Sunday, 26 February 2017

After Doris

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 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.’

All these weeks of Matthew have been a real challenge - verse after verse of Jesus telling us that things have to be different; life has to be different; we have to be different; that we may live in the world but we are not of the world.

And now - do not worry, life is hard enough. 

Unusually for my family, we had a half-term trip planned for last week. After negotiating a car drive worthy of a disaster movie, followed by a  missed flight, I guess we could be feeling a bit sorry for ourselves. However, we made the journey in one piece, had a great time, and are now back with a tale to tell about the day Storm Doris visited the UK.

 On our return we heard that, in our area, one hundred and forty trees fell the day Doris hit, not including branches and trees in gardens, brick walls fell onto rows of parked cars and trains were halted when the leaves on the line were still attached to their branches. I'm sure the emergency services took their lives in their hands many a time that day and we offer condolences to the woman who died, hit by an unknown object. The news was filled with the events of the day. 'Worry' was an active emotion for many, myself included, but who did it benefit?

Look at how the natural world reacts - the lilies lie deep in their winter cocoons, grey bark shrouds the trees that have stood, or not, this long winter. Yet, even now  the snowdrops that reveal their pearly heads almost overnight and the birds forage through the ashes of autumn leaves. Tiny wrens bounce through the frozen hedgerows whilst I cower in the warmth of my central heating and the blackbird finds his voice to welcome a sun hiding behind layers of deep violet grey February clouds. And I am amazed at where they get their stamina from.

The thought that 'it's not fair', 'it's too hard' or 'I can't' doesn't occur to them.
Where there is life there is - life.

How else should you acknowledge God's gift but to use it?  The life that you are given is not meant to be lived in despair and dissatisfaction; it is not meant to be worn away by ambition, avarice or anxiety. Jesus came so that we could live life to the full; finding purpose, joy and contentment through a life that feeds life in others and ourselves. Refusing to worry. 

Why should we have aspirations to a life of luxury; why do we expect it to be easy? If Jesus is prepared to live as he does, suffer as he does - why should be be different for us? The example of our Servant King tell us all we need to know. We have people to meet, places to be, deeds to do. This is a place of work - this is not our home.


Sunday, 19 February 2017

More than that

GospelMatthew 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.’

I often wonder where Jesus, and Christianity, got the 'meek and mild' reputation from.Whoever decided that the pastoral imagery, flowing robes, decorous manner and dewy eyes were an accurate depiction of the historical Jesus was either someone with a taste for romance or someone who realised how dangerous Jesus really was.

This idealised imagery proves that often we don't like the Jesus that the Gospel tells us about, because, let's be honest, Jesus is not always likeable; he does not give us the words we want to hear or the advice we want to take. 

How often when Jesus makes statements like these we prefer not to take them seriously. We think, sometimes we are encouraged to think, that it's all about metaphor; Jesus is just making a point - exaggerating for the sake of emphasis. That all he wants is for us to be good.

We know when we are being good; taking care of our own; making the best of our talents; taking part in our community. All very good attributes; but no more than we should be doing; no more than anyone else; no more than anyone who didn't know Jesus; no more than anyone who had not been awakened to God. What we call 'being good' is the desired human condition. 

Jesus doesn't want us to be good - he wants us to be better than that - his ambition for us goes beond all that - he wants us to be 'perfect' (a bad translation -  more likely meaning mature or adult). 

We should not need to be liked to like; we should not need to be loved to love; we should not need our own need to be fulfilled before we recognise that others have needs. 

In particular it should not matter who the others are because we know who we are - beloved children of God. 

It is this confidence in God's Love that Jesus tries to instill in us - the confidence that he has in his Father, that allows him to call, with joyful expectation, on the grace and healing that is then gifted to anyone who asks - all strangers; many enemies; pagans and Jews, honest and dishonest people alike. 

It's much harder for us, I feel like a hypocrite even writing this being, like Paul, very aware that I spend my life doing what I shouldn't and not doing what I should. We can't do this on our own and we are not meant to. Yet Jesus has faith in us and offers us the same channel to the grace that gives him confidence. 

Jesus gives us his own prayer of praise and reconciliation. If you can stand up, arms open wide, calling out not to Father but to Abba, Daddy, then you can stand up to the world. 

Whatever the world thinks it is doing to you; you cannot be pushed; ordered about; stolen from or exploited; you cannot be made 'less' because it just doesn't matter - you are loved. 

You are loved with a love that births love. Unselfish - it seeks to create peace and pardon where there is injury and hatred. In the words of St Francis - as prayed by Mother Teresa to the United Nations in 1985 - and needed, more than ever, today

Make us worthy Lord to serve our fellow men throughout the world,
who live and die in poverty and hunger.
Give them through our hands, this day, their daily bread
and by our understanding love give peace and joy.
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace.
That where there is hatred I may bring love,
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness,
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony,
That where there is error I may bring truth,
That where there is doubt I may bring faith,
That where there is despair I may bring hope,
That where there are shadows I may bring light,
That where there is sadness I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort that to be comforted,
To understand than to be understood,
To love than to be loved.
For it is by forgetting self that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,
it is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.
Amen indeed.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The simple life

Gospel Matthew 5:17-37

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved. Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.
‘For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.

‘You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you: anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court; if a man calls his brother “Fool” he will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and if a man calls him “Renegade” he will answer for it in hell fire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.

‘You have learnt how it was said: You must not commit adultery. But I say this to you: if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell.

‘It has also been said: Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal. But I say this to you: everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

‘Again, you have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not break your oath, but must fulfil your oaths to the Lord. But I say this to you: do not swear at all, either by heaven, since that is God’s throne; or by the earth, since that is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, since that is the city of the great king. Do not swear by your own head either, since you cannot turn a single hair white or black. All you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

The word that is translated here as 'Law' – actually means something more like ‘instruction’. The Law that is the Ten Commandments, has required much consideration; much translation and much discernment by teachers and prophets over the years; wondering if God really did mean 'this' or 'that' when they were given over. All this  resulting in the development of over 600 rules and guidelines – 613 instructions - about how to follow the Ten. 

Unfortunately, it seems that, as each Commandment is broken down into its multiple characteristics; the essence becomes more and more vague.

The beauty of this is that it is so much easier to play with. And as  police officers probably make the best burglars; so those that study the Law know best how to find their way around it. 

Something Matthew's Jesus struggles with time and time again. Because the Law was not made to be ‘found a way around’- particularly when much of the way around involves prestige and influence or leads to exclusion.

Jesus understands that circumstances run away with us; that we didn’t mean this or that and yet; here we are;  the more choice we get the harder it gets to make a choice; the more twists and turns the easier to get lost.

Despite the twists and turns of the this Gospel; the truth is right in the centre. Whatever you do, however you act, you must do and act out of love.

The prophet Micah sets out the Law...

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy  and to walk humbly with your God.(6:8)

...and because you walk humbly with your God so will you walk with your neighbour. 

Jesus calls us back to relationship, reminding us of our place within the Kingdom of Heaven. How are we ever going to act justly or love mercy when greed and envy demand our attention? How can we be humble when our hearts are wired to worldly desires and attachments?  How is it good to treat others as commodities to use up and discard?

We won't, we can't and it isn't - and deep inside we know. We belittle ourselves in our treatment of others.

The threats that Jesus make could also be his fears. Fears that he and his Father will lose us in the mess of life; in our inability to admit we are wrong; in our unwillingness to walk with our God. 

Vatican II introduced the idea of ressourcement to spiritual life. The retrieval and renewal of what is good - the return to the source, laying aside all that has got in the way.

Jesus makes this invitation, this plea - to say 'no', to say 'yes' - to stay close - to live in Heaven's sight.


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Spice of Life

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.’

Chinese New Year this week, celebrated with firecrackers, liondog dances and the flavour filled dishes of Asian food. When we visit our Chinatown district for the New Year we end up in one of the ethnic supermarkets buying the authentic ingredients and spices that make up our favourite recipes and, for a few months or so, we fore-go the local takeaway and ready meals taking great pride and delight in creating dishes made from crushed and blended herbs and spices.

But then, time passes; life gets busy.  A few more months and the contents of the boxes and canisters languish at the back of the cupboard growing dusty and stale; the colours fade; the piquant flavours. What a waste.

Trading in spices has gone on for thousands of years; they are an element of the creative and expressive side of human nature that regards life as more than just 'existing'. The Eastern trade routes crossed the Galilee forwards and back; part of the reason that the area was looked down on - too many gentiles for comfort. But, be sure, the spice trade would have been welcomed there as anywhere; and, just as today, some spices more valuable than gold - ounce for ounce. 

But above all spices - salt. Even as school children ,we learn that the word 'salary' comes from the idea that the pay Roman soldiers received had a link with the value and amount of salt in the area they served. Particularly in the desert countries; salt is not just a 'spice' but is necessary for life - as necessary as water with hundreds of uses,many around  purification, cleansing and prolonging life. Salt is acknowledged for being spiritually cleansing and giving protection against the 'dark', even in the casual tradition of throwing it over our shoulder. 

There is something very human about salt - the saltiness of tears and sweat, our life's journey.  Seems to be many examples of that kind of salt in the pressures and challenges of daily life. When Jesus calls us salt; salt of the earth- salt for the earth, he reminds us that we are that precious commodity that God has given the rest of the world. We may be individuals or small communities but Jesus believes that that is enough; enough to make a difference through the tears and the sweat.

Unlike the boxes and canisters in my store cupboard we have a choice. Whether we choose to be active; to be involved; to be who God dreams us to be; to believe that we  have a vocation, a mission.  Or, choice can make us doubt; decide our opportunity has passed; we are too old,too young,too busy, we become tired, listless or afraid; preferring to stay at the back, in the dark, out of sight. We fade away and become tasteless.

 This week our diocese saw the launch of an initiative called CARITAS - loving kindness. It's intention isn't to begin a tradition of charity but to contribute and enable the many charities that already exist, making connections, lending expertise and focus and renewing the sense of who we are meant to be. Being salt as we will all, hopefully, be salt to each other. A renewal perhaps, just as I renew the store cupboard, and promise, this time, that all will be made use of or shared - that nothing will be wasted. Our saltiness, our grace, may seem a hidden thing that is only revealed in action and compassion, but we must not hide away from opportunities to let it shine.

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.” 
― Erma Bombeck