Am I Bovvered?

June 16, 2013

The_Anointing_with_Oil_and_Tears_1979,_Sadao_Watanabe( Galatians 2 15-21. Luke 7 36-8.3 )

Soon I will be off on holiday, and staying at a couple of different small hotels we haven’t used before.  We know that at each we will have to get used to a new set of customs or rituals – especially concerning meal times. When do you come down for dinner? Do you go straight into the dining room, or do you order over drinks in a bar or lounge? Is there a table reserved for you, or if you get down early, can you make a beeline for the seat by the window? Are you expected to talk to the other guests or preserve a proper English reserve? Is coffee served at the table or in the lounge? and so on. And then of course, in the morning, there are another lot of new rules to suss out about breakfast.

All this goes to illustrate that, though eating is one of the basic human needs, the process of eating is surrounded by rituals. Most of us go in grave fear of ‘doing something wrong’ whenever we share a meal with people we don’t know very well. One faux pas can turn the whole thing into a disaster.

The meal described in today’s Gospel reading became just such a disaster, because none of the main participants – host, guest or gatecrasher – observed the conventions of the time. It was a small incident in a fairly commonplace occurrence – such meals must have taken place over and over again in the course of Jesus’ ministry. Yet it is seen as having major significance by our four Gospel writers, since it is one of the few incidents to be included in all four.

So, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves ‘why’?

One way of studying the Bible is to try to put yourself into the shoes (or rather, the mind) of one of the characters  in whichever story you are reading – to try to think what they were thinking, feel what they were feeling, say what they might have said. If you were to do that with the three main characters in today’s Gospel – Simon the Pharisee, the woman with a bad name, and Jesus – in whose mind, I wonder, would you feel most comfortable?

Take the host first of all – Simon the Pharisee. In Matthew and Mark’s Gospels he is described as Simon the Leper – so it is possible Jesus had healed him of his leprosy, and the meal was a celebration or a thank you for the healing. But this doesn’t seem to fit with the way he treated Jesus. More likely is that this was a meal given to entertain and impress his friends, with a special celebrity guest – Jesus the Prophet from Nazareth. Jesus doesn’t seem to have been treated as a guest of honour, since he was extended none of the usual courtesies – his dusty feet were not washed, he was not greeted with a kiss, he was not anointed with oil to cool his forehead. Quite clearly Simon thought of him as just ‘the cabaret’.

We may be surprised that Simon did not keep the rules, because if there’s one thing Pharisees knew about, it’s rules! But perhaps, for him, rules were only kept in public. What he did in his own home was a different matter.

It is interesting that when his party is ruined by a gatecrasher, his anger is expressed not against her, but against Jesus. Why? Because his celebrity guest will not play  according to the usual rules. Jesus refuses to recoil from the touch of a strange woman, to condemn her extravagant display of emotion, or the use of expensive ointment to clean feet. On the contrary, he expresses approval of her actions and takes the opportunity to point out the shortcomings of his host – something a polite guest would not dream of doing.

Because of this, Simon turns on his guest and mentally demotes him from his star status, reasoning that no truly religious person would react in the way Jesus did to such a scandalous act. We can easily imagine how shocked and angry, even frightened, Simon must have been. Not only was his splendid party ruined; not only was his precious social status threatened by association with a woman of ill-repute; not only were all his guests ritually defiled by her presence in his house; but Jesus – the hope of many Jews – refused to act in accordance with the established rules.

We know that he had completely misunderstood what Jesus’ mission was all about. So, of course, none of us will feel at ease in his shoes – or will we?

Perhaps we have more in common with Simon the Pharisee than we like to think. Do we not prefer our religious occasions to be respectable? Don’t many of us cringe at displays of emotion or enthusiasm in our services? Don’t our churches try to exclude from ministry and membership those whom some sections of society regard as having a ‘bad name’? And when someone we respect in the religious field does not react in the way we expect or when our religious group challenges rather than reinforces our own prejudices, are we not inclined to downgrade the person or the group, and withdraw our support from them?  There is more than a little of Simon the Pharisee in most of us, I fear!

And what of the woman? Do we feel at ease with her unconventional behaviour, her extravagant gesture, her emotion?

Sister Margaret Magdalen, in her book “Transformed by Love” writes about a spirituality workshop when a group of people were invited to role play this scene. The young woman who was asked to play the gatecrasher listened in silence while ‘Simon’ berated her and ‘Jesus’ for their behaviour, and ‘Jesus’ defended himself and her. Then she blazed out with these words:(pp 42-43 )

anointing-his-feet-2

All right, she said, Let me tell you how it feels to be a woman in this situation. You men can approach Jesus without impediment, whenever you like. There are no rules to say this is ‘not done’. Those who love him, such as his disciples, are free to be with him night and day. They enjoy his company, sit at his feet, drink in his words, watch him at prayer, accompany him on his travels, witness his miracles, act as his agents, share in some of his most intimate moments with his Father…. Apart from the times when he seeks solitude, they have him the whole time. But when can a woman get near him to enjoy his company? .. A woman’s life can be totally changed by an encounter with Jesus, but from then on she is expected to keep a respectable distance from him.

Women may love him with a burning devotion, but what avenues are open to them for showing it?

Don’t you understand my crying need? Yes literally crying need. What is so embarrassing about that? Why can’t you men cope with tears or understand their language? Don’t you realise what I was saying by them?

And the gesture, the pouring out of the ointment? Why were you so uptight about this? Do you not understand anointing and its implications?

If you want the truth, this was a baptism of love. I longed for him to baptise me, but that was not appropriate, for he didn’t baptise people himself. Yet I knew I was bound to him in bonds of covenant love for life. So I decided to reverse the act and baptise him, in the water of my tears; to pour oil over his head, and to show by this act that I renounced evil, that I turned to him, that I believed and trusted in him; to show that I intended to make a lifelong commitment to him; to assure him that I would suffer with him, die with him if need be, and follow him to my life’s end.

Love has to be expressed. You cannot dam it up by conventions and rules. I don’t care how people interpreted my act and what insinuations they chose to make. He understood and that is all that matters. He accepted the expression of my love as a pure thing. He saw the heart that longed to be united to him. He interpreted my tears as sacramental and the anointing as symbolic. He saw me not as a prostitute, but as a priest.

Do her words ring bells with you? The book was written in 1989, when women were excluded from priestly ministry in many denominations. Both the story of the gatecrasher at the dinner party, and the passage that follows, describing the women who followed and supported Jesus in his ministry, remind us Jesus did not practise such exclusion – so why did we in the churches for so long, and why do we still do so for some orders of ministry?

Actually, the only shoes in which we Christians should feel at ease in this incident  are those of Jesus.

Jesus was the only person in this incident who could say (in Catherine Tate’s catch-phrase) “Am I bovvered?” Jesus didn’t seem to be worried by conventions. If they were kept, he accepted them; if they were broken, he accepted that too. It made no difference to his peace of mind or his self-image. His host failed to show him the normal courtesies when he arrived; Jesus didn’t make a fuss. He accepts Simon for what he is. A strange woman, her hair loose and obviously in distress, bursts in upon an all-male gathering, and Jesus calmly goes on with his meal. The woman weeps at his feet, anoints them with ointment, wipes them with her hair and covers them with kisses, and Jesus is not in the least disturbed. He accepts her and her ministry to him as he has accepted the ministry of other ‘unclean’ people before her.

The only thing that Jesus won’t accept, it seems, is Simon’s hypocrisy and total lack of sympathy for the woman. If Simon had been a leper, he knew what it was like to be shunned by religious people, excluded from normal society, and treated as less than human. However, now he was safely back in society and in control of his situation again, he could not extend to another the compassion he must have longed for when he was an outcast. His only security was in insisting the rules must be kept – and Jesus condemned that in the parable he told.

Both our Gospel and the passage we heard from Paul’s letter to the Galatians remind us that in the Kingdom of Heaven we are accepted by grace, not law. For those who are ‘in Christ’, rules, rituals, conventions and worldly standards have no place. The only thing that matters is that we love God, and respond to his acceptance  of us with the same extravagance that Jesus showed in living and dying for us.

It is love, not keeping to the rules that allows our sins to be forgiven. It is love, not ritual that allows us to join Christ at his table. And it is the depth of our love. not law that makes us Christ’s ministers, prophets and priests.

“Am I bovvered?” by this. Are you?

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Power of the Holy Spirit

Assembly for KS 1 & 2, comparing the power of electricity with the Holy Spirit

Aim: To show that the Holy Spirit has always been at work in the world, but was known in a new way at Pentecost.

Bible Passage: Acts 2, 1-8

Preparation and materials:

You will need several devices that work by electricity – some with batteries and some which plug in to power source.

You will need to know something of history of harnessing of electricity.

http://www.wisegeek.org/who-discovered-electricity.htm

Assembly

Ask what powers all devices?  Electricity. If not connected to it, (by plug or battery) won’t work. Expand that electricity used to help us keep warm (fires) do difficult tasks (power tools) help us see and communicate (phones, radios etc.)

Ask who invented electricity? You may get several answers, including that no-one invented it, but several people discovered how to harness it and use it.

If appropriate give brief history of use of electricity.

Emphasise that electricity a natural force, in the universe since the very beginning of time, which humans became aware of and able to use .

Tell the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon friends and followers of Jesus with great power, enabling them to do things they couldn’t do before, to communicate Good News of Gospel to all sorts of different people, and giving them comfort when they were in trouble.

Point out that power of Holy Spirit in some ways like power of electricity.

Say Holy Spirit came in renewed strength at Pentecost, but had always been at work in world. Bible tells us that Spirit active in creation of world, animals and humans, and inspired words of prophets who taught Jews about God before the coming of Jesus. Also there at Annunciation when Mary told she would have Jesus and at baptism of Jesus.

Say Christians believe they need to be open/ connected/ plugged in to Holy Spirit in order to do the work in the world that Jesus did, and which he taught them God wants them to do also

Time for reflection

Switch on a torch/ electric light.

Jesus’s disciple John said he was the Light of the World. The Holy Spirit gives power to his followers to be light like him.

Think how you can be like a light to people around you today.

Prayer: 

Dear God,

We thank you that your Holy Spirit is always at work in your world,

bringing strength and comfort, words and light to those who receive it.

Through your Spirit, help us to live as Jesus did,

to bring light to your world,

and to live in the way that you want us to live.

Amen

 

Refresh and Renew

February 19, 2012

(Isaiah 40, 21-31; Mark 1, 29-39)

If you type the words ‘refresh’ and renew’ into a computer search engine you will get a wide range of results, from instructions how to refresh your various computer sites, to advertisements for health spas, face cream, and exercise sessions, to a conference about developing worship at a Christian University in the USA.

Isaiah 40, from which our first reading came, begins with a hymn of praise to the majesty of God, who created the universe, stretched out the heavens, governs the seasons, and knows everything that goes on in human society. Yet it ends with an assurance that this almighty deity is not detached from human need, but involved and supportive: “He gives power to the faint and strength to the powerless.” His strength is available to human beings, if they need it, to renew and refresh them: “They that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” 

That’s a great affirmation to those of us who are getting older, who do often feel weary and faint, and as if our strength gives out too quickly. If we rely on God, we can (metaphorically!) fly! We can run marathons! We can go where we need to and not be worn out when we get there!

There is also encouragement for those of us who feel worn out in the gospel reading. Mark tells us of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in law. At the touch of Jesus, she is renewed and able to get up and carry out the work she wants to do. Many others come to Jesus that evening for healing of whatever restricts their enjoyment of the fullness of life. And, most encouraging of all, we read that even Jesus needed to take time out after a demanding day to renew his strength.

On this occasion, Jesus sought renewal and refreshment by getting up before everyone else, going out to a deserted place and being alone with God to pray and reflect for a while. It didn’t last long. His disciples hunted for him, found him, and through them the demands on him were renewed. He took up his tasks again, moving out from the towns where he was already known, to serve and teach the whole of the rest of Galilee.

We have a much smaller area to serve and to reach out to in mission – our parish, our families, our personal networks of friends and workmates. It can still demand much of us, though, and leave us feeling weary and exhausted. The lectionary passages challenge us this morning to consider, how and when do we meet God, feel the touch of Jesus and so ‘renew our strength’?

Like Jesus, the most obvious way of renewing our strength is to wait on God regularly in prayer. As with any relationship, if you don’t maintain communication, the relationship will wither and die. Once a week for an hour in church really is not enough to build up our relationship with God to the point where we can  be renewed and refreshed and strengthened whenever we need to be.

Of course it is difficult! Of course we all have times when we appear to be talking to ourselves, and feel we are getting nothing out of it. But we do need to persevere through those barren times. We will all have different ways of praying. Some people use a prayer book with set prayers, or resources on the internet; others find it easier to be spontaneous, and to share their concerns, weaknesses, doubts and questions as if they are having a conversation with a good friend. Some use Bible passages to prompt prayers; other use music, or visual stimuli like pictures, candles or stones. Others simply sit in silence and try to empty their minds and allow God to enter.

Some are able to set aside a regular time of prayer every day; others find they need to snatch odd moments out of a busy routine to rest in God. It doesn’t matter how you do it, so long as you do it! And if you find it difficult to find enough time during the working week to pray as often and as deeply as you would like, then setting leisure time aside to go on quiet days or retreats can give you the chance to experience God’s refreshment and renewal,

to read and to pray.

Even an ordinary holiday can be a source of R & R from God, if you set out with the intention of being renewed in spirit as well as in body and mind.

Lent, which begins in a couple of week’s time, is a period in which Christians are traditionally encouraged to renew the spiritual discipline of prayer. Our diocese is once again providing resources to help us pray more effectively and regularly, and is calling it ‘Live the Challenge’. If you are into social media, then you can sign up to receive a daily text or email or Tweet with a text to meditate on and respond to with comments or pictures or music if you want.  Or if you don’t live that way, then your church can download the texts and print them out for you to follow. If you think you would find that helpful in encouraging you to meet God in prayer, then have a look at the publicity material available online http://www.livethechallenge.co.uk/home/ or in church.

A second place where we should expect to meet God and find refreshment, renewal and strength is in worship. Live the Challenge  also provides material for a weekly act of worship with a short liturgy to pray together, recipes for  a meal to eat together (from our partner diocese in Belize), and a reflection to think through together. Then, having been refreshed there is a challenge to act together.

But we already have an opportunity for that refreshment and renewal as we worship together here week by week, and particularly when we meet together as a community round the Lord’s Table each Sunday.  The physical strengthening we get from eating and drinking reflects the spiritual strengthening we get from worship, word and sacrament.  After worship, we should, as one of the final prayers of the Eucharist reminds us, feel renewed to go out in the power of the Spirit to live and work to God’s power and glory.

And if you don’t feel that on a regular basis, then Lent, and particularly this Lent as we finalise our parish Mission Action Plan, is a good time for you to spend time considering why, and play your part in planning what we as a church can do differently to help more people go deeper into God through worship, and find renewal and refreshment there.

The traditional Protestant way of encountering God and finding refreshment and strength is through reading the Bible. There are Lent schemes and courses to assist you in doing this, including the diocesan Lent Course which takes you through the Old Testament readings for the Sundays in Lent and relates them to the Living God’s Love theme of Transforming Communities.

If you do choose to find refreshment in the Scriptures, I would encourage you to go beyond reading them devotionally, and take time to study them with the aid of a good modern commentary. Otherwise, the difference between the language and culture in which the Bible was originally written, and our language and culture will mean you will have difficulty in understanding what God is really saying to you through the scriptures.

Some people , like Jesus, find they need to be alone to drink deeply from the well of God’s strengthening and renewal. Others don’t find solitude helpful, and feel closer to God, and experience divine encouragement more, when they meet with other Christians to study and discuss. If that’s your preference, then you may find yourself strengthened and renewed this Lent through taking part in the Ecumenical Lent Course ‘Handing on the Torch’ which will be running in this church, and in other places in Watford at different times during Lent. There is publicity for that at the back of church too.

Whichever path you choose for renewal and refreshment, take courage from the promise of Isaiah and the Gospel, that if you wait on the Lord, you will find strength for the tasks you have been given, and will be ready once again for service and mission to the world.

We finish with the Living God’s Love prayer.

Living God, draw us deeper into your love; 

Jesus our Lord, send us to care and serve; 

Holy Spirit, make us heralds of good news. 

Stir us, strengthen us, teach and inspire us to live your love with generosity and joy, imagination and courage; 

for the sake of your world and in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Living the Word

October 23, 2011

Sermon for Bible Sunday 2011 (Nehemiah 8, 1-12; Matthew 24, 30-35)

I’m going to read you some bits of the Bible.

En archê ên ho logos kai ho logos ên pros ton theon kai theos ên ho logos.

houtos ên en arche pros ton theon. Panta di autou egeneto kai choris autou ou di hen.

And here’s another bit.

In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum.

Omnia per ipsum facta sunt et sine ipso factum est nihil quod factum est.

Did that make any sense to you? Well, that was the first three verses in the Gospel of John – “In the beginning was the Word” etc. first in NT Greek, and then in Latin.

And if it didn’t make any sense to you, you now know something of how the Jews assembled in the square before the  Water Gate in post-exile Jerusalem felt. They had been in exile in Babylon for between 50 and 150 years.  Many of them had lost the ability to understand Hebrew, and were unfamiliar with the traditional Jewish Law. So, when Ezra the scribe read the Law to them, they needed the other scribes to explain what it said in a language they understood, probably Aramaic, which was the common language of Babylon. Following on from this initial reading of the Torah, Aramaic translations were written, called Targums, so that those who never regained fluency in Hebrew, were able to understand what was read.

Although Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, the literature of the New Testament was written in Greek, and most of the early Christians would have understood some of that. Later it was translated into Latin for the Western Church, and most people would have understood a little of that, at least until the fall of the Roman Empire. But from then on, until the Reformation and the translation of the Bible into the languages people actually spoke, most members of the congregation were in exactly the same position as many of you were when I read those passages at the beginning – hearing something they really didn’t understand.

You may think we’re in a much better position than those ancient Jews, or pre-Reformation Christians in this country, since we have the Bible in the language we speak, and freely available in a number of forms. But understanding a written document is not just about understanding the words. You also need to understand the sort of writing you are dealing with and the context in which it was written if you are really to get the message. Many Christians don’t have that knowledge and their understanding of the Bible and how to use it is weakened because of this.

Much of the Bible in its present form was put together around 2000 years ago; some of it was written down about 1000 years before that, and much of that contains oral traditions that were in circulation for many hundreds of years previously. We need to understand that, if we are to judge how applicable the actions and attitudes they advocate are to our 21st century world. Added to this is the fact that the words of the Bible are all translated from the original language in which they were spoken or written, sometimes many times, and each translation will be subtly affected by the assumptions of the translators. I have put some copies of a passage from the New Testament in Greek as it was originally written at the back for you to see – all in capitals with no punctuation and no spaces between the words. So think how difficult that makes it to understand what was being said and to recapture the original meaning of the text.

In primary school, our children are now taught to recognise different genres of writing, so that they can better understand what they read. We believers need to do the same with the different genres of writing in the Bible. It contains many different sorts of literature – stories, legal documents, history, prophecy, poetry, myths, letters, philosophical questioning – and we are failing to show it proper respect, and in danger of misusing it, if we don’t recognise this.

So, on this Bible Sunday, I would urge you to take every opportunity of getting to know the Bible better; not just the text, but also the background and the genre and the context of each of the books, and especially of the books of the New Testament. You will not truly be able to hear God’s Word speaking though its pages unless you do this.

One common mistake is to treat everything in the Bible as if it is direct instruction from God, as if it was all preceded by the words: “Thus saith the Lord”. In fact, very little of the Bible is written as direct words from God.  Most of it is human reflection on the mystery of God, or accounts of people trying to understand and communicate God to their contemporaries. They do this both by their words and their actions. Some groups of Christians say only the words matter; in the presentation at Deanery Synod on Women Bishops, one of the speakers said his group in the church would always take a direct command in the Bible as more authoritative for our conduct than an action, even when the action was by Jesus. I can’t understand that. Would we judge by what a person said, rather than by what they did? I don’t think so.

Another common mistake is to take single sentences or passages out of context, and demand that they be applied to quite different circumstances. Whole theologies have been based on this sort of selective reading of texts. For instance, one of the ‘proof texts’ for those who says the whole Bible is literally true, inspired and infallible is 2 Timothy 3, verse 15. This says (depending on how you translate the original Greek) either ‘all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching etc.’ or ‘every Scripture inspired by God is useful for teaching the truth and rebuking error, etc.’. This passage is someone (probably not the Apostle Paul) writing to Timothy to give him advice about how (in his opinion) to use the Jewish Scriptures in his teaching and pastoral work. It is not making an authoritative statement about everything contained in the Christian Bible, some of which probably hadn’t even been written at the time the letters to Timothy were being circulated. Other passages, which are more definitely written by the Apostle Paul, criticise the written Scriptures, saying only faith in Christ brings life, whereas the Torah brings death. Jesus himself challenged those who followed the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Which of these is the example for us to follow?

The Bible is not so much a text book or a code of conduct for us to slavishly follow, as a continuing conversation between human beings and the divine. Like all conversations, things can be misunderstood, and misheard, particularly when we are listening in to someone else’s conversation from some distance away. And people may express different opinions at different times ( that certainly happens with the Bible).

When we read the Bible, we need to think of it as like a conversation with a group of trusted friends, whose advice and experience may inform our decisions about important things. We will need to think about which friend we ask about different problems – some may have something valid to say to us; others, we know, may not have any experience at all of what concerns us. On some issues we may have to consult other people outside this circle, who have more expertise in the subject of concern. Finally, we will need to weigh up all the advice before we make our decision, based on all we know about God’s will for us from many different sources.

On this Bible Sunday, we honour the Bible and the insights of previous generations that it shares with us. At the same time we remember that we are not, as Jews and Muslims are, ‘People of the Book’. The Bible is not the Word of God for us: the Word of God is embodied in a person, Jesus of Nazareth. That person is part of God the Trinity, the God who continues to be revealed to us through the Holy Spirit, day by day and in our own time. We need to recognise that some passages in the Bible most definitely do not reflect the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ.

Anglican theology is not based on ‘sola scriptura’, Scripture alone. It is based on scripture, reason and tradition. This is often spoken of as ‘a three-legged stool’, which is a useful analogy to keep in mind, since a three-legged stool is no use at all if one of the legs is a different length to the other two. Only if all three are equal is it stable enough to bear the weight of what is placed on it!

So, when we read the Bible, we need to take account of the tradition of the Christian church, which is still evolving, and use our God given reason when we interpret it.

We need to remember that we are called to live the Word of God, but that Word is a person, not words on a page.

Jesus Christ, the Word of God