July 28, 2013
When I was about 16, my grandmother had a stroke, and came to live with us for a while. Because our house was fairly small, she had to sleep in the same bedroom as me. One night, I was woken up by the sound of her voice. As I listened, I realised that she was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again, in her sleep.
I was surprised. My grandma was not a churchgoer when I knew her, and I had never heard her say a prayer before. Yet, in this time of illness, what came from the depths of her memory to meet her need was the Lord’s Prayer.
I would imagine that some of you may have had similar experiences – of people returning to these familiar words at times of stress, fear, pain or approaching death. They are, I would think, the words repeated most often by Christians – the only prayer used at virtually every Christian service (and even used twice in Evensong according to the Book of Common Prayer! ) – the one prayer that all Christians can say together.
In the Gospel today, we have one version of how the words of the Lord’s Prayer were taught to the disciples: in response to a specific request: “Lord, teach us how to pray”. In Matthew’s Gospel, it comes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus prefaces it with a warning against showy and repetitive prayers.
What, I wonder, was our Lord’s intention when he taught these word to his followers? Did he mean them to become a fixed format, repeated down the generations, to become the prayer of his church? Or were they, as many think, meant not as a fixed prayer, but as a pattern for prayer.
For one problem with the Lord’s Prayer is that we use it so often, it is so familiar to us, that it can easily become the sort of prayer that Jesus warned his disciples against in the Matthew passage – “vain repetition” as the King James Bible puts it, or “meaningless words” as the Good News Bible translates. You know how it is when you drive a familiar route, with your mind on something else – you do it on autopilot. It’s easy to do the same with the Lord’s Prayer. You repeat it without actually hearing what you are saying; you come to the end and realise with a jolt that your lips have been repeating the phrases automatically, and that although you’ve said the prayer, you haven’t actually prayed it at all: mouth in gear, brain and heart in neutral!
How then can we overcome the problem of familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer and bring it alive for ourselves again?
One way is to read these passages, in Luke 11 and Matthew 6, where the prayer first occurs. Each of the evangelists presents the situation slightly differently, and the contexts give the prayer different emphases. They also have quite a few differences in the words of the prayer. Matthew speaks about forgiving debts and debtors; Luke about sins. In the phrase about daily bread, Matthew uses the Greek form of the command ‘give’ which is used for something that happens once; Luke uses the form for something that is to keep on happening, and adds the words ‘each day’, whereas Matthew only has ‘today’. So, we can see Matthew taking things day by day ( since he wrote for a community that expected the Lord to return soon ) and Luke takes a longer perspective ( since, perhaps, his community no longer expected an early Parousia.)
It is also good to read as many different translations as you can, to pick up all the different nuances of the prayer. Different translators help you to find new insights into the prayer. It is particularly useful with the Lord’s Prayer, where there are difficulties in translating some parts. For instance the Greek word ‘epiousios’ in the petition about bread is found nowhere else in ancient Greek literature, so we can only guess what it means. It is usually translated ‘daily’ but it could mean ‘sufficient’ or ‘necessary’, ‘for today’ or ‘for tomorrow’.
You might even find it useful to read the Lord’s prayer in a foreign language! You don’t have to be an expert in the language to do so – after all you know the translation off by heart! But if you understand even a little of the language, the different words, the slight difference of emphasis in another tongue might bring a new depth of meaning to the prayer for you. Just an example: several years ago, I picked up a version of the gospel of Matthew in French from the chapel at Lyons Airport, in which the petition about daily bread was written ‘Donne nous aujourdhui le pain qu’il nous faut’: literally, give us today the bread which is necessary to us, which picks up one of the possible alternative meanings of the original Greek.
Although the process of liturgical revision has its down side, in that there are now several versions of the Lord’s Prayer in English, so that you can no longer assume that when you say ”We will now say the Lord’s Prayer together’ everyone will recite the same phrases, it has brought the benefit that we can now choose from three or four liturgical versions of the prayer, as well as the versions in Luke and Matthew, if we want it in a different form. And there are also unofficial translations, which bring the petitions up to date – like this one from Jim Cotter:
Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker,
Source of all that is and shall be,
Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:The Hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!
With the bread that we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.
A second way that you might find new depths of meaning in the Lord’s Prayer is to move as you say it. Many years ago, I took a youth group away for the weekend, and we spent part of out time exploring how to worship through dance. I worked out a dance version of the Lord’s Prayer to a folk setting of the communion service I had on tape, and I learned that to express the prayer with my whole body gives it a depth of meaning that it doesn’t have when I just say the words.
Perhaps the idea of ‘dancing a prayer’ fills you with horror. It is certainly an unusual thing to do in our religious culture, which is so word and brain fixated, that we have been encouraged to worship God from the neck upwards and forget the rest of our body. But if you read your Bible, and particularly the Psalms, you will find there a long tradition of worshipping God not just with words and music, but also with dance.
But perhaps you feel your body is no longer up to moving to music. In that case, move just your head and arms. Rosemary Budd, in her book Moving Prayer, has several suggestions of simple movements that can be added to the Lord’s Prayer, as an aid to a deeper devotional life. And if you obey Jesus’ instructions about prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, and go into a room by yourself and shut the door when you pray, there’s no need for you to feel self-conscious about moving your body as you pray.
A third way of getting more out of the Lord’s Prayer is to use it as, perhaps, Jesus intended, as a pattern for prayer rather than a complete prayer in itself. So you take each phrase separately, think about its meaning, and allow other prayers to arise from it. ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name’ may lead you into praising God’s holiness and loving care for us, or into intercessions for the conversion of a particular person, or for mission to a particular part of the world. ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ might lead to prayers for political situations. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ might lead to confession, and ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ to asking for God’s help in reconciling yourself to those whom you feel have wronged you – and so on.
You might find it helpful to read a book about the Lord’s Prayer by an expert theologian, to help you tease out the real meanings of the petitions, especially those that are difficult to translate adequately, like “lead us not into temptation’. One good book on the subject is William Barclay’s “The Plain Man looks at the Lord’s Prayer’ -which can be used by the plain woman just as well.
‘This is how you should pray’ said Jesus, and instead of giving us a lengthy treatise on prayer, he gave us ten short, easily remembered phrases – his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and the pattern for all our prayers. It is a prayer which puts God at the centre, and which lays before God our present, past and future lives. It is a prayer which is so simple that we can pray it unconsciously, yet which is so deep that we can come to it again and again, and find new meaning in it.
As we continue to use the words which our Lord taught us, as we use our minds and our voices and our bodies to explore its depths, may it bring us ever closer to him.
Jim Cotter. Prayer at Night. 1983
March 1, 2013
(Leviticus 19, 1-2,33-37; Matthew 25, 31-40)
When I was a teenager, I had a number of pen-friends from abroad: one in the USA, one in Norway, one in Germany and two in France. In the summer holidays before my O level exams, I spent 4 weeks with my two French pen-friends to improve my knowledge of the language.
I remember two things very distinctly about that holiday in France. The first was how home-sick I was. It was the first time I had been on holiday on my own without my family. The food, the money, the customs, even the toilet facilities were very different from those I was used to at home, and, although I was thinking in French by the end of the four weeks, at the beginning every conversation was a real effort. I can remember how I used to pretend not to have woken up, in order to delay starting the daily effort to understand, and make myself understood.
The second vivid memory was walking through the streets of Rouen with my friend Sylviane. In order to get from her home in an old apartment block to the tourist area around the cathedral and the Old Market Place where Joan of Arc was burned, we had to go through the immigrant quarter. I still remember the atmosphere of hostility and fear from both sides as we walked through that area. When I look back now, I realise that some of those immigrants were probably as homesick as I was, especially the Muslim women. At the time, though, all I absorbed was the fear of my hosts at the different and the new.
Later on, when I did French for A level, I had to learn about French culture and politics as well as studying their literature, and I learnt that citizens from the French overseas colonies were supposed to be treated as as French as those born in mainland France. The history of the French colonial empire especially in North Africa and IndoChina showed me this ideal was rarely realised, and explained the tense atmosphere I’d experienced in Rouen.
Current newspaper reports, and the testimonies we have heard in this service from women living in present day France, would indicate that things are not much better for strangers and immigrants to France than they were back when I was at school. But France has a long and proud history of being a place of asylum. Their political tradition – as the land of liberty, equality, and brother and sisterhood – as well as their dominant Catholic faith should prompt them to welcome the stranger as an equal.
The life-stories of women we have just heard – Vera, Françoise and Marie-Léonie, give us hope that things are improving In France. But are things any better in the United Kingdom?
Anecdotal evidence – remarks made to someone I know by people from overseas he sees at a charity he worked for, that they prefer living in London to other major cities, including Paris, because no-one takes any notice here of what you dress like, or what you do; and our own experience of welcoming people from overseas into our own family and church circles, could convince us that we are doing well. But our news bulletins, the headlines in our newspapers and the demonstrations targetting immigrants and asylum seekers in some of our towns and cities should shake our comfortable assumptions of superiority. We have women and children who end up as sex slaves in this country too, we have people who have to work in the black economy, we have children torn from the place they regard as home and deported, just like those we heard about in France.
The first readings the women of France chose to guide our thoughts and prick our consciences today come from the book of Leviticus. We tend to think of Leviticus as a book that doesn’t concern us modern believers much – all about obscure regulations about what the Israelites could and couldn’t wear, or eat or have sex with, regulations designed to keep them pure and separate from anyone else. But the passages chosen here show that parts of it remind the Jews (and us) that a holy life involves justice and fairness for the strangers living within your country, that holiness involves actions as well as a state of mind. We must remember that Jesus took part of his summary of the law from Leviticus “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19.18).
The New Testament reading again challenges our beliefs about what makes us a good Christian. The parable of the Sheep and Goats tells us that it’s not what church we belong to, or what we believe about God, or Jesus, or morality, that we will be judged on in the final instance; it’s how we act, and particularly how we act towards the homeless, the hungry, those without adequate clothing, those who are in prison, the strangers within our communities – in other words, all those who are the most vulnerable in our society and our world. We don’t usually behave as though that is what we will be judged on; it’s not what people outside the churches hear most about from us. How do we respond to that challenge?
In the hymn we will sing in a moment, we will commit ourselves to serving our brothers and sisters, to being Christ for them, in the ways which the parable of Matthew 25 outlined. In the prayers of intercession which follow, we will dedicate ourselves to reaching out to those who come to our country looking for asylum and work, to welcoming the stranger into our communities, and to caring for those who find themselves in vulnerable situations.
How can we make this not just a prayer, but a practical reality?
We can do it first of all by choosing who we listen to. When we are confronted with scare stories about the strangers in our midst in the media, and especially in the tabloid press, and at election time, do we believe them, or do we listen to the voice of the scriptures, which tell us these newcomers are members of our own family, children of the same God, Christ in our communities?
We can do it by choosing carefully what we say. Do we repeat the scare stories that reinforce the suspicion and fear between immigrants and native born, between different classes and religions, between those of different customs, between those who live in relative security and those who are going through hard times? Or do we counter those experiences with our own positive experiences, however unpopular that may make us, and remind our fellow citizens of the core Christian teaching about welcoming the stranger – the teaching that really underlies our culture and our history.
We can make welcoming the stranger a practical reality by offering our help to the strangers and the vulnerable. There are so many opportunities to do so in our immediate area as well as further afield. We can make donations and offer time to the Food Banks and the Credit Unions; we can donate supplies to the Catholic Worker Farm here in Maple Cross which cares for female and child asylum seekers who would otherwise be homeless; we can join the volunteer hospital and prison visitors schemes; we can volunteer for Care; we can volunteer and donate to the Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Project; we can support projects for the homeless like the New Hope Trust and Herts Young Homeless. We can make our churches places where newcomers feel welcome.
The WWDP service this year is not, as it often is, about something that happens in a country far away – something we can pray about this afternoon, and then forget. It is about something that affects us, in our own homes and neighbourhoods, as much as it affects the people of France who put the service together.
Can we see in these strangers in need Christ himself needing our help? Do we really accept that ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it unto me’?
February 17, 2013
SERMON FOR LENT 1 (YR. C)
(Psam 91, 1-2 & 9-16; Romans 10. 8-13; Luke 4, 1-13)
When the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) was working to translate the services of the Church into modern English, one of the phrases which caused them most difficulty was the last but one petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.
Part of the difficulty stems from the possible meaning of the original Greek of the text in Matthew and Luke, and even of the Hebrew behind that. For instance, the Greek verb translated ‘lead’ could mean taking in an active sense, to lead by going before, or simply to announce. And depending on the understanding of the Hebrew behind this clause, again it could be active, meaning to cause something to happen; or permissive, to allow something to happen. So, the Syriac version of the New Testament translates this “Do not make us enter into temptation”.
Again, the preposition ‘eis’ and its Hebrew original could imply simply ‘into’ or ‘as far as’ but, more strongly ‘to be placed under the power of’. So, one translation could be “Do not allow us to fall under the power of temptation” that is, be overwhelmed by it.
However, the word which gave the translators most difficulty was the word translated ‘temptation’. The Greek original is found rarely in secular Greek, but very often in Biblical Greek, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, with a variety of meanings. It can mean simply an attempt; it can mean a test in the sense of testing a metal or testing somebody’s competence or conviction (and in this sense it is often used of God testing human beings). It can mean a malicious attempt to trick someone, and is used in that way of the attempts of the Scribes and Pharisees to catch Jesus out by asking him trick questions. It can be used to mean the seduction into sin which is the usual modern meaning of ‘temptation’.That’s how it is used to describe Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. It can mean a trial or ordeal. It can mean to tempt God. In all of these meanings, the form of noun used implies a continuing process, not a one-off event.
Some interpretations of the text are more difficult for us to accept, not because of they don’t translate the original Greek correctly, but because they run counter to our beliefs about the nature of God, and of human beings.
For instance, we believe that God is good, and wills happiness and good for human beings. So how can we even think that God would deliberately seduce us into sin or put us under the power of evil?
Secondly, it is nonsense to pray that we won’t be tempted, because temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. God gave us free will – but there would be no point in having free will if there were no circumstances in which we were tempted to choose to sin. It is a mark of being a real human being that we can be tempted to do wrong – and that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is important: it shows that Jesus was, as Hebrews says, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are”. (Heb. 4.15) The one difference is, as Hebrews goes on to say, “yet without sinning”.
So, if we are not asking God not ever to put us into a situation where we are tempted, and we cannot conceive of God deliberately trying to make us commit sin, what are we asking in this part of the Lord’s Prayer?
Modern translations of the New Testament have used a variety of phrases, most of them designed to express the hope that God will not test us beyond what we can cope with, or allow us to be overwhelmed by temptation.
The Good News Bible has “Do not bring us to hard testing” and the New English Bible “Do not bring us to the test”. The Jerusalem Bible has “Do not put us to the test” and the NRSV “Do not bring us to the time of trial”.
Most of the denominations have used a variation on that last phrase in their modern language services, and pray: “Save us from the time of trial”. You will find this version in the Methodist, the URC, the Roman Catholic and other Anglican churches, such as the New Zealand Church. The Church of England could not agree to use the internationally agreed text, and kept “Lead us not into temptation” in their modern language Lord’s Prayer as well as in the traditional language one. I rather like Jim Cotter’s free modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which has: “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us; from trials too great to endure, spare us; from the grip of all that is evil, free us.”
When we pray this petition, we are asking God to be with us as we face the everyday temptations of human life. We are asking for divine protection when we face situations where the urge to sin becomes overwhelming. We are asking for divine guidance when the prompting of our own nature, or the urging of others, bring us to situations where we may be tempted to flirt with sin. We are asking God not to abandon us when our faith, or our bodies are under assault.
When we face these situations (as all of us will) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us how God answer this petition of the Lord’s Prayer.
We do not have to take this story literally. Jesus may have had an experience like this when he spent time in the desert after his baptism by John, but since he was alone, and the conversations went on inside his head, how would anyone else have known the details? Mark has the simple statement that ‘he was tempted by Satan’; it is only Matthew and Luke who provide details of the threefold temptations. But these are temptations which Jesus would have faced during his whole ministry, as they are temptations which face any of us who try to bring others into the Kingdom of God. So it is perfectly possible to see the story of the time in the wilderness as a word picture of the temptations of ministry for Jesus and for ourselves.
The first is the temptation to bring people into faith by providing for their material needs alone. Perhaps there are secondary temptations also; to provide the basic necessities of life, but only to those of ‘our’ faith; or the temptation, which is so prevalent in our society, to believe that the accumulation of goods will bring happiness, or is a sign of God’s favour. Jesus answers this by affirming the supreme importance of the spiritual – the Word of God – rather than the material – bread.
The second temptation is to use political power, including force, to bring people to faith. We can all think of examples of Christians giving in to this temptation throughout history – from the way the final texts of the Creeds were arrived at, to the Crusades, and the wars of religion that so disfigured Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jesus rejects this by quoting from Deuteronomy a verse that insists that worship must be given to God because of God’s character, and not in response to political power or force, which are seen as works of the Devil.
Finally there is the temptation to encourage faith by demonstrations miraculous power, which is, in effect, to tempt God. Again, we can all think of times when churches have tried to prove that they have the one true faith by appeals to signs and wonders, or miraculous cures to which they alone have access. Jesus again quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which forbid testing out God’s support in this way. During his ministry he always refused to provide miracles ‘to order’ to prove his credentials.
Jesus was saved in his time of trial, and delivered from evil because of his close relationship with God, and his total reliance on God’s love and support. Psalm 91 assures us that God’s love and support is with us through the difficult times too. For Jesus, his relationship with God was founded on his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the tradition (in his case the Jewish tradition), his constant reference to God through prayer, and his submission to God’s will in humility.
As we face the tests and temptations of our lives, these same resources and this same relationship with God can save us too from trial and temptation and deliver us from all evil.
September 30, 2012
(James 5, 13-20; Mark 9 38-50. Proper 21B)
“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. (Jas 5.16)
What does that mean?
To some it means Christians should rely on prayer to heal them. Last month there was a debate in the media about the ethics of cases where parents of seriously ill children insisted on the continuation of invasive medical treatments, which medical professionals considered pointless, because of their belief that the child would be cured by divine intervention prompted by their prayers.
And until relatively recently, members of the Christian Science sect refused normal medical care because of their belief that prayer alone would heal them. These cases are very problematic for those concerned with medical ethics, especially when they concern children who are too young to have consciously adopted religious beliefs for themselves.
However, the passage can be a problem even for those who don’t refuse modern medical treatment. All churches pray for the healing of their sick members. What do we expect to happen? How do we react to those who say: “I prayed for my loved one who is ill, but they didn’t get better. What went wrong? Was I not righteous enough for my prayers to be powerful?” There are no simple answers to these questions.
This passage can also be used to support teaching that I believe is a distortion of Christian teaching. When I was a secondary school teacher, a speaker came to our lunchtime Christian Union to talk about prayer. One of the teenagers asked why her aunt was continuing to suffer from her illness, even though she had prayed for her. The speaker answered that this was because the prayer was not ‘in the Holy Spirit’; the Holy Spirit obviously wanted something different to happen to the child’s aunt, and because those who prayed for her weren’t praying for the same thing, God was making her aunt continue to suffer. I think that answer probably destroyed the child’s faith in a loving God; I believe the visiting speaker was profoundly wrong in his analysis and was himself not speaking ‘in the Holy Spirit’. I don’t believe in a God who heals or sends illness on people according to whether they or their family prays in the right way, or prays at all. That is not the God who was revealed through the life & teaching of Jesus.
So how do we decide on the relationship between belief, prayer and scientific medical treatment? Is prayer for healing a waste of time, as many prominent atheists would have us believe?
Most of the evidence about the relationship between prayer, faith and healing is anecdotal. Some people believe that prayer has healed them – I have a friend who sincerely believes that the prayers of her church caused a cancer to disappear in between its discovery and the beginning of treatment. Others, and I am among them, feel that the prayers of others, while not curing their illness in the medical sense, helped them to cope better with the diagnosis and treatment and life-changes which that illness involved.
There is some limited scientific evidence to support the beneficial effects of faith and prayer. Studies show that religious faith, on average, increases length of life, reduces physical and mental ill-health and that sometimes people who are prayed for recover better than those who are not. But against that, you have to put the fact that the most prayed for people are probably our Royal Family, and they are not noticeably healthier or happier than the general population, although some of them, the women in particular, seem to live a long time!
If we look at the passage from the letter of James, we can see that it is not giving us a systematic guide to prayer for healing. Our passage needs to be taken in the context of the whole letter, which is actually about Christian speech and its connection to Christian action; and the section on prayer is found among other sections which talk about expressions of faith, the evils that the uncontrolled tongue can cause, swearing, prejudice and confession.
It is not saying that the only way to deal with human suffering is to pray. Earlier sections of the letter say just the opposite to that – that words without actions are not the Christian way. James gives guidance on the way that believers should express themselves in different circumstances: to sing when they are happy and to give praise to God even in bad times. The advice to pray when you are sick forms part of a section addressed to the whole church, which advises that when someone is sick, the elders should go to visit them, not only to pray but also to anoint them with oil. Oil was a medicine in New Testament times, so the elders’ prayer involve practical medical help as well. It is typical of James to link words with actions.
The passage also reflects a belief in the connection between a person’s mental and spiritual state and their physical health, which has been endorsed by modern psychology. A person who is anxious or wracked with guilt is less able to recover than one who is calm and optimistic. The prayers of the elders, their visit which gives the sick person human contact, the power of human touch in anointing, the easing of conscience through the confession of sins, and assistance from fellow church members in reconciling broken community relationships are all things that may contribute to the healing of the sick.
It is important also to recognise that this passage is not just talking about physical illness. In New Testament Greek the same words are used for ‘healing’ and for ‘saving’, and for both ‘saviour’ and ‘physician’. Healing for the first Christians was about much more than physical health; it encompassed the whole person, body, mind and spirit, being brought into balance and communion with God. That, I believe, is what Christian healing and Christian prayer should be concerned with.
Our two readings should also prompt us to question the belief held by some in the church that the only healing that can be ascribed to God is ‘miraculous ‘ healing which goes against the expectations of the medical profession, and that comes as an answer to the prayers of the faithful.
This belief reflects the attitude of the disciples in our Gospel passage, who complain to Jesus when someone who is not a disciple cures someone in his name. (Perhaps, as one commentator suggested, they are especially cross about this as earlier in the same chapter Mark shows them as failing to perform a similar exorcism). Jesus, however is very relaxed about it, and tells them that whoever is not specifically speaking against the work of the Kingdom is for it. This reflects the teaching in Matthew 25, that it is good deeds that address human need which are the criteria for approval by God, not signing up to a church or to specific beliefs about God.
Mark links this incident to several disconnected sayings about what encourages and what can provide barriers to those who are on the fringe or new to the faith. Jesus uses the typical exaggerated Jewish speech of his time to make it very plain just how serious this problem is for the growth of the Kingdom. We are not really expected to cut off our feet or hands, or tear out our eyes if they lead us or others astray, but we are supposed to be self-critical, and very aware of how our words and actions affect the way the Christian faith is seen by others. What we may need to amputate in order to improve the church’s image is not part of our physical body, but our exclusiveness, our sense of being ‘the chosen ones’, our criticism of others, and our hypocrisy.
Often (and even in the New Testament) Jesus’s words have been turned round to say that anyone who is not for Christ is against him. But that was very clearly not Jesus’s attitude. Other writers in the New Testament, like Luke and Paul, recognise the power to heal as a gift of the Spirit; but we don’t need to assume that it is a gift which is linked only to healing through prayer, or even only to practising Christians.
Christians in the medical professions, or who work as counsellors or therapists or in projects that build and heal communities, are assisting in God’s work of healing; but so are non-Christians who do this work. All of them, whether they acknowledge it or not, are helping to build the Kingdom. People who try to limit God’s work to Christians, or even worse, to one sort of Christians, are, in my judgement, working against the Kingdom, because that sort of attitude actively deters others from hearing the Gospel message. There is so much good being done in the world, by all sorts of different people; it is tragic when Christians refuse to co-operate in that work with others because of denominational, theological or religious differences. It is equally tragic when Christians are prevented from taking the opportunities that come their way to bring healing because of rules and regulations, hierarchies or church structures.
It is tragic when Christians become known as people who are always speaking against other people, because they are of a different faith or a specific gender, or sexuality, or because they choose to live in certain ways, rather than being known as people who are for things, like whatever is pure, just, honourable and worthy of praise, as Paul recommends to the Philippians.(4.8) If Christians followed this advice, we would be known as a very different sort of religion.
Brian McClaren wrote about his dream that Christians would be part of that sort of religion in his book “A Generous Orthodoxy”. He wrote: ‘I am more and more convinced that Jesus didn’t come merely to start another religion to compete in the marketplace with other religions. If anything I believe he came to end standard competitive religion (which Paul calls ‘the law’) by fulfilling it; I believe he came to open up a new something beyond religion – a new possibility, a realm, a domain, a territory of the spirit that welcomes everyone, but requires everyone (now including members of the Christian religion) to think again and become like little children. It is not, like too many religions, a place of fear and exclusion, but a place beyond fear and exclusion. It is a place where everyone can find a home in the embrace of God”.
I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are prayers in which we try to align our wills with the will of the God who loves every human being, and with divine grace, forgives all sins. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are prayers which mirror Jesus in rejoicing in what is good, what reconciles, what builds community, what brings peace, no matter whoever is doing it. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are those which ask the help of the Holy Spirit to bring healing and salvation to people in need, whether that means physical recovery, or calm acceptance of continuing illness and coming death, or reconciliation, lifting of guilt and peace of mind. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are those which are not just words, but are followed by action, by those who known themselves to be the Body of Christ on earth.
May we pray and work to become a community of powerful and effective prayer of that kind. In the name of Christ
January 8, 2012
May I wish you, again, a happy Christmas!
Yes, I know that, for the secular world, Christmas is behind us, all the decorations have been taken down, and we’re well into the New Year.
But in the church year, the season of Christmas continues until Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd; and although we are now into the part of the Christmas season we call Epiphany, on this particular Sunday we are actually hearing another version of the story of Christ’s birth. This time, not Luke’s version with the Annunciation to Mary, the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the child in the manger, the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple and the peaceful return to Nazareth; but Matthew’s version, with the Holy Family living in Bethlehem, the annunciation to Joseph, the magi led to see the new born baby by a star, their visit to King Herod, their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, their return home by another way, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and the family’s decision to live in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem when they return. Two very different narratives, but asking the same questions and giving the same answers about who this child is, and what it means to follow him.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was roundly criticised in some quarters for his Christmas Day sermon,which some people thought was ‘too political’. Politics can be defined as ‘of, for or relating to citizens’ or as ‘the process of human interaction by which groups make decisions’. Whichever definition of politics you use, the whole of the Bible, the Gospels and the Nativity stories in Luke and Matthew are about politics.
Do you remember the series of comedies starring Rowan Atkinson called ‘Blackadder’? In the one set in Tudor times, Miranda Richardson, playing a rather petulant Queen Elizabeth I had a catch phrase, which she produced whenever anyone disagreed with her: “Who’s Queen?” And that question is what the Nativity narratives are all about. Who is in authority, who wields ultimate power, whose laws do we obey?
Luke, writing for a predominantly Greek audience asks: who is the emperor, who is the Son of God, who is the Prince of Peace, who is the Saviour of the world? Is it the Roman Emperor Augustus, to whom all these titles were given at the time? Or is it Jesus?
Matthew, writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, asks who is the King of the Jews, who is the Son of David, who is the Messiah, who is the successor of Moses? Is it King Herod, the puppet king, installed by the Roman Emperor; or is it Jesus?
Matthew’s Nativity story demonstrates that Jesus is greater than the Roman Emperor, by mirroring the myths about the founding father of the Emperor’s dynasty with the story of the journey of the Magi. The imperial mythology tells of a star which led the ancestor of Augustus, Julus, his father Aeneas and his grandfather, westward from the doomed city of Troy to found the Roman race. Matthew tells of a star which led the wise men westward to worship the new born King of the Jews.
But Matthew also wants to show that Jesus is greater than, and is the summation of, all the leading figures of the Old Testament, and in particular the law giver, Moses, and the iconic king, David.
The Jews believed that Moses was the author of the Torah, contained in the first five books of the Old Testament. So Matthew includes in his Gospel five great discourses, giving the new Torah; and this pattern of five occurs also in his birth narrative, which is like the Gospel in miniature. There are (very unusually for a Jewish genealogy) five women mentioned in the list of Jesus’s ancestors; there are five dreams which guide Joseph and the Magi; there are five mentions of the town of Bethlehem; there are five texts of the Old Testament which illuminate the events of Jesus’s birth.
Matthew’s birth story also mirrors closely the non-biblical elaboration (targum or midrash) of the story of the birth of Moses. First century Jews and Christians would have been very familiar with these, but we miss the echoes, both because we don’t know these stories, and because we rarely read or hear the whole of Matthew’s story. Usually the visit of the Magi is tagged onto the end of the end of Luke’s nativity story, and we never hear the climax of the story, the killing of the baby boys in Bethlehem, (unless the Feast of the Holy Innocents falls on a Sunday – and we all know how small congregations are on the Sunday after Christmas!). Yet Matthew wrote about this slaughter as a direct parallel to the slaughter of the Hebrew boy children by the Pharoah.
In the Moses midrash the Pharoah has a dream that a Hebrew boy will be born who will threaten his power. So he decrees that all Hebrew boys are to be drowned at birth. The Hebrew men vow to divorce their wives, so they don’t produce any more boys. But Moses’s father is told in a dream to remarry his wife, as their son will be the saviour of Israel. He does so, and the child is protected and survives the slaughter of the babies to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.
In Matthew’s version, Joseph (another name that harks back to the time in Egypt) vows to divorce his wife after finding she is pregnant. He is told in a dream to take her back, which he does. Herod finds out about the child from the wise men, and attempts to kill him, but through messages given in dreams, the child is protected and escapes to Egypt. When the danger is passed, in a new Exodus he returns to Nazareth to grow up, and eventually begin his ministry.
The Moses midrash is not the only Old Testament reference in Matthew’s birth story. The references to Bethlehem, and to the king who will be a shepherd to his people, refer back to the story of David, the greatest Jewish King. The five prophecies refer back to the prophet Isaiah and the threat from Assyria, the hope for a restoration of the Davidic kings, the Exodus, the Exile in Babylon and the time of the Judges. As we heard in our first reading, Matthew also draws on passages in Isaiah and the Psalms (particularly Psalm 72 on which Hail to the Lord’s Anointed is based); these refer to foreign nations and kings being drawn to the light of God in Jerusalem, and bringing gifts of gold and incense. Other passages which influenced his story include the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24, 15-19 and the dreams of Daniel.
But Matthew’s birth story does not just look back to the Old Testament and its prophets, kings and heroes who served God, revealed God’s will before Jesus, and so prefigured him. It also looks forward, to the climax of the story of Jesus in his death and passion, and his continuing story in the life of the church. The third gift of the magi, myrrh, foreshadows his death. The attempt by the Romans’ puppet king, Herod, to kill a rival King of the Jews, foreshadows the decision of the Roman governor, Pilate to crucify Jesus as King of the Jews. The escape to Egypt foreshadows Jesus’s escape from death through the resurrection.
The star foreshadows the acclamation of Jesus in the Gospels, especially John’s Gospel, Paul and Revelation as the light, which reflects the glory of God; and the Magi, foreigners and pagans who recognise and worship Jesus as the Messiah when the Jewish leaders try to destroy him, foreshadow the Gentiles of Matthew’s church, who recognise and worship Jesus as their Saviour, when many of his countrymen reject him. Matthew’s birth story is filled with joy, like Luke’s, but is much more obviously filled with conflict and foreboding – which perhaps explains why we prefer to ignore many of its details.
But if we do only read ‘the nice bits’ of Matthew, we will fail to hear the message Matthew intended us to hear. Matthew wrote in a tradition that believed that hearing the stories of the past made these events real and effective in the present. His story says that Christmas is not just something that happened two thousand years ago; it happens now, and demands a response from us, as it demanded a response from those who witnessed it then.
It asks us who we are in the story. Are we like the Magi who follow the light, and refuse to comply with the attempts of those in religious and political power who want to extinguish it?
It asks what most completely discloses the divine will for us? The law of Moses or the grace, forgiveness and sacrifice shown by Christ?
It asks what really brings light and peace to the world? The exercise of military and economic power or following the example of a persecuted and crucified Messiah? Peace through military victory or peace through justice?
Matthew’s Christmas story is not a nice story for children, about exotic kings, guiding stars, dreams and strange gifts. It is an adult story, about religion, and power and politics, and how they can be abused. It places before those who hear and read it a choice about the decisions they make, and the guidance they follow.
The Christmas story proclaims the beginning of a new world order, initiated by the birth of Jesus, It challenges all of us to consider what we are being called to do to bring about that new world order in our time, in our church and our town. And that’s politics!
Will we follow his star? Will we bring our gifts to offer to him? How will we pay him homage?
November 20, 2011
(Matthew 25, 31-45) Address for Holy Communion with baptism.
Have you ever seen the Queen or a member of the Royal Family in the flesh. Or in a film or on TV? Did they look the same as every other person or different? They are a very different Royal Family from the one described in our reading today. That king would have had absolute power to reward or punish anyone. Think Henry VIII rather than Elizabeth II!
What about Jesus? Anyone ever seen him? Seen pictures – what people think he may have looked like. What do you think Jesus looks like? How would you recognise him if he suddenly appeared before you? Do you think he would look the same as everyone else, or different?
Today is a very special day in the church. The Feast of Christ the King – the last Sunday before we begin the four weeks of Advent, which is the time we prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. It’s a time also when we try to prepare ourselves for when Jesus comes to us again, to judge us.
In this week’s gospel Matthew tells Jesus’s followers a story about the day they will be judged and surprisingly, explains they will be judged as good or bad by how they’ve taken care of Jesus.
Matthew says when Jesus was hungry they gave him food and when he was thirsty they gave him a drink. He tells them that they took care of him when he was sick, or gave him something to wear when he had nothing or visited him when he was in prison.
But the people are a little surprised to hear this from Jesus – as we might be. We probably know we’ve never taken care of Jesus when he was sick – or given him food or a drink – and neither had many of them. So they said to “We don’t remember doing all these things for Jesus!”
And then Matthew gives them the message that’s at the heart of what Jesus taught. He explains that when we do these things for others who really need them – when we feed the hungry and take care of the sick… when we do good things for other people here on Earth – that we’re actually doing these things for Jesus, our King.
Jesus’ story helps us to remember that we do God’s work every day – and that we never quite know all the places we meet him.
Perhaps some of you may have done these things for Jesus on Friday, when Children in Need were raising money for children in this country. Today is the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children – perhaps you could do something to help other children today. And over Christmas, there will be lots of appeals to help people without homes and needing food and other essentials. There will be appeals at church and elsewhere. Perhaps you could serve Jesus by responding to these appeals.
What a perfect story that is to lead us into the first Sunday of Advent, when we begin celebrating the coming of Jesusas a tiny baby.
But the story has other lessons for us especially as we welcome J. into the Christian family in baptism. It tells us that God is not chiefly concerned about how we worship, or whether we say the creed, or believe certain things about the Bible, or Jesus or the Church. What really matters to God is how we behave, and especially how we behave to those who are vulnerable and at a disadvantage. As Jesus shows us, it doesn’t matter whether their troubles are their own fault, whether they deserve to be helped or not. We will be judged on how we respond. And that will affect what our world is like – whether it’s the Paradise into which those who helped others were welcomed in Matthew’s story, or the living Hell into which those who ignored the needs of others were sent.
And remember, it’s not a TV personality, or a member of cast of Eastenders, but our King who is telling us whenever we help the smallest and weakest member of the human family, we are doing it for God.
(based on an outline at The Children’s Sermon.Com © 2008)
October 16, 2011
( Isaiah 45, 1-7; Matthew 22, 15-22)
Jesus was in a very tricky situation. He was under attack from an unlikely combination of allies. On the one hand there were the Pharisees, the religious purists, who insisted that every last letter of the religious law had to be obeyed. On the other hand there were the Herodians, the political party who supported Herod Antipas, the puppet ruler installed by Rome.
To the Pharisees the coinage used to pay taxes was a blasphemy; it bore an image of Caesar, and therefore contravened the prohibition in the Ten Commandments on making a graven image, which they interpreted literally – no pictures of any living thing; and since the Roman Emperors claimed to be gods themselves, to use the coinage was tantamount to worshipping another god, in their view.
The Herodians knew that King Herod’s position was very insecure. The Romans had already deposed his brother Archeleus for mismanagement of Judea; any hint of rebellion in Galilee, and Herod might be deposed too.
So, if Jesus said you should pay the taxes, he could be accused by the Pharisees of blasphemy; if he said you shouldn’t, he could be accused by the Herodians of stirring up rebellion.
Jesus however, replied in typically enigmatic fashion. He didn’t answer the question directly, he did not give a binding ruling, but challenged his listeners to make up their own minds: “give ( in Greek it says ‘give back’) to the Roman Emperor what belongs to the Emperor and give to God what belongs to God”.
We’re in a very sticky situation too. We live in a society and a world whose financial systems are in crisis. The cost of housing and the cost of food are constantly increasing. We seem to be paying over more and more of our income in taxes. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements which seek to convince us that we cannot be happy unless we buy this or eat this, or travel to this place or the other. Yet every post brings us desperate appeals from charities for more money to support their work – and even in church we cannot escape appeals for more funds. We are obliged to pay taxes, we need to support ourselves and our families, we want to support our favourite charities and the church. How are we supposed to decide how to allocate our limited funds between these competing demands?
Does Jesus’ reply to his questioners help us in our dilemma? Well, no, not a lot! He’s saying to us too, as he so often does: “I’ve taught you about God’s kingdom; you have the Bible to give you guidance; listen to the Spirit, use your God-given intelligence, and make up your own minds.”
Nobody likes paying taxes. We all moan about how much we have to pay. Although we may not, like the Galileans and Judeans of Jesus’ time, be paying taxes to an occupying power, we still tend to see it in terms of ‘them’ taking from ‘us’. Perhaps it’s the element of compulsion we don’t like; there’s no way we can choose not to pay, unless we don’t work, or don’t buy food or goods, and that’s pretty impossible in the modern world.
Or perhaps we feel we don’t have much control over how our taxes are spent; (though we have a lot more say than people in many parts of the world, and if we choose not to use our vote in national or council elections, we can’t really complain.) We tend to concentrate on the government and council projects we don’t approve of, and this will be different for every one of us: foreign wars, armaments, the Olympic Games, another airport or motorway, more generous social security payments or pensions. Whatever it is, we feed our resentment of ‘our taxes’ being used for something we dislike.
We feel we have much more control over our charitable giving, because we give to charities whose aims and methods we approve of, and not to those we disapprove of. There is a tendency to treat the church as just another charity, to which we can choose to give or not; and perhaps we sometimes have similar attitudes towards giving to the church as we do to taxation. Again, we can see it as ‘them’ ( the Archbishop’s Council or the Diocese or the PCC) taking money from ‘us’, the ordinary people in the pew, and using it for things we don’t wholly approve of; or perhaps we don’t actually know what it’s used for, so can’t see the point of giving.
We can transform our perception of paying taxes if we look at things from the other end, from what we get out of it. I am very grateful for the education in school and university I, and my children have received, at virtually no cost to ourselves. I am thankful that I live in a county with one of the lowest crime rates in the country. I have had reason again and again to be thankful for the NHS, when my children were small, when my parents were old, and for myself in recent years. And now, as a pensioner, I can even benefit a little from my National Insurance contributions and my taxes and Council tax with a small personal pension and a free bus pass! When I’m not thinking straight, I may still moan as much as anyone else about the taxes I pay – but when I’m thinking about all the benefits I’ve received from the taxes paid by me and others, I am happy to give to Caesar ( or in our case, Mr Darling) what Caesar asks for.
In the same way as we can transform our perception of paying taxes, we can transform our view of giving to the church, by seeing it not as about what ‘they’ demand, but what ‘we’ have been given. If we think about it, we are all so richly blessed. We live in a part of the world which is beautiful, which is prosperous, which is secure. We have enough money to have a choice about what we do with it. We have inherited a church tradition with a wealth of beautiful buildings and music of all kinds, and inspiring literature from every age. We have been taught by Christ that God loves us, however inadequate and sinful we are, and by Paul that nothing can separate us from that love. We have freedom to practice our faith, and to preach it to others. The example of the church in caring for the poor, the sick, and the elderly, and in providing education for the young has inspired the state to do likewise.
We know the generosity of God; it is in thankfulness for all we have been given, that we are asked to share that generosity with others through the work of God in the church and the world. Jesus told his hearers to ‘give to God what is God’s’. One of our offertory prayers reminds us that everything comes from God; both what we give back to God and what we do with our lives are signs of our awareness of that.
Some people think that, like politics, what we do with our money is nothing to do with our faith. But it is everything to do with faith. Money is not good, or evil; it is morally neutral. But what we do with our money can be good or evil; and how we allocate our money is a very clear sign of our spiritual health – whether we consider it to be ‘ours’ or whether we really acknowledge that it belongs to God.
Of course, we can ‘give back to God’ in many ways.
Our Old Testament reading tells us that legitimate governments may sometimes be put in place by God, to carry our God’s purposes (whether they acknowledge it or not). When we pay taxes to a legitimate government, to be used for the benefit and security of everyone with whom we share our country, we can see it as ‘giving back to God’. When we give money to, or work for charities that preserve the planet, that help the unfortunate in this country and abroad, that pursue medical research for the greater happiness of people everywhere, we are giving to support the work of God.
When we buy fairly traded goods even when they are more expensive than standard brands, we are giving back to God what is God’s. When we support mission agencies overseas, we are obviously giving back to God what is God’s, for God’s work.
But we also have an obligation to witness to the Gospel in our local community. Bishop David Jenkins said the task of the church is to ‘hold the ramparts’ – to provide a visible statement of God’s presence in society, to remind people of the reality of God, and God’s demands on humanity. What sort of statement of God’s presence are we providing if the church is shabby, church activities are limited to Sunday and the diocese cannot afford to pay for a full time priest in each parish? Of course we need to provide for our families and pay our taxes and support charities – but our appreciation of God’s generosity to us should also demand that we support the local church, too.
When Jesus was asked the question about paying taxes, he asked for a coin, and asked people to look at what was written on it. If you take out a coin from your purse or your pocket, you will find it has the head of the monarch on it. But in the inscription around that head it has the letters DG. That stands for ‘Dei gratia’ which means “by the Grace of God”; but it could equally well stand for ‘Deo gratias’ which means “Thanks be to God”.
Which means that every time we look at a coin, we can be reminded that when we choose give away some of our money it is not in response to a demand, or an obligation, or a membership fee, but is an expression of our heartfelt thankfulness for all God’s generosity to us.
September 18, 2011
The parable of the workers in the vineyard: what a very subversive and shocking piece of writing that is. Just imagine it in modern terms. You contract to do some casual work for an employer, perhaps a month’s gardening or decorating, and he takes you on for an agreed wage that you know is the standard rate for the job. He takes on other workers a third of the way through the month, half-way through, towards the end, and even some on the last day. Then, when you open your wage envelopes at the end of the month, you discover you’ve all been paid the same amount, and everyone has the full month’s pay. There’d be riots, wouldn’t there?
The actions of the proprietor don’t fit with any known economic system. It’s certainly not good capitalist practice: any employer who followed this course would be drummed out of the CBI and accused of undermining other businesses. And, of course, giving as much to those who were unemployed for most of the time as to those who worked would definitely be seen as encouraging benefit cheats.
But, of course, no trade union would accept such an arrangement either – it would undermine all the carefully negotiated differentials and hours of work. Any good convener would have the wage force of such an employer out on strike in a jiffy, complaining about thwarting his members’ legitimate aspirations. The unions would be deeply suspicious of the employer’s motivation and probably suspect him of plotting to divide the workforce and destroy the nationally agreed wage rates!
But it wouldn’t accord with a Marxist creed either: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’, for we have no evidence that the needs of the latecomers were equal to those who had worked longest. The only philosophy it fits seems to be John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, which says we should do what contributes to the greatest happiness of the greatest number; though since the early risers were extremely unhappy about being paid the same as the latecomers, it doesn’t really fit that either.
No, the story of the labourers in the vineyard fits only one system, that of the Kingdom of Heaven, or ‘God’s imperial rule’ as it is known in one American translation. This story is typical of Jesus, and the way he taught about God. It cuts right across the expectations of those who were listening, and made his hearers think again about what God was really like.
Yet, it is not a favourite parable of the church. It is much less well known than, say, the Lost Sheep or the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. Why? Is it perhaps because it makes us feel so uncomfortable? Just as the story shows the employer cutting across the legitimate (so they thought) expectations of his faithful hard working labourers, so the theological message of the parable shows God cutting across the legitimate (so we think) expectations of faithful churchgoers. It undermines our sense of entitlement, our religious confidence, our reliance on our good works.
In short, it’s not fair!
Jonah of course thought the same thing about his experience of being sent by God to tell the people of Ninevah to repent. It wasn’t fair he was chosen for such a difficult task, it wasn’t fair that God sent a storm when he tried to escape, it wasn’t fair that in the end he had to carry out the job God wanted him to do. Then, when he did it, it wasn’t fair that the people of Ninevah repented and God forgave them! What sort of God is it who forgives the wicked instead of sending fire and brimstone to destroy them?
Finally, least fair of all, the plant that grew up to shelter Jonah when he sat sulking in the desert was destroyed by a pest, and Jonah was left to bear the heat of the sun without shelter. Jonah had done God’s work, although reluctantly, and God wasn’t even prepared to allow him shelter from the sun.
It’s not fair!
I don’t suppose it was fair that Paul was in prison for his faith, nor that the Philippian converts to whom he wrote were also being given a hard time by their opponents. But they didn’t complain that it wasn’t fair. They thought of themselves as following the path of Christ: they understood the way the Kingdom of Heaven works.
As Jonah remarked (rather bitterly) the God who Jesus came to reveal to us is characterised by ‘hesed’ – loving kindness. This is love that goes beyond what is deserved, which goes far beyond rewarding the good people and hard work. It is love which is overflowing with mercy, even to the most undeserving in human eyes.
The tale of the labourers in the vineyard tells us that God has no favourites, or rather than every human being is equally God’s favourite. We are all equally recipients of his generosity and he treats us all with equal favour. Those who knew and worshipped him from time immemorial, his ancient people, the Jews; the first apostles; Christians throughout the ages, and modern believers are all put on an equal footing with the person who has led a life of indifference or even hostility to faith, but has a deathbed conversion. All are given the reward of faith, and welcomed into the Kingdom.
We should not be surprised that we find this hard to take. According to the stories in the New Testament, even the disciples found it hard to accept the way God distributes rewards (you remember the story of the sons of Zebedee asking for the place of honour in the Kingdom). And later the church developed a sort of spiritual hierarchy, designating some people as ‘saints’ with the assumption that they are closer to God or in a more favoured position in heaven than ordinary believers. Then, in the mediaeval church, they even developed a sort of spiritual economy, with the chance to buy remission of days in purgatory from the saints, who were assumed to have more than enough good works to ensue their admission to heaven, with some to spare. We may smile at such beliefs, but even today isn’t there a tendency to believe that some Christians – the clergy and monks and nuns – or some sorts of Christian – Catholics or Evangelicals or non-conformists – are more favoured by God and will be first in the queue at the Pearly Gates?
But the parable of the workers in the vineyard reminds us (if we are prepared to listen) that God doesn’t work that way. It’s not fair!
It’s demoralising, isn’t it! No matter how many sermons you preach, how often you come to church, how much time you spend on your knees, how much money you give to charity, how many housebound people you visit, how many programmes of ‘Songs of Praise’ you watch, you are no more favoured in God’s eyes than the newest convert. The reward for everyone is the same – the everlasting joy of living in God’s presence.
But, on the other hand, the story of the labourers in the vineyard is strangely comforting. We all of us know, in our heart of hearts, deep down in the secret places of our consciences, that we don’t do as much as we could in God’s service. We are all, sometimes, among the idlers, who don’t come out into the market place to look for God’s work until it’s almost too late. (Just as most of us have also been like Jonah, and tried to run away from the task which God has asked us to do). Yet, we are assured that, as long as we do eventually hear God’s call and answer it, we will receive our reward.
We all have different gifts and talents. Some of them seem much more impressive than others, and receive much more recognition in the church and the world. This may lead some to feel their little gifts and talents are not worth offering. This parable tells us God doesn’t see it that way: whatever we can give in time, or material gifts or talents, will be accepted in the same gracious way, as long as we respond when we are called.
For some, the work he calls us to do will be long and hard, like those who laboured in the heat of the day. For some it will be dangerous, like Jonah’s mission to Ninevah. For some it will involve opposition and imprisonment, as Paul and the Philippians found. For others, the effort the work requires will seem very small; perhaps they may be seen as idlers in the world’s eyes. It doesn’t matter whether some great public work is demanded of us, or something slight and short-term – to be, to suffer, to pray faithfully or just to die well; God promises us the same payment whatever is asked of us.
It may not be fair in the eyes of the world, or even in the eyes of many believers. What is really important is how we react to God’s idea of fairness.
Do we react as Jonah did, by running away and sulking? Or do we react as Paul did, with the mind of Christ? Can we get beyond the ‘not fair’ state of mind and rejoice in God’s generosity, even to the undeserving. Can we even imitate it?
If we can, then we can stop worrying about what may happen to other people, and rest secure in the knowledge that when our day’s work is done, we will be paid the full wages and welcomed home: not like Shakespeare’s golden lads and lasses to dust, but the the welcoming arms of this world’s proprietor, who turns out not to be any old eccentric employer, but our loving heavenly Father.
September 4, 2011
(Ezekiel 33, 7-11; Matthew 18, 15-20)
I always read the accounts in the local paper of couples celebrating their Golden or Diamond (or sometimes these days, their Platinum) wedding anniversaries. I’m interested in their recipes for a long marriage. But if they say, as they sometimes do, “We’ve never had a cross word,” I have to admit to a moment of disbelief. I simply can’t conceive of a relationship between two fallible human beings in which there has never been any disagreement or conflict. Or, if it is true, then I wonder whether one of the partners has sacrificed his or her own personality and needs in order to conform to the other .
Marriage is a covenant, and our readings today are about covenants, and in particular, relationships within the covenant community of religious belief. The Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel, is about the covenant with Israel and the New Testament reading is about relationships within the Christian community, the New Covenant.
In this passage from Matthew 18, it is not the historical Jesus talking. It refers to an organised church or congregation, things which existed only long after Pentecost. It is the absence of Jesus which brings the need for procedures to settle disputes between members of the church. The advice arrived at after prayer and thought, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is then given the authority of Jesus by being placed in the context of his teaching about relationships in the kingdom, including two parables.
We know from Acts and the Epistles that the early church, even in the apostolic age, was riven with conflict, just as today’s church is. That’s a normal part of any human relationships. Conflict is not bad or a sign of failure. David Ewart http://tinyurl.com/42pkgd3 says: “Real churches have – or should have – real conflicts. The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts. Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflicts kills churches”.
What is important is that we deal with conflict with Kingdom values guiding our actions. That means loving others as you love yourself. It means never giving up on anyone. It means wanting the best for others, even if you don’t particularly like them. It means having a special care for the weak and the outsider. It means being honest with one another, even when that is difficult, acknowledging differences and not pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Andrew Prior http://tinyurl.com/3swqpfz says: “Christians have been particularly good at replacing honest open love with being nice”.
I think that is true, particularly in the Church of England; but it is also true that Christians can behave in a very nasty way when a member of the congregation, or a group, disagrees with those in authority. This passage from Matthew has been used in such circumstances as a sort of legal process for disciplining dissident members, and eventually, for getting rid of them. That is why it is so important not to take this text in isolation, but to read it in context.
The first verses of Matthew 18 recount the disciples’ question to Jesus about ‘who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven’. Jesus replies by taking a child, and telling them they must become like a child – without power, without legal status, vulnerable- if they hope to enter the Kingdom. He is emphasising the need for humility.
Then he talks more about children, or perhaps those who are new to the faith, or vulnerable, and says if anyone leads them astray, they will be condemned (reflecting the responsibility of leaders which is also emphasised in our reading from Ezekiel). Then follows the passage about it being better to lose a hand or foot or eye, rather than offending others.
The third section of the chapter is the parable of the lost sheep. This highlights the importance of making every effort to keep all the members of the Christian community together, no matter how awkward or foolish they may be.
After the passage we heard today, Matthew includes the parable of the unforgiving servant, who is shown mercy by his master, but is eventually condemned for failing to show equal mercy to others. This comes in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a brother who has offended him; to which the answer is ‘seventy times seven’, meaning endlessly.
So, the passage on conflict resolution is surrounded by others which outline the context in which disputes among Christians should be resolved, a context which highlights humility, mercy, forgiveness, community and making every effort not to offend others, and to keep everyone within the fold. Within the Christian community, resolution of differences is never to be conducted outside the grace of God. We have to recognise that we act as members of the Body of Christ – and that body includes an awful lot of people who are as difficult to live with as we are ourselves.
Read within its context, the instructions about how to deal with someone who sins against us personally is not telling us, “This is all you have to do before you get them thrown out of the church”. It is saying “This is just how hard you have to try”, (and some!) to effect a reconciliation.
Read within this context, the harsh saying about “Treat them as though they were a Gentile or a tax collector” is not giving you permission to regard them as outsiders. Jesus said the tax collectors would be among the first into the Kingdom of Heaven, so this is saying it is your duty to try even harder to bring them back into full fellowship with you and everyone else. Read within this context the crucial verse is not this one, about cutting people out, but the verse about the joy of regaining a member for the community.
Reading this passage within its context also changes the way we hear the final two verses of the passage, about how our requests and our decisions will be received by God. ‘Gathered in my name’ means gathering and acting in a way that imitates Jesus, and follows his example. This makes it clear that these verses are not about requesting things for ourselves; rather they are about how God will receive our prayers and decisions about seeking and reconciling those who might otherwise be lost. Those prayers and decisions should be characterised by God’s extravagant forgiveness, God’s endless search for those who may be lost, God’s loving-kindness for everyone, but particularly for the weak and the vulnerable, acting according to the characteristics of the God who Jesus revealed to us.
Reading this passage within its context makes us realise how often it has been misused during the Church’s history to persecute those groups whose ideas differ from those of the people who exercise power, and to justify the abuse of individuals, through institutions such as the Inquisition and during various inter-denominational conflicts.
Nowadays, we might think it’s not very relevant at the institutional level of church. When was the last time a church you were part of formally disciplined anyone?
But it has recently become more relevant to the Church of England, because of the current debate about the Anglican Communion Covenant. The Dioceses of the C of E are at the moment considering whether to approve this, and in this deanery the subject will be considered at the next Deanery Synod, which will be open to everyone.
The Anglican Covenant was drawn up after some provinces came to the conclusion that some actions of other provinces were not acceptable within the Church, in particular the acceptance remarriage in church after divorce, the opening of priestly and episcopal orders to women, and most recently, the acceptance of faithful gay relationships as valid covenants like marriage, and so not a bar to ordination. Sections 1 and 2 of the Covenant attempt to define what it is to be ‘Anglican’ (something that has always been left rather vague in the past). Section 3 proposes that certain bodies (like the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council) which had previously been forums for discussion, should have the task of maintaining order in the Communion. It also commits those who sign up not to do anything which another province objects to. Section 4 describes ‘relational consequences’ for those provinces who don’t sign up, or whose actions offend another province.
Although the Covenant is being promoted as a means of maintaining the unity of the Communion, much of the history of the process indicates that it is seen by those who argued most forcibly for it as a means of excluding those provinces (especially the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church in Canada) from the Anglican Communion. Some of the provinces that were most vociferous about the need for the Covenant have since decided it doesn’t go far enough to exclude the offending provinces and have already refused to attend any meetings where their representatives are present. There is now something like an ‘alternative’ Anglican Communion, known by the acronym GAFCON, where these dissenting provinces meet. This raises a large question mark over the Anglican Covenant and whether it is now going to achieve anything, other than preserving an illusion of unity while destroying the tolerance of diversity which has up to now been the hallmark of the Anglican Communion.
Whatever is eventually decided about the Anglican Covenant, our passage from Matthew (written we must believe under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) makes it clear that reconciliation, not exclusion should be the aim of any procedure fro resolving differences within a Christian community. Whether it is individuals or groups or even whole provinces that disagree, the ability to forgive and to tolerate difference is the mark of a true disciple in the Kingdom. Making sure that not one member, not one sheep from the Master’s flock, is lost and not one little one is damaged, is much more important than being right.