Sunday, 23 July 2017

Weeds in a field...

6th Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist – 23.vii.17 (Proper 11)

(Isaiah 44.6-8; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30,36-43)

In the Quinquennial Inspection which the diocesan surveyor carries out on Vicarages there’s a section which deals with the state of the garden. The Surveyor was generous in the report he wrote about mine: “The garden is well-stocked.” He didn’t say what it was well-stocked with. Or as someone else looking at my garden remarked: “A weed is a flower growing in the wrong place.”

For the second Sunday running, our Gospel reading gives us a parable of Jesus with an agricultural theme. Last week the parable of the sower – and the question, where does the seed (which stands for the word of God for our world) fall?… on good ground which lets it grow healthy and strong?… or somewhere less receptive, where growth will be inhibited or simply not happen at all. How do you interpret that story? I’m struck by the simple act and foolishness of the sower, who goes out careless as to where the seed may fall – this is an over-generous sower who doesn’t look too closely as to where the seed lands, but who - like God - showers his blessings abundantly. Whether you count yourself good ground, stony, choked up with weeds and hang-ups, or whether you’re as hard as the road surface, God has not written you off – he cares for you, and he’s coming for you, just like Jesus is coming: not just for the receptive and religious, but for the tax-collector, the sinner, the publican and the women of disrepute.

This week’s parable is again about seeds. This time they’ve already been planted and they’re growing. And there’s a different slant to the story. The seed no longer stands for God’s word or Jesus’ message. The seed is people – or so the explanation of the parable tells us. And the problem is that the good and the bad are all mixed up. How can they ever be sorted from one another? The Bible scholars tell us that the weed growing alongside the good wheat is darnel, a weed which is difficult to tell from the wheat. And even if you can tell them apart there’s another problem. Their roots intertwine. Pull up the weed and there’s a good chance that the growing wheat will come up too.

I can follow the parable that far… In my own garden I have to confess that I’m never really sure what I should pull up. I find quite a lot of the weeds individually attractive… I know they’re a mess when there’s a lot of them, but the plants we put in deliberately don’t seem that much different at times. And sometimes I pull up the weeds and the flowers come out too. Don’t you get help, people sometimes ask - and once I did agree to take up the offer of gardening assistance from a caller to the Vicarage. He couldn’t be any worse than me I thought, and I went off leaving him to the task. When I came back, he’d dug out absolutely everything in the borders. “That’s the only way to get rid of those weeds,” he said. And he spent the next day laying out the plants, flowers, weeds and shrubs on the drive, trying to decide what he should re-plant. Within a week everything was pretty well back to its original state, except the flowers were rather thin on the ground – in fact those that survived his attention were actually flat on the ground.

So when someone comes up to you and asks – like the slaves in the parable or the man at my door – “look at those weeds: do you want us to go and gather them?”, then take heed of the wisdom of the landowner who says: “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

But, of course, this parable is not just a course in basic gardening. It’s a sign of the kingdom of heaven. And even more basically it’s a picture of how things are. We get bothered that there’s so much evil in the world - so much that’s wrong with it. Things just don’t go right. We’re right of course; the trouble is all those other people who get it wrong. We have our own notion of what is good. But so many other people seem to go out of their way to cause bother and grief. They might be terrorists at one end of the scale; politicians in government or opposition or both, who just don’t seem to have a clue; or members of a union who threaten to take industrial action just as you expect to be turning up at the airport for that long-anticipated holiday (happily that doesn’t seem to have happened this summer!). They might be religious extremists (not our sort of religion, of course); or they might just be your neighbours or friends you’ve fallen out with who rub you up the wrong way. There’s a lot that could be read into those words, “an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat… an enemy has done this.” Enemies fall into many categories but they have in common the fact that they cause us trouble, and they’re not easily got rid of. The good and the bad are there together, side by side.

So you could follow the interpretation of the parable which Matthew’s Gospel gives: that this is a matter of having to put up with wrong-doers for the time being, but in due course they will get their just reward in a “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Fine… if you reckon you’re one of the “righteous” who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” But can you be so sure? What do other people think about you? And what about those recurring enigmatic words of Jesus: “Let anyone with ears listen”?

We need to ponder this Gospel reading for today. It’s about hope – the hope of a kingdom of righteousness, where justice will be done, wrongs righted, the evil-doers shown up for what they are. But shown up for what they truly are, not what we think they are. This is a parable not about vengeance against those we categorise as “the enemy,” but a warning that we should not be hasty in judgment. Who can tell the darnel from the wheat? But also Jesus calls us to be his disciples living out the call of the kingdom in all the contradictions of this world. He comes to this world to meet us in our human need. He bids us live out our vocation here because of what we can do for this world. And what can we do? Not jump to conclusions, not rush into condemning those who are different from ourselves, but think again: “Let anyone with ears listen!”

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Who is Jesus Christ for us?

4th Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist – 9.vii.17

Year A - Proper 9

Zechariah 9.9-12;
Romans 7.15-25a;
Matthew 11.16-19,25-30

I’ve spent most of the last week in Whitby taking part in a programme called Missional Leadership for Growth. As I’ve already commented in the social media, the first sign of growth for me was that I put on five pounds in weight during the five days of the course - a sign we were well looked after with three cooked meals a day, the bar open every evening and added cake with a surprise celebration of my birthday in the midst of it all. But church growth was the real aim. What are we doing so that our congregations can grow? How do we go about it? - which entails a lot of challenge to accepted practice. How does that tie in with the sort of people we are? - so there’s a lot of self-understanding and personality type testing along the way. But fundamentally there’s always going to be the basic question: what is the message we are seeking to share? What do we want other people to hear about? What can make a real difference to the way people live?

I’ll be exploring this much more in the weeks and month to come. There’s another residential course later in the year - and work to do as we might explore the implications for us all together in our parishes.

But for now I simply want to take it all back to a question put to me previously by a bishop at another clergy residential: “Most clergy really only have one sermon. So what’s yours?”

In case it hasn’t yet clicked with you… this is it.

The clue is what you’ll find on page 4 of the booklets we use to help us celebrate this Eucharist. Alongside the responses which we use when we hear the Gospel read, I deliberately had that picture of Christ printed - and his words, “But you, who do you say that I am?” When we read the scriptures we need to ask, what do they tell us about Jesus? The Gospel is not just to be read so that then you can close the book and do something else. The Gospels tell us of Jesus and the difference he makes for us and for our world. And we hear those words first put by Jesus to the disciples: “But you, who do you say that I am?” When the other disciples hedge their bets over a question put to them by Jesus, Jesus puts them on the spot - “I don’t want to know what other people say about me. I want to know what you say.”

This is the critical question which for me lies at the heart of my preaching - whether you recognise it or not! From Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” I’ve found the question I have to ask again and again is “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” That question - “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” - was put into that form by the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, at the time that Nazi ideology was taking over his country. Bonhoeffer saw Nazism as an infection which corrupted the heart and soul of his people, which removed their ability to recognise humanity in other people. And of course he was right - once you deny the humanity of someone else, it doesn’t matter how you treat them: Jews, gypsies, gay people, communists and socialists could all be treated as less than worthy of human consideration; there was something “deficient” about them, so for the greater good they could be isolated, mocked, persecuted, locked up and murdered. For Bonhoeffer, there had to be recognition of that question which is the starting point of Christian faith: “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” And this is not just a religious question. Because the way we recognise God to be at work in the world gives the clue as to how we can live out our lives in the world. For Bonhoeffer it was to lead him to the path of resistance, leaving the security of a university teaching post, withdrawing from a state-sanctioned Church, and finally giving up his freedom for a prison cell before he was himself put to death. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This was Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Jesus’ invitation to take up the Cross and follow him. Bonhoeffer was to discover the ultimate truth of that for himself. But where we should all start is in asking the question: “Who is Jesus Christ for us?”

We can begin to find the answer in the invitation which Jesus himself issues to us. It’s there in today’s Gospel:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light

Come to Jesus, whatever the burdens we bear, however weary we have grown, and you can learn from him. The answers are not to be found in a textbook, not in any set of rules or printed instructions or recipe for success. The answer is to be found in relationship with Christ - in the one where God and our humanity meet. “All” are welcome to make their response. The burden may be that of exploitation - in a world of inequality and injustice, where even in this country the gulf between rich and poor continues to grow, where in other lands the poor find themselves barely able to exist. The burden may be that of expectation, laid on us by society, family or ourselves - the burden of feeling that we need to achieve. And in all of that there are the burdens which so many carry (most of us?) of guilt, fear and anxiety - the burdens which perhaps people are least ready to share. Bring all of that to me, says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.”

Because it is Jesus who meets us in our need, who brings us peace. When prayer seems the last thing to be of any use, we can find through Jesus that prayer grows in us. And it is Jesus who meets us as we are - and where we are. He makes no pre-conditions for that meeting. Simply that already he is there,… so, come!

Jesus is the one who sees us as we are and knows us. It’s tempting to say that in meeting us without pre-condition Jesus meets us also without judging. But actually that’s not true. Judgment - when we find it in Christ - is what truly we need. In Christ we find judgment, yet with mercy. It’s a judgment that we need because we need to be able to listen to the one who truly sees us as we are; only the one who sees what we truly are can discern those burdens of which we need to be relieved. We can come to Christ without pretence, because he knows us… whether or not we admit our failings. If we cannot express our need for ourselves, already he knows.

All of this is the mystery of what Christians call the Incarnation. It’s to say that in Jesus, God comes into our human picture. To say that Jesus is fully God and fully human is to say that he is the one who brings all that we need of God’s purpose and healing into the world, and he is the God who can understand our human need because he shares our humanity.

In Jesus Christ we meet the God who meets us in the fullness of our humanity. That’s the sermon which I hope I always preach. And the fundamental question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us / for me?”… The rest is the working out of this starting point for faith. That God meets me in my need. That God calls me to see others in the light of that humanity he shares with you and me. That in the meeting of the human and the divine in Jesus, we can see the way that lives may be transformed.

“Come to me…” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.” We could make those words too comfortable. They call us from anxiety and fear and weariness, but they demand a response as well. It starts when we hear the question Jesus puts to us: “Who do you say that I am?” It asks us to answer the question - and act upon it - “Who is Jesus Christ for us?”

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Fire and the Knife

3rd Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist – 2.vii.2017
(Proper 8)

Genesis 22.1-14;
Romans 6.12-23;
Matthew 10.40-42

“God tested Abraham.”

That’s the way our first reading begins today. It’s a test about whether Abraham will give up that thing / that person who is most precious to him. How far will he travel? How far will he go? What is he prepared to do in response to a message he takes to be from God?

The traditional understanding of the story is to treat it as a test of obedience. God has given Abraham a son in his old age. He’d given up hope of children, but then he is blessed with the birth of Isaac. It’s a sign of God’s favour - and a promise that God will do great things with Abraham’s descendants. But then there is this test:

God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’

“So Abraham rose early in the morning…” We’re not told anything about Abraham questioning God. Nothing about the conflict you might expect to find in his heart or soul. No protest from Isaac’s mother, Sarah - I wonder if Abraham actually tells her what he is going to do; he certainly doesn’t tell Isaac. It’s all summed up in that one short word, “So.” God speaks. Abraham listens - and his response is immediate: “So Abraham rose early in the morning…”

It was a three-day journey. Abraham and his family had settled in Beersheba. The place where he is to offer his sacrifice is in Moriah - identified traditionally with the rock on which the Temple in Jerusalem would later be built. Abraham and Isaac travel with a donkey and their servants. They take with them the wood for the sacrifice. Abraham knows what he is going to do and he isn’t going to be foiled by finding there’s nothing to burn when he gets there. Then the servants are dismissed and Abraham goes on with only Isaac and the donkey. There’ll be no one to stop him. Isaac knows they are going to offer a sacrifice. They’d probably done it together before. He doesn’t know that he is to be the sacrifice.

Isaac said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’  8 Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

Then they arrive. They build the altar and Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on the wood of the altar. That word “binds” perhaps distracts us from the horror of what is going on. Binds is too soft a word. Abraham ties him up and is going to kill him. That’s the point. And he’s going to do it because he thinks God has told him to. Do we buy that traditional understanding that this shows the extent of Abraham’s obedience to God? That nothing can be greater than what God tells you - even killing your own son?

We live in a world where people do just that. Jihadist suicide bombers ready to blow themselves up to kill as many people as they can. Sometimes children used for the same purpose. Religious extremists who will take a van or a truck and use it to mow people down in the street before they get out with knives to kill still more. And they do it in the name of their religion. It’s not a new phenomenon. There’s the story in the Bible of Jephthah, one of the Judges of ancient Israel, who makes a vow to God:

If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house when I return victorious… shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.

Just two verses earlier we’re told that the “spirit of the Lord” had come upon Jephthah. But now here he is promising to make a human sacrifice. And Jephthah wins. He comes back from the battle - and out of the door of his house comes his daughter, dancing with joy to meet him. “I cannot take back my vow,” he says. And two months later he takes her life as a sacrifice.

And that is what Abraham also is ready to do. Abraham himself carries the fire and the knife as he walks with his son to the place where he plans to kill him. “Where is the lamb for the offering?” asks Isaac. And Abraham knows but doesn’t say. There’s a stained-glass window in St. John’s Church, (here in) Castleside which depicts the sacrifice of Isaac. The beauty of stained glass should not distract us from the horrific nature of the story. Another picture I know shows the fire on the altar already burning and Abraham holding a knife to Isaac’s throat - it is graphic and truly horrible.

But then an angel speaks - and Abraham hears. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him…” Abraham has passed the test of obedience. Or perhaps it is a case that sanity finally prevails. Against the blindness of religious certainty, humanity finally gains the upper hand.

We need to hear the message of that angel. When you’ve convinced yourself that what you’re doing is right even though the consequences are dire and the damage you’re causing is dire, stop! Step back. Think again.

It’s something the politicians need to do when they’ve set their course and declare their determination to see things through regardless of the cost. It’s something that the leaders of nations need to take to heart when national interest becomes confused with self-interest and the end result is war, loss of life and the displacement of peoples. But it’s something we all need to act upon when we have become so convinced about our own rightness that we cause havoc all around us, break up relationships and even destroy ourselves.

“Do not lay your hand upon the boy…” says the angel to Abraham. But there is a terrible re-telling of the story by the poet Wilfred Owen as he wrote amid the horrors of the First World War:

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

“Offer the Ram of Pride instead…”
What is it that truly keeps us from hearing God’s Word and understanding his purpose? What gets in the way of our humanity? Can we not recognise the call instead simply to love - and discover truly what that means?

The window in St. John’s Church which depicts Abraham on the point of sacrificing his son is one of a pair. The other window shows Christ the Good Shepherd. It’s the Ram of Pride which Abraham finally needs to offer up. It’s the care of the flock to which Jesus calls us. And the words of today’s Gospel speak to us: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Whatever else Jesus may be saying in the words of today’s Gospel, he is certainly emphasising the importance of a ministry of hospitality. Make people welcome, and you’re making Christ welcome, and so you’re recognising something of what God is saying to the world.

Where will you find Christ? Jesus tells us:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…

I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these... you did it to me.

Look beyond what you think is right because it’s good for you. Look beyond the ways of thinking in which you might have become trapped. When you think you hear the voice of God, think again. But listen - because it is God who tells us that all the commandments he gives are summed up in just two: to love him, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.