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
July 7, 2013
Isaiah 66, 10-14; Galatians 6, 1-16; Luke 10 1-11.
I recently read a story online about a couple and their daughter who emigrated from Hull to Australia after watching a TV documentary about the luxurious life there – and then returned to the UK two months later because of the high cost of living they encountered, the difficulty of getting their favourite foods, and missing their families. It cost them £10K to move to Australia – and now they are back without their furniture, and without a permanent place to live.
I just can’t imagine making a major decision like moving house, let alone moving continents without a lot of research beforehand. Even when we go on holiday, we look up hotels on TripAdvisor and make sure we have somewhere to stay; we make lists for what we pack, and plan out routes before we set off.
So, the Gospel passage for today, which has been described as ‘The Owner’s Instruction Manual for Christian Mission’ is really rather daunting for me. I tend to follow the Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’, but this passage seems to be saying “Be UNPrepared”. It seems to go against everything that our society regards as sensible – planing things out, taking out insurance, making sure you’ve got the resources to finish something before you start, relying on yourself and your abilities, and so on. What is God saying to us through this passage?
This passage comes in the second half of Luke’s Gospel, after the Transfiguration, when Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. It parallels the sending out of the 12 Apostles in Luke 9, and reflects Luke’s special interest in mission to the Gentiles (in the Bible 12 is the number of Israel and 70 or 72 the number of the whole earth). So this passage is telling us about the wider mission of the church.
Jesus doesn’t minimise the challenges of mission activity – then, as now there will be plenty of resistance to the Good News, fuelled by fear, by indifference, by self-interest as the message of the coming Kingdom challenges the prevailing power structure. Jesus warns his disciples that they will be going as “sheep among wolves”. He warns them that the work will be hard: “The harvest is ready but the workers are few”. He doesn’t give them impossible targets; their job is simply to prepare the ground for his arrival. They are to speak words of peace, heal the sick and announce the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. The implication is that he will do the rest, building on their preparatory work, when he comes.
Some of the instructions Jesus give seem familiar to us as we plan church activities. First of all he instructs his disciples to pray – but the prayers are not for success, but for each other, and for more and more people to become involved with the work of mission. That’s a good reminder for us that mission is not the work just of the ordained, or of trained mission workers, but of every Christian.
Second, Jesus instructs them to go out in pairs, a sensible instruction when we go out into hazardous environments; but it’s not just about our personal safety – it reminds us also that we are part of a Christian community, made up of members with many different skills and talents, all of which may be useful in bringing different sorts of people into fellowship. In today’s world, when there is so much cult of personality, we tend to focus on individuals and what they achieve; it is all to easy to forget the people who support and co-operate with the front line workers, and so play their part in the harvest of mission. The church has tended to do that too: this story is a useful counter to that. We know the names of the 12 apostles who were sent out, and have made them into saints, and named churches after them. We don’t know anything about these 70 or 72 disciples, not even their names. They stand for the thousands, even millions of faithful Christians who have worked to bring in the Kingdom of God throughout history and continue to do so now.
Jesus also gives them a script to follow. He tells them what to say: “Peace be on this house. The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” It’s a very simple slogan – short, to the point, affirming. It would even fit into a Tweet!
Modern evangelism courses often try to equip ordinary Christians with a script; but they are rarely as simple and affirming as that. How often have Christians gone into situations speaking words of peace and affirmation? If you look at the media today, the impression given is that Christians are against things and people, and condemn rather than affirm. Perhaps we would do better at bringing in the Kingdom if we went back to Jesus’s script!
These instructions are easy to follow. It is the rest of the manual that goes against our instincts. Every mission initiative that I’ve heard about has involved lots of preparation, lots of expenditure and lots of equipment. But Jesus says: take nothing with you, not even any money, rely on strangers for food and accommodation, accept whatever you’re offered without complaint – in short, travel light!
That might have seemed less strange in Jesus’s time than it does now. Hospitality to strangers was a social obligation in Biblical society in a way it is not for ours. To mistreat visitors brought condemnation of the harshest kind. Later, in a continuation of the passage that we don’t get in the lectionary, Jesus says that it will be better for the town of Sodom on judgement day than for any town that rejects his disciples, reminding us that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality – it was mistreatment of strangers and abuse of hospitality that brought punishment and destruction upon them, not gay sex.
What was Jesus really saying to the disciples with these instructions? I think he was asking them to rely on God, and not on themselves. In our Old Testament reading, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, we hear God’s promise that he will nurture those who serve him as a mother nurtures her children, and protect them as they would be protected in a walled city like Jerusalem. It is that sort of total trust that Jesus asked of his disciples and asks of us. He asks them to make themselves vulnerable when they are engaged in evangelism – and he asks the same of us. He tells them to eat whatever is put in front of them; that would have been a much harder instruction for observant Jews, with their complex food laws, to accept than it is for us, but it reminds us that we are instructed to rely not just on those who are like us, but also, perhaps on those from a very different culture and with very different tastes from those which the Church has traditionally endorsed.
So how do we interpret these instructions for mission in today’s world? I don’t think it is really telling us to be unprepared in the sense of not spending money or using modern equipment with us when we engage in mission. But it is telling us to keep things simple and to concentrate on the essential of the Christian message and not get sidelined onto peripheral things. It reminds us that often it is the small things, not the grand gestures that advance the Kingdom – things like speaking words of peace and comfort, bringing healing into a tense situation, accepting the hospitality of those different from us, and not making a fuss when things are not done as we think they ought to be done. And things like helping at a foodbank, buying Fairtrade goods, twinning your toilet, or demonstrating for peace and justice.
It reminds us that we must be prepared to work with all sorts of different people to build the Kingdom; in our society that might include government agencies, atheists and humanists and even people of other faiths.
Above all it reminds us that the only equipment we need for mission is trust in the grace of God revealed through the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the message that Paul gives to the Galatian Christians in the letter from which our Epistle reading came. He is advising them to rely on the Holy Spirit, and to live a life based on mutual love and service, rather than relying on the keeping of the Jewish law to bring them salvation. He acknowledges that this path will not be easy: it led Christ to the cross, and may well lead his followers to the same place, but it is the only way to serve God faithfully. What Christ’s followers must trust in is not their own individual talents, or earthly power-structures or miraculous demonstrations, but in God’s commitment to peace and justice, which will ultimately prevail.
So, however little it may seem we have available to us to fulfil the missionary task that Jesus gave us, we are not really unprepared. As Paul assures us, doing what is right, working for the good of all, trusting in the way of the cross will bring the harvest and bring in the new creation for which we hope.
April 28, 2013
EASTER 5. (Acts 11,1-18; Rev. 21, 1-6; John 13, 31-35)
Some years ago, I watched a programme about Victoria Wood visiting parts of the British Empire. When she was in Hong Kong, she had a conversation with a dog beautician, who told her that one way rich residents demonstrated their wealth was to buy expensive and rare breeds of dogs as pets – and then serve them up as gourmet meals to their friends. When she visited Borneo, she was presented with another gourmet meal of bird’s nest soup – which she did not enjoy because she had previously visited the caves where the ingredients of the soup were collected – one of which was bird spit.
The expressions of disgust and horror I can see on the faces of some of you must be very like the reactions of members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem when they heard the description of what Peter had been ordered to eat in his vision. (Acts 11, 1-18) All the foods in the sheet that was lowered – birds of prey, reptiles, and insects – were unclean according to Jewish dietary rules, and observant Jews were forbidden to eat them.
Many religions, like Judaism, have rules about what their members may or may not eat. As Peter’s experience shows, it is a discipline, but also a way of keeping a holy people separate from nonbelievers, since you can only socialise in a limited way with people you cannot share meals with. The food laws were one important strand in defining who was Jewish and who was Gentile, and keeping them apart, so that the Jewish religion was not watered down or compromised.
Most societies have conventions about food – for instance the French eat horse-meat- which we tend not to; and they eat snails, which we don’t although we do eat whelks. Many of these are breaking down as societies become multi-cultural, and restrictive food laws are often the first things to be jettisoned when a religion undergoes a liberal reformation.
This is what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It ushered in a new era, in which the restrictions and regulations of Old Testament Judaism were no longer appropriate. The fact that this event is described in more or less detail three times in Chapters 10 and 11 of Acts, shows how important a decision it was. The Book of Acts shows the disciples struggling with the implications of the new age. This particular extract seems to show that the inclusion of the Gentiles was accepted once and for all after Peter’s explanation. But further reading in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles show that the issue continued to cause division in the Early Church, especially after St. Paul’s missionary journeys brought many more Gentile converts into the church. It took a long time to decide whether those Gentiles who wanted to become Christians had to keep all the food laws or just some of them, had to undergo circumcision if they were men, and had to observe Jewish religious festivals. We tend to think that deep and bitter divisions about what is essential and what is peripheral to the Christian faith are a relatively modern phenomenon. A careful reading of the New Testament soon demonstrates that divisions were part of the Christian experience from the very beginning.
The food we eat is no longer a major cause of dispute within the Christian Church. But then, it was not really the issue at stake for Peter and Paul in their missionary activities. What was really in dispute was who could be admitted as full members of the covenant community, and that continues to divide Christians. In the past people have been denied full participation (which includes full participation in worship and sacraments and being able to occupy positions of leadership and authority) on the grounds of their race or ethnic origin, on the basis of their age, and on the basis of their gender. Now the burning issue on which some parts of the church wish to exclude others is the issue of sexuality.
The church is both a divine and a human institution, so it is not surprising that sometimes human limitations take over. But God has no such limitations, and the Spirit (as the reading shows) is constantly breaking through those barriers which human beings construct around themselves to make themselves feel safe or comfortable. As faithful Christians we will find our selves constantly being challenged (as Peter was) to follow the Spirit’s lead to situations and places we would rather not go, and our minds constantly being opened to new possibilities of inclusion in our fellowship.
If we take on board fully the implications of this story, perhaps we will feel afraid. It makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit of God is free to bring about the will of God for the world, to transform it into a new heaven and earth, in unlooked for ways. It makes it clear that we cannot use our conventional short cut of categorising people by race, gender or sexuality in making decisions about them. It makes it very plain that the life and death of Jesus brought about salvation for everyone, and all sorts of people who we may not like, or approve of, are going to be grafted into our community whether we like it or not. It shows that to discriminate n against those to whom God has given the gifts of the Spirit is to oppose God – the worst of sins.
It is hard for human beings to keep up with God. And though we may believe that we will follow wherever the Spirit leads, putting this into practice its not always easy to do. We need always to be asking ourselves; “ Do we put limits on God’s offer of salvation? Are there groups of people that we regard as ‘impure’ and unworthy to be part of our fellowship? How can we tell if it is truly the Spirit leading us, and not our own desires, or human fashion?
God does not leave us without guidance, however, The gospel reading, taken from John’s account of the Last Supper, gives us one means of judging whether people are truly Jesus’ disciples or not. The guidance is placed just after the moment in the story where Judas leaves to betray Jesus and the others to the authorities, thus demonstrating that people who betray their friends are not true disciples. Jesus warns his disciples of his imminent death, and gives them a new commandment – to love one another as he has loved them; then he adds that they can tell if others are his disciples by the quality of their love for one another.
This is a very practical yardstick for us to use. It means we do have to judge each person individually, rather than relying on human categories. It is also a yardstick by which we know we all fall short – for none of us is able to show the boundless, sacrificial, all-inclusive love which Jesus did when chose to he died on the cross rather than resist with violence. So we are all included in the community of the Church by grace, and we have to be very, very careful about excluding others without good reason.
Inevitably, Christians will continue to be divided, as the Jerusalem Church was divided, over where the limits of inclusion and exclusion should be set. The story from Acts gives us some guidance about how we should deal with those divisions. Peter didn’t indulge in a long discourse about the theory behind the dietary laws and how things had changed; he didn’t bandy passages of Scripture with those who challenged his actions. He was honest about his own reservations, but detailed clearly how after prayer and being open to the Spirit’s leading, a new and unexpected experience had changed his deeply held opinions.
Peter’s experience is a real challenge to many in the Church, who seek to keep themselves in little enclaves of orthodoxy and supposed purity, and refuse to allow themselves to be open to the ministry of those – be they women or gays, or whoever – whom they seek to exclude.
Of course, being open to the leading of the Spirit is not without risks – but risk-taking love is what Jesus was all about.
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.
January 20, 2013
(Isaiah 62, 1-5: I Corinthians 12, 1-11; John 2, 1-11)
We’re getting ready for another wedding in our family – our younger son is getting married next year.
And like our elder son, he’s chosen to marry someone from the other side of the Atlantic – so it will be an American ceremony, with a celebration for the English side later; and we are learning how different wedding customs are in the United States from the UK. There seem to be lots more formal events to include – things like Bridal Showers and Rehearsal Dinners – which we don’t go in for here, and there’s a different etiquette for who makes speeches and when. Another interesting wedding experience to add to our previous one!
I’ve spoken before about the way my experience of leading Marriage Preparation courses highlighted many similarities between a couple getting married and two different churches entering an ecumenical partnership. There are similar tensions over what might seem, on the surface, to be very minor differences of family or church customs, but which nevertheless seem to carry enormous emotional weight, and lead to difficulties out of all proportion to their apparent importance. What family customs and religious practices have in common is that they are often deeply rooted in our early family experiences, in the things that provide us with part of our sense of identity and security, and that, as a result, they are extremely difficult to discuss in a rational and detached way.
Our Gospel reading today describes a wedding feast – and in the Bible, a wedding feast is always a symbol for the great Messianic Banquet at the end of time, celebrating the triumph of God’s Kingdom and the covenant between God and his people. In the Old Testament, as we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the ‘bride’ of God was the people of Israel. In the New Testament it is the new people of God, the Church. The marriage feast metaphor speaks of the love God has for his people, and the joy that they have in being joined to God. So, it is a very appropriate image to have before us in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we rejoice in the covenant relationship that God established with all Christians through Jesus, and the joy that we all share in serving God in the world.
It’s easy to get depressed by the difficulties of ecumenical co-operation, particularly by participation in the numerous committees that seem to be necessary to organise services and events. But we should not forget the enormous advances made in ecumenism since the week began in Catholic churches in 1908. I can remember in my childhood how members of different churches regarded each other with suspicion, and co-operation was especially difficult between non-conformist churches and those from a more catholic tradition. And I was saddened in the 1970s by hearing from Cardinal Hume, when he came to address Churches Together in a Lent Lecture, that, as a trainee Catholic priest, he was not allowed to attend his own father’s funeral, because it took place in an Anglican Church. How things have changed! As an Anglican woman, I have twice preached from the pulpit of a Roman Catholic Church – not something that I could ever have imagined happening as a child – and I know I can take communion in the churches of most denominations without any questions being asked.
The establishment of Local Ecumenical Partnerships, like those in this circuit at St Mary’s Rickmansworth and All Saints Berkhamstead, has enormously expanded lay people’s experience of worshipping with those of different church backgrounds, and occasions such as this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Women’s World Day of Prayer provide opportunities for planning liturgy and attending worship with those of different denominational backgrounds.
But progress towards full visible unity, sharing not only buildings and worship, but theology, ministry and church organisation has been achieved only in a few cases – the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church being the only two major denominations to have achieved it in this country. It seems to have been easier to achieve in places where Christianity is not the dominant religion – there have been united churches of several Protestant denominations in India and Pakistan since 1970.
Recently, while movements for closer covenant relationships between churches have failed, or been relegated to the background, disputes within churches, over issues such as sexuality and gender roles, seem to be leading to greater disunity, and more obstructions in the road to visible unity. It is very sad, like contemplating the probability of marriage breakup in your own family, or in the families of other people you love.
Maybe what we should be celebrating today is the enormous amount of practical work to serve the vulnerable, the marginalised and the poor which is undertaken by Christians working together, both nationally and locally. The Fairtrade movement and Christian Aid are shining examples of Christians working together nationally and internationally to secure justice and wellbeing for others. Locally, joint efforts by churches over the last 50 years have established Wensum Court homes for the elderly, the Care Scheme, the Credit Union in Rickmansworth and the Foodbank in Mill End and Maple Cross, soon to be extended to Rickmansworth Town Centre.
As St Paul explains in his letter to the Corinthians, God has given different gifts to different people in the Church, but they are all given to be used for the common good. Some gifts may be used in the worship of God, one sort of ‘service’ which can have great differences in style, in order to accommodate differences of taste or personality. Other gifts may be used in teaching, or administration, but the most important are used in practical service to others.
If we listen to St Paul, we learn that we should value all these different gifts equally, just as we value all the different parts of our body equally; and especially that we shouldn’t put a greater value on intellectual gifts than practical ones. The only standard by which we may evaluate gifts is that of love, for God gives us gifts because of the divine love for us, and we share them with our neighbour, because God’s Spirit within us inspires us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The marriage image we find in the Old Testament and Gospel provides further support for the celebration of our unity in service to others: just as a married couple share their lives and their possessions as a token of their love for each other, so we Christians share our lives and possessions with everyone, and especially the needy and the dispossessed.
Similarly, I think all today’s readings encourage us to share in companionship and service not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of faith. It is an encouragement to interfaith as well as ecumenical unity.
I’ve recently dipped into a book called ‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road’. It takes its name from a variation of the ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke. The author, Brian McLaren, asks “How do you think Jesus would treat (them) if they took a walk across the road together. Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first…would he trade insults with Mohammed…Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome them to the table of fellowship, ….maybe even taking the role of a servant…making sure each felt welcome, safe and at home?”
McLaren continues: “I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practise the neighbourliness he preached rather than following our example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion or demonisation. It seems ridiculous to imagine that he would be insecure among them, considering them his rivals, or that he would find it necessary to extract from them explicit agreement on fundamental doctrines before condescending to cross a road with them.”
And as Jesus does, so must we do, as we are called to be Christ’s Body in the world. True Christian Unity is not about reaching agreement on the minutiae of theology, or the exact details of church order, or who may preach or be ordained. It is about working together with the common purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God through serving our neighbour and transforming the world. And we can do that not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of goodwill.
They were going to take their different gifts to the marriage feast, where all are welcomed to celebrate the glory of God and the joy of the covenant God makes with all who were once Desolate and Forsaken, and who now know themselves married to the Divine and who love and share and serve the Kingdom of Heaven, to the delight of God.
Let us pray:
A prayer by Ruth Gee, Chair of the Darlington District, fromThe Methodist Prayer Handbook. Day 13.
God with us, Emmanuel;
you cross the chasm of time and space,
you break down the walls of fear and prejudice,
you span the waters of chaos,
you come to us in love.
help us to cross the chasm of hurt and painful memory,
help us to break down the barriers that divide,
help us to bear your peace in a troubled world.
Send us in love,
go with us.
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
May 13, 2012
Easter 6 Year B (Acts 10,44-48; 1 John 5,1-6; John 15,9-17)
Some of the older ones among you may remember the Beatles song “All you need is Love’. It was first performed on June 25th 1967 as the UK contribution to the first live global TV broadcast, made possible by a new satellite link. John Lennon, who wrote it, said he thought it had a message which everyone around the world could understand.
It was a very ’60’s’ sort of song! In the church, the same sort of attitude that inspired the song led to the advocacy of something called ‘situation ethics’. This said that when you face a moral decision, you don’t need set rules – all you need to do is decide what course of action would be the most loving thing to do. Paul Tillich, the theologian wrote “Love is the best law” and one of my great heroes in the faith, John Robinson, the radical Bishop of Woolwich, also supported situation ethics at first, saying this was the only sort of ethics appropriate to ‘man come of age’ – though he later withdrew his support, saying that the use of situation ethics would lead to a descent into moral chaos.
The sort of love which this theory was talking about was ‘agape’ – absolute, unchanging, unconditional love for all people, regardless. This is precisely the sort of love we see demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus.
When you read the writings of the community of John the Evangelist in the New Testament – the Gospel and the three Epistles – you might think that “All you need is Love” was a summary of their teaching on the faith. But would that be true?
Certainly agape love is very important in their theology. It forms the main topic of the first Epistle which is the third reading for today. For John’s community, God is love, and those who live in loving relationship with everyone in their community, live in God. It is only when we love God that we can love the children of God; and we show our love for God by obeying his commandments, which when carried out in love, are not burdensome.
The gospel passage, which continues from last Sunday’s reading, and continues to use the metaphor of the Vine to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers, also talks about love – the sort of love that leads a person to lay down their lives for others. This is what should be the distinguishing characteristic of Jesus’s disciples.
And how do we learn about this sort of love? Most modern psychologists would say that we learn first from our families, and they are right. In an ideal family (an ideal that few of us achieve, because we are human and fallible!) children are given from birth that absolute, unchanging, unconditional love, which enables them to grow into whole, confident adults, able to love everyone else with the love they were once given. But that sort of love is ‘family love’ and only a few people learn to extend it to those outside their families.
We also learn to love from our communities, especially, we would hope, our church communities. But church communities are made up of fallible humans too, and it is not surprising that they tend have exactly the same quarrels, disagreements and rifts that secular communities suffer from. But, at their best, churches can be schools of love.
The message of the Johannine writings, however, is that we learn best about this sort of love from God – and in particular from his Son, Jesus Christ, who was sent into the world to live out a life that was all love.
Because agape love comes from God, John’s community indicates that we do need more than just ‘love’ if we are to be faithful members of Christ’s body on earth – and in that they are supported by other New Testament writers.
The Gospel passage we heard came from the part of John’s Gospel known as the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is about to be betrayed and crucified – and in this last address to his disciples, John’s community portrays him as trying to prepare them for life without his physical presence – trying to prepare them for a situation in which they will be his body on earth – a body dedicated to loving action and service.
So, first of all, Jesus emphasises the importance of community. He speaks of himself as the Vine. Not just as the trunk, or the stump, you notice, but the whole Vine – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit and all. His followers, he says are the branches – so they are intimately a part of him – and it is these branches which will bear fruit to feed the world. Christ will bear fruit through us, the metaphor says – but only if we remain connected to him, and through him to God, and only if we stay connected to everyone else in his fellowship of love. It is a major challenge to the individualism that is so prevalent today.
A second important element ensuring that we remain in Jesus is his Word. The Gospel passage we heard and the Epistle we didn’t hear say that if we love God we will obey God’s commandments. These are not a burden, like the Law of the Old Testament. Rather, they are a series of guidelines which set out the way of love which Jesus lived, and therefore the way we should live.
Prayer is another important element emphasised by John. In prayer we listen to God’s word, and in prayer we are able to share our concerns with God. We are not meant to be Christians on our own – we need to be in communication with God and with each other if we are to bear fruit. Keeping in touch with Christ and with God our Father and our fellow Christians through prayer is another channel through which we are nourished in the faith.
Our human, imperfect love is fed through the gift of the Holy Spirit. John’s Epistles and Gospel emphasise that it is the Spirit who enables Christians to testify to the Truth; and in Acts we hear how the Spirit led Peter to Cornelius. Then we hear how the gift of the Spirit to Cornelius and his household, even before their baptism, persuaded him that these Gentiles should be admitted to the Christian community. In other passages in the New Testament we hear how the Spirit inspires us to speak and act with courage and with love. Through remaining in the Vine, we are fed by the Spirit and our faith and love are strengthened. The Spirit gives us constant assurance as we act and as we serve that we do so ‘abiding in God’s love’.
Finally, as well as love, we need the discipline of confession, repentance and renewal. Through the metaphor of the Vine, the Johannine writers remind us that in viticulture, fruitfulness is ensured by the cutting away of branches that have ceased to bear fruit, or are growing in the wrong direction. Though it may be painful, loss and renewal are a necessity if we are to continue to do God’s work. We all of us – individuals and communities – go wrong sometimes, take courses of action which turn out to have unforeseen destructive consequences, or lead to different results which were not what we hoped for. We sometimes have to accept this, allow ourselves to be cut off from course of action which is no longer fruitful, and start again.
Loving does not always mean preserving what we love. Sometimes, we need to let go, even face situations that feel like death, if we are to experience renewed life and fruitfulness. Repentance and confession, reflection and renewal should not be things which Christians fear – as John’s Epistle reminds us, perfect love casts out fear – because through the life and death of Christ we have confidence that when we abide in God, we will be renewed.
The agape love which John’s writing speaks of, and which Jesus practised, is not a wishy-washy, ‘anything goes sort of love’. It is ‘tough love’ – which makes demands and requires sacrifice and discipline of those who undertake to practise it. It is divine love in action; too difficult for ordinary humans to achieve unless they are as closely and completely open to God as Jesus was; unless they live in God, and God lives in them.
It is love which goes beyond what ordinary human love is capable of, the sort of love that Jesus demonstrated in his life and death. John’s Gospel says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Many of us think we might be able to do that, and we remember with honour those in our community who have done so. John’s Gospel defined ‘friends’ as those who are like us, those who believe the same things as us, those who belong with us. But the Jesus we hear teaching in the Synoptic Gospels redefined who ‘friends’ are. He taught us that our friends and neighbours are people very different from ourselves, people with different views, even people who regard us as enemies He told us we must love and do good to such ‘friends’ and even give them more than we would give to those who are our natural ‘friends’. How many ordinary people are prepared to give their lives for ‘friends’ defined in that radical way?
So, can we say as Christians “All you need is love?”
But ‘Yes!’ only if it is the love of God, which goes beyond human understanding, to that love which encompasses all creation as God’s children and God’s friends.
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;
October 24, 2010
(2 Timothy 4, 6-8 & 16-18; Luke 18, 9-14)
Imagine the scene. It is either dawn or mid-afternoon and the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people of Israel is being offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. As the proper time arrives, the great gates are opened and the people stream in to witness the sacrifice and to offer prayers to God.
There is the smell of many people; of the lamb who is sacrificed; of warm blood as it is splashed on the altar, then the smell of smoke and burning meat as the sacrifice is burnt on the altar, and of the incense as it is placed on the coals and rises towards the heavens.
There are the sounds of the animals and birds used for sacrifice, of cymbals and bells and trumpets that punctuate the ritual, of many voices speaking their prayers aloud as the incense rises.
Into this scene walk two men. They are both well dressed. Both take care to stand apart from all the other worshippers. But their attitudes are very different.
One man is a Pharisee, a leader and teacher of the faithful. He is careful to stand a distance from all the other worshippers. He must be careful to keep himself untainted by any contact with ‘the people of the land’, those who cannot or do not keep themselves ritually clean; even to brush his coat against their clothes would destroy his state of ritual cleanliness.
He stands erect and full of confidence as he addresses his prayer to the Almighty. As he looks around him, he notices the the other man also standing apart, and uses him as an example. He makes his own assessment of his morality, and it is not a kind one; he brands him a rogue and a swindler – and then throws in adulterer for good measure. He is attacking a stereotype, and does not see beyond his own prejudiced image. His prayer turns into a statement of his own religious superiority to everyone else there. He thanks God briefly, but then goes on to distinguish himself from the ‘great unwashed’ around him, boasting of doing more than the law demands by fasting and tithing more than is required.
The other man, the tax collector, stands apart from the others, not to keep himself unsullied, but because he feels himself unworthy to be among the faithful of Israel. As he too prays aloud, he doesn’t dare lift his eyes from the ground, even to watch the incense ascending, or the priest blessing. He beats his chest (a gesture which was usually done only by women as they mourned a death) to show his anguish and distress at his own unworthiness to offer any prayer to God. When he finally voices his prayer, it is a simple cry to God: “Lord, have mercy on me” or “Lord, make atonement for me”. He has come to pray at the time of the sacrifice, because he believes only the sacrifice of a perfect creature can atone for his sins.
At the end of the ritual, the two men leave, along with everyone else. Perhaps outwardly there is no difference. But, as Jesus tells their story, he reverses the order in which he describes them. The tax-collector, who showed contrition and humility is spoken of first. His prayer has been answered; he has been forgiven and he is justified and judged righteous. The Pharisee who felt himself so superior, is placed second now; his own self-righteousness has hardened his heart; because he is so confident in his own actions, he is not open to God’s grace. HIs attendance at the sacrifice was a waste of time. He returns in exactly the same state as he went up, unjustified and unforgiven.
As Luke’s introduction to the parable makes plain, it is first of all about our the inner attitude of the disciple. The attitude of superiority to others shown by the Pharisee in this parable was criticised by others in Jesus’ time. The Assumption of Moses contained similar sentiments to the parable and Rabbi Hillel wrote: “Keep not aloof from the congregation and trust not in thyself until the day of thy death, and judge not thy fellow until thou art thyself come to his place.”
According to Luke, this parable was told to the disciples on the way to Jerusalem. Throughout this journey, Jesus is shown as trying to teach his disciples about Kingdom values. Chief among those values is an attitude of humility, of service to others, of acknowledging everyone’s equal reliance on the grace of God. In the parables he uses to highlight these values, he uses some strange chief characters – a Samaritan, an unjust steward, a nagging widow – and now a tax collector. A faithful Jewish male would have considered himself superior to all of these – but Jesus uses each of them as an example of what God regards as worthy.
Perhaps in Luke’s church there were also people who regarded themselves as more righteous, more worthy of God’s ear, more certain of salvation than others in their congregation. We know that the early church was made up of Jews and Gentiles, of men and women, of rich and poor. This parable may have been included by Luke to bring them up short and make them think again about their attitudes.
And what of today’s Church? In churches, as in all human institutions, there is a tendency for people to reject others, and to try to keep themselves separate from those who (they think!) fail to meet the standards that God requires. We seem to have particular problems with this in the Anglican Church at the moment. We have provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion who refuse to attend meetings with representatives of other provinces where gay people have been elected as bishops by their congregations, or where gay couples have been offered church blessings on their partnerships. In the Church of England itself, we have groups setting up ‘societies’ within the church, to ensure they can worship separately from those who wish to admit women to the role of Bishop, as well as from those who won’t accept women bishops for different theological reasons.
Aren’t these actions the modern equivalent of standing by yourself before the altar of sacrifice and pulling your cloak tightly around you lest you become contaminated by those you have judged to be wrong? Are not these groups in danger of basing their confidence on their own right actions, as the Pharisee did, rather than acknowledging that all our hopes are based on the life and death of Christ and the grace of God? Kierkegaard said “The self-assured believer is a greater sinner in the eyes of God than the troubled disbeliever”.
But the parable is also about the right way to pray. The rabbinic documents of the time gave instructions about how a worshipper should pray at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice. He should stand with his hands crossed over his chest and his eyes to the ground, in an attitude of submission to a master or lord. He should first of all articulate praise to God for all his gifts, and then present his own needs.
The Pharisee did neither. He praised God only that he wasn’t like other less worthy people; he didn’t present any petitions to God, since he obviously thought he had everything already. He boasts about his own actions, which go way beyond what is required by the Law. He is the man who has everything – so he really has no need of God. His prayer, though on the surface a thanks to God, is in fact just a request that God confirms his own assessment of himself as righteous.
What’s more, he judges others by their outward appearance, and projects his own prejudices on to them.
In contrast, the tax collector has no illusions about himself. He knows his occupation automatically puts him outside the circle of the faithful. He beats upon his chest, the place where evil thoughts and emotions were thought to come from at the time, and requests nothing based on his own merits. He does not criticise others, not even the Pharisee who is publicly humiliating him in front of a crowd of worshippers. In his prayer he presents just one petition to God and throws himself entirely on the divine mercy; and because God is merciful, his petition is granted.
Luke places a great emphasis on prayer in his gospel. At every significant moment in the story, prayer is offered to God. He also places great emphasis on the outcast and the sinner, alerting us to Jesus’ message that they are often closer to God than those who think themselves ‘religious’.
How does this story relate to our practice of prayer? Do we begin each time of prayer with giving praise and thanks to God for all we have been given – or do we rush immediately into asking for what we want. Do we recognise our own inadequacies and need of mercy, or do our prayers assume that God operates with the same prejudices and stereotypes as we do? It is a particular danger in public prayer; we often pray only for ‘people like us’. In our prayers we sometimes act like the Pharisee, condemning those who are different. This can have a devastating effect on those who hear us: I recently read an article by a non-believer who put aside her own feelings to attend a family christening, only to be confronted by someone leading the prayers who asked God to help ‘fight against the rise of secularism and aggressive atheists’, who wanted to stop him worshipping and destroy Christianity – which was far from what this woman wanted.
But such attitudes also have the effect of taking us further from the presence of God, rather than closer, as prayer should do. Self-righteousness, particularly when it involves projecting the darker side of ourselves onto others, closes our innermost being to the grace of God. The essence of prayer is to stand before God in a state of spiritual nakedness, to acknowledge what we have been given by God’s grace with heartfelt thanks, to reflect how far we still are from what God would have us be, and to trust only in the justice and mercy of God, and in the justification that has been won for us through Jesus Christ.
With that attitude, Jesus’ parable tells us, the tax collector went home justified, made right with God. With that attitude, our reading from 2 Timothy tells us, Paul faced his coming trial and death with confidence and equanimity.
With that attitude, we have begun to master the essentials of prayer, and with it, we can go on learning to become closer and closer to God.
October 17, 2010
(Proper 23. Year C. Genesis 32, 22-31; Luke 18, 1-8)
Noel Coward wrote in one of his plays: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. I think many of us know the truth of that. A line from a popular song can take us back instantly to our childhood or adolescence, or remind us of a particular event. But it works the other way too; something we see or read brings a song into our mind, and we struggle to get rid of it.
I’ve had a particular song on the brain this week, as I’ve been preparing to preach on the parable of The Judge and the Widow. It’s not a proper pop song, but a take off by the Two Ronnies of a Status Quo hit ‘I’m a Wanderer’. They turned it into a song about a nagging wife, with lines like “She nags at me in public so I feel a proper berk. She likes to nag me lunchtimes, so she rings me up at work” and the chorus goes “I’m fond of her, so very fond of her, but she goes on and on, and on, and on, and on and on and on”.
You can see why a story about a woman who nagged at a judge until he gave her justice brought that song back into my mind!
This parable has parallels with a passage in the Book of Ben Sirach in the Apocrypha, or Ecclesiasticus as it is often known.(35, 15-19).There the writer speaks of a widow who cries for justice, and affirms that the prayers of the righteous will be heard by God, and the prayer of the humble will be answered. Ben Sirach also promises that God will come without delay and describes the punishment the Almighty will inflict on the unmerciful and the Gentiles. But although Jesus may have had this passage in mind when he told this parable, his version concentrates on the petitioner, and lacks any description of vengeance or punishment for the unrighteous.
This is another of the parables with very strange central characters. There is the judge who has the reputation (and admits it himself) of having no fear of God or respect for man. He had no fear of God, although judges were supposed to be administering justice on behalf of God, because he did not keep the tradition which said in Israel a judge should always hear the cases of orphans first and widows next, because they had no family to plead their case for them. He had no respect for people (the adjective used says he felt no shame before people) because like so many judges at the time, he was corrupt. A contemporary of Jesus wrote that the judges in Jerusalem were known as Dayyaney Gezeloth, which means robber judges, instead of Dayyaney Gezeroth, the proper name, which means judges of prohibition. This judge could be bribed, and gave justice to the person who paid him most, rather than administering the law fairly.
On the other hand, there is a widow, who nags at the judge until she gets the judgement she wants. She would not have been a respected figure in Bible times, since she did not behave as a woman was supposed to. In the first place, women did not go to courts or take any part in public life. Ordinarily, there would have been a male relative to plead her case for her, a son or brother or cousin, but obviously in this case she was totally alone.
But even so, she should have found someone to act for her, or quietly accepted her fate. A woman who spoke loudly, and especially one who nagged, was often criticised in the Scriptures. Proverbs 21.9 says “It is better to live on the roof top than share a house with a nagging wife” and 27.15 “a nagging woman is as annoying as the constant dripping on a wet day”. But this widow was destitute and alone: not only did she have no-one to plead her cause, she obviously had no money with which to bribe the judge. It is likely that the case concerned money or inheritance, since that was the only sort of case which one judge could hear alone. This widow had nothing but her voice to make her case known and get justice for herself. Like the judge, she had no shame, and was prepared to suffer social disapproval to achieve her ends.
And, eventually, her nagging wore the judge down. He did not fear violence from her, but her persistence convinced him that she would never give up – so in order to get himself some peace and go back to his comfortable life, he gives her justice. Although at the beginning of the parable the widow’s situation seemed hopeless, because she never gave up she got what she wanted.
The introduction to the parable tells us that is about persistence in prayer. The message is, if this poor and powerless woman’s needs are met because of her persistence, so also will the appeals of the faithful believers, if they continue to pray to God.
But the parable is still puzzling. Are we meant to conclude that God is an unjust judge, who will only hear our prayers if we bribe him or nag him continually about what we want him to do for us? That is clearly not the picture Jesus gave us of God, our heavenly Father.
Sometimes in parables there is a direct parallel between the earthly and the heavenly. These are often introduced with the formula “The kingdom of Heaven is like”. But other parables draw a contrast between the two, as in this case. If even an unjust judge will eventually give a persistent petitioner what she needs, the parable says, how can we doubt that God, who is a loving and merciful judge, will act in the best interests of those who believe in him, if they continue to have faith and pray.
The last two verses of the passage expand on this. ‘Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones?” “Of course he will” the faithful need to answer. “Will God delay in coming to help”. “No, he won’t” is the answer of faith.
But then comes the usual sting in the tail. The parable is meant to bring comfort and encouragement to those who have faith in God – but it also challenges them: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”.
So we come back again to the question of faith, as we do so often in the Jerusalem document, (the teaching which Luke places during the final journey of the disciples with Jesus to the Holy City where he will suffer and die). And now it is coupled with a question about prayer.
Many of us have problems with prayer. For many, perhaps, the picture we get from the Old Testament reading, of Jacob struggling with God all night, and ending up battered and wounded, is a fairly accurate picture of our experience of prayer. For some it is a struggle with no obvious beneficial outcome, so in the end they give up.
Prayer, and particularly intercessory prayer, is an enormous topic, and it would be impossible to cover it adequately in this address. But in the light of the parable, perhaps I can share some thoughts about what intercessory prayer is, and is not.
It is not a shopping list of demands that we present to God. So often, we never get beyond the concept of prayer that sees it as a heavenly version of a child’s letter to Father Christmas, or an Amazon wish-list. Persistent prayer is not nagging at a reluctant relative till they eventually give in. It is sharing our needs with a loving parent, who knows already what they are, and is more than ready to help us.
It is not an emergency phone call. Many people only turn to prayer when they have exhausted everything else. Persistent prayer is something that we practise all the time, not something we save for when we are in dire straits.
It is not a one-way conversation. Jacob is pictured as struggling with God, because the reality of prayer is that there are two wills involved – God’s will and ours. But often prayer only seems to involve us trying to influence God’s will. We pray as if God is like the unjust judge, and we need to offer bribes (“if you will only let me pass this exam. I’ll go to church every Sunday”) or make as much noise as we can (“if only we can get everyone in your church/town/country joining us in this day of prayer, God will hear us”) for our prayer to succeed.
Prayer is a two way conversation. We share with God our needs and anxieties and those of others; and we listen to God speaking to us about the divine perspective on these concerns, and what he expects us to do to help resolve it. We will hear God speaking to us through Scripture, through the words of other people of faith – and through the silence when when we allow ourselves to encounter the Divine in the deepest and darkest parts of our being. And all of those channels through which God speaks to us may involve us in intellectual and emotional struggles, and we will need to persist in praying, even when it seems barren and pointless, if we are ultimately to hear God speaking to us through them.
Prayer is not ultimately about us and what we want. It is about hearing God, and what God wants, and aligning our will to that. it is about training ourselves to trust God, and the ultimate triumph of the divine purpose for the world, even when there seems to be little hope of it ever being realised. That is what Jesus did, and why he is able to be ‘God for us’. We need to persist in prayer, in imitation of Christ, until what we want is at one with what God wants for us and for the world, so that we may be ready to recognise and welcome the Kingdom of Heaven when it comes.