Sunday, 25 November 2012

Sunday Gospel - Christ the King

GospelJohn 18:33-37 

Pilate addresses Jesus
Liverpool Christ the King Cathedral
‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked. Jesus replied, ‘Do you ask this of your own accord, or have others spoken to you about me?’ Pilate answered, ‘Am I a Jew? It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me: what have you done?’ Jesus replied, ‘Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this kind.’ ‘So you are a king then?’ said Pilate. ‘It is you who say it’ answered Jesus. ‘Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’

Jesus stands before Pilate, accused and in chains, and the conversation is kingship.

In all of John, this is the only time that a Gentile speaks - during the Passion; it is the only way that this conversation could take place; the only way that Jesus could define his mission as a mission for the whole world; the only way that Jesus could get at what his mission is all about. 

Pilate is all too aware of the situation; it was the threats of the crowd to 'report' him to Caesar that drove him to this moment; demands made of him that will abuse his authority. It seems that it is not only Jesus' hands that are tied.  Pilate has no appetite for what is being asked of him yet there is nowhere to go; nothing else to do.

The priests will get their way, not because they are right, but because Pilate doesn't want to be seen to be weak. Pilate is weak; his confidence, his power, his authority is given to him by those around him. And, strangely,  his need for this justification and seeing that Jesus makes no claim on his world's approval,  allows Pilate to name Jesus as 'king'; allows Pilate to accept that there is something more; that there is a kingdom 'not of this world'.

Jesus is free to define 'kingship' as something other - as service; as sacrifice; as surrender. 

As service to those who cannot stand; to proclaim the way of Love and not oppression.
As sacrifice, to put yourself in the midst of chaos, so as to bring peace.
As surrender to the will of the Father; who holds the world and who has made it for Himself.

And to do this with integrity and dignity.

Jesus did not come to take over the world; in fact that was one of the great temptations. Christians are not here to take over the world; we were never meant to be a superpower; never meant to have any power.

In these times of violence against innocence, the images that we encounter on tv and the internet can be horrific; for some it is not just a two dimensional experience but one that is lived out in fear, anxiety and loss. It is surely human to be filled with both grief and rage - and too often it is the rage that acts - violence against violence - power against power - and the pattern continues. 

Even in the most mundane of lives...the rage against the person who 'cut you up' on the way home that leads to the argument with the neighbour - that leads to slammed bedroom doors and the aggressive attitude to workmates the next day.

 Somewhere it has to stop. 

Why does Jesus always ask questions? So that we can own the answer; that there is another way. Our baptism gives us the same authority - priest, prophet and king; we all share this royal inheritance of faith. Somewhere in each life, each day, each person must find the courage to hear the truth and bear witness.

God is Love.

“The non-violent resistor not only avoids external, physical violence, but he avoids internal violence of spirit. He not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he refuses to hate him. And he stands with understanding, goodwill at all times.”  Martin Luther King Jr.


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Nobody knows

GospelMark 13:24-32 

Jesus said, ‘In those days, after the time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory; then too he will send the angels to gather his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven.
  ‘Take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. So with you when you see these things happening: know that he is near, at the very gates. I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
  ‘But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.’

The time of distress is not a distress caused by God;  rather the times of unrest and conflict between ourselves; the occupation at the time; the destruction of the Temple; time after time human beings fight each other for assumed power. Jesus refers to the prophetic voice of the past to remind the listeners that   violence, oppression and domination is nothing new; this has been a continuing human struggle since Cain and Abel.

Although Jesus has come to offer another option; an option for the poor, an option for Love,  Jesus sees that most of the world will reject his teaching. Already his followers are turning away; he witnesses the hard hearts of the scribes and pharisees in the Holy of holies; he sees the oppression of the poor and the widow. He knows that even his death will not change this.

He is warning those who are left that life is not going to be easy. They will be leaven; they will be a lamp; they will be the few amongst the many and the violence will be as hard on them as on everyone else. But after this 'manmade' violence,  heaven will reach down into the earth, brighter than the stars and the sun, and his chosen will be gathered up.

But when? And why the fig tree?

Fig trees have their place in the Bible; a tree of food and shade; a tree that Jesus often comes into contact with. For its fruit and its shade the fig is a welcome tree but, in a desert land,  it needs a rich soil. More importantly, it is one of the few trees that loses its leaves in the colder months so as to gather its strength for the harvest. In fact, the fig waits, even through spring, to the warmer months before beginning to show itself to the world. When the fig leaves begin to unfurl, there can be no doubt that summer is on the way. God's Creation follows its path.

The world we seek to create tries to carve out its own path and is often at odds with itself. The artificial environment that we have engineered easily outshines the sun, moon and stars. The night sky is darker, and further away, than it has ever been, wrapped as we are in twenty four hours brightness and busyness. Yet, within the virtual realities of assumed happiness is the knowledge that we are missing something. It may only be once the fighting and the turmoil and distress has worn  itself out that we realise the something we are missing wants us back.

How unsettling that is; the edginess of 'just around the corner'; the wondering of when. Yet knowing that in this generation; in our lifetime; in our life - something will be unfurled in us that cannot be ignored; the reminder that Jesus has redeemed us; it is Jesus who wants us back. As saints and prophets; evangelists and angels; as his chosen.

After the distress; the chosen will be gathered up - and to what? Perhaps not to heaven, not yet. Perhaps the time on earth will last a little longer. When there is no more energy for anger; when domination has finally found itself impotent; perhaps then the time will have come for Love and it will be those who remember how to love to speak the words.

In Jesus' name.


Sunday, 11 November 2012

All that I am

GospelMark 12:38-44 

In his teaching Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; these are the men who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.’

  He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the treasury, and many of the rich put in a great deal. A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.’

The treasury gives many the opportunity to give a great deal. There is not one but thirteen pots, shaped like upturned trumpets, some dedicated to a certain aspect of Temple necessities; care for the poor, the widow and the leper; for free will; for incense and for sacrifice. Temple money was made of brass and made a great clatter as it poured into the pots especially if someone wanted their contribution to be noticed. The Jewish canon ruled that the minimum donation was two prutah - two mites.   

The treasury was placed in the court of the women; not a place set aside for women but the limit of the Temple where women were allowed. Like many religious communities today, the Temple relied upon the unseen and unacknowledged for their upkeep. Their money welcome even if they were not. 
Jesus is 'people watching'- paying attention to his Father's world - and he sees her; the widow; one of the little ones; the poor ones; the ‘don’t really matter’ ones. Perhaps, as he is watching her, he is reminded of his own mother. Perhaps he is reminded of the scrimping and saving that she had to do maybe before and certainly after Joseph’s death. After all, Joseph was a labourer, long robes would have be useless to him, would have got in the way of his livelihood trying to support a wife and child. A family who should know their place; the comments of those who hear Jesus preach – ‘this is only the carpenter’s son’, ‘only Mary’s son’ – with the veiled addition of ‘who does he think he is?’

Yet his mother and father brought him up to be a good Jew; to know the traditions and responsibilities of his faith; to know them well and not always to accept how they have been acted out. The sharpness of his comments suggests past experience. Jesus teaches his disciples to be circumspect; not to be distracted by finery or assumed importance or status.

Jesus says ‘I tell you most solemnly…’ I love that phrase. It’s a ‘look at me when I’m talking to you. I’m not just  ‘one of the lads’ now’ phrase.

Because, to the ‘lads’ it will have been a little thing; a non-event. Widows give pennies every day, rich men give more – that’s the way the world is; and the world demands its pay. We are encouraged to see success and generosity in £ signs. We find it hard to appreciate that 100% of very little is still 100%.

I suppose it must have been possible for the widow to simply not pay; to avoid the Temple and the treasury itself? Surely it would be better that she had something to eat; something put aside for the rainy day?

 It is through her own integrity that she gives 'all she has'. 

The thought of giving all we have is a challenge. Charity and hospitality is not meant to be about what we can spare -whether time, commitment or money - but in doing all we can to meet need, poverty, loneliness and injustice. Our faith should be implicit in our lives -  not something we can put on or take off; not something we can pay off or be compensated for. The actions of our faith should leave us with nothing; should be all we have and all we are. 

And how often it is the unassuming ones who fulfill this vocation. The media has been discussing the recent influence of Catholic Social Teaching in British politics; aiming the morals and ethics at the directors of businesses and leaders of social organisations. The one who will arrive with 'the' car and 'the' suit and who then will tell the poor how to live. 

Catholic Social Teaching begins in the community and it move up and out from a desire to 'love your neighbour' and it is usually instigated by those who have walked the walk already. 

 How often the church - and the world-  relies on such people who fit one more thing into their already busy lives; who don't imagine retirement as an opportunity to rest; who believe that sometimes they are the 'someone' who should sort it out. These are the people who say 'yes' far more than they ever say 'no'; who can always fit another minute in the day; another plate at the table; another stop on the way home. 

And, often,  it isn't until the job's not done that they are noticed at all. 

 It’s a compelling thought that, rather than sitting in robes of silk and enthroned in splendour at the front of a church, God actually spends His time at the back and, often, not in church at all. Like his son, he watches in the shadows, noticing all the little goodnesses, sacrifices and graces are carried out by the unassuming, unknown, undervalued ones in the community; who are, in truth,  giving all they have.


Monday, 5 November 2012

More questions?

GospelMark 12:28-34 
One of the scribes came up to Jesus and put a question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ The scribe said to him, ‘Well spoken, Master; what you have said is true: that he is one and there is no other. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.’ Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to question him any more.

I wonder if the scribe uses the question simply to join in the debate. This is surely the easiest question that Jesus has every been asked and, more than that, he answers it. 

The words of the 'Shema' are the first pieces of scripture that a Jewish child learns and are repeated at least twice a day for the rest of their life. These first lines, the heart of the faith,  are wrapped within a case as a mezusah - a blessing for the doorpost of a house, even the lintel of a room.

But then, Jesus looks into the 612 remaining precepts of Jewish law and names the second; a verse from Leviticus 19 'thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself'.

We know what Jesus means when he says 'neighbour' - everyone you ever meet, everyone on the planet - we are all connected. If you don't want to love someone whether it's your awkward and actual next door neighbour, the down-and-out who comes and sits next to you on the park bench or the Third World child dying of Aids, you can't go and find the loophole; there won't be one.

Yet, we have managed to create a few boundaries. Using Church teaching to add 'ifs and buts'; applying measures of worth and unworth; justifying our place on the 'left' or 'right' hand of doctrine; building holocausts of those who don't fit our acceptable limits and sacrifices of those who challenge our preconceptions. 

Maybe this scribe was tired of all that, as I sometimes am myself. Love may be difficult at times but, surely, worth the effort. 

I was out with some students last week, visiting our Cathedrals and the Synagogue. The students were fascinated by everything they saw and experienced. We sat putting together our research into hand-made books, chatting about the day and their own lives. 

They asked me why there wasn't peace; why Christians go to war; why people are rich when others starve; why bad things happen to good people; why we don't follow the Gospel if we believe it's true?

Great questions - maybe we should be looking for our own answers.