Names – 14 October, 2018
There are three famous stories in the Gospel about wealthy people. There is the one today, about the rich young man, there is the parable of Lazarus and Dives (where both die, and Lazarus, who was poor in life goes to Abraham’s bosom), and Zacchaeus, the little wealthy man who climbed the tree to see Jesus.
What is interesting in thinking about these three stories is the use of names. The rich young man in today’s story is given no name. Zacchaeus obviously has one. In the story of Lazarus and Dives, when you read it, the two are contrasted but only poor Lazarus is named – we just call the other one Dives for convenience.
So in the three stories, only once does the wealthy man get a name, in the story of Zaccheaus, who takes Jesus to his house, entertains him, and then promises restitution for any extortion. So what makes him special?
Zaccheaus is the one who changes from meeting our Lord. He is the one who promises to give up half his wealth to the poor and restore fourfold any one he has defrauded. He is changed by his encounter with the Lord. In contrast, the other two stories are about the wealthy who fail to change: Dives never changes in life and repents only after death, and the rich young man in today’s gospel also goes away, turning down our Lord’s invitation to give away his wealth and follow our Lord instead.
So, the one who is named, is the one who is changed. Zacchaeus is changed – the others are not. They disappear into history, as examples of those who turn down the offer from God to change, successful in life and failures in eternity, disappearing into oblivion as nameless.
Consider now the wealthy young man needed to let go of his wealth to inherit eternal life. Our Lord knew that it was his true greatest burden and the young man did not have the strength to let go. It’s also interesting that he asks Our Lord what must he do to inherit eternal life, not obtain, but inherit, like the gift of unearned money from family. He may have made a name for himself in life, but as a result he is nameless to us who follow our Lord. Dives is also nameless to us from his failure to care for Lazarus in life. To follow our Lord is to become a name in God’s eyes, someone who has undertaken the challenge of letting go of what ever we hold most tightly and follow our Lord instead.
Now it is easy to make the Gospel story today about the perils of riches. But temptation is not only about money, it can be about a lot of things. Don’t simplify it. The hold of part of life in some way attracts each of us and binds us. It may be money, it may be status, it may be control: the permutations of temptation are endless. What each has in common is that we are held in some way.
Where you heart is, so is your soul. We can all be tempted. The call from our Lord in each is the same: that we need to renounce that which we hold most closely to find the freedom of following our Lord. We may still be good people even in thrall to our personal temptation – after all the rich young man only lacked one thing, he was not a bad man at all – but eternal life is more than just being good enough, it is about overcoming those temptations. It is about becoming detached from the what holds us away from God. We can know we can do this for three reasons:
Detachment from the goods and poverty are the indispensable condition for discipleship for three reasons:
1 We have faith in God who provides to us as a Father. If God cares for the birds and the lilies of the field, then God has even more care for each of us.
2 We have a need for fraternity, of being with other people: how can we continue to own all that we have, when we realize that all around us there are those who lack the necessary?
3 We have a need for freedom: if we are tied to too many things (and it is not just money) that absorb all of our time and our attention, how can we find the space and the taste for the things of God?
So today I want to encourage you all to fight with your own temptations. The way to start is always with little things, if you can succeed in little things, big things start to shrink. Remember that we can have faith in a God who knowns us, we have the need for fraternity with those in need, and we need a freedom from the burdens of the world. Then when you finally can renounce that which binds you most tightly, then you find you have followed our Lord, and eternal life is yours, and you have a name – the name in the Book of Life.
Our Lady of the Rosary – 7 October, 2018
Today the Church commemorates the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, a celebration that has its origin not, as it would seem, in simply a prayer, but in a battle.
On 7th October, 1571 a fleet of ships assembled by the combined forces of Naples, Sardinia, Venice, the Papacy, Genoa, Savoy and the Knights Hospitallers fought an intense battle with the fleet of the Ottoman Empire. The battle took place in the Gulf of Patras located in western Greece. Though outnumbered by the Ottoman forces, the so-called “Holy League” would win the day. This victory would severely curtail attempts by the Ottoman Empire to control the Mediterranean, causing a seismic shift in international relations from East to West. This event is known to history as the “Battle of Lepanto.”
Pope Pius V, whose treasury bankrolled part of this military endeavour, ordered the churches of Rome opened for prayer day and night, encouraging the faithful to petition the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the recitation of the Rosary. He led public processions saying the rosary in the streets of Rome. When word reached the Pope Pius of the victory of the Holy League, he added a new feast day to the Roman Liturgical Calendar- 7th October would henceforth be the feast of Our Lady of Victory. Pope Pius’ successor, Gregory XIII would change the name of this day to the feast of the Holy Rosary.
We might not feel comfortable at the association of the Mother of the Prince of Peace with the memory of warfare, strife and the troubled history that preceded and followed the Battle of Lepanto. But this feast was first understood as a celebration akin to what we commemorate D Day. Pope Pius V interpreted the event as the movement of Providence in favour of the Church and European civilization. He had no qualms in the assertion that the triumph properly belonged to the Mother of God and that in the midst of battle, her intercession had moved the “Holy League” to victory. Such warlike associations with Christian Faith and culture likely cannot be sustained today.
Thus, the true history of this day has receded into the obscuring mists of the past. In our present circumstances we celebrate the prayer of the Rosary, not the battle of Our Lady of Victory. We recall its efficacy as a source for meditation and contemplation and encourage its practice
For more than three years before that battle, Pope Pius V had laboured mightily to sound alarms about the deadly Ottoman build-up in the shipyards of Istanbul. The sultan had been stung by the surprising defeat of his overwhelming invasion force in Malta in 1565. The savagery of Muslim attacks on the coastal villages of Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece was ratcheted upwards. Three or four Muslim galleys would offload hundreds of marines, who would sweep through a village, tie all its healthy men together for shipment out to become galley slaves, march away many of its women and young boys and girls for shipment to Eastern harems, and massacre the rest, to strike terror into other villages. The raiders believed that future victims would lose heart and swiftly surrender. Over three centuries, the number of European captives kidnapped from villages and beaches by these pirates climbed into the hundreds of thousands.
The reason for this kidnapping was that the naval appetite for fresh backs and muscles was insatiable. Most galley slaves lived little more than five years. They were chained to hard benches in the burning Mediterranean sun, slippery in their own filth, often never lying down to sleep. The dark vision that troubled the pope during the late 1560s was of even more horrible calamities to befall the whole Christian world, bit by bit. The Reformation had divided Europe and weakened the ability to defend the Christians in peril.
In four hours, the battle was over. More than 40,000 men had died, and thousands more were wounded. The Ottomans had been surprised by the use of early cannons that had severely damaged their fleet. But most of the action was hand to hand combat by ships boarding each other. The Ottomans were not helped either by a sudden revolt by their Christian galley slaves, over 12,000, who heroically fought from their captivity. Never again did the Ottoman fleet pose a grave danger to Europe from the south. Even though the fleet was rebuilt in a few years, the Ottomans no longer had the skilled mariners to man it, nor the ability to raid for the galley slaves. The land armies would still advance until the last siege of Vienna in 1683.
As news of the great victory of 7 October reached shore, church bells rang all over the cities and countryside of Europe. For months, Pius V had urged Catholics to say the daily rosary on behalf of the morale and good fortune of the Christian forces and, above all, for a successful outcome to the highly risky pre-emptive strike against the Turkish fleets. Thereafter, he declared that 7 October would be celebrated as the Feast of “Mary, Queen of Victory.” A later Pope added the title “Queen of the Most Holy Rosary” in honour of the laity’s favourite form of prayer. All over Europe, great paintings were commissioned to honour the classic scenes of that epic battle. The air of Europe that October tasted of liberties preserved. The record of the celebrations lives on in glorious paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, and many others. Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish soldier wounded in the battle, recovered to become a novelist, poet and playwright; and he was so inspired by this battle that he incorporated elements of it in his own acclaimed novel, Don Quixote, the greatest work of Spanish literature. The apologist G.K. Chesterton, who wrote the original Fr Brown stories, far better than the present tv series, retold the story in his 1915 ballad, Lepanto.
So why are we celebrating this? History, I think should never be ignored. Those who ignore the lessons of history are fated to relive them. This battle was the culmination of centuries of struggle for Europe to preserve its independence from autocratic empires such as the Ottomans. Most of the brunt of this had been borne by the Byzantine Empire for centuries until its fall in 1453. The competing nation states of Europe had allowed Christianity to flourish and develop a plurality of ideas and technology that would define who we are today.
But we also celebrate this because of a picture in the church. Over in the Lady Chapel you will see one of our paintings, that of Our Lady holding a rosary. Fr Wise had this erected with Joan of Arc in 1918. That War was seen as a struggle to resist the might of Germany trying to establish a new empire that was based on militarism. These paintings reflect this: Our Lady of the Rosary for the battle against the Ottoman Empire, and Joan of Arc, for her heroic resistance to the efforts of the English to conquer her France. So, it was not just jingoistic Britishness. Fr Wise was saying that religion is needed to remind us of our freedoms. It is our commitment based in faith to serve each other and love each other, that is the best defence against tyranny.
That struggle continues. The debates about how we treat refugees or marriage equality all depend on our concepts of freedom and respecting the rights of others. Even the endless cycle of obsession about the America of Trump is in the end one about rights and freedoms, not only for Americans but for all people. As long as we engage in our faith we will be challenged by these debates, and as a result make the debate more open and interesting. When we retreat into our citadels of prejudice then we have lost.
Here is an excerpt from that great narrative poem of Chesterton:
The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
(This sermon is based n multipe accounts and is not all original)
Bread and Flesh -25 August, 2018
Anglicans being Anglicans, we like some order. So, we now share with our Roman Catholic, some Uniting Church and some Lutherans friends and probably a few other esteemed odds and ends, a common lectionary. We now call it the revised common lectionary, as we have been through some versions. Basically this lectionary follows the cycle of the three synoptic Gospels as we call them, synoptic, meaning with a similar eye. That is we work our way on a three-year cycle the gospels according to Matthew, Mark and Luke. By the way, we always call them the Gospels according to so and so, and the Gospel, which means good news, is, of course, the good news of Jesus Christ, and just told according to the writings of each writer. That’s why in the pew sheets you sometimes see in the references to next week’s readings things like OS21B, which means Ordinary Sunday 21 of the cycle, of the year B out of the three year cycle A, B and C.
Anyway, back to today’s Gospel. Poor old John does not get a year to himself. Instead, we get doses of him at different times of the cycle. John’s gospel is quite different in structure to the other three, and has more theological reflections. Well, today we get part four of a long discussion from chapter six of his Gospel about his flesh and blood.
We, some two thousand years away, find it hard to enter into the mindset of sacrifice that was part of the cultic norm of the ancient world. What you have to remember was that sacrifice of animals (or in less enlightened places, people) was standard practice. Every decent town in the Greek and Roman world would have a temple or two, where sacrifices would take place. The core of sacrifice was that the animal would be lead to the place of sacrifice, then its throat would be slit, and the blood poured out. The giving of the blood was the core of the sacrifice. The flesh would then be distributed in some way, or partially cooked.
The essence of sacrifice was usually, and especially for the Jews, the giving of blood. Blood was the life-force, and in it, the ancients thought, was carried the genetic pattern association. So, for Our Lord to talk about drinking his blood carries a clear cultic sacrificial meaning. The proper shedding of blood made a sacrifice: and hence the reason why it had to be done in a certain proscribed way: for the Jews this had to be of the right kind of animal by the right bloodline of Aaron in the right place of the Temple in Jerusalem. Interestingly, one of the strongest pollutants to a sacrifice, and hence the subject of many restrictions in Leviticus and Numbers, is menstrual blood: its dead female blood is placed in opposition to the shedding of life-giving blood by men. But that’s another story. But it’s another aspect of the dealing of the woman with the blood flow by Our Lord we heard earlier.
So for Our Lord to call for people to drink his blood is to make a clear sacrificial statement of his purpose. But the idea is abhorrent: Jews were forbidden to drink blood: it was life, the gift of God, and only God could take it in sacrifice. By telling them that they must drink his blood Our Lord is on one hand making himself a sacrifice and on the other hand putting the drinkers into the position of God.
Our Lord then twins this with the need to eat his flesh. Now this idea of flesh is one of John’s great points. The Gospel according to John starts with what is called the Prologue, a sort of poem and reflection on the role of Our Lord. “In the beginning was the Word” we learn, and the Prologue goes on to state in the great phrase that we recite every time in the Angelus “and the word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” The flesh of Jesus is the flesh of the God made human. Once more we can apply the great maxim of the early church: he became human so that we could become divine. By taking his flesh we join into his resurrected stare: human and divine. His flesh lives: it was dead and rose by itself by the power of the resurrection to a new stare; in the same way we too are called to live. By eating his flesh we join in the future resurrection power.
Now if I have lost you by this stage don’t worry. What I am trying to say in brief is that the blood points to Our Lord’s sacrifice, while the flesh points to his resurrection. Over-simplifying we can say that by taking his blood we join in his sacrifice and by taking his flesh we join in his resurrection. However, both are needed: flesh and blood can only live together and both carry meanings of the other.
Now when some of the disciples heard this teaching they turned away, we learn, and no longer went about with him. The idea of eating our Lord’s flesh and drinking his blood was too much. So why did our Lord teach this?
In on sense, this is very important, because it illuminates how our faith life and even our scripture reading should be. Now some people see the church or the bible as complete rules on how to live life. Why God would want such a well-camouflaged set of rules is not addressed. But we don’t get a clear guideline for every situation. Instead we are left with a means of living with God: here by the promise that if we eat our Lord’s flesh and drink his blood we will have life. God gives us the means to live, but God also gives us free will, and therefore we have choices and must make those choices. It’s far, far easier just to hang onto rules; but our Lord gives us the harder task: live in me and work it out. As I have said before, baptism is the giving of the Spirit, not the giving of a lobotomy. We have to work things out at times.
So we can, as those disciples did, choose not to follow, to turn back and no longer go with our Lord. It must have been so sad for our Lord when they did that. John also records that lovely memory, the shortest verse in the Bible [in 11.35], “Jesus wept.” God will weep rather than impose solutions. Peter provides the alternative: we must understand that only in Our Lord do we find the words of eternal life, and we can go no other place to find them. A faith life is one of continual journey, continual exploration, a living in the faith rather than a catalogue of complete answers. The choice is ours, to turn away because it’s all too hard, and let our Lord weep; or to follow and grow in the words of eternal life, hard and confusing though it may be, but a place where we learn the love of God.
The Urgent Christ – 12 August 2018.
If you have never read any of the devotional books of Rowan Williams, you should. He was the last Archbishop of Canterbury and probably is the greatest archiepiscopal theologian since the late and great Michael Ramsey, also of Canterbury. One book Rowan Williams wrote is only a little book, called “Ponder These Things – Praying with Icons of the Virgin.” In it he discusses a few icons of our Lady and their meanings. We have a lovely icon here in this Church, in the Lady Chapel, of our Lady of Kazan, which is very beautiful and a copy of one of the great icons of Russia, which went missing at the revolution. There are a few contenders for the real icon out in the world, but that’s another story
One reflection that I liked particularly was of our “Lady of Loving Kindness,” also known as the “Eleousa.” In this icon the baby child almost scrambles up our Lady’s neck, in a great eagerness, and presses his face against hers. We have all seen the possessive way a child can hug a parent, and this icon captures some of this. The child Jesus looks at his mother. The face of our Lady, which looks rather haggard, looks at us.
The reflection that Bishop Williams brings from this icon is the great almost fierce love that Christ has for us is seen in the fierce love that the child has in the icon. Christ loves us not with a passive love, but with a fierce longing, like a child for its mother. Our Lady knows the fierceness and tragedy of that love, hence she sees the world with the weariness of knowing that the love of Christ will entail tragedy for her child, and also sorrow for her. For a sword will pierce her heart too. It will also be a sorrow for all that love Christ as well, as we respond to that fierce love of God.
Now that can sound rather surprising. We think of the love of God as something calm and gentle. Yet it is more than this.
We see this in the gospel today as well. Our Lord talks to people how he is the bread from heaven, the living bread that he gives, his flesh. It is all extreme language that the people do not understand. How can they eat his flesh? How can he be bread? Our Lord wants them to take him in a new and urgent way that they fail to understand.
There is desperation in such language, the eagerness of our Lord that people take him. Eating his flesh is not a passive kind of love, it is the same eager love that is seen in the Icon of Loving Kindness, an urgent possessive love.
Yet we do eat his flesh and drink his blood in this sacrament of the altar. We enter into his sacrifice and become his body.
Have you ever thought what is means to be part of the body of Christ? We are the body of Christ we say, but what does that mean? For me the best answer (and there is more than one answer to this question) is that we become more Christ-like.
Now becoming more Christ-like is a dangerous and terrible thing. For as we become more Christ-like we enter more fully into the mystery of the love that Christ has, in the Trinity and for us. As we become more Christ-like, we start to share that same possessive love he has for all people. The love of Christ is not only a gentle love; it is a rage that we hear in the cleansing of the temple; is the pity that we hear when he healed the sick; it is an abandonment that we hear in the cry from the cross. All this is the love of Christ. So we grow more deeply into the body of Christ, we find all these strong emotions in our love of the Church.
To live more Christlike is also a heroic life. We are called each day to enter more deeply into the mystery and suffering of Our Lord. It’s not easy. We become more and more aware of our failings and need for forgiveness. But that should never deter us. We only become more like Jesus by seeing how we so far from what he wants us to be, and then we start to understand the great gift of his love in his forgiveness.
Then you start to understand why the face of Mary has to be so haggard, why she has to look this way in the icon. She, the Mother of God, the God Bearer, knows what the love of Christ will mean to her and to the Church and to each one of us. All we who look to her and follow her will also find the tragedy of loving God.
That is part of the reason why we as Christians do not have a calm and steady prayer life. We commonly start a life of prayer with joy and a sense of presence. We find on our pilgrimage of life that prayer changes. At times we find the supportive love. At times we find aridness. At times we find a kind of rage. What we are doing as we grow in our prayer life, is that we are experiencing the fullness of Christ. Christ is not a warm and fuzzy light. He is the living God filled with the eager love for us, the emotions that we hear in the gospel. A prayer life can leave us looking as haggard as Mary if we wish to persevere in being part of Christ’s own body.
So, if you find that the language of the gospel today seems extreme, then think of what we do here at this mass, when we take our Lord’s own body and flesh. The love of Christ is a strong and possessive thing. If you find that hard, then you understand the way of the body of Christ, with all its difficulties that it calls us to live in a love life with our God.
In Mary we find the acceptance of Goad’s call, and the understanding of the tragedy of Christ, that love can even pierce one’s soul. That love calls us to live in his body with all its fierce love. Yet that love of God is the greatest love will find, for in that love we will find our fulfilment of creation.
Filling the Void – 5 August, 2018
Bread. It’s such a simple thing. Made usually from wheat it has formed part of our diets for millennia. We have evidence for the first unleavened bread going back 30,000, and the first what and barley started being cultivated 10,000 years ago. That’s a long association for us. We even have loaves of bread left over from Pompeii. They are not very edible now, but they still exist.
Bread is also what Jesus took and said was his body.
We are again this week on the discourses, or the talks, of Jesus in John’s Gospel about bread. You remember last week Jesus takes the fives loaves and two fish and feeds the five thousand. So what’s going on?
In John’s Gospel there is a long search by people for signs. They seek signs of the coming of the Messiah. There was a belief that the Messiah would come; and his coming would be seen by a variety of signs. Now not everyone was agreed about what the signs would be – some though the Messiah would be a military leader, but not all. The signs that were particularly looked for were the signs that had accompanied Moses, the Great Prophet, when he brought the people into the Promised Land. Now, during the forty years in the wilderness the people had ben fed by a heavenly bread called manna. Manna had been found each morning, and continued until they reached the Promised Land. So the re-occurrence of manna would be assign that pointed to Jesus being the Messiah.
This is the significance of the people being fed with bread: it pointed to the manna, in that it came from heaven and was not made.
There was also another bread that was important: what we often call the shrewbread, which was the bread that was put out in the Temple every day. It was the holy bread that the priests would eat and twelve loaves were made each day, to represent the twelve tribes. Even more important at Passover the altar, that the bread was placed on, was lifted up and shown to the people as the face of God as part of the celebrations. So there was a link between the presence of God and the Shrewbread of the Temple.
So when Jesus creates the bread for the feeding of the five thousand, he gives a sign that he is the Messiah.
But what happens next is that the crowd don’t understand the sign. They see the sign as one of abundance, of free food, and want to make him king to supply them forever. So Jesus slips away and the disciples cross the lake.
Then comes the discussion about the nature of the bread. The giving of manna by Moses is raised, and Our Lord says the manna came not from Moses but from the Father, from God, Our Lord then says that he is the bread of life, the great “I am” showing the divine name, identifying himself with God in that statement.
In the statement that Jesus is the bread of life Our Lord sets up the basis of what will happen when he says at the Last Supper, that this bread is his body. Drawing on the image of manna and shrewbread he identifies himself with God and makes the bread his flesh.
Now, eating flesh is abhorrent. In fact, Jesus’s insistence that people will need to eat his flesh and drink his blood would put people off – and Jesus does this deliberately. There are several ways of saying eat in the Greek, but the word that Jesus uses to is the word that is used for animals eating – he is asking people to guzzle and munch his flesh and drink. It is deliberately affronting.
This is where we come to the heart of ancient worship – sacrifice, the killing of animals or even humans to appease the gods. Even the sacrifices of the Jewish Temple were to appease God. The meat was then eaten – in the Temple by the priests and Levites; in the pagan temples often the meat was then sold on in the market. In the ancient world most of the meat that people consumed was associated with sacrifices. But of course, sacrifice had to be done over and over again to continue to appease the gods.
Now think about the crowd: they see the sign of the feeding of the five thousand, but search Jesus out for another sign. They see the signs but are not satisfied, they keep coming back for more signs. They have a craving that cannot be satisfied.
Now, if you are still with me, here we have two things that are never satisfied – sacrifices to appease the gods and the cravings of the crowd. Both cannot be satisfied.
Then Our Lord offers them fulfilment – they will come to him and not be hungry and they will believe and not thirst.
What Our Lord is offering is the end of the sacrificial system – God will be satisfied, and people can end their cravings. How – by belief in Jesus who becomes the sacrifice himself and fulfils the needs.
Furthermore, this bread is special: usually what we eat becomes us. Eating this bread makes us part of the bread, Our Lord, the Bread of Life.
That’s the technical part. What it means for us as believers is that we have found a way to escape our endless need for something to fulfil our emptiness. This emptiness may manifest by trying to have more and more money, or possessions, or addictions in some way – for part of the weakness of being human is want more and more. But if we believe in Jesus as our God he offers a way to escape this craving – believe in him. It is in the love of God we find more than enough and we can end our mindless pursuit of fame, money, power, drugs or whatever. The deep need for sacrifice is to fulfil our cravings and emptiness. Jesus gives himself – if we believe, we can be filled. The hole of emptiness is waiting, not for darkness, but the love of God. Our taking of the bread and wine here, at this altar, is part of the closing of the circle of sacrifice. The guzzling of flesh of sacrifice is over, it never filled the need. The emptiness remains – and only by taking God can we fill it.Jesus is bread, but he wants to fill the hunger of our hearts and not just our stomachs. He wants to fill the gnawing, aching emptiness that we try to fill with lesser things, to satisfy the longing or the boredom that we use substances of all sorts to quiet, to put an end to the grasping, fretting, worrying about having enough of anything that will in the end possess us, rather than allowing ourselves to fall into the hands of the one for whom we were made.
Abundance – 28 July 2018.
Let us start today by thinking about one of the maxims we live by: that there will never be enough to go around. There is never enough money to pay all the bills; there are never enough nice cars; there are never enough new televisions. We even take it to our emotional lives: there is never enough love to make the world go around. It’s called the belief in scarcity, and it is one of the foundations of our belief system in the world. It’s also a basic premise of capitalism and its economics, on how the invisible hand of the markets distributes the scarce resources of the world.
The question is – why are things scarce? After all, why do we all want the newest television, why do we all want to accumulate more money than we need? It’s a learnt response – we see what others want, then we too want the same thing. It’s the collective want that makes scarcity – it’s all of us wanting the same thing at the same time. It’s this collective need that brings scarcity that then drives competition and also drives violence as people compete for resources.
But is this how God organises things?
Let’s think for a moment of the Garden of Eden. In that Garden, organised by God there is everything. It is a Garden of Abundance, in contrast to the world outside where later they will have to work by the sweat of their brow. But what happens – the serpent, the craftiest of all creatures, convinces Adam and Eve that this is a shortage. God is keeping from them knowledge. It is the desire to have more, in this case in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that drives them to eat of its fruit. They did not need it: God had supplied everything. But they learnt desire, they believed in a scarcity of knowledge, and they ate. The rest you know.
But consider this – what if God still wants us to believe that there is enough?
This is the basis on which we can now consider the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand in the Gospel today. We are looking at John’s account – it’s one of the few times when John closely parallels the other Gospels. Beginning this Sunday, the liturgy interrupts the reading of the Gospel of St Mark, the gospel for this year, and for five consecutive Sundays it presents chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel. The reason for this is the willingness to explore the theme of “bread.”
Chapter 6 of St John’s opens with the narration of the miracle of loaves, giving us a beautiful example of Our Lord’s compassion for those who had followed him. Because of their desire to see his miracles and to feed with his word, they had even “forgot” to eat.
Our Lord is followed by “a large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” People are attracted by the power of the merciful Lord who cares for the sick and heals them. Our Lord, however, is not only a healer, he is the master. For this reason, he has climbed on the mountain like Moses, who had climbed Mount Sinai to receive the law of the Lord for Israel. However, Our Lord did not go to the mountain to receive the word of God, but to give it. That’s why he sits (in the original Greek text: he sits on the chair), not because he is tired, but because this is the attitude of the teacher who, when teaching, sits above his students. Matthew remembers Our Lord doing the same thing when he gives the Sermon on the Mount. In regard to the Gospel passage of today, it is useful to highlight the time of the year: it was close to Passover. It is springtime. This indication of the time of the year brings us back to the great story of the exodus, which began with the first full moon of Spring thousands of years ago, and to the many signs that God had done with Moses for the deliverance of the Jews on their way to the Promised Land. However, the reference to Passover pushes us forward and symbolically anticipates the gift that Our Lord will make of his Body and his Blood at the Last Supper.
There they are, stuck out in the middle of no-where, and there is a shortage of food. Our good Lord then asks Philip how we, the disciples, not the crowd, are going to but the bread. That must have been a nasty shock – suddenly thinking you were going to have to supply the food for this crowd. Philip is the good economist and rapidly works out that it was going to cost far too much – more than six month’s income. But it is a little boy who breaks the impasse – he offers five barley loaves and two fish. It’s important to note that it is a child, an outsider, a statusless outsider, who offers a solution.
Our Lord then makes the crowd sit down. I always think that this is an important point. When you make people sit down, they can’t rush, they can’t compete, they have to wait. Sitting people down means you are going to look after them, they are forced to wait.
Then the miracle happens. The crowd is fed. From the five loaves we hear, twelve baskets are left at the end. Numbers always point to symbolism – five the imperfect number to twelve the perfect number of the twelve tribes. It’s pointing that from the imperfect in Our Lord’s hands the perfect takes place.
The miracle here is that God supplies enough, or even more than enough: an abundance.
Part of the Gospel message is that God is always a God of abundance. God does not work on a system of rewards and punishments; you don’t have to earn God’s love. God has always enough love and then more. The message that Our Lord brought is that God truly has an abundance of love. We don’t earn salvation; we don’t earn the right to anything with God. God just offers us love. It is we humans who create shortages by our desires that lead to competitive shortage. The scarcity of resources is caused by our greed and need to compete. Then once our greed is activated we need to allocate and deprive others.
John is also challenging us to think who this Jesus is. We have Our Lord showing a perfect world of abundance with the gift of new heavenly manna like in the time of Moses. Yet it is still a man. The Gospels continually challenge us to try and understand who this Jesus is. But what this miracle is showing is that when people trust in Jesus there is an abundance and no need to be in competition and envious desire of what others have.
However, the result was that the crowd want to make Our Lord their earthly king, so they always have an abundance. But that’s not the message Our Lord wants, so he slips away. It’s a good point to remember: when we try to make Jesus into what he is not, Jesus will just slip away.
You may be wondering what happened to the fish. The Gospel only talks about the left over bread, not the fish. The reason seems to be in the symbolism of the bread, it will be used in the development of the idea of the bread of heaven in John, but’s that starts next week.
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is the miracle that with God there is always abundance. That abundance will continue in his teachings and will ultimately be seen by the final abundance of all: that life itself will overflow death. That’s resurrection: the final gift of God’s abundance. That’s the good news.
Mary Magdalene, Apostle of the Apostles – 21 July, 2018
Whenever you want to start becoming confused about people in the New Testament, start with the Mary and James. They dot the pages of Scripture, making it hard to unravel who is who.
Well today we tackle one of the Marys, Mary Magdalene. Firstly, we have to remember that Mary was a popular name – it comes from the Hebrew Miriam, which was borne by the sister of Moses. Our translations since the Reformation have split names between the Old and New Testament – the Old Testament we now keep the Hebrew forms like Miriam and Joshua, while the New Testament takes the Greek Anglicised form, like Mary and Jesus, just to confuse you further. Anyway, Miriam became Maryam in Aramaic then Maria in Greek and Mary for us English speakers.
The New Testament has a few Marys to consider: Mary the Mother of Our Lord, Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala as the main ones. Mary of Magdala is the one today, which we call Mary Magdalene. Magdala means tower, and was the name of a town by the Sea of Galilee.
Unattached to husband, father or brother, Mary Magdalene stood out within the disciples in a culture where women were expected to live under male protection. When Our Lord said that prostitutes had a better chance of entering God’s Kingdom than his opponents did (Matthew 21:31), some people came to the conclusion that Mary Magdalene fitted the category. Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with the prostitute who washed Our Lord’s feet with her hair and Mary of Bethany and from then on the story really took off. It’s a powerful story of a reformed prostitute who becomes a saint: hence Mary Magdalene’s association with houses for reformed prostitutes as well as penitents, which is the reason why at St George’s she appears in the small window in the Oratory at the side, where confessions are heard.
Mediaeval imagination took that possibility and exploited it. Mary Magdalene was conflated with a much later Mary (Mary of Egypt), and given an wonderful trip that took her to Jerusalem, through conversion, and then on a trip on a rudderless ship guided by an angel to the south of France. There, it was said, after winning souls to Christ and destroying idols, Mary Magdalene retreated to a mountain cave, where she levitated when she said her prayers, and ultimately died on 22 July, her feast day.
Then you can also go into some weird stories that have it that Mary became Jesus’ concubine. That was a claim asserted by the Cathars, Christians who became the objects of an internal Crusade declared by Pope Innocent III. His zealous executioners destroyed the entire city of Beziers for the insult to Mary Magdalene, carrying out the massacre on her feast day in 1209. Imagination did not end with the Middle Ages. Pierre Plantard, a right-wing and anti-Semitic pretender to power in France after the Second World War, tried to provide evidence – in the form of faked parchments he deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale – that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had born a child. Plantard’s claims ultimately gave us the fiction of The Da Vinci Code.
The importance of Mary comes from one fact that all four Gospels agree: that Mary Magdalene was one of the women who stood at the foot of the cross. This small group of women stand in symbolic juxtaposition with the disciples, all of whom flee out of fear after Jesus is arrested. They remain faithful, devoted, living out of their compassion and basic maternal nurture. The disciples flee into the dark. Peter denies that he ever knew Jesus and lies about who he is. You have character in the women and worthlessness among the disciples.
Then in the Gospel of John, we have this very important symbolic story. After Our Lord dies and is buried and put in the tomb, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. In John, she comes by herself. That is significant. She sees the stone rolled away and goes to tell Peter and the other disciples. She is, symbolically speaking, the first witness to the resurrection. She is, in effect, the first ambassador of the Christian cause. That is why Mary is called the Apostle to the apostles.
The disciples come back, see the evidence that something has happened and are simply dumbfounded and don’t know what to think. They leave.
Mary is still standing there and has this encounter with the risen Christ. She is the first person to encounter the risen Christ. He calls her by name. She responds by saying, ‘Rabbouni’. There is a familiarity and an intimacy to this exchange that would normally be reserved for two men alone in that culture, in that era.
Mary is from is another tradition of women in the scriptures that we hear little about, a group that is never developed in traditional piety. They are the women who were the leaders in the early Church, who supported the community of the Church with their time, their service, their money, and their leadership.
We have the real Mary Magdalene in that group. As well as Euodia and Synteche that were the leaders of the church at Phillipi that St Paul addresses his letter to. There is Phoebe, the deacon, that Paul addresses in Romans 16. Likewise Prisca and another Mary, and Junias and Tryphaena and Typhosa, Julia, and Olympas. In fact, there are more women mentioned in that greeting to the Church in Rome than there are men who are leaders. Then there is Lydia, who is mentioned in Acts that helped Paul establish a mission church. Or Dorcas, a Church leader that Peter healed when she was very ill that developed a Church in Joppa. There is Apphia, one of the Church leaders that Paul address his short little letter to Philemon, named for the first man mentioned in it. These names sound perhaps unfamiliar compared to the names of the twelve, but they are New Testament women who helped bring the faith of the Risen Lord to the world.
Now there are those who construct some interesting feminist interpretations about all these women, and there are those who see the early church solely from a patriarchal viewpoint. The real point is that Our Lord empowered the people around him: fishermen, women and everyone he met. The story of the Church is the story of how people found a place and part of the ministry of Christ. Mary Magdalene is part of that story, a woman who helped to support Our Lord and became the first to hear of the resurrection. Our part today is just as important – Our Lord does not want the powerful in the world’s eyes to run his Church he wants the humble people of this place, the local Mary and Peter to do that here.
Stumbling Blocks and Power – 8 July 2018.
For those of you with good memories, I would like to refer back to where we were last week. We were here in this cold church, listening to the Gospel according to Mark, who was telling the story of the raising of the daughter of Jairus and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage. Well, today we go onto the next passage, when Jesus has reached his hometown of Nazareth. He has come from being the wonderworker and healer to his own town, to teach in his own synagogue.
However, and a big however, things are radically different here. The locals question him. They question where did he get all this? Where did this wisdom come from that has been given to him? Then they state the deeds of power that are being done by his hands, and is he not the carpenter, the member of a family known to them? And they take offence at him.
There are a number of issues been raised here. The first part is the question that is raised twice, about where did Jesus get this wisdom and power. We need to understand that this is the mental world of closed good. In worlds like this, only a finite amount of wealth and goodness exist. If one person gets wealthier, another person gets poorer. Similarly, if a person becomes wiser, then it implies that another person becomes more foolish. This is the origin of why people give signs to avert the evil eye – you can’t destroy it, you can only avert its course. So if Jesus has become suddenly much richer in wisdom, it implies that someone else has become much poorer in wisdom. The implication is, that as Jesus has come from this place, that this hometown is the place that has become more foolish.
The next point is that they talk about the deeds of power that are done, and, it continues to say, at his hands. Then they state his occupation as a carpenter. The term they use, “teknon” is wider than just woodwork, and can also mean a builder in stone, quite an important combination in the rocky hills of Galilee where houses would be built of wood and stone. The occupation is very much one that is done by the skill of hands, and is contrasted with the works of power done by those same hands. It almost implies a misuse of power – those hands were not meant to be used for power, but for wood and stone. Once more it raises the question, where did that power come from, and was it been taken from an illegitimate source? The hands then reappear again at the end of the passage when Jesus lays his hands of a few sick people and cures them.
So Our Lord then compares himself to the prophets of old, and sees himself being rejected in the same way. The word for offence is “skandalon” – we get scandal from it, and Paul uses it in his letters where he talks of the stumbling block that Jesus is. Similarly, the disbelief that they have, that Our Lord is amazed about, is the same word as Paul uses to describe the faithlessness of the Jews. What is being set out is that the people of Nazareth are the forerunners of how the rest of the Jews would be seen. I would want to qualify that statement in that this is written not as an anti-Jewish statement, for the early Christians were all Jews, but rather as a reflection that the early Jewish Christians had as to why the rest of the Jews did not accept them. The rejection in Nazareth foreshadows the greater rejection that is to come, or as John’s gospel puts it, he came to his own people, and they received him not.
Mark is laying in this passage an important prelude to how the believers of his time would face Jesus – that the Messiah would be a stumbling block, an offence that would divide the community. Furthermore, because of this unbelief, this faithfulness, no deeds of power can be done.
Now, it is comfortable to use this passage, as Paul does, as an explanation as to what has happened to the Jews. But Paul is much smarter than that; he takes this scandal, to be foolishness to the Gentiles as well. The truth about Our Lord is that he is always a stumbling block to our settled ideas about God. Jesus just refuses to conform to what we expect the Messiah to be. God is just much bigger than what we expect.
Now we don’t have the same issues about a closed world of wealth and goodness – we see wealth as being able to increase without limits. That’s thanks to our prosperity and the hidden poverty of the third world. We accept that God’s power is never finite, and always able to act in the world. But we do like to tame Jesus. We do like to make Our Lord a comfortable figure and not one that challenges how we operate. The scandal of Jesus is not to the unbelievers, after all, the Jews of that time were not that, but a scandal to the believers, the Jews and ourselves today.
The consequence of our unbelief is that Our Lord can do no deeds of power for us. Perhaps this is the greatest judgment on the Church today – not the disbelief of the world, but the unbelief of the Church of the radicalness of Jesus. Paul makes the point at the centre of the scandal is that Christ dies on the cross. That is what we have to accept: that God dies for us and shatters the myth of invincibility and becomes the victim for each of us.
So if we are to overcome the scandal, and our unbelief, we have to be at the foot of the cross and accept the radicalness of God dying for us and rising again, of not being the God we expect. We have to find God where we do not expect or accept. Faith is not one of preserving what we know, but embracing what we do not know: and we only can do this dangerous embrace because we trust in love.
One last point from the reading today: when Our Lord left his hometown he then sends out the disciples, two by two, like Noah’s animals being saved in the ark. He doesn’t give them powers to dazzle, just tells them to travel light, call out evil and heal the sick. Simple things. It’s very much how God operates, in simplicity.
This is something for us to remember as we move through this season after Pentecost: the Holy Spirit is God’s sharing of God’s-self with us: God’s empowering of us for the work of establishing God’s Kingdom, God’s way of living, right here in our own communities.
Besides all this, we see something in the story that is as troubling as it is interesting. Our Lord is unrecognized in his hometown. He is recognized of course, but he is not accepted as one who is deeply connected with God. Indeed, once they do begin to recognize him, they are offended by him. And it’s in this offense and un-trust, this unbelief, that Our Lord cannot work as powerfully as he would have normally.
This should concern all of us who claim to know who and what Our Lord is. The church is the hometown of Our Lord, as it were. Are we offended by him? Do we allow Jesus to be Jesus or have we domesticated him into a mere kindly carpenter? But Our Lord keeps leaving the familiar, keeps empowering others, and most importantly keeps showing up in strange places that are not his hometown.
That’s where we will most reliably find Our Lord, outside of the hometown. Of course, we meet in this space each week. We come for solace and strength. We certainly believe that Our Lord is present with us, especially in the mass; but Our Lord is also found outside, in the villages, in the world. Don’t you know that we disciples are always playing catch-up to the Risen Lord? Ever since that day when the women found an empty tomb, ever since then, we have been going to where Our Lord has gone ahead of us, into Galilee, into the villages, into our neighbourhoods. And once we go there, seeking him in the face our neighbours, he will be revealed, and we just might be empowered to do his work: healing wounds, preaching God’s love, and calling out evil.
Story in a Story – 1 July 2018.
St Mark today takes us to a unique story in his gospel. It’s unique, because instead of one story, here we have two stories interlinked, deliberately to make a point together. The Gospels are not written like a modern novel, with character development and plot. Instead, the Gospels are written around separate incidents about our Lord that are then constructed into the whole Gospel. Scholars suggest that originally the Gospels may have existed in short separate stories to allow easy telling or maybe even acting. Here St Mark has broken the usual routine.
The passage has our Lord arriving and being met by Jairus. Now when you get a name in the Gospels, you know you are dealing with an important person: names aren’t given out willy-nilly. This man is also important, he is one of the leaders of the synagogue. Jairus comes and begs Jesus repeatedly to come and save his little daughter. Now we hear that many people were healed by Jesus, but not all the healing are recorded: this one is because Mark wants to teach us something. So our Lord agrees, and a great crowd follows him.
Then we have the story in the story, which is of the woman with a flow of blood or haemorrhage. We are told that she had it for twelve years, and had wasted all her money on doctors trying to be cured. It is worthwhile to note two things. Firstly, she is given no name: this means she has no status. Secondly, she should not be out: women like this were considered unclean and should not be out in public. Yet she does out of desperation, and starts the relationship, by deliberately touching Jesus garment for healing: and healed she is.
Now by doing this she, however, is making our Lord ritually unclean. She would cause scandal by doing so. But our Lord stops, knowing that the power had gone forth from him, and asks who touched him. The woman, in fear and trembling confesses, and one can understand her fear, as she could be attacked for making others unclean by her uncleanness. But our Lord then says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed.” There is no scandal, instead there is healing.
The point to note is that her faith has made her well, and that she is now given a relationship. Whereas before she had no name, no connection to anyone, now she is called daughter, so is given status. Jesus not only recognises her healing through her faith but also gives her status: status as his daughter.
But in the meantime, the daughter of Jairus has died. While our Lord was dealing with an unnamed, unclean woman, the daughter of an important leader, Jairus, dies. But our Lord keeps on going, reaches the house and calls the daughter back to life. It is then we learn that the daughter is twelve years old, linking her with the twelve years of the unnamed woman. It is also worth while doing a little numerology here: count the number of people present at the healing, the three disciples, Our Lord, then Jairus, his wife and daughter, making seven, a number of perfection.
So what’s the point the story is saying. Firstly, it is that our Lord is not going to get caught up in the social distinctions of the world. He is going to cure the lowly, in this case the child daughter, a person of low rank who is not even worthy of a name, just a relationship; but even further, when someone even lower caste comes into the story, the woman with the haemorrhage, of no name or relationship and unclean, our Lord stops and listens to her story as being more important than getting to the daughter of a named man. The woman then ends healed, and enters a new relationship, as a daughter, in this case, the daughter of God. The two are linked: both as women and in the twelve years.
But there is an anther important signal in this pericope today, and that is the issue of the blood. Now the woman with the haemorrhage was bleeding continually. It is stated explicitly that it was a flow of blood. Now this made her unclean for society under the Law. Yet blood was also seen as the life force of a person. It was for that reason that sacrifices needed blood: it was that life force that was the most valuable that was therefore needed in sacrifice. Of course, then it would be the blood of our Lord that would eventually flow in a cursed way, dying on a tree, that would end the whole cycle of blood letting, because his blood would have a value beyond any demand of vengeance and need of human. The woman’s healing of her blood flow points to its divine reversal to come.
So often, people, who are the beloved children of God, are judged by society and found wanting. They are named in various ways as outcasts and treated as less than human. But until all of God’s children, the whole human family, are welcome at the table, we will be falling short of the kingdom of God. For those of us with a seat at the table, we can pray for the grace to see the world as God sees it and the courage to act.
But if you are one whom others have seen as unworthy and judged as lacking, know that God loves you as you are and wants better for you as well. You don’t have to even touch the hem of his garment. You only have to reach out your heart in prayer and offer God your pain and suffering. God wants to take that hurt and give you peace —the health, healing, and wholeness—he gave to a woman not named in scripture, but whose faith is unforgettable.
This is something we can all experience every time we gather for the Eucharist. In this Great Thanksgiving, Our Lord Jesus is the host. At this table, all of us are known and loved. We are all his children. In the meal of bread and wine, we are fed. Then we are empowered to share that same love with others.
A Sense of Time – Birth of John the Baptist 24 June, 2018.
The festival today is the celebration of the birth of Saint John the Baptist. Most saints we commemorate only their death date, which is their birth into heaven. However, the Church calendar includes not only the beheading of John the Baptist, but also his birth. The only other saint we do that is for Mary. However, this morning I am going to go off on a bit of a tangent.
The significance of today is that this is one of the old quarter days. Quarter days were once very important in rural life, being the times when rents and also tithes were due. Tithes were the sort of Church rates that people once paid to the Church to help pay the bills, a sadly long abolished practice as our treasurers will tell you. Anyway, on four days a year people paid up, on the Annunciation, 25thMarch, John the Baptist, today, the 24thJune, Michaelmas, the 29thSeptember and Christmas, which is the 25thDecember in case you have forgotten. Quarter days were part of the pattern of life that shaped how people lived. They were days of not only of payment of debts but celebrations of the passing of the year. They also coincided with the equinoxes and solstices of the solar year, for us this is the winter solstice.
Rural life and city life once moved to a different pattern to today. The seasons had enormous impact. Fresh vegetables were only available in season. Food varied depending on what was ready for harvest. People were very conscious of the changes of the seasons as it affected the whole way of living. Even the week was different. Sundays, or Sabbaths, were the only days off, and they were quiet days when hard manual work was not done. Many of you will even remember the tail end of these customs from your youth.
Even a sense of time was different. Until the mid 19thcentury people were not concerned much with exact time. Most people reckoned the time on the sun. That is why Church bells were so important – they gave notice that a service was soon to start. What changed the sense of time were the advent of the railways and the introduction of watches. Before the railways only large buildings had public clocks, which were often badly out of time. People used to give directions about time with regard to the clock, say 2 o’clock by the town clock. However, the advent of railways meant timetables, and trains need to arrive and depart in good time, and one uniform time zone for a whole country. So, railways brought the need for accurate timekeeping, and the old ways, of looking at the sun or not minding if clocks were out by half an hour, went.
Now, after that digression, the point. Today we live by clocks. We expect people to arrive when they say they will and we expect them to have an accurate watch. I start mass right on time, not just when I feel like it. Some of you may have heard about my esteemed predecessor here Fr Willoughby’s, lesson on that. We can, and therefore do, crowd our days with appointments that depend on accuracy of time. We are good at filing in our time with busyness. Time without work is seen as wasted time and we try and fill it. As a result, we no longer keep days off very well, instead we feel we must be doing things. Sundays are consumed by events and not quiet. Sport is stretched so football is staggered over several days, and parents spent the day running children around to another educational or sporting event.
The things that have been lost are a sense of time and a sense of space. We are no longer good at enjoying space, instead we are good at filling it. However, humans need a sense of time, rhythm, and space. It was not for nothing that God rested on the seventh day and told us to rest also. By losing a sense of time we lose a sense of what has been accomplished and what has been done; instead we are busy doing the next thing. No wonder people are so stressed.
Furthermore, we have denuded our calendar of a sense of time and season. Owing to modern travel and refrigeration we no longer notice the start of the fruit season. We therefore feel no need for harvest thanksgiving as the harvest never starts or stops. Midwinter passes without any difficulty or sense of time. What is left of yearly celebrations have to carry so much that they are overwhelmed and no longer enjoyment but periods of extra busyness – consider the stresses of preparing for Christmas these days.
The celebration of today of the quarter day, or winter solstice, of John the Baptist was a marking of a high point of summer or winter. It was a turning point of the year. People celebrated it and looked forward to the change that was coming. St John also says that Our Lord must increase, and he must decrease, which has been one reason why this feast is tied to the solstice, as this is when the length of sunshine changes, like John’s prediction. This festival goes back a long, long way and is tied into Christmas, which is the other solstice: and in the old Roman Calendar it is exactly six months apart, and the 24 June is six days before the calends of July, and Christmas is also six days before the calends of January. Our more modern calendars since the Middle Ages don’t count this way anymore, so we have lost the symmetry.
The message that I would like you to consider today is how much sense of time do you have? If you are frantically trying to fit everything in, when did you last allow a sense of rest? God works in time and wants us to rest in time. God makes things happen in their own good time, like the birth of John to an elderly couple. You only will see the hand of God at work if you give time to reflect and see it. Make time to rest, see the cycles of the year and enjoy it as it passes. On this quarter day, look and see the season go by, the darkest day is past at the solstice, and life will come again. Have a sense of time passing, rest, and enjoy what passes through our hands. For what is the use of having time if we don’t relax and see its enjoyment and the hand of God.
God Working – 17 June, 2018
Now we are back to our usual green Sundays we will be working our way through this year’s Gospel, which is Mark. Now, Mark is only a short Gospel, but probably the oldest of the four. It does not worry about Jesus’s birth and childhood, it launches straight into his ministry stating from the time of his baptism by John. Today we are in chapter 4, and Jesus is teaching by the use of parables.
The first thing to consider, is what is a parable? Some translators use instead of this word, “riddle,” which helps us understand. Riddles are something we play around in our mind to find a solution. Well, parables are designed like that, to make us take a message and play around with it in our mind to get a meaning. One of the problems of teaching is that it is hard to make the lesson stick in the mind of a student. Well, parables are a great teaching tool, because we take them away to chew over them mentally, to unpack the meaning.
Think in contrast to fables. Now fables are designed to teach a clear and easy moral or practical lesson. Who doesn’t remember the lesson of “The Tortoise and the Hare” (slow and steady effort pays off) or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (honesty is the best policy)?
Parables, on the other hand, are useful when the truth you want to share is difficult – whether difficult to hear, comprehend, or believe.
Our Lord describes the coming Kingdom of God in parables because he knows the reality it introduces is unexpected and that his hearers can’t really take it in all at once. Parables are in this sense like narrative time bombs. You hear them, wonder about them, think maybe you’ve got it, and then as you walk away, or over the course of the next day or so, and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home almost overwhelming you with its implications or blinding you with its vision.
We have two parables here, both agricultural ones. I think they are put together on purpose and relate to each other. The first is how the kingdom of God is like the seed growing: it happens by itself, and eventually the harvest comes and we can take it. God works in ways we do not understand, and the harvest will come, all we have to do is put the seed and let God take care of itself. That seems easy enough.
The second one seems like this, with the mustard seed: a tiny thing that grows into a bush big enough for birds to nest in its shade. Once again you think of God mysteriously taking what is small and it turns into something big.
Both these parables use the idea of seeds being planted. Usually, when we plant the seeds, they are buried in the soil. They dwell in the darkness. While in the darkness, they may absorb nutrients and go through transformation. How long will this transformation take place? We can guess, but do not know the exact timing. What exactly occurs in the darkness? We do not know. Will anything grow from the seed? We do not know that, either. We may tend to the seed passionately, but sometimes nothing grows from it. However, we have faith that something will grow from seeds and plant them anyway.
Actually, planting is a wonderful metaphor for our spiritual journey and spiritual growth.
When we first come to know God, it probably is because someone has planted the seed in us. We go to church to worship and listen to the messages, and to study the Bible and other teachings. We may join some fellowship, enjoy hospitality, hear and see the testimony of other Christians, and slowly understand the Word and the love of Our Lord. After planting, the nurturing takes place. Eventually, some may be moved to accept God, whereas some may not. How long will this transformation take place? We do not know. There may be great preachers or good priests who inspire people and plant the seed, but most likely it is a friend’s testimony that does so. The companionship of a regular believer can nurture us along our spiritual journey.
Let’s think again about the parables here today.. The first is about sowing grain to eat, a useful and productive plant – but the second plant, mustard, is a weed. Typically, as a weed it flourishes and grows, big enough for birds to nest in the shade. If only the good plants were so easy to grow. But the weed also flourishes. The kingdom of God is being used for something useful in grain, and also in something that seems a weed, like mustard.
Yet the mustard bush is useful. The birds of the air can make nests in the shade of the mustard plant – and here we have to think again, for the nests of birds contain eggs, which are food. The growing of a weed can attract birds which supply eggs for food, so from a weed can come the food that helps the person. Also, of course, the weed does give a good seed that can be used for flavouring.
What the parables are pointing out together, is that God does not work by our ordered neat ways. We have to trust first that something will grow. But God does not only provide the grain that we need for our daily bread, but also the unexpected, the weeds that grow up that attract the birds which then give us eggs. We do not know how God will take the things we do. We may be planting the seed that produces grain, but God’s kingdom is not going to be so neat and ordered: God is also going to take the weeds and turn them into something good. Also, they just happen – they grown in the background, you just let them be and they happen.
For me these two parables talk strongly on the greatness and slow presence of God in a world that is often evil. Horrific things happen: evil people commit acts of barbarity. Yet always, in the background, is the presence of God, slowly growing, turning evil into God, healing the horrors of evil.
The same thing happens with sin in our lives: we often do the stupidest thing, or deliberate evil, that can blight ourselves or our families. The consequences at times can be devastating, not only to ourselves but to our families. Yet, after it is all done, we ask for God’s forgiveness and we are given that and his grace, and the kingdom of God creaks into action and starts to build new ways and new hopes. God is never defeated. We may hope to scatter good grain on the ground, but it may turn out to be nothing but a weed, yet God will still take that weed and turn it into good. So, with these two parables, or riddles this week, think and ponder this message – not separately, but together, God taking the good seed and the weeds and still making the Kingdom of God.
The Search for Eden – 10 June, 2018
There is something particularly beautiful about the idea of Lord God walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, at the time of the evening breeze. The story of Adam and Eve, the Serpent, and the Garden of Eden is one of the greatest of stories of the Book of Genesis. It is also ancient, and versions of the story exist in other ancient civilisations. Genesis is not a book of explaining facts and details, but is instead a book of God, explaining why things are so. The story of the Garden of Eden is about two things: why we can tell the difference between good and evil, and why we suffer in the world. The fact that these two are linked together is not a co-incidence either.
The Lord God walks among the garden of Eden in the cool of the day, and Adam and Eve hear him and hide. They hide because they have just eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God had forbidden Adam and Eve even to touch that tree, or it was threatened, they would die. The serpent, described as being more subtle or crafty, had tempted Eve to taste of the forbidden fruit. The serpent tells Eve that she will not die if she touches it: but become instead like God. So, Eve wants the fruit, and eats it, and then gives some to her husband, who also eats.
Adam and Eve, in Eden, are placed in an ideal world. According to chapter two, their duty is to till the garden of Eden, look after it. In other ancient creation stories humanity is created to be slaves to the gods but here instead the only burden in to till the ground, and find company in each other. Furthermore, God is seen as one who walks in the garden and talks directly to them.
Then the serpent tempts them. No real explanation is made about the serpent, about what it was doing in the garden of Eden in the first place. Incidentally the serpent is never described as the devil, that’s our take on it. What is being said that God never intended to leave us totally protected – even in Eden there was allowed imperfection, the serpent was allowed to exist to tempt. It teaches us that there never has been a time or place totally away from evil. What did change in Eden was our knowledge of good and evil.
For to eat the fruit was to find out about good and evil, not just experience it. There is a lot of difference. An animal can experience good done to it or evil, but it does not know it, plan about it. The responsibility that we have as humans is that we alone plangood or evil. What we do in our actions is to create good, or create evil.
When the Lord God asks Adam what has he done, he dodges the question. Incidentally, this is the first question that God asks in Genesis. But Adam, being the first politician, blames someone else, instead of taking responsibility. He blames Eve. Eve, likewise, dodges, and blames the serpent. So, the theft is followed by lies – evil has entered the human heart. We now know the knowledge of evil.
Yet before they are driven from Eden, they also learn the knowledge of good. For the Lord God does not kill them, as threatened, instead he drives them out and, in a touching gesture, clothes them in animal skins. So, punishment is lenient, and God shows mercy, and gives them clothes. So, though they lie they learn mercy and compassion – they learn the knowledge of evil and God teaches them the knowledge of good. Adam and Eve exchange obedience for theology, as they start the quest for knowledge.
It is a common state of all civilisations that they yearn for a golden time. For us, as Christians, the story is of Eden. It is not presented as a historical fact – it is presented as a reason, in a story so we can understand. Yet we are left with the yearning in our lives for some Garden of Eden, a perfect time when we could talk to God as he walked by in the cool of the day. Some of the most ancient records we have from the dawn of writing talk about the times are not as good as they once were. It is a common thing to say that things were better when we were young. History is littered with people bemoaning the loss of the good times of youth. Literature is also replete with stories of a time long ago, a golden age. A time of Camelot and Arthur. We all have within us this strange yearning for a past age when we could see the Lord God walking by in a garden.
The story of the expulsion from Eden teaches two things – we can tell the difference between good and evil, we are not creatures who are bound by environment, and secondly, we have to take responsibility for our deeds, we can’t blame others.
At the moment the one application about this story can be seen in the debate about the dispossession of the aborigines. Whatever may have been seen as right or wrong when these deeds were done, it is clearly seen now that the deed was evil. That is the realisation of knowledge of evil. However, we do not take that guilt, for those misdeeds belong to others – we do not inherit our parents’ wrongdoings. However, we do enjoy the benefits of their deeds and we do have a duty to put deeds now seen as wrong right, as we would hope that our own children would attempt to put our own mistakes right. If we come to the knowledge that a deed done is wrong, evil, then we cannot blame others, like Adam blamed Eve, or we blame 19th century settlers – we then have a duty to try and put things right. What that means in terms of the present debate is very open. However, to continue the dispossession in any way is clearly wrong. We know, now, that wrong has been done, like Adam and Eve knowing in the garden. We therefore must try and take our responsibility to put it right.
After Eden humanity never heard the Lord God walking in the garden again, and the garden was closed. We are left with the yearning to try again to enter that garden. Yet the only way we can find that peace is by being responsible, of being like God in knowing good and evil, and acting upon it.
The Trinity – 27 May, 2018.
I love this season: sometimes we jokingly call it processiontide, as we have procession every Sunday for four weeks as we celebrate four great theological feasts: Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity and then Corpus Christi.
Each of these gives us a good dose of theology. Theology is something that gives us the reason for being and doing. That’s important. Why should we honour our bodies? Well, look to Ascension, with Our Lord accepting his body into heaven. Why should we believe we are guided into the future and trust it? Well that’s where we tackle the Holy Spirit and Pentecost. Why should we hold love and service to be given by God? Well, that’s why we are here today.
The first thing that we need to know for Trinity Sunday is that God is in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We say that this is not three gods: so they are not autonomous distinct beings, but we say they are in a lesser sense three persons in the one. Now this is immensely important as it means that within the Godhead there is a community. The foundation of our faith is therefore that this is a community, which means that there is the ability to love and love back that signifies any community. Within a family there are parents and children with the ability to love and esteem the different qualities that each member of the family brings. So you immediately start to understand the nature of the Church and why we go on so much about love being our foundation. We, as the Church, cannot exist without being a community. We mirror the nature of God, therefore we cannot be unless we take in different members and attempt to love and see their different qualities. That is why there are distinct differences in the Church as well: we are not one body with equal abilities and roles, but the nature of our diversity, with clergy and laity, bishops, priest and deacons, all signify the different persons of God and the different gifts within the Church. When you see a body that everyone has exactly the same roles run a mile very quickly as it is the deadliness of enforced unity and nothing like God and godliness.
The next point to remember is that the Godhead holds together in love and service. The three are equal. Now this is important – it is not that we have God the Father ruling over God the Son who sends out God the Spirit as some sort of menial servant. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal. As they are equal the only way their love works is by continual service to each other. That is why the Church tries continually to make the point that we exist only to serve, not to dominate. Jesus makes the point time and time again to his disciples, that we show our love by service and not by lording over other people. Now we know that the church has laity and clergy, but clergy are not here to lord it over the laity, but rather to serve those around. Yves Congar, the Dominican theologian of the late 20thC, pointed out that there are levels of service we can see. As Christ served his disciples, so the clergy serve the laity within the Church. But then this goes onto another level, as the Church then must serve the world in the same way. The church exists as the bride of Christ, and as the bride we show Our Lord’s love and service in the world. That is why the Church must always in every age be where the needy are, whether that be the sick, the insane, the prisoners, the poor, the lonely. God does not give up on anyone, and neither must the Church give up on any person as well. Love and service holds the Trinity together and is the core of how we act in the world.
The last point I would like to state is that within God there is timelessness and change. Now, this seems somewhat of a contradiction: how can an eternal god have change, for change for us often signifies error and decay. Yes, God is eternal, and lives outside time, always present always loving. Yet at the same time God enters into time and changes. God sent the Son, Jesus, into the world to live as a human, subject to all the change and aging of who we are. So subject to it, that he let himself even die in pain and refused to escape from the cross. Therefore, although we deal with a timeless God we will continually learn the depth of revelation of what that means: the Church will change over time as it learns the riches of God. St Frances is meant to have said (and poor man he is credited with a lot of things he never said) that Scripture is like a lot of seeds that bear their fruit and flowers at different times. Therefore the Church shows forth the love of God eternally, but the means it will do this will change as it brings forth the fruit of its love and history in different ways.
So the three points you need to remember: God exists as one God in three persons, so we also exist in diversity but as one community. The Godhead is held together in love and service, so we as the Church exist by learning always the hard lessons of love and service with each other and the world. The last point is that God is eternal and yet changing so the way we see God is never complete, but always changing. So we get the answers of why we love and why we serve as Christians by Trinity Sunday theology.