Once, a long time ago, I studied law at Sydney University and was eventually admitted as a solicitor, proctor and attorney of the Supreme Court of NSW. Nowadays they just call them, much more commonly, legal practitioner, but there was a reason for the way to admit us with these three titles. For a proctor practised ecclesiastical law, which includes admiralty and probate, while solicitors practiced in the court of equity and attorneys in the courts of law. We now know legal practitioners as solicitors as attorneys made such a bad name for themselves with expensive pleadings in the courts, but Americans still refer to them as attorneys.
Now this distinction, between solicitors and lawyers, touches what I want to preach about today. For the Courts of Law were governed by what is often called black letter laws: either the acts of parliament or the common law, that is the customary law of the land or court. This was a question of interpretation – you had the act of parliament or an older case for the common law, and the court just interpreted if it applied or not. However, the problem, with lawyers, is that we can get stuck into some rather odd interpretations, and sometimes what is applied can be archaic or even unjust.
To deal with this problem of unjust application of laws, people could throw themselves on the King’s conscience – that is, to make a personal plea to the Crown, as the King was considered the source of all justice. The Monarch delegated this hearing of legal appeals to a Chancellor, who in early times was often the King’s confessor, who acted on what was fair, rather than the strict interpretation of the law. So, for example, if a person committed fraud or duress in having a contract drawn up, the person would find himself bound by the legal terms, but could have the contract voided in equity as unjust.
For this is always the problem with any society or body of laws: you have rules and regulations, but they are not always just or current. Times change: new technologies happen or new ways of people living, and people and societies have to learn to adapt and work out new rules. For example, identity fraud, of either one’s credit details or internet account, is a problem that did not exist thirty years ago. We usually find that there is someone who has done something that seems to be wrong, but there is no legal bar – so there is a hurried rush of legislation to catch up and cover this offence.
It’s been interesting as an aside to read the reports of the confirmation hearings in the US for the new justice of the Supreme Court there – it’s a similar battle between those who call themselves originalists, that believe the judiciary should just interpret the laws as they are, and those who believe that rights allow you to expand the scope of the original protections. It’s a battle between those who think judges can expand the law and those who think that this is solely the role of legislators.
But back to religious rules. You can make as many rules as you like, but they are not going to cover every situation. As long as people change (and history teaches us that they always do} then the ethical problems will change as well. No system of rules is going to cover everything.
That is why the rules of religion need to be reduced to a shortened ethical principle. The Ten Commandments are the summary of the Torah for the Jews. However, they are seen as not covering everything. The passage today makes two principles that can be applied to ethical situations – it is the core principle that can be the basis of any system of law. The two great commandments create two fundamental ethical principles that we can apply in life: what does God want us to do here – to love God in this situation and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Our Lord tells us to love in three ways:
With all our heart: with the deepest reality of the human being. “To love God with all your heart” means to turn one’s whole being and his actions towards God in a burst of love.
With all our soul: which means life, our “intimate space” inhabited by God. The one who loves with the soul sees better with his eyes, and his love is pure.
With all our mind: which includes thoughts and intelligence. Love makes clever, able to understand better and to go deeper and farther.
It is interesting that Our Lord says that on theses commandments hang all the law and the prophets. In Jewish thought, particularly Hassidic thought, the world hangs on the Torah, The Law. (The Hassidic Jews arose in the area we would roughly now call the Ukraine, and developed a wonderful theology of a personal God communicated through their Rabbis.) By this the Hassidic Rabbis mean that the world is a manifestation of the principles of the Torah. The basis for this is that God’s Law is the fundamental reality that the world, coming later, is only a manifestation. The world operates, and the earthly rules of the Torah operate, on the universal deep Torah, the existence of God himself.
But Our Lord does not say this: he says instead that on the two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets; that is all the core writings of the Old Testament. These two commandments are the basis that cause all the Old Testament to be manifested – they are applications of this foundation. So instead of the world being founded on the full set of the Law, the Torah, the Old Testament is the manifestation of these two ethical principles. Principles, not a complete law, are the basis of Scripture. In Our Lord’s eyes, once you understand this, you understand why the Law can be set aside by Our Lord in favour of the deeper application of principle. The reason: because love is always more powerful than rules, and loves is the core of these two principles.
These two principles then, loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself, are what God wants us to do. From this we can form the whole of our relationships in the world. But it is also a reminder to us, that all laws are just manifestations of principles. A law is only just when it conforms to these principles – if the law does not conform to these two we are to reject it.
That is why in traditional English Law, Equity, with its principles of justice, always overcame the Common Law. Principles must be more important that rules. For us too, we must base our lives to answer the question, what does God want us to do: with the answer of loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
St Luke – 18 October, 2020
Whenever we deal with the Gospel writers we have to deal with three things. The first is who was the writer, the second is what he wrote, and the third is why he wrote it. Well, today is the feast day of St Luke. What we know about him is short. He is referred to as Luke the physician, so he was a doctor. According to tradition, Luke was also the very first iconographer of our Lord. In other words, St Luke drew the first portrait of our Lady that has become a model for artists right down to our own day. That’s why he is often shown painting Mary’s picture. It’s also known by legend among Christians that St Luke was martyred for preaching the Christian faith at the age of 84.
What he wrote most of us know are the Gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts. It’s the longest historical account of the life of Our Lord and the early Church. It’s a great work that holds its own against other histories of the time: trying reading some other writers like Josephus who also wrote about the fall of Jerusalem at the same time and you get an ideal of how modest Luke’s ego was. He can hold his own against any other ancient historian from the Greco-Roman world, and is a magnificent writer, whose poetic pictures with words spellbind us to this day as his prose is read aloud, especially at Christmastime. Luke, more than any other Gospel writer, has the early details of Jesus’s life with Mary and Joseph.
But why did he write it? Well he actually has a little introduction to one Theophilus where he says while other accounts have been written he wants to write an orderly account so that you may know the truth concerning the things you have been instructed.
Now Theophilus may never have been a real person, it means literally God-lover, so Luke may be writing to everyman, giving a teaching tool to help those who have been instructed. This goes to the whole idea why the Gospels came into being. Yes, they were historical records, but that’s only the first part. Each Gospel writer wants the reader to change from listening to the text, and listening is how they were intended to be used.
There is an overall theme to the Gospel and Acts. There are three times: that of Israel, that of Our Lord, and that of the Church. Luke looks back to the Israel, with the stories of the prophets and the twelve tribes, and echoes their stories. Then he brings the life of Our Lord as God acting in history. He then sees the story of the Church with the expansion to the wider world. Thus the twelve apostles become the new foundations of the Church as the twelve tribes were the foundation of Israel. Furthermore, as Israel found as its centre Jerusalem, Luke centres his story of Jesus on Jerusalem, and he fashions his source material so Jesus always sets his face towards that city. However, after Our Lord’s death and resurrection, both at Jerusalem, the action moves out with the Church, and Acts ends with Paul awaiting trial at the Gentile centre, Rome.
We know from his introduction that Luke reuses earlier sources, and we think that the two main ones were what we call Q, a collection of early sayings, and also the Gospel according to Mark. He then uses other material in his gospel, giving us the beautiful stories of Mary such as the annunciation by Gabriel and the Magnificat. The whole of Acts is unique – we don’t know what sources he used, although some of it follows the historical practice of the time with speeches, and some of it is written using “we” which indicates he was an eyewitness. There is another problem that is he was a companion of Paul, why he doesn’t reference Paul’s letters, and that’s a tricky one. But he is a good Greek writer, and tidies up the Greek of Mark when he copies it. He is not so familiar with the geography of the Holy Land, which is why we think he may have come from what is now Syria or modern Turkey, as he is certainly very good on the cities of those regions. He also knew Roman procedures well, and tidies the accounts of the different trials before the Roman authorities to conform to Roman custom. He also uniquely has the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the healing of the ten lepers, with the thankful Samaritan, both images that are positive towards the Samaritans. The parable of the prodigal son is uniquely his as well, one of the most famous in the Gospels. Luke also gives us the canticles of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, the most famous poetry of the gospels.
One of Luke’s great themes is that of forgiveness. Christ has come to offer forgiveness to all people. We see it in the healings and the parables, such as the Prodigal Son. Luke shapes the crucifixion to emphasise this gift of forgiveness. As he is crucified, we have the lovely story of repentant thief, with that lovely promise that today you will be with me in Paradise. Then as Our Lord dies, his last words are: Father, forgive them. Luke sees the life and teachings of Our Lord ones that give forgiveness to Jews and Gentiles. Hence the story of Paul, which Luke tells so vividly in Acts, is one of a persecutor that converts, and finds forgiveness and becomes the apostle to the Gentiles.
The story of Acts takes up the theme of the message of forgiveness taken up to a world that struggles and misunderstands. The Jewish authorities think the Christians are perverting the Law of God. The Gentiles continually confuse the message, and instead of seeing the apostles as bringing a message of forgiveness and acceptance, they want to make the apostles gods instead or kill them as being troublesome. The simple message of forgiveness is continually confused and opposed by the powers of the world.
Perhaps that is the best message we can take from Luke still. In the end God’s message is a simple one. God loves us and God forgives us. Yes, we still live in an immensely complex world just like that of the polyglot world of Rome. But the message of God is still there, and even though people will distort it, or be jealous of it, the message still goes out. Luke finishes his second book, Acts, with Paul waiting in Rome for his trial. Now, all Christians who heard that message would know that Paul, and Peter as well, would die there. But the message still went on, as in those who heard the story from Luke. We celebrate Luke today and thank God for that message, that despite our failings and sins, we are offered forgiveness and life, through belief in the Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today we have another parable. Often it is read as the King being God, who invites people to the wedding banquet for his son, Christ, but they don’t come, so he then invites all and sundry, so eager is he to have his hall filled with guests. Then he throws out the man who does not come prepared, as a warning that we must prepare ourselves for God.
But there are always a few problems with this way of looking at the parable. This king is not so nice, he murders the first lot of guests who don’t come, the son never appears and the whole thing with the wedding guest who does not wear the right clothes is a bit odd.
Let’s look at this again with a bit of history of the time. First, peasants of that time did not think that kings were automatically the good guys; from bitter experience. Kings were usually exploitative and cruel. A peasant would not immediately think of a king as a good image of God. Then there is a particular piece of history to recall. Herod the Great is a character known to us from the birth of Jesus. He was a nasty piece of work. The Holy Land had been ruled by descendants of the Maccabeans, who were pious Jews, and had some independence. However, in the century before Christ they had become under Roman indirect rule, and one ruler was replaced in a revolt by a man called Antigonus. Herod obtained the support of the Romans, became engaged to wed Antigonus’ niece who was also a granddaughter of a high priest and returned to claim Jerusalem offering forgivingness and preservation of the city if they accepted him. However, the Jews in Jerusalem rejected Herod’s claim, saying he was only a half Jew and not a proper king. They ignored him, however, to their peril, for Herod then came with the Roman army, laid siege to the city and took it in 37 BC with a suitable massacre. During the siege, he went to Samaria and married his bride, returning as a newly-wed husband to finish the siege. Poor Antigonus surrenders to the Roman general who was going to send him to Rome, but Herod intercedes that he be killed in order that his new kingdom will be safe for Herod’s sons. So Antigonus is sent to Antioch and killed there. Herod then murders his rivals and appointed his own cronies as High Priest. Herod was a lavish builder, and the place where Jesus is said to be saying this parable was the part of the Temple Mount built by Herod
So, when Our Lord starts to talk about a king, it’s easy to think that his hearers would think about Herod who had built this section of the Temple. This parable starts differently to the others here, we heard is as “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who…”, but it can also read “the kingdom of heaven may be made like a king who..”
So let’s think of how this parable can be read. The king here is not God, but the usual nasty Herod. Herod had come to Jerusalem inviting them to take him king as he married a member of the royal house. However, the people of Jerusalem declined the offer and rejected him. Then King Herod, like in the parable, comes and burns and destroys the people of Jerusalem. He then fills Jerusalem with his own people, similarly to the parable.
Now if you think of the parable in these terms then the rest of it starts to become clear. The new people of Jerusalem are like the good and bad in the parable, who have been forced to come to terms with living under Herod, and then the Romans. They have compromised. They are like those who have been forced to come to the wedding feast. Here they were those who came to Jerusalem after the wedding of Herod to his token bride.
Then we come to the passage:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.
Who is this man that does not have a wedding garment? What the king is annoyed about is how someone has come and not shown respect to his forced wedding banquet. The speechless may not been that he could not talk, but rather that he did not speak. So, the guest who came and showed disrespect by not conforming did not answer back to the king. The king then, in Herod’s typical way binds him and throws him into the darkness.
Now the prior ruler, Antigonus, was also bound as a captive and taken away to Rome. But think ahead also to what Our Lord does. He also does not answer the chief priests when he is before Pilate, he too is silent. When Our Lord dies on the cross, there is darkness over the land, just as the king throws the guest into the outer darkness.
So, let’s consider what this parable is saying on this interpretation. The kingdom of heaven has here been like what has happened to Jerusalem. It has been taken by force. The rightful kings are gone and now false kings, Herods and the Romans rule. The people are forced here into celebrating this like a wedding feast, where the guests were “invited” but forced by the slaves to come. The guest without the wedding robe then becomes someone who challenges the king, hence the rage of the king towards him and why this section is so long in the parable. This is Our Lord, who challenges the legitimacy of the compromise that those in Jerusalem have made.
It’s interesting that the very next part of the Gospel, which we will look at next week, also talks about divided loyalties with the coin with Caesar’s head.
This parable can be read not about the generosity of God who invites everyone, but also murders those who spurned his invitation and throws the unprepared into darkness, but about the powers of the world who attempt to take the kingdom of heaven by force. Matthew also refers in 11:12 how: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Matthew is showing us a Jesus who condemns the world for trying to pervert the kingdom of God which should be about love and forgiveness, and instead create an unjust world where people are forced to obey. It is a kingdom of Heaven that has been seized by force. However, it will be challenged by those who reject the demands of conforming, in this case the guest who does not wear the wedding robe, by Jesus who will become the perfect victim. Others may be frightened and conform: but Our Lord will challenge and be killed. However, we know then as Christians that we too find our power to resist by knowing the power of resurrection.
Francis – 4 October, 2020
Let me tell you about the bonfire of the vanities. It is Shrove Tuesday, 1497. A friar, Girolamo Savonarola, had been working in Florence for seven years. Florence had prospered by the trade of the Renaissance, and great wealth flowed into the city, especially under the famous family, the Medici. Savonarola preached against the wealth and corruption, and called for a purge in preparation of Lent. He was a great preacher and warned the people of Florence of the dangers of luxury. On Shrove Tuesday he called for a great bonfire of these luxuries: paintings, textiles, mirrors, musical instruments, books of divination, astrology, and magic. Into the bonfire of the vanities these were thrown. He was not a gentle man. Anyone who tried to object found their hands being forced by teams of ardent Savonarola supporters. These supporters called themselves Piagnoni (Weepers) after a public nickname that was originally intended as an insult.
Savonarola’s influence did not go unnoticed by the higher church officials, and he was eventually excommunicated later that year on 13 May 1497. His charge was heresy and Savonarola was executed in the same Piazza in Florence a year later, being burned to death. Those who have been to Florence will remember that piazza was where the great statue of David originally stood.
So who were the friars that produced this Savonarola?
This is where Francis comes in, gentle Francis. He was born probably in 1182 and died age 44 in 1226. Italy at that time was entering that period of prosperity that was the forerunner of the Renaissance. The city states were growing and with them was trade, a change from the mainly agricultural country. Francis was born in Assisi to a merchant family. After a rather spoilt upbringing he had a conversion experience and decided to dedicate himself to a life of poverty.
Now, a life of poverty in the Middle Ages was not one to aspire to, as it meant a possible end in starvation. His family thought him mad. He also started to preach to all and sundry about the love of God, which made him suspect as a heretic. Society was not keen about mad heretics and he had a tough time at first. However, he went to Rome to get approval, and was convinced the pope and authorities he was not mad or heretical, and started his order of poverty.
Francis started a wandering order of friars that would preach anywhere, and the Church through the pope, recognising his gift, gave him permission to do so. That was a bold move, as it allowed the friars to go wherever they wanted and preach in new ways, not just in churches but in market places and wherever they found people. It gave a new energy to making the Gospel alive to people. It was for this reason that the friars started using Stations of the Cross and Nativity Scenes to make people see and think what the stories of the Gospel meant. The Gospel is told over and over again but we become dull to its meaning: Francis sought new ways for people to enter into the great drama of Our Lord’s love and forgiveness.
His was not the only order of friars. Another great saint, Dominic, started the Order of Preachers, known now as the Dominicans, with a similar aim of preaching and brining the love of the gospel to those alienated from the Church.
There are many stories of Francis that tell of his love of the poor and of animals, in fact the whole creation, which is why he is patron of animals and ecology, and why the present pope chose his name on his election. One of the favourites is that of St Francis preaching to the birds, which is why he is often represented with a bird on his shoulder, like our statue here. However, others have argued that the birds he preached to were the birds by the city gates, the birds of carrion, picking over the city dump, and Francis was making the point that his preaching in the city was being ignored by those in the city who were like these birds eating the scraps and refuse, and not hearing the Gospel.
Francis fought hard for his friars to remain poor and outside the control of the church authorities, such as bishops, so they could have the freedom to preach the Gospel where the Spirit led them. His friars set up new missions to try and make the gospel relevant to a people who often thought the church was wealthy and irrelevant. Dominic also tried that with his friars, who became famous as preachers. Savonarola, a Dominican, was an extreme version of that – challenging the wealthy of Florence to turn again to a simple life. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor. He prophesied the coming of a biblical flood and a new Cyrus from the north who would reform the Church. He disobeyed the Pope. Some consider him a forerunner of the Reformation.
The Friars are a prophetic movement of the Middle Ages that still resounds with us today. How do we make the Gospel relevant to those who find the Church nothing but cold and legalistic rules? How do we teach the faith to a new generation? Also, are we so much in love with our wealth and possessions that we cannot hear the loving Lord calling us to follow him?
Now there will always be extreme groups within Christian communities such as Savonarola who will call for a bonfire of the vanities, who will call for fire and coercion to make changes. But Francis was not like that. He embraced a leper to share his suffering. He carried the marks of the stigmata, the manifestation of the wounds of Christ on his body from his great devotion to the crucified Lord. He believed that nature itself was the mirror of God. He called all creatures his brothers and sisters, and supposedly persuaded a wolf in Gubbio to stop attacking some locals if they agreed to feed the wolf. In his Canticle of the Creatures he sings of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and the wind and water.
We still live in need of people like Francis. We live in a time of great wealth, but much unhappiness. Money does not make us a happier people. Our churches are empty. Our people do not come through our doors. The love of God is laughed at. Yet we still believe in a God of miracles who calls the Church for reformation so it can speak to the world. Now I do not know what that Church will look like. I do not know what our society will even look like in a few years. Yet I believe that God still gives us people like Francis and Dominic, fired with the love of God to call people to the love of the Gospel again.
Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel – 27 September, 2020
It was just after time was created from eternity, when even before the earth was created, in fact long before that, that heaven was created, as that place to receive those in time into eternity, Come ye blessed of my Father and inherit the Kingdom. But to create something out of nothing, this act must entail a risk, a risk that what has been created as good, what has been created from Love itself, may turn away from love and exult in its own being as being created. And there were only the created spirits, those later called angels, who were created to give glory to God, these were the inhabitants of this created heaven, whose purpose was the eternal praise and worship of God. And one of these created beings, one of these angels, discovered his freedom, his freedom given by God his creator, but he realized that this freedom gave him the power to say No. And so this is what he said to God: I will not serve you. To serve is to be a slave and I will not be the slave of God. I will not serve you. The ultimate words against the creation by Love for Love.
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—
And it is Michael who personally fights against the dragon who is Lucifer, Lucifer who chose darkness instead of light, and it is Michael the Archangel who defeats Lucifer who has become a dragon, the anti-Christ, and it is Michael before the final blow that defeats the devil asks the question of Lucifer himself, “Who is like God?” And this question is what Michael’s name means. And it is with this question that this great Archangel and warrior hurls Lucifer into that hell then created for those whose lives say: I will not serve you.
The Garden was perfect. There was no need to work. The only obligation was to be, to be in this paradise created for the first man and woman. This special place had been created by God for the man and woman made in his own image. Male and female he created them. And God loved this man and woman he had created In his own image and because he loved them he gave them free rein over everything in the garden, everything except one tree, the Tree of Knowledge, for God knew that to eat of this fruit would be the end of their innocence and bring in the power of death, that power of Lucifer. So one day she was walking by this tree, and a serpent spoke to her. She probably thought that it was unusual for a serpent to speak. But one has to be open to such things.
Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.
You will be like God. You will be like God. The ultimate temptation. The ultimate temptation that leads to sin and death. But there is no champion present in this garden. The test of the man and the woman made in the image of God must be made in the silence of freedom. But the silence is broken by the laughter of the devil that rang through hell at this very moment in time.
It was the seventh century and a Benedictine monk had been elected Pope by the name of Gregory. He lived int eh twilight of the Roman period and the start of the Middle ages. The city was in terrible shape. There was no civil government that could bring order out of chaos. So, this Benedictine monk who never asked to become the bishop of Rome had to become not only the spiritual leader of the city of Rome but also its secular leader. The heart of the faith of the people was the Mass that had developed in form from the time of the Apostles, and the Mass celebrated by Pope Gregory already in the seventh century was essentially in form and substance the Mass we celebrate here today. To make his task even more onerous a terrible plague broke out in Rome. Thousands were dying. So Gregory organized a procession through the streets of Rome imploring God through the intercession of the martyr saints of Rome to end this terrible plague. They carried a new icon of Mary for the occasion. And as they passed the emperor Hadrian’s tomb near the Tiber, Gregory saw a vision of Saint Michael the Archangel over the tomb in which the Archangel put his sword into its sheath. And Gregory understood that the prayers of the people had been answered and the plague ceased. And Hadrian’s magnificent tomb was renamed Castel Sant’ Angelo, the fortress of the Holy Angel. The Icon of Mary is still in Rome and Pope Francis brought it out again dung the pandemic for the prayers of the people.
One day we will die. This is the time when the question of faith becomes deeply existential and real. It is easy when one is young and healthy to mumble words in a creed about the resurrection of the dead. It is not that one does not believe it, but it is not something urgent, of the moment. It is always in the future. But when we die in old age these are weighty questions. The prayer to St Michael is for this: St Michael the Archangel defend us in battle. Yes, the ultimate battle is at death, when the fallen angel, Satan, and minions, try to claim the body and soul of one who has died. There was war in heaven. And now there is war as we die from time into eternity.
But Archangel Michael is there fighting off the powers of darkness with his sword. And he will be there to carry us towards the light from which he had come. And we will become aware, oh, so intensely aware, of the prayers of so many we know, good Christian souls, speeding us on towards the light, with the songs of the masses speeding us on the way And then we will understand the reality of hope and its meaning for life.
Based on a reflection of Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla.
The Economics of God – 20 September, 2020.
Today, the Gospel is about economics. The economics of God are not like our human economics. Time after time, we humans just do not get the economics of God. In Scripture readings for today, we have reminders of the ways we miss the point about God’s economics. We also have a way through our incomprehension to a deeper understanding and a better way to live.
Let’s take a detour and think a little about the story of the Exodus from Egypt. They escape through the Red Sea but soon they start complaining. They didn’t like the food. They didn’t like the snakes. They are hungry. They complain. They cast accusations.
They are like every group, including ourselves at times, in forgetting the first lesson of the divine economy: remember the Lord’s goodness and be thankful.
Responding to this through Moses, the Lord sounds offended – and with reason. But the Lord does not punish; instead, he demonstrates yet again his tremendous generosity. They complain, not so much against Moses and Aaron, but against God their deliverer. He responds by giving them something. Something they need. Something they can use. Something they cannot recognize.
Bread from heaven is what he gives. But they can make no sense of it. They say to each other, “Manna?” which means something like, “What is this stuff?” And so, manna becomes its name. The food sustains them, but at first, they do not recognize it.
Another lesson of God’s economy: Too often the gifts go unrecognized.
God gives them bread. Enough to sustain them every single day. Yet they are more than harvesters. On the sixth day, they can gather a double portion to tide them over on the sabbath, the day of rest.
And so, more lessons from the divine economy. God provides. God provides. Enough to meet our needs, but not our greeds.
There is something more. We are to work to live, not live to work. We must have periods devoted to rest, refreshment, and rejoicing with God in God’s goodness.
So then, if we live gratefully, aware of divine giving past and present, then we have internalized lessons from the divine economics. If these lessons reside in our hearts, we will not slip back into the slave economics of Egypt, but instead progress toward the deeper freedom with God for which we exist.
Now to today’s gospel and the labour management story that Our Lord tells. What does the reign of God resemble? What can we know of God’s economy?
It’s like this. A landowner pays labourers at the end of the day the same, even though some started work at dawn and others were hired at later times in the day. Each labourer receives the same amount. Unfair, certainly? No!
Each one receives enough to live on for that day. Nobody goes without the essentials of life because of the vagaries of circumstance. This landowner practices a higher justice, keeping labourers and their families alive, because in the end, life is more important than money. It’s a bit like a JobKeeper payment, isn’t it? One payment for all, no matter if part time or full time. And haven’t some people grumbled about that.
The higher justice of the landowner scandalizes the all-day workers. So, the landowner questions them: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
God sometimes questions us in this way when we begrudge people what they need. “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Here’s another lesson from the divine economy. God cares about everybody’s welfare, loving us all without discrimination, recognizing in each one a dignity that reflects the divine splendour.
So then, we have reviewed lessons from the economics of God.
Remember the goodness of the Holy One and be thankful.
Too often gifts go unrecognized.
God provides. God provides.
We are to work to live, not live to work.
God cares about everybody’s welfare.
We have a hard time learning these lessons in divine economics, just as the Israelites in the wilderness forgot God’s deliverance and failed to recognize manna for the gift it was. They grumbled. We have a hard time learning these lessons, just as the all-day workers were enraged when the boss paid everybody the same, the usual daily wage, and put nothing extra in their envelopes. They grumbled.
Learning the lessons of divine economy is hard when we are distracted by ungodly economics, something that recurs in this world. The prophet Amos spoke of ungodly economics long ago when he denounced selling the needy for a pair of sandals, trampling the head of the poor into the dust, pushing the afflicted out of the way. Ungodly economics takes twenty-first century forms, but in time will experience defeat, for lies have no staying power.
Sunday by Sunday, Christians gather to learn and learn again the economics of God through what happens in this place. We learn lessons of the divine economy in order to put them into practice. We must practice some economy. Which one shall it be?
God reveals to us the economy characteristic of the divine reign so that, by grace, we may pursue on earth the way that prevails in heaven, a way shown to us even today.
The economics here are in the end our chance for salvation. We don’t earn our salvation by working hard or long, salvation is the chance to work for God, whether for a long time or a short time. It’s the chance to do God’s will, not the duration that is important. God doesn’t see in terms of our time, but in terms of opportunities.
Finally, I would like to think on that moment at the crucifixion that St Luke recalls. St Luke tells the story that when Our Lord was dying there were two thieves by his side. One abuses him, and the other tells the guy to shut up, as they deserved their punishment. Then Our Lord says to that repentant thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” He repented on his death and found salvation. Salvation in his last hour. God never tires hoping that we too will find that gift.
Based on a sermon by the Rev’d Charles Hoffacker of Greenbelt, Maryland, USA.
Forgiveness – 13 September, 2020
The question of forgiveness is one that troubles a lot of people. Something unjust happens to someone – and the result is that the person is left with how do to deal with it. There is usually a series of emotions, such as anger or pity or even shame.
However, eventually you have to face the problem: how am I to live with the sin and give forgiveness?
Well, today’s gospel deals with that problem. Our Lord also links to problem of forgiveness of others with our own forgiveness, so it’s a fundamental link.
Firstly, we have to face the Old Testament idea of what forgiveness is about. There is the older tradition, which saw God as a vengeful God, inflicting punishment on people’s sins. In this view, God is the eternal judge, weighing up your sins and dealing out punishment in return. If you are good, you succeed, if you are evil, you will get your just deserts. The Old Testament reflects this at times, especially in the stories of the Kings and the conditional promise of the Covenant. Sometimes this idea is used now to justify a theology of reward or success: if you are good God will make you rich.
Yet even the Old Testament moves away from this idea. The great Book of Job, for instance, tells of the story of Job. God for no reason but to test Job, makes him lose fortune, children and even all his camels, and is inflicted with sores, and then sits in the ashes with a potsherd to scratch himself. His friends come to console him and decide he must have offended God – Job instead wishes his life would be taken away but declares that he has done no sin. The Book ends with God saying to Job – gird up your loins and answer me – where were you when I created the world? The Book does not give an answer, just says that misfortune is part of God’s plan that we cannot understand. It is not the direct result of sin.
Our Lord also teaches about sin and forgiveness. Firstly, in so many of the parables, he points to the world around. The rain falls on the good and evil alike. The birds of the air and the lilies of the field also point to a God who takes care of the world. The parables point to a God who knows and loves what is made and does not have a policy of immediate revenge and rewards.
However, the parables also point to a result of listening. If you listen and follow the parables, your heart is opened to the way of the loving God; if you harden your hearts, the parables mean nothing, and you are left with the old ways. The parables and teaching of Our Lord offer either an opening to a new way of living, or a stubborn hardening that leaves you in an old world of vengeance.
This is shown dramatically in the parable from today’s Gospel, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The king forgives his first slave of an enormous amount, ten thousand talents; a sum that would goggle the imagination of those living. According to the historian Josephus, who lives at the end of that century, the tribute for that whole region was 800 talents, and the Romans were not doing it cheaply. So, it was a massive sum. No condition is put on the forgiveness; the slave is left to go free.
However, the slave then seizes and imprisons another slave who owes him only a 100 denarii. The Good Samaritan in that parable from Luke paid the inn keeper two denarii for the board, so you get an idea that this was a matter of some thousands – a bad credit card debt in our terms. The king hears of this injustice by the first slave and summons him back and re-imposes the original debt and the punishment of torture.
Now, initially we feel that the king in this parable is God, who forgives and lets go. If this is so, how do we reconcile this with the ending, when the king re-imposes the debt and imposes the torture? Is this an image of God we can deal with? This is part of our cultural blinkers: we tend to read the Gospels seeing authority figures such as lords and kings as the good guys. After all, isn’t the old Bible often known as the King James version, a lovely way of sanctifying one of our kings. Well, let me tell you that the peasants of Jesus’s times saw things a lot differently with nasty characters such as Pilate or the Herods. The king here is certainly not God.
To make it even clearer, Our Lord concludes the parable with the clear application: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
What Our Lord is teaching is that we have a clear choice as his followers. We can use his teaching to enter a new world, a world where we find the true nature of God, a God who cares and loves for us like the lilies of the field or the birds of the air. This is a world of unconditional love, so unconditional that God sends his only Son to live as one of us and die for us to show that love. The parables and the teachings provide an entrance into that new world.
However, God will never force anyone to choose. Our entry into that love must be our own choice, our own exploration. Jesus contrasts this new world with that which exists, a world that is in the power of darkness and evil. In that world fear and retribution rule, and justice is used to create injustice, so the slave is imprisoned and tortured. That world works on fear and pain, and those who refuse to open their hearts to a new way of forgiveness are left in this system. That is what happened to the Unforgiving Servant – he did not enter the new world of mercy and so was dragged back to the world he supported.
The ability for us to face the demands of forgiveness as Christians is paramount. We are challenged directly whether we want the new world or the old. If we do not forgive, we are not part of God’s love, and instead trapped into the old way of vengeance. Our Lord challenges us to this task. It is a hard task. The bitterness that people cause us, especially when it is unjust, scars the soul. But if we dwell on the injustice or hurt we never learn to let go and move on with love. That is why we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” every day. It is a lifelong challenge to be a Christian and mean those words.
However, there is one final chapter in this way. Our Lord, at the end, dies not only for those who believe in him but for those who oppress him. The death of Jesus is not just for those who heard and understood but also for every soul every born into the world. The love of God is then shown in the resurrection that breaks through the normality of this world. God will not be limited by our acceptance of our normality. The resurrection is the final sign of hope to all people that forgiveness is possible to all, even those who turn their hearts away.
Forgiveness is the mark of those who follow the Lord. It’s not easy, but the choice is whether we practise this and enter into a new relationship with God, a relationship of love, or we remain in a world of vengeance instead. That’s what today’s parable is asking us.
Dedication Festival – 6 September 2020
This morning we celebrate 117 years since our beautiful church was dedicated and consecrated. Many of you have been here for decades, some only a few short years, but all of you are part of the story of this place, its struggles and joys as it makes God present in this place.
Our readings harken back today to an event about 3000 years, the dedication of the first Temple in Jerusalem in the time of King Solomon. That Temple no longer stands today. Its walls have long since been knocked down, and the only part that remains is one wall, called the western wall or the Wailing Wall, which is considered to this very day to be holy ground for Jewish worshipers.
However, even that wall is not an original part of Solomon’s Temple; that wall was built when King Herod tried to rebuild the walls after one of the many times when conquering armies marched into Jerusalem and burned down the walls as a sign of their conquest. There is a magnificent Islamic structure that stands upon the ground where the Temple of Solomon once stood; it is a mosque called The Dome of the Rock. It has a brilliant, gold coloured dome that sparkles in the sun and can be seen from miles away in every direction. When modern travellers to Jerusalem see the Dome of the Rock they get some idea of what it would have been like to be in Jerusalem when the Temple of Solomon was still standing. It would have been the most majestic building that any Jewish person, and also that most foreign travellers had ever seen.
There is a story behind the construction of that Temple. King David had wanted to build the Temple to God’s glory when he was alive, but God would not allow David to build that religious structure because of David’s past sins, and most especially his sin with Bathsheba. Therefore, the honour of overseeing the construction of the Temple that would stand to the glory of God fell to King Solomon; David’s son and successor. In the reading today Solomon offers a prayer of consecration for his newly finished Temple. We have two accounts of this, in 1 Kings and in 2 Chronicles. We think that 1 Kings was written first and 2 Chronicles is a fleshed-out version, but both cover this event.
In his prayer, Solomon seeks to establish an understanding with God wherein God would hear and answer any prayer that originated within the walls of that Temple. Solomon urges God to enter into an agreement with Israel that when the people pray to God, whether to relieve a famine, or to give them victory in combat against an approaching enemy, or to grant them forgiveness from their sins against God and against one another, that God would grant their request. The only two things that would be required for the prayers of the people to be answered would be for the people to enter into the Temple, repent of their sins, and seek God’s forgiveness. When that was done Solomon wanted God to give him the assurance that all of the prayers of the people would be answered.
I am glad to report to you today that there is nothing you can pray for and ask of God that God is unable to perform. Of course, there are some things that we might not want to worry God about. Luckily, we have St Anthony here, the patron of lost things for the more trivial requests, such as car keys and bangles.
There is no doubt that the Lord God could do everything that Solomon was suggesting. God can send the rains and refresh the earth. God can keep our enemies from having victory over us. God can forgive us for all of our sins whether directed against God or against one another. God is assuring Solomon that everything he was asking for was well within God’s power and capability. But God seems to be pushing back a little against Solomon’s proposal.
What the Lord God told Solomon in response to his prayer of dedication was that the Temple was a place with a very clear purpose. The 2 Chronicles account is fuller here, and deals with not just the king but with people coming to the Temple. The Temple was not to be simply a place where prayers were offered and answered. The Temple was to be the place where the heart, and mind, and soul of the person doing the praying was shaped and formed so that the person asking something of God would be in “good standing” with God when the request was made. God told Solomon that he would not hear or answer any prayer spoken by someone whose heart was full of pride and arrogance, or whose prayers were selfish and narrowly focused, or who are not constantly seeking to know God’s will, or whose life is marked by unrepentant sin. By all means the people should pray to God when they gather in the newly built Temple, but they have to follow the guidelines that God sets down.
Now, we need to understand what it is that God expects from us when we pray to him from this dedicated space. We need to know that God is not going to answer every prayer we utter just because we speak those words within the walls of this sanctuary. God is not going to give us everything we ask for just because we are asking for it when we gather in this beautiful place.
There are four things that God will require of us as a precondition for hearing and answering our prayers. First, we must humble ourselves in the presence of God and recognize that without God we can do nothing. It is important for us to keep the process of prayer clearly in mind; we ask God for help and not the other way around. God does not ask us to help him keep the universe in order. God does not ask us to help him shift the seasons from spring, to summer, to autumn, to winter. God can do all of that without any help from us. God did not need us to help him create the world. God did not need our advice or assistance in settling our sins at Calvary. We all need to humble ourselves every day in the presence of God. That is the first thing God says to Solomon: My people need to humble themselves.
The second thing God says is that God’s people must pray. We must be a praying church. The church is a place with a purpose, and a significant part of that purpose is prayer.
Of course, there are many kinds of prayer. Most of us are familiar with the form of prayer that Solomon had in mind in the reading today, which is the prayer of petition. Most of us are expert in petitioning God to give us the things we want for ourselves. There are, however, many other forms and types of prayer that we must practice if we are to participate in the purpose for which this church exists. There are prayers of intercession where we ask God to move beyond our lives and be a blessing in the life of someone else. There are prayers of adoration and praise where we just rejoice over the glory and majesty and grace of God. There are prayers of thanksgiving where we do not talk about what we want God to do in the future because we cannot stop thanking God for all the great things that have already been done for us in the past and up to any present moment.
Of course, there are also prayers of confession and contrition. These are the prayers we speak when we stand before God and acknowledge the sins we have committed, and the mistakes we have made, and the gossip we have passed on, and the slander we have spoken. We all need to beat our breasts here. We need to have our sins forgiven when we knowingly do what we know is unbecoming of a child of God. “I’m sorry, Lord,” is a great prayer. Part of what God wants us to do when we gather in this place is pray with this whole range of prayers.
Next, God says to Solomon: My people who are called by my name need to seek my face. This is a way of saying that we need to discover what God’s will is for our lives. Before we decide something as simple as how to respond to someone who has annoyed or aggravated us, or someone even more significant, we need to seek God’s face.
We, as Christians, need to remember that we are not entirely independent. We cannot simply do whatever we want to do. Rather, we must seek to know what God’s will is for us in any situation and then apply ourselves to do what God desires.
Finally, says God to Solomon: My people need to turn from their wicked ways. God seems to acknowledge the possibility that we might apologize for our sins but then go right back out and keep doing what we had been doing all along. Just because people apologise for what they have done does not mean they will not do it again. Therefore, God wants more from us than an apology; God wants us to stop doing whatever it was we were doing that made the apology necessary in the first place. “Turn from their wicked ways” is what God declares.
What happens when we finally do conform our lives to these things that God has set forth in 2 Chronicles? What happens when our lives fall in line with the purpose God has for the Church? God has promised to hear our prayer, and to forgive our sins, and to heal our land.
Now, I believe that politics alone cannot fix what is wrong with our world. We need God to heal our land. I have great respect for the benefits of education and lifelong learning, but there is no academic degree that will lead the world into peace or harmony or tolerance for diversity. Only God can heal our land. No amount of money donated by people of wealth to people in need can bring about any lasting change to our world.
That is the arrangement that God offered at the end of Solomon’s prayer; if we do our part God will surely do God’s part. God will do it. God will bring wars to an end when we turn to God in prayer and truly seek God’s face. God will bring hatred to an end when we turn from our wicked ways. God will end all of the strife between nations, and regions, and tribes, and political parties, and even next-door neighbours when we take the first step and truly humble ourselves.
Today as we gather in this beautiful place as we have done for 117 years, we recall the prayer uttered by Solomon upon the completion of his great Temple in Jerusalem some 3000 years ago. We cannot, and we dare not, come here week after week with nothing more on our mind than what we want God to do for us and give to us, as if God is little more than a spiritual ATM waiting to dispense blessings when we enter the password. Instead, like that ATM, God seems to be saying that if you do not put something in you cannot get anything out. Put in these four things; humble yourself, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from your wicked ways. Then God will do as has been promised: God will forgive our sins and God will heal our land.
Based partly on a sermon by Marvin A. McMickle of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School USA.
The Room of Crosses
A hobby of mine is to go to the local auctions. It’s amazing what turns up. There is, of course, a large range of furniture and pictures and glassware and just junk. As a priest I keep an eye out for religious items, and some of the things in this church are from items I have bought over the years.
However, as someone who is reasonably knowledgeable about religious items, I get annoyed when things are mislabelled. Icons are given to the wrong saint. Each saint has a clear symbol, and I don’t think it is that hard to work out who it is. But one thing that annoys me repeatedly, is when crosses and crucifixes and confused. Crucifixes and the little man on them I say, crosses don’t. But the catalogues still get confused.
There are a lot of crosses and crucifixes that turn up over time. Lovely big brass ones like the one I use on the low altar are rarer, only every couple of years. Then there are lots of little gold crosses and crucifixes. There are occasional icons of the crucifixion. Some are heavy, some are light. Some you wear, some you hang of the wall. Some are gold and some are wood. All sorts.
Now imagine that you could see all these crosses at one time, a whole display of all the sort of crosses that you could imagine. Now the question is, what cross would you take up? What would be your choice? Would you like something very beautiful or very light? Practical or wonderful? What would you take up?
There is a further condition – there is only one cross that is right for you. Now that makes it much harder, it is not only what you desire but what is designed for you. How do you work that out?
The stakes are very high. Consider Peter, in the gospel passage today, was the rock of the Church, for confessing that Jesus was the Christ, the one chosen for salvation, as we heard last week. This week he is the stumbling block, because he does not want Our Lord to go to Jerusalem and be killed. He does not recognise that the cross that Our Lord must bear is one that comes with a price. To be a Christ is a fine thing, and Peter could see Our Lord going to Jerusalem and setting the world to rights, ushering in a kingdom, earthly and peaceful. But the price of being Christ was to bear a cross and die, so death would nail God and human together, and forgiveness would flow in blood. The cross had a price that had to be faced. Peter, by trying to deny it, was a stumbling block to fall over, not a rock to build upon. There is no profit in gaining the whole world if one’s life is forfeit in return.
So what cross are we to select in this wondrous room of crosses, full of all styles. What one has been made for you? Which one are you to bear? Is yours to be one that can be quietly kept in a pocket to give you courage or one to be borne for the mockery of the world? What price is it to be bought at?
This is where discernment is needed. For many people take the wrong cross in life, and a life may be damaged by the wrong choice. The wrong cross can be too light, and be no true price worth the blood of our Lord who died to show us the price he was willing to pay for us. Great gifts can be given to people who waste them, never taking the cross that would stretch them, make them give the price that could buy the cross that would make their lives. Others have taken crosses that they were never meant to bear becoming bitter with burdens they attempt to bear. Save us from the trivial person, who only finds a light cross and fritters and never dedicates. Others take heavy crosses that consume their time and energy in a passive aggressive delight. Save us from the bitterness of those who whinge over crosses they delight in grasping, that they were never meant to take.
So, what is discernment, that ability to choose what cross to bear? It is prayer, it is time with our Lord, it is the gift of listening to God. Prayer often starts with words, but most move beyond to being with God. That is part of the story of our liturgy, why we use the same form over and over again, the same words over and over again, so our minds go behind the words and actions to being the actual prayer, having it in ourselves so we can listen to God. We have to be with God to find the cross we are meant to bear.
For all these crosses, big and small, golden or plain, are nothing but images of the one true cross, and the cross bearer himself, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord is offering the crosses to us, waiting for us to come in and choose a cross that will suit us. Our Lord knows which cross will suit us, which cross is made for us. He knows which will fulfil our destiny, give scope to the skills we have, and carry the price that is right for us. It may not be the heavy one full of gold and jewels, it may not be the light cross we can hide in our pocket. But for each and every person there is cross, made and fashioned to suit each one of us, waiting for us, if we listen to the cross bearer, so we can take up our cross and follow.
The Exercise of Power – 23 August, 2020
Looking at the Gospel today there are two things that strike me. First there is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. Then there is Our Lord’s response, that lovely poetic passage, that Peter is the rock on which he will build the Church and Peter will have the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
Let’s consider Peter’s answer. Our Lord starts out by asking what are people saying about him. People in ancient times obviously gossiped about each other just as much as we do now. We know when we get a new work colleague or boss, we want to hear all the stories about that person. Well, Our Lord had been travelling around, he had been healing people like the Canaanite Woman’s daughter we heard about last week, and he had been doing miracles like feeling the thousands as we heard the week before. We can imagine that there was a lot of gossip about him.
Now the disciples give different answers. That’s the safety of gossip, you can give unattributed stories. You don’t take responsibility for the truth or even believe in them; you just pass on the gossip. But then Our Lord makes it personal: but who do you say that I am? One can almost hear the silence after the question.
But then Peter, good old impetuous Peter, gives the answer: you are the Messiah, which we would call the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Peter jumps the fence, and comes down to a profession of faith.
That’s always the hard one. We can report rumours, tell gossip, but in the end that’s not faith or even good leadership: in the end we have to be responsible for what we believe. Faith is like that: in the end we have to have a core of belief, we have to know that Jesus is the Christ and what that means. That’s one reason why the creeds developed in the Church, starting with the Apostles Creed and going onto the Nicene Creed which we use every Sunday: we have to know what we believe in. We have to say who Christ is and that he is our God. Faith means a confession of who Jesus is. That’s why the Apostles Creed is used at baptism since early times, it is the faith to which people confess. It is thought that in some churches they even baptised during the creed, the priest said for example, Do you believe in God the Father, and the person replied I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and then the priest did the first of the baptisms by immersing the person saying I baptise you in the name of the Father, and then going on with the second part of the creed for the Son, and then the third for the Holy Spirit.
The second point from today’s gospel is Our Lord’s reply:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Now this has been a passage that has a long history. Is Our Lord giving the keys to Peter personally or to the Church that will be built on that reply? Now we have a hugely divisive history on that. On one side we have the extremes of Roman Catholicism, and the other side we have those who hold to no authority outside a congregation or even a personal faith. A lot of this comes down to what you think the Church here on earth is. Is it the local congregation? Is it the local diocese gathered around the bishop? Is it a universal Church gathered around a Pope? Now we have experimented with all these types of structures. We have tried popes wanting uniformity and power. We have tried dioceses believing that they are the definers of what is right in ordination and marriage and ignoring all other Christians. We have tried mega churches being the absolute churches and calling all other Christians lost. There is just isn’t an easy answer as to what the best church structure is. There just isn’t an answer to what Our Lord exactly foresaw as the Church.
But Our Lord did say a bit about how authority is to be exercised. The Gospels record that immediately after this passage Peter gets things wrong and is rebuked. So being a rock does not make you perfect. People in authority don’t know everything. Our Lord also warns his disciples about the bad examples in the world and that we are not to exercise power as the world does. In St John’s Gospel, which seems to have issues with the model of Peter, the confession of Our Lord’s divinity is done by Martha, a woman, a person of lower status. Furthermore, in that Gospel we have the story of Our Lord washing the feet of those he leads as an example to them of how authority is to be exercised. The Gospels each present a fairly cautious attitude to how authority is to be exercised. The early Church took a lot of time also working it out. From the early times it had bishops, we see them discussed in the letters, but often it was just for small groups until the faith spread so we had a bishop over all the Christians in a city. But working out how bishops related to each other took another few centuries, not until the peace of the Church and the first council at Nicaea in 325 do we get some sort of structure with the great cities of the Roman empire of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem holding a greater authority.
Mostly since then the Christians who have held to things like tradition and the Creeds have preserved some sort of structure with bishops. We Anglicans tried a cautious structure with the Archbishop of Canterbury being a figurehead without power. Well, it’s hard struggle for us trying to stay united. For the last century or so we have a group meeting of all the bishops every ten years, the Lambeth Conference, so called because that is the place where the archbishop of Canterbury lives in London. The last one was in 2008, and they bickered so much they decided to wait till 2020 for the next one, and then this year the Covid crisis did that in as well and who knows when they will now meet.
But in that passage there is one last final reflection. The gates of Hades will not prevail. So often we think of the Church as a besieged city, with the evil pounding on our gates. But Our Lord did not say that our gates will not fail, he said that the Gates of Hades will not prevail. One of the best reflections of the Vatican II Council of last century, the great gathering of the Roman Catholic bishops, was that the Church is not a besieged city, but a pilgrim people on the way to salvation. So our wanderings, our failures will not stop the gradual spread of what faith is. We will walk into the Gates of Hades and those gates will not prevail against our little selves. That’s terribly consoling. We are all Peters making our confession of faith and then getting it wrong, but we have been entrusted with the power of Our Lord to tell the story of faith, even to the Gates of Hades. And we do prevail somehow, not by our own strength, but because God is on our side. That’s immensely comforting.
Dealing with Outsiders – 16 August, 2020
Some of the prophets in the Old Testament are very odd. They are odd, because they do very, very odd things. Ezekiel the Prophet, for example, was commanded to lie on his left side with a brick for 390 days for the punishment of Israel, and on his right side for 40 days with a brick for the punishment of Judah. Hosea the Prophet was commanded to marry a prostitute to symbolise the unfaithfulness of Israel to their God. These are not normal things to do, at least in my life.
There is a long tradition in the Old Testament of the prophets doing symbolic actions to show the relationship of God to his people. Ezekiel and Hosea were teaching the Jews by the symbols of action.
So when we come to today’s gospel we can understand our Lord acting as a prophet. Firstly our Lord leaves the land of Galilee and goes all the way to the district of Tyre and Sidon, way up to the north, way being the normal Jewish areas. Then a Canaanite woman approaches him. She approaches our Lord with a plea for mercy for her daughter. She was not the first to do so, nor would she be the last, but our Lord ignores her. She persists, and the disciples urge our Lord to send her away. Presumably, what they had in mind of sending away was not a gentle activity. Our Lord then states to his disciples that he is sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. But she comes and kneels, in fact she comes down and worships him, which means not a gentle kneeling like we Anglicans do, but to get down on your knees and put your head down – the word for worship means to become like a dog.
Then we have a little play on words. While she is down worshipping him, like a dog, our Lord says that it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. She picks up the imagery and replies that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table. With that statement our Lord says her faith is great and heals her daughter.
What we have happening here is a whole symbolic action like the prophets of old. It is a parable of action, if you like, an act to show something new to the disciples.
Firstly consider the women. This story is also recorded by Mark, but Matthew makes a few changes to drive home some points. Mark tells us that the woman was a Syrophoenician, but Matthew calls her a Canaanite. Now the term Canaanite by Matthew is deliberately archaic, but Matthew is trying to make the point of her outside status. Canaanites were the heathen people who had been conquered, expelled, or massacred by the Israelites; long, long ago in the conquest of the Holy Land. It is an accursed term. Furthermore, she is a woman, and that of course emphasises her lowly status in the ancient world. The location also emphasises that this is an area way beyond the promised land. There is a big question as to why Our Lord was even there? What had driven him so far from Galilee? All these things point to her lowly, outcast, status. Yet our Lord sees her faith and heals her.
We think that the community that Matthew wrote the gospel for was a mixed community of Jews and gentiles. As a result we get a curious mixture in this gospel of how Jewish Jesus is and yet, how he is open to outsiders. Only Matthew records certain Jewish characteristics of our Lord, like wearing the Jewish tassels. Yet we get these wonderful examples of how our Lord opens the gift of his ministry to outsiders. A very close parallel to this piece of the Gospel comes earlier in chapter five when Jesus heals the centurion’s servant. The word used for servant is more familiar than that, and has connotations of being a child. Once again, our Lord marvels at the faith of an outsider, this time, a Centurion, one of the hated Romans, and once more for child figure. Matthew shows our Lord expanding the mission from the House of Israel to the new wider community of Gentiles, even Gentiles who can be seen as enemies of the Jews, such as Romans and Canaanites. Comforting words to the congregation that Matthew served.
So what do we take from this passage today? For me I think we need to remember that our Lord does not have boundaries. The desperation of people, the love they have for those around them, motivates the strangest people to turn to God with a plea of help. Our needs transcend who we are and what we believe in. Furthermore our needs call forth an action from God to reach out to those in need. The prophet symbolism of the acting out of shunning of the Canaanite Woman shows that God does break though barriers when our need and faith are there to open ourselves to the love and mercy of God. God does not work on tidy categories of Jews, Christians, Moslems, and others: God works on people in need.
The other point is for us: if our Lord works outside the comfort zone of home territory with outsiders, then how do we deal with those who come to us as outsiders: colleagues, helpers, family or whatever? How do we let them know that we are the disciples of Our Lord? If they are in desperate need, will they see in us the Lord who reaches out to those outside the comfortable zone of belief?
This year is such a strange year. We have the pandemic and all its problems. We have the American election coming up with a president who thrives on division and conflict. We have had a lockdown that showed briefly what the world would be like if we could cutdown our pollution. We have our Pacific island communities, who depend on tourism for over half their economies, shut down with a growing desperation and poverty. The pandemic is now spreading throughout PNG causing worry there. Across our border our Victorian friends in Melbourne are locked down again. Many of our friends or family have lost jobs or suffering from income drops. Some of us who depend on income from shares have seen that income tumble. We are all very edgy. Our comfort zones are becoming very fragile. Yet we have the Lord who acts out the need to reach out and heal those in need, to show that those who God loves is wider than we think.
We can learn, as always, from Our Lord. In his encounter with the Canaanite woman, he remained silent at first, letting her talk. Isn’t this a model for listening to people who are not like us? Can we not learn from the encounter related in today’s Gospel, that listening to the stories of others unlike us, engaging in courageous conversations, adopting open-mindedness, practicing tolerance, and living in mutual respect can lead to a better sense of loving community? We know what others may not – that no one is a “dog” and that everyone – everyone – is a beloved child of God, deserving of God’s grace found in Jesus.
The Lord of Miracles 2 August, 2020
For the past several Sundays, our Gospel readings have been focused on Our Lord’s parables as recorded by St Matthew. First, there was the parable of the sower, then the parable of the weeds and the wheat, and last week, a whole panoply of parables: the mustard seed, the yeast, the pearl. Our Lord used these parables to teach his followers about his vision of the kingdom of God. He begins each parable by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like,” and then proceeds to spin a short, simple tale, filled with memorable characters and striking action.
At least, these tales seem short and simple on the surface; but they hold hidden depths of meaning. That’s the way metaphors work: they reveal hidden truths by extending what we know; a woman baking bread, for example; into something we don’t know yet. They expand our understanding by using the known, to show us the unknown.
Our Lord was a master of this style, and parables make up approximately a third of his teaching in the New Testament. Teaching by parables is as powerful today as it was in the first century. We still use metaphors and similes on a daily basis to explain the world, to enliven our speech, and to help us grow in learning from what we know into what we don’t know.
But in today’s Gospel, we turn from parable to miracle, with St Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. Miracles, for better or worse, are much less convincing to the modern mind than parables are. But miracles happen around us still in different ways. They are extraordinary and unexpected actions, so people may be startled out of lethargy into worship. A dead man rose again; people marvelled. By contrast, numerous babies are born every day, and no one marvels. If only we would reflect upon life more carefully, we would come to see that it is a greater miracle for a child to be given existence who before did not exist, than for a man to come back to life who already existed. People hold cheap what they see every day of their lives, but suddenly, confronted by extraordinary events, they are dumbfounded, though these events are truly no more wonderful than the others. Holding the universe together, for example, is a greater miracle than feeding five thousand people with loaves of bread, but no one marvels at it. People marvel at the feeding of the five thousand not because this miracle is greater, but because it is out of the ordinary. Who is even now providing nourishment for whole world if not the God who creates a field of wheat from a few seeds?
Miracle stories were common in the ancient world, within Christianity and beyond. Telling and retelling stories of Our Lord’s miracles was an important way the early followers remembered and honoured him, and how they tried to share his good news with others. And the story we heard today — the story of Our lord feeding the multitudes — was perhaps the most important miracle of all.
It’s the only miracle included in all of the Gospels. Matthew and Mark like the story so much, in fact, that they each tell it twice, with slight variations: in one version Jesus feeds five thousand people, and in the other, four thousand. That means this story is told six times in the Gospels: and there are only four Gospels. So, it was an important memory for the early Church.
Each version presents the same dilemma: crowds have followed Our Lord out to a deserted place to hear him teach. When evening comes, it becomes clear that people haven’t come prepared. There’s not enough food — the disciples only have a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish — and the people are hungry. The disciples don’t know what to do. In some versions, as in Matthew today, they suggest that Our Lord should send the people away, to fend for themselves in the nearby villages. In some versions — again, as in Matthew today — Our Lord turns to the disciples and tells them: “You give them something to eat.”
“You give them something to eat” is the heart of this miracle. Our Lord is saying those words to us today, just as clearly as he said them to his disciples on the deserted shores of the far side of the Sea of Galilee all those centuries ago. There is a hungry world out there, and it is our responsibility, our duty, to feed them. This hunger is both spiritual and physical. And although it may look like there’s not enough bread to go around, the miracle we recounted today teaches us that, in fact, if we open our eyes, we will see that there is enough – that God has already provided enough bread to feed every last person on earth. It just depends on how you divide it up.
The miracle we heard today may seem simple on the surface: Our Lord is able to magically multiply bread and fish. But push a little deeper, and there are a few other things. One thing is the numerology: what’s the point of five loaves and two fishes. Well, the ancient world would immediately see that as a cosmic number, seven, made up of the two lights, the sun and the moon, and the five known planets at that time. That’s where we get the seven days of the week, named after the lights and planets. The miracle from the five and two point to a cosmic harmony that shows Our Lord being God of the heavens. The second point is that it’s really a parable about how we see the world. Is there enough to go around, or not? What does it mean to share this world God has given us? What kind of people are we going to be — those who share or those who hoard?
Both Matthew and Mark drive home this point by providing a prelude to the miracle story. In both Gospels, the feeding of the five thousand is directly preceded by the story of Herod beheading John the Baptist. The connection between these two stories might not be immediately clear, but here is how Mark and Matthew tell it: John has been in prison for some time for accusing Herod of adultery with Herodias, his brother’s wife. Herod throws a feast for his birthday, inviting his rich and powerful friends. Herodias’ daughter dances before Herod at the feast, which pleases him, and he tells her she can have whatever she wants in return. She asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter — and Herod obliges her.
Herod’s feast is exclusive, a private gala for the rich and the powerful, and leads to death. Our Lord’s feast is inclusive, a community picnic for the poor and the oppressed, and leads to life. Which party would you like to attend?
As often as we take the Eucharist, we re-enact Our Lord’s picnic on the lakeshore. Just like on that day, Our Lord takes our bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it with all who are hungry. And he is calling us to do the same with our lives – take the blessings God has given, break them open, and share them with others. Our Lord is calling us today: Come to the party where no one goes hungry, where there is bread and joy and life for all. Amen.
The Pearl of Great Price – 26 July, 2020
On Friday last, in Turkey, in Istanbul, the museum of Hagia Sophia reverted to use as a mosque.
This is one of those moments when something has changed.
Istanbul was once, Byzantium, the capital of the last part of the Roman Empire. It was built by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, who modestly called the new city Constantinople, in 330, and as befitted a Christian city, it had a great cathedral, as well as a great palace. The palace was a wonder as well, there was even a special room for the Empress to give birth, lined with purple stone, hence the phrase to be born into the purple. Constantinople became known as Byzantium, and it finally was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, who made it their new capital.
One of the first things they did when they conquered the city was to turn the cathedral, called Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom, into a mosque.
This cathedral is a marvel. I know many of you have seen it – it has a huge dome, rising from a great square, pieced by a row of windows before the dome, a marvel of architecture. It was built in the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the 7th C and it is a wonder. Its shape was immensely influential as the centre of Orthodox Christianity. Western churches follow the older Roman basilica shape of a long church with squared ends, but this marvellous building is centred on a great dome. Whenever you see an Orthodox church with a dome, you are seeing the ghost of Hagia Sophia.
So the great Cathedral became a mosque for centuries, and Byzantium became Istanbul, a wonderful Muslim city, and many new mosques were built to rival Hagia Sophia, including the great Blue Mosque, immediately adjacent.
At the end of the World War I the Ottoman Empire was disbanded, and a new movement seized power in Turkey, led by a man who would be known as Atatürk. He was a famous soldier as well, who had defeated the Allied campaign at Gallipoli. He wanted to end the dominance of religion, especially in Istanbul where the rulers, titled Caliphs, has a spiritual power as well, and one of his actions was to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum. As a museum it would no longer be seen as a sign of conquest of Muslim over Christian.
So it remained then. The great mosaics, from the time of the Emperors, were uncovered and restored. It was one of the great attractions of Istanbul.
But now it has reverted to being a mosque. There is no shortage of mosques in the city. It is a deliberate statement by the current government that Turkey is no longer a secular government. It is restatement of Turkey’s Ottoman past. The action is particularly offensive to Orthodox Christians, such as in Russia, the Ukraine and Greece, who know this cathedral as the great lost church.
Our Lord today talks of pearls of great price. Well, this Cathedral is a pearl of great price. Our Lord says in the Gospel today, that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. It’s a great risk putting so much value into one thing. But because it has a great price, its significance becomes stronger, hence the use of Hagia Sophia as a mosque again.
But Our Lord was not thinking of great cathedrals when he gave us this parable. In the gospel today the parable of the pearl of great price falls with two others. The themes of the three parables are interesting. The first two are centred on a treasure and a precious pearl: man’s great dream is to find something precious that gives meaning to life. There is a search or even a non-search, an unexpected encounter with something that has a very great value. There is, therefore, a finding. However, the emphasis of the parables is on another point: on the decision. Indeed, both those who seek – the merchant seeks and finds – and those who do not seek – the peasant is not looking for the treasure, he is only working the field and finds it – are called to make a decision regarding what they have found. And this decision is dictated by joy. Joy is the strength of decision.
This joy makes it worthwhile to deprive oneself of everything in order to own them. In these parables we find well presented the two extremes to bring together and within which to make our most important decisions because they make our life truly evangelical: grace and responsibility. Grace lies in the fact that the treasure and the precious pearl exist, and we are given the possibility to find them so that their search is not in vain. Responsibility lies in the fact that the “received” gift must be kept and shared.
Once he has found the pearl, the man full of joy goes away, sells all that he has and buys the pearl. Joy is the first treasure that the treasure gives. God seduces us because God speaks the language of joy that makes us move, haste, and decide: joy that lasts is a sign that we are walking correctly and on the right track.
We advance in life not because of short spurs of will, but because of a passion for a discovery of treasures, for where our treasure is, so there our heart will be. We advance because we fall in love and for the joy that it brings. Those who live are the ones who advance towards what they love or towards whom they love: Jesus Christ.
The discovery of the pearl makes us lucky merchants. We should not be too proud of that because, ultimately, it is a gift from God. A gift should be not a source of pride, but of gratitude and responsibility. We must give thanks to the One who made us “stumble” into a treasure, indeed in many treasures along many roads and in many days of our lives. If we look at our lives one thing is clear: we have tried extremely hard, we have looked in many books and among many people, but we have not found anything better. Nothing is found which is better than the Gospel and the Church. To sell everything for Christ is the most profitable deal of our life because that act did make it intense, vibrant, passionate, joyful, at peace, and, I hope, at least a little useful to someone else. We understand that giving to Christ is equal to flourish. To choose Christ is not a mere duty, it is to choose a treasure that is the fullness of human life, peace and strength, surprise, charm, and resurrection. God is not a requirement; God is the Pearl.
But even more than that: we are Our Lord’s pearl. We are the treasure and the pearl that he buys back his life given totally to us. He is a merchant and farmer who searches in the field of our life: for each of us, for all our brothers and sisters. He renews our hearts, and the heart of stone becomes a heart of flesh, a good heart, a caring heart. It is our field that matures treasures in ourselves and for others. It is it that which makes the rose of our world bloom. He is our pearl if we risk it, and we are his, that he has already risked his own death to buy. God loves each and every one of us – so much so that God would send his only Son to walk among us and as one of us. So much so that God did not let us get away with killing his only Son, but returned him to us, so that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, Our Lord himself is in the midst of us, calling us to return to the God from whence we came. We come from love. We return to love. And love is all around. God is love and loves us even more than the merchant who gave everything for the pearl of great value.
Which takes us back to that other pearl, Hagia Sophia. This conversion of the museum into a mosque is a bit of politics for Turkish leaders to shore up their own base. At the same time, it has made the world a less safe place, by making peace between Christians and Muslims even harder. The pearl of great price is not really that cathedral though. The pearl of great price is the peace that passes all understanding. We are charged to find that pearl in the horrors of this world. That is the decision we must make. We are living now in a world under great tension. We are not to be deceived by short term politics and lose sight of that pearl of peace.
Catholic Renewal – 19 July 2020
Well I’ve been your priest here now for 18 years, and I’ve never preached on this subject at both masses. I’ve occasionally done the 8 am owing to bishops or clergy not liking to get up early, but I’ve always missed having my say.
But thanks to covid 19 you don’t get a guest preacher today, you don’t get a parish lunch, you get me.
So here’s my take on being Catholic.
The Anglican church is a unique hybrid in the Western churches. On one side you have the Roman Catholics, and the other side you have the Protestants, whose originals lie in the divisions of the 16th C and perpetuated since. Not all Protestants date from that time: Lutherans and Presbyterians do, but Methodists and Charismatics came later. Hill Song is just the latest in a long, long line. Not all groups have survived: the Shakers, with the celibate, simple lifestyle have gone, and the Quakers are an endangered species, the Anabaptists with their destructive revolution were exterminated by the Lutherans and Catholics together, and there are dozens of others. Some of you may remember the Liberal Catholics who once had a church here in Wayville just up the road, another dying species.
But we Anglicans were caught in the middle of the religious upheavals. In the 16th C we had Henry VIII who had a fight with the pope, then his son Edward VI who was a strong protestant, then his sister Mary who was a strong catholic, and then Elizabeth I who realised that compromise was necessary to give peace to England. It was her genius of compromise, that set up the Anglican Church, as a body that would take in a breath of tradition, from evangelical to catholic. During her time there were puritans who refused to even make the sign of the cross on a child’s forehead in baptism, to Queen Bess herself, who had her chaplain say the new rite in the Book of Common Prayer in Latin in her chapel, wearing the old vestments, that our catholic tradition still uses.
As a result, our church has always had a particular tension and dynamism between catholic and protestant. We rejoice in in our protestant tradition in Scripture and the independence of conscience: Queen Elizabeth said famously that she would not make windows into men’s souls, and was not interested in strict conformity, as long as people did not imperil the state. Then there were those Catholics who treasured a wider tradition, and realised that the Anglican Church was just part of a wider tradition, that included East and West, Orthodox and Roman Catholics.
Now being Catholics means that we recognise that we are part of a wider tradition. It has caused us grief in the last few decades. As the local churches have redefined what ordination and marriage mean, we Catholics have argued that these matters should not be decided by a few local churches, but our part of our wider tradition that means consulting and reaching an agreement beyond a local synod. This has not been easy, but we have also failed when we have not learnt to accept gracefully and honour the decisions of the Body of Christ in this place. We have also fought to make our local churches realise our greater commitment to a wide stream and action that has infused the Body of Christ through the ages, from Our Lord washing the feet of the disciples, to the Benedictine monks setting up the schools of the early middle ages, to the Knights Hospitaller of the Crusades setting up the first medical care, to St Francis of Assisi kissing the lepers, to the simple work of feeding the poor from our food basket at the Hutt Street Centre now. Or the theology of St Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages with the insights into the Sacraments, to the Anglican Richard Hooker at the end of the 17th C providing the first great Anglican theology defining us as a via media, a middle way between Roman and Protestant, to the wisdom of two great 20th C Archbishops of Canterbury, Ramsey and Williams. Or the worship of the Church continuing, from the Middle Ages into now, by the preservation of cathedrals and their music and tradition, that worship and prayer are a rich stream of which we are just a small part.
So, what does it mean to be a Catholic today, here at Goodwood? It means we have a commitment to worship that is based on centuries of tradition, deep springs that the saints have hallowed as opening to God. We do not invent worship every Sunday – for us it is like the wheel, once discovered, always there. I feel sorry for my protestant pastor friends, devising a worship plan each week. We have the mass. That’s the plan: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The mass is enough. That is why when the church was closed because of the pandemic we still had the mass here each day, lifting our thoughts and bringing our needs to the throne of heaven which consecrated in the bread and wine the real presence of Christ in the world.
It means that we have a commitment to those around us, the poor and the needy. For some this will be social action, protesting that black lives matter, or walking against abortion, or helping refugees. For others this may just be buying that extra carton of long-life milk to put in the basket at the back of the church to go to some needy soul in our city. In good Queen Bess’s words, we don’t make windows into men’s souls, and how each one of you feel called to act and live out Our Lord’s call to serve is for you to answer.
It means we have a commitment to think. The Church has produced great thinkers and saints who have revealed the nature of God. Once we taught that there were two types of knowledge: revealed and discovered. Revealed was that learnt from God in revelation, as such it was the higher form as only God could reveal that. Then there was discovered knowledge, that which we learnt ourselves through time and experiment. The Church has always had an appetite for knowledge, we have fought and bickered over what we learn, but we still try and learn. Never leave your brains at the door of a church, that’s an insult to the God who created us to think and wonder.
In means in particular that we are rich with the gift of the ages. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, who died in 1600, famously said that the Anglican Church is like a three-legged stool, with one leg of Scripture, one leg of reason and one leg of tradition. He also clearly saw that the Anglican Church was only part of a wider tradition; is was a small letter c church, not The Church. We are the constant reminder to the rest of the wider Anglican church that we should never be insular and think we have the answers: our debates on sexuality and ordination should be part of a wider debate. We also remind them that tradition is not the dead weight of the past, but the voice of the departed in God’s hands, testifying to what was the work on the Spirit in their times that continues to ours.
I wear these robes here each mass because they are part of those reasons. Some clergy throw them on as work clothes without a prayer, but I pray them on, because they mean something. This whole church, with all its shrines and beauty, with its wonderful music testify to a wider tradition and life to invite you into that wisdom. It all means something. This Sunday reminds us that we are Catholics, part of a greater whole, part of the tradition of the saints, with those saints cheering us on and aiding us with their prayers.
The Reckess Sower – 12 July, 2020
The parable of the seed is a well-known parable. It seems clear, about those who are the good ground, others who are the rocky ground, and others who are choked by thorns. After all, we see the example so clearly around us. Those who start the faith journey with good intent, but drift over times, who find their good intent to be a Christian choked by the thorns of other demands. Yet there is another dimension in this parable that is worth looking at.
Think for a moment to whom Our Lord was telling this parable. He is telling it to the crowds by the lakeside. These were not rich people; most would have been small time farmers themselves. Therefore the parable is particularly apt, for it relates immediately to their own experience. As small farmers, they would plough the land, sow it and reap it themselves with their families. They would know their small plots intimately; they would now where the good soil was, and know where the bad soil was. They would know where the rocky ground was, for there they would have to be careful ploughing, so as not to damage the plough.
Note in this parable both the good and the rocky ground is sown. This would ring a bell with his listeners, who being poor, would try and plough all the soil they had, to try and get a crop, to hope that some would grow.
Yet in this parable, ultimately there is something that does not make sense. For the sower in this story does not sow just the good soil, but also soil so rocky that there are patches of rock, as well as patches where there are thorns and even the path. This sower seems like a rank amateur. For a good sower, using precious seed, would only sow where there is an even chance, but what this sower is doing is simply reckless, throwing seed everywhere, good soil, rock, paths and thorns. Seed is going everywhere. No thrifty farmer would sow seed like that. Only farmers who are reckless, or desperate to get a crop, sow seed like that.
Therein lies an important point in this parable. For this parable could be called the parable of the reckless sower. The growing seed is explained as faith, yet we have to also look at how we get the seed of faith. God is the sower of seed in this parable, for only God can give the seed of faith. God sows seed with abandon. God knows of what we can be like, with the potential of being rocky or filled with thorns. Yet for God the chance of seed growing outweighs the poorness of the soil. Therefore he sows seed everywhere in the hope that the seed will somehow grow and flourish. The seed of faith is not given just to those who are likely to respond, but in every conceivable circumstance. God sows seed with recklessness and desperation that the seed may take. If God sows like this, so should we in our attempts to sow the seed of faith. We are not to be disheartened at our efforts to join in this sowing. We are not to be disheartened if we try and plant seeds in difficult family situations, where we see little hope of the seed growing. If God can be a reckless sower, then so can we in our efforts to sow the seed of faith in those around.
The problem always is, how do we sow the seed of Christ? What do we do so that our seed is planted? Well, if God sows seeds with such recklessness, so we by our lives must sow seeds in the same way. Perhaps the best way is just by providing a model. If we can show by our lives, our commitment, our ability to live a life of faith we start the process. Then we have to inspire others so that they can see what they can become. If people can see that faith could alter them, make them different, then the seed is planted, for the model is there. It is not easy, but this is one good method of bringing people to faith. The starting point has to be with ourselves, in living lives that show our Christian commitment. We have to show how we are living this, in our lives of prayer, Bible reading and commitment. If we start by this, we can then start to inspire others to see how their lives can be altered. Once that is done, then the seed is growing.
We need the to sow the divine seed of life in the earthly heart of those around us, increasing the awareness that God lives and wants us to live. God is glorified when people live fully and when there is a positive and rich experience in our life. God is not glorified when people are mortified, when people die having lived stunted lives. God is glorified when we live, live in the glory of God, full of hope and the knowledge of eternal life. “I came that they might have life, “says Our Lord, “and that they might have it more abundantly”. This is why our Redeemer sows life in us and calls us to do the same for our brothers and sisters.
The point, though, to come back to, is to recognise that God sows with abandon, and so we must also sow with abandon. The purpose of the sowing in the parable is to get a good crop, and lives of faith do reap good crops. The lives of saints are those lives that have often inspired others, given models that people can see that they too can be like, and then wish to do so, giving the harvest many times over. What we see as rocky ground for our faith, may be so, but remember that this does not stop God sowing. God does not make commercial decisions about giving his love and the seed of faith, and neither can we.
The Right Yoke: 5 July, 2020
When you look at the Gospel passage today there are two themes in it that I would like you to ponder: the children in the market place and the yoke.
I’ll deal quickly with the children in the market place, because it’s a fascinating passage. The word used there, paidon, is more than little children, it can mean young adults, and what may be happening there is that they are young actors in the market, doing dramas. Translation is always a tricky thing, and sometimes the translators choose words that blur over some of the subtlety. The same word is used for the story of the Centurion and his “slave” also in Matthew and John uses it in his letters, when he talks to the disciples as children. But here, that’s why the children are playing flutes, dancing and wailing. The significance for us is that is how some scholars think the first gospel, Mark, arose, from a market drama. It’s only a theory, but that’s how the sayings of Jesus may have first been put together as a drama piece for performance. Our Lord is making the point about people: they see life passing by, in this case the witness of John the Baptist, but they don’t enter into it, but treat it like a drama. It’s always a problem: we see the spectacle of Jesus’s life and death and life shown here week after week, but we become spectators, complacent; and don’t enter into it as life.
Anyway, then we come to the next passage I want to deal with, the line “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It’s a great passage that is used a lot of times. But it does capture such a bigger picture that I am going to break one of my rules and concentrate on it.
But let’s zero onto two words: “yoke” and “easy.” If you remember anything from this sermon I want you to remember these two.
Yoke is number one. Now when the old Jewish scholars talked about the Law of Moses they often called it the yoke. It’s a good word, because the old Law had a world of rules to show people how to live their lives. It gave a certainty in working out what was right and what was wrong, the ability to do things that God would want you to do. Now yokes are those wooden harnesses they like to put on oxen that allow a few bullocks to work together and pull the plough. Remember that in ancient times and in fact well into the Middle Ages most ploughing was done by oxen, not horses. When you harness oxen together you unite their strength and allow them to work as a team. So it is with the Law. By everyone following the Law we live in a society that follows God. The thing that Our Lord did not like about the Law was that it had become too full of laws that were too restrictive and finicky, the Law was no longer filled with love and freedom.
So Our Lord wants people to take on his yoke, which will give rest for our souls. Our Lord is teaching us that there are new ways to live that free us from becoming scrupulous about rules and regulations, but instead are to all about love. We are to learn from him, for Our Lord is gentle and humble in heart and we can find rest for our souls. Our Lord does not want us all up tight trying desperately to be good: . Our Lord wants us to love and be gentle, and find rest in our lives.
Okay, that the first word of “yoke” done. Now let’s look at the second word, “easy.”
Now the first thing to learn about the word “easy” is what it is not. He does not mean that is easy like when we say a test was easy, or the road was easy. That’s not it at all. The word here is “chrestos” which means sort of good or kind. This is where you need to think like a farmer. Yokes are easy not because they are light or something like that, but because they fit well. Have you ever tried to wear a dress or shoe that is too tight? Well, that’s what’s going on here. If a yoke is made badly it’s not easy because it doesn’t fit properly, it likes trying to wear a bathing costume a size too small. A yoke is easy because it fits properly.
Now this is where we need to think what does a well-fitting yoke means. It means a yoke that is designed for us. Our Lord is telling us to look at what we are burdened down with in life. Are we having a badly fitted life, with responsibilities which we are not coping with because we are not meant to carry them? Or are we doing the opposite, not taking on responsibilities that we should? For the proper yoke is easy and the burden is light: God has made us and knows the burdens we are meant to have in life and never, never gives us more than we can bear. It’s our own silly selves that take on the wrong jobs or avoid the responsibilities that God wants us to have.
Now being a Christian is not easy, easy in the sense we normally use it. That’s why I hate the wrong use of this passage. Being a Christian can be very difficult at times. Why – because if you really believe that God has made each and every person in God’s own image you have to weep over the folly of people and the world that distort and ignore the precious gifts of souls. You have to weep over the torments that people put themselves and others through. But the only things that makes sense of it all is the belief that Our Lord has taken on this world with all it’s pain and knows and shares that pain and still loves each and every person.
The yoke is easy and the burden is light because Jesus makes it uniquely for each one of us. The only way we can work out what that yoke is for each of us is to learn to pray and listen to God. That’s why there is a little pun going on here with the word “easy.” Remember: the word in the Greek is “chrestos.” That’s a whole lot similar to “Christos,” Christ. It’s hard to listen to the difference in Greek and it’s meant to be hard: chrestos, Christos, chrestos, Christos – it’s meant to sound the same and that’s why a rather obscure word is used, in fact it’s only used a few times in the whole Gospels. The only way we find what is well fitting, easy, is Christ.
Then there is another little thought to think about: Jesus was a carpenter. One of the jobs a carpenter would have had to do for those farmers so long, long ago was to make yokes, and a carpenter could only do that by knowing the ox and shaping and carving that yoke till it fitted properly. Well, think then of the Son of God, Jesus doing that in Galilee so many centuries ago. You know what: Jesus is still doing that now for our yokes now so that they are easy and the burdens are light.
Small Deeds: 28 June, 2020
We have now finished our great feasts such as Trinity and Corpus Christi, and our Gospel readings go back to the Gospel of the year, in this case St Matthew’s. We are now following the tenth chapter where we have been reminded to follow the apostles into the world, to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to move into the fields ready for harvest, and to pray for more workers. We have been warned that we will not be treated well on our mission and that it will create division even in our own homes.
Unlike St Luke’s Gospel, St Matthew makes no mention of the actual mission itself; we don’t know if the disciples went out or what their mission experience was. Scholars believe the omission is to highlight Our Lord’s speech as a direct address to the readers. We are included in the audience, left not so much with an historical report of what occurred in the ministry, but with a description of its own ministry. As we end our time in this chapter, we learn that our role in the mission is not only as those who are sent out; but also as those who receive others on the mission. The focus is on welcoming. Our Lord uses the word “welcome” six times in this brief passage of only three verses and points us to the importance of hospitality in furthering the Kingdom of God. We are called to consider more deeply what it means to welcome one another. It is this that has so influenced our monastic life too in the Rule of St Benedict.
On reviewing the list from verses 40-42, we realize that this welcome can be. and ought to be, practiced by us at any time, no matter what circumstances or crises we find ourselves in. We also come to realise that our welcoming does not need to consist of large, heroic acts. Any simple, basic acts of kindness, even glasses of water, we offer as genuine welcome for one another are all that God requires of us. All we need do is look around to see who is in need and try to do something about it.
This theology of hospitality perhaps reaches its fullest Christian expression in the final parable Our Lord tells in St Matthew’s gospel, the one most of us remember as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In that parable, Our Lord reminds us that the way we treat those who are most vulnerable among us is, ultimately, representative of our response toward Jesus. Within the parable, Our Lord refers to these vulnerable ones with whom he identifies as “the least.” So, St Matthew’s gospel, as a whole, reminds us that righteousness goes well beyond our relationship with God. Whether we are deemed righteous has a great deal to do with how hospitable we are toward one another, especially those who are most vulnerable among us.
God people, we are called to promote compassionate welcome that motivates us to trust, to be open, and to share. At the same time, we need to exercise caution to avoid manipulating others and seeking personal gain. We set out with good intentions to form caring relationships, yet when left to our own devices, we sometimes fall short of creating and sustaining the kind of relationships that help us to become the people God has called us to be. Often times, pride, ego, self-doubt, hopelessness, and other sentiments get in the way and keep us from truly connecting with each other, except in self-interested ways. We need God’s grace to help us with living into compassionate welcome with one another and extending genuine hospitality.
Regardless of their origins, the disciples were encouraged to identify themselves with the little ones in the world, who in turn, are called to serve other such little ones. Our efforts to welcome and love the little ones are important because Our Lord sees it and receives it as worship. When we love the little ones, we love Jesus. In welcoming one another into our hearts, Our Lord tells us that we are welcoming him into our hearts: welcoming God into our hearts. It’s the old paradox, that it is in giving that you receive. It is in losing your life that you find it. It is in welcoming others that you experience Our Lord’s welcome.
All the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but strengthen the relationships that are most important to us, so the life of faith is also made up of many small gestures: gestures like making a phone call to ask how a friend or stranger is doing, dropping off groceries for the elderly, reaching out to the lonely and most vulnerable among us. According to Our Lord, there is no small gesture. A cup of cold water is the smallest of gifts, a gift that almost anyone can give. But a cup of cold water is precious to a person who is really thirsty, in some instances, the gift of life itself. Our Lord does not specify the nature of the reward for those who help little ones, but in the kingdom of God, the smallest service brings with it eternal reward for the giver.
There is a lovely story about Bishop Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town in South Africa. He grew up under the apartheid laws, where people were segregated on colour. He recalls=ed one day when he was out walking with his mother when a white man, a priest named Trevor Huddleston, tipped his hat to her — the first time he had ever seen a white man pay this respect to a black woman. The incident made a profound impression on Tutu, teaching him that he need not accept discrimination and that religion could be a powerful tool for advocating racial equality. Small things, but immensely powerful
The smallest of good deeds: a little thing done in love. The cup of cold water is the symbol of that. It doesn’t take much to be hospitable, welcoming, and accepting of other people. A cup of cold water replicated in a host of other simple, small deeds. Our Lord tells us that every single one of those small deeds is important – even eternally significant. It doesn’t take much; every one of us can achieve these things, and every one of us can make that difference. We can find God in those smallest of good deeds.
We have to remember that the roles of those who welcome and those being welcomed are interchangeable. We are all called to be Christ to each other. Our Lord sends us to share the Good News, to alleviate human suffering, to meet real needs, to work miracles of love and healing through acts of kindness, even cups of water. We are called to remember that we, too, are to go as people willing to receive those same acts of kindness. When we welcome one another, we discover the reward that comes from the deep hospitality found in God’s welcome of us.
Whoever gives you even a cup of cold water will most definitely not lose their reward.
Based on a sermon by the Rev’d Marcea Paul of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, Texas.
Waiting in God’s Time: 21 June, 2020
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing make you afraid,
All things are passing,
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is lacking to the one who has God –
God alone is enough.
These words, from a meditation by St Teresa of Avila, are a great summary of today’s readings from Scripture. They all speak to us about the gift of patience. We are taught that patience is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but it can feel like a heavy burden. People often mistake patience for submission in the same way they mistake kindness for weakness – and they walk all over you. But as usual, we must look beyond the surface. God has a greater message in store.
Some truly great people in the history of Christianity have been walked over in this way. Just as one example, St. Teresa herself, is famous as a theologian, reformer of the Carmelite Order, and spiritual adviser to the great medieval Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross. But Teresa’s ministry was not well received in the community that she loved. Her sisters had grown lax in faith and practice, she called for reform, and their response was to throw her out of convents that she herself had established. On one occasion, she was turned out at night in the middle of a rainstorm. Dressed from head to toe in her coarse wool habit, she got back into her donkey cart and was riding along when the wheel of the cart hit a ditch and the cart turned over, dumping Teresa into the mud. She sat there, in mud-soaked wool, looked up to heaven, and said, “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder that you don’t have many.”
But frustrated as she was, Teresa clung to God. One of her meditations on the Disciplines of the Holy Spirit talks about how we must not be deceived by the appearance that evil triumphs over good, for sometimes, as she wrote in her usual pithy style, “God uses the Devil as a sharpening-stone for Christians.” Teresa not only taught this lesson, she lived by it. She did not give up on God, even when her sisters fought her every step of the way. She kept on teaching what she knew to be the truth. Eventually, she won out. Her desire was not to be right, but to be faithful, and God blessed her efforts. Today, the very same saint who was treated so cruelly is known as a Doctor of the Church – an exemplary teacher and thinker – while the nuns who treated her so badly are long dead and unknown to us.
Teresa understood what the prophet Jeremiah was talking about and what Our Lord is teaching in today’s Gospel. It’s a lesson you could put in very simple words: Sometimes, when things go wrong, you just have to sit back – and wait. Don’t be afraid, and as Our Lord says today, we are worth more than many sparrows for God. Waiting in patience when things go wrong, and even family and friends seem against you, is what Teresa did, and it’s at the heart of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord himself. The way of Christ is to take on suffering, and he endured persecution wordlessly and embodied the triumph of God over evil while waiting upon God. This Christian example is not a sitting back that does nothing. It is not passive submission; it is an active waiting that is grounded in ultimate faith in the righteousness of God. Neither is it surrender to the belief that nothing can be done about the wrong; it is understanding that it is God who, in the words of that other great mystic, Julian of Norwich, makes all thing well.
When you do everything that you know to be right and then sit back and wait, you imitate the long-suffering God who has been watching all along, watching patiently and mercifully, waiting for people to do what is right. When you do all that you can and then sit back and wait, you see that when people refuse to understand, God comes forward to do what only God can. And if Scripture teaches us anything, it is that when God acts, all kinds of things happen.
So, yes, we must be patient because the God, we serve, is patient. But the patience of God is a mysterious thing that comes in mysterious ways. We do not know how long it will last. We do not know how the solution will come when God steps in to make things right. The only thing, we know for certain, is that it is very good idea to be on the right side of God when it’s time for God to act. Scripture teaches us that misery is waiting for people of ill will, but miracles happen for those who walk by faith.
Scripture gives us lots of examples to follow. An old, wandering nomad with no home to call his own ends up with children and great-grandchildren and a great land in which to enjoy God’s protection. A parade of persecuted refugees walks to safety on dry land in the middle of a sea. A woman in labour away from home with no place to bear her child is given warmth and shelter in a place of animals. The One who is killed for speaking God’s truth is raised from the dead and goes on to prepare others to witness to God’s triumph. The God of the Scripture is a God of miracles – and they happen in our day, too.
So, we do not strike back in the darkness of our own anger and impatience and arrogance. We do not take the problem into our own hands, tempting God by enforcing our own solutions. Instead, we turn to God with the truth in our hearts. God will protect and shield us from harm, while dealing with the wrong in God’s own way and time. We have to be patient, as we have bene patient over the last few months, waiting for the end of all the restrictions.
As it is written in psalm 30: “weeping comes in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” This is the Good News of the Gospel, this is the faith that carries us through, and this is God’s own response to evil and sin in this world. So, when troubles come, do just what you know is right and pray for protection. Then sit back, wait, and watch God bring deliverance. Teresa’s words are a message of ultimate triumph: “God alone is enough.” So as we come to the Altar of Grace, let us come with spirits lifted and hearts grateful for the patience and providence of our Lord.
The Trinity: 7 June 2020
There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But maths, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.
Holy Mother Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Our Lord Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God. It started when, among other things, when Our Lord walked on water and stilled the waves of the Sea of Galilee. That isn’t normal human behaviour. Then his resurrection showed conclusively that this man was indeed God. Then Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the maths ever since. But to help the maths, tradition gives us the Creeds, from the early Church the Apostles’ and Nicene, and later the Athanasian, to make us remember what it means. The Apostles’ Creed goes way back to the early days of the Church, and is the statement of faith for those being baptised, to show they understand who God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed came later, originating at a Council at Nicaea near modern Istanbul in 325, at the time of the peace of the Church after the great persecutions, to help unite all the different Christians by remembering how God was. It was originally a profession of faith for bishops to make sure they understood. The Athanasian Creed came later for us Westerners in the Middle Ages
But let’s reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Our Lord and the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the sinful woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7:47) The Pharisees were incensed because Our Lord, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Our Lord had, in fact, done what only God could do. Before he died, Our Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Our Lord breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20:22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2:38)
The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin, forgiveness and love. In the Old Testament, in spite of some outbursts of anger, God claimed to be a God who was full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the sinful woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But God’s mercy did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Our Lord and then in the disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.
We have to remember that nothing is more true, life-giving and comforting to us than the presence of the Holy Trinity in our lives. Nothing, in fact, can exist or act or become perfect without the three divine Persons, without God, so that Saint Paul does not hesitate to say that “in him, in fact, we live, we live and we are” (Acts 17:28).
God is near and we think far away. It is in reality and in events and we seek it in dreams and impossible utopias. That’s like getting lost in a maths problem and not coming back to the application.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, the great African theologian of the 5th C, said that we are led to a God who “Lover (Father), Beloved (Son) and Love (Holy Spirit)”), a God who is love and dialogue, not only because he loves us and converses, but because in himself is a dialogue of love and therefore forgiveness. But this not only renews our understanding of God, but also the truth of ourselves. If the Bible repeats that we must live in love, in dialogue, and in communion, it is because it knows that we are all “images of God”. To meet God, to experience God, to speak of God, to give glory to God, all this means – for a Christian who knows that God is Father, Son, and Spirit – to live in a constant dimension of love and forgiveness. The Trinity is a truly wonderful mystery: revealing God to us, it has revealed who we are.
Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own anger. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s mercy and love. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.
Who Sinned? – Lent IV, Sunday 22 March, 2020
That long reading from St John about the man born blind is always very current. We only need to look at the news to ask the disciples’ question: “Who sinned” and thus caused this to happen? Today, let’s set aside most all of St John’s wonderful theology and his powerful metaphor with spiritual blindness, focusing on this question: How can an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow totally undeserved suffering to exist in the world that we believe God both created and loves? Why has God allowed this virus loose in our community?
The question about why always occurs; it’s been around since people started thinking about what it means to have only one God who is just, loving, and good. So far, there have been no really satisfying answers; no nice, neat conclusions. But the question persists, it has to: to ask this is part of what it means to be a thinking, engaged person. Things that happen must have a reason, an explanation: they have to make sense, if we’re going to understand them.
Let’s look at the story. Our Lord sees a man blind from his birth. His disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There it is, that hunger for some explanation in the face of tragedy, pain, and suffering, especially that which apparently make no sense, that we can neither understand nor justify. We also ask, why has this person got the virus?
We know about this question. We know that much of our pain, and the pain in the world, is hard to understand. It’s like the fate of the man born blind; it just happens. So, we all ask our own versions of “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” We ask why there is so much pain; why people, especially good people, get sick or get hurt when it isn’t their fault. We ask why so many die so young. We wonder why families so often do not work out the way they should work out, the way everybody wants them to work out. We wonder about this virus. We wonder about a lot of things.
The disciples wanted to understand this tragedy, and with it, other tragedies. Now, if the man had become blind because of his own carelessness, or if someone else had blinded him on purpose, then it would still be a tragedy, but it would make more sense; it would be easier to deal with. But that’s not what happened. Now we would invent conspiracy theories: it was the Chinese who invented the virus, it was the Iranians, it just certainly was not us. So, the disciples ask.
One of the traditional answers in Our Lord’s time had been that tragedies such as this are a case of God visiting the sins of the parents on the children. Both the Books of Numbers (14:18) and Deuteronomy (5:9) say this quite specifically, and it had become a common proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The parents sin; the children suffer. While this isn’t particularly reassuring, it is at least something; it does offer an explanation. It shows how God, who has to be a part of everything, could also be a part of this.
But there were problems with this answer. It just wasn’t right. Many of the great thinkers in Israel’s tradition, notably the prophets Jeremiah (31:29) and Ezekiel (18:2), had flatly and very specifically denied this. They had insisted that God did not skip generations, that God treated people as individuals and not as heirs of someone else’s sin. We don’t inherit our parents’ sins. So, there was a contradiction in the tradition. It was a puzzle.
By and by, some other rather ingenious teachers came up with an interesting alternative. Perhaps, they speculated, a child could sin while it was still in the womb. Being born blind would be punishment for that sin. Again, while this was a really weird explanation, it was at least some sort of answer. There was some justice to be found, some sense to all of it, even if it wasn’t good sense, even if it felt less right than the earlier answer.
So, when the disciples asked Our Lord their question, they were asking Jesus to choose from the two standard, traditional answers to the ancient question of “Why?” They were asking for an answer to the ancient cry for meaning and justice.
It’s important to realize what Our Lord does when he responds to this question. First, he rejects both options. In doing this, Jesus is rejecting all answers that explain the question of “Why?” He doesn’t say, “No, that is not the reason, but this is.” Instead, and this is very different, Our Lord refuses to make sense of this situation by explaining it in terms of either the divine will or human sin.
So, he rejects the explanation that bad things happen because the victims are bad, or because the devil makes them happen, or because people don’t have enough faith, or because they don’t pray correctly, or whatever explanations people had come up with before and have come up with since. The virus is not a punishment for our sins, nor were the bushfires before that, nor 9/11 before that, nor the tsunami before that. Neither Our Lord nor the Christian faith offers any clear, rational, sensible explanation of senseless suffering. Neither Jesus nor the Christian faith gives us answers to the problem in the way we want answers.
Instead, we’re left with the brute fact that we live in a world that really isn’t fair, a world that is marked by ambiguity and inconsistency, a world that is dangerous, a place where strange new viruses break out. We live in a world where tragedy happens for no apparent reason to people who do not deserve it. The point is not, that if we just have enough faith then these questions won’t matter, or we’ll somehow understand without an answer. The questions do matter, but we will never understand to our satisfaction, and it doesn’t do any good to pretend otherwise.
But that’s not all what Our Lord says. He says two more things. They are not answers to the question of “why,” and we make several important mistakes if we treat them like answers. The first occurs when Our Lord says of the man born blind that through him, the works of God can be made manifest. That is, the place to look for God in this tragedy, or in any tragedy, is not at the front-end of it, causing it to happen. God won’t be found there, sitting in heaven, passing out cancer cells, birth defects, earthquakes, strokes, corona virus and blindness like some hideous dealer at a cosmic casino.
Instead, the place to find God is in the middle of the mess, in the very worst parts of it, working there to bring forth something new, not something that fixes the mess, but something that redeems and transforms it. The God who is found there, the God who is active there, is the God who has wounds on his hands and feet and side. Remember the Resurrection story with Thomas – those wounds are still there. It’s the God who knows, who cares, who remembers what suffering is like, the God of the Cross, the God who shares our suffering and pain and who takes it into himself in the vastness of his compassion and love.
Remember, please remember, this is not an explanation of what happens. God didn’t poke the man’s eyes out before he was born, so he would be handy for Our Lord to use as a sermon illustration. That’s not the point.
Instead, the point is that God can be found in very real ways, even in transforming ways, in the very heart of undeserved and inexplicable pain. That’s the first thing Our Lord says.
The second thing Jesus says is this: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” Notice that Jesus says “We.” We must work the works of God. Tragedy, pain, and suffering are also calls to ministry and to service. This may or may not be a call to fix whatever the problem is – often, we simply cannot do that – but it is always a call to reach out and to care. It is always a call to discover, to bring, and to share the presence of God in the heart of the tragedy.
Note that this isn’t an explanation, either. Terrible things don’t happen so that we can have an opportunity to minister and serve. God doesn’t work that way, either. But the call to such ministry and service is part of Our Lord’s response to the reality of tragedy and suffering: not a justification for them.
These two things are what Our Lord says to the question “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They’re also the way Our Lord responds to our cries for explanations.
For us Christians, what makes sense out of the world’s and our suffering is not answers or explanations. Instead, what makes sense out of these is the presence of a God of compassion and love, along with the opportunity to serve. What makes sense out of tragedy is not that we understand it. Instead, it’s that God has taken it upon himself, and that God is present in it and through it, and that God calls us to love him, and to serve him, and to find him, in our own pain and in that of our brothers and sisters.
So this week, and the weeks ahead, as I am forced to abandon this pulpit, be kind to those around you. Keep in your prayers those who have difficult jobs: not just those in the hospitals, but also those poor young people being harassed in the supermarket because they can’t stock things in time. The bus drivers we deal with. Tell the coffee shops you are going to that you are supporting them. Be proactive. It’s not the end of the world. And the good news is, that with all the stocking of toilet paper, we have never have had such clean bottoms as now.
We don’t have explanations we want for why it happens. But God’s not picking on us. That’s the truth. And it promises that we matter, that our service and care are important. It promises that we are never alone, never forsaken. God is indeed with us, even in the very heart of the very worst. Do not be afraid. That’s what we hear from God, time and time again. And that is enough.
Based partly on a sermon by Fr James of Texas.