Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Moment of Decision

Exodus 1.8 - 2.10
Romans 12.1-8
Matthew 16.13-20


Today's Old Testament reading from Exodus seems to be a mixture of history and legend. On the one hand it says that the Israelite people were more numerous, or in danger of becoming more numerous, than their Egyptian hosts. On the other hand it says that there were only two Israelite midwives. Even if we take them to be the chief midwives of a nationwide team these two statements simply cannot be reconciled! Two people could not possibly have headed up the vast army of midwives which such a large population would have required, especially in the days before a modern health service.

Against this slightly muddled background, the charming story of Moses being rescued from the bulrushes helps to explain both his name and his origins, as an Egyptian prince of Hebrew descent. The story also explains how God is able to work through human history because human beings work alongside him to ensure that the right thing can happen. If Moses' mother and sister had not used their initiative, even God could not have helped him to survive.

Besides being an example of faithfulness in action, the story is also an example of racial and religious cohesion and tolerance. Pharaoh's reaction to the hard working migrant workers is to see them as a threat, not least because their birth rate is higher than that of the indigenous population, but his daughter refuses to share her father's prejudices. She doesn't see Moses as yet another frightening statistic to be combatted but only as a vulnerable child in need of care.

Sadly, later in his life, Moses would indeed become a threat to her compatriots, first when he killed an overseer for abusing a Hebrew slave and then when he brought the waters of the Red Sea crashing down on the Egyptian army as they pursued the escaping nation of Israel. But, nothwithstanding the way things ultimately turned out, the princess's instinctive reaction was still the right one. We should treat our fellow human beings as our brothers and sisters and offer them protection and help when they are in trouble. If her father had taken the same attitude, Moses and his God would never have caused the Egyptians any trouble at all.

When he grew up and fled into exile, Moses underwent a complete makeover. First he tried to change himself, from a prince turned rebel and murderer into a peaceful and obscure shepherd. But then, when he encountered God at the burning bush, he found that what was really necessary was for God to transform him and empower him to undertake his true calling, which was to use his knowledge of the Pharaoh's court to help God liberate the people of Israel from oppression. He had to make himself a living sacrifice, giving up the quiet life which he had craved with his wife and her family in the desert in order to become a prophet and community leader.

Peter's "burning bush" moment came at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus took his disciples away from the frenzied activity of his ministry in Galilee so that he could challenge them to think about all that they had seen and heard. Who did they suppose that he was? Ducking the question by telling him what other people were saying was not what Jesus wanted from them. So it is that Peter was forced to confront the truth, not just about Jesus but also about himself. For if Jesus is the Messiah, God's anointed leader of the human race, Peter must be the first shepherd of his flock - the rock around which the new Christian community could establish itself. Like Moses he was challenged to become a community leader.

Each one of us is called, in a similar way, to put our lives, our experience and our gifts at God's disposal. This is the essence of real worship. "To work is to pray."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Breaking out of the prison of the past

Genesis 45.1-15
Romans 11.1-2a & 29-32
Matthew 15.21-28


The writers of this passage wanted it to be clearly understood that God works in human lives and human history, and that events which seem tragic and troubling to us in the present moment are sometimes part of - or can be woven into - the longterm out-working of God's purposes for us. There is a danger here, of course. People of faith will always try their hardest to look back on what has happened and impose a pattern on random events so that they seem to make sense and prove that God was with us all of the time, shaping the way things turned out. But I think that is to misunderstand how God works through history. We cannot absolve ourselves of all responsibility when things go wrong simply by imagining that they are part of some grand scheme of which we are totally unaware - although they may be, and how else are we to make sense of the Cross? However, the truth is more complicated than that. God is like a master weaver, patiently mending the broken threads and putting right the mistakes which the apprentices make as they contribute their share to the big picture. And we are the apprentices, of courses. Our task, like that of Joseph, is to remain faithful to the work of bringing order and harmony to creation, and to continue looking for ways of serving God by helping to bring all things together for good.

We must not assume, however, that there is only one God-given shape which events can take if they are to be made perfect. God's future is constantly shifting, like a kaleidoscope, as current events make their impact on the pattern. It is neither possible, nor even desirable, for God to unpick the mistakes we make. He can only put them right by incorporating them into the pattern in such a way as to minimise the damage we have caused and bring as much good out of them as possible. This is why what seemed like a God-given opportunity, for the children of Israel to move to the land of plenty in Egypt and prosper there in spite of the famine, would later turn into a nightmare of oppression from which they had - in turn - to be rescued again.

Paul describes the process whereby we are given access to the pattern-making, and therefore the freedom to make mistakes and change the big picture, as being imprisoned by God. At first sight this is a shocking idea and we might be tempted to dismiss it as contrary to God's loving nature. But we should bear with the idea, for it merits further examination.

Paul's point is that, although the freedom to do what is right seems like a wonderful gift, human nature makes it absolutely certain that we will in fact go wrong. However, Paul is not blaming God for giving us too much freedom, and therefore causing us to become imprisoned - like naughty children who are given to much leeway by their parents - in a nightmare of our own making. He is merely noting that the unique freedom - to change the course of events - which is enjoyed by human beings inevitably brings its own down side. As we choose to make bad decisions, that freedom to choose rapidly turns human life into a prison where we are repeatedly hemmed in and punished by the consequences of all our earlier mistakes until the freedom that we seemed to have at the beginning turns out to be an illusion.

It is this kind of reasoning which infuriates atheists. Why do bad things happen if there is a good God? they ask. 'Because we all have freewill,' the believer replies. And this draws the retort, 'So why does a good God allow freewill if it is so corrosive and harmful?'

One possible response to the atheist is that life is unavoidably complicated, and believing in God does not remove the complications. But that is not Paul's answer. His answer is that God has himself provided a solution to the problem in the person of Jesus, who gives us the power we need to break free from the prison created by our mistakes.

In the passage from Matthew's Gospel we see a snapshot from life's rich tapestry in which a gentile woman is caught in the act of changing the big picture, but not this time by her mistakes but by her insistent pleading for help. Challenged by her great faith, Jesus changes his original plan - to work only with the people of the lost house of Israel - and heals her daughter. Does this mean that Jesus, too, had been a prisoner of the moment - trapped by narrow prejudices which made it seem as though the people of Israel must be rescued before he could reach out to others? Does he, at this moment, break free from these confines and grasp a wider vision? Or, as seems more likely, is he simply pointing out that - in order to undo the mistakes of the past - it is necessary for him to begin remaking the picture at the most logical place, rather like someone sitting down to do a jigsaw puzzle and working outwards from the corners instead of starting with the sky.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Sound of Silence

1 Kings 19.9-13
Romans 10.5-11
Matthew 14.22-33


A few weeks ago the administration of a town somewhere in England changed from Labour to Liberal Democrat, and with the change of administration came a change for the voluntary and community sector, too. The new Council decided that, while community work is valuable it isn't an immediate priority. It was suggested that there was almost a surplus of community work going on in the town, made possible by the good times when the City benefited from a lot of grant funding. Now that the grants are being targeted elsewhere, it was suggested that the time might have come to let things return to normal and allow some of that community work to wither on the vine.

Coupled with endless delays and complications in releasing what little grant funding remains, and continued debate about what it can - or cannot - be spent on, this suggested that lean times might lie ahead. The only way that most community work can continue in these circumstances is if organisations can win contracts to deliver services to the community or attract small grants from charities and foundations.

Many of the staff and trustees of one local organisation are people of faith, Christian and Muslim. Some of them fell to hard prayer, hoping that God would show them a way forward. They submitted various tenders for pieces of work that they might do. Letters and emails were sent to councillors, MPs and the other powers that be, imploring their help and arguing the case for their community work to continue. And, against this backdrop, they waited for God's will to be made known.

I'm not quite sure what they were hoping for - a change of earthquake proportions in the Council's policy, perhaps? The wind of new contracts filling their sails and helping them to continue on their way? Fire burning up all the sloppy thinking which suggests that much of what passes for community work might be unnecessary and expendable, that getting rid of it won't bring hidden costs which the Council eventually has to pick up anyway, and that many community organisations aren't serving a real need but are really just self-perpetuating?

This isn't to suggest, by the way, that even sloppy thinking cannot contain a grain of truth. Doubtless there are some community organisations, and some pieces of work, which need reviewing to see if they have served their purpose. The sloppiness creeps in when it is suggested that any organisation which cannot mostly fund itself, or sell its services to someone or other, is probably past its sell-by-date. But that is a digression.

The point of this story is that God was not in the earthquake, wind or fire. The Council hasn't changed its mind. So far the organisation I mentioned has only won one or two contracts which, by themselves, are not enough to fill its sails and keep it moving forward. And there has been no refining fire. Although the Council is reviewing the community work that happens at the moment, by the time they have completed their review much of the work may well have ceased for want of funds.

So where is God in all of this? Perhaps God doesn't believe that community work is a priority, either. Perhaps he has more pressing prayers to answer. Or perhaps we just have to accept that God's answer isn't always in the earthquake, wind or fire - big events that turn things around in a spectacular fashion. Perhaps God is in the still, small voice.

The hymn talks about 'a still small voice of calm' as if God's silence were actually a cause for peaceful, calm repose and serenity. But that's not a very accurate translation, and it certainly isn't how people feel in that vulnerable community organisation. A more accurate translation is 'the sound of sheer silence'. That's what the answer to the prayers of those community workers and volunteers actually sounds like - the sheer silence of rebuke, or emptiness, or aloneness.

Of course, in the great scheme of things community work really is of relatively low significance. What about all the people waiting for answers to their most urgent prayers about the war in Georgia, or about illness, personal loneliness and the difficulties of coping with rampant food and energy inflation, or who are simply praying that they might survive the impact of real earthquakes, hurricanes, forest fires and other emergencies? How many times do they, too, hear - or seem to hear - the sound of sheer silence?

It seems to me that we do a disservice to faith and religion if we pretend that the answer to prayer is always loud and clear. Sometimes we find ourselves, like the disciples, in the boat - being tossed about by the wind and the waves, by the storms and tempests of life - and either God seems to be asleep, or else far away and unable to help us.

Elijah the Prophet had derided the prophets of the false god Baal because their prayers and incantations were not answered, whereas his prayer was answered - and in the most spectacular fashion. A storm blew up out of nowhere, seeming to begin in a tiny, distant cloud. And an enormous bolt of lightning brought a thunderbolt from heaven to light the fire for his sacrifice. Yet, if Elijah felt any pride or sense of achievement, this is the moment when it was dispelled. On Mount Horeb he discovered that sometimes God answers our prayers with the sound of sheer silence!

In the moment of victory Elijah had triumphantly ordered the crowd to murder the unfortunate prophets of Baal. Doubtless he felt at the time that they had sealed their own fate by praying to a god who does not answer prayer. Now he discovers that humility and graciousness would have been a more appropriate response, for even the one true God sometimes answers our prayers with the sound of sheer silence.

But then, in apparent contrast with Elijah's sense of desolation, we have the witness of St Paul. When we're in trouble of any kind, Paul says that we should not say in our hearts, 'Who will ascend into heaven...to bring Christ down [to help us].' Nor should we say, 'Who will descend into the abyss...to bring Christ up from the dead [to save us].' This is because we don't have to go in search of him. Even in the sound of sheer silence the Word - that is the wisdom of God, and the proclamation of God's love revealed in Jesus - is always very close to us, part of us in fact, not only on our breath but also in our hearts.

Paul is very sure that we should have no anxieties. In any situation, so long as we continue to say - and to believe - that Jesus was raised from the dead, we shall be saved. And we won't be put to shame - like the Prophets of Baal - by appearing to have our prayers unanswered. How does this bold claim match Elijah's experience, and ours sometimes, when prayers seem to be answered by the sound of sheer silence?

I would suggest that these two, apparently contradictory, experiences are reconciled by the story of Jesus' death on the Cross. Jesus' death seemed to be the moment of defeat for all that he represented. His cry of dereliction, 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' was met with the sound of sheer silence. No doubt the onlookers concluded either that Jesus had been deluded all along about his intimate relationship with God, or that the God he was calling to didn't exist or wasn't interested in him. In that moment, his situation was not unlike that faced by the Prophets of Baal, and like them he met an untimely death - taunted and despised by his opponents because his prayer was not answered.

Of course, there the similarity ends. The Prophets of Baal died there and then, and their cause in Israel died with them. Despite immediate and continued setbacks, the battle to overcome the false worship of fertility gods took a decisive turn that day. Whereas, in an unforeseen event that must have seemed about as possible as a thunder storm on a clear day on Mount Carmel, Jesus was raised from the dead. His desperate cry from the Cross was answered with the sound of sheer silence. He died and was buried. His disciples fled. Apparently his cause had been defeated. But not so! For on the third day he was raised from the dead, as the promise that - even when our prayers are met by the sound of sheer silence - we are never alone, for the Jesus who felt abandoned on the Cross is always with us, in our hearts and on our lips.

Matthew's story about Jesus walking on the water reads a bit like a resurrection story. Alone in the boat, battered by waves and with the wind against them, the disciples think that God is not going to answer their prayers. When they see Jesus coming to join them, walking on the water, they're not reassured. Instead, they think they are seeing a ghost and they cry out in fear. That might be because they don't recognise him through the mist and spray, but it might be because they think he is already dead.

Be that as it may, when Jesus comes to join us on our storm-tossed journey through life he does so as the risen Jesus, bidding us to take heart and not to be afraid. And the message of the risen Jesus is not that we can expect a calm crossing, easy sailing with clear blue skies, but that we must be faithful. Even when our problems and difficulties are met with the sound of sheer silence we must not doubt, for he is with us.

This story is evoked in the film 'The Truman Show', where the hero Truman - played by Jim Carrey - is an actor in a film within a film. At one point he tries to ride out a storm in a yacht and the god-like director of the film tries equally hard to make him turn back. But Truman won't do it. He lashes himself to the boat and says that he would rather die than give up.

In a sense, that is what Jesus is calling us to do - to lash ourselves to the boat and keep on going, come what may, except that - in the Gospel story - it isn't God who is trying to overturn the boat. Instead, God is with us - in Jesus - holding out his hand to catch us when our fear overwhelms us and we think we are about to drown.

Because he has endured the Cross for our sakes, because he has overcome that sense of abandonment and desolation which we all sometimes feel, we need not fear the storm. Like a swimming instructor waiting to catch us as we take our first faltering strokes through the water, Jesus is always there for us - even in the sound of sheer silence.

Who knows what the Simon and Garfunkel song 'Sound of Silence' means. But these words from the song could echo the sentiments of Paul, and the words of Jesus to Peter on the Lake.

"Silence like a cancer grows.

[So] hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you."