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?