Sunday, 26 June 2016

Follower or Settler

Luke 9:51-62

As the time drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem and sent messengers ahead of him. These set out, and they went into a Samaritan village to make preparations for him, but the people would not receive him because he was making for Jerusalem. Seeing this, the disciples James and John said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?’ But he turned and rebuked them, and they went off to another village.
As they travelled along they met a man on the road who said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus answered, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’
Another to whom he said, ‘Follow me’, replied, ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’ But he answered, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.’
Another said, ‘I will follow you, sir, but first let me go and say goodbye to my people at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

The ‘would be follower’ asks for only a moment to settle their affairs and so is refused. The people who turn Jesus away are protected from punishment. Like the disciples we can only wonder – why?

James and John are indignant; furious enough to call fire and brimstone down on the township. Young Turks, firebrands no doubt; their nickname ‘Sons of Thunder’ – both as bad as each other. Even though as faithful Jews they would have never had a good word for the Samaritans at any other time – the fact that the Samaritans have the nerve to say no to them is just too much. And knowing that the power is there to wield they expect righteous punishment to follow.

And Jesus says ‘no’ – well, says more than no, in fact, rebukes them – tells them they are wrong.

Why are they wrong? – Because they are thinking about retribution and revenge – they are thinking that the power is there to punish and to defend ‘them’. And it is not.

There is no earthly reason for the Samaritans to allow them safe passage; they have no idea who Jesus is and he has not the time, this time, to talk to a woman at a well, to find a place to eat. So, instead, the Samaritans follow a cultural blueprint; acting within the confines of an age-long feud with the Jews. They don’t need any further punishment – the very fact of the act; the very lack of hospitality condemns them – as it would the Jews in their retaliation.

Jesus’ ‘No’, saves the Jews this time; even if it is just James and John, for once the to and fro of this bitter feud is halted in its path. For once, but maybe a lesson learned; every slight does not deserve a response, every bad word should not lead to an argument; just because it always was doesn’t mean it always is; every mis-step does not have to lead mindlessly down the wrong path…

…and you can take that from the one who leads the way.

And the non-sense continues…

These are people who see the way; who recognise something in Jesus that makes them want to follow – except….

….there is something else…something that draws them back…that stops them from making that final commitment. And what Jesus seems to be saying is that it is harder for these people. To get 50/70/90% of the way and then to turn away for even a moment; amazing that Jesus finds this unacceptable. What a human emotion, you would think, that you should be all his and no-one else’s.

You should be all his and no-one else’s

That Jesus uses the image of the plough gives us a cultural clue from the time. The ploughing of a straight furrow is an skill and an art. To follow the lay of the land and the line set before is one of those actions that look easy – until you try. And when you try – the most important piece of advice is to keep your eyes on where you are going. In looking ahead you see the way, your body moves in balance, the blade of the plough follows the lead.

But how tempting to see how you are doing, to glance off at distractions, to look back over your shoulder at where you have been… and then the line falters, the blade bites into the previous furrow, winds off at an angle or turns a stone you didn’t see and is buckled.

To walk with Jesus means you have to keep your eyes on the Kingdom; to not be of this world; to be ready for the journey whenever you are asked to follow. It’s not easy – probably most of us don’t manage it, certainly not in one go.

We have built ourselves refuges and called them Church; we have separated ourselves from the ‘others’ and called ourselves ‘better’; we have seen the Commandments become laws and rulings and feel ourselves justified. We have put down roots; become part of society. We have 'settled'. Christianity is accepted and acceptable in many parts of the world but was it meant to be? Jesus tells us we will be criticised and condemned; that our brothers and sisters will turn against us; that we will have nowhere to lay our head. But that’s not the pattern of Christianity many of us live.

When I was younger – the one aspect of God that I didn’t get, was Jesus, he was portrayed as someone altogether too nice, too kind, too meek and mild. There was nothing really God-ish about him. I didn’t want an angry, judgemental warrior God but nevertheless, Jesus upsetting the moneylenders was one of my favourite Gospel events. And I thought, why couldn’t he always be like that? 

In truth he is- except it is me he challenges - he upsets the applecarts of my worldly life; challenges my sense of what is right; defies what has become my ‘tradition’ and that is something that I don’t always want to face or have questioned. I may be a Christian but the question is – am I a Follower?

Jesus never settles– he moves on; he moves on; his eyes always on a distant Kingdom. Jesus lives in the Here Now; where there is no security but God and only to know that is to live without fear. It is not comfortable or secure – we are not promised either. Living without fear means having courage in the known and the unknown. We are supposed to be followers not settlers – the Way is an unending road this side of Heaven. Through the refuge that is Church we can take comfort and be fed by our sacraments; be held by the family of God; be assured by knowledge that God loves us in our mistakes as much as our successes. But the work is on the road; with eyes that are fixed along the line of the plough and know that there is no looking back.


Sunday, 19 June 2016

Not just sheep

GospelLuke 9:18-24 

One day when Jesus was praying alone in the presence of his disciples he put this question to them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ And they answered, ‘John the Baptist; others Elijah; and others say one of the ancient prophets come back to life.’ ‘But you,’ he said ‘who do you say I am?’ It was Peter who spoke up. ‘The Christ of God’ he said. But he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone anything about this.
  ‘The Son of Man’ he said ‘is destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day.’
  Then to all he said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, that man will save it

In school we have a lesson to reflect on the Sunday Gospel each week. It has been a revealing lesson for all of us. One of the students commented today that the Jesus she had learnt about in 'little school' was nothing like the one she was thinking about in our lessons. She remembered sheep and donkeys; angels and shepherds; more sheep and then the Cross and really nothing much inbetween. She wasn't the only one. 

It seems, that with the best of intentions, Jesus has become a pseudonym  for being kind and good without any evidence of what he is kind or good at, or even if he is kind or good (he says he isn't- at least the 'good' part).

I guess this is something of an issue when making an icon out of a person; there will always be something missing. I remember reading that Picasso painted his women in their strangely deformed abstractness because he wanted to include everything he found interesting about them. But no matter how artistic a licence you may have you will always be producing an image rather than  an original. Aternatively you quickly skim the surface, leaving behind a shadow that can be interpreted as a cloud, a cat or a sheep. 

The surface skimming crowd sees similarities; points of reference; something they have heard before. They retreat into traditions and memories  of elders who have passed through time; safe in their context of history rather than the uncertainty of here and now. 

Here and now, Jesus is a bit of a challenge. Unwilling to fit the role, the many roles that may have suited, he's a one of kind. At least Peter sees this. He may not know what 'Christ of God' even looks like but Jesus is unique enough to deserve the title. 

The title brings its own rewards and there's not many who would step up to accept them. The challenge of being unique can be a painful one. My students know how that one feels. When they hear Jesus talking about having to walk a path he would rather not, some of them know that too. 

Suddenly, the 'sheep' thing becomes less important. Here is a man doing his best against the odds; a man with a life outside his control; a man who accepts that what he might want is way down on the list because there is much more at stake. A man acting out of Love; a love that they don't even have a name for yet.

This man they will come to; they will bring whatever their cross is and whatever it is made of. For each of them Jesus will be someone different - the one they say he is - and he will share their life and he will save their life. If they will let him. 

And that is my prayer.


Saturday, 11 June 2016


Sunday GospelLuke 7:36-8:3 

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to a meal. When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table, a woman came in, who had a bad name in the town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment.
  When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is that is touching him and what a bad name she has.’ Then Jesus took him up and said, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Speak, Master’ was the reply. ‘There was once a creditor who had two men in his debt; one owed him five hundred denarii, the other fifty. They were unable to pay, so he pardoned them both. Which of them will love him more?’ ‘The one who was pardoned more, I suppose’ answered Simon. Jesus said, ‘You are right.’
  Then he turned to the woman. ‘Simon,’ he said ‘you see this woman? I came into your house, and you poured no water over my feet, but she has poured out her tears over my feet and wiped them away with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but she has been covering my feet with kisses ever since I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. For this reason I tell you that her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love. It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Those who were with him at table began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this man, that he even forgives sins?’ But he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
  Now after this he made his way through towns and villages preaching, and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who provided for them out of their own resources.

It's a risky business being a churchgoer. So easy to become comfortable with our place in the scheme of things; our right to be acknowledged as a follower. We can include Jesus in our lives with a simple prayer of invitation and believe that the Jesus we believe in is all that Jesus is about.

It depends, I suppose, on whether you experience God as a 'want' or a 'need'.

For Simon, it is clearly about status; particularly his status. It is a matter of pride that he is the one to offer hospitality to the infamous Rabbi who has been filling the countryside with his teachings of justice and generosity. Perhaps his intention to show Jesus that he not one of 'those' Pharisees. And now. whilst his mouth says 'Master', his thoughts say 'Fool'; and perhaps 'More fool, me' for being taken in by a charlatan. He stands erect and in judgement - of everyone but himself.

For the woman, who has no status, it is about offering hospitality before any sense of pride; the hospitality of the gestures and intimate offering of her own self - echoed in the value of the ointment. The tears that flow mix with the perfumed oils, emptying from the broken body of her sinfulness. She is poured out on the floor believing that she, of everyone there, is unworthy.

There is a tension between the two - high and low - suspicion and surrender. 

Jesus sits between the two - challenged to bring it all back into balance. 

When Jesus announces 'It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love,' there is no doubt to whom he is speaking.  Simon is judged by his owns standards and there is, in all honesty, no place for him to go but to his knees.

To be able to 'go in peace', the woman must get up; she is raised up into a place of honour; all her sins are forgiven; a gift given only by God. I imagine her helped to her feet and held by Jesus, the Son of God.  The ointment and the tears - of joy this time - imprinted on both of them, a scented prayer of thanksgiving. 

In the meantime the rest of the party draw back, embarrassed and defiant.

The willingness to surrender is often illustrated by  the women in Luke's gospel; those who are knowingly overpowered by the world are spiritually empowered by Love. I am continually caught by the instruction in the Lectionary that indicates that the final paragraph which includes the women disciples, is not required to be read out at Mass. How lovely, this week, to hear that Mary Magdalene has been acknowledged as 'apostle to the apostles' and her memorial day elevated to a feast day.  

Of course, you don't need to be a woman to know that feeling of being overwhelmed but you do need to have the willingness to let go of the control you believe you have over your life.

 Jesus is, by no means, an easy guest; he may come by invitation but he stays for his own reasons. What he calls out of you may not be what you want him to see. Yet it will be the part that needs him; the part that will surely be raised up in healing, reconciliation and his divine love. 


Saturday, 4 June 2016

Widow of Nain - Carpenter of Lampedusa

GospelLuke 7:11-17 

Jesus went to a town called Nain, accompanied by his disciples and a great number of people. When he was near the gate of the town it happened that a dead man was being carried out for burial, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a considerable number of the townspeople were with her. When the Lord saw her he felt sorry for her. ‘Do not cry’ he said. Then he went up and put his hand on the bier and the bearers stood still, and he said, ‘Young man, I tell you to get up.’ And the dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Everyone was filled with awe and praised God saying, ‘A great prophet has appeared among us; God has visited his people.’ And this opinion of him spread throughout Judaea and all over the countryside.

The Gospel of Luke plays with time, just as we so often do. Written in a theatrical way it plays with flashbacks and portents like an epic story where the audience is in on all the acts.

Jesus has only just answered the prayer of the Centurian. The prayer that we say at every Mass - 'I am not worthy to have you under my roof but only say the word and my servant will be healed'. The faith of a Gentile; a Roman soldier at that, surprises even Jesus. in a buoyant mood and with the crowd at his heels he enters the next town to be faced with the saddest of sights.

The death of an only son is hard enough but for a widow in a desert town it brought the promise of hardship. Surrounded by sorrowful townsfolk for the moment, their sympathy will go only so far. With no-one to care for her the widow could be forced into destitution or begging.

Is this a moment of foretelling? Does Jesus see his own widowed mother grieving over his own lifeless body in the sadness of the funeral procession? Or is there the simple compassion of knowing that he has the ability to help and so he does.

The mere understatement of the miracle must have been part of the wonder; in the midst of tragedy God acted in the midst of his people.

The news reports are full of tragedy these days. The numbers of people lost to the sea crossings almost defy our sensibilities. To think of each as a son or daughter, mother or father is heartbreaking. To consider those left behind wondering if they had done the right thing even more so. The grief wells in our hearts and we feel faced with the choice of two evils - to believe we can do nothing or to believe that nothing we can do will make a difference. 

Francesco Tuccio felt that same helplessness when only 115 migrants from a boat holding nearly 500 made it to shore on his home island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. As he looked at his carpenter's hands, he wondered what help he could be. The answer came from the gifts God had given him. He collected the wreckage from the shore and made crosses of hope. Full story here

Now one of Francesco's crosses is displayed in the British Museum. Others are on pilgrimage around parishes to connect us to the reality of the fear and the hope that drives people into the sea. With our support, charities do all that they can. Jesus walks among the lost, the forsaken and the grief-stricken offering food, clothes, companionship through the hands, feet and hearts of the many volunteers who cannot just stand by. 

Maybe we can't bring the dead back to life but with compassion and a determination not to be dismayed, we can bring the living to a hopeful future.