Friday, October 29, 2010

Los Treinta y Tres (The 33 Chilean Miners)

Genesis 32.22-31
This Gospel passage is about the importance of talking to God and doing all that we can to get on his wavelength. We shouldn’t worry too much about the details of the story, except to say that it pits a powerful person, a judge, against a powerless person, a widow. Women didn’t have many rights in Jesus’ day and if there were no sons or brothers to speak up for them it was easy for people like the lazy judge to ignore them. So Jesus’ listeners would have been expecting the widow to come off worst from the encounter. Yet she doesn’t give up. She’s determined to fight her corner and, by sheer perseverance, she persuades the good-for-nothing judge to do the right thing.

Jesus concludes his story by saying, if a bad person can be convinced to help someone in need, how much easier it must be to get God on our side. He wants to help us and, if we let him, he will hurry to our aid.

Which brings me to the week’s big story - the rescue of the thirty-three Chilean miners buried more than 700 metres, or 2,000 feet, below ground in the San Jose copper mine - because it resonates with the parable Jesus told.

First, I want to remind you about their own perseverance in prayer. Some of the miners were Christians, and they organised prayer meetings twice every day while they were trapped, asking God to help and encourage them. But they didn’t leave everything to God. They also helped in their own rescue, by not giving up, by rationing their food and eating tiny amounts for the first three weeks of their ordeal, by sounding horns and setting off explosives to try to attract the attention of the rescuers, and by moving the dust and rocks created by the drill which was enlarging the escape tunnel so that it would be wide enough to get them out.

A striking television image showed the oldest miner, Mario Gomez, kneeling in prayer after he got out of the rescue capsule. He has been a miner for 51 years, since he was twelve. All the people who were gathered round him, the camera crews, the rescuers, the families and colleagues, fell silent while he said thank-you to God. It was a very impressive moment and even hardened journalists were clearly moved by it.

But he wasn’t the only one. One of the younger miners told reporters that he had never prayed much before. ‘I learned to pray while I was down there in the mine!’ he said.

Jose Henriquez is partly responsible for that. He’s a part-time minister, like me. His job, while the miners were trapped, was to try to keep everyone’s spirits up by organising the prayers.

But this story isn’t just about the perseverance of the miners. Miners have been trapped before and sometimes they have been given up for dead. In Mexico four years ago 66 miners were trapped underground in a mining disaster, but the rescue attempt was given up after only five days.

The circumstances were different, because that was a coalmine and it was believed the Mexican miners might have been poisoned by methane gas. But, above all, what stopped the same thing from happening at the San Jose Mine was the families of the miners. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, even toddlers, went to the mine entrance and camped there, refusing to go away until the miners were found.

They were like the widow in the story. They were only ordinary people, up against the mine owners and the government. But they refused to give up hope and they kept on campaigning to make sure the search would continue. Then - when the men were found alive - they campaigned to ensure that the rescue would be carried out quickly.

And so, unlike a lot of news stories, this one has a happy ending. Esperanza, the baby daughter of one of the miners, Ariel Ticona, was born while he was trapped underground. He had asked his wife to give her this name, which is the same name chosen by the family and friends of the miners for the makeshift camp where they kept their vigil until the rescue. In Spanish it means ‘hope’. As people of faith we always have to go on hoping, even in the darkness, for God is concerned to protect us and will hurry to come to our aid.

And that’s where we could leave the story if we were only focusing on the Gospel reading, but - of course - we can’t really stop there because miners are still trapped underground. Last week it was in Chile, yesterday it was in China. And life may not be happy ever after for all of the Chilean miners, either, because traumatic events can have a strange effect on people, affecting their moods and their personality.

Jesus asks us to trust God, but the Old Testament reminds us that sometimes we also have to wrestle with fear, and doubt. Jesus says God is concerned to protect us, but Jacob was scarred by his encounter with God. It wounded him.

The story of Jacob wrestling with God is a very strange one, of course, which is why we didn’t read it in the earlier service. It serves a number of functions.

Partly the story sets out to explain the origins of the name ‘Israel’ - which appears to mean ‘someone who struggles with God’ but which could also bring us closer to the story of the widow, because it might mean ‘someone who perseveres with God’, as the widow persevered in her campaign for justice. But the story also explains the name ‘Peniel’, the place where we come ‘face to face with God’. And it also seeks to explain why it is forbidden for Jewish people to eat sinew from the hollow of a thigh bone.

But it’s also a story shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. Does Jacob really wrestle with God, or does he only think he has wrestled with God? Is it actually his brother Esau who comes to wrestle with him, or a stranger - a bandit or a robber? They only wrestle at night, when it’s difficult to see the identity of the other person. At daybreak, vampire-like, the mysterious wrestler pleads to be allowed to get away.

It’s only afterwards that Jacob concludes he has been wrestling with God. Is this simply his way of making sense of a very bruising experience?

What the World Eats

Isaiah 25.6-9
This Bible reading is a vision of how God intends to bring all the peoples and nations of the world together, to live in peace and harmony. The Prophet imagines a wonderful banquet spread out in God’s Temple where representatives of all the countries and peoples on earth will sit down to share food with one another - a sort of United Nations’ Assembly, but in Jerusalem rather than New York and where the ambassadors eat instead of talking. In the vision they are given nothing but the best - the richest food and the finest wine - because this is meant to be a wonderful celebration, a party to end all parties.

It will mark an incredible change in our fortunes. The cloud of sorrow that has long been hanging over the world - caused by famine, and disease, war and injustice, global warming and exploitation of all the natural resources of the earth - will be suddenly removed. It will be like the sun breaking through on a foggy day. There will be no more trouble. All the tears which people shed now will be wiped away. Everyone will be happy and joyful. When it happens, says the Prophet, those who put their trust in God will realise that he has done this.

In their book Hungry Planet (Time Magazine) Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio have produced a photo essay which reminds me of this passage. The pictures and the prophecy are vivid reminders of how important food is to all of us, wherever we live in the world. Food, and sharing it together around the family table, is one of the things that has the power to bring us all together and to help us see how alike we are.

They both remind us that the way the world is now is unfair. Some people have a lot to eat, and some have only a little. Some have a huge variety of food and some have very little choice. But did you notice how happy everyone in the pictures seemed to be, despite the fact that some of them don’t seem to have much to be happy about?

I think what the photo essay and the prophecy have in common is that they’re both telling us we can make a difference. We can help to bring about the sort of world where people do have enough to eat, where there is a reason to celebrate, and where we can all live in harmony. If we are believers we can trust God to help us share his vision of a joyful banquet prepared for all the human race - a time of peace and plenty for everyone.

Luke 17.5-10
Harvest festival reminds us about our lack of faith. Each day we worry about what tomorrow might bring. Job losses, a double dip recession, higher interest rates or, if we’re living on the return from our savings, an indefinite continuation of the very low interest rates that we see now. And then, of course, there’s the ever present shadow of global warming, the rapid depletion of the world’s resources, the threat of mass extinctions of plants, fish and animals. And what about the possibility of a global pandemic, a massive volcanic eruption or a meteor strike from outer space? These are all genuine fears about real risks. But where is our faith?

Fear paralyses people and makes them lose hope, give up and abandon themselves to what fate might bring. That’s certainly how a lot of people feel about global warming and it’s how some people feel when they lose their jobs.

Faith empowers people. It enables them. It allows them to look for a way out, to seek solutions, to plan for the future, to have a vision and to set goals which they can aim for on the journey to realising that vision.

Fear makes people look inwards and huddle together with their friends and family as they look for comfort and reassurance, whereas faith sets people free and encourages them to look outwards and turn to strangers as well as to friends to help them find answers.

When Jesus says that, with faith the size of a grain of mustard it is possible to hurl a mulberry tree into the sea I’m sure he’s exaggerating, but you get the point don’t you? Faith is good; fear is bad. And harvest time reminds us just how much there is to be faithful about.

So, what is the natural response to harvest time? It’s natural, isn’t it, to have a harvest hoe down! To sit down at once and take our places at the harvest supper table groaning with produce so that we can tuck in and enjoy the feast. Elsewhere in the Bible, as we heard in our first service this morning, the celebration banquent is held up as a vision of the future promised to us by God if we are faithful to him.

Jesus doesn’t contradict that vision, but he does say that the harvest supper, the Endtime banquet, will have to wait until the job is finished. While work remains to be done it is our duty to continue with the task, not to sit down and take our ease.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to the slave, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may take your turn?’ So you also, when you have done what you were ordered to do, must say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!’”

It’s a rotten life being a slave, isn’t it? And I’m sure Jesus isn’t really commending slavery as a good thing or telling us that we should never ease up, or take a break, or have a well earned rest while there still remains work to be done. He himself stopped work once in a while and feasted with his friends. So once again here he is surely exaggerating for the sake of emphasis.

But what he is saying is that harvest festival time is not an excuse for cosy complacency. It’s a reminder that, although much has been accomplished, much still remains to be done. It’s an encouragement to continue God’s unfinished business as co-workers alongside him. We have to help him complete the task of perfecting creation.

And even if, as Paul and John both remind us, we are actually treated as God’s beloved children and not as worthless slaves, that favour is undeserved. We must never forget that in serving God we are only doing what we ought to do.

Facing Up To Challenge

Psalm 129
This psalm reminds me of the saying that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you! Life often seems like one long series of little assaults, doesn’t it? Tax bills, speeding tickets perhaps, petty demands from officious people to show them ID that you’ve left in the drawer at home. So I could go on. Helen remarked the other day that problems at work seem to be stored up for the afternoon before her day off so that she either comes home very late or ends up working in her own time. ‘Often have they attacked me from my youth,’ or so it sometimes seems anyway.

But the Psalmist makes it clear that here it is the nation of Israel which is speaking, not a harassed individual. Often has she been attacked since her youth - by desert raiders, by the Egyptians of course, by the Philistines, the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and so I could go on - right up until the time of the Nazi Holocaust. ‘Often they have attacked me, yet they have not prevailed.’

If the Church is the New Israel then perhaps the words of the Psalm apply to us also. The Church was born out of the blood of its first martyrs, indeed Christianity began with the crucifixion of its founder. Today Christians still face localised persecution in places like Pakistan. And, of course, the Pope and his advisers have courted unpopularity by drawing attention to the aggressive atheism which constantly gnaws away at religious faith in this country too - especially in the media. ‘Often they have attacked me, yet they have not prevailed.’

The image of our opponents ploughing on our backs is graphic and disturbing. It reminds me of the scourging of Jesus and the tortures inflicted on the Suffering Servant in Isaiah’s prophecies. ‘Often they have attacked me, yet they have not prevailed.’

The Psalmist ends by hoping that the Lord will intervene to overcome the wicked by cutting the cords that they use to flail or bind their opponents. He imagines them withering like grass growing in the thatch of a house. It will never grow long enough to be harvested and turned into hay because its roots will not sustain it in the dry thatch. In the same way he hopes that the plans of the wicked will never come to final fruition.

However, the Gospel teaches us that it is only through enduring the suffering and scorn of the wicked that the faithful can prevail. Jesus not only underwent flogging and crucifixion, he also had to put up with the jeers of passers-by who said to him as he hung on the cross, ‘Clearly the blessing of the Lord is not with you.’ This was part of the spiritual and psychological torment which he had to undergo along with the physical pain and, in the end, he was reduced to asking God why he had been abandoned by him? And yet, of course, he had not been abandoned. ‘Often they have attacked me, yet they have not prevailed.’

Ezra 1.1-11
The Book of Ezra is one of the most exclusivist books in the Bible. Perhaps inevitably, given the broken state of the nation at the time, it focuses inwards on the nation of Israel to the virtual exclusion of all other people.

It’s amazing, therefore that it begins with a very generous tribute to the Persian Emperor Cyrus. It says that God inspired him to restore the nation and to help its people to restore their temple. It also says that God put him in charge of all the nations which he ruled. Actually, somewhat bombastically, Cyrus clams to be the ruler of all the nations of the earth, which he must have known to be a falsehood.

The story has some resonance with us because it’s about the restoration and refurbishment of a place of worship for the community. I wouldn’t want to make too much of a single word, whose meaning is anyway disputed by scholars, but interestingly Cyrus doesn’t tell the people of Judah to go and restore or reconstruct their ruined temple. He tells them to build a new one. It’s not a command to restore the glories of the past but to make something that’s ready to meet the challenge of the future.

John 7.14-36
The Gospel reading raises some interesting issues. The first one concerns the place and importance of learning in human affairs.

Much has been made recently of Stephen Hawking’s assertion that we no longer need God to explain the existence of the universe, and his criticism of philosophers, who he said were behind the curve and had lost touch with cutting edge thinking. Of course, those statements produced an ascerbic response from philosophers, who didn’t take kindly to being lectured by a scientist.

Jesus says that true learning has nothing to do with academic achievement. In fact, real wisdom has a spiritual dimension and an ethical dimension. People who understand what is right and just are better able to discern the truth and are more likely to be sincere.

A great deal of so-called academic learning is self-promotion, helping the professor or teacher to sell more copies of his or her latest book and advance his or her career. Could that be the case with Stephen Hawking? A few controversial remarks can drum up a great deal of publicity.

As regards what Professor Hawking has to say about God and the universe, a God of the Gaps is no use at all to people of faith. If we just wheel God out like a deus ex machina to explain gaps in human knowledge we will be doomed to end up with a redundant and powerless God because the gaps in human knowledge keep shrinking.

But people of faith have long recognised this. I’m sure we don’t need theologians or philosophers to explain how the universe came into existence. But perhaps we need them to consider a different question, ‘Why is it here?’

After talking about the challenge to his teaching, Jesus goes on to attack the absurdity of religious regulations which allow people to be inducted into the faith, but not to be healed or made whole, on the sabbath day. Of course, we might feel that this is a caricature of the true Jewish faith. There are actually just thirty-nine things which Jewish people are absolutely forbidden to do on the sabbath and healing is not one of them. In particular, saving someone’s life is a sacred obligation and it overrides any other sabbath law. But Jesus was impatient with any religious rules and regulations unless they were absolutely justified. He even permitted his followers to prepare food and plough their fields on the sabbath, both of which certainly are forbidden in Jewish Law.

Some Jewish people expected the origins of the true Messiah to be shrouded in mystery whereas clearly there was nothing mysterious about Jesus. He was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee, and therefore he could not be the true Messiah. But Jesus counters this reasoning by saying that although he is an ordinary person he has been given a special mission by God - and that is something genuinely mysterious. Jesus’ response is enough to convince some people in the crowd that he’s mad, bad and dangerous to know. But others are convinced that he really is from God and they believe in him.

The authorities now try to arrest Jesus for claiming to be the Messiah but John is quick to point out that - although Jesus was eventually tried and executed - this could only happen at the time appointed by God. In the meantime the authorities were bound to be thwarted.

The other Gospels hint that what kept Jesus at liberty for so long was the protection of the crowds surrounding him, which made it difficult to carry out an arrest without provoking a riot. But for John this is too haphazard an explanation because he wants us to understand beyond any doubt that God was in control of the whole of Jesus’ destiny. However, Jesus warns that his earthly ministry will inevitably come to an end and then finding him will become a matter of faith.

As so often in the Gospels, the crowd don’t understand some of his more enigmatic remarks and look for a more straight forward explanation. If they won’t be able to see him any more, does that means he’s going on a mission to the Diaspora, the Jewish people dispersed to Gentile lands who actually out-numbered Jewish people living in Palestine?

Paradoxically the crowd are right, of course. Jesus’ mission is going to be extended to Gentile lands, and not just to the Jewish people living there, but the task will be undertaken by his followers empowered by his Spirit. And we stand in that succession. Our mission is to help the people around us to continue finding Jesus.