Monday, February 13, 2017

Sharing in the terrible sufferings of Christ

2 Corinthians 1.3-11
This is an unusual prayer because it is a celebration or thanksgiving, but not a celebration of all the good things we receive from God but a celebration of God’s goodness to us when bad things happen and when we are suffering. Paul says that God wants to ‘comfort us when we are in trouble.’ But God doesn’t just want to cheer us up and make our troubles more bearable, he wants to comfort us so that we can then go on to share the same sort of comfort and encouragement with other people who are in trouble too.
All of this is built on the example of Jesus who, Paul says, endured ‘terrible sufferings’ - whipping and crucifixion - not for their own sake but in the hope of bringing comfort and strength to us when we are suffering. He came through his ordeal so that he could hold out a hand to us, to encourage and help us, in our troubles. And Paul says that, having been encouraged himself by the example of Jesus, he believes he has been able to share the same sort of comfort and encouragement with his own friends.
Paul goes on to tell his friends about his own horrible and unbearable experiences while working as a Christian minister in modern day Turkey. They were so bad that he thought he and his companion, Timothy, were going to die.
He’s probably referring to beatings and imprisonment, or to being attacked by a mob in the city of Ephesus. But he also had a long term eye condition which affected his sight and may have contributed to his sufferings. He always got someone else to write his letters down for him, probably because he couldn’t see well enough to write.
Fortunately, some good did come out of these troubles. As well as giving him the strength to comfort his readers, as they patiently endure the same kind of sufferings, it forced him to stop trusting in himself and start trusting in God.
The point Paul seems to be making is this, obviously al of us would like to live a trouble free life but, if trouble and suffering should come our way, we can either let these things make us bitter, resentful and inward-looking, or we can seek comfort from other people to help us cope with troubles and then share that comfort with others and try to make their lives a little bit more bit more bearable too.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Mary and Martha

Luke 10:38–42
It’s easy to forget that ‘a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home’. It was Martha’s home and Jesus was her guest. And when it’s your home, you’re in charge and you expect your guests to be grateful for your hospitality.
Was Martha the older of the two sisters—or the younger one who was left behind to look after her parents in their old age? Almost certainly, she wa the keepers of the house, even if she had a younger brother, Lazarus, waiting to inherit when he came of age, and that makes her the dominant player in our story, as she is also in the story about her in John chapter 11?
Was Mary there by Martha’s invitation? Had she perhaps come over from her marital home to help with the catering for this special occasion, or so that she too could meet Jesus?
Whereas Simon the Pharisee simply 'invited’ Jesus into his home but did not offer to wash his feet, we’re told that Martha ‘welcomed’ Jesus. Luke doesn’t go into details, but presumably a welcome to a special guest did include foot washing otherwise Simon wouldn’t have been reproached by Jesus for not washing his feet. One commentator points out that ‘we don’t know who did the foot-washing on this occasion, but we do know that ‘Mary sat at Jesus’ feet.’
Did Martha intend to get Jesus’ attention and approval all for herself by playing the role of the generous and hard working host? If so, things now began to backfire, because while Martha busied herself with getting the meal ready, the culmination of tasks which may have taken several hours, Mary obstinately remained at Jesus’ feet, apparently hanging on every word he uttered, and in doing so she began to deflect attention from the very different way in which Martha was being attentive to him. Perhaps Martha felt she was being sidelined and cast in an unfavourable light by Mary’s very different way of expressing her devotion. After all, none of us likes to be taken for granted or to have someone else ‘take the Mickey’ out of us!
Whatever Martha’s motives may have been, Jesus took Mary’s side when she intervened. He publicly rebuked his host, telling Martha - somewhat ungratefully I feel - that Mary had chosen ‘the better part’. As the commentator puts it, ‘Rather than wanting Jesus to look at her and be impressed by all her hard work, Mary was content to listen and discover all that she could about Jesus’ [message].’
Martha felt that she was looking after and supporting Jesus, whereas Mary was looking to him for  support. Perhaps, therefore, the story is supposed to show us that discipleship is about attending to Jesus’ words and example, not about attending on him or doing things to make a good impression. The mistake people often make is to imagine that discipleship is primarily about us and what we can do for Jesus, whereas it must begin with Jesus and what he can do for us.

Have you heard the one about the rich farmer and the pension plan?

Luke 12.13-34
At Christmas we played a board game called The Game of Life. The game is about planning for your retirement. For most of the game you make decisions about your career and your family but, as you progress round the board, retirement looms larger and larger, and you can buy a portfolio of investments to fall back on when that day arrives.
Then, for the last section of the game, you are actually retired and have to make it to the finish line where you will hand on whatever is left as your inheritance to your family. The player with the largest inheritance is the winner. As one of the players put it very aptly, during this retirement phase the game rinses you; what seemed at first like a generous pension can soon be frittered away as you are hit by a series of horrendous disasters. Factories burn down, taxes have to be paid, storms wreak havoc, and so on.
It probably sounds terribly boring - a financial adviser’s idea of how to have fun, but actually it’s not. Let me give you an example. I was a popstar. During my working life I amassed a small fortune including a holiday villa, a flash car and an executive jet, but by the time I reached the last square of the game I was on welfare benefits. It was a true rags to riches and back again story.
The parable of the Rich Farmer is, of course, about retirement planning. The farmer was playing The Game of Life. He had already provided for his retirement but a series of abundant harvests allowed him to pull down his barns and build even bigger ones. Not only could he now envisage leaving a generous inheritance for his wife and family, which is the dream of every peasant farmer, but he could also afford to retire. He thought he would be able to relax for many years to come,  eating, drinking and making merry. Instead life dealt him a cruel blow and he died on the eve of realising his ambition. Jesus called him a fool.
Does this mean that retirement planning is a bad idea? Should we live for today and let tomorrow’s worries take care of themselves? Jesus’ own approach to  life certainly encourages us to think only of the immediate future. He told his followers not to build up a fortune in this life, where it can be rinsed away by various adversities such as theft, moth and rust. Instead, we are to follow the example of nature and put our trust in God’s provision. He encouraged his followers to sell their possessions and donate the money to the poor and, to underline the point, he himself did not retire and the only inheritance he left was a spiritual one.
However, let’s look at the parable more closely. The first thing to observe is that the farmer had already been financially prudent and had planned for his retirement before he rebuilt his barns. He’s not condemned in the story for making reasonable provision for his old age and his family’s inheritance.
Part of his undoing was his greed. He didn’t know when enough is enough. An active retirement as such was, of course, virtually unheard of in the ancient world. People retired when they could no longer work, and then they passed on their inheritance to their children, who were expected to look after them in return. Only the very wealthy could retire to eat, drink and be merry. And yet that became the farmer’s ambition.
Another mistake he made was to focus narrowly on his own financial well being to the exclusion of his moral well being and the well being of his neighbours. We hear nothing about charity - his obligation to help those in need, like the poor widows and orphans in his community who could never hope to benefit from an inheritance of their own, or the beggars at his gate who couldn’t work because of illness or misfortune. He didn't build a new synagogue, or pay for a community hall, or endow a bursary for the village school. he left no lasting legacy of any kind. There was no one outside his family who was left to mourn his passing. Instead, they probably rejoiced that he had got his comeuppance.
And his final mistake was to concentrate narrowly on his financial well being at the expense of his spiritual well being. Just as he had given no thought to his neighbours, he gave no thought to God and to the afterlife. This was his most foolish error of all. Retirement planning should go hand in hand with spiritual planning. But that doesn’t mean trying to buy favour with God. It simply means trusting God first and then letting our trust in him guide our other decisions - how we play The Game of Life, what provision we make for our old age and our family, how much help we offer to the poor and needy and how much time we devote to spiritual things. We should let God be the magnetic pole to which we are drawn and around which all our important decisions in life are shaped.
This is challenging advice for people who are well off, like the Rich Farmer in the story. It’s even more challenging for ordinary people who are just getting by and who are tempted therefore to focus everything on coping financially. And, of course, it’s framed by Jesus’ own commitment to give away everything he had, to sit light to this world and its cares and concerns, and to devote his whole life to God.

Samson

Judges 16.4-30
Samson is a most unlikely holy man. His story reminds us that God works through all kinds of people, not just the stereotypical saints who are - as the writer of Hebrews puts it - too good for a world like this.
There is a pattern running through Samson’s complicated love life. Although he’s dedicated to God he genuinely believes in multiculturalism. His isn't the kind of faith which refuses to meet and mix with people who hold different beliefs. Nor is he the kind of person who will contemplate a fling with someone from a different cultural community but only gets serious with a partner from their own kind.
His rebellion against the Philistines begins quite by chance, when he meets and marries a Philistine woman, only to be betrayed by her. During the wedding feast she nags him into revealing the solution to a riddle that he’s posed as a bet with some of the wedding guests: ‘Out of the eater came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet.’
It's difficult not to sympathise with her. The guests  threaten to burn her father’s house down and kill her unless she can coax the answer to the riddle out of him. And instead of going to Samson and telling him what's going on, she gives in to their demands.
Because he loves her, Samson eventually  explains that he killed a lion and then found a bees’ nest full of honey in its carcass. As a result Samson loses the bet and has to kill 30 innocent Philistines just to steal the things he needs to pay the gambling debt. Then he goes on the run, abandoning his fickle wife and never realising, apparently, the dilemma that she faced. It’s hardly an edifying start to his crusade and of course it marks an abrupt end to his marriage, although he later tries for a reconciliation.
But Samson never learns from his mistakes. He falls in love a second time, with another Philistine - Delilah, and because he loves her he turns a blind eye to her deceitful nature and makes the fatal mistake of revealing the true source of his power.
Again it’s a triumph for the sheer persistence of nagging. For a long time Samson teases her, indulging her propensity for tying him up because he thinks she likes playing games and because he imagines that he’ll always be able to end the game when he starts to feel threatened by it.
The story makes clear that Delilah and the Lords of the Philistines never really understand the true source of his power. Although, as part of the oath dedicating him to God, he’s supposed never to cut his hair, Samson cheerfully reveals this to Delilah knowing that she is likely to have his head shaved. He imagines that even so he will be able to escape, and when he can't she’s convinced that she has stumbled upon his secret.  
But Samson’s hair isn't the true source of his strength, because he’s able to bring the house down at the end of the story before his hair has completely grown back. The Philistines think he’s still powerless because his hair is still short, and they even obligingly show him where the pillars holding up the roof are. If Samson has made a fatal mistake in trusting Delilah, the Philistines now make a fatal mistake in thinking that they know what makes him strong.
So what is the true source of his power? It's his commitment to God. He loses his strength because he shares the secret that he’s a Nazirite, someone who’s supposed to put God first in his life above everyone else and all other things, even love itself.
It's a bit like a Freemason revealing all the secret rites and ceremonies of the lodge to the uninitiated. It may be mumbo jumbo, but that's not the point. If they believe that they’ve betrayed the Order then they’ve crossed a line. Psychologically they’ve aligned themselves with the rest of the world against their fellow Masons.
By putting his love for Delilah before his love for God, Samson crosses a line. When he wakes to find his head shaved, he knows he’s gone too far. His spiritual conviction that God is on his side deserts him.
We could argue that some of the things Samson had supposedly done in the power of God were not very godly anyway. His murderous behaviour during his guerrilla campaign against the Philistines marks him out as the worst kind of religious fanatic - someone who switches from an easy-going tolerance and openness to blind hatred just because of one betrayal, brought about by those bullies at his wedding. But the point is that that he believes God is with him and that belief is the source of his strength.
When he allows Delilah to betray him that self-confidence abandons Samson, until the moment when he gets the chance for revenge. Then for the first time he prays, ‘Lord remember me, and strengthen me only this once.’
Samson makes it into the Bible only because he’s a folk hero of his nation’s resistance to oppressors like the Philistines and because his spectacular suicide attack seems to be a victory for Israel’s God over the god Dagon. But in this modern age of suicide bombings and religiously motivated violence that's not the message we can take from his story.
For us the message has to be about finding strength - spiritual  strength not physical power - through trust in God. As St Paul says, ‘Grace is sufficient for [us], for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’
Samson, the proverbial strongman, is reduced to weakness when he loses his confidence in God’s protection but, in the face of insults, hardships, persecutions and calamity, he finds strength again. Samson uses it to wreak revenge but I think we have to use God’s strength to work for salvation, to build up struggling churches, to make mission contemporary and relevant to the communities around us, to achieve things which, relying purely on our own strength, would be impossible.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews asks, ‘What more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.’ He specifically mentions Samson by name, but that mention of winning strength out of weakness couldn't be more appropriate and must also be a reference to him.
Samson, the guy who can kill lions with his bare hands and slay whole regiments with the jawbone of an ass, turns out to be a symbol of how spiritual weakness can disable and imprison us. But he also teaches us that when we turn to God, instead of relying on our own strength, we’re never forgotten. His grace will be sufficient for us.

Gideon

Judges 6:11–27, 36–40
When Gideon is introduced to us he is described by God’s messenger as a ‘mighty warrior’ who is going to deliver Israel from oppression by the people of Midian. This isn’t a statement of fact; it’s a prophecy. It’s what Gideon is meant to become, what he could become if he trusted in God. But for now he is the very essence of timidity. He’s hiding in a wine press so that he can thresh some wheat and keep it concealed from the enemy. He’s not  a leader; he’s the very opposite of a man of action.
The hallmark of Gideon is that he’s ‘too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do [as the Lord has told him] by day,’ so ‘he does it by night.’ The Lord tells him not to fear but he goes on being afraid. He’s a very ordinary hero.
Normally, holy people put their trust in God, but Gideon is famous for ‘laying a fleece’, that is for demanding a sign that he really can rely on God’s power. What’s less well remembered is that he demands not one sign, but two, what one commentator has called ’pushing his luck’! He reminds us of Moses, another holy man who demanded signs from God.
It’s this sense of inadequacy, that seems to make Gideon and Moses the right sort of people to serve the Lord. He doesn’t choose the swaggering sort of leader. He chooses people who are unsure of themselves, who have doubts. And later on Gideon’s army is whittled down from 32,000 to 300 men who brandish trumpets and torches rather than conventional weapons, and win their victory by sowing panic in the enemy camp rather than by confronting them head on. It’s not an action movie outcome.
If the 32,000 soldiers assembled by Gideon had been allowed to attack the Midianites in open battle Israel would have taken the credit away from God, saying, ‘We did it ourselves.’ So instead the manner of the victory makes clear that it belongs to the Lord and the unlikely strategy that he’s instructed Gideon to follow.
But the victory that Gideon is inspired to lead in is not the end of his story. Sadly he turns from being someone who was once a reluctant leader into someone who now feels that he might be able to establish a royal line. He wasn’t a natural leader himself but he begins to imagine that his own children might be born leaders.
Things start to go wrong on the eve of the original attack when Gideon instructs his men to blow their trumpets around the whole camp and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon!’ Why, ‘And for Gideon’? The man who was once hiding from the enemy has already come a long way.
Although he goes on to be the judge of Israel for forty years, and must therefore be counted a success in political terms, he does some very cruel things, such as forcing people who had disobeyed him to lie down under a covering of thorns and briars so that his army can trample on them.
One commentator says that there are only brief glimpses in the Book of Judges of Gideon the statesman, acting wisely and generously, and these - coupled with his military victory - prompt the people of Israel to ask him to become their king. At the time he reminds them that ‘the Lord is their king’. But this proves to be the highpoint of his career as a judge, and perhaps it also marks the moment when the rot sets in, because he realises that a sort of royal kingship, as God’s chosen representatives, is now within his family’s grasp.
He asks the people to collect the gold they have captured and melt it down to make an ephod - a sort of chasuble or ornate outer garment worn by priests when they’re offering sacrifices. There’s nothing wrong in principle about making a golden ephod, presumably as a way of saying thank you to God for the victory he’s given to Israel, except that arguably splashing out on fancy gold garments is not the right way to please Him.
However, Judges says that the ephod is put on display in Gideon’s home town and the people come and worship it. Perhaps Gideon puts it on himself sometimes and begins to act like a priestly king - interceding between God and his people. The writers of Judges certainly think he’s taken a step too far.
We’ve already seen troubling echoes in Gideon’s story of the earlier example of the prophet Moses. There are also echoes here of the story of Moses’ brother Aaron, who got the people of Israel to donate pieces of gold jewellery so that he could make a golden calf. The calf was probably meant to be the footstool for God’s throne, the holy place where his feet touched the earth, and it was intended to be the centrepiece of a ‘festival to the Lord’. But it too gets the thumbs down from the writers of the Old Testament.
Whether or not he tries his hand at being a priest, Gideon certainly starts to act a bit like a king in other ways. He calls one of his children, or his son gets the nickname, ‘My father is king.’ Hubris - excessive pride or overweening self-confidence - seems to be getting to work here on Gideon and his family.
What does his story tell us about the expectations we place on our leaders today? There’s plenty of evidence - in the lives of leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron - that once in power hubris got to work on them too. They soon began to think their judgement was always right and that things would always turn out for the best with them at the helm. All of them were proved wrong and we’re still living with the consequences. So that suggests we should be praying hard for our political leaders today, as they steer us towards choppy and uncharted waters.
Is there a warning here for us, too, when we find ourselves playing a leadership role, as ministers, church leaders, parents, managers, team leaders or just old hands at the game? Do we manage to keep a proper sense of perspective? Do we remember our weaknesses and susceptibilities, our character flaws as well as our strengths? Can other people set us straight when we wander off the right track, or are we like the proverbial Yorkshire person, whom you can always tell but whom you can’t tell very much?
What does Gideon’s story tell us about the grace of God and how does it change the way we think about our own vocation from God? Does it remind us of our need to trust God and to rely constantly on his help in all the challenges we face - large or small, extraordinary or everyday?
One commentator says that in the Book of Judges the people of God demonstrate a persistent vulnerability to sin and a chronic lack of faithfulness. They seem incapable of anything other than brief episodes of keeping their covenant with God.
What warning does that have for us about our capacity to live out our own calling in faith and love - both as individuals and as the Church? We mustn’t kid ourselves. It’s surely a good thing that we confess our sins each day, and together each week, and renew our covenant each year.

The Good Samaritan and The Kindness of Strangers



We often read the parable of the Good Samaritan in isolation, as if it were a self-contained story. But it isn’t. It belongs in a specific context in St Luke’s Gospel. We know this from the way it begins: ‘Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.’
Just when exactly does the lawyer stand up, though? Just after Jesus has said, ‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’ In private to his disciples he has also said, ‘Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’
Just then up pops the lawyer. Granted that he would not have been party to the private aside to Jesus’ disciples about important people desiring to see and yet not seeing what is now being revealed to little children, it would still be pretty brazen for anyone to try to test Jesus about his understanding of the Law of Moses. The gist of Jesus reply fits in exactly with what has gone before. Intellectual argument about the meaning of words only takes us so far. We don’t discover who our neighbour is by poring over ancient texts, even when they’re taken from Holy Scripture. Faith is tested not by saying we believe in this or that proposition; it is tested in action. We discover who our neighbour is when we meet him or her on the road.
It’s not our wisdom and intelligence which will count when we stumble upon a wounded person lying in the road. It’s our gut response to someone else’s suffering, our compassion, our human kindness.
When my father fell over in the road during an attack of dizziness, banged his head on the ground and was knocked unconscious, he was fortunate that some of the passer-by recognised him as their neighbour and stopped to help him. The first person on the scene was a man with his little daughter, the proverbial infant of the story. She became hysterical at the sight of all the blood, so when two other neighbours happened along, a man on his way home from work and a paramedic, they were glad to leave them taking care of my father until the ambulance arrived. Who is my neighbour? The person who needs my help!
In the story, nothing would have distinguished the Samaritan’s understanding of the Law of Moses from the way the minister and the church steward, the priest and the levite, understood it. The difference is how they actually respond when they stumble upon someone lying injured deep in bandit country. Do they hurry on by, pretending not to have seen the person in trouble? Do they deny that they are really neighbours to the man who fell into the hands of robbers, or do they find that they cannot pass by on the other side? The crucial test is not what they understand the Bible to mean on this or that point; it’s whether they are filled with pity for him, whether they find themselves thinking, ‘That could have been me!’
One commentator points out that the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ invites us to answer it from the perspective of the victim of the robbery.  When we’re down and out we’re entitled to accept a helping hand from anyone, from capitalists or communists, Muslims or Christians, Remainers or Brexiteers, young people or the elderly, law-abiding people or shady people who sit light to the law, anyone in fact who is prepared to show mercy to us.
Like the time I was going home from a District meeting in a snowstorm. I was driving up hill when I came to a queue of cars struggling to get past a broken down bus. As you probably know, if you can keep your wheels turning on your way up a snowy hill, the chances are that you will get safely to the top, but if you have to stop then starting again is going to be very difficult. Well, I had to stop! And the only way any of the cars in that queue got moving again that night was because of some modern day good Samaritans. A group of young men on their way home from a good night out stopped and pushed each car, one after another, until we got going again. Anyone who takes pity on us is our neighbour.
And because it was the lawyer, who asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ we can also ask, ‘Who was it who showed mercy to him?’ The answer, according to the same commentator, is that Jesus is the lawyer’s neighbour, the person who recognises his vulnerability and tries to help him.
But, of course, in the end it is Jesus’ final advice to the lawyer which shapes who we see as the central character of the story. He tells him to go and do likewise.’ So who is he being called to imitate? Not the victim but the protagonist, the Good Samaritan with his oil, and wine, and bandages, his animal to carry the man to the inn and his readiness to foot the bill for the traveller’s convalescence.
A character in Tennessee Williams’ play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, says, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ If we’re honest, that’s true for even the most independent minded person among us. We all depend on the kindness of strangers at many points in our lives, especially at some of the most critical moments.
It’s doubtful whether the strangers in the play really are dependably kind. The priest and the levite weren’t as kind as one might have expected, either. Thankfully the man who fell into the hands of robbers, and therefore experienced the cruelty of strangers, also experienced the
Isn’t Jesus telling us that ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ means that being kind to strangers, and being able to depend on the kindness of strangers in our turn, is one of the key things that makes life bearable? That is why it is an absolute requirement, a commandment, for those who would love God.

Meeting God Face to Face

Exodus 33.12-23
The writers of the material in the Book of Exodus are obsessed with the theme of encountering God. They return to it again and again.
This shouldn’t surprise us because encountering God is what spirituality is all about. It is the Holy Grail, if you like, which all believers are pursuing throughout this life and into the life beyond.
Here Moses is told most emphatically that a full-on encounter with God is just not possible. It’s too scary. He will go mad or die. Only a partial revelation is safe.
It’s a bit like the Greek myth of the Gorgon. Anyone who gazed upon her face was turned to stone. Even in death she retained this awesome power.
Christians know, however, that God is not like the Gorgon. We can look upon his face and yet still remain alive. If anything, this encounter can enrich our lives to the point where our old life seems trivial and incomplete by comparison.
But this is only made possible for us because we can look upon the face of God become human, in the person of Jesus. Meeting God as Creator of the universe would doubtless be more daunting.
And yet, St Paul observes that even meeting God in Jesus is a death-defying experience. The encounter forces us to die to our old way of living and rise to new life in him. So we still meet God in Jesus at our peril. There are no free lunches.

Building on tradition

Exodus 30.1-10, 22-33
The rituals surrounding incense may seem irrelevant to Methodist worship in the Twenty-first Century, and yet they raise intriguing questions which are still highly relevant. Originally a special altar for offering incense was more closely associated with paganism than with the worship cult of Israel and Judah. The whole idea was treated with some caution, as though it were alien to worship of the one true God. As late as time of the Prophet Ezekiel, who lived during the exile in Babylon, it is not included in his vision of what reconstructed Temple worship should be like when his people return from exile. But, of course, people were bound to ask, ‘Why not?’
There were some aspects of pagan worship which were clearly abhorrent to all right thinking people, such as Temple prostitutes taking part in fertility rites or the offering of child sacrifices to appease the gods. But what could be wrong with a bit of nice sweet smelling incense?
Even if people no longer believed the primitive idea that God would only be pleased with a their sacrifices if they were accompanied by a nice smell, wouldn’t incense and sweet smelling ointment be bound to make things and people holier and somehow cleaner and fresher when they were anointed, and wouldn’t it be an appropriate way of setting them apart or dedicating them for worship of the most holy God?
As late as the Nineteenth Century, people still thought that germs s and making people and things smell nice purified them and made them antiseptic. So it’s easy to understand why there was pressure to introduce more incense into the Temple worship after the people of Judah returned from exile.
Didn’t incense have the potential to make worship better and more pure? And even if that was dismissed as superstitious nonsense, what possible harm could it do?
Once the innovators had won the argument and created a space for incense in the restored Temple worship after the exile ended, their next task was to make it seem like an old tradition that was being rediscovered. Religious people always like to think that what they believe and do has a distinguished pedigree, that they stand in a long line of true believers. So what better proof could there be than to rediscover a link going right back to Moses and Aaron, the founders of Israelite worship? And that’s  where this section of the Book of Exodus comes in. It legitimises a new innovation by making it seem old and respectable.
Even assuming that we’re not very interested in using incense or perfume in our own worship, this passage still raises intriguing question for us is. If holy scripture legitimises this kind of change and innovation, does it then give us permission to change and innovate our own religious practices and beliefs? Are we allowed to revisit the tradition and introduce new ways of worshipping, and new ways of thinking, which seem to us to be in keeping with the past and legitimate ways of developing it?
If we’re just thinking about worship, the answer is pretty straightforward. We can, of course, introduce new songs, new patterns of prayer, new styles of worship, if these things seem to develop and build on what our ancestors in the faith did in the past? They too were innovating. John Wesley was persuaded to preach outdoors, which he at first considered to be a terrible comedown from preaching in church. Hymn writers like his brother Charles wrote new words to fit folk melodies and country dance tunes. At its beginning, Methodist worship was daring and cutting edge. If anything, by clinging to the new Methodist traditions these innovators created, we have lost touch with what they were trying to do, which was to make worship popular again and bring it to people who had lost touch with church.
BUt what if we go further, and revisit some of the traditional ideas which Christians assumed were unshakably true? Doesn’t the same principle apply? So long as it does no harm, but only good, shouldn’t we be open to exploring new ways of thinking. There will always be lines which we cannot cross if we are to remain in touch with and true to the past, like the refusal of the innovators in the Jewish Temple to allow sacred prostitution even though it was commonplace in pagan religion at the time. But, for instance, does it legitimate a re-examination of what Christians think about human sexuality, given that human psychology is now understood very differently from the way it was understood - for instance - in the time of St Paul?
Less controversially, this passage also allows us to build on Biblical tradition to draw conclusions about many other things which were beyond the imagining of our forebears in the faith - global warming, assisted conception,genetic engineering, nuclear physics, the list is endless. The same litmus test applies as was used to decide about using sweet smelling ointment and incense in the Temple. Could one of these innovations do any harm or cause an irreconcilable break with our tradition? If not, are there ways in which we can justify them from a Christian point of view and with appropriate safeguards?
What this passage from Exodus shows us is that religious tradition is not set in stone. It is a journey of discovery; a journey that must stay true to its roots but which doesn’t have to cling to them unquestioningly; a journey which does allow us to build on and develop what happened in the past.

Keeping the Sabbath

Exodus 31.12-17
It’s difficult to know how far back in time the keeping of the sabbath day as a holy day, different from all others, can be traced back in the Old Testament. It probably doesn’t pre-date the exile in Babylon. Perhaps it was while they were living in a foreign land, and desperately trying to remain distinctive from the people and cultures around them, that Jewish people started keeping the sabbath and formulating the sort of traditions which come down to us in this passage.
Even after the return from exile, and the publication of the Book of Exodus in its current form, keeping the sabbath was clearly not a universally popular idea. The two harsh warnings about putting people to death for breaking the sabbath commandment show that many of them must have been seriously tempted!
In Jesus’ time the struggle between sabbath observers and sabbath breakers was clearly still going on, with the scribes and pharisees seeking to enforce it in the face of a lot of indifference and outright opposition. Jesus himself opposed its strict observance, pointing out that one of the justifications which Exodus gives for the sabbath commandment is humanitarian - the sabbath was instituted for our benefit, not simply for its own sake.
Notice that this objection does not rule out sabbath keeping or even seek to delegitimise it. Jesus mostly chose to keep the sabbath too, but he allowed humanitarian considerations, like hunger, illness or need, to override the obligation to keep the sabbath holy. In point of fact, so did his opponents, but he was just more lenient than they were. He felt it was legitimate to heal someone on the sabbath if they were in pain, whereas his opponents may have felt that it was only legitimate if someone was at the point of death.
In the end, of course, a fairly strict pattern of sabbath keeping prevailed, partly because Jewish people found themselves in exile once again and partly because it was now one of the things which most clearly set them apart from the new and growing Christian community. But even Christians can agree with the writers of Exodus about one of the reasons for keeping the sabbath holy - as a reminder that really everything is holy; that our world belongs to God, and was made by him and that our work and our rest should honour the creator and complement his mission to make the world a perfect place to live.

The golden calf of Christmas

Exodus 32.1-6, 15-20
The golden calf is a much maligned feature of Israel’s story. Originally a golden calf stood at each of the two shrines in the ancient northern kingdom of Israel. Together they may have formed the feet of God’s footstool, which was seen as looming over the whole kingdom - making it the point of contact between God, seated in majesty on his heavenly throne, and the world below.
The people of the southern kingdom of Judah still had the Temple in Jerusalem, which was their capital city.  They imagined the Temple or the Holy of Holies, its innermost shrine, as God’s footstool, but the people of the northern kingdom had to make do with the golden calves.
The whole story of the golden calves is set out in the First Book of Kings Chapter 12, where we are given an account of the origins of the northern kingdom. Its first king, Jeroboam, set up one golden calf on a hilltop at Bethel and the other on a hilltop at Dan, and he and his priests offered incense and sacrifices to God on the altars there just like the offerings which were still being made in Jerusalem.
There’s no suggestion, really, that Jeroboam was being disloyal to God. He didn’t offer sacrifices or worship to the two golden calves; they were just symbols of God’s presence in the kingdom. He probably looked to the tradition of the golden calf set up by Aaron in the wilderness as the pattern for what he was doing.
Again, there’s no suggestion that Aaron actually worshipped the golden calf. It was just a focus, somehow, for the people’s worship of God, which was accompanied by much revelry. But although Aaron had declared the occasion to be a festival to the Lord, and doubtless, Jeroboam did the same when he went up to worship at Bethel and Dan, the Bible takes a very dim view of these goings-on and condemns them as a great sin.
Doubtless that conclusion was partly influenced by the fact that it was people from the southern kingdom who, after their exile in Babylon, eventually put together our version of the Old Testament. They didn’t approve of the way worship had been organised in the northern kingdom and its shrines.
But their antipathy to the golden calves was also partly influenced by the many flirtations that the people of both kingdoms had enjoyed with paganism down the centuries, and not least by the disconcerting resemblance between the golden calves and images of bulls which were cast to celebrate the Almighty God of Canaan and the Canaanite storm god, Baal.
With the benefit of hindsight it became apparent that using images in worship, even relatively harmless ones, had caused confusion between Canaanite religion and the distinctive faith and worship of the people of Israel and Judah. And revelry and dancing came to be frowned upon too, probably for similar reasons. A new, more austere, way of worshipping emerged as a result, stripped of all imagery and revelry.
This sorry tale of confusion and disagreement has some uncomfortable lessons for us. Christianity has often borrowed from other faiths in order to persuade people to abandon their old beliefs and adopt the new faith. Partly, Christian missionaries wanted to sweeten the bitter pill of giving up long cherished traditions by adopting some of the more acceptable features of other faiths and incorporating them into Christianity, and partly they wanted to make Christianity fit into different cultures rather than trying to impose a totally new and alien culture on people, which could seem like a form of imperialism.
So, in the modern era, Christians in India have borrowed the idea of nondual contemplation from Buddhism and Hinduism. ‘Nondual’ contemplation means immersing oneself in God rather than praying to God as someone distinct and totally separate from ourselves. This sort of prayer has always been a feature of Orthodox Christianity and of Christian mysticism in general, but the encounter with Hindu and Buddhist cultures brought it into sharper focus. Rediscovering nondual forms of prayer gave Christians a way of entering into dialogue with Buddhists and Hindus, and perhaps of persuading some people brought up in those traditions to adopt Christianity.
But in the first centuries of Christian witness in the British Isles similar accommodations were made with pagan tradition. People were persuaded to give up their devotion to Mother Earth by refocusing their veneration of motherhood onto Mary the Mother of God. To this day priests and ministers still bless well dressings dedicated to saints on the very same sites where water gods were once worshipped. And both Easter and Christmas coincide conveniently with ancient pagan festivals.
For the most part these borrowings were harmless and are examples of the genius of Christianity for assimilating existing ideas. But Christmas is, of course, the great exception, the golden calf of Christian experience.
Taking over an existing winter festival seemed at first to be a harmless concession, but Christmas has proved to have a life of its own. It has swallowed up all the Christian attempts to give it new meaning and become once again a hedonistic time of revelry, a celebration of all forms of excess, with its own god, Father Christmas, replacing both Jesus and its original focus on the unconquered sun.
It’s a reminder that using images of God Almighty, cast in the shape of a bull or a calf, as a way of focusing our worship on God once seemed like a relatively harmless accommodation to long established custom and tradition, but it quickly caused confusion and a loss of direction and moral purpose, with the worship of God becoming hopelessly compromised by less healthy Canaanite traditions and values. Adopting Christmas has surely proved to be our Golden Calf. It has brought about a fateful confusion between our values and the values of society at large, and from this trainwreck we are now lumbered with the urgent task of trying to recover some of the original meaning and purpose of the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A homecoming celebration

Jude 24-25
The benediction at the end of Jude is its most celebrated section. It is a celebration of our life in Jesus. He alone can keep us from falling into error and that’s a good thing because only a perfect sacrifice is good enough to be offered to God, and perfect sacrifices is what Jesus intends us to become, just as he once made himself a perfect sacrifice upon the Cross.
Even if faith in jesus has made us perfect and without blemish, entering God’s presence, and seeing his glory, is likely to provoke some anxiety and being made a sacrifice to God sounds positively daunting, if not terrifying. In the Inca Empire children from well-to-do families were sometimes selected for sacrifice. They were paraded through the country and then taken to a mountaintop, drugged and sacrificed. It was supposedly a very great honour, but there’s good evidence that they weren’t entirely happy about it when the time came to make the sacrifice, and that is hardly surprising. On a less morbid note, as Christians we promise in Holy Communion to be a living sacrifice, but even that implies self-denial, endurance and even suffering.
What is surprising, therefore, is that Jude talks about entering the presence of God’s glory with rejoicing. Jesus’ death for us makes that possible. It takes away the fear and foreboding that we might otherwise feel and turns the encounter with God into a celebration, a homecoming even, like the return of the Prodigal Son.

An object lesson in humility

Jude 1.1-2
The letter of Jude is an object lesson in humility. Some people would see it as a letter written by one of the brothers of Jesus himself, in which case it must have been written within about thirty years of his death. Others would see it as written by someone posing as Jesus’ brother to add weight to their own opinions and give their letter a wider circulation. Who wouldn’t want to have a copy of something written by Jesus’ own brother, whereas the same opinions, when expressed by Joe Bloggs, might attract little interest?
In a sense, the question of who actually wrote Jude is unimportant. The striking thing is that the author makes such an amazingly small claim to prestige and honour within the Christian community. He is, or claims to be, no less a person than the brother of Jesus, and yet he is content to think of himself as Jesus’ servant. Perhaps that’s because the letter of James - which also purports to have been written by a brother of Jesus - also begins by stating that he is just a servant of Jesus. The word used here basically means ‘a slave’.
I guess the point which both writers are making is that Jesus is so special, so different, from the rest of us that even his brothers can only think of themselves as his obedient servants. Even so, it’s striking that the only way we know Jude is a brother of Jesus is because he also describes himself as the brother of James.
>This is what genuine humility looks like. When official honours are being doled out, we should not look to receive them. When recognition is being given to high achievers it is always enough to be recognised as a true servant of Jesus. To be ‘chosen and loved’ by God, and ‘kept safe’ by or for Jesus, is all that any of us can ask. To be blessed with ‘kindness or mercy, peace and love’ is the highest reward.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Seeing God

Exodus 24.9-18
Here in this short passage we find two contrasting encounters with God, so different in fact that they appear to belong to separate traditions, although they have been brought together here in a single narrative.
First, there is a group encounter with God. 71 people are privileged to see God face to face, although at a distance. He doesn’t lay his hand on them - presumably in blessing.
The writer cannot describe what God looked like. That would be impossible. The narrative only tells us what the ground beneath God’s feet was like. It was like a bright blue, clear sky - a pavement of sapphire. So this is an image of God sitting above the mountain - slightly out of reach. He does not walk the earth.
And yet he is clearly visible and the elders share a sort of holy communion with him - a sacrificial meal in all probability, where the incense of the sacrifice ascends to God while the communicants eat together on the mountain.
And then a totally different encounter is immediately juxtaposed with the first one. This time the holy mountain is shrouded in cloud and Moses ascends for a solitary encounter with God. The rest of the people of Israel can only surmise that God is present because his glory settles over the mountain like a devouring fire.
Moses waits, with his assistant Joshua - who strangely does not figure at all in the previous encounter - somewhere on the mountainside below the cloud cover until he receives  the summons to enter it. Forty days later he comes back down - with the tablets of stone that contain the ten commandments - and rejoins Joshua again. There is no suggestion that during this time Moses sees God facesto face. That only comes later in this version of the story. For the moment he listens to God but cannot see him.
So here we have two different versions of encountering God, one which is distinguished by the clarity of the vision and the other by its mystery and obscurity. Which is closest to our experience, and which is the way that we encounter God more often if we have shared both types of encounter?
It’s tempting to say that the sort of encounter which is shrouded in mystery is the way that we might expect to meet God as creator, and the much clearer vision - especially through a shared meal - is the way that we encounter God in Jesus. But, of course, there is mystery in holy communion, too. We do not see Jesus in the clear way that Moses and the elders saw God, but on the other hand Jesus does reach out and touch us, and enters into our lives and our situation in a way that they could not have imagined. And sometimes people do report very clear visions of God as creator.
What we can say for certain is that God does come down in Jesus. His feet do touch the floor. He is not at a distance any longer and we can come near to him.