Monday, October 17, 2011
I often find this. People used to come into my office in Toy Town to complain about this or that, and I would tell them, ‘Well, you need to write to your councillors, or give them a ring. Here’s their number. Here’s their email address.’
‘Oh, I’m not sure about that!’ they would say, as if they were afraid that if they made a complaint then the Special Branch of the police would come knocking on their door or open a file on them marked ‘Troublemakers’. But if we only grumble about things and never do anything about our grumbles, how can we expect things to change?
Of course, what people really wanted me to do was make their complaint for them, but that’s not how democracy works. We have to stand up and be counted if we want to change the world.
The people who came to Jesus were afraid to do that. They wanted things to change, but they wanted Jesus to sort the world out for them. And, of course, the society he lived in wasn’t a democracy like ours. The politicians of the day took a dim view of complainers, so they were asking him either to be very brave or very foolish - like the people protesting for change in Syria.
Jesus asked for a coin and asked the people whose picture was on it. ‘The Roman Emperor’s,’ they replied. ‘And what have the Romans ever done for us?’ Jesus asked. ‘Well they said, the Romans have given us aqueducts and sewers and roads. They’ve made the streets safe to walk in at night and they’ve brought us peace.’ ‘In that case,’ said Jesus, ‘If the Emperor asks you to pay taxes, shouldn’t you give him back some of the money you’ve received so that he can pay for those things?’
Politicians, or the organisations they run anyway - like councils or government departments, do a lot of good and I find that by and large the politicians are usually keen to help us if we ask them and if it’s in their power to do so. If they make a mistake, it’s usually by promising rather more help than they can actually deliver! But - with some exceptions - they don’t usually ignore people or refuse to help them.
Some time ago I was sent a circular by a council department called Buy For Toy Town, inviting me to bid to carry out a piece of research work. My understanding was that the Toy Town council had decided, whenever it could, to buy the things it needed from people who were working in Toy Town instead of buying them from people who worked outside. Of course, they could only do this if the things were good enough, but I thought our research would be good enough so I submitted a bid.
When the short-list was drawn up you can imagine how disappointed I was, to find that no one from Toy Town was on it, so I asked why not. The man in charge of Buy For Toy Town said, ‘Ah well, Buy For Toy Town really means, “Tell organisations in Toy Town that we’re going to be buying something,” it doesn’t mean we actually have to try and buy anything from people who work in Toy Town.’
Now I never take ‘no’ for an answer, so I wrote to the councillor in charge of Business, Jobs and growth in Toy Town and asked her what she thought Buy Four Toy Town should mean, and she decided to hold a meeting with the man in charge, to see if he could explain it better to her. I don't know how successful she was, sometimes changes in council policy can be very subtle and somewhat opaque, but councillors do try to be helpful. We can’t complain about them, or the policies carried out in their names, if we don’t give them a chance to put things right.
But Jesus went on to say something else. He said we should also give to God whatever belongs to God. It’s God who has really given us everything we enjoy, so we have a duty to be grateful to him and to stand up for what he wants to happen. And God wants everyone to be just, and merciful, and kind, and generous. So we have a duty to keep on saying that’s how our world should be, and working to change it.
This passage from Isaiah is made up of two distinct halves. The first half celebrates God’s power to stand against ruthlessness and cruelty in order to protect the poor and needy.
It may often seem as though the ruthless and the cruel will always be on top, but God has long been planning their downfall. It is as certain and sure as the fall of Sirte in Libya, for instance.
Nonetheless, it seems an alien idea for worshippers to exalt God, or praise him, for turning cities into heaps of ruin and fortified towns into rubble. In recent history we have seen more than enough of this kind of thing - the sieges of Stalingrad and Sarajevo, the destruction of Dresden and Berlin, the terrible fate of the twin towers in New York. We know how many innocent people suffer or are killed, even when cruel nations are defeated. Does God really seek to win awe and respect through displays of shocking destructive power, like the assault on Baghdad at the beginning of the first Iraq War? Does he trample the cruel and the ruthless under his jack boots ‘like slush’, to quote from a little late in the prophecy? Or does he seek to defeat cruelty and ruthlessness on the cross, overcoming them more patiently, with the power of love?
The Prophet can’t wait for patient solutions to oppression. He knows from his own experience that the blast of the ruthless is like an icy storm or a scorching drought. It destroys everything in its path. The Prophet calls on God to provide immediate refuge to the victims. He imagines God riding at the head of the Soviet tanks racing to encircle the besiegers at Stalingrad, or the NATO forces which eventually broke the siege of Sarajevo. He wants quick fixes.
But our own experience, trying to neutralise the Taliban in Afghanistan and to defeat al-Qaida across the world, has shown that there are no short-cuts, no easy wins, in the battle against cruelty and ruthlessness. Their advocates can’t be permanently overcome or eliminated by bombing them back to the stone age, not least because that way of combatting them brings us down to their level and makes us appear just as cruel and ruthless. This is a lesson which seems to have been learnt at last by NATO. Having intervened in Libya to stop Colonel Gadaffi from destroying the city of Tripoli, NATO realised that its bombers have to be used very sparingly against the remnants of his forces.
The second half of the passage makes more comfortable reading, therefore, because it offers us a vision of peace. On Mount Zion the Lord God will prepare a wonderful end-time banquet which brings together all the different peoples of the world. The things which separate them - different languages, cultures and religions, mutual hostility and suspicion - will be swept away. At last people will recognise the true authority and greatness of God, and they will all rejoice together.
This celebration is about removing the indignities which people face each day and wiping away their tears. Even death itself will be destroyed.
In my job at Sheffield we have just had a matrix inspection visit. Matrix is a standard used to assess how organisations treat their customers or clients, and the standard has recently been made stronger by giving it a new emphasis on treating people with dignity and respect. Well the Lord God clearly invented the new matrix standard, at least judging by what the Prophet reveals in the second part of his vision.
The passage from Philippians has something in common with the prophecy but its focus is intimate and personal whereas the scale of Isaiah’s vision is global and epic. The one large scale reference point which the two passages share is that, in the preceding verses of Philipians, Paul has reminded his readers that we are all supposed to be citizens of heaven, and it is from heaven that we expect our deliverer to come. Isaiah would have approved that sentiment wholeheartedly.
But Paul’s focus is on personal disagreements rather than international conflicts and the violation of human rights. Euodia and Syntyche have fallen out over something, probably something trivial one suspects, and Paul appeals to them to settle their differences with the help of someone he calls his loyal comrade or companion. All we know about these three is that they were loyal and valued fellow-workers,so there’s a warning here that even the best of us can fall out with one another. Being of long-standing in the faith, and even being in leadership roles within the church, like these two women, doesn’t inoculate us from the natural human tendency to quarrel with those closest to us.
The antidote to this tendency is to stand firm in the Lord, to rejoice in the Lord - or find in him reasons to be glad, and to make sure we are known for our consideration of others. If we’re considerate, if we try to be happy, if we focus on the Lord, it should be harder for us to f all out with one another. Remembering that the Lord Jesus is near to us at all times, and immersing ourselves in prayer and contemplation, will help us to discover the deep peace of God, which is otherwise beyond all human understanding. And that same peace will enable us to fill our thoughts with all that is true, noble, just and pure, lovable and attractive, excellent and admirable.
If we can put these lessons into practice perhaps we shall find a better way of overcoming cruelty, ruthlessness, bullying, harshness and quarrelling than the quick fixes that the Prophet imagined in his vision.
Sunday, October 09, 2011
Psalm 23, Matthew 22.1-14
The Twenty-third Psalm was written for people facing a challenging situation. They were probably returning exiles, going home to Palestine from Babylon after their liberation by the Persian Emperor Cyrus. The journey home will be difficult and dangerous for them, but they need not be afraid. The Lord God will be their shepherd, guiding them home just as a Palestinian shepherd leads his flock through the wilderness.
The Psalmist seems to insist that they shall lack nothing. That’s a strong statement, which might not match our own experience of hard times, although there are plenty of Christians who would argue that - if we show enough faith in God and are seeking to do his will - he will always provide for our needs.
That’s still not quite the same thing, of course, as saying we shall lack nothing. The New Revised Standard Version opts for a slightly softer translation, ‘I shall not want.’ Not being in want is quite different from lacking nothing. It means having enough, but not necessarily any more than enough. It means being able to get by.
There is also the question as to whether the Psalmist is describing the pilgrims’ physical experience or their spiritual experience. Will they never be tired, or hungry or thirsty? Or will they never be spiritually exhausted if they trust in God?
Are the green pastures and still waters actual oases which the Lord God will lead his pilgrims to on their journey, like up-market motorway service stations on a modern journey? Or are they a state of mind? The Psalm certainly talks about reviving the traveller’s spirit or soul, rather than the body. But then physical and spiritual refreshment sometime belong together.
The middle section of the psalm poses an awkward question. If the Lord God guides his pilgrims along right paths, how do they come to find themselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death or the valley of deepest darkness? Is this because dark times are unavoidable in life, even when we are being guided by the Good Shepherd? Is it also because nothing worth doing is ever easy? To win the race, do we have to break through the pain barrier on the way?
The Psalmist doesn’t say that the pilgrim will come to no harm, only that he or she should fear no harm or evil. Moods and tenses aren’t normally very important in English, are they? In every day speech, and also in writing, we slip easily from one tense or mood to another without even noticing. But the translators here opt quite deliberately for different moods and tenses when they set out to interpret what the Psalmist is saying. In practice that means the pilgrim should fear no harm, or will fear no evil, or fears no evil, depending on which version we read. But those are very different statements!
If I should fear no harm it doesn’t mean I won’t be worried when I go out on a very dark night. It just means that I am worrying unnecessarily, like elderly people living in a country village who are terrified of being attacked by muggers on their way back from the chapel. If God is with us we should laugh at danger, because even when we are attacked, or do face real risk, evil cannot harm the core of our being. The spiritual part of us is safe with God.
If, however, I will fear no evil, or I fear no evil, that means the true believer should never be afraid. Even when he or she is being wheeled into an operating theatre, the true believer looks on the bright side of life. Even when he or she is staring over the abyss, the true believer whistles a happy tune.
Well, maybe not. Maybe the Psalmist is just trying to encourage us, to bolster our spirits, to help us face down our fears. So even when we are afraid we can tell ourselves, ‘I will not fear!’ - like the children’s song, ‘I will not be afraid, for God has said he’ll be with me, so I will not be afraid’.
And telling ourselves that we will not fear isn’t simply a case of singing in the dark to keep our spirits up. We can derive real comfort from God’s presence with us. Even when we are in danger, his rod and staff are symbols of his protective power and his final authority over evil and death.
Here the Revised English Bible over-translates the psalm by saying ‘your shepherd’s staff and crook’ whereas the Psalmist has undoubtedly widened his horizons by now, to think about God as king as well as shepherd. In the ancient Near-East the rod and staff had become symbols of the king’s ability to protect his people, as well as symbols of the shepherd’s trade. So the promise of God’s presence gives the pilgrims a very real sense of God’s power to save them from ultimate harm.
Finally, of course, we have the symbol of God’s hospitality, which is like the welcome always offered by the Bedouin and other Near-Eastern people to travellers in need of somewhere to stay. The visitor can be assured of a warm welcome even when he or she is a stranger being pursued by enemies. The host will feel compelled first to anoint the guest with sweet-smelling oil, and bring out something good to eat, before asking awkward questions. It is the height of bad manners to turn someone away, and refuse to protect them, without hearing their side of the story. And when God is the host this is true even if enemies are prowling right around the perimeter of the camp. How much more, then, will God offer us his protection if we are pilgrims on the way to his Holy Land?
Jesus often compared God’s future reign to a great banquet at which all would be welcome if they chose to accept the invitation, and at the banquet in the Psalm the pilgrim’s cup overflows with goodness and mercy. Is this the heavenly banquet which lasts for ever? Or is it an earthly banquet whose promised bounty lasts only our whole life long, or ‘throughout the years to come’ as the Revised English Bible puts it? These more modern translations probably get closer to the Psalmist’s point of view, because he would not have believed in life after death.
The story of the great feast is also told in Luke’s Gospel, but Matthew’s version is much stranger and darker. In Luke’s account it isn’t a wedding banquet, and the excuses offered by the guests are all quite reasonable. Their only fate is to miss out on a cracking party and instead the banqueting hall is filled with the poor and the needy.
In contrast, Matthew ups the ante from the very beginning of his version, where the feast becomes a wedding banquet so that refusing the invitation is an even greater insult to the host. What’s more the guests don’t even bother to offer any excuses, even when they are twice invited to attend. They just get on with their lives as if nothing is happening, and - inexplicably - some of them even seize the messengers sent by the host and murder them.
Clearly we are no longer just in the realm of the parable. Matthew is comparing the ungrateful people on the guest list to the people of Israel, who had ignored or killed God’s prophets and put to death his anointed Messiah. Now they have been punished by the Romans who - acting as God’s avengers - have sent troops to put those murderers to death and burn their capital city. Now, instead, the Gentiles are being invited to the wedding, to take the places which should have belonged, by right, to the Jewish people had they been prepared to listen.
And what are we to make of the man who comes dressed in the wrong clothes? Is this a dreadful warning about wearing our Sunday best to church?
In the context of the story singling one guest out to be tied up and ejected from the banquet simply doesn’t make sense, because everyone there seems to have been collected in off the streets without any notice at all, and good and bad people alike have been invited, so surely none of them are dressed in wedding finery and many of them do not really deserve to be there at all. They are there just because they said, ‘Yes to the invitation’.
Perhaps we are meant to imagine that the host offered the guests a complete change of clothes, or a wash and brush up, as they entered his home - an equivalent of the anointing with oil described by the Psalmist. If so, this particular guest has had the temerity to refuse the offer. He has stayed in his ordinary, everyday clothes.
Matthew, is I think, already well on the way to turning Jesus’ story into a sermon. He wants us to understand that all are welcome at God’s end-time banquet, but only if we are willing to be changed by God’s grace into a new creation, putting on righteousness like a garment in obedience to God’s will.
So what do these two passages have to say to us? Like the pilgrims who first heard the Twenty-third Psalm we live in challenging times, and like the guests in the wedding story we may think this is not the right moment for frivolity or partying, or that we can’t afford a new suit of clothes. The guests who rudely refused the original invitations to the wedding were more concerned with making a living than celebrating someone else’s good fortune.
I think that whatever Matthew may have made of it, the message of Jesus’ original parable is about getting our priorities right. No matter how tough things might get, or how busy we might become, putting God first is still the absolute priority. And, if we are prepared to let go and let God, we shall still find there is much to celebrate even in the darkest times.
The psalm is about trust, but whether we think it promises to keep us totally safe from harm, and even from death or other threats to our happiness, or whether we think it offers us the spiritual strength and comfort to endure adversity and overcome it with God as our companion, will depend on our interpretation. There is lots of adversity out there at the moment, isn’t there? Shrinking pensions, rising unemployment, personal stresses and strains, and all the normal challenges that are part and parcel of life, such as ill health, or relationship problems. And believers overseas face much bigger stresses and strains than we do - from warfare, pestilence, famine and flood.
With the good shepherd alongside us we can journey on without fear. The right paths along which the Good Shepherd must lead us do not take us around trouble and danger - but he is with us whatever may befall, and we can be sure that the paths he bids us take with him are necessary and unavoidable. Wherever our pilgrimage takes us we can know that he will comfort and sustain us in this life, and - at journey’s end - we shall sit at his banqueting table.
Sunday, October 02, 2011
All Age version
Have you ever said, ‘It’s not fair’?
I’m sure you have because none of us would be human if at some time in our lives we hadn’t said, ‘It’s not fair!’
- Why do I always get the smaller half?
- Why do you only get cross with me and never with her?
- Why do you let him play with my toys, or sit on my chair, or annoy me?
- Why can’t we have a dog, or a cat, or a rabbit, or a guinea pig? All my friends have got one!
- Why do I always have to lose?
- It’s not fair!
And God’s not fair. He likes to give people a helping hand, an extra chance, all the help that they need in order to make something of their lives. Sometimes that means he wants to help us, but sometimes it means that he wants us to make an extra effort to help other people less fortunate than ourselves.
That’s the message of the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. God’s not fair!
God's not fair! The people of Nineveh were notorious for their wickedness and cruelty. The Assyrian Empire, which had conquered most of the Middle East from its base in Nineveh, did not believe in avoiding collateral damage. Its invading armies burned down all the towns and cities which resisted them, enslaved all their women and children and beheaded all the men. Whole nations were deported in an attempt to erase their identity. Then the Assyrians carved monuments depicting and celebrating their war crimes.
Contrast that with the approach of the Persian ruler Cyrus, not long afterwards. He still dealt sternly with people who stood in his way but he was magnanimous in victory. When some of his opponents decided to negotiate surrender terms he spared them and the towns they were defending. Famously, Cyrus was tolerant of, and even encouraged, different faiths and cultures and celebrated his magnanimity in allowing thousands of exiles to return home to the lands from which they had been taken.
The Book of Jonah is a story written long after these events to illustrate the breadth of God's love and acceptance, and the point of the story is that God's not fair. He forgives people even when they do not deserve to be forgiven, even when their wealth and their lifestyle have been built on systematic cruelty, vindictiveness and intolerance of difference and dissent.
God's unfairness made Jonah very upset. He had travelled hundreds of miles to warn the Ninevites that their city would soon be overthrown. It wasn't something he wanted to do. It was something he felt impelled to do by God, so he was appalled when God forgave the Ninevites. To him it was an example of cheap grace.
It's not that Jonah was ignorant of God's true nature. He knew already that God was merciful, slow to anger and ready to forgive. That's why he had been so reluctant to travel to Nineveh in the first place. He had feared right from the outset that it would be a wasted journey, that the destruction of Nineveh would not go ahead and that the Ninevites would be let off too lightly.
Of course, if we look back to the beginning of the story we shall find that Jonah had misunderstood his call. Jonah had assumed that God was calling him to preach to the Ninevites about their impending doom, so that they could make their peace with God and prepare to meet their maker, but as the story unfolds God shows him that his real mission was always to invite the Ninevites to change direction and alter their destiny.
This is demonstrated by the parable with which the story ends. If Jonah can regret the senseless destruction of a plant he should be able to understand God's generous impulse to spare hundreds of thousands of people and give them another chance.
Nonetheless, of course, God is unfair. I've already described the notoriety of the Assyrians but perhaps it's easier to get a handle on the unfairness of God's grace and mercy if we bring it bang up to date, because the meaning of the story of Jonah for us is that God loves and wants to save all of the people whom we really don't like.
He loves the Taliban, and Muslim extremists in general. And at the other end of the political spectrum he loves Colonel Gaddafi's dwindling band of supporters.
He loves rioters. He loves people on Anti-Social Behaviour orders. He loves squatters. He loves people who break the planning laws by establishing encampments for gypsies and travellers on greenbelt land. But, at the other end of the spectrum, he loves merchant bankers as well.
He loves all the people who have deliberately dropped out of the formal economy, the so-called feral under class or illegal migrant workers, but he also loves members of the BNP and the English Defence League. He loves fox hunters, but he also loves hunt saboteurs.
Last week at synod we were introduced to a hymn from Singing the Faith, the new hymn book of the Methodist Church which will be published later this month. In the middle it contained a verse with some even more startling things to say about God’s unfairness:
For just and unjust, a place at the table,
Abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust a new way to live.
The hymn writer is saying that God even loves people who are found guilty of abuse, and that the victims of the abuser need to be able to find it in their hearts to forgive too - making an almost superhuman effort to overcome their anger and hurt, an effort which really we have almost no right to ask of them. But this is not just the writer’s own opinion, because the words are now included in an official hymn book of the Methodist Church.
This year the Church also adopted new policies on safeguarding children, young people and vulnerable adults from harm. Conference takes this very seriously and expects us to protect everyone from abuse. But the inclusion of this hymn in our new hymn book shows that we’re not supposed to share the sort of vindictive and unforgiving attitude which tabloid newspapers encourage. We’re called to adopt a mindset of mercy, because God loves and wants to save even those people whom the rest of society chooses to detest and condemn.
And the same goes for the unjust. God loves employers who stretch the law to the very limit in order to exploit and mistreat their work force, sacking members of staff just before they qualify for legal protection from unfair dismissal or denying them their rights in other ways. He loves unscrupulous landlords who charge extortionate rents for damp and dilapidated property. In fact he loves people whom we might think do not deserve any love, because, you see, God simply isn’t fair!
However, the words of the hymn also remind us that there is a caveat, a crucial qualification or limitation to God’s mercy and generosity. To be forgiven and accepted we have to embrace God’s new way to live. That’s why the Ninevites were spared. They weren’t forgiven in spite of their terrible crimes. They weren’t given a free hand to carry on as before. God showed mercy to them only because they repented - because they changed their ways and went in a radical new direction. They accepted that they needed a new way to live.
The parable from Matthew’s Gospel continues the theme of God’s unfairness but develops it in a different way. The Book of Jonah shines the spotlight on God’s love for people who had a notorious reputation for depravity and callousness whereas Jesus shines the spotlight on God’s willingness to forgive people even when they leave it to the very last moment to turn over a new leaf.
Matthew is wrong. It’s not that the last shall be first, and the first last. That saying doesn’t really belong with this parable. Its true meaning is that there’s no hierarchy at all in the kingdom of God, no pecking order. Everyone who turns to God for forgiveness is equally loved and equally rewarded. People who have spent a lifetime burnishing their halos are on the same footing as those who repented only after doing the most terrible things, or after doing nothing at all to make their lives worthwhile. Leading a good life, or a just life, is not something which we do in order to win favour with God. It has to be its own reward.
The parable is clearly not a guide to good labour relations. Despite what I said earlier about bad employers who mistreat their staff, the owner of the vineyard certainly hasn’t got the right approach to getting the best from his work force. How demoralising to find that if you work hard all day you won’t get any more reward than someone who has only just tumbled out of bed.
However, if hard work is its own reward then there is at least one practical lesson in the story. It’s best to get one of the ten happiest jobs, then you won’t mind if you end up working harder than other people, because you’ll just be happier than they are.
According to a survey in the United States the happiest job is being a clergyperson closely followed by being a firefighter, a physiotherapist and a special needs’ teacher. All of these people don’t mind how hard they have to work because it makes them feel happy.
Being an author is also in the top ten, presumably because you get to sit down all day just writing down whatever comes into your head. Artists of all kinds are also pretty happy. Psychologists may not be able to make other people feel happy, but they’re pretty pleased with themselves. And people who get to drive giant bull-dozers, diggers and JCBs also have fun at work.
The oddest job in the happiest top ten is people who sell financial services, presumably because they have somehow avoided all the misselling scandals that have dogged the financial services industry in the UK, but most of the other jobs in the list seem to make people feel happier because they also make them feel that their work is worthwhile. Up to a point, at least, the more work they do, the more meaningful their lives seem to be.
Contrast the happiest workers with the ten most unhappy careers in America, which are things like director of information technology, director of sales and marketing, product manager, senior web designer, technical specialist and marketing manager. In theory these are high status jobs with fancy titles, but people complained that they couldn’t really see the point of what they were doing.
So if the parable has a practical message it must be that employers need to make their work force feel so good about their work that they would feel motivated to do it, and do it well, no matter long the job took and whatever the other rewards might be.
It’s no wonder that clergy people are the happiest workers in America. We only have to look at St Paul to see a happy person at work. ‘It is my joy to suffer for you,’ he tells the congregation at Philippi. He feels he has a really strong sense of vocation. He is doing the task ‘assigned to him by God’. He is helping to complete the work which Jesus Christ began by ‘putting God’s word into effect.’ He is ‘teaching and instructing everyone in all the ways of wisdom.’ No wonder, then, that he feels like ‘toiling strenuously with all the energy and power of Christ.’
The tragedy of worklessness is that it denies people the opportunity to feel useful, valued and worthwhile, that their lives have a sense of purpose and that they are making a useful contribution to society. That’s also the tragedy of people who feel their work is pointless and doesn’t really make a useful contribution to the general good.
That’s why God acts unfairly. It’s not because he’s an immature teenager - like the petulant God depicted in a recent novel by the author Meg Rossoff, nor because he’s simply fickle and erratic in his dealings with the human race. It’s because he wants to give everyone the best possible chance to make something of their lives, to find their vocation, to share in the work of creating a better world.