Friday, 14 October 2016

Even at the risk of being rude

The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24 - Year C                                                                               
Luke 18:1-8

“…because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

We’ve all known somebody like this widow – a person who will not take no for an answer.  If we find ourselves in a difference of opinion with such a man or woman we muse to ourselves that it won’t be a question of if she (or he) wins the battle but merely a question of when.  Jesus exercises a sense of humour when he pits this widow against a corrupt judge and the scene ends with the judge on his front doorstep in slippers and housecoat rewriting his judgement there and then in the widow’s favour just to be rid of the woman.

A few commentators note that English Bibles usually soften the widow’s fearsomeness in saying that the judge worries about being “worn down” by the constant complaints of the widow.  The Greek verb comes from the world of boxing and refers to a darkening of the face.  The judge is worried about getting a black eye one of these days.  Crooked judges are not immune to the persistence of nagging plaintiffs, says Jesus, so why would your heavenly father (who, after all, is not an unjust judge) be deaf to the constant and persistent prayer of his children?  Now, you might pray for the wrong thing.  You could pray for things which you may not or cannot and, ultimately, do not receive.  God is not a soda machine which distributes the desired product when the button is pressed. 


What you must abandon forever is the thought that once you ask politely on a single occasion you must, from then on, hold your piece at the risk of being rude.  Before prayer is a concise request for a particular thing it is a conversation in space and over time and a relationship between you and your maker.  Your words and your feelings are a key component to it.  Prayer should make room for strong language.  It allows for a heated    comparison of the promises of God with the way things have actually turned out.  It will beneficially contain elements of your anger, sorrow and outrage.

The unrighteous judge says to himself:  Here she comes again in high dudgeon, with her papers and her affidavits and her high pitched voice.   He looks forward to the encounter with dread and wishes it over.

Your heavenly father sees you coming as well.  He knows what you want and he knows what you need.  He anticipates  the fruits your conversation will bear and does not, in fact,  want rid of you. 

Friday, 30 September 2016

Putting the seed to good use in our gardens

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22 – Year C
Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"

The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

Similar sayings of Jesus in Mark’s and in Matthew’s Gospels juxtapose mustard seeds with mountains instead of mulberry trees.  The phrase “faith that moves mountains” has found a home in our language as a figure of speech. 

I’d say “You get the drift” except I’m not sure you and I always do get the drift. 

We might assume that the apostles are asking for the faith necessary to perform unthinkable miracles:  to strike their enemies dumb, to heal the one-legged at tent meetings or to teleport mountains and mulberry trees through air and water.  Are ordinary people here asking (and should we be asking, therefore) to be given superhuman powers?

The apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith.  I hear echoes of the father in the 9th chapter of Mark whose child has a convulsing spirit.  This father is asked whether he believes Jesus can heal his son.   He cries out “I do believe, help my unbelief”

It might profit us to consider the request which these people make (“increase our faith” - “help my unbelief”) rather than Jesus’ more memorable answer. 

What do these people believe they are lacking?

The apostles, like the father from Mark 9, stand on the edge of a world which shows itself to be the Kingdom when Jesus speaks and acts in it.  We had grown used to seeing the world as a fixed place where the wheels turn as they must and where one thing leads inexorably to the next.  Random chance might be our best hope in seeing our fortunes change.  Jesus asks his followers to jump in with him and to see the world as the place where the sick son can be well again, as a place where we not only should but indeed can forgive our brother when he sins against us seven times and where we are now free to forswear the things which cause us and others to stumble.  

The old world still grips us in its claws but you, like these characters from the Gospels, are gathered at Jesus feet and have obeyed the summons into his presence.  This is true whether you are a character in the Gospels or a contemporary man or woman who presents yourself in prayer and corporate worship to your living Lord. Are we to believe that faith, the quantity of which might even best be described as something the size of a mustard seed, is missing from us? 

Or has it simply not yet been used?  It may not yet a normal tool in the conduct of your lives, in the facing down of conflicts, in your striving for justice in your place of work and in the hammering out of your path in life?  

This is the threshold upon which we stand - not the possession of faith but our willingness to use it.  We have the seed in our hands.  It needs to be planted in the ground upon which we live and work. 

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Searching and sweeping until the thing is found

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19 - Year C
Luke 15:1-10

At the outset of this week’s Gospel reading, the scribes and the Pharisees expressed unhappiness about all the "low-life" to be found among the followers of Jesus:

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.

Listen to what Jesus says at the end of the reading:   

“I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels
of God over one sinner who repents.”

If all we had were these two ends – the opening and the conclusion – we might conclude that some sinners work hard at this whole business of repentance and can overcome the stigma of their past behavior with a rigourous and athletic turnaround.  These “deserving sinners” get cheered on by angels in heaven as they cross the finish line and join the righteous on the other side. 

In fact, the intervening two mini-parables (the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin) are no testament whatsoever to the ability of the lost sheep to climb out of a deep chasm and work its way out of the heather and return to the sheepfold or of a coin to hoist its own shiny edge up between the floorboards and catch the woman’s attention in order to get itself found. 

God, says Jesus, is a shepherd.   He will go to great lengths to find the one who is well and truly lost. 

God, says Jesus, is a poor widow.  She will sweep the lengths of her house repeatedly until she finds the thing she has set out to find. 

The nature of the Good News that Jesus preaches is not that there now exists a novel way for men and women to work their way along the narrow path into the favor of heaven.  The Good News is that God is at work looking for his children, energetically and relentlessly.  The redeemed sinner is the handiwork of God and the fruits of God’s labour.

We need to agree to be found.  
We need to rejoice with the angels when others are found as well.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Neighbour: Proximity or Affinity?

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10  
Year C
Luke 10:25-37

Jesus asks a lawyer to summarize the Law and the man obliges: We are to love God and we are to love our neighbour, he says.

Jesus commends the lawyer for having come up with the right answer.  The man then asks Jesus: “So who is my neighbour?”

Our lawyer is not merely being difficult.  This matters rather a lot.  Luke tells us the story of their exchange in the Greek language and the word used for neighbour (plesios) merely describes “One who is near”.  In a similar fashion, when St Jerome translated the Bible into Latin from Greek the word he chose to use here in this passage was proximus (“the one beside me”).  Luther’s German New Testament uses the word nächster (as in “the nearest") Our inclination, however, is to love those who are attached to us by blood, affection, background or common purpose.  We will go out of our way to find some biblical warrant for it.  So when the Greek Old Testament uses the word neighbour (plesios) to translate a Hebrew word, the word is most often a Hebrew word (re’a) best translated as “compatriot”.  That’s better.   Instead of referring to whoever happens to be standing next to me or living in the house next door the earlier word seems to refer to “One with whom one has something to do”

You shall not take vengeance or bear any 
grudge against  the sons of your own people 
but you shall love your neighbour (re’a) 
as yourself.
                                                                           Leviticus 19:18 
We might conclude that the Greek language here is the odd man out and ill equipped to express the natural loyalty I feel towards those who are like me - towards the sons and daughters of my own people.  This might have been the case except that Jesus then proceeds to tell a story which indicates that natural loyalty itself is the problem he wants to address.

A Jewish man was set upon by thieves. Those with a natural kinship to him gave him a wide berth and left him lying wounded in the road while an ethnic enemy – the Samaritan for whom the parable is named – dressed the man’s wounds and paid for his lodging.  Who then, asks Jesus, was neighbour to this man?

I don’t need to tell anybody reading this that the events dominating our news media for the past few weeks in Britain, America and around the world are all wrapped up with the very question which the lawyer poses to Jesus:  Who is my neighbour?  Who am I connected to?  Who can live in the place where I live?  To whom do I owe love, protection and the assurance of their wellbeing.  While I would not presume to oversimplify questions of migration, national identity or religious pluralism as they apply to the countries of our birth, I can’t help pointing out that Jesus goes out of his way to say that this natural inclination towards those who are most like us is wholly insufficient. 

True neighbourliness will extend to the stranger too.

Friday, 17 June 2016

A man in his right mind

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7)
Year C
Luke 8:26-39

We’ve all seen the advertisements - for diet or beauty products, exercises or fitness machines - which present the reader with two photographs, generally marked “before” and “after”.  In a similar “before and after” story in Luke’s Gospel, a young man sits calmly at the feet of Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind”.  At the beginning of the story, the man was raving, naked and self-isolating.  I did a reflection on this passage yesterday morning at a meeting of the local protestant clergy here in Clermont-Ferrand.   I think I prefer the French translations in the TOB and the Louis Segond (making reference to "reason" and "good sense") to the English translation we’re going to read on Sunday.

...habillé, et revenu à la raison (TOB)
...vêtu, et dans son bon sens (LS)

I mean what is, after all, your right mind?   In what way “right”?  

Is the young man’s mental map now what it ought to be, or what the village thinks it should be or even what Jesus has told him it should be?  What is clear is that the young man was formerly unable to be a part of village life.  He caused chaos when he was there and had even been physically restrained.  If he escaped those chains or was allowed to flee, he would wander in the wilderness with beasts as his only companions.  This is no longer the case.  We are now presented with the “after” photograph.  The crisis is over.  The Greek word used by the evangelist for this young man’s latest state speaks of a restored capacity for discernment and most importantly judgement.  In the second photograph he can now choose where before he was a victim of forces he could not control: Reason and good sense have returned.

At the end of our story this Sunday Jesus convinces the man that his mission is to enjoy his restoration to the life of his village and to testify to what God has done for him.  This dockside exchange of words gives us an indication of what a recovered mind might look like:  The two of them "have words" there by the boat.  Jesus has restored and not replaced this young man’s mind.  It is the negative forces which Jesus overpowers and not the man himself.  Let’s keep in mind that Jesus interacts with the minds of the people he speaks to in his parables and pronouncements.  Jesus is involved in a persuasive process with people who have the power of choice - who can say yes or no.  The parables are directed to people who normally make the right decisions about their own best interests and are able to discern truth from among other options.  While they may not be the sort of people rich enough to keep pearls or even to liquidate real estate holdings to purchase an additional field, they nonetheless have sold and bought goods and can appreciate the right mindedness of an individual who would trade several modest pearls for a pearl of great price and who would sell ordinary plots of land to purchase one which contained a treasure. 

Reason and good sense allows you to to change your mind in a conversation with Jesus -  to discover and affirm new and better ways of thinking about God, the world and yourself. 

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The unfolding story of God in small spaces

The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke 7:11-17                   

Two sons are clutched from death and restored to their mothers.  In much of the Christian world these readings will be heard on Sunday by contemporary mothers sitting in church pews who would cut off their right arms in order to see their sons thrive, prevail, succeed, recover or even to continue to live.   We owe these contemporary women a debt of thought:  In no way is it assured that the good things in our Sunday readings which took place for those boys and their mothers will happen to them, who have muttered endless prayers to God and Jesus about their sons.  

They are good boys who don’t deserve the things which have landed on them from outside.   Nor should their sons be defined by (or blamed for) every impulse welling up within them and causing them and others grief.  These women know the habits and all the warm human smells of their boys.  They have picked up cast-off garments and even clutched them for a moment – counting themselves lucky to be in contact with an aimless bit of the lad which he has thrown aside.  Some administrative marvel out there will have done the maths and pointed out the unfairness of Elijah landing in the house of one poor widow with an ailing son in a land filled with sickness and deprivation (cf. Luke 4:25-26?).   What about any hypothetical funeral procession held earlier in the day in Capernaum – a procession which Jesus and his disciples did not happen to encounter?  What about that mother?

At coffee time the preacher sees the woman coming over to speak - her lips already pursing with the anticipatory “Wh” of the word “Why” or perhaps more correctly “Why not….”

What makes the preacher’s knees weak at this point as the distance between them narrows?  Who has been let down, and by whom?  Is an apology in order?  On whose behalf would one apologize?  On God’s behalf?  In the sermon which has just been preached the unfolding story of God touched down twice in small spaces in Israel.  A rivulet nourishes the modest patch of land which it waters.  The voice is heard as far as a voice might carry through the air.  Elijah will lodge in the small northern hut where he’s been commanded by God to take refuge.  The itinerary of the Son of man will connect with a limited number of folk in the villages of the Galilee.  If you must apologize, then do so on your own behalf who are part of a body which is worldwide and universal and which, in many places, still has the ear of legislators.  Do so on behalf of the church which has lost touch with the Acts of the Apostles and with the Great Commission and will not take current account of the miracles and acts of love of her saints over the centuries. 

We will not unravel the mystery of innocent suffering in a few words.  Nor, however, can we excuse our default position which would seem to be that there exists a great Wheel of Fortune which crushes as it will unless Jesus or Elijah declares a holiday by his very presence. 

There’s nothing we can do.  
The coin will land head or tails.
The market will have its way.
It has always been thus.   

We do not accept that the baton has been handed to us to work for the healing of small spaces.   The evangelical logic of Jesus and Elijah taking the unfolding story of God into small spaces is that it is the desire of God to heal and to restore, to forgive and to build up and that the Church as Christ's body will do the same.  Would that same logic not propel men and women to take their place in the ongoing work of health care (including mental health care), of education, in the forming of just societies and the reform of criminal justice - ultimately in the relief and restoration of sons and daughters who are at risk?

And, while I'm on the subject, have we even been to this woman's house?

Friday, 27 May 2016

The faith of an expat: Jesus and the centurion

The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Luke 7:1-10

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, 
and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, 
"I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."


The Galilee wasn’t physically occupied by the Romans until A.D. 44.  It wasn’t until Herod Antipas fell from grace with the Romans and got himself exiled with his wife to Lyon just down the road from us in Clermont-Ferrand, that the Roman army finally set up camp north of the border.  At the time of our story, then, there was no Roman army in the Galilee.  They were in the south – in Judea.  So what was a Roman centurion doing in Capernaum?  Well Herod, as a Roman client ruler, yearned for a Roman style soldiery of his own and no doubt needed a Roman centurion to help him achieve that.  The centurion in our story was, plausibly, on loan from the Roman army as a military advisor.  This suggests not only that he was far from home.   He was also outside of his familiar patterns and environment - only tangentially still working for the Company.  A man, well-suited for a particular life, had shelved it and found (almost accidentally) amongst God’s historic people, the Jews – in their community structures, their worship, their Sabbath and their ethics and above all in their ancient story of God encountering his people - something which appealed to him and which he wanted to be part of. 

Who are you when you are not at home?  Are you half the man or woman you would be in your habitual surroundings?  Does travelling light far from home mean for you your essential toolbox is elsewhere - at home - under lock and key?  This centurion’s disassociation from his well-worn paths, on the other hand, had given him a measure of holy freedom.  You can still see the lower floor of the synagogue he built for the Jews of Capernaum.  It’s underneath the ruins of the somewhat grander sixth-century synagogue, made of white marble, which took its place.    It was made of the same sort of black basalt as our cathedral here in Clermont is built from or, for that matter, our own little chapel in Royat.

And what has our centurion learned in these new surroundings and among these new associates?  According to Jesus, anyway, this man's understanding is substantial.  His words of faith are fresh and matter-of-fact.  When Jesus receives his request to have his beloved servant healed and offers to come to the centurion’s house the man replies that there is no need:  All Jesus needs to do is say the word and it will be done.  

"I’m a man under authority", he says.  I know how these things take place.  The Lieutenant-Colonel speaks to the Adjutant who then speaks to the junior officers who then speak to me and the other NCO’s.  We speak to the men.  If we encounter resistance, it’s not for nothing that the symbol of my centurion’s office is a stout stick of vine wood which can be applied to a soldier’s back.  The job gets done. 

Here, says Jesus, do we find a man of faith such as may not even be found in most of Israel.  As evidence that he has understood he has come up with an analogy from his own world which tells me he has understood.  Here is a man who would understand that God loves the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and will give them the good things that they require because it's in the Standing Orders.  Here is one who, when told not to worry, will not worry, because matters must be in hand.  He has understood.  

The half dozen dislocations which occur in our own lives are not given the credit they are due. We might see them as a step down from the ordered trajectory we should expect in a perfect world.   In fact, each one is an opportunity -  to provoke our faith and to claim a space wherein we offer our unique gift to the world around us.