Friday, 28 February 2014

Today's the day

GospelMatthew 6:24-34 

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.

  ‘That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing! Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are we not worth much more than they are? Can any of you, for all his worrying, add one single cubit to his span of life? And why worry about clothing? Think of the flowers growing in the fields; they never have to work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these. Now if that is how God clothes the grass in the field which is there today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, will he not much more look after you, you men of little faith? So do not worry; do not say, “What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?” It is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’

Jesus' words are a gift but not a comfort - hear what Jesus says again - 'don't waste your energy on tomorrow - today is hard enough'. 

It's been a long, wearying winter -  filled with overcast skies and relentless drives to work, mesmerised by the swish of wipers and the glare of tail-lights. People have seen their homes drowned as rivers defy their margins and stretch out across forgotten flood plains.  Uneasy meditations  watching the water level rise against sandbag defences and the mourning cries for treasures lying sodden beyond saving. Windblown power lines return communities to the turning of the veiled sun. Fallen trees barricade the byways. 

This winter, more than usual, it seems we have rejoined with nature - the lilies have sunk deep in the earth wrapped in ashen gravecloths; tiny wrens bounce through skeletal hedgerows, crows forage in the tatters of autumns fallen leaves. I am amazed at where they get their stamina from. Having cared for injured birds and wild animals in the past - I often wonder how they persevere. But they do - because they know no other way. For many people, not just this year but every year, and sometimes every day - they persevere because there is no other way.

Noone would wish for such misfortune yet the radio this morning was filled with stories of people who had given up jobs and family to help those in need. Stories of neighbourly love and support. Stories of strangers becoming friends. Stories of newly created priorities that recognise the joy of 'now' and the value of relationship over ownership.

Maybe we need troubles to learn this; to remember the priorities that the world cannot provide. Maybe the worries come when we forget we are not the ones in control. 

Heading into Lent we join Jesus on a journey of farewells and letting go. His tomorrow will have troubles of it's own. But his Father is with him and Jesus is a man of great faith.


Monday, 24 February 2014

Love, contrarily

Matthew 5:38-48 

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.

  ‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

Never mind the Mount, I have always imagined Matthew's Jesus on the stage - as an expansive orator, full of metaphorical exaggeration. Certainly a keen match for any heckler - who would dare?

I have read that this sort of confrontational exhortation is typical of scriptural debate at the time; the performance as measured as the words. I have read that the examples given by Jesus place the 'enemy' in a state of shame or embarrassment. The radical, the rebel would want to believe it but I wonder if that is what Jesus intended.

Jesus says 'love'; love your enemy; love your persecutors; love those who don't love you. And you can't do that from a distance. It takes courage, it takes spirit, it takes faith - and hope. And to have any hope at all - you have to get up close and personal. 

We see bullying and angry confrontation all the time. Those that stand in self-satisfied authority over others draw a wide line between 'them and us'. The time needed between the first strike on the cheek and the second invitation to what amounts to a friendly caress may be days, but could be months, even years. It takes time and commitment to face up to anger, hurt, resentment, -to do the work that leads to understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation and trust. 

When you offer your cloak as payment, under the Law you are entitled to have it back during the hours of darkness. What could happen at these times of exchange? An understanding of circumstances; an appreciation of how others live; a consideration of how much we want and how little we need. The realisation that giving back is far more satisfying that taking away. 

There are many times we find ourselves in places we didn't choose to be. When you are forced into the first mile see it as a beginning; both parties hating the journey for different reasons, like so many of those road movies where two come together with different, oppositional, reasons for the journey. But to journey together brings awareness of strengths and weaknesses; allows for intimacy and appreciation of the other.  The knowledge that we can't do everything by ourselves is a shared experience. Then, at a pivotal moment, almost instinctively, we find ourselves walking in step with each other with a common vision, offering the helping hand, the steadying shoulder. 

Up close and personal takes courage. The need to know that we are right is the biggest wall that we can build. Building bridges needs both sides to come together yet ego demands that we are justified. 

The first step in love takes vulnerability not defiance. 

Jesus asks a lot, perhaps that's why the exhortation. The perfection, the maturity that Jesus speaks of is his Father's willingness to be vulnerable. To love unconditionally with no guarantee of return. To give and to give and to not turn away. We can't do that on our own.

To make your enemy your brother and your sister - that's exceptional - that's grace.


Sunday, 9 February 2014

Salt of the Earth

Sunday GospelMatthew 5:13-16 

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes tasteless, what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled underfoot by men.
  ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in heaven.’

When I was little, the definition of 'spice' was a bottle of malt vinegar, a plastic tub of ground white pepper ,that made a pretty good itching powder, and a dish of salt with a tiny,tiny spoon . Set in the middle of the dining table - that was all we needed to add flavour to all and any meals that we shared. 

When I asked my Nan why a day's supply of salt had to be poured from its cardboard and tin container, stored on the highest shelf in the cupboard,  into the little glass bowl each morning, she explained that salt absorbed whatever was in the 'air' and by the end of the day would be damp and tasteless and,indeed, bad for us

Whatever was left at the end of the day was thrown over her shoulder into the back yard of her house; hopefully blinding the devil and driving off a few slugs from her herb garden as it went.

Woe betide anyone who left the big salt-tub on the draining board to soak up the suds of after-dinner washing up. Salt wasn't even that expensive - but it was valuable. You needed salt to live - so why would you ever waste it? Post-war austerity or Celtic sacramentality? Some things you just don't argue with. 

Despite the health warnings, my Nan is right. We do need salt to live. We need it for our blood and our nervous system - to revive our body and our spirit - and we need it because we don't produce it ourselves and we don't store it in our bodies. Salts need to be renewed every day. And spent every day, in sweat, in tears.

It's a bit like Grace. Grace that renews us every day. Grace that gives life - to life. 

Whilst it's stretching the imagination to see the Holy Spirit as a cardboard tub, we are filled with Grace every day of our lives. And, no good misering it away; it needs to be shared, tasted, added to the world, added to life. 

A gift we cannot make for ourselves; a gift that feeds the body and the spirit. 

Grace costs nothing - but its value is beyond compare. 

And a little can go such a long way.

May we be salt.