Thursday, March 31, 2011

An everlasting kingdom?

Luke 11.14-23

 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. But some of them said, ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.’ Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

There is huge irony in this passage, for the modern reader at least. Jesus told his critics that it made no sense to suggest that he cast out demons by the power of Satan, because a kingdom divided against itself can not stand. And yet, in what way have the followers of Jesus put these words into practise? From the earliest days of the Church there has been divisions. We hear, for example, in First Corinthians of the divided factions that existed in that city only a few years after Pentecost. Mere teething problems? Well no, things have only gotten worse since then. We currently have about 26,000 Christian denominations in the world (thank you, Wikipedia!) - truly a house divided.

What difference does all this make, you might well ask. The Church has lasted almost 2000 years and currently has about two billion adherents. One could hardly call that a kingdom that hasn't stood. Well, perhaps you could. Two thousand years of brokenness and bickering isn't something to boast about. Plus, 2000 years isn't very long in God's time. In a world of increasing secularisation can a divided church stand? Maybe our two millennia has just been a blink of an eye and our divided kingdom is soon to fall.

Of course, if it has just been the blink of an eye, another way to look at it is to say that we are only just getting started. All those years of in-fighting and back-stabbing were just the real teething problems. Perhaps the realisation is starting to dawn that we can work together even if we have different ways of looking at things and doing things. Maybe we can be 'One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church' without being a monolith, but rather by a loving acceptance of each other's differences. What family, after all, expects every member to dress the same, eat the same, talk the same, behave the same ... or even live in the same house all their lives? Jesus, in John's Gospel, prayed that we would all be one. Perhaps that is the way that we will achieve it. After all, he also said that in his Father's house were many mansions. And achieve it we must. Christ commanded that we should, and to be his followers we must follow his commands. And also, of course, because he told us that a kingdom divided can not stand.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Law and the Prophets

Matthew 5.17-19 (nrsv)

 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Scholars sometimes worry that there is a divergence in what Jesus is saying here and the practise of the Church, as no Christian denomination requires that its members comply with all the OT regulations and laws. More, it seems to contradict what it says elsewhere in the NT, for example about dietary laws in Acts, and what Paul says about circumcision in his letters.

I'm not so sure there is a problem. The NT writers were not writing in a vacuum - they were aware of what else was out there and they didn't see this apparent contradiction as an actual contradiction. Neither did those involved in the formation of the canon, which took place over a long period of time. The fact is that from the earliest days the Church have never interpreted this saying as something to be taken literally. The whole weight of tradition speaks to that.

So what are we to take it as saying? I think we have to interpret it in the light of Jesus' overarching message, rather than trying to struggle with figuring it out in isolation. Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath;  arguably this is against the letter of the law, but Jesus says the real purpose is of this law is to benefit people. I see no reason not to think that he saw all the law like that, that the law existed to help humanity - to help them in their relationship with God. For Jesus, of course, the law and the prophets hang on the two great commandments: love God, love your neighbour. So the over-riding principle was that the Spirit of the law was to help maintain one's relationship with God, not to crush people with endless regulations. If we love God and show it by the way we love others we're on track. Doing that is far more important than worrying about how literally we must take any couple of verses in scripture. The only question that remains is: how good a job are we doing at that?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Matthew 18.21-35 (nrsv)

 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.  ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
I'm always amazed by the people who show real forgiveness - the kind of people who can forgive the killer of their child, for example, and mean it from their heart. It isn't easy. I remember seeing a TV program about a healing service for families who had lost loved ones to violence. One father came out the door of the church, looked directly into camera and said he wished we still had the death penalty so he could watch the man who killed his daughter hand. That's real life emotion, that's a natural reaction. And yet where does it get us? The kind of tit-for-tat violence of the kind we had in Northern Ireland where beating led to shooting led to bombing. Forgiveness is hard, there's no getting around that. But it's not an option either, it's a must have in this world of ours.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Inside out

Luke 4.24-30 (nrsv)

And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

People who think they have it all figured out often do not react well when someone points out to them they don't know as much as they'd like to think they do. That's what happens in today's reading.  Jesus lands into town and reminds this group of 'insiders' that sometimes being on the 'inside' isn't always the best place to be. And even worse, he gives them a scriptural basis for what he is saying. No wonder they wanted to throw him off a cliff!

It is very easy to become comfortable with where we are, especially when the whole system around us is telling us that this is the right place to be ... forgetting of course that we are the ones who set up the system. It can be particularly hard to take when someone uses something we consider one of the mainstays of the system to undermine it. The people of Jesus' time and place saw scripture as affirming their place in the scheme of things. But Jesus uses it to yank the rug out from under their feet.

Jesus and his message were profoundly counter-cultural. It was never intended to make us comfortable about the way we are living. It certainly isn't intended to be used to close doors to keep out the people who make us uncomfortable. They are the ones we like to label as 'sinners,' even if we don't often use words like that anymore. What we really need to do is open our eyes and try to figure out who it is that we are trying to exclude - especially those are attempting to keep out by using scripture. Unless we do, then, as Jesus demonstrates in today's reading, those who think they are comfortably on the inside looking out may realise too late that their 'inside' is God's 'outside' ... and that they are really on the outside looking in.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Come and See

John 4. 5-42 (nrsv)

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

Sermon 20.3.2011
The Third Sunday in Lent

May my words be in the of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Amen.

I imagine most of you have something in your life that you are quite passionate about – it might be some hobby, like golf or singing or tinkering with cars or doing jigsaw puzzles; if you're really lucky it may be some aspect of your work, such as the teacher who just loves working with children or the keen gardener who gets a job in a garden centre … and the chances are, whatever that passion may be, there was someone who introduced it to you … I wonder if you can remember who it was? Because whoever it was, that person was the one who changed your life forever when they brought that passionately loved subject into your life – changed it and I'm sure you would agree made it much better.

For me the subject is reading and the person is Mrs Reynolds. When I was about 7 and a half I had a really bad bout of 'flu and was in bed for a couple of weeks. The first week I was really sick and slept most of time … and the second week was the time I was weak and eating a bit and sitting up awake in bed and bored, bored bored! I had gone through every comic in the house a million times and I was ready to burn them. Mrs Reynolds up the road had a couple of daughters older than me, and my mother asked her if she had anything I could borrow. So a load of Jackies and such like girly things landed in the door, much to my disgust. And then Mrs Reynolds, thinking that poor Paddy in number six might not be too thrilled with a load of girls comics sent down a couple of Enid Blyton books that her eldest daughter had finished with.

Well, at first, I wasn't too thrilled with those either. I could read, I was quite good at it, but I wasn't the kind of child who sat around the house much at that age … I preferred to be out and about, climbing trees and getting into mischief … but as I said I was bored and there really was no other option … so I started flicking through the pages and before I knew it I was hooked … I must have read those books a dozen times each before the week was over – I can still tell you their names forty years later: the mystery of the missing cat, and five run away to an island – and from that day to now books have been at the centre of my life, both reading them and acquiring them … Mrs Reynolds really had no idea what she was starting!

Something like that happens in our Gospel reading this morning … the woman at the well meets Jesus, and having talked to him starts to believe that he might be the Messiah. And then she does something that might seem rather extraordinary. She doesn't sit at his feet and keep on listening to him. Instead she rushes back to town, in such a hurry that she leaves her water jar behind, to start telling others.

'Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ And the people do come . And they listen to Jesus too. And what happens as a result?
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, he 'told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’ The people begin by being interested because of the what the woman had to say. But soon they believe because they have heard for themselves.

Now before you start thinking that this woman Jesus met was someone extraordinary, the kind of person we shouldn't be surprised to see having such an unusual impact of the lives of the fellow-citizens of her town, there is something you should bear in mind. You'll remember at the start of the story that we are told the woman has come to the well at noon. Now noon is of course the hottest part of the day, and in fact it is not the hour that women of that time & place went to the well to draw water. They went in the morning or the evening when it was cool; and it was quite a social occasion, the time when all the chatting and the gossiping and catching up with each other went on. But this woman came at noon, at at time when no one else was there. Which means that she must have been a bit of an outsider, someone whom the other women didn't want to spend time with. Why we don't know. Maybe it was because of the fact that she had been married so often – a women who is on husband number six may have made the other women a bit worried that she might look on their husbands as possible number seven!

And yet, unpopular though she was, excluded though she was, shunned even though she was, this woman from the margins of society managed to have an extraordinary impact on the lives of those living in her town. She changed their lives for ever. How? By going and telling them about the man she met. She didn't preach; she didn't do any great deeds; she didn't perform any miracles; she just did something very, very simple: she went to them and said: come and see.

I'm sure that Mrs Reynolds had no idea that what she was doing would have such a profound impact on my life. Indeed, I'm sure she might tell you that she didn't really do anything. She just gave a few books to a sick boy. And no doubt I probably would have come to love books in due course; I was already quite good at reading; and I came from a family where reading was a common pass-time. So almost certainly in time I would have fallen in love with books anyway … but the point is that Mrs Reynolds is the one who actually did it; she was the one who gave me that nudge that changed my life; she is the one who I will always remember. Just as the people of Sychar no doubt always remembered that woman. And all she had to do was say 'come and see.' Such an easy thing to say … but something that can have a profound impact on the lives of others … 'come and see.' Amen

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Love in a changing climate

Luke 15.1-3, 11-32 (nrsv)

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’  So he told them this parable:
 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

The obvious reading of the parable of the prodigal son is about God's limitless forgiveness - the father forgives the son who had cut himself off from his love ... and then explains to the 'good' son why this must be so. I wonder is there another message in there also - what it is that the father wants from his sons?

With the first son we see that the father will not refuse his son the independence he craves. But what he really wants is that they should be in relationship with each other ... and when he sees him coming home he runs to him, kisses him, and embraces him.

He goes to the other son too, the one who has stayed home and never broken off relations with him, when he is offended by his father's extravagant rejoicing at the return of his wayward brother. The father wants more from him than he simply be the good boy who stays home and never breaks the rules. He also wants him to love his brother, to reach out to him, to rejoice in his return, to rejoice in the return to relationship with their father.

Love God, love each other. That's not always such an easy thing in this world. On the radio this morning I heard a report about Climate Justice. The damage that our modern lifestyles are doing to the environment is having an impact on the lives of others. Those who benefit least from the 'benefits' of our energy profligate way of living are the ones who will be hardest hit by the rising seas, shrinking coastlines, and extreme weather caused by the climate change we are causing. Where is the love in all that? Is it really so hard to walk a few hundred yards to the local shop for the paper or pint of milk rather than driving? Or to put on an extra sweater on a cool evening instead of reaching for the thermostat? Even though I wince every time I pull up to the pumps to fill the petrol tank, maybe some good will come from the constant rise in oil prices. Concern for our wallets may force us to make the kind of adjustments that love for our fellow human beings and the other life we share this planet with does not.

It's only a shame that we can't bring ourselves to make these changes out of love. And saying that God will forgive us for it because his forgiveness is limitless isn't really a good enough answer.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Answering the Call

Luke 1.26-38 (nrsv)

 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

It seems particularly appropriate to meditate upon the incarnation in Lent. The death and Resurrection of Christ are inextricably bound up with the Word becoming flesh. You can't have one without the other. In the story of the Annunciation, I'm particularly struck by the idea of how God is moving ever closer to us. First we have the pre-existant Word; then the world is created through the power of that Word; then God begins to speak directly to man, mediated through the prophets and other chosen people. And then the Word is made flesh and dwells among us, giving all access to God, if we should choose to respond to his call to us. In an earlier post I spoke of Joseph's gracious 'yes' to God's will. Today we hear of Mary's gracious 'yes.' It is the supreme reminder that God works through us and that if we respond to his call on our lives wondrous things can be done.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Lazarus at your gate

Luke 16.19-31 (nrsv)

 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

I can't help feeling that Jesus had his tongue firmly in his cheek and a twinkle in his eye as he began telling this story. The people listening, mainly poor folk - fishermen, manual labourers and the like - would have heard most of it with a great deal of satisfaction. We're the poor, they would have thought. We're the ones who have it hard now. But we'll be rewarded later. And those rich guys, the ones who are bleeding us dry and living well ... they may have it good now, but boy do they have it coming!

I'm sure they were feeling rather smug - right up to the end. Because the punchline of the story pulls the rug right out from under their feet. The Rich Man isn't in Hades for being rich - he's there because he didn't listen to Moses and the prophets, which means Sacred Scripture. That's where the Rich Man went wrong. That's where you go wrong too, Jesus was saying to his audience. He had roped them in and had them pointing the finger at someone else, only to turn the tables and show them that their fingers were actually pointing right at themselves.

There's irony here too. If you don't listen to Scripture, then even someone rising from the dead won't help you. With hindsight we know he has gone outside the boundaries of his story with this. He's talking about himself. And no doubt the twinkle had left his eye. He was going to rise from the dead ... and he knew that there were those would would still not be convinced. And he was right, wasn't he?

The study of scripture is an integral part of the Christian life. And of course 'listening' means taking on board what it says; more than simply making it a part of your life, making it that by which you live your life. In that sense, Lent is a great opportunity. It gives us time to stock-take. Yes we should make extra efforts in the area of fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. But it is also a time to re-examine our lives and see where we have been falling short on the things that we should do all the year round. Because that is where the Rich Man went wrong. He didn't make the values pointed out to him in scripture the core of his life - so much so that he doesn't see the suffering and misery that lives at his gate.  We all have our own blind spots. Now is the time to try and figure out what they are.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A mother's request

Matthew 20.17-28 (nrsv)

 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’

 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Lent is in the air - it is for me anyway! As I was out running this morning the moon hung three-quarters full over just above the houses, and I wondered was there just such a moon in the sky when Christ was arrested in Gethsemane; every still-budding tree, with its branches spread out against the blue-grey dawn, reminded me of the cross; and the vast orange-red rising sun made me think of the Resurrection.

The Cross and Resurrection are very much in evidence today's Gospel. The most common reading of that passage is that James and John still didn't understand what kind of a Messiah Jesus was. They thought he was going to be some kind of earthly ruler and they wanted positions of glory in that new kingdom. That's certainly what the other apostles think: they are cross with the two brothers for trying to put themselves forward.

But is this what is happening? Jesus has just finished telling them that this journey to Jerusalem will end with his death on the cross. An odd time to ask to be on his left and right hand! It strikes me as being possible that just after he had told them this, the two boys went to their mother and said: 'Mom, you'll never believe what the master just told us.' He had said this kind of thing to them before, but maybe this close to Jerusalem it seemed more real and made them rather nervous. We know that when the soldiers came to Gethsemane all the disciples cut and ran; maybe James and John were already thinking it was time to call it a day.

But their mother wasn't impressed. The way she saw it, now wasn't the time to draw away from Jesus but to draw even closer. Why not? After all, in the gospels it always seems to be the women who really understand what is going on. And her response to her sons timidity was to march the two lads right up to Jesus and ask, as a special favour, that her two boys be right there with him, one on either side, when he was on the cross. In which case, no doubt John and James heaved a big sigh of relief when Jesus said that this wasn't an option!

But it would be just like a mother to see the big picture when it comes to faith ... just like my mother anyway - she was the one who first put the idea of being a priest in my head at a young (although I doubt in her wildest dreams she thought she wouldn't see me ordained until I was a middle-aged man who was married with four kids - and ordained an Anglican priest to boot!), dragged me out of bed on a Sunday morning to make sure I was presentable for Mass, and 'volunteered' me to be an altar boy.

And she was the one who kept chipping away at me to start going back to church during the time when I seemed to have all but fallen away from the faith. Now that I think of it, she wasn't the only one doing that. Looking back over the years, I recall lots of people inviting me to church, suggesting that I read the Bible, wanting to discuss God and faith with me, offering to pray with me and for me. Most of the time I was polite but not too interested. I don't think there was anyone person who stands out in this regard - maybe I moved around too much. But whatever about individuals, as a group, God's church never gave up on me. Something I am now truly grateful for.

Sometimes we all need encouragement when it comes to persevering in our faith. No, not sometimes - all the time! Every minute of every day. Especially when things are tough and it looks like the road ahead isn't too promising. That's why Jesus left us a Church, so that we could journey together and walk alongside each other, rather than each of us trying to do it on our own all the time. It may be mothers, friends, or strangers, but we are not alone. We are never left to ourselves to try and make sense of what the Cross and  Resurrection means for us, whether we are running towards it or running away. Just like when I'm out there in the morning, with the road to myself. All the world may be sleeping and I might not see a soul the whole time I am out there. But I know that I'm not really alone. There are others close by every step of the way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

humble before the world

Matthew 23.1-12 (nrsv)

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Sincerity of witness is an important thing. The things we do as Christians should be done as part of the love we have for God and how we show that love by the way we treat God's children and creation. They should never be done for show, to impress others, to try to gain status for ourselves. Ironically, perhaps we are living at a good time to be Christian ... in our society it's not too likely that we are going to gain the plaudits of others by overt displays of religiosity or devotion. Quite the opposite perhaps. To be called a 'Holy Joe' or 'Joan' is something of a derogatory term. Faith, to the modern way of thinking, should be a private thing - so private that no should know whether you have any or not. Quiet, faithful witness will essentially make you look something of a fool in the eyes of the world. Which, since we are called to humble ourselves, is perhaps all the more reason to do it. I don't mean making some kind of a big deal of it, quoting scripture at every opportunity and none. More by gently yet proudly going about the practise of your faith. When people ask you what you did over the weekend, don't be ashamed to mention you went church. When you are asked to a social occasion that conflicts with something going on in your parish don't just refuse the invitation, say why. Don't be afraid to be seen as a Holy Joe or Joan. After all, you are called to be holy. And if you are uncomfortable about your friends knowing about your faith, ask yourself why. Is it you or them? And if the answer is you, well then you have something to think about.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Mercy of Shylock

Luke 6.36-38 (nrsv)

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’

In Shakespeare's the Merchant of Venice, Shylock seeks rigorous justice. He wants his pound of flesh, cut from close to the heart. Portia pleads with him: the quality of mercy is not strained. Shylock will not be moved. The law is the law. And so Portia turns the law on him. Take your pound of flesh; but even a fraction more and you will be prosecuted. And you may be entitled to flesh, but you have no entitlement to blood. Spill even so much as a drop and you will be prosecuted. Shylock, worried by Portia's arguments, seeks to back out. But it is too late. How could you take this pound of flesh from a man's bosom without also taking his life? Your intent was to kill, murder, and for that you will be prosecuted. And Shylock is condemned. Ironically, her plea to him to be merciful was his last chance to be shown mercy. The man who sought to have the full rigour of the law applied to another is dismayed to discover that the result is that its full rigour is applied to him.

The rampant anti-semitism of the play aside, there is much food for thought in this story. Most of us are quite bad at being merciful to others. We may not be able to prosecute them, but in our hearts we do not show them much mercy. We judge them, we condemn them from the comfort of our own cosy little worlds. We close doors to them and leave them alone, isolated, suffering the pain of rejection. We arrogantly forget all that Jesus had to say on the subject. The Lord's prayer, something that most of us say every day says: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others - is that something we're really doing? And then there's that bit about seeing the mote in someone else's eye without realising there is a beam in our own - could that beam be our own hard hearts, our lack of mercy, our judging and condemning others while expecting forgiveness for ourselves? Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy - doesn't that mean that if we are not merciful we are not blessed ... and we will not obtain mercy?

There's a strong thread running through the Gospels that even though we are all sinners, God will not condemn us. Instead, we condemn ourselves. The mercy and forgiveness that we show to others is the mercy and forgiveness that will be shown to us. The measure you give is the measure you will give back. The quality of mercy is not strained, said Portia. And Shylock, thinking he had his enemy in his grasp, smugly refused her pleas - only to discover that she was not seeking mercy for his enemy, but for him. Something that those of us who know how much we stand in need of God's mercy must think deeply on ... or in the end, like Shylock, discover that the only condemnation that we have achieved is our own.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A journey with Nicodemus

John 3.1-17 (nrsv)

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.' Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Sermon 20.3.2011 The Second  Sunday of Lent

May my words be in the of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Amen.

The man who comes to visit Jesus by night, Nicodemus, is something of a mysterious figure. We know from John's gospel that he is a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin … this tells us that he is both learned and powerful. Apparently Nicodemus is something of an unusual name,  more like a nick-name than a proper Jewish name, so the writers of the Jewish Encylopedia tell us, and so they identify him as Nicodemus ben Gurion, a Jewish leader of the time who was not only a very pious man, but also a man of great wealth and influence … a man who used his money to provide public cisterns for the poor, an essential act of charity in a desert country like ancient Israel, and his influence to negotiate for peace with the Roman overlords at times of trouble and tension …

If this is indeed the same Nicodemus then the man who came to visit Jesus that night was a very significant figure in the Jerusalem of his day … in fact, we meet Nicodemus three times in the gospel of John. The second time is Chapter seven during the course of a debate among the Jewish leaders about Jesus; and the final time is at the foot of the cross in chapter 19 as he assists Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus. The first meeting is perhaps the best known, probably because of the words that Jesus has to say to Nicodemus during their conversation, when Jesus tells him that a person must be born of water and the spirit if they are to enter the kingdom of God, and also that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that it might be saved.

Much has been written about the significance of the fact that Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus at night, that he is afraid to be seen with him, and wishes to keep his contact with him a secret. And no doubt there is an element of truth about that. But I doubt that it can be the whole truth, for we often see Pharisees far less illustrious than Nicodemus questioning Jesus openly. Night time is not only the time when things are done in secret, but also the time when people lie tossing and turning in their beds, thinking, questioning, being eaten up and kept from their sleep by the nagging questions that they keep going over and over again in their minds … it is also the time when a good and holy man like Nicodemus might ponder and pray … much like the man in psalm sixty-three who wrote: My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

Perhaps Nicodemus was also meditating in the watches of the night, and his mind kept coming again and again to the question of Jesus: who is this man? Can he be the Messiah? And so, unable to sleep, Nicodemus is driven from his bed and goes to visit Jesus … and his first words to him are of huge significance: he says ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Despite what other men of power and position might think, Nicodemus knows that without doubt that Jesus has been sent by God. He doesn't care about the threat that such a teacher from outside the system might pose to men like himself who are firmly within the system – if someone is sent by God, then Nicodemus knows that he must be open to the message that he brings.

 And Nicodemus must have been impressed by what Jesus has to say, because when we next meet him in the Gospel in chapter seven, he openly speaks in favour of Jesus. While many of his peers want to arrest Jesus, he says that surely under Jewish law no one is judged without being given a hearing … this might seem like something of a tentative defence, but the gospel writer reminds us just before he speaks that this is the same Nicodemus who had gone to speak to Jesus before … Nicodemus here is being very subtle, I think. He knows that he was persuaded by what Jesus had to say … he surely believes that his peers, once they actually listen to Jesus will have no choice but to see him for what he is, what Nicodemus already knows him to be, a man sent by God … a man who, given the signs that he has done, must surely be the Messiah ...
And for even this somewhat mild defence, that Jesus should be treated justly, he is roundly criticised

Which brings us to our most fascinating meeting of all with Nicodemus. With Jesus dead, and knowing that even to suggest that Jesus should get a fair hearing was to warrant being accused of being one of his followers, what does this man who first came by night do? Does he stay away? Does he think about the risk that he might be taking with his own power and position in his society, not to mention perhaps the risk he might be taking with his own life? No, the man who came by night now steps into the light at the foot of the cross. The disciples have run away, but he comes to assist Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus.

Because Nicodemus, as the brief accounts we have of him in the Gospel shows, has been on a journey. When we first meet him, he is a man who has heard of Jesus, and believes him to have been sent by God, but is not yet ready to associate with him openly. The second time we meet him, he is still not ready to be seen as a follower, but he still speaks up for him, and asks that Jesus be listened to, that he be given a fair hearing. And the last time we meet him is a time when he might have been thought to see no point at all in coming forward. Jesus is dead; even if he were sent by God, he is gone now, and there is no point in having his name tied to his in any way. But this is not what he does. At the foot of the cross, he makes his declaration to the world. With actions that speak louder than words he lets everyone know that he believed in Jesus. With all the risks and seemingly no hope of gain he makes it abundantly clear that he is a follower of the one they crucified.

Nicodemus' journey is an interesting one to consider as we make our own Lenten journeys … traditionally considered a saint since the early days of the church, his life is an example to us … an example that reminds us that, wherever our journeys may begin, and however slow our progress, we like Nicodemus, our brother in Christ, are struggling ever nearer to foot of the cross … and so I pray that each day, as we daily take up our cross to follow our Lord, that God's grace will fill our hearts and give us strength and the example of Nicodemus will inspire us more and more until we, like him, stand at the foot of the cross of our saviour. Amen

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Gracious 'Yes' of Joseph

Matthew 1.18-25 (nrsv)

 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;
and he named him Jesus.

Today is the feast of St Joseph of Nazareth. I'm always struck by the difference in emphasis between Luke and Matthew concerning the Nativity of our Lord. Where Luke stresses the role of Mary, for Matthew the main figure is Joseph. In his gospel it is to Joseph the annunciation of an angel comes, by way of a dream, and it is the gracious 'yes' of Joseph's to being the foster father of the Messiah, rather than the gracious yes of Mary to being his actual mother, that is stressed. The scholars tell us that the two gospels were written around the same time, so it is impossible to know which was written first. But it would be interesting to speculate that Luke was the earlier and Matthew, reading it as he composed his own account, deliberately chose to put the spotlight Joseph instead. Not because he wished to lessen the importance of Mary, but because he didn't want to see Joseph's part forgotten. The gracious yes of Mary and the gracious yes of Joseph do not compete with each other, they compliment. Their yes of each combine to form the seed from which our Church grew and remind us that it by working together that God's will is done.

Friday, March 18, 2011

So, you're not a bad person

Matthew 5.20-26 (nrsv)

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister,  you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Something that I hear quite often from people is the phrase 'I'm not a bad person' or words to that effect. Today's reading reminds us that for the Christian it is not enough that they are not bad, they must be good - which is not at all the same thing! A person can avoid doing serious wrong their whole life long without ever doing anything that is actually good. And we are called to be good to a very high standard - our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were the ones everybody saw as the model of living a Godly life back in the time of Jesus. Yet we are called to do better - in what way? It is not enough to merely obey the law, we are called to look beyond the letter to the spirit of it. The law says do not murder, but their are many ways of doing violence to someone without killing them. Jesus here points to the violence of harsh words - and note that he doesn't say that they have to be spoken to the person's face to be wrong ... which means that saying them behind the person's back to another is also wrong. And he also brings anger into the mix ... he doesn't say anything about that anger being expressed ... even the anger that can rage in our hearts against another is wrong. But if we do all this, we might be said to be simply still avoiding doing wrong without doing good. Which is why Jesus tells us that if we do have something against another to sort it out, to be reconciled. If you are settling down to your prayers and remember that you have something against another, first sort out your problems and then set your mind to God. Because how can you love God if you hate one of his children?

None of this is easy. I'm sure I offend against the above expectations that Christ has for those who follow him at least a dozen times a day ... and that's probably on a good day. But then, no one every said it was easy to be a Christian, least of all Christ. In fact what he said that if we wanted to be his followers we must take up our cross daily. Everyday we must struggle with what it means to simply be more than being 'not a bad person' and instead be actively good. A hard struggle, I accept, but one that is part of our daily task of taking up our cross ... especially at this time, this Holy season of Lent, as we try focus each day more and more closely on the cross that Jesus took up for us.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The work that Saint Patrick begun

John 4.31-38 (nrsv)

 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

Today is St Patrick's Day, and in that context it is hard not to think of him when reading the last few verses of our Gospel passage today - “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’ How many have reaped from the harvest which Patrick first sowed? How many have entered into the labour which he begun?

I'm always surprised that some sort of specific spirituality has not grown up around the life of Patrick the way it has around the life of other great saints like Augustine or Francis or Dominic. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the life of Saint Patrick, lessons that seem of particular relevance to our modern age. Patrick was born into a fairly well-off family and despite it's church connections he seems to have been a bit dissolute. It wasn't until after he was kidnapped and sold into slavery that he found his faith. This was his true liberation, where he was freed from his bondage to sin, rather than his eventual escape from slavery. I wonder how many people today who had it easy for so long in the good times will, now that they are gone, rediscover how much their faith means to them?

Patrick was something of a mystic and it was thesedirect commuunications with the divine that were responsibleboth  for escape from his master in Ireland and his return here as a missionary. It is almost impossible to understand the depth of faith of a man who could freely return to guide and help those who had snatched him from his family as boy and set him to tend swine on a lonely hillside. Like the one whom he followed so faithfully his food was to do the will of him who sent him and to do his work. And I have no doubt that there are many people whom God is calling to share in that work, if they would but listen to his voice, if they would but take time to find a quiet still place and open their hearts in prayer - something we should all be doing during this Holy season of Lent.

Because of course the work that Patrick begun did not end with him. It is work that has carried on down the ages, continues today, and will go on throught all the generations to come. It is work that we are are called to in different ways. And whatever our task may be, we have the privilege of entering into the labour which Patrick began here so long ago. For many St Patrick's Day is a time to celebrate and I do hope that those who party and parade enjoy themselves. but I also hope they never forget the underlying meaning behind what it is that they are celebating. The life of a man who found true faith and did God's will.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A fishy story

Luke 11. 29-32

The Sign of Jonah

 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!

Christians have always seen in the story of Jonah a prefiguring of the death and resurrection of Christ. The parallels are obvious. Anyone who is cast into the sea and swallowed by a great fish is to all intents and purposes a dead man. Yet after three days Jonah 'rises' to the salvation of the people of Nineveh.

But who is 'this generation' of which Luke tells us? Only the people of Jesus' time, or us as well? The answer must be us also I think ... perhaps with an even greater emphasis on us. The people present with Jesus did receive others signs, even if they didn't understand them ... his miracles of healing. and others, that spoke of his authority. But we, like those who would have first read Luke or heard it read aloud, are to receive no others sign than that of Jonah, than that of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And for us, this sign is to be received by faith through the witness of the Gospels. The people of Nineveh did not see Jonah swallowed from the waters to disappear from the face of the earth only to be brought forth again after three days. All they knew was the power of the message that he preached. They had faith that what he said was true and their lives were transformed. So too with us: we do not see with our own eyes Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection but we know its power through faith and we are called to change our lives.

In this season of Lent, our focus is on the death and resurrection of Christ. We are called to try to understand ever more deeply what it means and what it means for us. It is our sign, and the only sign that we are to receive. But from that sign flows everything. That sign has given us 2000 years of Christian witness. That sign gives us our present assurance of the love that God has for us. And that sign gives us our future hope of the promises of Christ that we will join with him in his resurrection. It may be the only sign we are to receive, but perhaps that is because it is the only sign we need.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lent, the season of forgiveness

Matthew 6.7-15

 ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
 ‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
   hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
   Your will be done,
     on earth as it is in heaven.
   Give us this day our daily bread.

   And forgive us our debts,
     as we also have forgiven our debtors.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial,

     but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Prayer is an important part of our Lenten discipline. It is an important part of our lives throughout our lives, but at this time we are called to make an extra effort in that area, to examine afresh our practices, to see where we might have fallen into ruts and stale routines, to check that we haven't let our prayer life become a perfunctory obligation, a mere box-ticking exercise that we do almost on auto-pilot unless we happen to have some particular or pressing need. A spring cleaning of the soul if you will. Today's reading serves to remind us of an important aspect of prayer - that of forgiveness: not forgiveness for ourselves, but the forgiveness that we are duty bound to give to others.

Forgiving others is not always an easy thing to do. I know I carry lots of baggage from all through my life. When I think about some of the teachers who hit me when I was a kid - or sometimes even worse the times I watched them beating others - my blood can still boil. And if I find that hard, how much harder is it for those who carry far deeper wounds. At least I can think about what was done to me and remember it was different times and there was no malice as such in what those teachers did. I can in my head know that , even if not always in my heart. But others have suffered what we might call real evil and do not have even that slender thread of consolation.

And yet Jesus calls us to forgive others. Just as we are called to take up our cross and follow him, we are called to forgive others even as he forgave as he was hanging from the cross. It is not always easy to do. But it is something to work on, to pray on, as we try to spiritually renew ourselves in this season.