God of Law or God of Grace?

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Hebrews 12. 18-29; Luke 13, 10-17.

I wonder how you picture God?

At home I have a collection of images of the divine from some of the Eastern religions, known to my children as “Mum’s heathen gods”.

IMG_0924There are Hindu gods, with their many arms to show their powers and characters, some of them, like Ganesha and Hanuman, with animal heads. Then there are the different images of Buddhas, some fat and jolly, some serene and detached from the world.

 

I’ve got fewer images from the Christian tradition, but I do have icons and photos on my wall which portray Jesus, Mary and the Trinity in different ways. One of the things I have asked people to do during Confirmation preparation is to draw their idea of God, and that brings interesting responses. You tend to get lots of elderly men with beards, sandals and long white robes; but one 14 year old girl drew a picture of the world cradled in loving hands – which I thought showed some spiritual maturity.

In Judaism and Islam, you have a prohibition on making images or drawing pictures of God, and some strands of Christianity have also observed this at different times. So in these religions you tend to get pictures of God drawn with words. Christianity in particular has gone in for defining God by creeds and statements. But another way of giving a picture of God is through stories. It’s a way Jesus used, through his parables, and it’s also one way used by the Gospel writers, as they tell us about how Jesus acted.

In our Gospel reading today, Luke gives us two opposing pictures of God. On the one hand, Jesus shows a God who relates to humanity through grace, compassion and inclusion. He sees the woman’s need and responds to it, even though she hasn’t asked for help. He calls her from the edge of the synagogue (which symbolises her exclusion from active society as a result of her ailment) and places her in the centre. He lays hands on her – breaking all the taboos in the Old Testament Holiness Code on interaction between male and female – and tells her to stand up straight and hold her head high. He makes her well, restoring not just her health but her place in society. He calls her a ‘daughter of Abraham’ emphasising her dignity, and her equality with the men around her.

On the other hand, the leader of the synagogue demonstrates his belief in a God who relates to humanity through law, fear and exclusion. His only concern was with the rules, especially the complicated oral law which specified what a faithful Jew could or could not do on the Sabbath. To break that law risked angering God. His spiritual blindness meant that he could not rejoice in the good done by Jesus, simply because he judged it was done at the wrong time. He was so keen to obey the letter of the law, that he failed to observe its spirit.

According to Deuteronomy, the purpose of the Sabbath law was to celebrate release from oppression and slavery, yet this man could not rejoice in the release of the woman from oppression by the evil of sickness. His misjudgement about the purpose of the Sabbath was compounded by his own hypocrisy: he would work if it was necessary to feed or rescue one of his animals, but he could not accept healing done on this day.

Pointers to both the God of law and the God of grace can be found in the Jewish tradition. Particularly after the exile in Babylon, strict adherence to the Law and separation and exclusion were seen as the way of preserving Jewish identity and loyalty to God. But there was also another strand, which portrayed God as the God of all nations, who wanted social justice and inclusion.

For Christians, Jesus is the icon of God, the one who shows us what God is like. In the New Testament, too, there are passages like our reading from Hebrews, which portray a terrifying God, who threatens humans who transgress his laws, and whose wrath needs to be satisfied by a perfect sacrifice: passages which inform the theology behind verse 2 of our offertory hymn, a theology in which I don’t believe. But Luke’s stories tell us about a God who wants to heal people and include the outcast, the God of grace, the God that Jesus reveals to us; and that the proper response to that revelation is to praise God and rejoice (as the people in the synagogue did) not carp and condemn (as the leader of the synagogue did).

But this insight is one the Christian community has had to learn again and again, especially as the Church turned from a movement into an institution. Institutions tend to be much more comfortable serving a God of law, with clear rules defining what and who is acceptable, and what is not. Some rules are necessary for community life; but the tendency is to go beyond what is necessary and try to keep the community pure and obedient by fear of breaking ever more complicated rules, a process which tends to exclude people, rather than include them, and oppress them rather than liberate. Though St Paul argued that we are justified by our faith, not by our works, by the grace of God, not by keeping the Law; and the writer of the letter to the Colossians argued against teachings that said the observance of the Sabbath, festivals and food laws were as important as loving all members of the community, the restrictive rules crept back into the life of the Christian community. To counter what it regarded as heresy, the church drew up creeds, and demanded adherence to them as a condition of membership, persecuting those who could not accept these word pictures of God. Even the multitude of laws about what could be done on the Sabbath (now Sunday rather than Saturday) came back, so that it became a time of oppression not liberation. The Puritans forbade music, dance, sport, anything that might make the Sabbath a day of joy. The gloomy Victorian Sunday was maintained with the same hypocrisy seen in our Gospel reading, resulting in situation where rich people could avoid work on the Sabbath day, but the poor could not.

 

One result of this trend is that, while Jesus is seen as an attractive figure by many, a true icon of the God of grace and compassion, Christianity itself is rejected as reflecting only a God who excludes and punishes. Gandhi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ!”mahatma_gandhi_religion_5335

Many people, including those from inside different Christian denominations, have admitted to sharing this anxiety that the institutional church doesn’t reflect the God of Grace that Jesus came to show us. That has serious implications for our mission, and our attempts to commend our faith to an increasingly indifferent and unbelieving society, because our practice will inevitably reflect our picture of the God we serve.

So the Gospel today face us with a challenge, not just about how we mark the Sabbath, but also how we picture God and how that picture influences the way we serve God in the Church and the world.

What sort of God do we worship and praise today?

What sort of God did Jesus show us?

A God of rules or a God of love?

One who keeps some of his sons and daughters bent over and burdened, or one who wants them all to stand up straight and hold their heads high?

A God of law or a God of grace?

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Are you a Hope Addict?

Are you a hope addict?

(Genesis 15, 1-6; Hebrews 11, 1-3 & 8-16; Luke 12, 32-40)

 

I saw a picture of a piece of graffiti during the week. It asked the question: “Are you a hope addict?”

 

According to our readings today, the answer for every Christian disciple should be “Yes!” Christians are meant to be people of faith, and according to the writer to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.

 

But what does this mean? Is faith, as so many non-religious people think, simply “Believing six impossible things before breakfast,” a skill which the White Queen advises Alice to practise in ‘Through the Looking Glass’? Or is it actually a quite different way of living in the world, based on what we believe and hope is the ultimate reality behind it?

 

Genesis and Hebrews give us a picture of Abraham as a person of faith, and an example of of how to live in faith. The earlier chapters of Genesis tell how Abraham received a call from God to leave his home city, his relatives and his familiar way of life in his old age, and to travel with his wife, Sarah, to an unknown land, to set up home among foreigners and strangers. He has to be prepared to start again. If he does this, he is promised blessings from God: a personal blessing in that he will have a legitimate child of his own as his heir, and that he will become famous, wealthy and the founder of a new nation; but also that, through him, blessings will come for the benefit of the whole world.

 

Though the promise of a child in their old age seems to be nonsensical, Abraham and Sarah commit themselves to following God’s directions for their lives in faith in its fulfilment. They don’t themselves see the total fulfilment of the promise beyond the birth of Isaac, and neither do many of their descendants. They are commended because they live as if the hope is reality, even when it seems very doubtful that it will be fulfilled, and so play their part in bringing God’s purposes to fruition.

 

The New Testament indicates that we Christian believers are meant to regard ourselves as children of Abraham and Sarah: not in a religious or racial way, but in the way we commit ourselves to doing God’s will and bringing in God’s Kingdom. Hebrews refers to them as ‘our ancestors’ and urges us to follow them in seeking a heavenly country and city in which to make our home.

 

Luke also speaks of  a way of life that is based on values different from the usual secular ones. Since the disciples expected an imminent return of Christ in glory, they were to sit light to earthly possessions, and reject earthly attitudes of competitiveness, acquisitiveness and possessiveness. They were to share what they had with the poor, and build up the treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than their personal fortunes. They were to be constantly ready for the coming of Christ, which could happen at any time.

 

Like Abraham and Sarah, they were commanded not to be afraid of the future. Living life in faith meant living it in the confidence that God was in control, and that God’s plans would ultimately triumph. Jesus assures the disciples that, though they will have to work to make the Kingdom of God a reality, God wants them to experience it, and wants to give it to them. Christian faith and hope means believing that all of life in this world, as well as in the next,  is ultimately in the control of  One who is like a loving parent, rather than governed by the forces of evil.

 

What then are these passages saying to us about the way we live our Christian lives today?

Are we meant to ignore what we know about human biology, and believe that a woman past the menopause can bear a child? Is every Christian meant to throw up their job, sell their house and wander off to colonise some foreign land in the name of God? Are we all meant to give away everything we earn or inherit, and live off other people until such time as Jesus descends from the heavens, and a completely new sort of world order is inaugurated?

 

Personally, I don’t think so. I think we are meant to use the intelligence God has given us, and the research done by scholars into the Scriptures, to interpret the meaning of these passages. That means first of all, recognising the sort of writing they are, and reading them in the context of that, rather than taking everything literally.

 

So, Genesis comes from the genres of literature known as myth and legend, the sort of literature that portrays a world where human interact with other sorts of beings like giants and demons, where animals can talk, and where people live to a great age. The religious truth of this literature doesn’t depend on those things actually happening. So, in this passage,  I wouldn’t take literally the ages given for Abraham and Sarah when they left Ur or when they had Isaac; what I think we should take from the story is their example of living in hope and complete trust in God’s promises, and continuing the have faith even when things didn’t seem to be turning out the way they were promised.

 

Hebrews was written to a people with a similar world view, so it does take such details literally; but we don’t have to. We know very little about the background of this piece of writing; we don’t know who wrote it, or when, or what the circumstances were that prompted its composition. We don’t even know if it was a genuine letter, or a collection of sermons or a pastoral treatise.

 

There are even problems about what exactly it says in some places, and specially in the way it defines ‘faith’. The Greek original uses technical philosophical terms, ‘hypostasis’ and ‘elegchos’, for the words which are translated as ‘assurance’ and ‘conviction’ in verse 1.  It may actually be asserting that faith is the reality of things not seen; that is, believing has itself a kind of power to make things happen, because what we believe affects the way we live, and so the reality in which we live. It may also be asserting that faith is the proof, rather than the conviction about what we can’t see; that is that living as if God’s Kingdom exists on earth is actually the proof that it does. Abraham lived in this way, the passage says, and so should we. This is why God affirmed  of Abraham, and if we live in the same hope and trust, God will affirm us.

 

In Luke, Jesus uses a mixture of Semitic exaggeration and parable to teach his disciples about the proper way to live as a citizen of the better country to which Abraham was journeying. It is not just a matter of what we do in our spiritual and religious lives; God is as much, if not more concerned with what we do in our working, social, economic and political lives.

If we think God’s rules should control the world, then God has a say in how we use our money as well as how we conduct our relationships. If we think God’s blessing means justice, freedom, health and prosperity for everyone, then when we make political and economic decisions, we need to side with the poor, the sick and the outcast, rather than with the powerful and rich.

 

If we believe that the peacemakers and the humble are the truly blessed, it affects how we deal with situations of war, and with conflict in our personal lives. If we believe that Christ’s coming is not something that may happen at some distant time in the future, but happens every time we are asked to help the homeless, the hungry, the sick and those in prison, it makes an enormous difference in how we live out our faith in practical ways, and what we think is really important in our religious lives. If we believe that love and sacrifice are the values that truly reflect the ultimate reality that is God, then those are the values that will guide the way we live now, in spite of the frequent evidence that seems to deny this.

 

Our faith gives us the guide to how we live our lives in our earthly kingdoms, in anticipation of the future triumph of the heavenly kingdom. That is the way of life that Jesus calls us to. That is the way of life which will answer the prayer of many that God’s kingdom should come. That is what is means to live in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.

 

That is what it means to be a hope addict!

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You can’t take it with you!

Fighting over money ( Image by Stuart Miles. Downloaded courtesy of Free Digital Image.net

Fighting over money
( Image by Stuart Miles. Downloaded courtesy of Free Digital Image.net

(Ecclesiastes 1, 2 & 12-14 & 2, 18-23; Colossians 3, 1-11;  Luke 12, 13-21)

 

When we take our daily walk around the area where we live, we see constant rebuilding, extensions and renovation work going on. Bungalows are transformed into 2 or 3-story houses, garages become living accommodation, rooms are gutted and refurbished.  Often we notice what looks like perfectly good bathroom, kitchen and bedroom equipment being thrown out –  basins, sinks, worktops and cupboards being thrown into a skip. It seems such a waste of equipment, to add to the waste of time and money in altering what seem to be quite  adequate houses already!

 

I was reminded of all that building work when I read the parable of the rich fool in today’s Gospel. This is one of the many parables in which Jesus addresses our use of money – a subject he talked much more about than prayer or sex! The idea that religion is about spiritual things was foreign to the Hebrew mind. There is no division between body and soul, the material world and the spiritual. As Genesis teaches, the  world was made by God, God judged it to be good and human beings were given stewardship over it. So God cares about how we use our money and we are accountable to God for what we do with it.

 

So what is this Gospel reading saying to us?

Luke sets the parable in the context of a question from someone in the crowd following Jesus. The question gives us an indication of how Jesus was regarded by people who were not in his inner circle; he was a teacher, and expert in the Jewish law, and could therefore be approached to settle little local disputes.

 

Jesus firmly rejects that role, addressing the questioner rather abruptly as ‘Man’ ( though some modern versions translate it as the kinder ‘Friend’). He wisely avoids getting involved in a family dispute about who gets what after someone dies; we probably can all think of situations where families have been split over an inheritance, and know how destructive it can become. Jesus builds on the question to make a more general point about the problems with wealth, and how destructive it can be to our relationship with God, as well as with each other.

 

The relationship of the man with his wealth is revealed in the dialogue he has with himself. He is already wealthy when, with no effort on his part, he becomes even richer. The increase comes about from good weather and the efforts of his workers. It is a gift of God. He doesn’t recognise this, though.

 

The dialogue reveals that his wealth has isolated him. As so often happens, the more money and possessions he has, the more he withdraws from everyday human contact. He has no family or neighbours with whom to discuss his course of action. He is alone in the middle of what he considers his land deciding what to do with what he considers his wealth.

 

The dialogue reveals how self-centred he is. It is with himself and about himself. No-one else gets a look-in.

He assumes that preserving his possessions is all he has to worry about – and there is no-one, family or friend, to point him towards deeper wisdom. He assumes that human beings are not much more than animals – their bodily wants are all that need to be met for total satisfaction. He quotes a single verse from the same part of Ecclesiastes that our Old Testament reading comes from “Eat drink and be merry” (Eccl.2.24) but because he only quotes part of the passage, he actually misses the point of it.

 

The denouement comes when God speaks. The divine voice reminds the rich man of his lack of awareness, particularly that his riches and his life are both only on loan to him. God calls him “fool’ and some of the commentaries point out that involves a word play in Greek. The word the rich man uses for ‘make merry’ ‘ephraino’ comes from the same root as the word for ‘fool’, ‘aphron’.

 

God reveals that before he can rebuild storage for his possessions, the man will die and be called to account for his use of them. The language used is that used for the repayment of a loan. Finally God says what the writer of  Ecclesiastes says constantly: “the things you have now, who will enjoy them then?”

The parable starts with the rich man, but ends with God. Then Jesus draws the moral from the story:  the accumulation of earthly possession is not what is important; what is important is investing in your relationship with God. And that is really his answer to the questioner who was getting so worked up about the division of his father’s property.

 

So how do we apply this story to our lives today?

 

The Bible does not condemn earthly riches – in some places prosperity is seen as a sign of blessing from God – but it does warn of its dangers in the lives of the faithful. It does not condemn individual property – Jesus was no a communist! It doesn’t say we should all be poor; it recognises that without a certain level of income, people are so concerned with how to exist from day to day that they have no time to think about anything spiritual. What the Scriptures and Our Lord emphasise is that human beings can destroy themselves fighting over wealth. It becomes a problem when people invest their trust in possessions rather than in their relationship with God and their neighbour. What matters is not how much we have, but whether we use it as God wants us to.

 

A proper Christian attitude to money is neatly summed up in John Wesley’s Sermon 44  where he summarises it as: “Gain all you can; save all you can; give all you can”.

 

Wesley declares that money is not evil, but should be regarded as a gift from God for the benefits it brings to civilisation and the opportunities it gives for doing good, in the right hands.

 

He argues that we should make, or earn as much money as we can, using all the talents and time God gives us – but within limitations. We should do nothing that harms our own bodily, spiritual or moral health, nor that of any of our neighbours. Today that would certainly exclude working for pay-day loan companies such as Wonga,  criticised by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the excessive interest rates it charges; or working in a company that employs people on zero-hours contracts. It would raise questions about working in certain industries, such as those making and selling chemical weapons. Perhaps nowadays, we would also add to that ‘Do nothing that causes environmental damage to God’s world or God’s creatures”.

 

Second, we should save all we can, and not waste God’s precious gift of wealth on trivialities, self-indulgence or luxuries. He urges his hearers to be content with a simple life, and not to indulge in conspicuous consumption. He also warns agains using your wealth to indulge your children, and provide them with an easier life, because he thinks that is damaging to them. He wouldn’t approve of the elaborate schemes people indulge in nowadays to avoid inheritance tax! He thinks children ought to be left only enough to keep them from need.

Any surplus should be distributed to bring glory to God. Which brings him to his third principle: Give all you can.

He doesn’t approve of storing money in banks, which in his day, were only for the rich  anyway. He wants it to be given away to benefit those in need. Like the Parable of the Rich Fool, Wesley teaches that we have material wealth on loan from God, and as good stewards we should use it for the benefit of ourselves (within limits), our families, and our fellow human beings.

 

He ends: “Give all that you have, as well as all that you are, to him who did not even withhold his own Son for your sake.”

 

The way we use money is not irrelevant to our faith. It demonstrates as clearly as anything our attitude to God. All of our readings today contrast those who seek security in wealth with those who seek security in doing God’s work. The writer of Ecclesiastes is depressed because he can’t keep control of what happens to his money after his death; he concludes that life is therefore meaningless.

 

In contrast Colossians and the Gospel recognise that an obsession with wealth leads to much of the suffering and injustice in the world, to wars, and divisions between people based on race or creed. Both Colossians and the Gospel teach that true human fulfilment comes from a life based on heavenly values, not on human greed.

 

“You can’t take it with you when you go” they say. St. Ambrose put it more elegantly: “The things we cannot take away are not ours”. That’s true of money and possessions; but it’s not true of the spiritual capital you build up if you use money as Wesley and Jesus recommend, for the building of community and the welfare of all. That enables us to become citizens of heaven and inheritors of eternal life, both in this life, and the next.

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The Lord’s Prayer

Praying_Hands

 Luke 11. 1-13)

When I was about 16, my grandmother had a stroke, and came to live with us for a while. Because our house was fairly small, she had to sleep in the same bedroom as me. One night, I was woken up by the sound of her voice. As I listened, I realised that she was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again, in her sleep.

I was surprised. My grandma was not a churchgoer when I knew her, and I had never heard her say a prayer before. Yet, in this time of illness, what came from the depths of her memory to meet her need was the Lord’s Prayer.

I would imagine that some of you may have had similar experiences – of people returning to these familiar words at times of stress, fear, pain or approaching death. When I take services in residential homes, even if people can no longer sing the hymns, or make the responses, most of them will still join in the traditional words of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s that deeply embedded in their memory.

They are, I would think, the words repeated most often by Christians – the only prayer used at virtually every Christian service (and even used twice in Evensong and Matins according to the Book of Common Prayer! ) – the one prayer that all Christians can say together.

In the Gospel today, we have one version of how the words of the Lord’s Prayer were taught to the disciples: Luke says it was in response to a specific request: “Lord, teach us how to pray”. In Matthew’s Gospel, it comes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus prefaces it with a warning against showy and repetitive prayers.

What, I wonder, was our Lord’s intention when he taught these word to his followers? Did he mean them to become a fixed format, repeated down the generations, to become the prayer of his church? Or were they, as many think, meant not as a fixed prayer, but as a pattern for prayer.

One problem with the Lord’s Prayer is that we use it so often, it is so familiar to us, that it can easily become the sort of prayer that Jesus warned his disciples against in the Matthew passage: “vain repetition” as the King James Bible puts it, or “meaningless words” as the Good News Bible translates. You know how it is when you drive a familiar route, with your mind on something else – you do it on autopilot. It’s easy to do the same with the Lord’s Prayer. You repeat it without actually hearing what you are saying; you come to the end and realise with a jolt that your lips have been repeating the phrases automatically, and that although you’ve said the prayer, you haven’t actually prayed it at all: mouth in gear, brain and heart in neutral!

How then can we overcome the problem of familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer and bring it alive for ourselves again?

One way is to read these passages, in Luke 11 and Matthew 6, where the prayer first occurs. Each of the evangelists presents the situation slightly differently, and the contexts give the prayer different emphases. They also have quite a few differences in the words of the prayer. Matthew speaks about forgiving debts and debtors; Luke about sins. In the phrase about daily bread, Matthew uses the Greek form of the command ‘give’ which is used for something that happens once; Luke uses the form for something that is to keep on happening, and adds the words ‘each day’, whereas Matthew only has ‘today’. So, we can see Matthew taking things day by day (since he wrote for a community that expected the Lord to return soon ) and Luke takes a longer perspective (since, perhaps, his community no longer expected an early Parousia.)

It is also good to read as many different translations as you can, to pick up all the different nuances of the prayer. Different translators help you to find new insights into the prayer. It is particularly useful with the Lord’s Prayer, where there are difficulties in translating some parts. For instance the Greek word ‘ in the petition about bread is found nowhere else in ancient Greek literature, so we can only guess what it means. It is usually translated ‘daily’ but it could mean ‘sufficient’ or ‘necessary’, ‘for today’ or ‘for tomorrow’.

You might even find it useful to read the Lord’s Prayer in a foreign language! You don’t have to be an expert in the language to do so – after all you know the translation off by heart! But if you understand even a little of the language, the different words, the slight difference of emphasis in another tongue might bring a new depth of meaning to the prayer for you. Just an example: many, many years ago, I picked up  versions of all four  gospels  in French from the chapel at Lyons Airport. In Matthew,  the petition about daily bread was written ‘Donne nous aujourdhui le pain qu’il nous faut’: literally, ‘give us today the bread which is necessary to us,’ which picks up one of the possible alternative meanings of the original Greek.

Although the process of liturgical revision has its down side, in that there are now several versions of the Lord’s Prayer in English, so that you can no longer assume that when you say ‘We will now say the Lord’s Prayer together’ everyone will recite the same phrases, it has brought the benefit that we can now choose from three or four liturgical versions of the prayer, as well as the versions in Luke and Matthew, if we want it in a different form.

And there are also unofficial translations, which bring the petitions up to date – like this one from Jim Cotter:

Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker,


Source of all that is and shall be,


Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The Hallowing of your name echo through the universe!


The way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world!


Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!


Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!


With the bread that we need for today, feed us.


In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.


In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.


From trials too great to endure, spare us.


From the grip of all that is evil, free us.


For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,


now and for ever. Amen.

A second way that you might find new depths of meaning in the Lord’s Prayer is to move as you say it. Many years ago, I took a youth group away for the weekend, and we spent part of out time exploring how to worship through dance. I worked out a dance version of the Lord’s Prayer to a folk setting of the communion service I had on tape, and I learned that to express the prayer with my whole body gives it a depth of meaning that it doesn’t have when I just say the words.

Perhaps the idea of ‘dancing a prayer’ fills you with horror. It is certainly an unusual thing to do in our religious culture, which is so word and brain fixated, that we have been encouraged to worship God from the neck upwards and forget the rest of our body. But if you read your Bible, and particularly the Psalms, you will find there a long tradition of worshipping God not just with words and music, but also with dance.

But perhaps you feel your body is no longer up to moving to music. In that case, move just your head and arms. Rosemary Budd, in her book ‘Moving Prayer,’ has several suggestions of simple movements that can be added to the Lord’s Prayer, as an aid to a deeper devotional life. And if you obey Jesus’ instructions about prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, and go into a room by yourself and shut the door when you pray, there’s no need for you to feel self-conscious about moving your body as you pray. Nobody will be watching!

A third way of getting more out of the Lord’s Prayer is to use it as, perhaps, Jesus intended, as a pattern for prayer rather than a complete prayer in itself. So you take each phrase separately, think about its meaning, and allow other prayers to arise from it. ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name’ may lead you into praising God’s holiness and loving care for us, or into intercessions for the conversion of a particular person, or for mission to a particular part of the world. ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ might lead to prayers for political situations. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ might lead to confession, and ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ to asking for God’s help in reconciling yourself to those whom you feel have wronged you – and so on.

You might find it helpful to read a book or a blog about the Lord’s Prayer by an expert theologian, to help you tease out the real meanings of the petitions, especially those that are difficult to translate adequately, like “lead us not into temptation’. One good book on the subject is William Barclay’s ‘The Plain Man looks at the Lord’s Prayer’ – which can be used by the plain woman just as well. When the Lord’s Prayer was used as the centrepiece of the Week of Prayer leading up to Pentecost this year, there was a lot written about it online.

‘This is how you should pray’ said Jesus, and instead of giving us a lengthy treatise on prayer, he gave us ten short, easily remembered phrases – his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and the pattern for all our prayers. It is a prayer which puts God at the centre, and which lays before God our present, past and future lives. It is a prayer which is so simple that we can pray it unconsciously, yet which is so deep that we can come to it again and again, and find new meaning in it. As we continue to use the words which our Lord taught us, as we use our minds and our voices and our bodies to explore its depths, may it bring us ever closer to him.

 

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In Christ there is no ‘Them’ and ‘Us’

IMGP1314(Gal.3, 23-29; Luke 8, 26-39

On Tuesday last week, I took a primary school assembly, and these were my visual aids: Stan, the banana and Olly the orange. I used them to tell the story of the Good Samaritan.

 

Before I began the story telling, I spoke about how people divide themselves into groups that hate each other, often over silly things, like which school you go to, or what football team you support; and I was sad to see that when I mentioned football teams, some of the older children were already making gestures and mouthing the names of their favourite teams. Before they were in their teens, they were dividing into rival camps, of the kind that led to one group of football fans beating a member of another group into a coma this last week.

 

But when I got to the point in the story where Stan, having been beaten up by other bananas, and ignored by all the important bananas who passed by, was approached by Olly, and Olly was standing there wondering aloud whether he should risk helping a member of the banana group who hated oranges, a child from Reception called out “Of course he should help!”

Children don’t naturally dislike and fear people who are different from them. They have to be taught to do it by grown-ups.

 

The message of the assembly was that we are all the beloved children of God, and the differences between us have no meaning in God’s eyes. It is a message which adults find it hard to hear, and even harder to put into action, even if they are ‘baptized into Christ’. Every human group is inclined to divide their fellow human beings into ‘them’ and ‘us’, with all the dreadful consequences of that.

 

But, in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. We are all one, we are all children of God.

 

In his letter to the Galatians, chapter 3, verses 26-28, we hear St Paul at his best, interpreting the message of Jesus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:

26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ; 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

He is saying “in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’”.

Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female were the major divisions in Paul’s society. Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and all the disciples were Jewish, like Jesus. They would have been taught as they grew up that the Gentiles, non-Jews, were wicked and unclean, outside God’s love, and no Jew should have anything to do with them. But Jesus overturned that teaching, and as we heard in today’s Gospel, went into Gentile territory and offered healing and salvation to suffering Gentiles, and even commissioned them to spread the good news. It took the disciples time to follow suit, as we see in the Epistles and Acts, but eventually Jews and Gentiles were accepted into the Church on equal terms.

 

Slaves, usually captives from foreign wars, or children, sold by their families to pay off debts, had no rights, could be bought and sold and mistreated at the whim of their owners. They were not considered to be people. But Jesus healed slaves, Paul urged they be treated humanely, and slaves became full members of the early Church.

 

Women (like children) had no more rights than slaves, were the property of a man – either their father or their husband – could be mistreated, sold, and could not give evidence in a court of law. Yet, Jesus treated them with courtesy, healed them, and sent them to share the gospel, and never ordered them to be silent; and the evidence from Acts and the Epistles is that they were honoured leaders of congregations, preachers and evangelists in the Early Church.

In Christ, there was no ‘them’ and ‘us’.

In his commentary on the Gospel story that we heard today, Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, observed that the Gospel writers often used demon possession to speak of the disordered powers that affect both people and communities. In this story the demons, which called themselves ‘Legion’ would be understood as standing for the evil influences of the Roman occupation on individuals and communities. John quotes the theologian Walter Wink, who says that Paul believed all earthly powers are created and set in place by God with a good purpose, but almost inevitably, they turn from their God-willed function and become demonic,  self-serving, and worshipping the idols of wealth and war, power and oppression, and that these systems become self-perpetuating.

 

One of the ways in which the powers maintain their systems of domination, is by creating boundaries, and rigidly classifying who is in and who is out, who can be counted as ‘us’ and who is to be treated as ‘them’. The tragedy of the Christian Church, and of Christendom, the societies that looked to Christianity for guidance, is that they adopted those strategies too.

In the early Church, Jews and Gentiles were equal, but as the Church became more Gentile, the Jews became targeted as an ‘out group.’ They were blamed for the death of Christ, there were numerous pogroms and expulsions, and even the horror of the Holocaust didn’t open the eyes of Western society to the anti-Semitism in its midst. When I came to live here I was shocked to learn that Jews were not allowed to be members of our most prestigious local golf club, because to me Jews were not a threatening minority, they were people with faces and names, my friends at school and my husband’s partners at work.

In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’

It took nearly eighteen centuries for the Church and Western society to realise that slavery was incompatible with the Christian faith. But the fear of people of colour lingered on into the late 20th century, and even now we tolerate slavery in parts of the world with which we trade, and some fear people whose skin colour is different from ours, and whose ancestors our ancestors wronged.

But, in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’

It took longer for the male-dominated power systems of society and church to accept that discrimination against women was not the Christian way. Only in the later part of the 20th century was equality reached to some extent in society, and the Church is still struggling. The Church of England reached a sort of qualified equality when women were allowed to become bishops about 18 months ago, but we still can’t say honestly in the church with regard to gender, ‘In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’’.

 

And the principalities and powers of Church and society have found new divisions to shore up their power, new categories of ‘them’ onto whom we are encouraged to direct our fear and anger, in order to distract ourselves from our own inadequacies and failures. We have been so painfully reminded of the demonic consequences of that in the last weeks and days.

 

One group which often carries the burden of being the ‘out group’ and the nameless threat in political discourse today is that of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. They are talked of as a swarm or a horde as if they were insects or ravening animals. The realities of their lives – the terror and threats from which they are escaping – are minimised and some are dismissed as ‘economic migrants’. I can’t think of them in that way. The refugees I knew came from another generation, escaping the Holocaust, but they have names – A. and G. and H. The immigrants I know in this generation also have names – my much loved daughters in law, B. and K. the people who keep our local shops, and the care assistants in the residential homes I visit.

Today, in our collections of goods, food and money for World Refugee Day, we have a chance to speak up against the categorisation of refugees and immigrants as ‘them’; to remember, as Ban Ki-moon said “Refugees are people like you and me. They led ordinary lives before becoming displaced, and their biggest dream is to be able to live normally again. Let us recall our common humanity, celebrate tolerance, and open our hearts to refugees everywhere”.

Let us both say and live “In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’”, no refugee or native citizen.

Another ‘out group’ for society and the Church is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. There has been progress towards equal rites for LGBTI people in society, but also recently an increasingly nasty backlash. The Anglican Communion at the moment is deeply divided over the issue, and LGBTI Anglicans feel marginalised and excluded. Hate speech against gays and categorising them as sinful leads to things like the horrific homophobic attack which took place last Saturday evening at the Pulse Club in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed and 53 injured, simply because they were in club for LGBTI people.victims-pulse-orlando-shooting

People tend to talk about LGBTI people as ‘the gay mafia’ as if they were a large threatening mass. But I can’t think of them that way. The gay people I know, loving, faithful couples, have names: A. and D., D. and R., EJ. and S., R. and S., L. and A., G. and S.; so now do the people killed in Orlando; and I know them all to be beloved children of God.

In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, no gay or straight.

In some of the debate about the EU referendum, there has been a tendency to create another ‘out-group’, ‘Europe’ which is blamed for all the problems that Britain is encountering as a nation at the moment. This ‘Europe’ is conceived as a nameless and faceless unelected bureaucracy, which is out to take our money or our fish, and undermine our NHS or our way of life.   But for me, ‘Europe’ is not nameless or faceless. Europe is I., the pen-friend I have had since my teenage years; S. and V.and K., the husband and children of one of my cousins; S., about to marry my nephew; the people I have stayed with and met on many holidays in Europe over the years. Conversation that demonises Europe seems to me to be toxic, and that poisonous talk  contributed, I am sure, to the senseless and horrific murder of the MP Jo Cox on Thursday, by someone who is said to have shouted ‘Britain First’ as he shot and stabbed her. She was a person who spent her life working to help the poor, refugees, women, the dispossessed, the excluded, all those often categorised as ‘them’.

But in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, no European and British.

Jesus stepped bravely into the territory of the Gentile, the madman, the demon possessed and brought healing and peace. Can we who claim to follow him do the same?

Can we give up the hate speech against those who are different from us, and speak up against those who use it, whoever and wherever they are?

Can we oppose everything that categorises and demonises people and treats them as threatening groups without names and faces?

Can we say, with Paul, “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, refugee or citizen, gay or straight, European or Briton.

In Christ there is no ‘them’ or us’ for all of us are one in Christ Jesus?”

And can we, please, as people baptized into Christ, live it?

 

 

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Retelling the Story.

widow of Nain

( 1 Kings 17, 17-24; Luke 7, 11-17)

 

Those of you who like stage musicals will know that many of them are based on classical plays or stories: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is based around Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘My Fair Lady’ on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Les Miserables’ on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. Sometimes the original story is updated, to a contemporary setting, as in ‘West Side Story’ where the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet become the Puerto Rican Jets and working class white Sharks of 1950s New York. No matter what the setting, the impact of a good story remains.

In our two Bible readings this morning, we see something of the same process at work.

There are obvious parallels between the story of the raising of the dead son of the widow of Zarapheth by the prophet Elijah and the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain by Jesus. The stories depict the same scenario, and even some of the details and language are identical in the two accounts. As so often, the Gospel writers use a story from one of the great figures from Israel’s past and rewrite it to convey a message about Jesus and his person and his mission.

The widow of Zarapheth was not a Jew. She was a Gentile, from the coastal region of Sidon. Elijah was told by God to seek refuge with her from the anger of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, after he had asked God to send a drought on Israel as a punishment for their wickedness. He met the widow by the town gate and asked her for water and food. Although she had barely enough for one last meal for herself and her son, the widow gave it up to feed Elijah, and in return God provided enough meal and oil to keep the three of them fed during the time the drought lasted.

Having taken the risk and trusted Israel’s God to look after her, the loss of her son was all the more bitter. His death was not just the loss of a family member, it was the loss of her financial security and her personal safety. As a widow, she had no place in society, no one to defend her and no financial security apart from him. She saw God as a cruel judge, who was punishing her for her sins by his death. When Elijah restores her son to her, he also restores her faith in Israel’s God as a god of love and mercy.

The writer of Luke’s Gospel appears to have had a particular interest in the prophet Elijah. A number of incidents that are unique to his gospel recall incidents from Elijah’s ministry. Another significant parallel is that Elijah was taken up into heaven and had no earthly tomb, and that his spirit then descended upon his disciple Elisha; In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to heaven after his death and resurrection and then sends down the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.

All the Gospel writers feature the ministry of John the Baptist, and see him as the prophet whose coming would herald the messianic age. Some seem to see John as Elijah. But Luke has passages which seem to identify Jesus with Elijah, especially in chapter 4, when, after he is rejected by the people of Nazareth, he refers to Elijah’s stay with the widow of Zarapheth, implying that his ministry will be welcomed by the Gentiles like her and rejected by his fellow Jews. The mission to the Gentiles was a particular interest of Luke’s.

The story of the widow of Nain and the resurrection of her son is found only in Luke’s Gospel. The story comes immediately after Jesus has healed the Roman centurion’s servant. The centurion, a rich Gentile, who is sympathetic to the Jewish faith and has built a synagogue for them, expresses faith in Jesus, and his servant is healed from a distance. Jesus emphasises the contrast between him and the lack of faith from his own people by saying “I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel”.

Now Jesus turns to help a member of the ‘anawim’ the faithful Jewish poor who feature so often in Luke’s Gospel as the true believers. He meets the funeral procession at the town gate (a direct parallel with Elijah who met the widow in that same place). After the miracle, he gives the son back to his mother – another direct parallel.

But there are differences between the two stories, and these are intended to demonstrate that Jesus is not just a great prophet (as the crowd proclaims) but something much greater. There is no request from the widow of Nain for help. Jesus interrupts the funeral procession, drawn to help by simple human sympathy, sympathy not just for the human tragedy, but, as so often in Luke’s Gospel, for those in facing economic desperation. He touches the coffin to stop the procession – thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean. Whereas Elijah throws himself on the dead boy three times, and cries to God to heal him, Jesus revives him with a simple command “Young man, get up”. His healing power comes from within himself, not from outside. To those who believe, he is so obviously much more than a great prophet; he is, as Luke calls him, the Lord.

Immediately after this, Luke tells us that messengers came from John the Baptist, asking whether Jesus was the person John said was coming. His answer was that the blind and deaf had been healed, the lame walked, and the dead has been raised to life. The miracles of the preceding verses are thus an illustration of this ministry. Then he tells his disciples that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven will be greater than John.

The miracles in which people are raised from the dead are probably the most difficult for modern Christians to deal with. But, as the Dean of St Albans reminds us in his book ‘Meaning in the Miracles’ the question of what did or did not happen is an unanswerable and and therefore fruitless question. The real and useful question is what the stories are intended to convey tell us.

In re-telling a story about Elijah, Luke is reminding us that God was at work through Elijah, as he was through all of Israel’s history. He is reminding us that God is a god of mercy and compassion, with a special care for the poor and defenceless. In retelling the story of the raising of a widow’s son, Luke is reminding us that greater faith is sometimes found outside the faith community than inside it. In showing Jesus performing the same miracle by a simple word of command, he is telling us that Jesus is a far greater miracle worker even than Elijah. In restoring her son to the widow he gives her back her future – as he gives back the future to everyone who believes in him.

All the resurrection miracles in the New Testament look forward to the greatest resurrection miracle of all, that of Jesus himself. The widow’s son is raised to physical life, but he will die again. What the resurrection of Jesus promises is resurrection to eternal life – to a future not just in this world, but for all eternity.

Physical death, like physical handicap, in biblical writings can be a symbol for spiritual malaise. We are spiritually dead when we are in the power of sin, or in thrall to the material things of life. It is only through faith that we can be raised from spiritual death to eternal life. And that is the most important resurrection.

The stories in the New Testament of Jesus performing miracles were told to strengthen the faith of those who heard them. They showed Jesus as not just a prophet of words, but as a prophet of actions – and as he told the messengers from John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God was being ushered in by those actions. Our job, as the present day disciples of Jesus, is to inspire and strengthen faith in those to whom we speak. We can do that by re-telling the stories of God at work in the world, as the gospel writers did and particularly by telling our own stories of the difference our faith makes to our lives.

We probably won’t have tales of people being raised from physical death to share, but many of us will have stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been redeemed from economic, moral and spiritual death, and who have been given back their future by people working with them in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of the Kingdom of God.

And those are stories which are worth re-telling again and again.

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Outside In!

HealingCenturionsServant008596WM__13126.1380317115.500.659

Ordinary 9. Proper 4C         Galatians 1, 1-12; Luke 7, 1-10

 

 

Whenever there is a terrorist outrage in the UK, there is a reaction, sad to say, against the community that the terrorists are believed to belong to.

 

Three years ago there were a number of demonstrations against Islam in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich. There was a march through the centre of London on Bank Holiday Monday organised by the English Defence League and also in Newcastle on Saturday and York on Sunday. These came after 10 mosques around the country had been subject to arson or graffiti attacks and there had been a further 193 anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police.

 

AnsarRobinson-thumb-500xauto-3293In Newcastle, a prominent Muslim political and social commentator, Mo Ansar, confronted the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, but at the end of their discussion was photographed with a smile on his face, being hugged by the person whose policies he opposes. For this he was criticised both by Muslims and by anti-fascists, for compromising with the promoters of prejudice and evil.

When the leaders of a mosque in York learnt that the EDL march was targeting their York-mosque---tea-protest-008mosque, they decided to organise an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussions, and played an impromptu game of football with some of them. The Archbishop of York praised them for meeting anger and hatred with peace and warmth.

 

In each of these two incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat non-believers, even those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’ or ‘enemies’. They opened themselves up to them and invited them to become, in some sense, ‘insiders’.

 

This is the message that we are meant to hear from our Bible readings today.

 

In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, we hear one half of a correspondence between Paul and the church he established in Galatia, a church which consisted largely of Gentiles.

GalatiaMap

After he had left Galatia, it seems that some Jewish Christians visited the churches, and insisted that, before they could truly become Christians, the pagan converts had to subject themselves to Jewish ceremonial law. In the case of male converts this included being circumcised. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome into the Christian community by the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed from converts apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord. Hence his condemnation of the actions of the Jewish Christians as ‘perverting the Gospel of Christ’.

 

Does anyone nowadays, I wonder, pervert the Gospel of Christ, but setting entry conditions for membership or holding office which Christ would not have set?

 

The challenge to treat all people as insiders in the name of Jesus is brought out most strongly in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, which we heard in today’s Gospel. This was clearly an important story to the early Christian community; there are slightly different versions of it in three of the four gospels (Matthew and John, as well as Luke).

 

The centurion was in more than one way an outsider for Jesus and his companions. He was a Gentile; entering his house, eating with him, having any physical contact with him or his possessions would have rendered an observant Jew ceremonially unclean.

 

Then, he was a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated enemy that was occupying the sacred land of the Jews. There had been a large military presence in Galilee since the uprising that followed the death of Herod the Great in Jesus’ early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’ fellow Galileans. The rebellion centred on Sepphoris, four miles north of Jesus’s home town of Nazareth. After the rebellion was crushed, Sepphoris was razed to the ground and its inhabitants taken into slavery. Roman legions remained in the area to deter any further rebellion, and the centurion was part of this army of occupation; it is possible the slave was a Jewish child, taken into slavery after the rebellion.

 

Any Zealot would have taken the first opportunity to kill the centurion. Many religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.

 

Lastly, the anxiety and effort which the centurion expended over the healing of his slave implies that the relationship between them was more than that of master and servant. There was affection, maybe love. This was something that was quite accepted in Roman society; but the Jews saw such homosexual relationships as evidence of the depravity of Roman society and its alliance with evil.

 

And yet the centurion did not act like an outsider. He did not keep the usual distance between occupier and occupied. He did not automatically treat every member of the subject people as a potential terrorist.

 

It is possible that he was a “God-fearer’, a Gentile who was attracted to the ethical teaching of Judaism, but who would not go the whole way and become a convert. Luke reports he had paid for the construction of the synagogue, and he was friendly enough with the elders to ask them to approach Jesus on his behalf. He was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs – although he wrapped it up in comparisons between his own authority and that of Jesus, his second message was designed to avoid placing Jesus in the position of becoming unclean by entering a Gentile house.

 

And although he was a member of the occupying power, he asked for help from a Jewish holy man. He treated him with respect, using the honourable title ‘Lord’. This was an amazing act of humility – equivalent to a colonial official in the British Empire asking for help from a native traditional healer.

 

The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, and seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions, to risk making himself ritually unclean to help. Finally, he commended the ‘outsider’s’ faith as being greater than that of any insider.

 

This story anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles inside the community of the redeemed that we read about in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts. It highlights the irony that the Jewish leaders failed to recognise the authority of Jesus, by showing a Gentile outsider did, and was commended for it. In the end, the healing of the servant was not important. The important thing is the greater healing proclaimed in this miracle: the healing of the divisions between the favoured believers and a hated and excluded group, who are now included.

 

The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: he would still be the wrong religion, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality.

Our world today seems to revel in dividing itself into hostile groups based on many different characteristics. We love to label people according to their race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, location within the country, political affiliation, and so on and so on; and give that as a reason to justify competition, conflict and exclusion. And even locally, even within one faith, we can separate ourselves from others on the basis of differences of interpretation of faith and churchmanship.

 

Today the scriptures challenge us to reject the worldly way of building up our own ‘insider’ identity by hostility to those we label ‘outsiders’, both in faith communities, in our neighbourhoods and in our politics. It tells us that, to the God revealed in Jesus, there are no outsiders. God is the God of all people and all creation, both those who worship as we do, and those who don’t, those who identify themselves as believers and those who don’t. We can reject these divisions in the way we think and talk about those who are different from us: emphasising the ways they are like us, rather than their difference and strangeness. We can do it in practical ways: meeting their basic needs, for food, for medical care, for housing and security; in other words, doing to them as we would have them do to us.

The scriptures we have heard urge us to build a society based on invitation and hospitality, not separation and hostility, on inclusion and healing, not exclusion and conflict. Our Spirit inspired mission, following the example of Jesus, is to turn the world outside in, to invite the outsider in and offer acceptance and healing, knowing that in the all encompassing love of God, there are no outsiders.

 

h/t Progressive Redneck Preacher

We all give God the Blues

 

 

 

 

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