The Gentile rulers Lord it over them…

Some incoherent thoughts – Sermon for 21st Sunday after Trinity – Year B 2018

Isaiah 53:4-12
Mark 10:35-45

‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you . . . Mark 10:42-3

A couple of weeks ago, we considered angels, guardian angels to be more precise – today I want to return to the angelic realm, but this time its less presentable aspects, that of fallen angels . . .

Jesus you may well remember in Luke’s gospel declares, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ Luke 10:18. But why does Satan fall, and indeed all his angels ‘fall from heaven’?

Well we cannot know for sure, but here and there we have hints – for example we may consider the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness – all about assuming power in one way or another, over the creation, over people, over the whole cosmos . . . change stones into bread, leap from the temple, bow down and worship me . . . When we assume power over, we separate ourselves from . . . even ‘if it is for your good’, perhaps the subtlest of diabolical temptations – for diabolic literally means to set apart . . . the diabolical angels want power – they want to be associated with a God of Power – and so they too can have power – sat at the right and left hand of God

There is a very ancient tradition in the church in this regard – that the angels fall because of their Pride, because they cannot bear not to be unimportant. God in Christ takes on human flesh, and sets his face towards the most disreputable of callings, that of a servant, and the most disreputable of deaths, that on a cross – and they cannot stomach that . . . for the angels continually see the face of God.

Put another way, they are full of pride. They want a God who fits their self image! They secretly desire to be the centre of all things! (In this respect I think it is worth considering if this is not what we all too often do when we speak of the human as ‘The image of God’ without any reference to the God of whom the human is the Image . . . All too often we veer dangerously close to the cliff of placing ourselves at the centre of things, if not indeed fall ourselves. Insofar as I understand it which is not very well, this also is the fundamental place of separation of our faith from Islam. For to the Muslim, the idea that God might assume human flesh is anathema, for God is so wholly other . . .)

This attitude, of the fallen angels – that it is all about Power. And thus to be separated out from the Creation – to Lord it over . . . Perhaps this attitude is at the heart of the disciples request, that one sit on the right and one on the left of Jesus ‘in his glory’. After all – they know that He is the Messiah. James and John have seen him transfigured on the mountain. He is the One who will be ‘in charge’ – the one who will have power, and they want a bit of that for themselves . . .

Yet what is staggering is that Jesus has just reminded them for the third time of what his mission is
“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “Behold! We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” Mark 10:32-34

He is going to enter into the depths of our human condition, even death, even death on a Cross, so that he might lift it up. He shares in our Life that we might share in His. Share, not have a bit of it for ourselves, but share. Joined together – not split apart.

We may remember a couple of weeks ago, Jesus teaching on marriage. About being joined together – One flesh – and the words ‘those whom God has joined together, let no man separate’

What does Jesus say you should do to your enemies? Serve them – share what you have with them. If they are hungry, feed them. Give your life for them . . .

So Jesus’ response to James and John and their request to be in power – is to ask, do you want to share in my life? Can you drink the cup I drink, and be baptised with my baptism? – -We can they confidently assert – thinking perhaps that the reward is the power they seek – but the result is not that. Yes, you will share in my life, my death, but as for sitting at the right and left hand. That has already been prepared for someone . . . and of course it has, the two thieves

All we have is the request of James and John, for the seats of authority – for some of the glory, for power – to Lord it over . . .

this Way of Jesus is So strange, even to us . . . we still fall for the old deception, that one can take up Power, for Good, but to assume power over is to be separated from, it is diabolical. The Good we assume power for is always abstract, it isn’t a Real Good. For we do not know God, we do not Know the Way of Jesus

Three times he tells them, and three times they fail to understand – foreshadowing the threefold denial of Peter ‘I do not know him’ – yet it is clear that this is not so much a denial as a Confession. I don’t Get Him! I don’t Understand Him. I do not Know him. I am separated from Him – Peter does not so know Jesus as to know what he is about. Jesus’ words he does not understand . . . Jesus is God come into the world, and in the eyes of the world making himself of no reputation . . . he doesn’t come into the world in any way which suggests to us that he is God, because we are strangers to who God is . . . For we may know about, but to know about is to be separate from – to Know, to Share in the Life of God is truly to Know God. Peter doesn’t want to share in the life of this Crucified one . . . And this is a trap for us too – that what Jesus does for us he does in separation from us. So many versions of this story exist in the Church. We watch and admire Jesus from a distance – but that is not to know Him

This perhaps is why we find so many more or less ingenious ways to separate the person of Jesus from the Triune God, secretly we don’t want Him to be God, because if he is, and if we are made in His image, then His way is our way – his Life is our Life, and we who claim to know Him can only follow him by likewise making ourselves of ‘no reputation’

We are called to proclaim Jesus as LORD – the manifestation of the God of the Universe – Jesus, the Galilean peasant who dies on a Roman cross, who comes amongst us not to be served but to serve – and to give up His life as a ransom for many . . .

This is the significance of Jesus’ earlier words to the crowds “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

“Those who are ashamed of me” who cannot own this homeless bedraggled Jewish preacher as their God.

Well the Tradition tells us that some of the angels couldn’t bear it. This God wasn’t good enough for them in their pride, they were ashamed to own him and so rebelled against Him

And so when he was revealed in Glory, there were two one to his right and one to his left – two thieves . . . God on His throne

The Servant King, the God of no repute

Always the temptation is to dress this all up. For some we do it by needing good arguments to back up our faith – for those who would despise the God who reveals himself as a Servant and dies upon a cross, we seek to make it reasonable . . . but blinded by our pride it cannot be so. The rich the powerful – they find it too much and turn away . . . for to follow Him is to turn from Power to Love. From separation (the diabolical) and power over, to union, to Life with

Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians drives the point home thus . . . For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. The Power of God is the Life of the Spirit which Raises the Crucified Jesus from the Dead. It is the Life of God amongst us, the Kingdom of God amongst us. It is the weak yet Triumphant Power of Love

Jesus comes to us in weakness and humility – the lowest of the low – not one who seeks to be served, but who comes only to serve, to give hie life for others. if he is our God – if being made in the Image of God means anything at all, then it must mean that this is the posture we too are called to adopt in the world. If truly we are to Know Him.

Amen

Of Metaphysics and Marriage

Sermon for Trinity + 18, Year B – 2018

Genesis 2:18-24
Hebrews 1:1-9
Mark 10:1-14

‘More things in Heaven and Earth’
Of Metaphysics and Marriage’

Having listened to the gospel, it may be that our thoughts are on Jesus’ teaching on Divorce and Remarriage – just at the outset, let us remind ourselves that Jesus’  words about not entering the kingdom, are addressed to those who do not receive it like a child . . . We ignore the words about children at our peril thinking that it is the ‘Adult’ words which are Obviously more significant . . . and thinking of children directs us towards those words in Hebrews, about angels . . .

Listening to the reading from Hebrews I wonder how many of us pondered the place of Angels in the great scheme of things?
You may remember Jesus dramatic warning regarding the little ones from last week – words, I should add addressed to us all – regarding ‘causing these little ones to stumble’? If we followed these words in Matthew’s gospel we would read this ‘And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.’

The role of guardian angels is a mysterious one. I know of three experiences of encounters with these creatures, one my own, but perhaps the most striking was a conversation with an elderly parishioner when I was a curate. As a young mum, perhaps suffering from post-natal depression, she had gone to take her own life, and had placed her head in her gas oven when she saw ‘two enormous feet in front of me, stood in the kitchen’ She had caught a fleeting glimpse of that which lies beyond our usual sight.

Yet Jesus speaks of what we call ‘guardian’ angels in particular with respect to children, or at least ‘little ones’. ‘their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.’

Angels belong to a branch of science, largely forgotten called metaphysics. We have all heard one ‘Metaphysical question’, concerning angels, namely ‘how many angels might dance on the head of a pin’. A question which perhaps sounds ludicrous to us, but to those who asked it wasn’t unimportant – the question was essentially, do angels take up space in the world in the way we do, or could you place thousands of them in the same space, the head of a pin? What is the nature of this unseen reality which surrounds us?

Such questions are questions of metaphysics, or put another way, if we remember the famous quote from Hamlet – questions of the ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio’. Questions of the very nature of our existence. Even ‘ordinary’ physics speaks of aspects of our existence which make no sense at all – are impossible to our way of understanding things.
When I trained as a physics teacher, half those training with me were Christians – perhaps as Christians we had more time for the weird world of quantum mechanics and special relativity, for the holographic nature of the universe, or the notion that every solid object is full of light . . . perhaps we were more open to the mysteries of physics, because we were comfortable with its older brother, metaphysics

Yet, as I said, Jesus speaks of guardian angels in particular with respect to children. And he speaks of children here in the context of speaking of marriage.

As I have said once or twice these past weeks, our habit of chopping the scriptures up into segments according to topic, destroy the fabric of the picture where themes are woven together throughout the gospels. They are a narrative, not a ‘collection of sayings’. So we might think that our gospel today we have ‘a saying of Jesus about marriage’, followed by ‘an incident with children’, as if, perhaps conveniently they were unrelated, but inconveniently perhaps, they are not. We may well sing that ‘love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage’, but perhaps at least as significant if not more so, do children and marriage.

We have noted these past weeks how there is a too and fro between the disciples and their assumptions about power, and greatness, and Jesus repudiation of such power, and over and again Jesus brings a child into their midst . . .

There is a discussion about marriage and divorce, we might say a conversation between adults as all these conversations seem to be, as if children don’t have a stake, yet ‘their angels continually see the face of [the] Father in heaven.’
There is an ‘adult conversation’ going on – and then the disciples try to block the children from coming to Jesus, from getting in on this adult conversation . . . it is hard not to feel the significance of this. Adults arguing – children kept out of the picture, Those with power deciding their own lives, but not only there own lives – the powerful deciding for the powerless, and the powerless the innocent victims of it all . . .

Of course our society is full of such conversations. Recently as you will be aware there have been conversations about Euthanasia going on in our country. What sticks most powerfully in my mind when this topic is raised is the look in the eyes of elderly people . . . for this is a discussion happening amongst the powerful. Those who have control of their lives as they see it, and who want to keep it, and listening in, those who sense that the determination of some to have power of their lives over their lives will have consequences for them . . . after all, in a world dominated by money and economics, by usefulness, by ‘the working life’, what we mean by a meaningful life takes on a very different hue . . . so it is the vulnerable elderly who have good cause to fear . . . despite the ‘adults’ the powerful ones saying – ‘there there it will all be fine.’ Being powerless helps one to see much more clearly what is going on . . .

Well so too, the children. But let us first look at Jesus teaching on marriage and divorce – and again we shall turn to metaphysics. Here Jesus is confronted by the pharisees – although we have skipped a verse. The context is that Jesus is teaching the crowds – so here we have a teaching session and the pharisees use it as an opportunity to place a distance between Jesus and the teaching of the elders.

‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ Of course in the culture of Jesus, that a woman might divorce her husband was simply not a possibility . . . but where in either case are the children?
Jesus answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ . . . and Jesus replies ‘Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you.’ Because you were determined to have it your own way . . .

‘But,’ says Jesus, ‘but from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.”

Perhaps the two most powerful words in Scripture, But God . . . and then Jesus quotes from Genesis. Not only have they lost sight of the children, they have lost sight of God. Perhaps when it is issues of power we lose sight of all that seems to us powerless . . .

‘but from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh.

And here we come to metaphysics of marriage. This is no mere human contract between two autonomous individuals – In the joining together of the man and the woman something which is at once New, and as old as Creation itself comes into being – or something Old is revealed once more – in that the two are made one flesh as of old the one became two. Where the unseeing eye might look only at two individuals who have chosen a way of life together – what is seen to the eye of God is something He has made, a marriage.

A New thing is made - there is still the man and the woman, but now they are husband and wife - a new thing has been made, has come into existence - the one flesh, the marriage - and it is God’s Creation! Thus the metaphysical significance of the declaration at a marriage which are the very words of God himself in Jesus ‘That which God has joined together, let no man separate.’

Through the self giving of one to the other, the man to the woman and the woman to the man, God creates a marriage, God does
The couple gives their consent to the marriage – marriage must always be freely entered into – but it is God who makes the two, one

As he makes the water, the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the baptism of Jesus, as he makes the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ, as in Christ he joins together things heavenly and things on Earth, so in the same way he makes of the man and the woman a Sacramental Union, a one flesh . . . a new creation – can a human undo what God has done?? Can one separate a child into two parts?

. . . and the blessing of that union? The one flesh fruit of it? The child. Here we might say is the visible manifestation of a marriage – Called forth from God.

As I said last week, Jesus constant reference to children lead us to sentimentalise his saying. Jesus blesses the little children, declares them blessed. The fruit of the marriage, is its blessing. But ‘in the real world’ . . . in the real world we come up against the harsh realities of life for children, of life for those whose ‘angels continually see the face of [the] Father in heaven.’ The disciples, the adults, want a ‘real world conversation’ – Jesus in speaking about marriage, in speaking of divorce, in blessing the children shows them The Real World, of things which we do not see, but are so very real.

In this light we must be so grateful for the words of Jesus from the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do . . .’ yet we need also to remember, that the words of Jesus are the very words by which worlds are created – when he declares ‘the two shall become one’, then he speaks that which is so . . .

We who are adults are so full of our stories of ‘the real world’, once more Jesus takes a little child, those whose angels continually see the face of [their] Father in heaven, and reveals the true nature of things – for Christ is Himself the fullest manifestation of the true nature of things

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen

‘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

Amen

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

Amen

‘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