Sunday, 27 July 2014

Nothing really matters

Sunday Gospel

Matthew 13:44-52

Jesus said to the crowds, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which someone has found; he hides it again, goes off happy, sells everything he owns and buys the field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls; when he finds one of great value he goes and sells everything he owns and buys it.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea that brings in a haul of all kinds. When it is full, the fishermen haul it ashore; then, sitting down, they collect the good ones in a basket and throw away those that are no use. This is how it will be at the end of time: the angels will appear and separate the wicked from the just to throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.

‘Have you understood all this?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Well then, every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old.’

Matthew rebukes the unbelievers for not paying attention. And in Matthew's account there is only one punishment for not paying attention. That eventually you will burn with unfufilled hope and rage with the pangs of eternal grief. Yet Matthew is full of motifs that may have spoken to the people of the time but mean little to our sense of understanding or experience.

The various treasures suggested by Jesus would touch the imagination of every person within the crowd. Their lives were predictable and long in tradition. The farmer, the fisherman, the trader - each a treasure-seeker in their own way. What was precious spoke to every generation with both a familiarity and an unreachability. Somewhere in every life, no matter how mundane, was the possibility of the 'one thing'.

I wonder how the Kingdom of Heaven would be described now.

In many ways, we have departed from the vocational and physical seeking in life. We are consumers with an understanding - like the Rich Young Man - that money can buy whatever we need. What is our 'one thing'? Problem may be that there are too many of them and they are all transitory. Too often we are rushed from one task to another; from one upgrade to another; from one latest model to another. Most of what we achieve is obsolete as we acquire it.

How do we ever learn what is most precious? What could we not live without?

Maybe it is whatever Jesus has - the pearl of wisdom, compassion, love. The eagerness to live for his Father and to die for strangers. The humility to kneel at the feet of his followers and the integrity to stand against injustice.

Yet that treasure of humility and sacrifice did not come out of the blue. It came out of the life that Jesus lived - in poverty, as a refugee, out of Nazareth, on the road.

It was in the toil and the sweat of the ordinary life that Jesus found his worth. In the step upon step, stone upon stone, word upon word, day upon everyday of life that Jesus came to his knowledge of the Kingdom. He is often accused of of doing nothing - as many moments in our own lives feel like nothing.

Yet fields must be dug, nets must be thrown, trade must be made, life must be lived. People must be loved. Relationships must be tested. Faith must be fed. Discernment can only be made in light of experience. Sifting through the mundane fragments that life throws up - measuring one against another. That God is in all things is perhaps the greatest pearl of all.

The treasure rises out of the everyday.


Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Third Day

Matthew 13:24-43 

Jesus put another parable before the crowds, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everybody was asleep his enemy came, sowed darnel all among the wheat, and made off. When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well. The owner’s servants went to him and said, “Sir, was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? If so, where does the darnel come from?” “Some enemy has done this” he answered. And the servants said, “Do you want us to go and weed it out?” But he said, “No, because when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers: First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.”’
  He put another parable before them, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and shelter in its branches.’
  He told them another parable, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through.’
  In all this Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables; indeed, he would never speak to them except in parables. This was to fulfil the prophecy:
I will speak to you in parables
and expound things hidden since the foundation of the world.
Then, leaving the crowds, he went to the house; and his disciples came to him and said, ‘Explain the parable about the darnel in the field to us.’ He said in reply, ‘The sower of the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world; the good seed is the subjects of the kingdom; the darnel, the subjects of the evil one; the enemy who sowed them, the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; the reapers are the angels. Well then, just as the darnel is gathered up and burnt in the fire, so it will be at the end of time. The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that provoke offences and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. Then the virtuous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Listen, anyone who has ears!’

With a new arrival to scripture group, we talked again about how the texts can be interpreted. The fear continues with some people that interpretation is wrong. A simple faith, that Jesus asks for, would not be asking questions or stating opinions.   

Rather, it's a childlike faith that we are asked to have and, given the curiosity, blunt honesty and top-of-the voice observations that my grandchildren are wont to express, then questions and interpretations are the necessary stitching of the library that we call the Bible. 

Certainly, one overall observation of the Gospels is that, sometime, it tells us more about the writer than Jesus himself. Jesus, as is often the case, is allowed to become a mirror for our failings and fallings. 

This week and last, we see the Jesus of vengeance, sitting rubbing his hands with glee over a pot of wailing and gnashing teeth. Ah, said the scripture group, surely there are some people who are going to end up in hell? We can't pretend that everyone will get to heaven - no matter what.

Let's ask Matthew who he thinks won't be getting to heaven. In Jerusalem,- about the time of this gospel - Christians were still the followers of the Way - a reform group in the Temple. Preaching Jesus as the Messiah and the Kingdom that is on earth. Most institutions can bear with a few people who live on the boundaries and challenge the status quo. But the Way is gathering force and the traditionalists are feeling uncomfortable so they are given a choice. Come back to our way of thinking or make your own 'Way'. Exile does not sit easy with the Jewish people - it has happened too often. For the people of Matthew's time this was a betrayal of everything that they believed their scripture had led them to. It was more than a matter of interpretation.

The parable of the wheat and the darnel is not unique to Jesus. Parables were the teaching stories of the culture, like Aesop and his fables. Wheat and darnel are both annual grasses. Darnel used be regarded as the only poisonous grass - causing a sense of drunkenness and sometimes far worse . Science now shows that the toxic effects are caused by a fungus- ergot -  which affects the plant itself. Both wheat and darnel are very similar when young and green - almost impossible to tell apart - but as wheat ripens to gold, darnel turns black making it easy to pick out. Proving that Jesus and the teachers of the time have an intimate knowledge of the world that surrounds them.

The Temple could have told this story to justify picking out Jesus' followers from the community. Matthew turns the tables - who is to say that we are not the wheat?  And that those who deny us - and those who, in fear of exclusion,  returned to their Jewish faith - are they not the darnel? 

And what would we like to do to those who deny us...?

And to those who who not fit in with our thinking...?

And to those parts within us that seem out of place or destructive   ?

Give them time perhaps?

Darnel is not evil. Just a plant in the wrong place. 

Jesus tells us that sometimes the right thing to do is to let it be; let the world run its course; let the sun rise and set on all things equally; be patient. 

And in the harvest?

What is useless will fade...

What is good will feed...

Only time, and the God of all Creation, will tell.


Sunday, 13 July 2014

A weather eye

GospelMatthew 13:1-23

Jesus left the house and sat by the lakeside, but such large crowds gathered round him that he got into a boat and sat there. The people all stood on the beach, and he told them many things in parables.
  He said, ‘Imagine a sower going out to sow. As he sowed, some seeds fell on the edge of the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on patches of rock where they found little soil and sprang up straight away, because there was no depth of earth; but as soon as the sun came up they were scorched and, not having any roots, they withered away. Others fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Others fell on rich soil and produced their crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Listen, anyone who has ears!’
  Then the disciples went up to him and asked, ‘Why do you talk to them in parables?’ ‘Because’ he replied, ‘the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are revealed to you, but they are not revealed to them. For anyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case this prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled:
You will listen and listen again, but not understand,
see and see again, but not perceive.
For the heart of this nation has grown coarse,
their ears are dull of hearing, and they have shut their eyes,
for fear they should see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their heart,
and be converted
and be healed by me.
‘But happy are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear! I tell you solemnly, many prophets and holy men longed to see what you see, and never saw it; to hear what you hear, and never heard it.
  ‘You, therefore, are to hear the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom without understanding, the evil one comes and carries off what was sown in his heart: this is the man who received the seed on the edge of the path. The one who received it on patches of rock is the man who hears the word and welcomes it at once with joy. But he has no root in him, he does not last; let some trial come, or some persecution on account of the word, and he falls away at once. The one who received the seed in thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this world and the lure of riches choke the word and so he produces nothing. And the one who received the seed in rich soil is the man who hears the word and understands it; he is the one who yields a harvest and produces now a hundredfold, now sixty, now thirty.’

Some intense experiences of the spiritual life and the mystical path  take place in God space; a time outside time. This is liminal space - a passing place - a thin place - a place of transition.

If you were looking for a way to explain liminal space you could do worse that picturing a boat. A curve of wood separating the sea from the sky; at the mercy of the deep roaming currents and sighs of the Spirit's passing over the earth. A place that challenges logic - where you have to trust with your heart.

A good place for a storyteller; for a message for those with ears and eyes that can read beneath the waves and beyond the horizon.

Jesus likes boats; for a worker with wood and stone he seems very at home in them. At home enough to sleep through the perils of a storm and to know which side the fish are on. I wonder if boats call to some genetic God memory within his human body.

We know he can walk 'on' the water if he wants to but that is something supernatural - the  nature of this boat experience is both spiritual and mundane. Perhaps fishermen 'get' it - the defiance of nature; the challenge of gravity - but otherwise it seems so ordinary -  just a place where Jesus can avoid the crowd pushing in on him.

They must be landlubbers this lot, the story of the Sower is  placed deep in the earth; in a season of chance and harvest that the people of the land can relate to.

There is always space and time for a new tale and I wonder what the story would have been if it had been told for the people of the capricious Sea of Galilee.

Imagine the throwing of a fisherman's net; imagine the very life and craft of sailing and fishing on the Galilee.

Water attracts many; the lifeblood of a desert people; the harvest for a lakeside community - many people come to the water's edge - but it affects everyone differently.

Would you be one of those will spend a sunny afternoon or a warm evening sitting on the dockside watching the working boats thinking that it would be a good way to spend a day or a holiday; that you might try it - some day?

Would you be one of those who has a boat; polished and scrubbed? A place to catch the seabreezes that gives respite from the desert heat; but never far from the dockside; and the net folded up neatly in the stowage - it came with the boat -  you have never learnt to use it.

Perhaps there have been times that you were a regular at the dockside- an enthusiast -  tagging your boat behind the fleet even on the night sailings; sharing in the tales of memorable catches and surviving a storm or two until something else catches your interest, other demands are made on your life and you drift away with fond memories but something else to do.

Or would you be captivated; the cold green sea water in your veins; the sounds of the waves and cries of birds, the clink of chains and thwack of the canvas in your ears; hands callused and scarred  by the ropes, the nets; eyes trained to watch for shadows of shoals in the depths, the billowing of the clouds and the turn of the stars in the skies above?Would your feet feel awkward on the earth, body off balance, siren voices calling you back from days spent inland? Would you measure your life by the counting of a catch; the loss of friend in an unforgiving storm; the camaraderie of a dawnbreaking breakfast around a driftwood fire? Would it be your life, for all your life?

Ears that hear? Eyes that see?


Saturday, 5 July 2014

Everything in time

Matthew 11:25-30 

Jesus exclaimed, ‘I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children. Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
  ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’

This reading is used so often in services of healing and remembrance. Words of comfort and reassurance for those who suffer, whose life is unmanageable. We imagine an opportunity to bring our cares to Jesus and to hand them over; to rest in the arms of his loving Father.

Jesus gathers his children, his little ones with no authority or importance, around himself. And it is these who receive the message of redemption first of all; without the need for learning, sacrifice or judgment. Perhaps because they already know what judgment and sacrifice really mean?

The offer made to those who are weary is not one of complete release. Unless the Lord planned to recreate Heaven on earth that was never going to be a reasonable expectation. This is our earthly life and it is part of our journey that we live it; as Jesus lives it - with the pain and the weariness and the labour.

The yoke is easy because it is not adorned with carvings, bells and brasses, it has been shaped by trial and tears; the burden is light because we should not be carrying what is not needed to get us into the Kingdom or allow us to help with it's construction.

In previous years I talked about the idea of harnessing a young fretful animal into the same yoke as an older more experienced beast; teaching through sharing and growing together until they fall into step. This year I am thinking cowboys, gardeners, artists....I am thinking particularly allotment growers...

If you have ever taken on an allotment ( a small plot of land for growing vegetables etc) then unless you are very lucky, you normally start off with a carpet of nettles, thistles and bits of half buried metal. The first-time enthusiast will have bought every piece of equipment and clothing possible; read every book and magazine on the market; will be at their plot until sunset in all weathers and within days will have blisters upon blisters and aches in places where they didn't know they had places. And the nettles will be winning.

Across the paths will be the seasoned growers sitting in chairs drinking tea from pitted enamel cups, enjoying the sun or seeming to walk past a row of earth only to have shoots springing to life. And they will appear to have achieved this with a well worn shovel, a penknife and a piece of string.

Fortunately, most growers seem to be on the same wavelength as the Lord. Once the weeks of initiation have taken place (do you return the' nod', have you parked the furthest away, how loud do you have the radio on?) then the offer of advice, help and support will be made and you will be humbled enough to listen.

The remedies will be simple, cost next-to-nothing and will work. You will understand the meaning of miracle, experience and wisdom; your life will be well worth living.

Important to realise - the commitment will not have changed; the seasons will not bow to your needs, the potatoes will not earth up themselves; the mice will not divert from your shed (unless you rub garlic around the doors and windows) but the burden will be lighter and your soul - a growing soul - will be at rest.

The Lord tells us over and over that our lives need to be simple; as he sends out the disciples with no more than a staff,  as he lives with no place to rest his head; as he asks the rich young man to give away what is causing him the most worry; as he challenges the Temple to let go of the rules and the small 't' traditions that stop them from following God's Law.   Jesus lives in humility and trusts that his Father is taking care of him. 

So should we.