Monday, August 29, 2011

God's message to a nation rocked by riots

Isaiah 51.1-6
Matthew 16.13-20

The opening verses of Isaiah chapter 56 are like recent events in reverse. Some young people around the country took advantage of a spot of lawlessness to do what was wrong and to seek their own personal gain. When they set out they certainly did not consider their law-abiding and God-fearing ancestors. Instead they headed down to the local electrical store or off-licence, determined to help themselves.

Isaiah speaks of ruins being turned back into an Eden, a place of plenty and ease, gladness and joy, whereas on our television screens the streets in some parts of London, Manchester and Birmingham were turned from prosperous shopping centres into arid and empty ruins where ordinary passers-by felt suddenly vulnerable and afraid. Isaiah talks of melody breaking out. Our experience has been of sudden discord.

At the end of this morning’s Old Testament lesson God addresses the people directly through the Prophet, and urges them to listen to his message of good news and deliverance. He talks about light breaking through, about imminent victory, about the everlasting protection offered by his strong arm.

In striking contrast, at the end of the recent episode of social unrest, we have been offered a host of commentaries and theories to explain what has gone wrong, ranging from the growing divide between rich and poor in our acquisitive society, to criticism of the Police for, on the one hand, losing the trust of local people but, on the other hand, being too soft on the rioters. There have also been complaints that we don’t teach enough ethics and morality in our schools. The message has been about darkness, about failure, and about the need for the strong arm of the law to crack down on the offenders and give them harsh sentences to deter others from trying the same thing.

Actually, a very similar thing happened in the aftermath of the Bradford riots, when first time offenders also got very long sentences, sometimes for doing no more than throwing a stone towards the police lines even when it fell far short of the target. But David Boyle from the New Economics Foundation said of last week’s riots, ‘These were not riots of rage’ like the rioting in Bradford and other northern towns, ‘they were riots of greed.’ On our TV screens, he said, we witnessed ‘a valueless materialism that allowed hundreds of young people to go on violent and thieving rampages’.

David Cameron and Tony Blair have had contrasting things to say about the riots. Tony Blair warned against elevating our response to the riots ‘into a highfalutin wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally.’ If we did this, he said, we would ‘depress ourselves unnecessarily, trash our own reputation abroad, and worst of all, miss the chance to deal with the problem in the only way that will work. Britain as a whole is not in the grip of some general “moral decline”, he insisted. ‘The truth is that many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, either middle class or poor.’ In contrast, David Cameron thinks ‘There are deep problems in our society that have been growing for a long time: a decline in responsibility, a rise in selfishness, a growing sense that individual rights come before anything else.’ For once, I’m inclined to agree with Mr Cameron.

But is this outburst of selfishness and greed entirely surprising, when the same level of naked greed is often equally evident in older people, too? In their own lawless and destructive way the young rioters were simply copying some of their elders. As Professor Colin Talbot from Manchester University said, we can see excessive greed at work among a good number of the people who lead our society too: ‘financiers, directors, derivatives traders, newspaper moguls and others who have decided that the “normal rules” do not apply to them.’

How can we get back from this abysmal picture to the sort of future promised by Isaiah? Well, last week I was sent a hymn about the riots. Surely that must be a first! Actually, I think it’s more like a poem than a hymn. The writer, Gary Hopkins, says:

I dream this world will wake up and see the grief and pain –

lives broken by division, the barriers that remain –

to see that all our hatred brings misery and tears

and conflict with each other which only stokes our fears.

Yet there must be another way to be the human race;

together we can find it and build a better place;

A place where lives are cherished and no one has it rough,

where no one is neglected and each one has enough.

This dream will be accomplished in give and not in take,

through sharing with each other not being ‘on the make’;

A world of peace and justice, with love for everyone,

where hand in hand, united, we all shall live as one.

After watching shops and homes going up in flames, pedestrians being robbed and even a motor cyclist being dragged from his bike so that it can be ridden away by another member of the gang, we might find Isaiah’s vision, and the words of the poet, too optimistic and other-worldly to entirely reassure us. But Isaiah seems to have foreseen this response, for at the end of the passage he tells us that when peace dissolves and certainties are shaken, or even if the earth were to be destroyed and its inhabitants were to die like flies, God’s saving power is still going to be there to catch us as we fall.

Today’s Gospel passage actually makes us actors in the drama. Not only will God save his people, but we - the members of his Church - will have an active part to play, for Peter makes the astounding claim that the good news of God’s deliverance, which Isaiah had announced, is not just a pious hope, a dream or a vision, it is a concrete reality which has come true in Jesus.

If Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed, that means he is God’s saving power, God’s arm, in action in human history. When Peter makes this profession of faith Jesus then responds with an even more amazing claim. He says that Peter is the rock on which he will build his community, and even the powers of death will never be able to conquer it.

There are two ways of understanding this. First, there’s the Roman Catholic interpretation, that Jesus is talking specifically about Peter and his successors. They are to be the leaders and shepherds of the Christian community, the rock which will help to secure its faithfulness down the ages. But alternatively, Peter can be understood as a representative of all believers. When we come to trust that Jesus is the realisation of God’s promises then we too become part of the rock on which Jesus is able to build his community on earth.

The task of the community of believers is to hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Traditionally, that was interpreted by many Christians as giving them the authority to decide who was in favour with God and who was out of favour, who was a true believer and who was a heretic or outside the true Church. It’s a bit like imaging the Church as a vast international court-room with the power to hand out exemplary sentences to alleged wrongdoers.

‘You stole a bottle of water? One month in gaol!’ ‘You planned a riot in Nantwich, did you? Well, we’ll lock you in a cell and throw away the key!’

Roman Catholics have gone even further, and seen these verses as entrusting the Holy Father with the power to rule infallibly on issues of faith and morals. But the verses could be understood in another way.

For the last five years I have had a large bulky chain fastened to the crossbar of my bike by an equally chunky padlock. I kept meaning to borrow some bolt cutters to take the chain off, because it was quite a nuisance. But then, while doing some spring cleaning in the garage, I found the missing key to the padlock! What a difference it makes to be able to remove the chain. Surely the mission of the Church is not to lock people up or tie them down. It’s to set them free to be their true selves as part of the community of e and trust in Jesus.

Historically, of course, one of the roles undertaken by the Church was to set parameters for people’s lives, to give them the moral and ethical guidelines which commentators now feel are so sadly lacking. Perhaps our ancestors in the faith undertook this task too enthusiastically at times, so that Christians became more closely identified with forbidding things than with allowing people to be what they are truly meant to be. However, the modern permissive society has gone to the other extreme. Leaving people to feel that they are free to do whatever they can get away with, even running riot, or that the “normal rules” do not apply to them, is actually not empowering or liberating. It leads ultimately to a state of lawlessness and free-for-all which is arguably just as bad, if not worse, than Christianity at its most repressive and puritanical.

But, of course, we should not be appealing to the lost values of Victorian England to justify believing in Jesus and his Church. Instead, we should be invoking the vision of Isaiah. If we believe in Jesus and become an active part of the believing community of his friends and followers, the rock which he established, we can help to usher in God’s deliverance, his gentle rule, his everlasting protection, his saving power.

Taking things for granted

Romans 12:1-8

Raise one eyebrow
Lick your elbow
Twitch your nose
Wiggle your ears
Touch your nose or chin with your tongue
Make a fist and put it in your mouth
Tickle yourself

Bend your middle finger and place the rest of your hand on a table or on a flat surface like a book, or even on the back of a chair. Then lift your thumb, and your index finger, and little finger. No problem, right? Now try the ring finger.

Lift your right foot a few inches from the floor and then begin to move it in a clockwise direction. While you’re doing this, use a finger your right index finger to draw a number 6 in the air... Your foot will turn in an anticlockwise direction and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Stare at the middle of the black and white picture, (if you can, look at the little cross or plus sign), for at least 30 seconds and then look at a wall near you, you... You should see a bright spot which twinkles a few times, and then do you see?

Most of the time the different parts of our bodies work so well together that we don’t notice what most of them are doing for us. We take it for granted.

St Paul said it’s a bit like that when we belong to a family, or to any community of people, including a church. It’s not until people stop doing the things they always do to help us, day by day or week by week, that we notice how much we have come to depend on them.

St Paul gives us two different examples. He reminds us, for instance, that different parts of our bodies have highly specialised functions - like the light sensors in our eyes, which are easily tricked when we stare for too long at the same black and white image; or the part of our brain which controls rhythm and movement - which is quickly upset if we try to draw in the air two completely different patterns at the same time, one with our hand and the other with our foot. We seldom notice these different parts of our body until something out of the ordinary happens, but then we realise just how much we depend upon them all of the time.

It’s a bit like having a grandmother who usually does all the cooking and a grandfather who usually does all the gardening when we go to visit them, or it could be a grandfather who does the cooking and a grandmother who does the gardening. But anyway, what if one of them was suddenly taken poorly - with a bad headache - and the other one had to take over the cooking, while trying to dig up the potatoes and pick the runner beans all at the same time, or vice versa?

And in a church it’s a bit like having some people who provide the music, and others who count the collection, and others who give people a welcome at the door. If one of those people didn’t turn up on the day they were expected we would very soon notice, although most of the time we might take them for granted.

The other example that St Paul gives is the way that some people have extraordinary abilities that no one else - or very few other people - share. Some people, for instance, can wiggle their ears, or lift their ring finger when their middle finger is bent, but most of us can’t! St Paul says that we need to make use of the special gifts that people have. Now wiggling your ears might not have much value, except for making other people laugh, but being able to teach people, or give them a lead in a difficult situation, or use special skills to make something beautiful, or even simply to be patient and kind to awkward or unhappy people - these are very special gifts which we ought to value very highly, because many people can’t do these things, no matter how hard they might try.

All of this leads St Paul to say that we ought to treasure the whole of our bodies and treat every part of them with love and respect, even the parts which we normally don’t notice very much. And the same is true of our families, or of the other groups we belong to, including the Church. We ought to treasure every member because each person has a unique part to play and we would miss them if they were no longer there.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The True Bread and The Prosperous Vineyard

Psalm 80
John 6.24-35

The old Testament reading in the evening lectionary is the story of Solomon’s encounter with the Queen of Sheba. You can read it for yourselves in 1 Kings chapter 10, but it’s not a passage which lends itself to preaching because there’s not very much to remark upon so we haven’t read it tonight.

The most notable thing in the passage is that the Queen of Sheba asks Solomon enigmatic questions. In the Qur’an Solomon persuades her to adopt the worship of the one true God, but in the Bible she merely praises God and the way that God has blessed Solomon’s reign. Apart from that the passage seems to be telling us that Solomon’s wealth, although it was amazing, was as nothing compared to his wisdom. In that sense, 1 Kings chapter 10 echoes this morning’s reading from Isaiah 55. Wisdom is free. There is no need to spend lots of money trying to find it and anyone who tries to buy wisdom and God’s favour is on a fool’s errand.

And so we turn, instead, to the psalms and to Psalm 80 with its repeated refrain, ‘Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.’ The psalm begins by celebrating God’s leadership. He has been a good shepherd to the tribes of Israel in times past, but now - in the words of Roy Orbison - God has ‘left Israel standing all alone, alone and crying.’ No wonder Israel’s enemies laugh her to scorn.

The Psalmist then evokes one of the Bible’s favourite images for Israel - the vineyard planted by God in Palestine. The Psalmist reminds us how God drove out the people and animals which had occupied the land before, patiently cleared the ground of weeds and stones, built a wall around it and then planted the vines, which flourished and grew so tall and strong that soon even mountains were in the vineyard’s shade, and it stretched from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, or perhaps from the source of the River in the north to the Dead Sea, where it finally empties, in the South. But then, inexplicably, God broke down the walls he had so painstakingly built and allowed outsiders to come in and steal the fruit. Worse still, wild boar from the forest were able to uproot the vines and wild animals came and ate them up. Finally, what the animals didn’t eat, and the thieves didn’t steal, was set on fire and destroyed by Israel’s enemies. The psalm creates a picture of utter devastation, from which God appears to have averted his eyes.

No wonder, then, that the Psalmist concludes it is time now for God to send Israel a new leader, a Messiah, someone he has chosen and marked for greatness and who knows his will. But at this point the Psalmist suddenly admits - almost in passing - that what has gone wrong in the past is not really God’s fault after all. Israel has provoked God into abandoning her. She has turned away from him, much as the people in the market place - in this morning’s reading from Isaiah chapter 55 - had been spending their money at the wrong stalls, buying the wrong kind of food and drink.

Now, however says the Psalmist, the people of Israel have learnt their lesson, they will never turn away from God again; although, the Psalmist’s tone isn’t as contrite as perhaps it ought to be. At the very end of the psalm he tries to strike a bargain with God. ‘Give us life and we will call upon your name.’ Surely this offer is back to front? Shouldn’t Israel call on God’s name in the hope that he will restore her life?

All we can suppose is that the nation has endured so much suffering that this degree of faith and trust is no longer possible. God will have to act first. He will have to send his Messiah to save her before she will be able to summon enough faith to respond. And, of course, isn’t that exactly what did happen with Jesus. God sent him to a world which was living in a spiritual darkness so deep that its people did not even recognise him, although the world owed its very being to him. He came to God’s own people, and they would not accept him. ‘But to all who did accept him, to those who put their trust in him, the Messiah gave the right to become children of God.’

In the background to all of our lectionary readings today has been the famous story of the feeding of the five thousand. We have heard - in the prophecy from Isaiah chapter 55 - how God wants to give us free food and drink, but it’s no ordinary food, it’s the spiritual sustenance of a new covenant with him, mediated by a new Messiah. John’s Gospel, more emphatically even than Matthew’s Gospel, wants its readers to understand that the feeding miracle is also a spiritual story, a story about the Eucharist, a story of holy communion with God through Jesus.

In tonight’s reading Jesus has left the place where the miracle happened, but the crowd has pursued him, hungry for more signs and wonders. To Jesus’ disappointment, however, it is the wondrous nature of the miracle which has them in its thrall. They have come to him hoping to be offered more of his wonderful free bread. What they have failed to understand is the significance of the miracle. It isn’t about giving people an endless supply of free food - otherwise we would be able to solve the food crisis in the Horn of Africa just by offering up prayers for another miracle. Instead, the feeding of the five thousand is a sign that Jesus is able to offer the bread which lasts for ever , the food of eternal life.

Actually, I’m particularly interested in this idea because I make my own bread. I think it tastes much better than anything you can buy in the shops. And, despite the fact that it contains no preservatives, my bread also lasts much longer than shop bought bread. It doesn’t go stale as quickly and it hardly ever gets mouldy. But the bread which Jesus offers is better even than this. It is the true bread from heaven, which brings life to the world. Whoever eats it will never be hungry again.

This is better not only than my homemade bread, but even than the manna which God sent from heaven when the people of Israel were wandering in the Wilderness. The manna lasted only for a few hours. It couldn’t be stored. But holy communion is a gift for life. It is a sign that Jesus will always be with his Church.

Going back to the psalm just for a moment, perhaps there are times when we feel like the Psalmist. We feel that the Church needs to be restored, that her defences have been broken down, that God is no longer watching over us and he doesn’t care about our plight. A wave of secularism washes over us, and over the people around us, and we feel as though our Christian heritage is being uprooted, and trodden underfoot, and pillaged.

Worse than that, people with very different aims and ideals from Christianity have nonetheless claimed our heritage for their own. The mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik wrote in his manifesto, ‘If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.’

Breivik’s warped view of the Christian moral platform means that, as Christians, we now find ourselves in the same uncomfortable place as Muslims found themselves in after 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombings - seeking to disassociate ourselves from people who claim to stand under the banner of our faith when we can see clearly - even if the media cannot - that they are not real believers at all. Breivik is not, as first reported, a Christian fundamentalist; he is someone who, in the words of the Psalmist, was passing along the way when he plucked its fruit.

Like the enemies who had attacked Israel, destroyed her independence and scattered her people, Breivik burned with fire and cut down the stock which God had planted. The modern state of Norway has a history of peacefulness which owes a great deal to its Christian heritage, and we might feel that we wish to join the Psalmist in calling on God to rebuke Breivik and people like him with his stern countenance, so that they might perish.

But the one at God’s right hand, the Messiah whom God made strong for himself, does not cause his enemies to perish. He only asks that we might believe he has not abandoned us. The cross reminds us that he himself faced opposition, misunderstanding, prejudice and ignorance, and overcame them by standing firm against them in love.

We must continue patiently rebuilding the broken down walls of the vineyard, replanting the vines and clearing the ground, and restoring God’s reign as far as we are able. For God’s face does shine upon us. He is working to restore the world. He has not turned his back on us and he intends to give us life when we call on his name. When we gather at the Lord’s table he comes again to feed us with the bread from heaven, the bread of life, which is his presence with us to strengthen and encourage us, now and always.

The Perfect Pitch

Isaiah 55.1-5, Matthew 14.13-21, Romans 9.1-5

The opening verses of Isaiah chapter 55 are set in a market place. The Revised English Bible softens the market trader’s pitch in the opening verse and makes it sound far less arresting than the Prophet intended. The passage should really begin with something like, ‘Hey, gather round everyone!’ or ‘Listen up!’

To picture what the Prophet has in mind you need to think yourself back to Wakefield Market a good few years ago. Here is someone selling dinner services, or tea services. ‘Ladies, I’m not offering you one tureen,’ the pitcher says, perhaps twirling a tureen around his head. or throwing it up into the air and catching it expertly on the way down, ‘I’m not even going to offer you two tureens. Because you - the good ladies of Wakefield have such an excellent eye for a bargain - I’m going to throw in a third one as well and, also, because it’s your lucky day today, you’re not just going away with three tureens, I’m going to give you a full set of dinner plates, and I’m going to give you the side plates, and I’m even going to throw in the soup bowls as well, and all made in this lovely hand-glazed Staffordshire pottery that you see before you. And no doubt you’ll be wondering what I’m asking for this amazing twenty-one piece dinner service. Well I’m not going to ask for thirty shillings, I’m not even going to ask for twenty-five bob, or twenty-four. In fact I’m going to rob myself today, because I’m not even asking for twenty-three shillings, or twenty-two shillings and six pence. This handsome dinner set - one, two, three tureens, six dinner plates, six side plates, six soup bowls, and even the lovely box they come in - is yours today, Ladies, for the bargain price of just one guinea. So come on Ladies, put up your hands quickly before I come to my senses and change my mind.’

Or what about the fruit and veg man, holding open a big carrier bag? ‘Look! I’m going to give you one, two, three, four, five, six juicy jaffas, and - look! - a handful of satsumas, and two handfuls of monkey nuts ‘shell-on’, and a pound o’ plumbs, and a cabbage, and a cauliflower, and a whole bunch of celery sticks and I’m not going to ask for one-and-six, I’m only going to ask you one shilling the lot. Snap my hand off before I think better of it!

With that picture in mind we can go back to Isaiah and get the full flavour of this passage. ‘Look! Ladies and gentlemen, are you thirsty today? Come and get some beautiful, refreshing spring water! And not just this lovely spring water, how about I throw in some milk, and look, just because it’s you, I’ll throw in a skinful of wine for good measure. Are you hungry? Well I’ll throw in a bagful of grain as well. And what am I asking, ladies and gentlemen, for this amazing bargain? I’m not asking three shekels, I’m not asking two, I’m not even asking one.’

The first shock for the reader in this passage is that the pitcher or spieler is offering the goods for free. ‘Today, ladies and gentlemen, I’m giving it all away! Snatch my hand off before it’s all gone!’

Why would the pitcher do this? It’s not as if the buyers haven’t any money! The problem is that they’ve been spending their hard earned cash on the wrong things - on junk food that fails to satisfy - when all the time the genuine article was available for nothing.

The second shock for the reader is that the pitcher or spieler seems to be God. Now that’s not very God-like is it? Descending to the market place to shout out an offer for his wares, making his pitch against the cacophony of all the other faiths and lifestyles on offer, surely that’s beneath God’s dignity?

In fact, the image of God competing in the hurly-burly of the market place is so unusual that some commentators think the pitcher or spieler is not God as such, but God’s servant Wisdom. In Israelite tradition Wisdom is pictured as feminine, so if this interpretation is correct, the reader gets a different shock. Although plenty of market traders are female, the pitchers and spielers tend to be male, simply because you need a very loud voice to make yourself heard. Women can shout out their offer to the customer, and you often hear them doing it, and that’s where the expression to shout like a fish wife comes from, but pitching or spieling takes a concentrated or prolonged effort which would be a struggle for most women and also for many men. Here, however, Wisdom would seem to be making her pitch to the people; and if not Wisdom, then God himself.

Having hooked the passer-by’s attention, God or Wisdom then unpacks the offer a little more. It transpires that the goods he, or she, is giving away are not actual meat and drink but words - very special words, though; life-giving words which spell out a new covenant or bond between God and his people.

If the people choose to buy into the covenant, then God will make them even greater than David. He offered a covenant to David and made David the leader of an entire nation, but David and his successors proved unworthy of God’s trust. So now, instead, God makes his offer direct to the people. If they follow him obediently they will be able to repeat his offer to all the nations and the nations will hasten to respond. What was once just a national movement, under King David, will become international instead.

I hope you can see at once the link to our Gospel story. Jesus’ heart goes out to the crowd just as God’s heart went out to the Jewish exiles in the market places of Babylon. But there is a problem. Unlike the people in the market place, the crowd gathered around Jesus is far away from shops and restaurants, or the comforts of home. The disciples urge him to send them away to buy something to eat. Jesus, however, can’t see the problem. Like the pitcher in Isaiah Chapter 55, he thinks it shouldn’t be necessary to pay for nourishing food and drink. ‘Feed them yourselves!’ he says.

Matthew juxtaposes this feast with another one, the feast given by King Herod to celebrate his birthday, when there was lots to eat and drink. But the spirit in which that party was conducted contrasts sharply with the calm and purposeful devotion with which Jesus and his disciples set about feeding the crowd. Herod’s party marred by anger, scheming and self-centredness, culminated in the violent and untimely death of John the Baptist.

Matthew compares that tragic occasion with the way that Jesus, the true successor to King David, feeds the people who have come to him. With his blessing, the five loaves and two fish which the disciples have found become more than sufficient to feed everyone and magic numbers of leftovers are collected up afterwards before the crowd disperses in peace.

Is this a simple feeding miracle? If so, it begs the question why similar miracles cannot be wrought to feed the hungry children in the Horn of Africa today. Or is the real miracle of the Horn of Africa that ordinary people around the world - and governments too - are willing to donate food to help strangers thousands of miles away from them? Did something like this happen in the crowd around Jesus as well? Did strangers share their picnics with those who had come without anything to eat, as the disciples began to distribute their meagre supplies of bread and fish?

Last week a Baptist minister from Gildersome near Leeds published a new website, called ‘The £100 Wedding’, after he heard on the radio that a wedding now costs at least £5,000 and many people who live together would prefer to marry but are put off by the cost. He argued not only that it could be done for no more than £100, but that, in fact, it needn’t cost more than £67 - the price of getting two marriage certificates from the registrar.

His thinking was based on something like the naturalistic interpretation of the feeding miracle - the idea that people were encouraged by Jesus’ example to share their food. He suggested that if couples were able to prove that they really couldn’t afford a posh wedding, and weren’t buying things like a wedding dress, gold rings, a fancy reception and a honeymoon, then many Free Churches would be prepared to perform the ceremony - and perhaps even cater for a simple buffet style reception - free of charge. Anglican churches can’t do this. They must by law make a charge, and a Church of England wedding typically costs at least £400 - just a bit more than a top of the range wedding here.

However, if going without a wedding dress, rings and even a reception all sounds a bit extreme, the minister from Gildersome still has lots of ideas for keeping the cost to a minimum, and most of them are based on sharing. For example, he suggests asking your family if they have any gold rings bequeathed by relatives that you could reuse as your own wedding ring, and getting your friends to upload all their photos of your wedding onto a special website where you can select the best ones to make up your own wedding album. Instead of a reception, he suggests booking a restaurant and asking the guests to pay for their own meal in lieu of buying you a wedding present. That way they don’t have to worry about what to get you, and you don’t have to pay for the wedding breakfast either. And he suggests asking all your friends on Facebook if they’re old wedding dress would fit you co that you can borrow it from them.

I have to say that if any of her friends had wanted to borrow Jenny’s wedding dress they would have to pay for it to be dry cleaned, to get off the gravel marks left by the church path even before her wedding began, and that would cost more than £70 just by itself. But I’m sure you get the idea. A wedding need not cost £5,000. If we followed all of these tips it would probably set us back less than £1,000 - perhaps even much less. And the whole concept is based on people sharing with one another and making a little go a long way as a result. Perhaps that’s what happened when Jesus fed the crowd.

But, of course, any discussion of the feeding of the five thousand men, plus women and children, wouldn’t be complete without a mention of another very special kind of sharing - the eucharistic sharing of bread and wine. Granted, the miracle is about bread and fish, but otherwise it has all the elements of a holy communion. The bread is offered to Jesus, who blesses it, breaks it and shares it with the people. The parallels are so obvious that Matthew must have intended us to see how Jesus is the Wisdom or Word of God, come among us to offer us food that will truly satisfy us, life-giving sustenance, an everlasting covenant, and all at no cost except our own faithfulness to him. Why go chasing after an invitation to Herod’s poisonous banquet when we can have all this for free?

And so, finally, to Paul’s comment about the Jewish nation in Romans chapter 5. Helen and I watched a programme on TV the other day about an excavation in Norwich, on the site where a new shopping centre had been built. The excavation uncovered a disused well shaft, abandoned in early medieval times, where seventeen Jewish men, women and children were either thrown to their deaths, or disposed of after their death, before the sheriff and his men could find out what had happened to them. Apparently there was a riot, and the sheriff briefly lost control of the city - where there were probably about 17,000 people living at the time, 200 of them Jewish moneylenders and merchants together with their families. An angry mob attacked the home of at least one Jewish family and the occupants either took their own lives before they could be captured, or else were murdered in cold blood. A similar atrocity, on a much bigger scale, happened at about the same time in York. But none of this might have happened if the people of medieval England had been able to read, or to listen to the Bible being read in English. For Paul makes clear that the Jewish people have a very special place in God’s plan.

They are the people to whom the prophecy was revealed about the new covenant. The Prophet seems to envisage that the whole nation will take on the messianic role of bringing God’s message to the nations, but of course Paul wants to identify the Messiah, God’s anointed messenger, with Jesus. Nonetheless, he makes clear that Jesus the Messiah is himself Jewish, just like Paul, and that the promises and covenants made with Israel are for ever and still apply, even though - by God’s grace - they have now been extended to us as well.

Look everyone! Gather round and see what we have to offer. God’s promises are freely available to all - even today - and in communion with Jesus, so beautifully symbolised in the re-enactment of the Last Supper, when he comes to join us in the circle as we share the bread and wine, we can be fed and satisfied with all God’s spiritual gifts. Why look elsewhere? Why spend money on what is not good to eat?

Wildflowers & Weeds

Romans 8.15-25

Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

What does Jesus’ story mean? First of all, perhaps, it’s a reminder of just how hard it can be to tell the difference between ‘wheat’ and ‘tares’.

Even a Palestinian farmer might have difficulty distinguishing wheat from darnell because the young plants are both similar to grass stems and look very alike when they’re first sprouting. It’s only as the seed heads mature that you can easily tell the difference between them, and by that time uprooting the darnell might uproot some of the wheat as well.

For us, of course, the confusion is even worse, as this little game we played earlier might reveal! Our problem is that weeds and crops are shifting categories which can be hard to separate.

So, for example, oats can be both a cereal crop and a weed, the domestic variety being closely related to the weed. This means that wild oats are the English equivalent of ‘darnell’, plants which - when they are immature - are virtually indistinguishable from the main crop. Hence the proverb, ‘To sow your wild oats’, refers to behaviour which can have very serious consequences but which, nonetheless, is hard to pin on any particular culprit because he - and it usually is a ‘he’ - will be long gone by the time the outcome - usually a pregnancy - is discovered.

Another example of shifting categories is the poppy - sometimes cultivated in its own right for its seeds, or for its beautiful flowers, as well as being a poignant symbol of spilt blood, and yet also a weed. Once the flowers have died back the dried seed heads will be mixed in with the main crop when the harvester collects it in, and the poppies can then be removed only by painstakingly cleaning the whole harvest to remove them. When poppies once get in among a crop then, like darnell or wild oats, they spell financial disaster.

But there is another problem in trying to categorise weeds. As we have noted, when they occur naturally - in a haphazard way - they may cost the farmer a lot of money to remove and are definitely unwelcome. However, attempts to eradicate weeds have proved equally disastrous and led to what a prophetic voice of the modern ecological movement, Rachel Carson, called ‘the Silent Spring’. By this she meant a countryside so clean and tidied up that there was no longer any room for wildflowers, and therefore less room for insects, and consequently scarcely any room for birds and for their birdsong.

So before we are too hasty to condemn weeds we have to ask ourselves, ‘When is a weed not a weed?’ And the first answer, is that weeds are no longer unwelcome, but become wildflowers again, when they grow on land which has been ‘set aside’ to encourage wildlife, even when it stands cheek by jowl with the main crop. And, of course, because we are no longer intimately connected to the land in the way that our ancestors used to be, most of us are now merely sightseers and for us wildflowers - even when they are growing in the midst of a crop, and should strictly be regarded as weeds - can still be beautiful to behold. So, finally, a weed is only really a weed when you are the farmer and the weeds will cost you money!

Perhaps, then, we should think of this parable as having a life of its own. The details of the story never change but its meaning shifts according to the perspective of the reader. It can no longer mean the same thing for us as it meant for Matthew, but in turn Matthew seems to think that the meaning needs unpicking even for his generation, within fifty or sixty years of Jesus’ death. Hence, although parables are supposed to speak for themselves, he gives his readers the secret meaning of the parable just to make sure that they understand it properly.

Are there some things about the story which never change, even over time? If so, then I think those unshifting messages might be these: we most never forget that the weeds are growing, even when we cannot see them - they are a silent menace lurking among the crop; but it’s not always our job to seek them out, since - at certain points in the development of the crop - we may accidentally pull up the wrong plant; however, God is on the case and eventually he will clean the harvest and remove anything that shouldn’t be there.

What about the changing messages, then? Some people have speculated that Jesus’ original message was for the protesters and agitators of his day - people who were campaigning to get rid of the absentee landlords who creamed off all the profits from the land, and perhaps also the Roman occupiers who protected them. The protesters needn’t worry too much about getting caught or singled out for special treatment by the authorities because, according to this theory, Jesus means them to understand that they can just blend in with the crowd. The authorities can’t arrest everyone, or put everyone under surveillance, so they will escape the net simply by pretending to be part of the silent majority. Then, one day, when the time is right, they will be able to rise up and challenge injustice without being crushed.

It’s the sort of advice which someone must have been giving to our top politicians. ‘Don’t complain about Rupert Murdoch and News International invading your privacy. No one will care and he is so powerful that he will simply crush you like a bug, even though you might have been the prime minister. Keep your head down and your powder dry until the time is right - until he’s already in trouble, for bugging the phones of murder victims and the families of soldiers killed in Iraq. That’s the right moment to break cover and accuse him. That’s when you’ll be able to get even with him.’

Perhaps that sort of theory explains the motivation of the people going after Rupert Murdoch just now, but it doesn’t sound like a plausible explanation of one of Jesus’ parables, does it? It’s not that Jesus’ message had no political implications for his contemporaries. It certainly did, and that’s why he ended up on a cross. He was on the side of the little person and on the side of justice against oppression. But he also said that we must render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and that his kingdom did not belong to this world. In other words, although his message had political implications, he was not a political operator and his parables weren’t coded messages for political agitators. He did mean his followers to infiltrate society and change it silently from within, but not by rising up against the landlords and occupiers. He expected them to change the world by the irresistible power of example, by love in action.

What’s more, there’s little doubt that Jesus saw the weeds as a bad thing, a contaminatiion of the crop rather than a pleasing addition. He’s not in sympathy with the weeds, he just thinks they cannot be removed.

So what about Matthew’s explanation of the parable? He saw it as a message for the Church, about the need to be an open circle which welcomes in the sinner and the stranger. It’s not our task, in Matthew’s view, to excommunicate or anathematise one another, or to judge one another’s motives and behaviour. That’s something we should leave to God, who will be ruthless in rooting out sinfulness and falseness, but will do it when the time is right and without needing our assistance.

By and large I think I would agree with him. His interpretation of the parable is still a valid one. The Church is never more dangerous than when it goes in search of sinners and heretics within its own ranks, in a bid to guard its own purity.

However, there are limits to how far we can agree with Matthew. In the past, Christians who have followed this line have allowed all sorts of bullying, harassment, emotional manipulation, pastoral malpactice and even downright criminal activity - such as child abuse, to go unchecked because it’s not supposed to be our job to sort out the wheat from the tares. Clearly that laissez-faire attitude was just as misguided as the Christians who have gone on a witch-hunt against all the people who disagreed with them, in a bid to root them out of the Church.

So what about the modern interpretation of the parable, the one influenced by the ecological movement and environmentalism, the version that sees weeds as maybe not so bad after all? As we approach the story from today’s perspective doesn’t it have something to say to us about the beauty and importance of diversity and difference?

It’s tempting to try to make everyone the same as us, or to cluster together with people who are just like ourselves - who look like us, perhaps, but who - more importantly - think like we do and believe the same kind of things. But isn’t that kind of world awfully sterile and dull? Isn’t there something missing? Where’s the buzz, the excitement, the challenge?

The other day Helen and I walked across a field of wheat near our home. To the right and left of the path were serried ranks of wheat stalks - every row the same. But, in the middle of the field, along the footpath, was a large swathe of set-aside land and as we walked along it we startled a skylark up into the air and it sang to us. How boring the walk would have been without that beautiful birdsong!

Of course, celebrating diversity is not the same thing as saying that there is no difference between one set of ideas or beliefs and another. Nor is it an excuse for letting people get away with things that are plain wrong, such as denying the human rights of members of their community on the grounds that they are entitled to behave totally differently from the rest of us. But it is saying that we should reserve judgement on many of the things that divide us, and agree to disagree, safe in the knowledge that God is the final arbitrator of all things.

Isn’t Paul saying something similar in his letter to the Christians in ancient Rome? Isn’t he saying that, much as we might like to second guess what the future is going to be like, when God completes the creation, we can’t rush things. We have to turn our backs on fear and look forward to the future eagerly, but with patience.

We may feel that we are God’s children, but at the moment that doesn’t give us any special privileges over everybody else. We all have to wait, with eager anticipation, for God’s truth to be revealed. Living in a diverse world, a world not yet completely under control or entirely obedient to God’s will, may sometimes be frustrating and may even cause us pain at times, but it’s God’s way and it allows us to discover so much that is exciting, challenging and hopeful, which will make our pilgrimage more interesting as we continue on our way through life with Jesus.