‘Making Life Difficult . . .’

Sermon for 18th Sunday after Trinity, YearB 2018

Numbers 11
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

‘Confess your sins, one to another and pray for one another that you might be healed’

On (not) making life difficult . . .

Years ago I remember a chance remark my Spiritual Director made to me about her own perspective and how it was changed. She had been visiting her own director and in a conversation about her parish said ‘well at least I’m not responsible for their salvation’ – to which her director shot back, ‘what on earth gave you that idea?’

As James says ‘My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.’ . . . ‘confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.’

James the brother of Jesus seems clear enough on this responsibility for one another’s Salvation life, yet, starting from Cain, humankind has tended to ask over and again ‘Am I my brothers’ keeper’, and if we listen we might hear the Lord reply, ‘his blood cries out to me from the ground’. Our lives are intimately woven together – we ignore this at our great peril, indeed the challenges we face in the world in this hour are deeply rooted in this loss of consciousness amongst us.

We are responsible for the life amongst us. And our lives can either assist the flow of this Salvation Life, or impede it, and sheer ignorance of our responsibilities in this regard lead us far more often to the latter, rather than the occasional ‘accidental’ moment when by the Grace of God, our lives intersect those of others in a way which causes faith to spring up . . .

The prophet says of Jesus ‘He grew up before the LORD like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ Easy to miss, easy to pass over, easy, all too easy to crush as Jesus keeps reminding his disciples, yet they seem not to get the message.

Last week we considered character of the Servant – and prime amongst the characteristics of the Servant is gentleness – Wisdom from above comes to us in humility and gentleness and it is easy, tragically easy to crush it, by following the way of power.

As we have said Jesus follows the way of powerlessness, in the way we understand it, in the way we use it without reflection. But as I was reminded by someone on the way out last week,’but we have the power of the Spirit!’ To which Yes, and Amen! The power of the spirit, gentle as a dove . . . all too easy to impede. All too easy to make life difficult . . .

We continue our readings in Mark’s gospel and the narrative of powerlessness, and of following the path of gentleness with the disciples again getting it wrong. Jesus has just put a child amongst them, he has said – ‘he who welcomes one such welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me’ Jesus comes amongst us in many ways as a little one, as a child, yet John seems not to get it. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”

Perhaps one of them was a disciple on the edge of the group, seemingly unimportant to the apostle John, who after all has recently been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, so OBVIOUSLY is a Very Important Disciple – and he throws his weight around . . . like all those who think themselves important – the irony is that having come down from the mountain they come across some of the disciples who can’t cast out demons! So here is someone who can and they are stopping him . . . Making life difficult – opposing the power of God . . . Perhaps the one casting out demons who John stopped is literally a child – after all isn’t this what children do? They See Jesus casting out demons, and they copy him . . . in simple faith

Jesus commands them not to stop such as these, for if they are channels for the life of God, they will soon know the one from whom that life comes . . . done as it is in the name of Jesus.

But Jesus goes on to issue a warning – ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ Those who have any sensitivity to matters of faith in Jesus Christ know how very very easy it is to crush it . . . the words of Jesus are the starkest of reminders of our responsibilities towards those young in faith, both children and adults . . . we can permit the gentle work of the Spirit space, we can refrain from laying heavy burdens, we can seek always to encourage ad to build up . . . or we can do the other, and we are responsible. When Jesus says ‘great millstone’ he’s talking about one that a donkey would have turned . . . it is so easy to make Life difficult

What is more e often do this in a way that makes out we are helping . . . we get in the way. Often we might do this by seeking to please a third party. Why after all does John tell Jesus what he has done? The subtext is, ‘we knew you wouldn’t like this so we put a stop to it . . .’ It’s a stark warning not to act on behalf of others, especially to please them

It is so easy to snuff out this Gentle work of the Spirit – God does not impose himself. I remember speaking with a doctor friend about some wonderful healings I knew of that were taking place. She was a little sceptical – she wondered if those who claimed such things would open them up to ‘scientific’ testing . . . not understanding that this was entirely contrary to the hidden small work of the Spirit . . . Not realising that she was asking God to bow to her command . . . which is of course what is going on . . .

Finally there are Jesus’s stark words about cutting off hands and feet and gouging out eyes . . . It is so very easy to get in the way of the Spirit in the lives of others, to crush the tender shoot – and it is very easy in ourselves. If carelessly crushing the work of God in a child or young disciple bears such consequences that it would be better we were thrown into the depths without hope of return, then we need to do all in our power Not to do it – for our lives are woven together,

Jesus’ words on cutting off feet, and hands and gouging out eyes come into focus when we realise the huge responsibility we bear for one another, not putting obstacles in the life of Grace in them for the consequences for us of doing so are terrible for them – and us. This only makes sense when we see our lives are woven together

The word translated Hell here, is Gehenna – it is the name of a valley close by Jerusalem – it was until the time of King Josiah a place of Child sacrifice – although the story goes that to put a stop to it, he turned it into the rubbish tip, so the imagery of fires and worms would be very clear to the disciples.
What is Jesus saying here? That in ignoring the work of the Spirit, amongst the least of these, amongst the children and those new to faith – you would be in danger of going to the very place where at one time all the nobodies were sent for sacrifice. The announcement of the Justice of God is one of the great reversal. In the words of Mary our Mother – He hath cast down the mighty from their seat and raise up the humble and meek He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Jesus is saying you are so casual about getting in the way of others, but equally casual about your own sin! You should take great great care over both! Yes, we are responsible for our own Salvation and for that of those around us. The two are intimately woven together.

For everyone will be salted with fire – here the idea of Salting is that associated with purification in the old rites of Israel – the refiners fire of Malachi. Don’t lose that purifying salt in your life, for how can you result salt? Keep Salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another

The words of James point us to this peace. Peace which is no simple absence of conflict – that is no different to death! No Peace in the Scriptures is Rich fullness of Good Life, Shared life – and how is it achieved? Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. This is how we know God’s life amongst us

Like cutting off hand or foot or gouging out eye it sounds hard, but in truth it is the way to healing and wholeness – putting our lives in the hands of those amongst whom we share in Christ’s life – like Christ, allowing ourselves to be handed over


The Character of a Servant

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity – Year B 2018

James 3:13-4:10
Mark 9:30-37

The Character of a Servant

In North Wales, a part of the world dearly loved in my family, there is a saying which goes back to the end of the C19 “Steal a sheep from the mountain, and they hang you. Steal the mountain, and they make you a lord”. . . This was in reference to Lord Penrhyn, who made his vast wealth mining the mountains of North Wales for their slate. I’ve recounted before how the teams of men who risked life and limb and faced an early death from silicosis, if rock falls or accidents with dynamite didn’t get them first – were only paid for every 100 slates out of every 125 they made . . . because the journey by rail to the port from the quarry meant a breakage of 25 out of every 125 slates due to vibration . . .

Character . . .

I may be wrong but my perception is that the higher up a job is in an organisation, the less likely you are to be asked for a character reference, and vice versa. Large organisations are anxious to acquire managers with high skill sets and matters of character seem to take a back seat – lower down the scale, questions of trustworthiness come more to the fore

So were you perhaps to employ a cleaner, you may well want a character reference, after all can you be assured leaving them with ‘the family silver . . .’

The character of a servant

A couple of weeks ago we reflected on the Way of Jesus, vs the Way of the World. and noted that the way of Jesus was one of powerlessness . . . it is perhaps why he has many admirers but few followers. Today our gospel reading sets out in the same vein, one that will be repeated over and over in the coming weeks as his disciples fail to get the message.

‘he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”’ Remembering the stinging rebuke Simon Peter received ‘get thee behind me Satan!’ it is perhaps not surprise that we are told ‘But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.’

The choice of ‘betray’ to translate a word in our reading this morning is unfortunate – the word literally means ‘handed over’ The Son of Man is to be handed over into human hands . . . Jesus renouncing the way of power allows himself to be handed over – but again the disciples miss his point and argue about who is to be greatest . . . and Jesus, not for the last time, will place a child in their midst – and say ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ and because we are given to sentimentalism it is easy to hear that as ‘Jesus cares for the least’, but that is not it, for as we know he says ‘it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’ He is showing us a child to teach us how to follow him – Why does Jesus say ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me?’ Because he comes among as as one with no power – as a child . . . and the Kingdom belongs to such as these . . . those with no power . . .

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’ – must renounce the way of power . . . so, as we all know – it is an important question – ‘What is the character of a Servant?’

Here we turn to James. As Father James expressed it last week, James is not an easy read! His words on the tongue and that powerful parable on how words once out of our mouth spread out of our control causing what?, we know not, will stay long with me.

So too this week ‘Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. ‘ Ouch! Actually those words were removed to spare our discomfort . . .

And as James points out, friendship with the World is friendship with its narrative of power – ‘if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition within you’ Envy and Selfish ambition are the source of ‘disorder and wickedness of every kind.’ Envy and ambition are the fruit of the desire for power – power over things, and power over others . . . ‘If I ruled the world . . .’

Ambition is so normalised in our culture, in the World that we wish to qualify James words . . . to speak of good ambition as opposed to ‘selfish ambition’ but we ought to tread with fear in this regard. If the way of power and influence is the cultural air we breathe, we would be wise to hang loose to any talk of ambition – from what does the ambition flow?

Conflicts and disputes – form where do they come? . . . ‘they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.’
As I said, we will come back to this again before we have finished with Mark.

‘Conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

As we heard a couple of weeks ago, it is what springs up within us, from the heart which makes us unclean . . . that which does not come form above, ‘but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.’
What we need is a new heart. The Centre of the Gospel is the Gift of the New heart – a new character, a new person, a new creation. Jesus gives his life as a ransom for many, his life is given for us – he offers his life to us . . .

This Change of heart James puts like this ‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.’

Humble yourself before God – become once more the soil of which you were first made, humus, Earth – become that soil into which the seed of the Word might be planted, the Seed which is Christ himself. Christ in laying down his Life makes His Life available to us – His Heart – His Character – which is beautifully expressed by James.

‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’ Do you think you are wise? ‘Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.’ Wisdom is in Scripture a personification of God – and especially of Christ, who as St Paul tells us ‘has become for us Wisdom From God. So being born of God, the first fruit is Gentleness. In the soil of a humble life, the life of one who does not take hold of power, gentleness is the first fruit. Gentleness born of Wisdom, of Christ who allows himself to be handed over to sinful men.

‘the wisdom from above is first pure . . . then peaceable . . . gentle . . . willing to yield – that is as St Paul speaks of Love, it does not insist on its own way . . . full of mercy . . . and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (If anything a child cannot be a hypocriite, for until it attains a certain age, it has not learned to hide, to conceal its true nature) . . . this is the character of a Servant – it is the character of The Servant

Let us pray – and as we do, let us consider each of these fruit of Wisodm, of the life which Christ offers us, as he offers himself to us, putting himself into our hands in the Sacrament

Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a right Spirit within me, the Heart of a Servant, which is pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Amen

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

On Discernment

Sermon for Evensong
Sunday September 16
Exodus 18:13-26
Matthew 7:1-14 [15-end]

Just back from Synod

For me, amongst many challenges of Synod, not least the anti-human mechanisms it imposes on the spirit graced body of Christ, is that of knowing when to speak and when to remain silent.

Anyone who has sat through such proceedings and coming from the C of E where Synods were an almost full time occupation, I think I have more experience of them than anyone else locally, will know that it is the failure on the part of ‘certain individuals’ to know when to speak and when to remain silent, that can often turn the tedium of such gatherings into a more or less mild form of torture. At least in England you didn’t have to be on Diocesan Synod . . .

The sensitivity to the movement of the Spirit, the gift of discernment, a Gift long birthed in Silent prayer is all but absent in these days.

One need only think of the current President of the United States and his predilection for tweeting his thoughts when and wherever it suits him . . . and before we tut and shake our heads we must remember that what finally rises to the top is the long suppressed truth about us all . . . to realise that Knowing when to speak and when to be silent is one of the lost gifts of an age when we are all ‘to have our say’, to ‘be out there’, tweeting our anger and outrage at his anger and outrage.

It seems to me that perhaps we have come at last to that age Jesus spoke of when he said ‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.’ Luke 12:3 Everything it seems is laid bare – discretion, modesty, appropriate hiddenness as the Source of Life are alien to our culture – and thus the loss of Wisdom

Wisdom teaches us that proper discernment must always begin with ourselves. If we cannot carefully discern the motions of our own hearts, then it would be wise more often than not, indeed in almost all circumstances, to remain silent . . . and I say this as a huge caveat to understanding our readings from Scripture this evening, and hearing them truly

First, and briefly to Exodus and Moses. Poor Moses – as he would on occasion complain to God, ‘Why have you done this to me?? Look at these people . . .’ although also on occasion when the truth of the people was revealed and God threatened to break out against them, it was Moses who stood on their behalf and said, ‘you’ll have to kill me first . . .’

but Poor Moses, there he is day by day and all the people bringing their disputes to him. It is so reminiscent of my days as a Year Head having to deal with the perpetual wail – ‘Sir, she gave me a dirty look . . .’ I have great sympathy for Moses. So there he sits, day by day sorting out the disputes and judging the people . . . that is, having to pronounce judgement for one side or the other. It was in this vein that Solomon when made King asked God for Wisdom . . . insight, to discern and judge aright – for one thing we can say without fear of contradiction is that humans and their relationships with one another are messy . . .

Well Moses’ father in law, Jethro see this happening and sees Moses wearing himself out and suggests he spreads the load, by appointing judges amongst the tribes to sit over most of the cases, and only the thorny ones be brought to Moses – like an appeal to the Supreme Court . . .

Jethro says ‘You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain’ – Ah but . . . you might say, isn’t that judging them? Isn’t that what Jesus explicitly commands against in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount??

Well . . .

What does Jesus say?

We have a little problem with the way we are trained to read these words of Jesus in the Sermon, and it is particularly a problem for those who like to read their Bibles. FAR be it from me to say to anyone, ‘Do not read your Bibles!’ BUT there is a problem. Firstly of course there is the simple matter, obscured from our eyes, that Scripture, that which is written was until the invention of the printing press something almost always Heard, not read. The production of a BIble, up to that point would require the skins of over 150 calves . . . they couldn’t be obtained in bulk from Manna bookshops.

Now there are other problems with uncritically reading the Bible, that is reading it without realising that the very act of reading from a book presumes many things which may not be helpful – but I just want to focus on one aspect – that the text is broken up into chapters, and then verses, which of course if you are listening you do not hear, suggesting a fragmentary nature to the text and then to make matter infinitely more awkward, at some time in the C17, some well meaning soul added little headings here and there . . . to make it clear what Jesus was saying, so reading uncritically we absorb these headings, which are rife in the Sermon, because the well meaning person obviously thought that the Sermon was a collection of the sayings of Jesus. And therefore almost everyone who says ‘The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of the sayings of Jesus’, usually say it in part if not totally because they have been so conditioned to say it . . .

which is a problem when it comes to the words of Jesus about Judging others . . . because they are followed by words which suggest that we should judge others . . . but we miss this if we treat the words as if they were in isolation

Listen then

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

“Well there you are! Jesus contradicts himself” – Do not judge – do not throw your pearls before swine . . . Well surely if we realise they are swine, we have judged . . .

So we need to consider what Jesus says here. Firstly Judging is a matter in this regard of ‘the eye’. Noting ever and again how The eye is the subject of things, and what is more that Jesus says that our eyes do not see clearly . . . We see the world in many ways as we are. As so often is said -if you wish to change the world, start with yourself – for so often, what we see out there is a projection of what is in here – and our way of seeing is influenced by our hearts – so ‘first take the log out of your own eye, THEN’ Jesus says ‘you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

The gift of discernment, a Gift long birthed in Silent prayer is all but absent in these days – all but absent when all we see is with the eye and we are swift to speak, and swift to anger to use the words of James’ Jesus’ brother and the one who most closely comes to the words of Jesus in his epistles.

Ian McGilchrist in his wonderful work – Master and Emissary points out how we have become more and more dominated by the left hemisphere of our brain. It’s way of seeing is precisely to see splinters – to see fragments. We see the fly but do not acknowledge or perceive the precious ointment in which it is sat. Left hemispheric thinking is also associated with anger. There is so much anger in the world today – so many pointing to the flaws in others . . . there is a sort of fundamentalism here oft unacknowledged. It seems to me that ‘Once a fundamentalist always a fundamentalist’ People who once condemned ‘those people’, now turn their ire on ‘those people’, the people they were once happy to associate with. The Heart is not healed in such people – it is tragic.

Very briefly then, Jesus goes on ‘‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’ Having cleansed the eye of the heart – having learned to be still before God and learned the gentle receptiveness of the Spirit, one may ask aright. If we ask out of damaged vision, we do not see to ask aright, we do not know what it is that we are truly to ask for. It is with such healed vision that these words of Jesus become a lived reality within us.

‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you’ The Cleansed eye which discerns the Truth of things only sees themselves in the Other truly, not now for judgement but for Loving Service . . . but says Jesus, this is not easy. If we drift along as we are, we shall miss the way – broad and easy is the way that leads to destruction. The Work of the heart is a lifelong one, it is hard and narrow – for it has but one aim, to Know and Love God, and thus to live in and through His Life – our true healing

Jesus then goes on – following on fro our reading to speak of the discernment which is knowing a tree by its fruit – before warning of the perils of Self Deception. ‘On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you workers of evil.” how terrible self deception can be, that those who believe they are doing the work of God discover they are doing no such thing . . . we should tread lightly

So Moses seeks those who ‘fear God’ For whom God fills their Vision, whose Sight is healed and who will be able to discern the Truth of things – only the one who sees God truly sees. Such people we discern are trustworthy and hate dishonest gain. They are no longer in anything for themselves – In the Fear of God, Seeing truly the Life of their fellow. Judging properly because they Discern Well, for their eye is focussed on the Light and Love of God


‘The Way of Jesus – and the way of the world’ Trinity +14 Year B 2018

Sermon notes for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity – Year B 2018

James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

“The Way of Jesus, and the way of the world”

‘Hi brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples will see the work that you do; For no one does something in secret and expects to be in public view; if you do these things reveal yourself to the World” for his brothers did not have faith in him’ John 7:3-5 DB-H

I once received a phone call from Buckingham Palace. (Not because the Queen wanted me to form a new government . . .)
My Church Warden had died and he had been a Lord Lieutenant of the County – the Queen’s Official Representative – so the now Lrd Lt was coming to the funeral, with Mrs Lrd Lt – and there were ‘protocols to be observed’ Special chairs at the front – I was expected as the Vicar to be on hand to show them to their seats – meanwhile the villagers had been crowding in from early to find a seat anywhere – cramped up at the back . . .

The Words of James seemed ‘other worldly’ – My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? . . . Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ . . .??

I was at a church gathering recently when someone said, ‘we must be careful here, or we will become counter cultural’ the person to my knowledge seemed to assume that this would be ‘NOT a good thing’ . . . but the way of culture is precisely to be enamoured of wealth and position . . . it is a human given, and we ought to ask why?

Perhaps an answer can be found in the temptations of Jesus, who throughout shuns the way of the World – once again we hear how he ‘ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’’ Of how after he had fed the 5000 ‘they tried to make him king by force’ . . . take power Jesus, step up! After feeding the 5000 Jesus comes into conflict with his brother

‘Hi brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples will see the work that you do; For no one does something in secret and expects to be in public view; if you do these things reveal yourself to the World” for his brothers did not have faith in him’ John 7:3-5 DB-H

Power – in so many different ways we all crave it. Even the idea that ‘if we just elect the right government . . . everything will be right’ – With Harry Secombe we all sing, ‘If I ruled the World, every day would be the first day in Spring . . .’ This narrative feeds the myth that ‘it is our place to build the Kingdom of God’, or ‘for the love to go on we must make it our song . . .’, or ‘Make America Great Again . . .’ All built from the same presupposition that ‘we can make the world a better place – If I ruled the world . . .’ After all, all of us know what’s wrong with the world, don’t we . . .

As we head into Diocesan Synod next week there is a motion to sell Selwyn College. I’ve listened long and hard to all the arguments, but they all boil down to the same sad old tired story – ‘Don’t sell! We will change the college culture!’ Do Sell, we don’t have the right people in these days to be able to . . . or, if we did obviously we would . . .’ All based on the World’s Sad tired story . . . the myth that if we only did this or that or the other, everything would be right . . . and it is a story that Jesus rejects. Turn the stones into bread . . . leap from the Temple, show everyone how amazing you are . . . only worship me and all this will be yours . . . well its pretty fair to say, it is all ours now . . .

The Way of Jesus is the way of hiddenness – it is the way of poverty in the things of the world – Jesus says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor now, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.’

We have a diocesan Prayer which says words to the effect of ‘we need to be doing our bit for the last the lost and the least . . . ‘ it never occurs to us that the people of Jesus ARE The lost, the last and the least . . . ‘Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?’

The poor are the rich in faith – why, because they have no power and cannot succumb to the blandishments of control – what is the prayer of God’s children? Give us this day our daily bread . . .

Which brings us to the gospel and the collision of Jesus with the Syro-Phoenician woman and it is a collision

[Jesus] went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Jesus is once again not showing himself – indeed he has left Judea and Galilee and gone into the territory of the Greeks – Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

You can almost hear the tutting – you can imagine the shock – perhaps a Synod motion requiring that we do not hear Jesus referring to this woman in this way! And I have heard many a sermon agonising over this text . . . but Jesus is the one who relinquishes power.

What happens?

Firstly Jesus treats her with enormous honour! His opening remark is exactly the way a Rabbi speaks with a disciple – there is a request, he responds with a saying – he is seeking to elicit from her faith. And she acts as a Rabbi’s disciple, she responds to him. On the one hand as someone has said ‘Jesus drops his own honour code, his own honour to respond in the first place’ but more than that he elevates the woman who knows that as a gentile woman she has no call on this Jewish man. He by putting the statement, like God responding to Job, says to her – stand before me, lets have this out . . . Here’s a saying ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ – What do you say to that? And her response is so very illuminating ‘Yes, Lord; and the dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs . . .’

What is happening here is an act of mutual recognition – she has seen the truth of Jesus – the one who has nowhere to lay his head – who has come into a hostile world entirely dependent on hospitality – who says to his disciples I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide’ I have no call on you, and you have no call on the world . . . we are in the same position

The disciples of Jesus go out into the world in a position of vulnerability – like the dogs under the table, living off the scraps that are thrown to them. They go out into the world in the way of Jesus. The woman Knows who Jesus is – she recognises one who lives off the scraps himself – she claims kinship with him – and he shares with her what he has – LIFE – and her daughter is healed

So again he goes back towards Galilee and in the region of The Decapolis – an area not under Herod but having some autonomy – a mixed area of Jews and Gentiles. And they brought to him one deaf and mute – and Jesus heals him – and orders them to tell no one but the more he ordered them, the more they broadcast his name – after all – if he can do this, think what he can do, and after all, hasn’t he performs those works we’d expect of the Messiah? The mute speak! The Deaf hear . . .

But Jesus will not put himself in their hands, for they are consumed by the old story – ‘here is someone to rule – here is someone to put it all right’ the old story of power, vested of course in wealth

This Old Story is pretty much the story we live by – it is woven into all our assumptions.

It is a fact little remarked that we seem unable to free the tongue of the dumb, to make the deaf hear and the blind see, let alone raise the dead . . . but is this mot perhaps because we have chosen the wrong story? For ten centuries Western culture has been dominated by the story of power over as the way to ‘make things right’ ‘to build the Kingdom of God’ if you will . . . but as the Catholic philosopher DC Schindler puts it ‘Pure power and utter powerlessness now converge into one, and man becomes the abject servant of his own limitless freedom, a passive object of active power: a slave of modern liberty’

We have so much power – and as we look out on the Creation – we are helpless

Of course, that is not the end, and as always we are offered another way – Follow Me says Jesus, who empties himself of all power, to reveal the Life of the Spirit. He comes to us in hiddenness, in words we may not wish to hear – he comes to us in a crumb . . . a crumb of bread – from where did this crumb fall? He comes to us in a crumb of bread and a sip of wine – he comes to us in powerlessness – and offers to share His Life

To Life! The Command of God . . . and the tradition of men T+14 Year B 2018


Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – Year B – 2018

Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, [9-13] 14-15, 21-23

On Life and Tradition

‘If I were a rich man, Daidle deedle daidle daidle daidle deedle daidle dumb’

So some of us may have gone to see Fiddler on the Roof – you’ll excuse me I hope for my none attendance, but I was privileged many years ago now to see Chaim Topol on stage in Leeds reprise his performance from the film . . . suffis!

I guess, if you know the film version of the play of Joseph Stein’s 1971 book, you may perhaps expect that in the light of Jesus words, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” I might reprise the words of the song ‘Tradition!’, and say, ‘if only Tevye had listened to Jesus . . . but I’m not going to, for frankly that would be a cheap shot and an ignorant one  – not least because the story is written through the filter of Modern assumptions about the nature of reality, and Modern assumptions tend that ‘Tradition is a bad thing – we must throw off the past’

[Whenever we read modern books or films about ‘The Past – which as LP Hartley reminds us, ‘is a foreign country – they do things differently there . . .’ we need to remember we read books or see films, and the books and films are usually written through our own cultures assumptions about what is good . . . and our culture is not shot through with a Christian vision of the nature of Life . . . but like those of us who wear glasses we usually forget we have them on . . .]

Instead, of ‘Tradition!’ – my song text from the play would be L’Chaim – the Wedding blessing – To Life! It is no coincidence that our Jewish forbears sing ‘To Life!’ for the God of Israel who is The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Commands us ‘To Life!’ His Command is a call To Life!, to Life from death, to Light from darkness. ‘You Must be born again!’ . . . yet it is a command we resist.

Last week I mentioned our grand daughter Naomi, and how she like any young baby doesn’t like having clothing pulled on over her head, because Birth was traumatic enough – she doesn’t want to be born again . . .

What is birth but the calling forth at God’s Creative Command ‘To life!’

The Command of God is always ‘L’Chaim! To Life!’

As we heard from Deuteronomy – ‘So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.’ . . . give heed . . . so that you may LIVE! . . .

Which is why Jesus is So angry with the Pharisees – for “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” . . . Responding to the Loving Command of God which is to Life, you reject it . . . you reject Life!

And Again we reject part of the command – the text is again butchered . . . SIGH . . .

What we didn’t hear was Jesus’ example of this – not watching hands, but the following

Jesus said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘to him who speaks abusively to father or mother, let death put an end’
But you say that if a man says to father or mother, ‘Anything that might have been owed by me to you is qurban’ (that is, a consecrated offering)— then you no longer allow him to do anything for a father or mother. So you Make powerless the word of God why your tradition which you have handed down. And you do many other things of the same kind . . .’ [Following DBH translation]

Well this sounds strange to us, a little obscure, although the command to honour Father and Mother isn’t . . . so perhaps that’s why those who devise the lectionary excluded these words, but in reality they go right to the very heart of what Jesus is talking about

The Command of God is a Command to Life – this is why Jesus is angry with the Pharisees – they have Set aside the Command that gives life – and thus they have chosen the alternative to Life, to Existence . . . death, non  existence

They have done this in two ways – firstly in not honouring Father and Mother they reject their own life!

What is your Life – where does ‘your life come from?’ Can a person truly cut themselves off from their whakapapa? . . . it is like the branch off a tree cchopping down the tree – honour your father and mother, honour your Life coming to you from God.

The Command of God is not as it were a set of obscure and arbitrary demands of a lazy and capricious deity – the Command of God is the Word which calls us into Life and Love, into Grace and Mercy and it is revealed in and amongst us. ‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.’ What does parentage, whakapapa tell us – how does it help us to understand and See God?

Why did Moses say ‘to him who speaks abusively to father or mother, let death put an end’ . . . well that’s not very loving!! But all that the law enacts is the choice you have made – not because of the law itself, but you have cut yourself off from life abusing your father and mother, abusing your own life . . . the source of your existence

And we know this – we know this as Christians for it is shown plain to us in the very centre of our faith – What do we see when we see Christ dead upon the Cross? We see the outcome of our rejection of God’s Word of Life. When the human rejects the Command of God, we die . . . there it is on the Cross . . .

Well this comes back again to what we have been considering over and again these past weeks and months – that is we direct our Lives, we Orient them towards God, Life Comes to us from God. And that flows out through us

Here is the second problem with the way the Pharisees conducted their affairs – in their turning from the life giving command of God which embodied in the person of their whakapapa, they then hoarded the life – like those Israelites who clung onto the manna – they ‘consecrated it’ – they told a story about why they couldn’t obey the common of God – they spoke a death sentence not only to themselves but to those around them

Repentance is that turning from non life, a life which denies its life and hoards – towards God in Christ who Is The Way of our Life, towards God, the Truth of our Life, as Children of God, and the very Life of our Life. A Life that enjoys all things but possess nothing knowing that it is given in order to flow through them.

James speaks of The seed of the word – which is planted. it is like a tender shoot, this life giving command of God – it must be nurtured – it needs to be placed each day in the light of the Sun and thus it grows to bear good fruit – the outflow of the heart.

What is that outflow? Again we have missing verses. Jesus tells us nothing going into us can make us unclean – it is what comes out – and he refers to what happens to food when it passes out of the body – but we perhaps are a little to sensitive to think about sewage . . . 🙂 And then speaks of the outflow of the heart – the heart which is not oriented to Light and life but to darkness and death, which does not give place to the Command L’Chaim, to Life, but which is directed towards itself and death

This Life comes to us from God – it is His command – it is embodied in our whakaapa – and James the brother of Jesus and Moses in Deuteronomy echo one another –

‘take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children . . .’

L’Chaim! To Life!