Saturday, 20 March 2010

Caught in the Law

John 8:1-11
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At daybreak he appeared in the Temple again; and as all the people came to him, he sat down and began to teach them.
The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along who had been caught committing adultery; and making her stand there in full view of everybody, they said to Jesus, ‘Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What have you to say?’ They asked him this as a test, looking for something to use against him. But Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. As they persisted with their question, he looked up and said, ‘If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Then be bent down and wrote on the ground again. When they heard this they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest, until Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained standing there. He looked up and said, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you,’ said Jesus ‘go away, and do not sin any more.’

in full view of everybody

Meaning that she is naked, not even the bedsheet she is normally portrayed wearing. Because that would suggest sympathy or compassion and there is none of that here. This is not even a woman; this is an experiment; a test; a device to prove that Jesus is not who people say he is.

Her presence condemns her without a word spoken. Why else would these Temple men have her standing her; exhibiting her shame if there was even a chance that they were wrong?

Her nakedness condemns her without a word; there is no defence against being caught in the act.

Her silence condemns her; surely she would have her excuses; be calling for mercy; begging for her life; if there was even a shred of doubt.

She stands like a deer caught in the headlights; with whatever life she has lived catching up with her. Even a life lived well; with good deeds and prayers; an ordinary life, except…

Except that she chose the wrong person to fall in love with…

Except that she had been fooling herself…..

Except that there had seemed no other way…..

Except that now she has been caught….

And the Law of Moses has spoken….

No need for binding; her nakedness is enough; for where could she go?

span >Rooted to the spot which will witness her trial and execution by the good and holy people of the parish.

Just waiting for the Word of God to condemn her.

And he doesn’t…

Jesus waits…
waits for the woman to get her breath;

waits for the crowd to still;

waits for the stones to get heavy in their hands.

And then asks the question; ‘Are you any different?’

And we are, none of us, any different. We have our sins hidden beneath fine clothes and fine words; behind titles and respectability. We divert attention away from ourselves in the knowledge that there must be someone worse than us; someone more guilty. Especially when we can find others who share our sins; because then the Law can speak and we can pretend that it wasn’t really our idea. We would have been more sympathetic but it is out of our hands.

And if ever our guilt starts to become visible then we can hide; move away; perhaps in regret at being found out; in shame at our weakness; embarrassment at this fall from the pedestal. But, if we are without sorrow; remorse; a desire to make amends then all we have done is run away.

For forgiveness and reconciliation, we have to stand with the woman; unmasked; naked; honest even in our sin.

Stand and let all the excuses drop away.

We have to be with the Lord; until the feeling of shame has gone; the fear of punishment has gone; until, even as naked as we are, we can stand and let him see us for who we are.

Then we know that as long as we live, we are never condemned; that, before we even ask, we are always forgiven; that the Law will never save us and God who is Love, always will.


Friday, 19 March 2010

Feast of St Joseph

Every year the parents of Jesus used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up for the feast as usual. When they were on their way home after the feast, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without his parents knowing it. They assumed he was with the caravan, and it was only after a day’s journey that they went to look for him among their relations and acquaintances. When they failed to find him they went back to Jerusalem looking for him everywhere.
Three days later, they found him in the Temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them, and asking them questions; and all those who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his replies. They were overcome when they saw him, and his mother said to him, ‘My child, why have, you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.’
‘Why were you looking for me?’ he replied ‘Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?’ But they did not understand what he meant.
He then went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority.

The Gospel reading for today says it all really. Joseph – who are you? Father with a small ‘f’ when I have a father with a big ‘F’. Jesus obviously was not a naturally diplomatic child.

The feast day is even called ‘Joseph the husband of Mary’. A bit like calling him ‘him indoors’. For a church so male dominated we treat Jesus’ first male role model as a bit of an afterthought. Remember that it was not only Mary who said ‘Yes’ – it was Joseph’s ‘yes’ that avoided her being stoned to death or exiled from the community. He must have been an incredible man; utterly compassionate; to have been able to have faith to honour Mary; to refuse to bow under the undoubted slings and arrows of the doubting and gossiping neighbours; to persevere with giving Jesus the most normal of childhoods. Joseph, who must have been the role model that gave Jesus his compassion; his generosity; his respect for women and children; his knowledge of the working man. Jesus at thirty is a man of great character and personality; a man’s man who is able to have healthy relationships with women; to have them as his friends. No mean feat at any time; certainly suggestive of a family life that displayed mutual love, devotion and respect. And yet we know nothing about him.

These days it is not unusual not to know much about your father; long working hours mean fathers are absent from the normal family day; single parent families are increasing in number; police blame the rise in gangs on the lack of a positive male role model; men in the media are often famed for bad behaviour; male characters in our soaps are always a bit dodgy or pathetic. In many ways the understanding of what it is to be a man had got a bit lost. Joseph stands for the ‘Unknown Father’ we know nothing about.

But not at least in the Catholic Church; the domination by men of the Catholic Church is well known and comes in for comment and criticism on a daily basis. I know; I have studied it; women’s theology, feminist theology; I am a member of two groups supporting women’s ordination. Linked to this are the daily reports of abuse and misconduct by members of the clergy and religious; the last time I tried to find information on priests for a school project I had my computer closed down for breach of policy access to inappropriate content.

More and more I find myself getting uncomfortable about the whole thing. Not because I believe that men are the root of all evil but because I believe that they are not. I am not going to talk about those that are guilty of abuse because they could be any men; such men know about finding positions of trust; know about secrecy and deception; know how to charm their way into people’s lives; know how to live a two-faced life – they fill the media screens and pages but they do not fill the church. We forget those taken for granted; the many,many good priests.

I know priests have plenty of other feast days but today I am giving them Joseph, the Unknown Father.

Like Joseph they say ‘yes’ to a life based on faith rather than any guarantee. What does a twenty-odd year old man know what they are letting themselves in for whether fatherhood or priesthood, it’s a ‘yes’ to mystery. But the love that causes a priest to say ‘yes’ is the most Christlike – it is agape love – the love of the Good Samaritan who gives to strangers; whose love projects outwards without the need for possession.

But then, we are not strangers, we are family and they are ‘father’ with the small ‘f’ doing the work of the Father with the big ‘F’. Ok they may be not long out of seminary and lacking in wisdom or experience some of the time; but the sense of fatherhood is there; the responsibility; the commitment; the duty to care. And they grow, and grow beautifully, especially when supported by their ‘family’, becoming godfathers; favourite uncles and wise elders.

Even if they don’t know us; don’t get on with us; don’t agree with us; that’s by the by. Like a good father they will do what they can; what they need to do and be there despite everything if it all goes wrong and celebrate joyfully when it all goes right. Priests will have thousands of children; lots who are older than they are; across miles of parishes and years of devotion. And people will remember them and the effect that they had on their lives and thank God for them. But they won’t make the news, the papers, the media hype and in years to come they may be as unrecognised as Joseph; but it won’t matter because they were there when they were needed and they did what they were called to do.


Saturday, 13 March 2010

Brotherly Love?

Luke 15:1-3,11-32
The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he spoke this parable to them:

He also said, ‘A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.
‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.
‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.” ‘The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”

The Prodigal Son

One of the favourite and most well know Parables this week. A story that is used by many aspects of Church and schools for an insight into God and His relationship with us, his children; relationships between his children; relationships in general.

A story of relationship that changes as we do; as we grow; as our faith grows or as it doesn’t. Where we are in our journey of faith is easily reflected by the tone of the relationship we have with the characters, and with which character our sympathies lie.

It is, like all of the Lord's stories, a tale with a challenge to think twice. Not to cling to the preconceptions of a world that revolves around us.

How easily many of us relate to the older son; the good son, some might say. The son who, for many years has been doing the right thing. He says it himself, blindly obedient, in the service of his father. We can share the indignation, the disbelief, that his has been the thankless task. That slaving away day after day in his father’s service has left him feeling unappreciated; taken for granted; believing himself unrewarded.

Is this really how we feel as people of faith; as churchgoers; and followers in Christ? Do we often feel that we are all about duty and ticking the right boxes on a ‘to do’ list. Trying, not too convincingly, not to be resentful that there are others that God seems to loves better (it would be the younger son). And, generally, pretty irritated to see God simply standing by, allowing us to work our socks off, while he waits at the door looking for sinners to come home?

Why do we find it hard to believe that God would be so joyful at the sinner’s return? Do we wonder why God can’t see us; why we should not be so important? After all, can’t he see what we have done with our lives? All that hard work - was there any sense in it?

We are worldly people. Hard work brings reward or it’s ‘not fair’. Success and acknowledgement are part of what we deserve. We cannot help but look at our brother, judge him and finding him wanting. If we feel bitter or resentful then that is his fault for making us feel that way.

Do we even ask ourselves;where is the love? If the older son regards himself as an obedient slave; then that denotes a lifetime spent in the wrong relationship; a relationship of expectation to live up to a standard that doesn't exist; except in his head. Some might call it a sense of ambition, a way of life.

But here we are talking about faith. Our belief in a God who made us, unique and particular. A God who loves us ‘no matter what’. Who made us to love him. A God for whom we can never be perfect but it doesn’t matter; because he never asked us to be.

God asks us to live. From childhood to old age to make the most of who we are and what we have. The word ‘Prodigal’ doesn’t mean bad or wrong, it means wasteful and extravagant, without the need for economy. The young boy, seeing his life before him, decides, maybe foolishly, that he isn’t going to live forever; so why not spend, spend, spend? The reality being that he is going to live a lot longer than he thought; and that he will learn that life is not always about the good stuff. But, he has to find out the hard way; and they will be hard lessons that he will never forget. He takes the journey down as far as it will go, but sitting at the bottom of the barrel, he sees sense and heads back home.

And I believe that, deep down, he knows his father will be waiting; he isn’t going to be turned away; he won’t be living with the paid servants.

Because he knows his father, far better than the older son.

He knows the heart of love that allowed him to go; the generosity that gave him his inheritance without condition; the grace that wished him well; the joyful love that will welcome him back.

He knew that love before he left. It was that love that actually gave him the confidence to go; to be free to be young; to grow up; to be lavish, extravagant and wasteful. It was that love that allowed him to make mistakes and so to learn from them. And then to remind him where he needed to be when there was nowhere else to go - because sometimes Home is not a place but a person.

Mark’s Gospel tells us to Repent and believe the Good News. We can’t do that if we don’t even consider we could be wrong, if we don’t see the sinner in ourselves. We certainly can't do it if we turn our sin into justification of more sin; whilst marking out the sin in others.

If we are not careful we will find our self-righteous selves standing with hands on hips as all those we passed judgment on will be making their way, faithfully, to their Father’s arms (a Father we have also cast judgment on) and the feast that awaits.

And we will still be thinking we were right.

wordinthehand 2010

Sunday, 7 March 2010

the child in the playground

Luke 13:1-9
Some people arrived and told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of their sacrifices. At this he said to them, ‘Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen on whom the tower at Siloam fell and killed them? Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.’
He told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it but found none. He said to the man who looked after the vineyard, “Look here, for three years now I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and finding none. Cut it down: why should it be taking up the ground?” “Sir,” the man replied “leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.”

greater sinners?

One of my saving moments in faith, and one that came to me not that long ago, was when I realised that God knew I was not perfect.

There was, certainly when I was younger, an overlying feeling in my faith that suggested that my life should be lived in fear; that God had a measure with my name on it and that I would never, ever live up to it. The shared and scary tales of catholic education based on the tenet of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ had God’s stamp of approval; and it seemed that the baptism that delivered me from original sin also marked me with a permanent ‘could do better’ notice and that better would never be ‘good enough’.

In some ways, I suppose, I do still think that’s true – I can certainly always do better. Without the desire to do so there is a risk of complacency that would limit my spiritual growth to ‘good enough’ – for me, rather than for God. But I don’t believe in the measuring stick anymore. My thoughts and actions are my own and, right or wrong, there is nothing and no-one I can measure myself up against except my own expectations –but why, knowing that there is always a chance to begin again, should beat myself with it? I do believe that God is the most loving of parents who sees the effort and the mistakes and the mishaps, and, just like us with our children, forgives and forgives and forgives.

So the next question is – if I believe this is true, why do I carry a measuring stick of my own?

If I have become so accepting of my own failings and sin; and my opportunities to redeem myself; why do I look at other people with critical eyes and opinions? Why do I act like the child in the playground, jostling for favour by criticising the ones who are getting the attention and playing down my own failings with excuses; why do I feel justified when they fall, when they get left behind? And why do I think that that’s ok?
The shift of emphasis that changes ‘I am better than….’ to ‘but I am not as bad as…’ is not acceptable. They both belong to Pride, possibly the greatest sin of all because it works in all directions; the pride of ‘I’m not worthy’ and the pride of ‘I’m worthier than them’.

It is this sense of Pride that Jesus challenges us with day after day; the sense that we know better than God. Only with pride can you judge yourself; only with pride can you judge others; only with pride can you decide you are good enough and better than; humility does not allow it.

And humility is the lesson Jesus tries hardest to teach; through the Beatitudes; through his actions; through the giving of his life. Jesus himself will not judge; to the woman caught in adultery he says ‘I do not accuse’; even though they did; even though she did.

Jesus echoes the Baptist’s words – the message of the whole of the Gospel in one short phrase – repent and believe the Good News. If you can’t repent – that’s pride; if you can’t believe – that’s pride; and if you think it’s not for everyone – then that is also pride.
Spare the rod; against yourself and others; and learn to live the lesson of humility; through love and not fear.


I am no more the person that I was
Than I am the person I will be.
From heartbeat to heartbeat,
I am born anew in Your loving mercy.
Always-another opportunity to be
The child you want me to be.
To be with the Eternal You
In the everlasting now of Your love.
Relying on human perceptions
I measure myself against past failures
And future dreams.
Seeing myself through a flawed lens.
Yet I can find peace,
Be content with my imperfections,
Knowing that in Your eyes I am perfect
Because you made me.
For I am no more the person that I was
Than the person I will be.
And in that moment is the grace,

Always, to begin again.


Monday, 1 March 2010

The Lord calls

The Lord calls,

Come to me.

Leave the plains of ordinary times
The well worn paths of everyday
Leave the dry river beds
And relentless horizons
The daydreams
And mirages
Of life.

And come to me.