Monday, July 05, 2010

Freedom and the Road Ahead

Psalm 77
Psalm 77 is a very ancient retelling of the Exodus story of the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It's so ancient, in fact, that it may pre-date the version in the Book of Exodus itself. The congregation in the Temple or the synagogue recalls to mind the mighty deeds of the Lord when he rescued his people and displayed his incomparable power by rolling back the sea to enable them to walk across on dry land. Even the Egyptians with their powerful and ancient civilisation could not fail to be impressed.

The reference to Jacob and Joseph reminds us of the central actors in the earlier story of Israel's descent into Egypt to escape from a time of famine and take advantage of Joseph's status as Pharaoh's grand vizier. Now the Psalm charts the journey of their descendants as they made good their escape.

Last week's lectionary readings told us that God was not in the earthquake, wind and fire which passed outside the cave where Elijah was hiding on Mount Horeb, but here the Psalmist contradicts that idea. The lightning bolts were God's arrows. The crash of his thunder was in the whirlwind. And the earth trembled and shook as he passed through the Red Sea ahead of his people. And yet, in all the storm and noise God's footprints were unseen. He led his flock to safety, but the only visible signs of his leadership were the two charismatic figures at the head of the column, Moses and Aaron, constantly reassuring the people that there was no need to be afraid.

What was it in the end which saved the people of Israel? Some people think that they really escaped through the Sea of Reeds - a marshy area where the chariot wheels of the Egyptian army became bogged down, preventing them from following the fleeing Israelites - and not through the Red Sea proper. And yet the language of the Psalm conjures up a vivid and terrifying picture, not unlike a tsunami, where the sea retreats during an earthquake only to come crashing back down again on the unsuspecting onlookers. Is that what happened to the Egyptians? Were they pursuing the Israelites along the seashore when suddenly the tide went out and the sea disappeared? Did the Israelites have time to scramble onto higher ground, leaving the Egyptians in their chariots to drown when the sea returned?

Was God at work in the unfolding catastrophe, or was he a still, small voice weeping for the victims even as he was gladdened by the Israelite's escape to freedom? Is he the voice of reason pleading calmly for tolerance and unity in the din of modern day discord ?

Galatians 5.13-25
Paul reminds his readers that, as Christians, we are called to share in the freedom of the people of Israel. However, he also reminds them that freedom from slavery in Egypt turned out to be a mixed blessing. Instead of using their freedom as an opportunity to let spirituality flourish and shape their future direction, the newly freed slaves soon turned out to have very narrow, unspiritual horizons and were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years. They had to be given the Law to keep them in order whereas, says Paul, for spiritually minded people the Law can really be summed up in one simple command, to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Paul's churches seems to have had considerable problems - when unspiritual attitudes were allowed to dominate, Paul warned, it could lead to fornication, indecency, debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, quarrels, contentious tempers, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, jealousies, drinking bouts, orgies and the like. Sadly, if we look at what went wrong in the early Church we can see examples of all these things - and before the ink was even dry in the Bible.

The Galatian church, in particular, had problems with sorcery - which seems to have appealed to some of its members, as well as to an early church leader mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, Simon Magus. The church at Corinth had problems with fornication, indecency and heavy drinking sessions - even at the Eucharist. Paul had repeatedly to warn his church members that living by faith rather than law was not an excuse for debauchery. There were constant debates about idol worship and how far Christians needed to keep away from it at a time when pagan temples were also the local slaughter houses supplying most of the butchers' shops in any Roman town. And the letters of John show how much dissension and bitterness there was in some early Christian congregations. We might think ourselves very fortunate, then, if our only real problems were things like contentious tempers, dissensions and party intrigues. Paul's experience demonstrates that it could easily be a lot worse!

But, of course, it could be better. Paul also reminds us that a Spirit-filled church will produce a harvest of very different things - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. Paul says we don't need a law to deal with these things for they are the true marks of freedom. But, in order to be able to enjoy them, we have to be prepared to crucify our old nature with all its passions and let the Spirit direct our new life in Christ.

Luke 9.51-62
If we're talking about geography, then the journey to Jerusalem doesn't lie through Samaria. But, from a spiritual perspective, it's clear that Luke felt Jesus did need to go through Samaria, and reach out to the people there, as part of his missionary journey to the Cross. Perhaps he wanted to show that Jesus' ministry is for all people - whatever their faith, or culture or race. Even so, he recounts that Jesus was sometimes rejected. James and John wanted to call down a bit of thunder and lightning to put the frighteners on one ungrateful bunch of people, but Luke says only that Jesus rebuked them and they went on to a place where they were made welcome instead. People are always free to accept or reject the spirituality which Jesus offers. That is the nature of true freedom.

In any case, following Jesus is never easy and it's not everyone's cup of tea. It can mean having nowhere to stay at night. It can mean having to miss your own father's funeral in order to go somewhere else and announce that the kingdom of God has arrived. These are pretty extreme ideas and the Church has pretty much rejected them. Only a very few, totally committed souls, have been prepared to go to these lengths.

However, it's perhaps easier to take on board the proverb with which this section of the Gospel ends. 'No one who sets their hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.' In other words, it's impossible to plough in a straight line if you keep looking over your shoulder and, by extension, it's impossible to do what's right for the future if we are continually focusing on what might have been, or what used to be in the dim and distant past.

This proverb reminds me of some of the excuses people make for crashing their car. One person wrote, 'I drove out of my drive into the path of a bus, which was five minutes early.' Another wrote, 'In my attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telegraph pole.' Yet another, 'I collided with a stationary lorry coming the other way.' And how about, 'An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car and then vanished'? The truth is that the only way to get safely to where we need to be is to resolutely focus on the road ahead.

Rediscovering God in the Clamour of Daily Life

Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 vv3-4 (inserted before v11)
A shocking image on TV screens recently was the torrent of water sweeping through the town of Draguignan in Southern France, carrying cars before it like little toys and drowning 19 people as well as countless animals. I don't know whether deer really long for flowing streams, but surely they must fear the thunder of God's mighty cataracts just as much as we do. I guess the reference to deer longing for water belongs, in fact, to the context of the chase. A deer hunted down by dogs or by wild animals must long for water, especially in a hot, dry climate like Palestine. But sometimes there can be just too much of a good thing.

When we are up against it, then our souls long for God. I heard last week about someone who, in his own personal life, is being buffeted by waves and billows which threaten to submerge him. First his mother has been seriously ill with a brain tumour and, after collapsing and being unconscious for 45 minutes, is waiting to see if it has started growing again following an earlier operation to remove some of it. Then, he has found that - as if his worries about his mother's health were not enough to contend with - he too has a serious medical condition. An earlier heart infection has recurred and needs urgent treatment. And finally, he faces a disciplinary hearing at work, and is also at risk of being redeployed to a different job even if the complaint against him is not upheld. I guess he must feel as though the enemy is oppressing him on every side, a bit like a cornered mammoth being taunted by Neanderthal hunters as they poke it with sharpened sticks in the hope of inflicting a deadly wound.

Compared to the problems of the people in Draguignan, or the afflictions being heaped upon my friend, some of the things which make us feel disquieted or cast down probably seem fairly trivial. But sometimes it's the final straw - the constant pressure of one small thing piled on top of another - which breaks the camel's back.

And sometimes, when God seems far away and still waters have been replaced by frightening torrents and billows, it's easy to forget that the God of the storm is also our rock, the God of steadfast love who never abandons us to our troubles, whose light and truth are always seeking us out. When he remembers these things, the Psalmist - who seems to be a worship leader whose vocation is to encourage others to turn to God in prayer and praise - is reminded that with God there is always hope, for God is the ultimate source of joy, and help and life.

1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a

Sometimes I visit people who wish that they might die. They feel that they have out-lived their usefulness, or that they have endured more pain and suffering than anyone should have to bear. A five year-old child in a small congregation in Sheffield is also, like my friend's mother, suffering from the effects of a brain tumour. Most of it has been removed but unfortunately a biopsy has shown that it is malignant and now he faces gruelling chemo and radiotherapy. His parents' prayer is that he will not feel like Elijah did; that he will not wish he might die but will continue to hope in the God of his life.

On the one hand Elijah says that he wants to die, but on the other hand he made himself pretty scarce when Queen Jezebel threatened to kill him. And didn't he actually deserve to be in trouble? He had, after all, just murdered - or encouraged others to murder - 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal. By comparison with this appalling slaughter, the wicked and terrible killing spree of Derrick Bird in Cumbria seems less extraordinary than we might like to believe. And what is even more shocking about Elijah is that he was himself a prophet of the God of life, and hope and joy. Clearly he saw himself as representing another aspect of God on Mount Carmel - the God of wrath, the God of the thundering cataracts who sweeps away wrong doing and superstition like cars tossed about in a flood. Hadn't Elijah's God just shown himself to be the true God of thunderstorm and lightning, unlike Baal who was supposed to be the storm god but who had failed to heed the call of his own prophets, even when they slashed themselves with knives?

Yet perhaps Elijah had read too much into the idea of God's wrath, whose power can cleanse the land like a raging flood. Not only had he shown that God could end the drought by sending rain, but he had also seized the opportunity to go on the offensive against the enemies of God and start dispensing his own rough justice. Now, at the entrance to the cave, God shows him that he is actually the God of sheer silence - the God who fills the quiet after the storm, the God who is closest to us when we feel forsaken and alone.

And then, at the end of the passage Elijah is forgiven for his terrifying impetuousness. Apparently, even instigating the deaths of 450 people does not put him beyond the pale. Instead he is given a new commission - to anoint a king over Syria who will act as God's agent, putting right some of the true injustices which have been taking place in Israel not by killing harmless prophets but by dealing with the man at the top, King Ahab, and meting out justice to him.

Galatians 3.23-29

Paul says that the promises of God do not belong to those who slavishly obey codes of rules and regulations, or who offer sacrifices in the right places and pray at the right time of day. Elijah was wrong about that. But Elijah was right when he recognised that faith is all important. It's no good hoping that, if we do this, that and the other thing, God will take care of us and protect us from harm. God cannot do that. God may not direct cataracts of water, or other kinds of waves and billows, to break over us and submerge us. But we live in a universe created by God where unpleasant things are constantly at risk of happening. And the only thing which makes it possible for us to go on believing that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that love will ultimately triumph over death and adversity, is faith. We have to be baptised into Christ, who shared our death and suffered as we do. He is the only guarantee and promise that God has not forgotten or forsaken us, but is with us in our troubles. Allegiance to his vision of what God is like is what really matters in this life, and it towers above the other things which divide us one from another - nationality, religion, gender or social class. For we are all one in him. In this sense, God is indeed like a cataract, sweeping away the petty differences which obsess us so much. He is not an avenging God, but he is a challenging and transforming God.

Luke 8.26-39
The country of the Gerasenes was a pagan land. The people living there were not Jewish. Although they might have come from a similar background, they had adopted Greek culture and they herded and ate pigs, which Jewish people considered unclean. Yet God was doing things for these people through Jesus' ministry, even when his intervention was disturbing and unwelcome.

The man whom Jesus met in the cemetery sounds like a victim of mental illness rather than demon possession, and it's hard to make sense of the strange story that Jesus allowed the demons to escape into the nearby pigs. But Jesus was able to turn the inner turmoil and outward chaos of this man's life to calm and help him to centre his life on God.

Notice how Jesus told the man to declare what God had done for him, whereas he chose instead to proclaim what Jesus had done. Is this because he recognised that Jesus is, indeed, divine? Or is it because he thought he know better than Jesus what he ought to say, just as he thought he knew better than Jesus where he ought to go. His vocation, however, was to go where he was needed - to the place where he had lived and worked before he became ill.

One way of interpreting these two psalms, and Elijah's wilderness experience, is as a time of mental breakdown or depression following overwhelming pressure and stress. Healing comes through rediscovering God's silence, which is able to overcome the clamour of the legion of competing demands which we face in our busy lives.