Saturday, 28 December 2013

Living out Love

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

After the wise men had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:
I called my son out of Egypt.
After Herod’s death, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you and go back to the land of Israel, for those who wanted to kill the child are dead.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, went back to the land of Israel. But when he learnt that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as ruler of Judaea he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he left for the region of Galilee. There he settled in a town called Nazareth. In this way the words spoken through the prophets were to be fulfilled:
‘He will be called a Nazarene.’

In the days after a birth - a new reality begins to emerge. The realisation that even if you have planned with military precision how this child will fit into your life - you have already been thwarted.  Life changes life - Love changes it more. 

Love has no desire to live in isolation.Love's desire is you. Love holds your hand if you invite Her or stands watchful in the shadows if you don't. Love is Love. 

The Octave of Christmas teaches us so much about Love - the humility of God's Love; the courage of Mary and Joseph's; the persistence of the Shepherds and the conviction of the Magi. 

On his day Stephen taught us that Love is for others; on his, John told us that there is nothing else. 

Yesterday and today we learn that Love is feared by Power and that, in fear, Power will try to defeat it. 

Many years from now Jesus will stand in chains in front of Pontius Pilate and tell him that he has no Power over him. 

And for that Jesus will die

But Love will live. 


Friday, 27 December 2013

The Innkeeper - morning after the night before

Because, like Luke, I wonder about the back story.

Nathaniel surveyed the morning morass of disheveled rugs and cushions surrounding the tables piled high with breakfast dishes and tide-lined bowls of yoghurt. Stretching his shoulder muscles back and forth until he felt his spine click, he yawned and yawned 'til the last bit of breath came out as a disgruntled harrumph. Then he set to work.

It was the last day of the census and his guests were making the most of the early start. Travelling back into the hill towns was a risky business even by daylight; that shepherds had been in the town had not escaped their notice. They wouldn't want to be meeting up with the likes of them on a lonely road. They had all left at first light, hoping to be back in their own homes well before dusk.

The census, albeit enforced by the Roman authorities, had given families and friends a chance to come together and his guests had made the most of it; sharing stories, songs and dancing into the night. Now it was the morning after the night before and they had had the equal luxury of walking away from the resulting chaos.

'If I had more staff,' Nathaniel thought to himself, 'I'd be walking away from this too.' But there was only one servant girl and a cook who came later in the day. His wife had been the hospitable one; he had never reconciled himself to her death. Never wanted anyone else. Now it was just a matter of taking one day after another.   The inn wasn't much of business either  but it was all he had; a livelihood. 'Not much of a life,' he commented to himself bitterly. 

As he threw all the cushions into a corner he saw the servant girl standing in the doorway, chewing the corner of her veil; she held a basket of peelings, leftovers and stale bread on her hip. 'I don't want to take this; those people might still be there,' she grumbled. Nathaniel had totally forgotten the couple he had sent round to the stable in desperation to get them off his doorstep. 'Give it here then, and get on with sweeping this out. Anyway,they're probably long gone.'

The bells of the goats heralded the coming feast to the rest of the animals and Nathaniel could barely make it through the gate of the small corral before the basket was upended onto the earth and a free-for-all of fur and feathers broke out. The sound of laughter echoed out of the dark of the cave. Not gone, then. Something must be wrong. Nathaniel shouted out 'How goes it, friend?'

The man walked out to meet him with smile and an outstretched hand. 'Our thanks for your hospitality, and a place of safety for the birth of our son.' Nathaniel was taken aback. A baby; and he had sent them to be with the animals. What would his wife had said? 

'Is your wife well?' A bit presumptuous, but the man seemed pleased. 'Miriam...excuse me, I am Joseph and my wife is Miriam. She is well, thank you. Tired... but grateful, as we both are. We'll be on our way as soon as she has a little more strength.' Joseph's words were filled with sincerity. 'Perhaps, in the meantime, I could repay you with some labour of my own? I can work with wood and stone.'

Nathaniel recognised the sense of the pride within Joseph; found his younger self in the strength and optimism of his gaze. Out of the shadows the woman appeared, a shawl wrapped across her shoulder and hip, cradling the newborn; his hand outstretched on her chest. The small hand, perfect to the pearl-like nails,  gleaming with life. 

With the easy sway of motherhood already in her, Miriam moved closer to her husband and turned so that the child rested between them. The baby held his gaze. 'I will tell him of your kindness,' she said without even a touch of reproach. Reaching out, she put her hand on his shoulder in the same gesture his wife would use to get his attention. 'Mr...?'

He had been staring at the child. Strangely it seemed that it was his wife's eyes looking back. Quietly, within him he could feel her loving presence ; her warm heart next to his,  beating a new rhythm into his own heart. 

 'Nathaniel,' he replied,'call me Nathaniel. And, it may be too late but there is a room. A room you'd be welcome to. And something to eat...whatever you need. I'm sorry about last night.  I'm sorry that I did not welcome you properly.'

'Nathaniel,' Joseph nodded,'Gift of the Lord.And so you are. Don't be sorry. Last night, everyone turned their back on us except you.  Whatever your reasons; whatever your regrets; remember, that when you were needed, you said 'yes'.


Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Fourth Shepherd

There are many characters in the story of the Nativity but one that we rarely hear of is the Fourth Shepherd.

When the angels came that night to bring the Good News, they began with the most unlikely. Shepherds were a tough lot, weathered and self-reliant,  who had to survive out on the hills protecting their flock from the weather, the wolves and their own stupidity. 

Once the shepherds had gotten over the shock and wonder of the glory of heaven shining all around them, they immediately wanted to go and find the baby; the lights of Bethlehem beckoned as brightly as the stars – ‘Come and see’. The could barely stop to wrap their cloaks around them. They took hold of  their staffs and each caught a light from the fire.

 All except one. One young shepherd remained seated, looking into the fire. When the others asked him why he wasn’t ready, he replied that he was; he was ready to stay behind and take care of the flock. The other shepherds shook their heads with disbelief but they were too excited to argue and shouted over their shoulders that they would be back as soon as they had seen the Christ Child.

The Fourth Shepherd took his staff and moved to the crest of a hill where he could see clearly across the fields to Bethlehem; he imagined that he could see the very place where the angels had sung of; he imagined the smells of the animals and the hay and the delight of a mother and father as they held their new born baby boy.  His imagining didn’t last long, however, as the sheep gathered round him bleating and huffing for attention. Reminded of his responsibilities, he turned his gaze to the shadows and the horizon.

The shepherds didn’t come back the next day, or the next. In fact, they never came back. The importance of their message had taken them to many far off places. So the Fourth Shepherd took charge of the flock for that year, the next year and for many, many years until he was an old, old man. People talked about him and how he wasn’t like the other shepherds they knew. He took care of them by himself; he birthed them and healed them. He was a thoughtful man who treated his flock like his own children, knowing each of their names – from the grandmothers to the lambs.

One winter’s evening, the Fourth Shepherd was walking along a hillside path, one of the lambs wrapped in his cloak, when a man walked towards him and stopped to ask about the bundle he held. The Fourth Shepherd told him that he had searched all day for this lamb only to find him caught up in some brambles and close to death. ‘He’s warmed up enough now,’ he said and swung the lamb onto his shoulders. 

‘Not much of a flock’, the man smiled.

‘O, there are more troublemakers,’ the Shepherd returned the smile. ‘They number about a hundred. I’ve left them in safe pasture so that I could chase after this little one. I’ve never lost a sheep in all my years and I’m not going to lose one now. Now it’s getting dark; time to get back. 

And you, friend; you’re a long way out yourself? If you’d like a warm fire to sleep by, I’d be glad of the company. And I could tell you a tale of another winter’s night full of stars like this one.’

The man nodded and turned to walk with him. ‘I was born on a night like this,’ he said, ‘and there were shepherds that night too. Perhaps there is more than one story worth telling.’


Saturday, 7 December 2013

A voice cries

GospelMatthew 3:1-12 

In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judaea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said:
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’

Last week I forgot to wish you a Happy New Year.

The Church chooses these weeks of Advent to begin again;to turn again.  You will notice that the mass books have changed and where we were once in Year C we are now in Year A. The years follow the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. 

The Church doesn’t even try to fit all of John into one year but keeps his writings for special occasions. For some feasts we only ever hear John’s voice but the rest of the year we get to hear similar accounts from three different people.  Similar; but not the same. It seems that at no time could the Good News be constrained to a single account; the ministry of Jesus has never been reported through just one set of eyes; between the Gospels, Paul’s writings and the letters we have always heard the Good News in more ways than one.

Is this meant to confuse us; to keep us on our toes? Or does it reveal Jesus in a more human way? If any group of people were asked to talk about a friend there would be differences of opinion; of experience; of sharing.  

Which is what the Gospels give us; which is why they are worth reading; not just listening to on a Sunday when you have missed the rest of the week – like watching a soap opera with missing episodes – but sitting and reading them as full accounts. Or even reading two or three side by side and noticing the nuances in the voices. 

Mark and Matthew seem very alike; perhaps because they are both Jews. Alike, but not the same. The later thoughts of Matthew sometimes tremble with anger and a need for retribution. Matthew’s people are suffering; they are being cast out of the Temple; they are being told that they are no longer Jews.  Matthew puts the words of his frustration into the mouth of the Baptist.  

And I wonder-  are we ever guilty of using Scripture like that? Do we ever hear the Word of God promising forgiveness and grace and think about someone… ‘except for you’? Do we ever use the Good News as a weapon; to justify exclusion or judgement? 

Matthew's words give us an understanding of the early church; its fears and its trials.  He speaks up against those who have tormented them. Now that we are the 'organised church' which side of Matthew are we  standing on.  

At this time of Advent we listen to John calling us to ‘turn again’ –to find our own path that doesn't rely on tradition or expectation. It almost feels like a Lenten message of penance and reconciliation; much as the early church celebrated Advent. 

Matthew's John speaks harshly; questioning our integrity and resolve. Faith isn't a place of safety; it's the decision to undertake the journey into the unknown.  In faith, we face the future knowing that we are in need of God's grace.  

Especially when it seems we walking into the fire. 


Sunday, 1 December 2013

To the good?

First Sunday of Advent - Matthew 24:37-44 

Jesus said to his disciples, 
‘As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the
Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left.
  ‘So stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’

Noah wouldn't think it much of a coincidence that Black Friday (in the United States)  precursors the commercialised mania of the contemporary Advent season. If the credit cards and payday loans aren't already groaning by this first Sunday, the next few weeks will soon see about that. 
For much of the time 'Life' fills our life until almost every thought of freedom has been overwhelmed by the need to conform; to fit in; to have and to hold. In fact we even think we are 'free' - that's how good the sales pitch is -'it's all about you', 'because you're worth it'. We are justified by the media and the image of a life that is perfect as long as it has 'this' or 'that' in it. When we can watch the adverts go by and tick off everything we have achieved, we feel that life is good; we feel that we are good.

One of the Christmas adverts this year has the slogan - 'be good to the people who are good to you'.

 Polite, thoughtful even, but not Christian. 

Before Jesus was even born, the Torah taught that the greatest Commandments were to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Do we love God when we 'do' our hour in church but have no real Sabbath time?

Do we love God when we are unsatisfied with how God has made us?

Do we love God when we say we judge ourselves by 'stuff'?

Do we love our neighbour when luxury means wastefulness and we overlook the beggar, the homeless and the families living in poverty?

Do we love our neighbour when we expect shops and services to be available night and day and we overlook the exhaustion, the time away from families, the zero hour contracts?

Do we love our neighbour when we fill the coffers of the big brands and overlook the child worker, the long hours and the dangerous working conditions?

Matthew will ask these questions again and again during this year. Jesus asks these questions now near the end of his earthly ministry; he must wonder if we have learnt anything from his teaching. 

We are all people in two minds; as St Paul says - we know what we should do and what we should not do - the problem is making the decision; the 'good' or the 'good enough'.

Advent is 'coming'; Jesus is about to break in our lives yet again. Our readiness is being questioned - the desires of the world or the desires of the Kingdom;the need to spend or the need to let go; the wanting or the waiting?

Which one will be swept away?


Saturday, 23 November 2013

No greater Love

Sunday Gospel - Luke 23:35-43

The people stayed there before the cross watching Jesus. As for the leaders, they jeered at him. ‘He saved others,’ they said ‘let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers mocked him too, and when they approached to offer vinegar they said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ Above him there was an inscription: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals hanging there abused him. ‘Are you not the Christ?’ he said. ‘Save yourself and us as well.’ But the other spoke up and rebuked him. ‘Have you no fear of God at all?’ he said. ‘You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus,’ he said ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ ‘Indeed, I promise you,’ he replied ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’

‘Are you not the Christ?’ he said. ‘Save yourself’

Way back, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, Satan posed a very similar question. Not so much a question as a temptation. The devil may have considered that forty days in the desert would leave the human Jesus failing in strength, realising his weaknesses – and imagined that Jesus might use his Divinity to his own end rather than the will of his Father. And, after all, the Father has never been human; has never been hungry, couldn't know what it was really like to be one of us.

But Jesus was a strong, young man then; full of life; full of mission; full of the confidence that his Father and the Holy Spirit had blessed him with. Full with the belief that he could do this without rejecting either his humanity or his divinity. Confidence, Faith and Hope all sent the devil packing….then.

But now he’s back. And the circumstances must balance far more in his favour. He hides in humanity; in cruel mockery; in the weakness that sees us grabbing at straws to save ourselves.

The first criminal grabs at the claim of divinity but does he believe? It may seem ridiculous; but it can be easier to believe in magic than to believe in mercy.

Jesus may be no more than a charismatic prophet; a rebel leader. But there may be plans- friends conspiring to save the day and if so, why shouldn’t he be included? If Jesus can do this for himself, shouldn't he do it for everyone?

For Jesus, this time, how easy would it be to accept the challenge?

With the Mission behind him; abandoned by friends; rejected by the people he had come to save. His body stripped of all the strength and dignity of manhood; as his humanity withers away and the Father and Holy Spirit keep silent - the devil must have been rubbing his hands in glee.

If you are the Christ; you can save yourself.

Jesus is the Christ – but he can’t save himself - this is the relationship of Trinity –- mercy will have to come through the Holy Spirit and from the Father. Jesus, the Christ, must give himself up and put himself into their hands.

The sign says - This is the King of the Jews - a strange kind of king then that surrenders to the will of others. A king that places himself, not in authority but in solidarity with his people; with the lowest and most desperate of his people. Even knowing that a word, a gesture, could make this all go away; he chooses not to; he chooses to remain faithful to his humanity. After all if, at the end, he simply swept all this away then what was the point? Was it just a game- God playing Man?

Jesus proves his power by being powerless; his submission takes him out of the hands of those who jeer and tempt him leaving him in God's hands.

The other criminal speaks with sense of final honesty. He knows himself; who he is; sees some sort of justice; knows that he now has no power over his future.In his acceptance, he sees that there is a difference - Jesus' death is both execution and sacrifice. In the ultimate desire to live as his Father willed Jesus is going to die; Jesus is giving himself as sacrifice. There is something bigger here; there is something more; there is a strength and a promise that even at the end; even for a few moments the man wants to be a part of.

‘Take me with you.’

And Jesus does; 

Christ, the king who will not save himself, will save this man.


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Near at Hand

Gospel Luke 21:5-19

When some were talking about the Temple, remarking how it was adorned with fine stonework and votive offerings, Jesus said, ‘All these things you are staring at now – the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.’ And they put to him this question: ‘Master,’ they said ‘when will this happen, then, and what sign will there be that this is about to take place?’
‘Take care not to be deceived,’ he said ‘because many will come using my name and saying, “I am he” and, “The time is near at hand.” Refuse to join them. And when you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened, for this is something that must happen but the end is not so soon.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes and plagues and famines here and there; there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.
‘But before all this happens, men will seize you and persecute you; they will hand you over to the synagogues and to imprisonment, and bring you before kings and governors because of my name – and that will be your opportunity to bear witness. Keep this carefully in mind: you are not to prepare your defence, because I myself shall give you eloquence and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relations and friends; and some of you will be put to death. You will be hated by all men on account of my name, but not a hair of your head will be lost. Your endurance will win you your lives.’

Sometimes you just don’t want to hear the honest truth – or if you do – you don’t want to believe it.

Luke has style but he is a plain-speaker. After reading his Gospel you would wonder why anyone would have wanted to be a follower.

After knowing that history shows that these experiences have been part of our human experience even up to the tragedies of recent days,  you would wonder why there would be any point in being a Christian.

If the early followers thought they were living in the End Days – then where must we be?

It is passages like these that suggest that very little has changed. Man’s inhumanity to man continues, with ever evolving of weaponry and widening political and moral excuses to enter into conflict after conflict. The peace seekers are still the persecuted ones. Natural disasters see more sympathetic murmerings until charity apathy or resentment breaks in. Trying to follow the Christian message is likely to put you in the minority. Even Jesus suggests there is very little you can do about that.

Except – know that you are loved.

That’s where Jesus tells us our confidence, our endurance, our faith comes from.

In our relationship with God we have to know, in our mind, our heart and our guts, that as much as we love; we are loved so much more in return. We have to know; as the martyrs and the saints that have gone before us have known.

And how do you know?

You just do.

Have you ever loved and tried to explain it to someone else. It is a treasure stealing exercise; trying to deliver a list of qualities and experiences, attractions and commonalities that will prove a feeling that cannot be measured. Using words that sound banal once they are spoken. Making excuses for a feeling that will not be excused.

Trying to convince another person is an impossible task – even if the other is the one you love.

Parents with wayward children; partners who don’t seem to have anything in common; children with irresponsible parents tend to have the most honest answer –

I love them because I do - I love them because I cannot do otherwise.

And these are the words that Jesus puts into our mouths when we are asked to bear witness. Love is enough. Love is everything. Love is Godly.

Any other reason, excuse, debate is subject to the rule of the world; that says nothing is set in stone; that nothing is ever forever, that nothing is true. 

If the time ever comes when we are challenged or persecuted or betrayed; our confidence, our ability to stand tall will be fed by the Love that God has for us.  And if that challenge causes us pain or exile then perhaps Jesus will put his own words into our mouth.

‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’


Friday, 8 November 2013

And after all

GospelLuke 20:27-38 

Some Sadducees – those who say that there is no resurrection – approached him and they put this question to him, ‘Master, we have it from Moses in writing, that if a man’s married brother dies childless, the man must marry the widow to raise up children for his brother. Well then, there were seven brothers. The first, having married a wife, died childless. The second and then the third married the widow. And the same with all seven, they died leaving no children. Finally the woman herself died Now, at the resurrection, to which of them will she be wife since she had been married to all seven?’
  Jesus replied, ‘The children of this world take wives and husbands, but those who are judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels, and being children of the resurrection they are sons of God. And Moses himself implies that the dead rise again, in the passage about the bush where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all men are in fact alive.’

Belief in life after death is a matter of faith and imagination, not only does it happen or how does it happen but what would it be like? Questions that spin into the night and and are born again in the morning; all ready for a new debate.

Such challenges were common in the synagogues as the Jews literally 'chewed; their way through the words of the Torah. Combatants would justify their stance claiming the name of Moses and so it would begin. 

The 'what if?' of the Sadducees is a convoluted challenge by a group of people who do not even believe in an afterlife. So this question is simply meant to confuse matters; Jesus' answer seems to confuse matters even more.

We may find it a disturbing thought that that we won't be spending eternity with those that we love. We think of our family saints, surrounding us with their prayers and relationship; we look forward to joining with them - the promise of always -  a brand new life. 

 The Sadducees, in the world they represent, are not talking about marriage as we understand it and hope it to be. This is no loving relationship, but dutiful ownership. The widow, if she existed, would have no choice in the matter, she would be passed from one to another - as property; a legal obligation to prove adherance to the Law. 

Whose property will she be in the afterlife? 

If Jesus takes this challenge at all seriously it is only to address this one failing of humanity - the failure to love others as we love ourselves; to make caring for others an obligation rather than a privilege. 

In his reply, Jesus assures those whose lives are not their own that life in God will be a life of eternal and loving freedom. That there is no need to make contracts out of relationships; vows out of desire; obligation out of promises. That they will be reborn as the angels; as precious children of God; loved and loving; eternal and full of life.


Thursday, 31 October 2013

Out on a limb

GospelLuke 19:1-10 

Jesus entered Jericho and was going through the town when a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance: he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him: ‘Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.’ And he hurried down and welcomed him joyfully. They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house’ they said. But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’

At the beginning of his Gospel, Luke tells us that he has researched many stories around the person of Jesus. The incidentals of this tale, told only by Luke, suggest a story that has passed the test of time within the community and carries a message worth remembering.

Jesus has spent time with tax collectors in the past; he has made time for these unpopular collaborators with Rome. Certainly, Zacchaeus has profited from this collaboration - popular or not he has both wealth and status. Despite this, here he can't get what he wants; he can't even fight his way through the crowd. Perhaps an invitation is in the air; something Zacchaeus can't quite name; something irresistible. 

He makes a choice- a choice to act out of character; to act more like a child than a grown man. He scrambles into a tree; literally going out on a limb just for a glimpse. And now there is nowhere else to go; as high as he sits he has now made himself vulnerable. No doubt some jeering asides add to the crowd's complaints. Perhaps it is this vulnerability that gets Jesus' attention; that invites hospitality and redemption. This vulnerability that makes Zacchaeus free to let go of what used to be so importan.t

Seeking God's grace often suggests pilgrimage or journey; perhaps the first step is the willingness  to move out of your comfort zone; to make yourself vulnerable? To know that you are a child of God  with needs the world cannot fulfil.  Hearing the invitation that bring Jesus to the home within you; to the place of transformation. A transformation that brings forth something wonderful.


Friday, 25 October 2013

Pride and prejudice

GospelLuke 18:9-14 

Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.’

Luke has been taking us on a teaching journey and the end - Jerusalem - is now in sight. The teaching becomes tighter and more explicit; no time now for  tales of Good Samaritans and Prodigal Sons. The challenge and the risk is set before you; you either get it or you don't.

Short gospels particularly call for deep reading. Often it is easy, especially with the parables we know well, to accept the obvious yet there is still more to the obvious than meets the eye.

The Pharisee belongs to a group of people whose life is the Law, with all the 613 precepts that must be obeyed. He belongs to a group that has grown in privilege and influence. For many of the laws he is able to fulfill because he has the time and the money to fulfill them. His negligent pride in his status reminding me of the princess' suggestion that the poor should eat cake. He heightens his worthiness by his judgment of those around him; every one of whom is found wanting.

He proclaims his own praises. And he prays  - he prays - to himself.

God can do nothing for this man except act as an audience. The only 'other' who is not like the rest of mankind - is, surely God. The Pharisee stands in the Temple and commits the greated sins there is - he idolises himself; he shows contempt for others.

Short gospels, but Luke's Jesus is now playing the long game. As disciples of the Way; how long would it take us to find ourselves standing in the place of the Pharisee; paradoxically berating the world for what it lacks in compassion and justice. Prestige and influence is both tempting and justifiable - when we want it to be -  and tax collectors haven't moved much further up the popularity scale. Yet on the outskirts and in the shadows is where Jesus wants us. The downcast gaze of the tax collector making me think of the Koder painting of the reflected face of Jesus as he washes Peter's feet. Jesus wants us with him.  

It's still not a comfortable position to put ourselves in; it is easier to raise our eyes to heaven and add 'but at least I'm not as bad as... at least I come to least I've done...'hiding behind the 'other' that we are meant to love as we love ourselves. 

At the beginning of the Mass, we admit that we come as sinners to the Table of the Lord;  we join with the tax collector in the Kyrie - 'Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord have mercy'. We look inwards to our need of God and offer 'what we have done and what we have failed to do'. 

This is our gift to God; the humilty of surrender. The confession, in front of 'others' that there is a place within us that only God can heal. If we can hold onto it, then we are in a state of unquestioning grace; a broken heart - an open heart -  willing to be filled by God.


Friday, 18 October 2013

Going on

Gospel Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. ‘There was a judge in a certain town’ he said ‘who had neither fear of God nor respect for man. In the same town there was a widow who kept on coming to him and saying, “I want justice from you against my enemy!” For a long time he refused, but at last he said to himself, “Maybe I have neither fear of God nor respect for man, but since she keeps pestering me I must give this widow her just rights, or she will persist in coming and worry me to death.”’

And the Lord said ‘You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night even when he delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’

A strange Gospel this; mostly because of the insinuation that we can get whatever we want from God just by nagging. Or maybe it is just the image of the widow woman that makes it seem like that? 

Nevertheless, there is this impression that God never says ‘no’ just ‘not yet – because you haven’t prayed hard enough, you haven’t managed to attract my attention.’

From out of Gospel stories like these comes the practice of Novenas – a belief that if we say enough prayers; at certain times and in certain orders then our prayers will be answered. And there are the adverts in the personal column and the masses of thanksgiving that suggest that, at least some of the time, such methods work.

Such persistence, for a widow, is a pretty brave thing to do. At this time, widows were the least of the least. If anyone knew their place it was the old women with few to care if they lived or died. Despite the fact that the Law demanded that widows were to be cared for; both the 'enemy' and the judge seem able to look the other way.

Without hope what else was the widow to do? All the time becoming more and more convinced that what she was asking for was justice; and more and more determined to get it. Knowing that there was no other way; convinced that the only person who could help was the Judge.

Even in need, I have always found asking God for things quite difficult. Because how do I know I am asking for the right thing?

Am I being selfish; impulsive; am I saying that I know better than God?

But that doesn’t stop me praying; giving God what is in my heart; in my life. Giving God my tears, my frustration and my anger. And still losing my temper on occasion.

But praying; praying because I know God’s there; praying because I know God knows I’m here.

Praying because there is a time and place for everything and in the meantime there’s a lot to do and a lot to learn.

Praying because, unlike the widow and the judge,  me and God are in a long term relationship – and we both know – there are no quick answers to hard questions.


Thursday, 3 October 2013

Seeds and Servants

GospelLuke 17:5-10 

The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.
  ‘Which of you, with a servant ploughing or minding sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, “Come and have your meal immediately”? Would he not be more likely to say, “Get my supper laid; make yourself tidy and wait on me while I eat and drink. You can eat and drink yourself afterwards”? Must he be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told? So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.”’

They are a covetous lot, these apostles. Their faith in Jesus is enough to expect him to provide for their needs; their trust is enough for them to ask - for the world - but that wasn't what they were called to. Not too long ago, they were commissioned to become fishers of men; bringers of peace, healers and exorcists. Their faith should not be held in a jar; secured in a treasure trove. It should be in the knowing of being chosen in the first place; in the call that they are answering, albeit tentatively, with every step of the journey.

Interestingly, mustard seeds are generally planted as an annual harvest - as the seeds, tiny as they are, are the valued part. The mulberry tree, on the other hand, grew into an ancient, spreading crone of a tree, sending out a myriad of root networks to garner as many nutrients from the earth as possible, starving out any competitor for food and light. Their lifespan takes them to six or seven hundred years. A critique of the relationship between the Good News and the structures that had become planted, exclusive and exploitative perhaps. Jesus' expectation that his 'seedlings' would be enough to thwart the traditions that had held so many captive.

And that, like seedlings, it is the striving for light, for life, for transformation, that should sustain them. 

If you have ever seen seedlings of any kind, you cannot fail to be amazed by their tenacity; finding purchase in concrete, through tarmac, surrounded by brambles or edging out of the cracks of mortared brickwork. Beholden to no-one, except their Maker, they reach out to every drop of morning dew or misted rain; they suck the nutrients from the scarified dust and tie their roots into the barest of hopes. 

And they persevere. Their life wrapped in God's desire; a thread in the weave; the warp and weft. Each one of us is a thread; a part of the pattern. Despite, in spite of, the trials and the temptations that surround us we are reminded that it is not about the ego, the little us, but about the 'bigness' of being part of this something more.

What more is there? What more 'Christ-like' is there; than to serve others, for no other reason, than it is our nature?


Sunday, 29 September 2013

Steps to Heaven

GospelLuke 16:19-31 

Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
  ‘In his torment in Hades he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus in his bosom. So he cried out, “Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.” “My son,” Abraham replied “remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony. But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.”
  ‘The rich man replied, “Father, I beg you then to send Lazarus to my father’s house, since I have five brothers, to give them warning so that they do not come to this place of torment too.” “They have Moses and the prophets,” said Abraham “let them listen to them..” “Ah no, father Abraham,” said the rich man “but if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Then Abraham said to him, “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”

My students love discussion about God and forgiveness - ’But really – if you were the horriblest person who ever lived and never believed in God and then you said sorry the minute you died – you would go to Heaven!!!!’

Well, the truth is – our faith tells us that is exactly what we have to believe – but then again – why wait so long?

But there are some people who like to live life on the edge.

Luke has been telling us that there is a certain discipline involved in living a faithful life; that there are expectations of what we do; how we do it and even why we do it. We are meant to be following in the footsteps of Jesus; we are meant to be trying to be ‘Christ-like’.

The rules involved in this are very few, but undeniable. To love God; to love others; to treat others even better than you treat yourself; to make the most of who you are and what God have given you as your gift. These rules open you up to other people; to their needs; make you attentive of the lives they live and how you – you – can help them.

Being Christ-like isn’t going to be easy – in fact …….. we manage it in only moments of time. Most of the time our life is a struggle between how we are and how we know we should be.

We are assured of the Father’s forgiveness even when we have turned away and made an absolute mess of things He will be there with open arms to welcome us back. God asks a lot but He gives more; but there comes a time when the choice you have made – is made. 

The Rich Man, and he is a very rich man, may claim to believe in God – but there is little evidence. He uses whatever faith he has to bend the rules; to allow him to ignore the pile of rags sitting outside his very front door; he may even use him to assert his status - this unclean man is obviously the one God has turned His back on – after all where are his rewards?

We should know now that that is not the way God thinks; God is generous; God is concerned with saving the soul of the Rich Man. God has actually made it very easy for him; giving him just one thing to do - placing just one man in need of help in a place where to help would be so simple – a few scraps of food; a length of cloth; someone to chase away the dogs and not a break required in his living; in his lifestyle. But; no – so, no remorse; no need for forgiveness; no understanding of the need for forgiveness.

Even in death, the Rich Man retains his misguided belief in his status. He cannot even bring himself to address Lazarus directly and talks to his father Abraham, as an equal. Tell Lazarus to look after me; tell Lazarus to go and warn my brothers as if he cannot believe or accept how Lazarus has come to be sitting in the lap of Abraham. His worldview is unaltered; his continued lack of humility means he cannot ask for forgiveness; he cannot see the need for forgiveness even now. He blames the system; He simply believes that he has misread the rules.

The gulf that the Rich Man cannot cross is the belief that he continues to be in charge; even to the point of changing the rules of life and death to allow Lazarus to go to his brothers. Just do this one more thing and I will believe you; I will be saved. How much more do we want God to do?

It isn’t just about being rich; Jesus has rich friends but, it seems, he worries about them. Being rich in this world puts you in charge of your life and of others. The privilege of wealth should bring an awareness of the responsibility of having it; sometimes it does but often it doesn’t. We get used to the idea that we can buy our way out of things and we can’t.

And then, at the end, if we expect someone else to save us – why should they?

After all, what will we have done to deserve it?