Thursday, 25 December 2014

Welcome, stranger

Gospel Luke 2:15-20
House shrine Assisi
When the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds had to say. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.

It may be a surprise to learn that the word ‘hospitality’ doesn’t mean what we think it means –like many words it has lost something in translation and in tradition.
These days we imagine that it means having friends and loved ones around the table. To be generous to those we love; to celebrate togetherness. As hopefully many of us are able to spend the Christmas season.

But, the reality is that hospitality means to welcome the stranger; to treat a stranger with warmth,  as a friend-

-as the innkeeper found it in his heart to welcome Joseph and Mary despite the fact he had no room 
-as the angels welcomed the shepherds – despite the reputation of shepherds
-as the wise men were welcomed, despite being from another country and other faiths.

Hospitality means taking risks; ignoring the natural human instinct to fear the unknown, to be wary of the other. Instead, to reach out; to put another’s needs and comforts before your own. Something it is difficult for many of us to do at this or any other time of the year.

There are many theological discussions about where, when and how the birth of Jesus truly came about but what the Gospel tells us is this – that from this very first moment the world is changing; people are changing; the rules are changing. 

The Nativity story heralds the birth of a brave new world – brave because it means living a life that is not about you; that means creating experiences of love; love that gives without expectation of getting back; a re-creation of God’s love.

From before he is even born, Jesus is stirring hearts and minds to this; he brings kindness from a profiteer; shepherds from their duties; wise men from their studies; he brings us from our warm houses and many other 'things to do' to  places of gathering; to be together - friends and strangers sharing in witnessing a new life; praying that the coming of Emmanuel will see  new life; new love within of us.

Let us pray that we will be hospitable with that love.
Every blessing of the Season.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

No-one was there

Another back story

The shadows are  where you are safest. These long nights at the turning of the solstice are a boon to me. From the shadows of the inner wall I watched with measured breath as the soldiers set their weight to the city doors, silencing the rasping hum of the desert winds. I waited as one man flexed the muscles in his chest and biceps, a preening gladiator, whilst the other picked up the longspears and held one arms length, a javelin against the other's chest. Words were spoken, rumbling laughter, then they strolled off with the rolling gait of the weary, arms circling their helmets like baskets of bread or fruit. Guards with their guard down, for there was no-one left on the midnight streets of Bethlehem. 

To that, even I would agree. It has occurred to me before now that 'No-one' is a very fitting name. The curse of a misbegotten body has refused my humanity. Beggar, homeless, unclean, it is all very much the same. No-one that matters. And so I live and I survive, by the wits few would honour me with. In shadows, by darkness, in quiet streets and the afterwards of city life. 

And so the census is no friend, filling streets with wandering incomers, glassy eyed at the markets, synagogues and fine houses. Filling up the nooks and crannies of every alleyway and courtyard with tents and awnings. Strange that in all this chaos their eyes still pick out 'No-one', their hands still reach to pick up a ready stone, still point the finger to warn others to get out of the way. This old nightwatch alcove near the gates is a refuge, a place to see and not be seen, but there no point being safe if you are freezing and your stomach is pleading for food. Hoping that the revelry at the end of a long day's travel will have sent everyone to bed, I leave my lair.

The blessing of a new moon offers some comfort though the night is full of stars so bright I could reach up and grasp one in my hand. Parched with thirst I head first to the nearest well. With the confidence of familiarity I circle the courtyard. Then I see her. A shadow in shadows. Another beggar? But no, without the fear that any beggar would have, she opens out her cloak to clear the dust and I see the outline of a heavily pregnant woman. As my eyes pick out the details, I recognise her. I remember her and a man, her husband I imagined, coming in on the tails of the last caravan of the day. But she is alone now. I can hear her breathing, laboured, deliberate. It seems this woman is about to give birth in the dirt and dust of a city street. 

My feet carry me forward before my thoughts do. I crouch by her side and whisper to her that she is not safe, that she must have someone, somewhere to go. But she is not listening,intent on the movement within her she is rocking with each keening breath. She reaches out and grabs my hand. It has been so long since I have even been near another human being, the touch is like lightning, firing through me. I hold on. Then, footsteps turn to the sound of running as the man enters from one of the side streets.   'Miriam,' he calls desperately, and kneels to cradle her, 'there is nowhere, nowhere.' He looks across at me. Even in the light of the new moon he can see the scars and sores of my suffering. He lifts his cloak across his face, the whites of his eyes showing disgust and tries to pull the woman away. But she is holding on to my hand; fingers pulsing with the contractions that are getting closer and closer. 

'You have to get her somewhere safe,' I tell him. Rocking himself now with fear and apprehension, the man gasps, 'There is nowhere. No room anywhere.' 

My wonderful, hospitable city that cannot find a room for a man of the line of David and a woman about to give birth. My heart screams out to the God who has forgotten the outcast, the stranger and the weary. My mind races, searching for answers I have given up on.

I tell him 'There is somewhere. Somewhere close. If you can carry her. I can find you somewhere.' He lets the cloak fall and sets his face in a way that, even I can see, speaks of courage and determination. 'Thank you,' he says and lifts her into his arms. 

I race ahead. There is a house owned by a kinsman of mine with a stable nearby where the animals winter. As I approach the building, the dogs bark a warning. 
Their owner peers warily from the door curtain. 'Any closer and the dogs can have you.' His bark far worse than the animals but no bite. 'No nearer, cousin, I promise. Just a favour, a call for the hospitality of old, a call to your heart.'

'If it's shelter you're after you can sleep round the back, just be gone in the morning.' He pulled his head back into the warmth of his own home and fastened the curtain so that not a glimmer of light escaped. I took it as all the permission I needed and led the man to the lean-to and the cave within. I tethered the animals together at the front rail and gathered the straw for the woman to lie on then dragged one of the feeding mangers over, thinking it would be a place for a baby to avoid being stepped on. I could tell that it wouldn't be long. 

I stood calming the animals and staring into the starry night. After so many years as an outcast here I was in the most intimate of moments. I wondered what sort of sign God was offering. Then a cry like the bleat of a lamb. The baby boy gleamed with new life, I prayed that he would never again know what it was to be unwanted and alone. The man looked up from wiping his wife's brow - a gesture so lovingly helpless. 'I'm sorry,' he said. And then as I made to leave, 'You don't have to go'.

'I shouldn't be here,' I replied,' after all, that baby will need all God's blessing.' 

'Well, he has that already.' There was a smile on the man's lips. 'But thank you again. When we tell him of this night can we tell him your name?' 

'No-one,' I answered,'tell him that No-one was there on the night he was born. 


Saturday, 20 December 2014

O Antiphon - O Clavis, Key of David

O Antiphon - O Clavis 

"O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel
controlling at your will the gate of heaven:come, break down the prison walls of deathfor those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death."

O Come, O Clavis
and free your people

Locked in the darkness
of doubt
of fear

Trapped in boxes
of control
of ego

Walled in the tombs
of resentment
of 'if only'

Behind shadow doors
of left alone
of exclusion

O Clavis
O Come


Friday, 19 December 2014

O, Antiphon - O, Jesse

O, Jesse - O, Liberator

"O flower of Jesse's stem,
                    you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
kings stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in worship before you. 
Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid."

O, Jesse
From the silent deep of beginning
Earth's enveloping womb
Breaking free, unwinding 
Roots clasping rock
Light seeking Light 
Breaking free
Earth and air 
water of life
Breaking free
Branch and twig
Leaf and bud
Sun flowering
Moon ripening 
Star bursting 
The harvest is sown 
with a single seed
O, Jesse


Thursday, 18 December 2014

O Antiphon - O Adonai

O Adonai - O Lord

"O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush,who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free."

O, Come 
O, Adonai

Creating God
Revealing God
Sending God
Leading God
Guiding God
Calling God
Whispering God
Silent God

O, Ancient
Surrounding God
Saving God
Shielding God
Freeing God 

O, Sacred
Whose word is Law
Whose Law is Love
Whose servant am I
O Adonai
O, Come.


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

O, Antiphon - Wisdom

O Wisdom, 
flowing from the mouth of the Most High; 
reaching far and wide, 
disposing of all things sweetly and mightily. 
Come teach us the way of prudence.

Sofia,  beautiful -  skin deep; 

heart deep; blood deep; gut deep.

The beauty of a crone; shining wisdom; 

flowing compassion; crafting prudence.

Sofia, midwife of hope; knowing beyond; seeing within. 

Tasting the humours on her tongue; 

ferric blood; salty tears.

Sofia, counting the quickening in her heartbeat;

Holding the moon in her embrace;

Calling Hope in her song.

O, Come...O, Come.


Sunday, 14 December 2014


Sunday Gospel
John 1:6-8,19-28

A man came, sent by God.
His name was John.
He came as a witness,
as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
He was not the light,
only a witness to speak for the light.

This is how John appeared as a witness.
When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ he not only declared,
but he declared quite openly,
‘I am not the Christ.’ ‘Well then,’ they asked
‘are you Elijah?’ ‘I am not’ he said.
‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’
So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us. What have you to say about yourself?’ So John said, ‘I am, as Isaiah prophesied:

a voice that cries in the wilderness:
Make a straight way for the Lord.’

Now these men had been sent by the Pharisees, and they put this further question to him, ‘Why are you baptising if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?’ John replied, ‘I baptise with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.’ This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.

Perhaps it is something in the delivery. After the energising, immediacy of Mark's Gospel beginning last week, here we listen to something that has the repetition of a legal argument. Not the typical poetic stanzas of John but the deliberate reworking of the same declaration - I am not the one.

John was impressive though. A rebel with a cause, turning his back on the priestly clan he was born into to become a desert wanderer, a prophet, a witness. Raging at the walls of Herod's palace or rejecting the rituals of the Temple, John has something 'superhuman' about him. No-one is out to kill him - yet. Or even silence him. John, in an Old Testament, 'change or else' sort of way, makes sense. One of God's own angels, a messenger filled with the Spirit, showing signs that the people were waiting for.

There is something in the priests and Levites questioning that suggests that if John had answered 'yes' he would have been believed.

John knows better. Knows that, not only is he not the one, he is less than a slave compared to him. Clearly, given Jesus' view on service, John has no sense of who he is setting the scene for. And nor should he. All those old titles have been stood up, used up and often given up.

It's been a while since I used a movie in a reflection. The latest science fiction epic 'Interstellar' is awash in metaphor that could speak about courage and trust, love and uncertainty, metaphors of Advent itself. There is a phrase used more than once to justify both journey and sacrifice - Newton's Third Law - that to move forward always means that you leave something behind. John knows he is going to be left behind. John and the rest of the prophetic world that the Pharisees, the priests and the Levites believe that they are in control of. John is willing to make the sacrifice, to break through the ties himself, if need be, to make the way straight for the Lord.

'Interstellar' portrays an experience of a new universe with five dimensions where humanity will, one day, exist. John's mission is to be a witness to a world that does not yet exist. The Incarnation is also revelation. The Gospel writer, John, has reminded us that Jesus is the Word. The Divine that holds all dimensions in creative tension. In Jesus, the Divine enters the world enfleshed. And not riding on clouds of thunder but from the belly of a woman. A helpless child, filled with the Spirit, born of Love. A Light that will answer all  questions and overcome all doubt.


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Make way

Sunday Gospel
Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:

Look, I am going to send my messenger before you; he will prepare your way.

A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.

and so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey. In the course of his preaching he said, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

This year the Confirmation group was blessed with several, very bright, scientific agnostics/atheists who had come along with a different sense of conversion in mind. Studying for their Religious Studies examinations meant that they had to address non-Christian beliefs about creation and I had to agree with them that the standard Christian response of 'because we say so' and 'that's what faith is about' was an inadequate argument - even if that's what it said in the textbook. So we talked about all the wonderful scientific discoveries that had been made over the last few hundred years. It was about the time Rosetta had reached the comet way out in space and there accident-prone but determined Philae had been sniffing and tasting her way around the surface. Who could doubt where the real power truly lay? Who could argue with science?

The next week I brought along a sheaf of six closely typed sheets of paper. A quick Google search had resulted in hundreds of names of Christian scientists and mathematicians involved in everything from the Big Bang to genetics to quantum physics to theories of evolution. Priests, religious orders, ministers and laypeople who faith had been strengthened by reaching out in wonder. People who knew that real power lay out beyond their own ego.

How could we ever imagine that we are not part of an eternal re-discovering? Never mind sci-fi movies and string theories, we live a faith where time is an ocean of connecting currents.

Only last month we spent our time in communion with those who have died and gone before us into another dimension that we call Heaven. And we believe. Each Mass we celebrate the eternal sharing of Jesus. Time folding and layering with each sharing of the Real Presence. Witnessing a change that cannot be seen but can be experienced. And we believe. Everyday people lay claim to miracles of healing and rescue beyond our understanding. And whilst we seek to understand, we still believe.

Mark's gospel has no time for an infant narrative. That Jesus is a man is not to be tested - there are living witnesses who can give this assurance. This is the 'what we know'. What Mark wants us to know is that Jesus is the Son of God - there in the first verse his statement of intent that is qualified many chapters later by a 'non-believer', the centurion at the foot of the cross.

In Advent, Mark draws those who are unwillingly to accept the status quo. He draws those who unable to continue following the rules that seem set in stone.

Mark takes the scripture that is already hundreds of years old and moves it on. Scripture has evolved into a man - the adult John, an anomaly in his own priestly family. And a man discounted by birth - Jesus, the Nazarene. These two, sent into orbit only months apart are about to collide. A new creation is on the horizon.

Whilst, somewhere in the east, astronomer friends are watching the skies and plotting a course to Bethlehem.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Travelling home

Gospel Mark 13:33-37

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. It is like a man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he has told the doorkeeper to stay awake. So stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn; if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the Gospels; the oldest and, in many ways, the most down to earth. It doesn't seem to have the agenda that the Jewish Matthew puts on his or the Gentile Luke on his. It’s a fast paced Gospel to read – perhaps the memories of Peter; a straightforward man. So this End of Days chapter is not really about the End but about the Now.

My relationship with Jesus, has grown stronger by the reality of his humanity. I have a relationship with the type of person he is to me. I often pray to him as a brother - as he tells us to, and feel comfortable with the idea – although, obviously the most ideal of brothers.

And that can be a problem – that we forget that Jesus always carries within him that otherness that is God; that is as much him as his humanity. The Incarnation isn't a body going spare with God in it – he is God made Man. And so his mission isn't just three years of walking and talking; it isn't just the healing and feeding; it isn't even ‘just’ the trial and the crucifixion. He is already looking ahead; to the ‘what happens next’ – for each and every one of us.

And that is it; Jesus is, was, will be the Word. Whatever led to his presence on earth, the Word was, is always here. He has his place in the Trinity, pointing always to the Father, encouraging trust in the Holy Spirit.

His living ministry plants seeds, makes wine and bakes bread; feeds the hearts of those who want to build this Kingdom. And that Kingdom needs to grow, knowing that the world is against it. It needs to grow strong, knowing that the world is devious and will try to overcome it. It needs to grow in love, knowing that the world needs it.

That is our task and it is not easy; we are warned not to be fooled by an imagined future because every day is a time of harvest and who knows when it will be our time to be weighed. 

The Gospel suggests that this coming was within the disciples lifetime and that was hard enough. We have spent two thousand years listening, watching, guarding – and for what? We have given ourselves a clue. Advent - Adventus - Coming. We stay awake for the signs of portents of God's presence on earth. We are on guard for those sons and daughters of Man who reveal God in themselves. We remember that we are the doorkeepers to a renewal of the Salvation story that begins with a baby's cry. And who would want to sleep then?


Saturday, 22 November 2014

And yet

GospelMatthew 25:31-46 

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
  ‘Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
  ‘Next he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.” Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?” Then he will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”
  ‘And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life.’

And so, giving me no quarter, on the feast of Christ the King Matthew continues his fearful warnings. The final warning that must mean that the majority of us, and certainly me, are heading towards the eternal nowhere - as Private Fraser used to say in Dad's Army - 'we're doooooomed'.

And we must be, mustn't we? There is not even a penny balance given in this judgement - 'whenever' you do this or that. The virtuous life if one we all hope for and it can't be achieved simply by choosing which side of the fence we consider ourselves to be on. In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed those who found themselves on the margins. This scripture asks us to stand in solidarity and compassion with those people.  In our prayers, we ask for the grace'ful life where we can act as God wishes - trying to do 'this' and trying to avoid to do  'that' but I definitely with Paul on this one  - I still do and don't do - every day I am both a sheep and goat - every day.

Today I wonder why this is the reading for Christ the King - this judgmental God who finds it easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I believe that we are a people intended to love God and each other. We are a people led to offer God's gift of love to others, no matter what.  but where is the 'Love' here?

And then I remember that this is the last Sunday before Advent; before John comes to tell us that there is a new way; before the old laws are set aside. Because, whatever Matthew says, our King does not judge us solely on the Book of the Law.

Everytime I go to Mass I say it - I admit I have sinned; it was my fault; I am not worthy

and yet...

I believe that my King does not sit on a throne of Judgement but on a throne of Mercy

I humbly admit that I sinned through my fault, through my own most grievious fault

I have faith that my King stands not before me but beside me

I accept that I will never get myself into Heaven - never

and so, it is for you, Lord of Mercy...

Only say the Word and I will be healed.


Sunday, 16 November 2014

The question is...

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 25:14-30 

Jesus spoke this parable to his disciples: ‘The kingdom of Heaven is like a man on his way abroad who summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to a third one; each in proportion to his ability. Then he set out.

‘The man who had received the five talents promptly went and traded with them and made five more. The man who had received two made two more in the same way. But the man who had received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

‘Now a long time after, the master of those servants came back and went through his accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents came forward bringing five more. “Sir,” he said “you entrusted me with five talents; here are five more that I have made.”

‘His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.”

‘Next the man with the two talents came forward. “Sir,” he said “you entrusted me with two talents; here are two more that I have made.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.”

‘Last came forward the man who had the one talent. “Sir,” said he “I had heard you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered; so I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is; it was yours, you have it back.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and lazy servant! So you knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered? Well then, you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have recovered my capital with interest. So now, take the talent from him and give it to the man who has the five talents. For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away. As for this good-for-nothing servant, throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.”’

Yet another year when I find myself weeping at the apocalyptic threat that brings Matthew's gospel towards its end.

Can I blame Matthew with his folk feeling abandoned and expelled by those who do not listen, do not want to listen? Can I blame Jesus, who has taken the Good News to the people who should be watching with their lamps lit, only to find the doors bolted and the rooms in darkness? Can I blame the priests and pharisees who dream of a time when their 'chosen-ness' will really mean something? Can I blame the crowd who are delighted to weave their own abandoned wailing and grinding of teeth into a creation of doom-laden prophecy for those who are not like them?

Trouble is, it all feels like the worse kind of 'Christian'. The Christian who, feeling very self satisfied with their own place in the Kingdom, feels that they have been given the right to parcel out grace as they see fit. The one who, like the Sons of Thunder, are picturing themselves sitting there on God's right hand. Or the Christian who has given up on the whole thing. Who, through fear and loss has, not only lost the will to believe, but lost all hope. The one who sits holding their unworthiness and unbelief so tightly in both hands that grace drips off their fingers along with their tears.

It's the worse kind of God, who winds his people up like so many tin soldiers, then rejects those who lose their balance and fall when he wasn't even there to pick them up again.

It's the worse kind of God who teaches that faith leads to prosperity and a 'holier than thou' attitude.

It's the worse kind of God who relishes fear and punishment after telling us, 365 times, 'do not be afraid'.

So, how do I read this? How do I come to some reconciliation with this scripture that goes against everything I believe about God and grace?

The only way, for me, to imagine a missing piece of punctuation. To believe that, as a great teacher and student of human nature, Jesus knows the value of rhetorical questioning.

'This is what the kingdom of Heaven is like?'

Really? This is the God that you believe in? This is how you want God to treat you; to judge you; to punish you?

Well aren't you going to be surprised.


Friday, 10 October 2014

Ready or not?

GospelMatthew 22:1-14 

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding. He sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. Next he sent some more servants. “Tell those who have been invited” he said “that I have my banquet all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them. The king was furious. He despatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find to the wedding.” So these servants went out on to the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him, “How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

More weeping and grinding of teeth. Matthew will not be leaving his year without making sure we are searching both our hearts and our actions.

The most Jewish of the writers, it has been the desire of Matthew's people that the message of the resurrected Christ would bring about a change of heart in the Temple. Unfortunately the change never came and it was the Followers of the Way who found themselves without a home.

I know that these writings are from Matthew's resentful and regretful point of view. Luke's version opens the invitation to the poor and the unclean but has no need of vengeful anger. His people are more than grateful for the invitation. 

Perhaps the idea of such anger in a Gospel of love is what disturbs me - does Jesus really mean to send people, even foolish people,  into the dark when he is the Light?

That the first part of the parable refers to Israel seems clear; always intended to be the bride never mind the guest; yet when the promised one came she continued to hide behind the protective veils of the Law - it had been such a long time; maybe too long.

So, like Jesus, the king goes out onto the highways and byways and gathers in the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, the tax collector and the fisherman. The invitation is made and accepted; the new guests dressed in their best finery, thankful for this moment when they are seen as important; when they have a chance to shine - except one - and of him is made the biggest example.


Is it better that we don't come at all than we come unprepared?

And how do you know?

There's a book I have been reading for a long time called The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. It has taken a long time because almost every page has a thought on it that sets me thinking  - I could well be some time with this book.

 'Gift' is addressed from almost every angle. And one idea refers back to earlier cultures, particularly how much is entailed in  the giving and receiving of a gift (and here I am including the invitation of the king - surely a gift to those previously ignored)

In these cultures there is much ritual and symbolism; it has to be understood that when a person gives a gift - no matter what the object is - they are giving of themselves; a part of their creative spirit is being released to the 'other'.They need to be certain of who they are giving to...

And so for the person who receives; they must understand what they have been given and they must not only honour the gift by taking care of the object but must honour and nurture the spirit in which it has been given - as I do to you so you must do to others- using it to inspire and energise the life of the receiver. Sometimes the object itself is passed on but always it is expected that the spirit will be. It is even intended to find its way back to the giver.

In such a culture the very thought that a gift is left to gather dust  physically or spiritually  is enough to destroy friendships and alliances - even lead to war.

The invitation, the gift that Jesus gives us, in spite of our unworthiness, is the same; it is not meant to be left at home or even left in church. His gift contains the challenge of his own mission.

The gift of grace, forgiveness and love that we have been given no matter who we were, should be part of who we are now and it is meant to be passed on - as I do to you so you must do to others.  

St Paul tells us that when we are clothed in  love we are clothed in Christ - the important question is - can you tell?


Sunday, 28 September 2014

Yes, but...No, but...

Gospel Matthew 21:28-32
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ 

‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.’

Probably worth mentioning that this passage come after the temporary joyfulness of the entry into Jerusalem and the fearsome table-turning in the Temple. 

By this time there is very little polite discourse left between Jesus and the chief priests. It is all blame and accusation as the religious leaders seek to find the right button to press to incite blasphemy or treason. Jesus responds with a quicker wit. Firing challenges at them wrapped in parable and judgement, baffling them with both law and expectation. The same weapons they used on the folk they were meant to care for. 

The very nature of their culture condemns the first son. 'I will not go'? To defy your father is against the Commandments. How many people sat outside the Temple condemned for a similar thing? His father has every right to punish him but, in not doing so, the son's heart is given time to consider. The decision to work in the vineyard comes from an inner acceptance of the work that needs to be done. 

The second son understands how to speak to his father. That he does not carry out the request is something he will answer for but only if he gets caught. In the meantime he can continue as a person of importance; a person to be obeyed. The ability to avoid the work of the vineyard becomes a skill all of it's own. 

The chief priests have this skill. Dressed in finery and saying all the right words they suggest a holiness and a dedication that is not echoed in the work they do for the People of God. They placate the Law with a veneer that reflects who they should be and hides what they are really like. 

The reputations of the tax collectors and prostitutes are scrubbed raw. Their 'no' to the Law might just as well be tattooed on their foreheads. But they are the ones sitting and talking with Jesus. They are the ones finding fellowship and dignity in the promise of a forgiving Father. They are the ones who will make up the Followers of the Way, being true to a teaching that puts Love first. 

In society it is easy to make your mark. To fulfill expectations; a good job, a good manner, passing Sunday mornings in a church full of people just like you. Saying 'Look, Father, I am here. Your Kingdom come. Your will be done. But not by me. I've done my bit.' 

In the meantime - not in church, people say they are not religious. Yet they knock on their neighbour's door with a plate of food; slow down to offer a lift; ring a relative living alone; drop a couple of pounds into the hands of a street person; lift a pram onto a bus and smile at the driver. 

Truth is, even in Jesus' time it's not that black and white. Of course it's not. But it's enough to make us think, to test our understanding of what it is to be our Father's children. If our words give life to our actions then let our 'yes' be 'yes'. 


Saturday, 20 September 2014

Pay the man

GospelMatthew 20:1-16 

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.” So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.” In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.” So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. “The men who came last” they said “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?” Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’

This is a difficult reading. Particularly difficult when we feel that we are the workers who have toiled through most of the day; by faith, by ministry, by vocation, by offering up lives that have asked too much of us.  

It is a strange truth that the parts of the Gospel that deal with this type of reckless and unreasonable generosity seem to bother us the most. Certainly form the basis for a heated debate and much shaking of heads; wondering at the injustice of it all. 

God is not just?  If this is what I think then maybe I should ask myself if I have earned even an hour's pay. For this parable is not just about generosity but hospitality. 

The landowner does not need the extra workers; with so many crowded into the market place with the dawning of the sun he will have chosen those who were fittest for the task. The work is proceeding so well the landowner can take a wander through the market place later in the morning. Maybe he had never imagined that some would be left behind and, after all, it wouldn't hurt to have the vines trimmed and tied just that bit earlier. 

Maybe later, it was a sense of curiosity. What happens to those who are not hired? A day without pay, a day without food, without repaying a debt or offering a sacrifice. And then later, the realisation that this may not be the first day these men have  waited. Worn thin, heads shrunken into shoulders blistered by the afternoon sun. Without the protection of the cloak they have pawned to the moneylender. A day of discovery for the landowner. 

At the end of the day, the landowner pays the latecomers first; acknowledging their apprehension with no contract to rely on. The complainers shriek of bitterness that forgets the security in which they started the day. 

Hospitality is not an option. The Old Testament warned the Jews to provide for the poor, the traveler and even the enemy. The landowner offers more that food and shelter. His employment offers a day of dignity for those who have waited so long. These men are workers; they can buy their own food and shelter now.  

I recognise many modern day parallels. People on the outskirts of society and community. The worker on a zero hour contract 'efficiently' employed only when necessary. The minimum wage earner struggling to live. The person faced with the downhearted walk to the foodbank. Those being questioned on the extent of their disability and ability to work. People looking at swollen rivers or desert dust where their own land used to be.

Jesus speaks about the haves and the have-nots. To treat others as we wish to be treated; to love our neighbour as ourselves; to look at people and not down on them.  To offer hospitality; to recognise grace; to be kingdom workers. 


Saturday, 13 September 2014

So loved the world

Sunday GospelJohn 3:13-17 

Jesus said to Nicodemus:

‘No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who came down from heaven,
the Son of Man who is in heaven;
and the Son of Man must be lifted up
as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost
but may have eternal life.
For God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved.’

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a learned man of faith. He knows both scripture and the Law; he has lived his life by it; a teacher himself - he is a good man. Caught up in what Jesus preaches, although outside his experience, there is truth in it and Nicodemus wants to understand; desperately wants to understand.

The bronze serpent of Moses protected the Israelites from the poisons of snakes sent by God himself. An attempt to bring them back to him once again through the superstitions they found so easy to live by. 
It seems a bit surreal - not the actions of the Father  we are used to. 

Once bitten,  they were saved by looking on the bronze serpent held high on a pole by Moses. It was 'tough with a taste of jealous' love that  worked; but with a cost. Where is the integrity in faith born from fear; from obeying the Law - or else?

Of course, this is still early days in the relationship between God and his people; still very much a learning process. But, as in many relationships, if you don't have the right understanding at the beginning, you are going to struggle. It becomes easier to ask for a set of rules; a measuring stick; a sense of either/or. But then it comes down to being 'good' and who can be 'good' enough?

In the Book of Malachi, the Old Testament ends with a God filled with frustration - it opens with - 

“I have loved you,” says the LORD.

   “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’

No wonder the Lord went quiet.

And here Nicodemus is still asking that same question.

I have met many people like Nicodemus who find this Love idea too good to be true. People whose idea of God is a judgmental father waiting to catch us out; reinforced by spiritual leaders who find the promise of damnation a little too attractive. People whose lives are tormented by the idea that in everything that they do they are found wanting; who can't go to Reconciliation because of the shame of being 'found out' or who constantly go to Confession because they cannot believe they have been forgiven. People who do not realise that the only one who stands in judgement of them - is them.  

Cannot believe Jesus' own words;

God so loved the world

Nicodemus walks away under cover of night in confusion; Transformation rarely happens all at once. Here is the crack in the armour of certainty  allowing the Light to enter. And we know that this is only the beginning. Nicodemus appears again - a public supporter at the trial;  and again - a sorrowful witness at the foot of the Cross. A cross of sacrifice that echoes the Father's open embrace to all his prodigal children.

We are asked to have faith but it cannot be a passive faith. Jesus asks us to be aware of what action our faith calls us to. We must struggle, like Nicodemus, with what we already believe; struggle with the ties that bind us to tradition and convention. 

Allow ourselves the freedom to accept the glimpse of light; the invitation of Love; the call to truth. 

Have courage to step out of the shadows and stand beside the call to love; beside the outcast and the exploited. 

To have the compassion to take into our arms, into our lives,  a God who so loved the world that he gave us himself.