Saturday, 30 July 2011

The coat of discipleship

GospelMatthew 14:13-21 
When Jesus received the news of John’s death he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. But the people heard of this and, leaving the towns, went after him on foot. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick.
  When evening came, the disciples went to him and said, ‘This is a lonely place, and the time has slipped by; so send the people away, and they can go to the villages to buy themselves some food.’ Jesus replied, ‘There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.’ But they answered ‘All we have with us is five loaves and two fish.’ ‘Bring them here to me’ he said. He gave orders that the people were to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. And breaking the loaves handed them to his disciples who gave them to the crowds. They all ate as much as they wanted, and they collected the scraps remaining; twelve baskets full. Those who ate numbered about five thousand men, to say nothing of women and children.

The tradition of the rabbi and disciple goes a far way back. There is more than one way to be a disciple, just like there is more than one way to be a football supporter - armchair; occasional; fan; fanatic. But there is a rule of thumb that the truest disciple is the one who literally eats the dust from the teacher's shoes; who gets to lean against them at suppertime and who can look across the campfire into their eyes when they are teaching their 'way'.

The Gospel is full of people and events; the crowds and the characters can be disarming and distracting - the one you have to watch - is Jesus.

'the Son represents God to the world- but in the mode of the Son who regards the Father as 'greater' and to who he eternally owes all that he is - and he represents the world to God, by being, as man (or rather as as the God-man), humble, lowly, modest, docile of heart.' - Hans Urs von Balthasar

Balthasar is not an easy read; not an easy mind to get into, although I enjoy the challenge. This excerpt literally fell before my eyes when I was avoiding reflecting on the Gospel by tidying up.

Whether it is a literacy trait or the way the Gospel is parceled up each week, we often reach the end of the Gospel very much aware of the 'God to the world' face of Jesus. He feeds thousands with a few half forgotten fish and loaves - that is a miracle - only God can do that.

We are impressed and thankful for Jesus' act of compassion and that these early followers were not left to go hungry. And perhaps we can even rest in the faith that God will always provide for us in our hour of need.

But that is not the only lesson here. Jesus did not need to be fully human to answer this call. God has provided for his people for thousands of years already.

What Balthasar suggests and what Jesus displays is that his life with us is perhaps less about showing us a human face of the power of God and more about showing us how humanity could be with our eyes turned towards God.

Jesus begins the scene in grief and distress; acknowledging a need to rest, to escape. Many of us have been there; many of us know that feeling. But whilst we may feel aggrieved and justified in not wishing to be disturbed, the needs of the crowd - and this is a crowd of curious and demanding strangers - cannot be ignored. The grief and tiredness prove his humanity - as a man he is able to overcome his needs to welcome the stranger.

Eventually,  the disciples decide they want Jesus back for themselves - it is a lonely place - Jesus needs to look after them now. Their demand to have the crowd sent away is answered, perhaps wearily, with a challenge - 'I have been caring for them - now, you look after them'. They can't or they won't - they have had all afternoon and into the evening yet this moment has still surprised them - they have set limitations on their abilities and see them as not enough.

The have forgotten the power of prayer. Jesus knows his limitations and knows that these are not obstacles; there is someone 'greater'. Jesus does not 'do' miracles - his Father does - the love between the Father and Jesus means he just knows how to ask.  Jesus reminds us many, many times we have it in ourselves to do the same.

Some may think the title of this blog is a typo - not that I am immune to them. But I was thinking that discipleship is not only a price we pay it is something we must be prepared to put on - a coat that announces that we are part of God's workforce. As a romantic - perhaps even the surcoat of a knight.

As disciples of Jesus it is not enough to follow him; we must learn to be him - to be clothed in him as Paul eloquently describes it.

I am reminded today of the people of East Africa - 10 million suffering from a thousand illnesses, starvation and conflict.  How easy to turn over the channel: to send them away; to decide that the problem is too big; we are too small.

Easy to say 'they are in God's hands'?

Perhaps not - when Jesus would want us to realise that, you - and I -  are God's hands.


Friday, 29 July 2011

Either/or? Both

The Feast of St Martha
GospelMatthew 13:54-58 

Coming to his home town, Jesus taught the people in their synagogue in such a way that they were astonished and said, ‘Where did the man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? This is the carpenter’s son, surely? Is not his mother the woman called Mary, and his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Jude? His sisters, too, are they not all here with us? So where did the man get it all?’ And they would not accept him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country and in his own house’, and he did not work many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

Fishing boat at Wells next the Sea

To avoid manual labour 
is to participate in the cultivation 
of a classist or racist or sexist society - 
in which some of us 
do the really significant things of life
and others of us 
do the physical work the rest of us think
we are too important 
to do.

(Joan Chittister - The Monastery of the Heart p106)

I would be the first to admit that my ministry and understanding of faith has been guided by a haphazard and serendipitous approach to study. I have judged books by their cover, took courses because they were on the 'right' day, filled journals (from the back to the front) with random thoughts and sat with saints in fields, on cliffs and ruined cottages. I have loved every minute, being a hedgerow scholar fits in with what some people regard as an alternative view of faith. But a woman's spiritual ministry is difficult to support in the church - if you are not a religious; not authorised; not qualified - then eventually you will be asked 'Who do you think you are?'

For a number of years I have thought about doing a Masters degree in Theology through a distance learning programme supported by our Diocese. There were always reasons -  personal, family and work reasons- to defer it for another year. Finally, eighteen months ago,  I actually felt the time had come to fill in the forms and thankfully, after all this time, was accepted.

We were due to begin last September, then April, then this September and now January.  I am beginning to feel jinxed - or maybe I was meant to wait until I had the right approach.

After all, I have spent a lot of years and prayers walking the path discovering who I am - who I am in God's eyes - to be defined by the letters after your name (even if you have earned the letters) doesn't sit very well. They cannot be a badge or a mask to hide behind to make up for inadequacies of self or to point out inadequacies in others.

And you cannot forget where you came from. Otherwise you are not on a journey at all.

Jesus will always be a carpenter's son; his mother's son; a child of dubious parentage who should know his place

Martha will always be a busybody of woman with a sharp tongue unwilling to be overshadowed by her sister

But this is not all they are. We do not have to be practical or spiritual; masculine or feminine; brain or brawn; prosaic or poetic.

But we are asked to be all we can be.


Thursday, 21 July 2011

Feast or Famine

The Feast of Mary Magdalen
GospelMatthew 13:18-23 

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You are to hear the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom without understanding, the evil one comes and carries off what was sown in his heart: this is the man who received the seed on the edge of the path. The one who received it on patches of rock is the man who hears the word and welcomes it at once with joy. But he has no root in him, he does not last; let some trial come, or some persecution on account of the word, and he falls away at once. The one who received the seed in thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this world and the lure of riches choke the word and so he produces nothing. And the one who received the seed in rich soil is the man who hears the word and understands it; he is the one who yields a harvest and produces now a hundredfold, now sixty, now thirty.’

Matthew expects Jesus' explanation to make everything plain...and simple... a design for life. But life is not like that. I imagine Mary of Magdala's life was not like that. When the seed fell ...where was she?

Some studies say that Magdala was a town of ill repute on the shores of the Galilee- a town of fishermen and fishwives.   The seed falling on a girl child - if not unwanted then unwelcome. And then as she grew, the seed finding her in the outer rooms; whispers just loud enough that she would know her legacy; enough to awake a longing that had no name.

Then the demons... laughing, choking the hope from her; telling her that she was not good enough; the wrong sort; that it was she that was the darnel -  until the Sower gathered her in again; until the harvest of healing, forgiveness and, for a while, a community where she had a place to grow.

It took very little time for the weeds to grow again in Mary's life. She had survived sticks and stones but the words continued to hurt her even after her death. Mary well say it doesn't matter - it's not about her - and it's not. But Mary represents so many of the disenfranchised people of the Church; those who thought themselves chosen - but not acknowledged' those who thought themselves forgiven - but only by God; those who thought they had a home - until the community had a change of heart.

Faith can be all you have and your vocation can sing clearly in your soul but, Matthew, I have to tell you,  it is not always you who decides the richness of the soil you are planted in.

And maybe that is it -it isn't all about the soil, sometimes it is the seed itself that forces survival - in cracks in the pavement, spanning brick walls and clinging to chimney pots - the stubborn resilence of something who knows itself in God's eyes.

Mary Magdalen 

I’ve been watching your men, Peter.

Chattering like rooks in their bell towers;
Covetous of their traditions, their status quo.
Sending us back to the kitchen and bedroom yet again.
What dogma did they use this time?
Which chapter and verse?
The only time I ever saw the Master write
Was in the sand at a woman’s feet
And that was swept away by His Word.

There were always women, Peter;
Uncompromising, bleeding, sinful women.
Causing embarrassment even then.
You may have been the first chosen
But we were never an afterthought.
We sat at the Master’s feet
Spoke the words of faith,
Loved without compromise,
Believed without proof.

It wasn’t only you He sent out
And it wasn’t only you that came back.
And I know you remember
When the time came, where were the men?

Where were you?

Who walked the Via Dolorosa at the end?
Who cradled the Child of Light
in the bloody mire of Calvary?
Who were His witnesses?

He has forgiven you, Peter.
But you have forgotten us.
Remember He loves us both.
Are we not both Children of the Way?
Remind your men we are sisters
Not harlots
Change their hearts,
Change their minds.
Change them.


Sunday, 17 July 2011


GospelMatthew 13:24-43 

Jesus put a parable before the crowds, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everybody was asleep his enemy came, sowed darnel all among the wheat, and made off. When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well. The owner’s servants went to him and said, “Sir, was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? If so, where does the darnel come from?” “Some enemy has done this” he answered. And the servants said, “Do you want us to go and weed it out?” But he said, “No, because when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers: First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.”’
  He put another parable before them, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and shelter in its branches.’
  He told them another parable, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through.’
  In all this Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables; indeed, he would never speak to them except in parables. This was to fulfil the prophecy:
I will speak to you in parables
and expound things hidden since the foundation of the world.
Then, leaving the crowds, he went to the house; and his disciples came to him and said, ‘Explain the parable about the darnel in the field to us.’ He said in reply, ‘The sower of the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world; the good seed is the subjects of the kingdom; the darnel, the subjects of the evil one; the enemy who sowed them, the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; the reapers are the angels. Well then, just as the darnel is gathered up and burnt in the fire, so it will be at the end of time. The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that provoke offences and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. Then the virtuous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Listen, anyone who has ears!’
'Is it possible that by telling these tales,one might indeed save themselves?'

Scheherezade certainly thought so.This part of Matthew reminds me very much of my Arabian Nights storybook. The Sultan was not the only one tempted to wait one more day -  to see what happened - although I have to confess that I didn't always keep it to one story a night no matter how often I started the book with that intention. 
In my mind the tales of Scheherezade; the fables of Aesop; and the stories of the Brothers Grimm often find themselves in company with the parables of Jesus; they all sat by each other on my 'favourites'  bookshelf but I used to find it funny that not only did Jesus tell these stories but then he has to explain them as well. Those grown ups didn't seem so bright after all. 
Not that I remember my interpretations but I understood that their meanings were meant for me - the 'me' that I was then -the message decided by the ears that hear. 
Unlike Scheherezade, who told her tales to save her life - Jesus tells his to save ours. 
In this part of the Gospel, Jesus only explains one parable - the scary one. The reminder that being saved is a lifelong work - we might believe that we have weeded out our sins early in our lives but once is not enough - our lives are constantly in peril. And that whilst we have no right to make judgement on ourselves or each other - the day will come that the One who can - will. 
Then we have the rest of the parables - unexplained - left to speak for themselves.
The 'me' that I am now, today, is reminded of another book on the same shelf - Tales of Long Ago - and the story of Pandora's Box. That even with all the evils of the world; all the wrong that humankind does; all the wrong that I do - there is always that tiny gift - of Grace. Tiny but enough.

Grace will grow from a prayer; spread itself through a kind deed; will build the Kingdom from almost nothing - because nothing is impossible to God.  And like the 'worthless' sparrows of the skies we will all find shelter in it's branches.
It's an Ignatian practice to give the story of each day to God and look forward to the tales that are to come - taking time to give up the distraction of ego and the clinging to regret.
There is grace in allowing hope to flourish and to be made new- as Scheherezade knew - one day at a time


Saturday, 16 July 2011

Here be dragons

I don't often stray from my Gospel but I thought I would make an exception for a recent addition to the family. Last week was my birthday, and my children decided that I did not have enough to look after at the moment (?!) and, after all,  that this was something I would really, really want - having gone through every pet imaginable from cats to rats to snakes, chickens and tarantulas I now have - a dragon.

A baby bearded dragon but nevertheless - he has the right 'dragon' attitude already.

Philomena over at Blue eyed Ennis
noticed the contemplative nature of cats - well, Henry - my birthday is St Henry's day so it seems appropriate - despite being only a few months old can already show cats a thing or two.

He is something of a desert brother, by nature; wishing, needing,  to live alone. He has a tai chi attitude to hunting his food (crickets) and a calm and measured demeanour to all these new experiences that moving into our home entails.

I think he may well teach me a thing or two over the years.


Saturday, 9 July 2011

A parable or two

GospelMatthew 13:1-23 

off the Heugh, Lindisfarne

Jesus left the house and sat by the lakeside, but such large crowds gathered round him that he got into a boat and sat there. The people all stood on the beach, and he told them many things in parables.
  He said, ‘Imagine a sower going out to sow. As he sowed, some seeds fell on the edge of the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on patches of rock where they found little soil and sprang up straight away, because there was no depth of earth; but as soon as the sun came up they were scorched and, not having any roots, they withered away. Others fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Others fell on rich soil and produced their crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Listen, anyone who has ears!’
  Then the disciples went up to him and asked, ‘Why do you talk to them in parables?’ ‘Because’ he replied, ‘the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are revealed to you, but they are not revealed to them. For anyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case this prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled:
You will listen and listen again, but not understand,
see and see again, but not perceive.
For the heart of this nation has grown coarse,
their ears are dull of hearing, and they have shut their eyes,
for fear they should see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their heart,
and be converted
and be healed by me.
‘But happy are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear! I tell you solemnly, many prophets and holy men longed to see what you see, and never saw it; to hear what you hear, and never heard it.
  ‘You, therefore, are to hear the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom without understanding, the evil one comes and carries off what was sown in his heart: this is the man who received the seed on the edge of the path. The one who received it on patches of rock is the man who hears the word and welcomes it at once with joy. But he has no root in him, he does not last; let some trial come, or some persecution on account of the word, and he falls away at once. The one who received the seed in thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this world and the lure of riches choke the word and so he produces nothing. And the one who received the seed in rich soil is the man who hears the word and understands it; he is the one who yields a harvest and produces now a hundredfold, now sixty, now thirty.’

Some intense experiences of the spiritual life and the mystical path  take place in God space; a time outside time. This is liminal space - a passing place - a thin place - a place of transition.

If you were looking for a way to explain liminal space you could do worse that picturing a boat. A curve of wood separating the sea from the sky; at the mercy of the deep roaming currents and sighs of the Spirit's passing over the earth. A place that challenges logic - where you have to trust with your heart.

A good place for a storyteller; for a message for those with ears and eyes that can read beneath the waves and beyond the horizon.

Jesus likes boats; for a worker with wood and stone he seems very at home in them. At home enough to sleep through the perils of a storm and to know which side the fish are on. I wonder if boats call to some genetic God memory within his human body.

We know he can walk 'on' the water if he wants to but that is something supernatural - the  nature of this boat experience is both spiritual and mundane. Perhaps fishermen 'get' it - the defiance of nature; the challenge of gravity - but otherwise it seems so ordinary -  just a place where Jesus can avoid the crowd pushing in on him.

They must be landlubbers this lot, the story of the Sower is  placed deep in the earth; in a season of chance and harvest that the people of the land can relate to.

There is always space and time for a new tale and I wonder what the story would have been if it had been told for the people of the capricious Sea of Galilee.

Imagine the throwing of a fisherman's net; imagine the very life and craft of sailing and fishing on the Galilee.

Water attracts many; the lifeblood of a desert people; the harvest for a lakeside community - many people come to the water's edge - but it affects everyone differently.

Would you be one of those will spend a sunny afternoon or a warm evening sitting on the dockside watching the working boats thinking that it would be a good way to spend a day or a holiday; that you might try it - some day?

Would you be one of those who has a boat; polished and scrubbed? A place to catch the seabreezes that gives respite from the desert heat; but never far from the dockside; and the net folded up neatly in the stowage - it came with the boat -  you have never learnt to use it.

Perhaps there have been times that you were a regular at the dockside- an enthusiast -  tagging your boat behind the fleet even on the night sailings; sharing in the tales of memorable catches and surviving a storm or two until something else catches your interest, other demands are made on your life and you drift away with fond memories but something else to do.

Or would you be captivated; the cold green sea water in your veins; the sounds of the waves and cries of birds, the clink of chains and thwack of the canvas in your ears; hands callused and scarred  by the ropes, the nets; eyes trained to watch for shadows of shoals in the depths, the billowing of the clouds and the turn of the stars in the skies above?Would your feet feel awkward on the earth, body off balance, siren voices calling you back from days spent inland? Would you measure your life by the counting of a catch; the loss of friend in an unforgiving storm; the camaraderie of a dawnbreaking breakfast around a driftwood fire? Would it be your life, for all your life?

Ears that hear? Eyes that see?


Saturday, 2 July 2011

Come to me

GospelMatthew 11:25-30 

Jesus exclaimed, ‘I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children. Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
  ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’

This reading is used so often in services of healing and remembrance. Words of comfort and reassurance for those who suffer, whose life is unmanageable. We imagine an opportunity to bring our cares to Jesus and to hand them over; to rest in the arms of God; to be as children in his care.

A lovely thought and, at first glance, a fair imagining except that is not actually what is on offer.

Jesus may have had lowly beginnings but he really didn't have to stay there, he must have had the opportunity, the charisma, to appeal to those that were in authority. Remember that even at twelve the Temple priests were amazed at his wisdom. He could have turned his back on the local scribes and pharisees that were discomforted by his ordinariness, by his parentage, by his dubious friendships. He could have gone to Jerusalem and joined the 'system' it would have been worth the ritual sacrifices to bring him into the fold of the great and the good. Jesus could still have had influence over these leaders of the faith; found ways to change their minds and their hearts; to bring them back to what God was asking of them.

But God, the Father, had been asking this of them for O, so many years; promises, threats and punishments had only ever brought a temporary change of heart from the learned and the clever, before their cleverness and learning found them another 'out' clause; allowed them to take control.

So Jesus stays where he is and gathers his children, his little ones with no authority or importance, around himself. And it is these who receive the message of redemption first hand; without the need for learning, sacrifice or judgment. Perhaps because they already know what judgment and sacrifice really mean?

The offer made to those who are weary is not one of complete release. Unless the Lord planned to recreate Heaven on earth that was never going to be a reasonable expectation. This is our earthly life and it is part of our journey that we live it; as Jesus lives it - with the pain and the weariness and the labour.

The yoke is easy because it is not adorned with carvings, bells and brasses, it has been shaped by trial and tears; the burden is light because we should not be carrying what is not needed to get us into the Kingdom or allow us to help with it's construction.

In previous years I talked about the idea of harnessing a young fretful animal into the same yoke as an older more experienced beast; teaching through sharing and growing together until they fall into step. This year I am thinking cowboys, gardeners, artists....I am thinking particularly allotment growers...

If you have ever taken on an allotment ( a small plot of land for growing vegetables etc) then unless you are very lucky, you normally start off with a carpet of nettles, thistles and bits of half buried metal. The first-time enthusiast will have bought every piece of equipment and clothing possible; read every book and magazine on the market; will be at their plot until sunset in all weathers and within days will have blisters upon blisters and aches in places where they didn't know they had places. And the nettles will be winning.

Across the paths will be the seasoned growers sitting in chairs drinking tea from pitted enamel cups, enjoying the sun or seeming to walk past a row of earth only to have shoots springing to life. And they will appear to have achieved this with a well worn shovel, a penknife and a piece of string.

Fortunately, most growers seem to be on the same wavelength as the Lord. Once the weeks of initiation have taken place (do you return the' nod', have you parked the furthest away, how loud do you have the radio on?) then the offer of advice, help and support will be made and you will be humbled enough to listen.

The remedies will be simple, cost next-to-nothing and will work. You will understand the meaning of miracle, experience and wisdom; your life will be well worth living.

Important to realise - the commitment will not have changed; the seasons will not bow to your needs, the potatoes will not earth up themselves; the mice will not divert from your shed (unless you rub garlic around the doors and windows) but the burden will be lighter and your soul - a growing soul - will be at rest.

The Lord tells us over and over that our lives need to be simple; as he sends out the disciples with no more than a staff,  as he lives with no place to rest his head; as he asks the rich young man to give away what is causing him the most worry; as he challenges the Temple to let go of the rules and the small 't' traditions that stop them from following God's Law.   Jesus lives in humility and trusts that his Father is taking care of him. So should we.

If we  worry about what we may lose then maybe we should not have it to worry about;
if we worry about what we do not have then maybe that's a good reason for not having it;
if we worry about tomorrow then maybe we need to spend more time living today;
if we worry that God does not hear our prayers then maybe we need to remember that we are also sons and daughters of a loving Father God.