Wednesday, 7 December 2016

It's the real thing......

The Third Sunday in Advent - Year A
Matthew 11:2-11


When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing,
he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the
 one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Between 1968 and 1971 the Coca Cola company worked on a series of advertisements loosely grouped together as the “Real Thing Campaign”.  You might be old enough to remember one of them from 1971 – the famous inter-racial song on the hillside: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke…” which ended with the refrain “It’s the real thing…”. 

Would you know the real thing if it kicked you in the backside?  Would the “Real Thing” fulfil your expectations or defy them?  Maybe you’ve spent years yearning for something you knew so well that you could almost taste it.  You’d recognize it a kilometre away - this or that opportunity – this or that perfect person.  You’ll have fleshed out the desired thing in your imagination during sleepless nights.  It will look like this – he or she will be like that.  The imaginary thing or person or occasion or opportunity has grown quite specific.  

You could draw a picture of it.

You're waiting, then, for something just like that to wander into view so that you can hop up and shout “bingo”? 

Give it a sec. 

You’ve built up in your mind an idea of what the real thing will look like.  You’re the one supplying its arms and legs, setting out the rules by which it will work, what it looks like, sounds like and smells like.  That might pose a problem for you out there in the real world.

I suggest that when you finally do encounter a “Real Thing” it will be a bit strange and it will be strange precisely because it’s not you.  It is not the product of your imagination.  It does not resemble your own face staring back up at you from the depths of the well.

In our reading from Matthew’s Gospel this Sunday, John the Baptist has already been put into prison by Herod Antipas.  His days are numbered and he has time to think.  He has time, even, to fret.  He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he’s the real thing or should they keep on looking.  John, you will remember, has publicly recognized Jesus as God’s lamb, as the coming Messiah and as one more worthy than himself.  But he is now assailed by a doubt:  something about Jesus’ ministry has not conformed to what he, John, had imagined.  And so he needs to ask. 

Jesus words are that the benefits of his ministry are abundant and obvious.  The blind, the deaf, the lepers, the lame and even the dead will all attest to its power.  Jesus finishes, however, with these words:

“Blessed is he who takes no offense at me”.

Jesus ministry will not be tamed by the cultivated hopes of either the great or the small of Israel.  You may not control the answer to your greatest desire. What comes to you from God is not generated or limited by your own imagination. Be encouraged and even delighted by its strangeness.  Discomfort may be the greatest proof that something real has entered the world—there to be met and known and followed.        



Friday, 25 November 2016

You know what time it is!

The First Sunday in Advent - Year A                                                              

Romans 13:11-14                         
Matthew 24:36-44
               
You know what time it is….

A statement.  There is no question mark:  You have enough information to know that the school bus is coming or that you risk being late for work if the traffic is heavy.  No doubt it’s tax time somewhere in the world.  The mailing limit for Christmas presents is almost here.  Don’t you owe the world a better degree of attention?  
What do folk say in response?  Answers are at the ready:  How time flieswhere have the years gonegoodness is it that time already?  Time, it seems, is something which catches up with us like a predator. We present ourselves as victims of time.
A quick survey of the readings during the four Sundays in Advent reveals that there are lots of people not paying attention to the movements in the world and the movements of the Kingdom of God which are happening around them.  A voice cries in the wilderness—a young woman conceives a child in a provincial backwater—a stump produces a shoot—the thief arrives in the dead of night.  We’re not alone.  Plenty of people are not paying attention. 
Which makes you special, then. This Sunday you are going to be privy to what Jesus said to his disciples :
Keep awake, therefore...
or there amongst the Christians of Rome to whom Paul wrote:
You know what time it is, how it is now the  moment for you to wake from sleep.
You have choices to make and a life to be greeted with open eyes and clear vision.  There is darkness to put off from us, to cast out from within us and to resist around us. There is never enough time for those who will not redeem the time they have been given by being wakeful. God is at work in the world and you are invited to join him.  The time is now—in this mortal life.  Now—in the year which begins this Sunday.  Here—in the place where we live and amongst these people beside us.




Thursday, 10 November 2016

Pentecost 26
Proper 28 - Year 
Luke 21:5-19

“By your endurance … gain your souls."

Image result for horsemen of the apocalypseSo - how was your experience of the American election, then?  Good?  Bad? 

The beginning of a new dawn?
The end of the world as you know it? 

If it was the latter, for example, do remember that people emerge from all sorts of things – World Wars, state imposed famines in Russia or China, the Holocaust and the Armenian or the Rwandan Genocide, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War or the War of the Roses.  In the midst of the events it will appear to those on the losing end as if the real world or perhaps just the ‘known world’ were ending.  If you tacked up a sign or scrawled some graffiti on a wall which captured the beleaguered community’s self-diagnosis or the spirit of that moment it might well read:

“No Exit”. 

There’s something quite cold, then, about the archaeologist or historian who treats this or that ten-year or even fifty-year period - as if it were just  another chapter in the human story.  You want to scream at them as they dig around toppled Corinthian columns or through the layers of bones of an ancient gravesite: “Have you no empathy?  Don’t you understand that the world ended here?”

“But it didn’t”, she says to you over the top of her horn-rimmed specs, and points with her yardstick at the layers of civilization to be found above the burnt brick and the rubble.  “Here – here and here”, she says, shrugs her shoulders and then looks at you as if you were some sort of pillock.

In the small “apocalyptic” section of Luke’s Gospel, which we are reading this Sunday, Jesus uses three imperative verbs for his followers who will live in “interesting times” – outlining the things they are to do or not do:

Verse 8: “Watch”.  From the fact that Jesus needs to say this to folks who are obviously already looking around and observing, we must conclude that the word contains some sense that discernment is more than just observation.  Open your eyes and cultivate an eagerness to see something beyond the mere facts of victory, loss and change.

Verse 14: “Decide now that you will not make up your mind ahead of time about what to say” in your defence or in the defence of your  party or your ideals.

Verse 19: “In your endurance (or patience) acquire/possess/gain your soul”.  Most English translations of the New Testament cast this as a future verb (“In your endurance you will gain your soul”) but the verb is an imperative in the original Greek text. An imperative is an instruction. There is very little which is automatic about the process. You must choose to follow it.   Waiting can just be waiting - a fruitless exercise.  But you, the faithful follower of Jesus, have taken the first two imperatives seriously, which  makes such patience a fruitful exercise. 

Discerning rather than merely watching (v.8), and refusing to cloud that discernment by anticipating every evil outcome ahead of time (v.14),  you open the door to the full possession of your own self, in its novelty and openness to God and to the world (v.19).  What could be better?  What could be more necessary right now? 





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. 

But...

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.