseph in our readings from Genesis.  What do you think of him? Was he a spoiled, precocious little brat with delusions of grandeur, or someone who was listening and responding to genuine messages from God?  Whichever way you look at him he was nothing short of a pain to live with and his brothers were all too ready to put an end to it and to him.  Yet luckily Reuben had some feelings towards his young brother and through him set in process a whole new train of events which had a significant impact upon Israel beginnings. Joseph, on his part, ruffled many more feathers before his full story fully emerges, but we see in him a faith developing which sees him through some difficult times, many of his own making, but it never shook his faith or his vision of his destiny.  In the end the whole picture emerges in Chapter 50, when he reveals himself to his brothers when his understanding of it all emerges, “You meant evil towards me, but God used it for good”.

Doesn’t his life in some way sum up our own, well not in detail, thankfully, but rather in essence.  It is all too easy to picture a life full of God’s blessings and goodness, so much so that it would be very easy to fall at one of the obstacles along the way. If we are not careful, it is easy to let even our prayers to be overtaken by them, to use our prayers as escape routes from the disaster our lives have become, individually or collectively.  These obstacles can sometimes seem to subsume all our life, yet we, like Joseph, can emerge on the other side knowing that God has been with us in those difficult times, and perhaps more importantly, has used them for good.

The account of Jesus walking on water is just one of many such human experiences.  The disciples are commanded by Jesus to leave a situation which is the high spot of their lives.  They have just witnessed the absolute wonder of the feeding of the 5,000. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to stay there, in that sort of easy existence forever? The parallel with the Transfiguration prompts a response when Peter says ,” Let us build three shelters”, let us stay here forever.  But not for then and not now.  Jesus sends them to the boat and orders them back to real life with all its troubles and difficulties. And they didn’t have to wait too long for the troubles to start!

As the wind blew up so did the waves, there was trouble ahead, even for those who were experienced in matters of fishing on the sea of Galilee.  Even today the Sea of Galilee, the Lake of Tiberias is subject to these sudden surges of bad weather due to the surrounding hill formations, when strong winds and gales can suddenly appear , so that even the motorised boats of our age do not take any chances when a storm is looming. The story beautifully unfolds in Matthew’s account, but it is not as straight forward as it may appear in our bible accounts. It stems from the fact that walking on the water has been translated from two different expressions in this account.  In the original Greek version v.25 records it as epi ten thalassan  which can be translated as over the sea or towards the sea, whilst verse 26 uses the expression epi tes thalasse, meaning on the sea or at the sea. This is further complicated by the word peripatien which is to walk on or about and used in both these verses.  The storm in this situation would seem to indicate a severe head wind which is driving the little boat back to the shore and the danger of being wrecked on the rocks.

 So the original bible doesn’t seem to put so much emphasis on the physical event but rather more on why this act seemed to be such an important moment, on the calming presence of God in an otherwise frightening , threatening and desperate situation.  Just like the feeding of the 5,000 which can be interpreted as a miracle event or a human miracle, this can be interpreted as a miracle of fact or one of meaning.  Whichever way you understand it the essential message is that God came to the disciples in their distress, in their hour of need.  Just like for Joseph, God used it for good.  The various, and subsequent translations of the bible can sometimes, in building up the event, lose the heart of its meaning.  The heart of its meaning for our time is surely not that Jesus walked on water, but that he came to the disciples in their distress, just as he comes to us in ours.  God will use all of life for good.  We spend so long speaking of the blessings of God and relate them to the things that make us happy or enhance the things we find good in life.  In reality the blessings of God are his very presence in all aspects of life, the good which is enhanced and the difficult or desperate which is transformed.

It was exactly the same difficulty that the Jewish people had before and in the time of Jesus.  They had been pre-conditioned to believing that God existed in the good, and that if anything else occurred it was due to their own sinfulness, their failure.  In the Romans 10 reading Paul is confronting this misconception. In this he is directly (probably more directly than anywhere else in his letters) by comparing grace and works, and coming down heavily on the side of God’s grace.  We can never save ourselves by our own efforts it is only by faith, by trust that God is with us in all situations and making them good, that we will know his joy and his peace despite everything. Realistically we are still reluctant to grasp it, we still try to earn our ‘God points’, when all we need to do is to trust Him and journey on knowing that He is there with us.  Do any of you remember the poem, “Footprints”  which in the 1990’s seemed to be quoted in so many sermons of the time, but which seems to sum up completely what Paul is saying and, importantly, what Jesus is saying? It is recognising God, and his transforming presence in the whole of our lives which will lead us to the heart of what we need in life and courage to go beyond it.

The 1 Kings reading is a lovely account of Elijah and his challenge to all those who worshipped the Baals, other Gods who actually counted actions as important.  Let us see who is more powerful Elijah is saying, your gods and all your joint and powerful preparations, or my God in whom I have complete trust.  It is not to be missed, so commit yourself to a bit of extra reading this week, indeed it might be worthwhile spending a bit of time reading much more about Elijah.  The message is actually the same.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, all that is important is that you trust God and recognise his presence in every aspect of your life, the way you will be transformed, and will not need to be like Peter who jumped into the water to prove his love, and  who without the sustaining presence of Jesus would have come to a very watery end.  The sooner we can grasp his presence in every part of our life the sooner we will know his peace.

Footprints in the Sand
By Caroline Joyce Carty

One night a man had a dream.  He dreamed
he was walking along the beach with the LORD.

Across the sky flashed scenes from his life,
for each scene he noticed two sets of
footprints in the sand: one belonging
to him, and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of life flashed before him,
he looked back at the footprints in the sand.
He noticed that many times along the path
of his life there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the very
lowest and saddest times of his life.

He challenged the LORD.
LORD you said that once I had decided to follow
you, you would never leave me on the way,
but I have noticed that during the most
troublesome times of my life,
there is only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why when
I needed you most you would leave me.

The LORD replied
My son, my precious child,
I love you and I would never leave you.
During your times of trial and suffering,
when you see only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you.

Prayer from SPCK  Book of Christian Prayers
by Lesslie Newbegin

Give me, Lord, a stout heart to bear my own burdens,
a tender heart to bear the  burdens of others,
and a believing heart to lay all my burdens on you, for you care for us.

Adapted from a prayer from SPCK Book of Christian Prayer
by Miriam Therese Winter

Helper of all who are helpless,
We call on you in times of stress
And in times of devastation.
Pick up the broken pieces
Of our lives, our hearts, our homes, our history
And restore them to your glory.
Give us the means of starting over
When everything seems lost.
O God our help in ages past,
hope for all that is to come,
We place our trust, our hope in you.


Eighth sunday after trinity

Genesis 32, 22-31; Isaiah 55, 1-5; Romans 9,1-5;
Matthew 14, 13-21

Text: You give them something  yourself!

Today in Matthew’s Gospel reading we find the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, possibly the best known miracle of all and one which many would wish could be replicated in so many parts of the world now.  It is a miracle that has attracted many interpretations, and even been the basis of criticism to later day Christian societies.  We will never know what happened that day, but we can deduce something about God and Jesus from it, and from the way that love works in our world.

So let’s begin with Jesus himself.  The account begins with an exhausted Jesus seeking perhaps some restbite from the fervour of all that has been going on, or more probably some time with God as Jerusalem draws ever closer.  The crowd still has its struggles and they soon find out where he is.  The word is out and soon great numbers flock to him. The only gospel which gives us a real indication of their journey seems to be in John. From Capernaum to the other side of the sea of Galilee is about 4 miles by boat, but a distance of some 9 miles by land over a ford, reaching a little grass covered plain called El-Baritiyah, on the way to the town of Bethsaida Julias. It is here that we get that most important glimpse of the qualities of Jesus.  Despite his own tiredness, his own feelings of exhaustion and perhaps even concerns, his first thoughts were for those who needed him, needed his time and his healing.  As night drew near the compassion of Jesus was fully emphasised. The place would have been truly remote, that is why he went there, and such was the need of so many who had travelled great distances to find them many would have come totally unprepared, probably without food.  So the stage for this miracle was set.  This action which was to illustrate the compassion of Jesus and of God was ready to begin, but something more was needed.

That something more was the five loaves and the two fish.  In their own concern for the crowd the disciples had gone to Jesus but were told to feed them themselves.  The five loaves and the two fish became  the catalyst for all that happened there.  John has a different account from the synoptic gospels on how they appeared, whether from the disciples themselves of from the young lad.  It is of little importance except they were presented and became the basis for all that was soon to happen.  Jesus took the food and blessed it and has the food was being shared it increased many times.  This increase has perplexed people through the centuries but increasingly it is seen as a miracle in the hearts of those who were there, rather than one which changed the whole nature of the food on offer.  The hearts of people who perhaps had come prepared for such an eventuality were opened, and they began to share their own food which previously had been well hidden.  For some this view is a diminution of the event, but for others it increases the miracle in that it changed the thing most difficult to change, namely the heart of people. Whatever the interpretation one thing is certain, it needs the action of God and mankind for anything to happen.  We are well aware that we are helpless without God, but this reminds us that God cannot do anything without us.  As such it emphasises the role of co-creators which is fundamental to the Old and New Testaments.

This event became so central to John’s thinking that it became the basis of his Eucharist.  The ordinary human situation had become a deeply spiritual event for him.  It was an event shared between man and God, which gives the deepest meaning to human life.  To the synoptic gospels the event remains one of the miracles, yet anyone who reads it or hears it, cannot but be touched to the very core by its simplicity in one aspect and yet its deepest spirituality  at the other extreme.

How many times in life do we meet with a seemingly straightforward situation which could become just as momentous and spiritual just by treating it differently.  Covid has proved to be deeply damaging in many countries and to many individuals.  Yet within it some of the best and deepest aspects of humanity have emerged, stories which have been told daily in the newspapers and in the wider media.  Yet, despite knowing this, it fails to touch the greater part of our individual and collective life.  Around us we have global situations of poverty, of racism, of global catastrophe, of present day slavery (even in our own country), of individuals rights to shelter, to food and to safety, of increasing media manipulation of democracy, and I could go on; yet they go on as if we can do nothing about them.

Without God we can do nothing, without us he will do nothing.  If the disciples had just walked away, thought the task was too big for them, and they too small, we wouldn’t have had the miracle we have before us today.  We cannot allow ourselves and God’s world to be drained by the greed and desire of individuals, the place of everybody matters.  You may not be able to do much, but by the doctrine my grandmother instilled into me, “every little bit helps”, the world can become as God intended rather than what we have made it.  It may be by just simply caring for someone in a difficult situation at the moment, it may be by putting your weight behind the situations which will go some way to ending poverty and homelessness, it may be in the way we give of our fortunes (large or small), it may be in our lamentations of the plight of refugees, it may be in so many different things.  What is clear, however, from this parable, is if we do nothing, nothing will happen.

We are no doubt aware of the saying, “That if evil defeats evil, then evil is the victor”, but perhaps there needs to be another thought, “That if we allow one evil to thrive at the expense of another evil, there will be an even more invidious and dangerous  evil at the centre”.

We will no doubt have, like Jacob, to wrestle with problems and upset the status quo.  We may have to wrestle with things which are insurmountable, or even to discern the insidious evil breaking into the situation.  We may even feel that sometimes we are wrestling with God himself. But without us nothing will happen.  Be inspired by the wonderful passage from Isaiah 55, the vision of what can be, if we truly live out our faith in the world. That is the very heart of our unique relationship to God.

Notes
The placing of the miracle at El-Baritiyah is immediately clarified by  looking at a detailed map of Galilee in that time, but is significantly enhanced in the John account by his reference to Phillip who originated in this area (Chapter 1, verse 43) and who would therefore have local knowledge of ways to feed the crowd, if they existed.


seventh sunday after trinitY

READINGS: genesis 29, 15-28, 1 Kings 3, 5-12, Romans 8, 26-29, Matthew 13, 31-33 & 44-52

‘He is like a householder who can produce from his store things old and new

I wrote and spoke last week about the waiting time. I could have waited until this week, as images of the Kingdom emerge before us, not in a burst of miraculous moments, but slowly and sometimes imperceptibly taking root and growing in our midst.  Patience is perhaps the quality we need to cultivate.  No one would suggest that Paul was a patient man by the way he dealt with his fellow workers, yet patience, or endurance,  was something he frequently drew to the attention of the communities that he set up. And this patience was there within Paul himself.  There were not many people who suffered as much for their faith as Paul did, often  imprisoned and treated appallingly, yet there was this unflinching aspect to his character.  Today’s reading from Paul is not from an imprisoned situation but others were.  This letter to the Romans, part of which we heard today, is from the  inter-custodial period, and in it he is powerfully proclaiming, as he always does, the victory that has already been won by Jesus Christ.  Most of us can never expect to hold a faith as strong and unflinching as Paul so we need something else to focus our minds, to keep our minds on what God has done for us in Jesus.

Jesus was very aware of this, both in the people he spoke to and his disciples.  He understood our struggles and gave some snapshots of the world around us to nurture our insight.  Matthew’s gospel collects many of these together as the kingdom is like…” examples.  They range from the ordinary things such as the growing of the mustard tree, to things of our greatest hope, even of finding a treasure in a field.  There cannot be many people who in some period of their life had wished that God would provide the miraculous treasure to put all things right.  But the reality for most of us is it grows within us, like the mustard seed, and without our knowing it becomes something so large that it can be a resting place for all the things we cannot cope with in our own strength.  From a preaching point of view this thematic approach of Matthew does present its problem, just because you are locked into this same theme for several weeks.  It is no doubt the same for those having to endure those weekly sermons!  (Take heart from St. Paul!)  Here, however, in this kingdom is like section I find it very positive.  In fact I can easily find myself drawn to stories from other sources but which have the same message.  One of my favourites are folk stories, which draw out absolute truths from the simplest and ordinariness of ever day situations. Some of these you will have heard me recount on numerous occasions!  But in reading today’s gospel my mind fell on two of these folk stories in particular, which I won’t repeat again, but feel that they add, certainly, to my understanding of God’s kingdom and I hope they might to yours. The first is the story of the leaky bucket, used for watering the garden, but in carrying water from the well to the garden waters much more on the way.  The second is more akin to the treasure in the field.  It is the flawed ruby, a priceless ruby made worthless when a crack appeared within it, until someone had the skill and patience to carve the crack into the ruby making it even more beautiful than before.  In those is the story of life, and the story of God’s love to me. Importantly it is the story of my life and legitimises who I am.

Returning to the Matthew reading, most of it is quite familiar to us, there are stories cherished by people who would call themselves spiritual people, yet to all they point powerfully to something we would all wish for in one way or another.  But in the reading we had today there is something that few have taken much notice of, and certainly don’t’ remember.  It is the bit at the end of the reading, and is about taking the old and the new out of the store cupboard.  Perhaps the reason we don’t remember it is because we can’t quite understand it.  Yet it follows the part of the account in which Jesus asks his disciples if they have understood what he has said about the kingdom, and this addition seems to put new and additional importance on this extra part which is for their ears only.  Take the old and the new out of the store”  What does it mean?

To me Christianity has been rather pre-occupied by new birth and new beginnings, and leaving the past behind.  In this little discourse Jesus is suggesting something quite different for his disciples. Your past, the old, is still important.  It is the very place from which the new will grow.  There will be mistakes, some grievous but they are part of your story, don’t bury them but learn from them. Move on from them, grow from them.  In most church services confession plays a significant role.  Is that really about reminding us how bad we have been?  It certainly is not so for me, rather more of the flower from its seed, the butterfly from its chrysalis.  It is reminding me, challenging me to consider how much, or little, I have moved on.  It reminds me of how little I could do without God, and what I can achieve with him.  In a sense it is the same story we read of Jacob in the Genesis reading, where he began and where he has begun to move towards.  It is the story of Solomon in the 1 Kings reading, recognising that his own frailties could only be made whole in God,  that he could only succeed in God’s blessing.

The heart of a religion, the heart of a church can never be its own story.  It has to be firmly based in the stories of the people it is here to serve.  Jesus’ ministry was about the stories, the lives of the people he met, and how he gave meaning to their stories.  He challenged fearfully the organisations which had begun to put its own story at the centre of everything, to believe all the things it wanted others to believe. In every action we find Jesus  listening, and heeding  the many and varied stories of the people who mattered to God.  Their social importance was of no consequence to him, but their story was, it was out of that old story that the new one could begin.  That storeroom with the old and new together is a powerful resource for each one of us.

As a church, both locally and at a wider level, we are in a place where we need to move on to a new beginning.  We look at structures, we look at ways of doing it but we will never be where God is until we listen to the stories of people who surrond us, rather than insist they must listen to the stories we want them to learn.  Life is individual, faith is individual.  We are indeed all the image of God who understands all of the aspects other people may find difficult.  Our listening to those individual stories enables those who tell it to realise that God listens to it also.  Without the stories of those around us, and our willingness to listen to them, to recognise them and to console them, the church will never reach the place it strives to be.  I mentioned in an early reflection our place as a royal priesthood and it is worth repeating that the role of the priest is not to draw attention to our stories but to enlighten the stories of others.  So this little seemingly add on part to the kingdom is like, is in fact the very heart of it.  The fact that most of us can never remember it, or can never even remember hearing it perhaps tells the story of the church situation and failure. 

The heart of life, the heart of faith is for people to understand their part in it and their importance to it.  Sadly it is only in time of emergency, such as the Covid-19 situation that we begin to realise that.  With his disciples Jesus was bringing new beginnings through the disciples who had a very varied, and sometimes chequered past.  That is where our present day church should always start from!  The stories, the lives of the many people around us are the heart of our ministry.

Prayers from the Celtic Heart by Pat Robson

A prayer of St David
God to enfold me,
God to surround me,
God in my speaking,
God in my thinking.
God in my sleeping,
God in my waking,
God in my watching,
God in my hoping.
God in my life,
God in my lips,
God in my soul,
God in my heart.
God in my past,
God in my present,
God in what lies before,
God who has brought me to what I am.      

A prayer of St Teresa of Avila
Christ has no body on earth but yours
No hands but yours
No feet but yours
Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion
is to look out for the world
Yours are the feet with which to go about doing good
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.                                    

Some random thoughts worth pondering!

God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.
John Henry Jowett

Pour out that you may be filled. 
Augustine of Hippo

The Christian can be a very interesting  person provided you can keep him off religion.
The priest’s duty is to animate, not to dominate .
Archbishop Basil Hume

God gave us all two ears and one mouth, so the Chinese proverb tells us.  He seems, however, to have given most  priests two mouths and no ear at all.
Revd Donald Carpenter 

The wise lover thinks less of the gift than of the love which prompted it.
Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ


sixth sunday after trinity

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

It has been two excellent weeks for me in my garden and allotment!  Twice in two weeks I have been wet through planting cabbages, and everyone knows the best time to plant anything is when it is wet.  Well if you are wet through it can’t get any better than that!

Secondly from the rain and the warm weather the weeds have grown to a good size!  To such a size in fact that they have been easy to identify and pull out by the root.  And isn’t it so much easier to pull out weeds when the soil is moist. Scientific Fact: It takes 6 cuts with a hoe to kill a weed but pull out the root and it is gone.

Two good weeks, goes some way to making up for the hours I spent watering during that really hot period.  So when it came to the gospel reading today about the wheat and the tares, the wheat and the darnel I felt on somewhat firm ground.  Jesus is using an analogy to something I understand, something we all understand to some degree….well our generations anyway.

The workers come to the landowner in a bit of a stew, someone….some enemy, has planted the darnel amongst the wheat.  Certainly the wheat will not flourish as it should as the darnel will take up some of the goodness from the soil and some of the limited moisture that is there.  Shall we go and pull it all up?  Certainly not!  Firstly you will do more damage to some of the wheat that is growing by your tramping through it, they hadn’t heard of raised beds in those days!  But, and more importantly, there is little difference between young wheat and young darnel.  If you rashly rush in you will also pull out a lot of the wheat anyway.  Wait until later, until the harvest even then you will be able to separate it.  Wisdom indeed.  From a  God who knew all about waiting.

I grew up spending  much of my time on my grandparent’s small farm.  Planting and watching the corn grow was a rather special time.  Watching, feverishly, for the brown earth to take on a greenish tinge and then for the abundant green to appear.  My grandfather, although it was on a small scale, didn’t have the time to do all this by hand.  So alongside the other farmers of his time he adapted the principle of this story to his own fields.  In our corn field there were three distinct areas.  It began with an area around the field, the headlands as we referred to it.  This is an area which suffers most from infiltration by weeds, so the crop will always be seen as inferior.  When it came to harvesting this part of the crop was always used to feed the cattle, and the cattle only, in wintertime. Any thoughts of why it should be the cattle only?  Never the sheep and certainly not the horses!  The centre or fertile ground was the best crop and some of the seed from there was kept for planting next year.

So I know what you must be thinking.  We’ve been away from church for 10 weeks and when we do come back he is talking about farming, old time farming at that.  Well actually I am really trying to get at our gospel reading, and two themes seem to emerge from it…..stewardship and waiting….the very qualities which were at the heart of the farming I have spoken of.  We may not have scraped the highest possible yield from the land, but certainly with crop rotation ensured the sustainability of the land not just for our time but for future generations also.  Present high intensive methods can only be concerned with the present, and I don’t blame the farmers for that.  With our obsession of having the nicest looking crops, and often out of season…..strawberries on Christmas Day!… that stewardship has been put in jeopardy not by the people who grow it, but by us the consumer.  The role God gave us was that of co-creators and stewards, how far we have veered from that path, and how fragile the very structure of the earth’s existence become as a consequence of it. It rests not just with the soil but with the air also, as we see climates throughout the world being randomised by the effects of global warming.  We see the oceans and the seas being polluted by plastic and chemicals poured into it, all because of our clamour to have everything now, and just as we want it.   Jesus did not speak of such things in his parable, but you can be sure that stewardship, as he saw it then, was at the very heart of his thinking.

The other very important aspect that emerges is that of waiting.  Through his parable of the unfruitful vine, his stopping on the way to the dying Lazarus and here, we see him advocating a waiting time.  The timetable is God’s not ours, no matter how hard we try to make it otherwise.  The farmhands couldn’t wait, but later on the mustard seed needs time to grow into its full glory.  The woman won’t be able to wait for the bread to rise.  The early Christian church couldn’t wait either, they had grasped what was on offer and they wanted it now.  That is our problem too, and to a much more serious level.

We just can’t wait for God’s time.  We have our expectations and we need them to be realised; full churches and Christian values are waiting for us, why can’t they be here now!  Well Jesus spent a lot of time teaching us about prayer, far too much unless it was to sustain us through these waiting times.  Even the Lord’s prayer has waiting at its heart, “Your kingdom (will) come on earth as it is in heaven”.  Our waiting time is an important part of our journey to the glory of God. Our patience might run out but God’s never will.

So to end perhaps an opportunity to think of the field to which Jesus was referring. Was it that wider field of the world, or our own communities and we, the workers, wanting to rush in to pick out the offending darnel?  I think not, more likely he was referencing our own beings, our own characters to the wheat field.  Much good wheat within it but places where there is darnel too.  Our lives will become closer to God as we recognise and tear out those things which are alien to his love.  Like the early Christians we might be anxious to get there quickly but let’s not lose hope when we can’t get there immediately.  It is God’s time not ours.  Let us just be prepared like Jacob to recognise the hope along the way, to see in each moment, not the fullness of God’s glory, but the ladder that reaches up to that glory from where we are at that moment.  Let every aspect of our life have something of the Bethel within every moment given.

prayers

The Waiting Time

O Lord let me find the waiting time.
Lord may I rest in the peace that is, rather than search for what I hope is to be.
Give me patience with life, patience with others, patience with myself.
May I be fulfilled by what I have, rather than ruled by what I want,
not overcome by what others tell me I need.

O Lord let me rest in the waiting time.
Help me to reach out and see what I have, rather than curse for what I have not.
There may be much ahead of me, but help me to see
that it will not be brighter than what I can find now.
That the hope of the future rests on the joy I can find in this moment.

O Lord let me find the peace of the waiting time.
As I find joy in your holding, let me feel the deep love of your being.
And as my confidence in that love grows,
Help me to see it as the gateway to your glory.
That the waiting time is your time for me, and my time for you.

Disclosure

Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher.  All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and

Wait.

Often, nothing seems to happen;
There is space, silence and

Expectancy.

No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there,
And will come again.
Seeing or non seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you’ve almost
Stopped expecting it,
A flash of brightness,
Gives encouragement.


fifth sunday after trinity

readings: Genesis 25,19-34; Isaiah 55, 10-13; Romans 8, 1-11; Matthew 13, 1-9 & 18-23

The Good News Bible has this particular gospel reading sub-headed as ‘The Parable of the Sower’, and its context and content certainly seem to suggest it is a parable, but when read in its full form the text seems to be something more or a prophesy even. Jesus can be seen speaking to the disciples and instructing them in their future role and mission.  So a further question springs to mind, who was this discourse from Jesus meant for?  Is it this meant for the crowd Jesus was speaking to, or as something quite specific to the disciples?  The fact that the writer of Matthew effectively tells the story twice would seem to indicate that he wasn’t sure either!

Whatever it was, it was almost certainly inspired by the situation.  To me it shows a picture of Jesus in the boat with this large, expectant crowd in front of him, and then looking up sees a lone sower on the hillside. I can’t recall how many times that sort of thing has happened to me in my ministry.  Often when having thought through what I was going to do in a service I become very conscious of someone in front of me and seeing their pain or joy suddenly puts a whole new slant on what I was going to say, as it has done for countless preachers and ministers through the ages.  What we say is not text bound, but circumstance and people bound, as we see the readings coming to light in the people there.  That is what makes the writing of a sermon in isolation so much more difficult, and often so irrelevant.

In our gospel reading Jesus sees the sower, and sees it in the context of the people in front of him, crowd or disciples.  But what he tells them in the story is obviously not correct, for who on earth would waste good seed on rocky ground, or amongst thorns or on ground that would be trampled down by people constantly walking on it (and that is without pigeons and rabbits!)?  Certainly they wouldn’t, and we wouldn’t.

But God does.  That is the heart of this passage, God cannot be made into a human, super or not. God does not sow for want of return or reward, but out of love for his creation.  God does not choose to love, He is love, and real love has no limits.  Everything in creation  is given its chance, nothing is lost in our human ideal of efficiency.  To understand God’s ways we have to let go of our human perceptions including those of fairness, of right, of earned reward or privilege, or even of being left out, as God grows his kingdom on earth.

Certainly it begins to make sense of the Abraham, Sarah situation, where if we read the complete account, including their questionable actions in their days as Abram and Sarai (Gen 12), to survive when famine overtook the land, or indeed in their treatment of Hagar and Ishmael which we have already come across in our Sunday readings.  We can’t ……..but God can!  And such is God’s love that he always will.  Even when Jacob, in today’s Genesis reading, takes untimely advantage of the situation Esau finds himself in, we find a God who will act where we as ethical humans would struggle.  No wonder Paul, in today’s reading, probably his most noble writing, stands amazed at what we can do with God’s love, and how little we can do without it.

And this is the essence of the sower story being important to the disciples, and is the heart of the message they will proclaim.  It is not for them to question, or to admonish the motive of the sower.  It is simply the instruction for them to do likewise, to proclaim a love that is beyond our understanding, beyond sometimes our own acceptance and that of the world.  It is the heart of priesthood.  Certainly it would be nice to be well-liked, appreciated and even acknowledged, but those things do not matter. Letting the world know of that great love that is theirs as well as ours, is what we are called to do.  Don’t forget, as Christians we are all that royal priesthood (1 Peter 2, 9), a priesthood to proclaim the abundance of God’s love.  We are not called to be the sower choosing what to sow, or where to sow it.

Taking on that role of priesthood will, on occasions, put us at odds with the world simply because the world cannot understand its values.  The heart of Christian ministry is to the poor, the marginalised and the needy, rich or poor. Where does that make any sense in our world view?  Our ministry is to the perpetrator just as much as it is to the victim.  Does that make any sense in a world where there is so much hurt caused by one upon another?  Forgiveness, not retribution, is our watchword.  No matter what the cost to ourselves, or of ourselves, it is the new beginning which the world is in real need of, between countries and across countries, between races and cultures and across cultures and races, between rich and poor, between strong and weak.

This is the random sowing from which God’s kingdom on earth will grow. The absolute randomness of sowing that enables people to grasp a different, and better view of stewardship of the world’s resources and its impact upon how we live together.   It is by each of us proclaiming God’s deep love that hope will again begin to flourish. 

There is no action that will be too small in that task ahead of us.  I recall a fellow minister telling me of a funeral he had performed for John, a parish member, who for various reasons had become a very grumpy, isolated man in old age.  The vicar was expecting to be the only one there, but one other person did turn up, a police officer, and from what my friend could make out of it, quite a high ranking one.  After the service he spoke to the man and in response to my friend’s question of why he was there, the police officer said that John had been his teacher.  But more than just being his teacher he had proved to be a considerable steadying influence and inspiration at a particular difficult time in the officer’s early life and helped him to cope with his negative and sometimes anti-social actions following his father’s death.  “It is thanks to John” the officer said, “that I am this side of the bars”. 

Everywhere there is opportunity for the Christian to proclaim something of God’s love pouring into creation. I wonder what part of God’s seed we will have to proclaim in the coming week?  One thing is certain if we proclaim it truthfully, the world will not always thank us for it, but in the end will be a better place for it. If we simply do as Jesus did in his lifetime on earth, and live out the parable of the sower it will indeed prove to be a wondrous prophesy.

Lord why do I have to make the effort
by Michel Quoist

Go, little one,
don’t ask yourself how you feel about doing this or that,
don’t look for any reward,
ask if it is what the father wants
    for you and for your brothers and sisters.

Don’t ask for strength to make the effort;
ask first to love with all your strength,
   your God, and your brothers and sisters,
because if you loved a little more
    you would suffer a little less,
and if you loved much more
    your suffering would bring forth joy and life.

A Silence and a Shouting
by Eddie Askew

O Lord, help me to realize that there are folk around me
with bigger problems than mine.
Folk around me
with harder existences than mine.
Frightened, anxious and lonely,
just wanting a bit of human contact, just wanting a bit of your love.
Perhaps needing a little courage to face life, to hang on to life.

I can encourage them
just by being with them, just by listening and hearing their story, just by taking a bit off their load,
like you take mine.

Is that what you want me to?
I can’t do it on my own—but thank you, Lord,
because with you beside me, I don’t have to.

A prayer from S.P.C.K. Book of Christian Prayer
by Alan Paton,

Give us courage, Lord, to stand up and be counted, to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
Give us courage to stand up for the future of your world, and the place of those who come after us.
Give us courage to stand up to ourselves when we are seduced by the ways that others see the world and are tempted to follow suit.
Let us love, not fear

Let us love nothing more than you, for then we shall fear nothing.
Let us have no God before you, whether nation or party, state, church or want.  Let us seek the peace that you hold before us, opening our eyes, our ears, our hearts and our hands to join the wonder you began in creation.
Let that hope always greatly exceed our concern for self.


Fourth Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49,58-67 – Rebecca chosen as a wife for Isaac
Zecharia  9: 9-12 – The prophet of the 2nd captivity looks to the future
Romans 7: 15-25a – Paul reflects on what he wishes to be and what he is
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30 – Hope and re-assurance in Jesus

It is interesting to look at photographs of events and people in past times.  Birthdays are often commemorated on Facebook with some of those memories from the past showing the development of the person into what they or we are now. Each year Mair (my wife) does a collage of the family in photographs of the immediate past year, then placing the previous year into an album which grows into a history of our family. These, alongside photographs from previous generations, are our family history. So much so, in fact, that a complete 2m by 1m bookcase is full of such albums!  They will never be thrown out, when perhaps more recognised items and books may be as space becomes limited.  The books, etc, can never tell us how we have come to the place where we are, only  photographs really do that, unbiased by our memories , our deep seated opinions or even our aspirations.

Much of the Old Testament is similar, showing something of our journey into where we are now.  But just like our photographs there can easily be a tendency to build up our version of what that history has been, to understand it completely we must look at it all, and more than the stories and the ideas which appeal to us. The set readings for today show the emergence of this hope through various stages of our evolving pre-Christian and Christian family, and the very brief synopsis of the readings will give some indication of this.

But I start with a photograph of ours which I find so special.  It signifies our own family growing into independence. The photograph was taken when we went to Wren’s Nest  (Dudley) to collect some fossils one Sunday afternoon, some 30+ years ago. It shows our son in the background, absolutely intent on fossil hunting, and in the foreground our then 14 year old daughter just not wanting to be there!  She is just entering the “fashion stage” and there she is, on a quite precarious rock slab in a very tight straight skirt and high heel shoes, with a face that communicated it all! Helen hates that photograph, but it is the very heart of life and what and how we all become what we are.  Mind you I don’t have to look far into albums of the previous generation to see where it came from.  One in particular shows Mair and her sister, no doubt going through the same phase of life, in very similar garments walking on Snowdon!  Some years later I enjoyed  walking and climbing on Snowdon, but always well prepared myself, and was often amazed at the states of dress of some people on that mountain which can seem so wonderful in sunlight, but that can change in an instant.

In many ways life is like the mountains.  One minute in the sunshine they can be glorious and awe inspiring, and then without any warning we may be in thick cloud unable to see even the shortest distance in front of us.  We need to journey through life with that in our mind, and that is where faith comes in, a faith which will carry us through the invisible, through the darkness, through the cold and even through the lashing rain of it.  The prophets all show us a way to reach towards that.  Their message encompasses the past, the present and the future.  The past, the memories, the knowledge and the hope will inspire us and sustain us, but it cannot protect us in the present.  The present is our journey, and although it may be similar to those who have travelled that journey before, it will be uniquely ours. It is we who must travel it and we must be prepared for what we encounter on the way.  Just as it is foolhardy to attempt to climb a mountain in high-heeled shoes and light summer garments just because it is a beautiful day, so we cannot journey life in fashion garments.  The faith that will sustain us through life will need to be much more than a “fashion faith”, or even a “hark back to the past” faith.  The only faith that will sustain us is one that has a solid rock to launch from and a clear beacon to call us on, as we trample over the rocks and through the quagmire which most will probably face  somewhere on the journey.  In a sense it is being prepared for that journey of life when the glitter or the tradition either wears off, or is just simply not enough to see you through.  We have to find the shoes and the clothes of faith that will sustain.  I am of an age when I can remember Dr Barbara Moore walking from Land’s end to John O’Groats.  A reporter of the time, James  Fyfe- Robertson, from the Tonight programme, asked what her preparation had been to which she replied, “Rubbing my feet with surgical spirit, wearing two pairs of socks and oiling my boots and walking them in”. With that she was prepared to meet whatever would happen, even when her feet became sore and blistered.

In our readings today one of the things that struck me was the struggle Paul had.  He has a vision of what he might be and is so impatient to get there, wanting to leave behind all those things which actually make him what he is.  The great gift that the disciples had was that they travelled with Jesus in his ministry, and in travelling with him learned a great deal from him.  They learned, as we hear in today’s gospel reading, that he saw opportunities rather than problems and that became very much part of them.  Paul’s background was such that everything was clearly defined and that he had great difficulty when things didn’t fit that pattern.  The journeying disciples saw in Jesus many facets of the fullness of God’s love, but at the same time had to contend with some of the real difficulties of present life .  Some of you will have heard me preach on one of those before, when Jesus is reported by Matthew, to have said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”. I wonder how they reacted when they heard that.  Well we don’t know, because in high probability he didn’t say it, our version is because of more recent translations.  The word easy in Greek is chrestos, which has a far wider meaning as fits well.  My yoke fits well and my burden is lighter, something that a carpenter of Nazareth would know well, since this would have been the major trade of such people.  That is the message that the disciples saw Jesus proclaiming and what they themselves later proclaimed.   Trust in me, trust in God’s love, and there you will find a path which can envelop all of what life will be, Jesus is saying.

It is the message we can proclaim in whatever aspect of life we find ourselves in.  It would be wonderful if we had a miracle to give, but it would probably only be temporary, if at all.  The message for our world is simply that God’s love will help you through  it, including the times when you cannot journey unaided. I hope that we were able to communicate that message to our children as they grew up, and to other people in some small way, in the various twists and turns of life

A prayer by David Adam

O Lord, give us yourself above all things.
It is in your coming to us that we are enriched.
It is in your coming that your true gifts come.
Come, Lord, with your healing presence.
Come, Lord, with healing of the past,
Come and calm our memories, our shattered dreams and unknown weakness,
Come with joy for the present,
Come and give life to our existence, even when we ourselves can find none,
Come with hope for the future,
Come and give us a sense of eternity.
Come, with strength for our wills,
Come, with hope for our hearts,
Come, and give affection to our being.
Come, Lord, give yourself above all things
And help us to give ourselves to you.

A prayer by Rex Chapman (adapted)

I am tired, Lord.  Too tired to think, too tired to pray, too tired to do anything.  Too tired, drained of resources, “labouring at the oars against a head wind”, pressed down by a force as strong as the sea.  Lord of all power and might, “your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters”: calm my soul, and though I want you to take control. Lord of all power and might, most of all I want to feel your presence beside me.

A Prayer by Marjorie Holmes

You, who said, “Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest”, I come to you now.

For I am weary indeed.  Mentally and physically I am bone- tired.  I am all wound  up, locked up with tension about  the things that hurt me and drain away my hope.

Lord, let your healing love flow through me.

I can feel it easing my tensions.  I can feel my body relaxing, my mind begin to go calm and composed.  I feel your healing in all those things that I could never have done for myself.

Thank you for unwinding me, Lord, for unlocking me.  Thank you for freeing me from what I cannot change, so that I may flow freely, softly, gently into your future.

A prayer by Bishop Leslie Newbigin
(incidentally, a man who was as lovely as his prayers)

Give me, Lord, a stout heart to bear my own burdens, a tender heart to bear the burdens of others, and a believing heart to lay all of my burdens on you, for you care for us.

Poem from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it all began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then?  I cannot say.


Third Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Genesis 22,1-14, Jeremiah 28, 5-9 , Romans 6, 12-23, Matthew 10, 40-42

What have you being doing during ‘lockdown’?.  Judging by some of the responses on Facebook, even on “All Things Stretton” many of us have been having a clear out.  Indeed since charity shops and refuse disposal have been closed down, I hear that our long-suffering refuse collectors, as key workers, have  experienced a dramatic rise in their work load as people have cleared out their lofts, their garages and even  their houses during this enforced isolation. Indeed in Birdingbury, Christine and Barbara have used the situation to continue their support of the PawPrints Charity but also to build up some new community contacts in the village, and well done to them.  But as for me, I am not a “thrower-away”  person.  I just keep things in the hope that there will be another day when they will be useful again. Indeed this is proven in the fact that with the hot weather, especially the muggy nights, a fan which we bought pre-2000, came to the rescue, after some repair action was undertaken! Similarly, all those experiences and insights which we have in life remain so important to our future actions and thoughts, too valuable by far to be thrown away or tucked into some filing drawer of our brain.

So, with no throwing away to be done I have focussed myself on doing those jobs I never seem to have time for, with one in particular which has been repairing and painting our garden fence! Now that has proved to be a jeremiad (now that’s a nice scrabble word!) experience indeed. There seemed to be no end to it, and it has been filled with frustrations, not least that since many others have been doing the same thing, I have run out of paint and there is none to be found anywhere on line.  As I have been working around the fence and the frustrations of it, my mind has often strayed to Jeremiah, in particular to his yoke. The yoke that cannot be forgotten just because it has been torn off and thrown away.

Although Jeremiah’s work is not now featured as much in our local service readings as we tend instead to hear the more familiar works with well-known stories.  But this is an injustice to Jeremiah because he has a very powerful message for all who seek God.

In the bible he is classified as a major prophet, but this does not really do him justice, as our bible simply classifies long texts as major prophets and the shorter ones as minor prophets.  But Jeremiah is a major prophet in a very much wider context.  He was significant as the second major prophet of Judaism, second only to Moses, and was influential in the drawing up of the formalisation of their religion including influences in Deuteronomy.  In addition, his influence spreads into Islam as well as Christianity. His influence has seeped into much New Testament theology, in particular to the Book of Hebrews where there are over 40 references to Jeremiah and his prophesies.  In the Book of Jeremiah, we have amongst the lamentation, such beautiful imagery including his yoke, the potter and the clay, right through to his confidence in buying a field. Don’t be put off by the 50 chapters, it is full of wisdom and direction for us all.

Just like Moses, Jeremiah was very reluctant to accept his role.  “I am only a child, and do not know how to speak on such issues”, he protests.  Undeterred God touches Jeremiah’s lips and from that moment on his heart is on flame with God’s message.  He remained in that role for forty years, under five different rulers and his message centred on how Judaism had tried to modify their relationship with God to one they wanted it to be. Jeremiah sought to bring their minds back to what God wanted.  As such he spoke and prophesised on their own misguided attempts having desperate repercussions and pointing to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah is often referred to as the weeping prophet as he lamented the repeated failure to re-centre their religion onto God.  Jeremiah repeatedly warned his people that spirituality is not simply a lifestyle choice.  You cannot choose faith like you chose the way you dress, or an ornament.  Faith is a life based not upon your needs but on God and on the wider good.  You cannot profess one thing and live another.  True faith will penetrate your very being and impact upon everything you do, say or think.  Anything less may suit you, but it certainly will not suit God.  Anything but real commitment will never solve the problems that are boiling up towards you.

As such, it seems to me, that the somewhat forgotten Jeremiah is a prophet for our own time.  We live in a world where actions and decisions are based upon the immediate good.  We seem to forget there is a wider world and future generations to consider.  Yet so much of our global situations, which ought to remind us of the interconnectedness of our world and people are forgotten in so many ways.   Our reluctance to consider the effects that global warming will have on those following us or those around us, being a case in point as we try to pin-down God’s goodness and love to our particular place and time, to our own wants.  Then along came Covid-19 and suddenly we are fearful, but now as that fearfulness begins to drift away with time, and the inability to shop or converse with others begins to frustrate , the freedom to do what we would like begins to prioritise our thoughts. With those emerging demands so we see the resolve and lessons of the fearful time being moved to the back of our minds.  Perhaps, deep down, we might even wish to throw them away altogether, or bury them so deep that they no longer bother us.   Similarly, we thought and even hoped that racism was at an end, thankful perhaps that we didn’t need to think about it anymore so that our lives could continue in just the way we wanted them to.  Yet it hadn’t and hiding the matter did not solve that major problem either, perhaps it made the situation worse for some.  Such deep-seated matters will not be solved until we learn to see through God’s eyes rather than our own, until we work in God’s way not our own.  That was Jeremiah’s message to his people and it remains a powerful message to us, particularly in the present situations. As we begin to move into a world where the Covid-19 precautions are being lessened, a world where climate change has been all but forgotten, and the BLM action is less reported, will we have learned anything from those experiences?  Will we go forward with a different perspective?

Just like Jeremiah, Paul says to the Romans that faith and spirituality are not an add-on choice.  They are the deep-seated base of the world God created and respect for that otherness is the only way that world can move forward or even survive.  It is the message that has to be proclaimed in our world and in our churches.  We cannot find a way just to suit ourselves but we must strive to find a way for God’s world and everything that is in it.  As Christians we must be aware that we too have a yoke to wear, but knowing of his love for us and all his creation makes that yoke fit far more easily. Are we prepared to do our part so that the world may know it also, so that it may become a world which is not looking in every direction fearful of the boiling pots which may envelope us? When Jeremiah felt unworthy to take on his role God gave him strength and vision. So, God will do for us, and in doing it we will find his reward, even if the only thing we can manage is to give a cup of water to those in need.

We should not be striving to find a way to suit ourselves but a way that incorporates the whole of God’s creation.  That is where we will find his peace, his yoke is easy and his burden light. As a church we must be a prophet, to proclaim a world where there are no strangers only friends we have not met.  To those of us in the world who are more fortunate it is incumbent on us to build larger tables rather than higher fences. That is the way to where our treasure will be found.

____________________________

I attach a poem sent to us by Maureen Hinton, it is probably the best prayer we can have at this time.

Corona’s Letter to Humanity
A poem by Vivienne Reich

The earth whispered but you did not hear.
The earth spoke but you did not listen.
The earth screamed but you turned her off.

And so I was born….
I was not born to punish you…
I was born to awaken you….
The earth cried out for help….

Massive flooding.  But you didn’t listen.
Burning fires. But you did not listen.
Strong hurricanes.  But you did not listen.
Terrifying tornadoes.  But you did not listen

You still don’t listen to the earth when….
Ocean animals are dying due to pollutants in the waters.
Glaciers melting at an alarming rate.
Severe drought.

You didn’t listen to know how much negativity the earth is receiving…
Non stop wars.
Non stop greed.

No matter how much hate there was…
No matter how many killings daily…

It was more important to get that latest iPhone than worry about what the world was trying to tell you…

But now I am here…
And I have made the world, your home, stop in its tracks

I have made YOU finally listen.

I have made YOU take refuge.

I’ve made you stop thinking about materialistic things…

And now you are like the earth…..
You are only worried about your survival…
How does that feel?
I give you fever…as the fires burn on earth
I give you respiratory issues…..as your pollution filled the earth’s air
I give you weakness as the earth weakens every day.
I took away your comforts…
Your outings.
The things you would use to forget about the planet and its pain.
And I made the world stop…

And now China has better air quality…
Skies are clear blue because factories are not spewing pollution into the earth’s air.
The water in Venice is clean and dolphins are being seen.
Because the gondola boats that pollute the water are not being used.
YOU are taking time to reflect on what is important in your life.

Again I am not here to punish you…..I am here to awaken you
When all this is over and I am gone…..Please remember these moments…

Listen to the earth.
Listen to your soul.
Stop polluting the earth.
Stop fighting among each other.
Stop worrying about materialistic things.
And start loving your neighbours ……wherever they are.

Start caring about the earth and all its creatures.
Start to really believe in a creator.
Because next time I may even come back stronger……
Signed Corona (the Virus)


Second Sunday after Trinity

Readings:  Genesis 21, 3-21, Jeremiah 20, 7-13, Romans 6, 1b-11, Matthew 10-39

 How many sparrows are you worth?

I remember one matter which had a very acrimonious impact upon the church we, as a family, attended for many years. It started innocently enough, when one of our members was asked to build a new life-size crib for our church.  Andy was both very skilled as far as craft was concerned, and a deep thinking man.  But when the new crib he had made was unveiled to the church, there was uproar.  There was uproar because Andy had made the crib as it really was, a mean stable with all of its hardships and rejections.  That was not the crib, or the message, that most of our particular popular, well attended church wanted to portray.  After all, the Mayor was coming to our bursting Christmas Eve service!

We can see a similar theme developing with the crosses we often see in the world and even adorn our churches.  Some  are worn as adornments with little or no perception of its origin, others wear them as significant of a deep faith.  Those crosses, either worn by individuals or within our churches themselves, can be more about art and design, about the aesthetics, than they are about the origins of the cross.  When we were in Italy for a holiday we visited some local churches, some of which were in very poor areas.  No matter how poor the people or the area, the cross was always glorious, elaborate and a  costly work of art and jewels. Just as the reception of the new crib in our own church had caused us much heart searching and disillusionment, so the way in which these churches were portraying the cross bothered me also. Nowhere did I see its pain, or its cost in pain. The only cost seemed to be to the poor people that tried to maintain them.

What is this interpretation of the cross as a true reflection on the cross of many in life, or indeed on the cross of our baptism?  For it is by the cross we begin our journey in faith.  In our gospel reading today we hear Jesus proclaiming, “No one is worthy of me who does not take up his cross and follow me”.  So often we are seduced by the earthly wonder, the ‘golden calves’1, that we can easily lose sight of its real glory, and of the pain of the love God bore for us. (There is the counter-argument of course of a magnificence which somehow proclaims that glory, the wonder the artist wished to portray when he made it, the real test is surely though in the heart of the one who views it).

In trying to glorify the cross we have changed it.  As indeed can happen in the translation of the Bible on many occasions and we find one such example in our Gospel reading today.   When Jesus speaks of the value in God’s eyes of the sparrows, the way this has been translated gives the impression in  of sparrows dying, of death.  But that is not a true reflection of the original Greek version.  The RSV Bible provides us on this occasion, as on many others, with a closer approximation to the original, and translates the Greek, not as falling to the ground with its implication of death, but as “lighting on the ground”, which has much more implication about life. To really understand it we must research much further to find its association with  the assarion.

The assarion was a sub-division of the denarii, and as such the smallest form of currency (1/16 of a denarii) and hence the translation into penny (or farthing in some versions, perhaps an even better one since there was a wren on the back of it!).  Two sparrows were sold for two pennies, but in paying four pennies the purchaser got an extra sparrow, 5 in total (the first BOGOF?).  So the extra one was thrown in free, it had no value.  But Jesus used this fifth sparrow, the sparrow that had no value in the world, to illustrate God’s love being the love that cared for all.  This account is far more than a nice story, it is the very essence of all of the teaching of Jesus. God loves even the sparrow that has no value.

So even the humble sparrows chattering outside the window, have a very important message for us! Perhaps the sparrow should be the symbol of our stewardship of the world’s resources!  But most of all it is a reminder that even the forgotten sparrow is dear to God. Are you not worth more than the sparrows?  If the sparrows are dear to God so should, everything and everyone be dear to us, unconditionally?

Churches try to live this out in many ways.  We seek out things that can be done and often do them very efficiently.  What is often lacking is not the concept of what we do, but the reason why we do them. Does it have an imitation of God’s love at its centre? The why of an action is far more important to God than the what, and even more important than how well it is performed.  But take heart we also are dear to God, and even when we get it wrong he remains with us, still like the sparrow. Even the actions of Abraham and Sarah did not change that, even when their actions seemed far from what God intended.  Even the lament of Jeremiah, as he is seemingly overtaken by the futility and hardship of his 40 years of proclaiming God’s will in a very hostile environment, God will still come to his aid.

What then is our reaction to the demand to take up our cross and follow him?  If we can understand the why then the rest will follow.

By the cross, Paul assures the Roman Christians, that they have entered into the death of Christ.  Whatever the circumstances they are still part of that death, of that struggle, but Paul even more strongly reassures them, that they have also entered into the resurrection of Jesus, where everything will find new meaning, and a new beginning simply because everything is dear to God. So it is also true for us and every time we light on the ground we will be at the heart of God. Walk, walk in that light Paul says.  Not in the light that you may always want it to be, not in the light you try to make it, but in the light where God knows you, and the world he loves, will find the treasure, even if it is sometimes in a very mucky field. The important thing is that our lives care for even the sparrow, for those whom the world ignores, for those who are even shut out by the world.  That is the real rest, the message that Andy was trying to show with the crib that he made.

Prayers and Inspirations

From The Prophet by Kahill Gibran, the section Giving

Speak to us of giving.
You give little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

_______________________________________

There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire to make their gifts wholesome.

And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life,
and their coffer is never empty.

There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.

And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.

Through the hands of such as these God speaks,
And from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.

Based on a prayer from God’s Springtime by Joyce Huggett

O Lord,
As you have filled us with your fragrance, help us to spread it wherever we go.
Flood our hearts with your spirit and your love.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly so that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine in us and through us, so that we may all feel your presence in our soul.
Let us look up and see Jesus.  Let us feel his cross in ours.
As we have been crucified with him, let us share in his resurrection.
May we all shine for each other, may your love in each one of us be a beacon in the world,
A beacon to all those who are wearied and ground down by life.
And let us praise you in the way you love best, by shining on those around us.

_________________________________________

Breathe on me, Breath of God;
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

_____________________________________

Footnotes

  1. Golden Calf Exodus Chapter 32
  2. The hidden treasure Matthew chapter 13

1st Sunday after Trinity

Readings:  Genesis 18, 1-5 or Exodus 19, 2-9a, Romans 5, 1-8, Matthew 9.35 – 10.8

The heart of the readings today is about faith. All of us live by faith in some way or another.  Every time we go to our car we do so in the faith that it will start.  When it does and we begin our journey we do so in the faith that the other road-users will do so in a way that won’t affect our safety.  Even in a scientifically led situation such as medicine, faith in our doctor still plays a large part of the process.

So faith is something that in many ways we all live by, the difficulty comes when we are to put our faith in ideas of which we have no control.  Science has had a dramatic effect upon religious faith in society.  We live in a world where we need scientific evidence, and if we cannot find that, or it is not available, then we find it difficult to have faith.  Yet in reality it is no different from ordinary situations in which we often have absolutely no knowledge at all.  We expect our car to start, but if it doesn’t our faith is still sustained by a man who can!

This need for knowledge, or knowing a person who does, has had a dramatic effect on our own religion and yet can be an obstacle too. “It is beyond my understanding “is often used as a rebuttal to any belief in anything beyond our self, or beyond our world. The reading choice from the Old Testament readings shows a different approach.  The one speaks of Abraham and his faith so that nothing was too much trouble when three unknown people appeared before him, even the possibility of parenthood for him and his aged wife.  The second is about the faith of Moses who not only trusted God, but also inspired the people he led to trust God as well.

Martin Luther defined faith as “a living, bold trust in God’s grace, certain of God’s favour.”Certainly Abraham and Moses personify that definition as do many others throughout the Bible. Yet in our world there is an enormous chasm between understanding such faith in others and seeing it in ourselves.  Perhaps the example of the disciples in today’s Gospel might be a starting point for all us.

As Jesus called the twelve to him he also sent them out to proclaim what they felt in their hearts.  He gave them no more than their faith and a few basic instructions.  Indeed his main instruction seemed to be to whom they should go, and what not to take with them.  God and their faith would be their inspiration and their protection. A seemingly awesome task for ordinary people, but they would not be alone.

Yet these were ordinary people from such a range of backgrounds that it would seem an impossible task.  Indeed within that group would be people who hated each other.  If Simon, the zealot, had met Matthew, the tax collector, in any other situation he would probably been more likely to kill him rather than work with him.  God’s healing powers and their faith were already at work in them and so  they had all that they needed. They were to be heralds of Christ, the original Greek word would have been from the noun, “kerux” which is just that, herald. What they did would stem from that, whether in the form of action or words, simply by all that they did to point to some hope in the life of the people they met.  If you look at the list of tasks near the end of that reading it would certainly be far beyond them, but proclaiming God’s love in whatever situation they met would be the key to all of these tasks and beginning in the hearts of those oppressed in whatever way.

Yet they were at heart ordinary people facing everyday situations, and that has never changed.  If we look at what is happening in our world it is still there. .  Sometimes it is found in the way people just remain cheerful in incredibly difficult and uncertain situations. “How do they do it?”, is a phrase so often heard.  Or it may be in the way they give their time to others, “Where do they find the time?” may be another.  Simply being with such folk makes things easier, giving a glimpse of hope when so many get lost in hopelessness.  Often without realising it these people are indeed the herald of God’s love.  Without realising it they are bringing hope into the lives beyond themselves, and with strength from outside themselves.

Sometimes, of course, the situations of life present us draw us into a more dramatic situations.  The unlawful killing of George Floyd in America drew attention, once again, to the evils still lurking in that society.  Ordinary people in their protest are raging at one such evil and in so doing raging about how our world needs to encompass God’s love.  The spread of such protests to our own country certainly indicate our empathy with their cause, but perhaps indicate the ongoing failings here also.

As Christians we have a special part to play, a special responsibility as Paul pointed out in his Letter to the Romans, our hearts “have been flooded with God’s love” for this purpose.  As Augustine also powerfully pointed out, “Faith cannot help doing good works constantly.  It doesn’t stop to ask what  we should be do, it is already being done unceasingly”.  The continuing failures of our world are a reminder to the Christian church that those problems exist because we and it have failed to be the herald of what God’s love really is.  So often we have colluded with the world’s view and in so doing diminished God’s love within it.  For evil to succeed it is only necessary for the good person to do nothing.

“A faith which sets bounds in itself, that will believe so much and no more, that will trust so far and no further, is no faith”.2  In reaching out for faith we do so in the hope that we do not just receive it, but live by it and that it will indeed flood our hearts.  We must pray fervently for  courage to encompass it, for that is the only way we will find that peace for which our hearts are restless, and for which the world is in urgent need.

References

  1. Martin Luther, An introduction to St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians
  2. W. and A.C. Hare, Guesses at truth

Prayer from the Anglican Church of New Zealand

Holy and eternal God,
give us such trust in your sure purpose,that we measure our lives
not by what we have done or failed to do,
but by our faith in you.

Adapted from a prayer by Monica Furlong

Dear God, it’s so hard for us not to be anxious.
We worry about work and money,
about food and health,
about weather and crops,
about war and politics,
about loving and being loved,
about the problems surrounding us, near and far.
As you show us how perfect love can cast out fear,
Give us faith to work towards your kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.

The Wire-Fence
from Prayers of Life by Michel Quoist

The wires are holding hands around the holes:
To avoid breaking the ring, they hold tight to the neighbouring wrist,
And it is thus with holes they make a fence.
Lord, there are lots of holes in my life.
There are some in my neighbours.
But with your help we shall hold hands,
We shall hold very tight
And together we shall make a fine roll of fence to adorn Paradise.


Trinity Sunday

Readings:  Isaiah 40 12-17,  2 Corinthians 13, 11-13, Matthew 28,16-20

So what is all this fuss about the Trinity?  Is it a theory, perhaps an irrelevant theory?  Is it part of a doctrine of bricks and mortar, not just the sort that tie us to a place but to a way of thinking? A Welsh poet, Idris Davies (often quoted by Max Boyce!) certainly thought this about religion…”They sent us to the chapel, to make us meek and mild”!

Yet people want to see God, see what he is really like. Yet the more you see the more confusing  it can become.  We are faced with a myriad of images of God, from the creator to the judge of all things in an environment which we just can’t get a grip on it all.  The concept of the Trinity was an attempt to get a hold on this nature of God.  It began with one attempt in the Council of Nicea in 325AD, but took many, many more such councils to fine tune what the original council had tried to clarify, or was it to change what they had said?

People want to see God, or at the very least get some idea of the meaning of life.  One of the great privileges of being a parish priest, in my day, was to be involved with the whole community and to see the various attempts by many, religious and non-religious, to get some sort of answer to this question. One I remember particularly.

One of my congregation at Chelmsley Wood asked me to visit her brother, living in the same area, who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  “He won’t be pleased to see you”, she said encouragingly!  Bob didn’t believe in religon, or the church but he had no one else to talk to.  It was with some trepidation that I walked up the stairs to his flat on the 15th floor (the lift was broken again!, something the residents lived with on a regular basis).  When I got there I found a charming man, perhaps not a man interested in formal religion, but certainly a man who thought deeply about life and its meaning.  After about an hour of conversation he invited me to see his trees!  Expecting to go out onto the tiny balcony to look out across the countryside I followed him out.  But there I really did see his trees, about 200 of them, bonsai trees!  There they were on his tiny balcony, a few in pots, but many in discarded vegetable tins.  Not the exotic Japanese varieties, but saplings he had picked up in the wild over the years and which he had subsequently trained and nurtured.  All of them came from an area within a mile of his flat.

They all fascinated me, but one in particular which was over 40 years old.  It was a miniature oak tree.  It was growing in a small baked bean tin and was about 8 inches high, yet  a perfectly formed oak tree, but in miniature (made me feel much better about myself, living in this world of tall Anglo-Saxons!) He then carefully took the tree out of the tin and proceeded to trim it, to show me the secrets of bonsai.  He trimmed the top to what he wanted, and then lovingly untangled the roots and trimmed them to match the top before handing the tree to me to look at.  “That’s what I see your God as”, he said, quietly and quite out of the blue.  He couldn’t cope with all the words or the rhetoric of formal religion, but he had certainly thought about it more than most, perhaps even more than those of us who never missed a Sunday at church!  He went on to explain the balance between the roots and the branches, and the 7cm girth trunk which held it altogether. For Bob it was simply the oneness of creation.   It was indeed a fascinating afternoon.  In that brief meeting I felt that I had been given a greater understanding of God, even more than years of attending church, hours of theological lectures and even charges, rebukes and affirmations of Bishops!  We planned to meet again, but never did.  He died a week later, but not before leaving instructions for me to officiate at his funeral. This turned out to be a small but wonderful affair consisting of the people who understood his quest for knowledge of life, in which I saw a quest for knowledge of God, his quest for a  knowledge of what it is all about.

So after wrestling with all the theology of the Trinity, I decided to tell you about my mentor Bob and his home grown bonsai trees.  The little oak tree I had been privileged to hold, told me everything I needed to know about God.  God is community.  Maybe a community of three, maybe more, but a community in perfect harmony.  The roots, the stem and the branches were all separate but were in perfect unity, together the tree that they made up was perfect life.

So in the readings of today we see God as the unwearied creator, God as the inspirer, God as the critic, God as the evangelist, God as the comforter, God as the healer, God as the teacher…… all of which come together in perfect community and perfect unity.  The Garden of Eden portrays a situation where we, as part of that community, can live fully, yet it takes little to set us off-course.  The spirit of unity is soon broken, and you cannot have a community which is one sided, where one gives and other receives.  You cannot have a community where there are unequal partners. You cannot have a community where individualism rears its head, no matter how well intentioned. I was left with the feeling that Bob had more of a grasp of the Trinity than all of those involved at Nicea and all the other Councils, and certainly the humility to just rest in the mystery in front of him.

We have a God whose very presence reminds us of what it can be, yet so often we try to do it our way, to blur the edges or even to build walls around them or perhaps even knock them down.  We have indeed seen what God looks like in Jesus Christ, and if we follow his example we will be getting nearer and nearer to what God is.  If we lose directions sometimes there is always the Holy Spirit to nudge or kick us back on track. The demands of Jesus Christ can sometimes leave us seemingly far short, yet in that community of God we can also encompass  an incredible peace, a God given peace.

As for me I will always have this picture of that little oak tree and of that miniature forest on a tiny balcony of a council flat in Chelmsley Wood to remind me.  Thank you Bob, or Joan his sister who sent me there, or even the Holy Spirit! What we shared has been my inspiration.  And now I tell you the story, so it may be  inspiration to you.

Oh, I just had a further little thought.  As you think of the tree, which you part of it would you consider to represent  the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? What parts of the Trinity relate to the parts of the tree?  Perhaps it will remind us that life is not a matter of questions and answers.  True life is a matter of questions, followed by further questions!

From SPCK Book of Christian Prayer
by Caryl Micklem

God the father, God beyond us, we adore you.

You are the depth of all that is.
You are the ground of our being.
We can never grasp you, but you can grasp us:
the universe speaks of you to us, and your love comes to us through Jesus.

God the Son, God beside us, we adore you.
You are the perfection of our humanity.
You have shown us what human life can be like.
In you we see divine love and human greatness combined.

God the Spirit, God around us, we adore you.
You draw us to Jesus and the Father.
You are the power within us.
You give abundant life and make us the people we can be.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
God beyond, beside and around us;
We adore you.

The Sequel

After Bob’s death his collection of Bonsai trees was bought by a more recognised collector for £20,000!  Who would have thought that such treasure existed on a balcony in a Chelmsley Wood Council Flat?

Bob knew!

For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also  – Luke 12, 34

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.