Saturday, December 08, 2012

Courage to Wait

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

A prayer from Christian Aid, written for Advent, begins, ‘God of the waiting,
give us courage to wait.’

During the week I run a post office, and people are not very good at waiting. One day four big heavy bags of coins were delivered. By the time I’d taken delivery of them and then manhandled them into the coin safe the queue was getting restless. Not long after, but when I was safely out of the post office, a disgruntled customer snapped off the ‘Please wait here!’ sign. Somebody wrote a note saying they had queued for twenty minutes - surely an exaggeration. But then one of our trustees had been to the Co-op Bank where she was kept waiting for 25 minutes. And there was a clock in the branch, on that occasion, to prove it. We have to do a lot of waiting, don’t we?

‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’ But why should we need courage? Wouldn’t patience be a more relevant gift? What exactly are we afraid of?

Because Downton Abbey has finished now I was listening to Andrew Marr on TV the other Sunday night and he reminded me of something which I’d forgotten about, or put to the back of my mind. When we were growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, we were all waiting - and we were afraid - because we waiting for the end of the world, weren’t we? We actually thought it might come like a thief in the night. Someone would throw a switch - or two or three people would throw their switches - and nuclear Armageddon would be launched. As Mark Antony says in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, ‘Cry havoc, and unleash the dogs of war!’ We were afraid of the waiting, and thankfully that fear has diminished, though it hasn’t entirely gone away.

What are we afraid of now? What terrible future might we need courage to face? Climate change? Losing our jobs, or our children and grandchildren losing theirs? Economic meltdown, like we see happening in Greece and saw in Iceland? Natural disaster? Illness? Old age? Dying? Are we like people waiting for the flood waters to rise, hoping their little row of sand bags will be sufficient to hold back the deluge? ‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’

The Christian Aid prayer continues, ‘We pray for those who have given up on the coming of hope, because they feel they wait in vain - at checkpoints, at borders, for jobs, for food...’

It’s easy to overplay our fears, isn’t it? To get them out of proportion. Someone commented on the radio the other day that people were much more matter of fact about their fears a hundred years ago. Every child, growing up, had seen a relative lying in their coffin in the front parlour. Even the ultimate fear wasn’t something to be so frightened of as people are now. People had more courage. They expected to have to endure, to need to be stoical.

Often today we’re in denial - about pain, about death, about fear itself. So much so that the Liverpool Care Pathway, which is supposed to ease people’s suffering, is on the point of being outlawed because the self-same politicians who want to make assisted dying easier for people with debilitating diseases want to outlaw a natural process that is designed to assist people to die in peace and with dignity.

When we’re not feeling afraid, what else weighs us down and prevents us from looking forward to the future? Is it the endless grind of providing first for our children, and then paying off the mortgage, and finally saving for our retirement? Is it the boredom of a repetitive job or a tedious routine? Is it anxiety and stress about all the things we’ve got to do, and about getting them done on time? What about that endless list of Advent chores - the Christmas cards, the shopping, the food, the parties, the carol singing? Or are we weighed down with regrets about relationships that have gone wrong or lives that have been cut too short?

When we’re afraid or anxious we tend to look out for signs, don’t we, to warn us that things are going wrong or to reassure us that they’re about to get better. It’s a bit like looking out for road signs, warning us of a 30 mile speed limit, or a z-bend, or stray wild animals, or the hidden brow of a hill coming up on the road ahead, or else reassuring us that there’s a stretch of dual carriageway, or a service station, or a lay-by within easy reach?

There’s nothing worse, is there, than missing the signs? Like the stretch of M1 motorway just south of here where you suddenly come to a gantry of average speed cameras and realise that you must already be in a 50 mile speed limit and - whoosh - there you are, it’s over and gone and goodness knows how fast you were going!

Jesus reminds his listeners how easy it can be to read the signs of the times. When the fig tree buds then it’s a sure sign that summer has arrived, just as wilting leaves on an ash tree are likely to indicate that Ash Die Back disease has spread to our neighbourhood.

And sometimes the signs of the times can be clear for all to see, even those who don’t know one type of tree from another. Someone reported recently, in a radio news feature, about the Cuban Missile Crisis that happened fifty years ago. People living just outside one of the air bases where NATO’s nuclear missiles were stored knew that if they saw a missile being fired they had exactly three minutes to live. That was the sign they were looking out for to tell them if the world - as they knew it - was about to end.

One of the RAF crew responsible for the missiles said there was an official drill, which they were supposed to follow, for tidying up the launch pad after their missile had been fired, but they also had their own unofficial plan for what they were really going to do. They were going to commandeer a fire engine, crash through the gates of the base, and get as far away as they could before the Russians retaliated. And they certainly weren’t going to pay any attention to road signs!

On a more contemporary note, a year or two ago we went into one of Helen’s favourite clothes shops and noticed to our surprise how little stock there was on display. Helen had some vouchers with her and we decided to spend them  straightaway - only just in time, as it happens, before the whole chain went into liquidation. We may not know our Ash Die Back from our elbows, or our fig trees from our olives, but on this particular occasion we had read the warning signs correctly.

Jesus also told us to look out for signs - but not just warning signs, like the Arctic ice caps melting away and the jet stream changing direction. He also encouraged us to expect signs of hope and comfort. Not only that, but he encouraged us also to be signs of hope and comfort.

As disciples of Jesus we’re not to be weighed down with worries and fears. We’re to raise our heads in joyful expectation. We’re to be strong, even when others are faint-hearted, hopeful even when others are downcast. ‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’

One would imagine that only the most hardened American Methodist tourists would visit the New Room in Bristol, where John Wesley established the first Methodist chapel. But no, apparently it has what the Methodist Church rather pompously calls ‘missional value’. People come there seeking answers, or to find hope and comfort: homeless people, drug addicts, shoppers looking for a Bible to buy, the lonely and bereaved, those crushed by mental illness. In the New Room they find an unlikely sign of hope.

The Acorn Centre in Edinburgh is perhaps a more stereotypical example of mission on the edge, encountering people where they most need hope and reassurance. In partnership with the YMCA it offers support to homeless young people and helps them to rebuild their lives. Some of them go on to volunteer to help others. It’s a sign of hope.

God is already with us in the waiting. He is not just in the future. He is here and now. Jeremiah prophesied that ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise that I made.’ But Advent reminds us that those days are no longer coming. They have dawned.

‘Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame,’ said the Psalmist. ‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait with those in the most broken places of the world, and with all those who struggle to be bearers of hope there.’

A colleague who’s just become a community organiser, going from door-to-door listening to people’s concerns and trying to inspire vision and hope among local residents, was telling me about the reaction she got when she told a friend she had a new job. ‘That sounds wonderful!’ the friend said. ‘Where will you be working?’ ‘In Darnall,’ replied the new community organiser. ‘Oh dear!’ said the friend. ‘Good luck there then.’  

Actually Darnall doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. It’s got a lot going for it really, but let’s just think of the most difficult communities to live and work in in our own city, and the most difficult places in our world. God gives us courage to go and wait with those in the most broken places, because if the Gospel doesn’t mean anything there it means nothing at all.

God’s concern is not with the powerful and the influential. God longs to be with, and to lead, the humble in what is right and to teach them his way.

Paul prays that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. If we are blameless, after all, we can be of good courage. And the only way to be blameless, in case we find ourselves wondering about that, the only way is to abound in love.

The Christian Aid prayer concludes,

Turn our lack of hope into courage,
so that our waiting may be over
and all the things of darkness shall be no more.

I think the prayer means that hope in the coming of Jesus, two thousand years ago and again this Christmas, should be all that we need to encourage us to stop waiting for something to happen and go out - abounding in love - to be alongside those who are broken, or living in broken places.

But one final word of caution. Grace is not cheap. Nor is it easy to bring words of comfort. The people who are working around the country as community organisers - as part of a programme dreamt up by David Cameron and others - are cautioned to listen, and then listen again, before doing anything or breaking the silence with their own quick solutions.

R S Thomas understood this and captured it in his poem ‘Kneeling’. Is he describing a service in an empty church, where he’s saying the daily office alone surrounded only by the communion of long dead saints - the spirits of those who have worshipped here down the centuries? Or is he kneeling before an expectant congregation of the living, waiting for guidance, to know what to say and when to interrupt their thoughts?

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God   
To speak; the air a staircase   
For silence; the sun’s light   
Ringing me, as though I acted   
A great rĂ´le. And the audiences   
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
                     Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,   
Though it be you who speak   
Through me, something is lost.   
The meaning is in the waiting.

‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’

Two Feisty Women and What They Show Us About The Way of Jesus

Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17, 1 Kings 17.8-16, Hebrews 9.24-28

Here are two Old Testament readings in the lectionary - a hard one and an easier one. The hard one comes from the story of Ruth, and it’s a hard reading to talk about because it is so alien to our understanding of what women should aspire to in their lives.

Ruth was an immigrant, and worse still she was the daughter-in-law of an elder widow, Naomi, whom she had to try to support. Purely because of her own unselfishness and loyalty to Naomi, whom she could just as easily have abandoned and gone back to her own family, she found herself stuck at the bottom of the economic pile and the future didn’t look too bright for her.

But Naomi had a cunning plan. Strictly speaking, the head of her husband’s clan - Boaz - had a duty to take care of them both. Clearly this wasn’t happening, otherwise Ruth wouldn’t have been going out scrounging for barley - picking up the gleaners left behind by the reapers in the field. But by God’s providence Ruth had found herself in one of the field’s belonging to Boaz, and he had recognised who she was - and how kind and loyal she had been to her mother-in-law - and had allowed her to collect more than just the leftover grain. He had also ordered the young men not to bother her and had shared his lunch with her,  but he hadn’t offered to look after Ruth and Naomi. Compassion and family duty apparently had their limits.

Naomi’s plan, therefore, was for Ruth to get dolled up - to make herself look and smell as beautiful and appealing as possible - and then to sneak under Boaz’s blanket while he was asleep on the threshing floor with the rest of his gang of harvest labourers. It was a fairly desperate plan, because the intention was for Ruth to compromise her good name by making herself look like a young woman of loose morals, in the hope that Boaz would take pity on her and do the decent thing by them both. Naomi was banking on the fact that Boaz was obviously a man with a social conscience and that, just to give him a nudge in the right direction, he would be attracted to Ruth.

It all worked out just as Naomi had schemed, and we are meant ot feel positive about the outcome because so much good clearly came out of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz. The prayer that Ruth’s son might be renowned in Israel did not come true but eventually - long after their deaths one suspects - Ruth and Boaz became the great-grandparents of King David .

Of course, even today one way for a young woman to make her way in life is to find a wealthier man to appreciate her and support he and no doubt a mixture of feminine wiles and allure can be useful in helping a man to realise what’s going to be good for him. But is that any longer an accepted role model?

And, even if it is, the problem with Ruth’s story is that she was trapped into the role. Today we would hope that young women might have a choice about their marriage partner, their career path and their lifestyle. But, life conspires against us, sometimes, doesn’t it? The first time she got married, Ruth may have had a choice, but then her husband and father-in-law died, leaving her with a difficult moral dilemma - to stick with Naomi and become a pawn in Naomi’s own attempts to secure the future for both of them, or to claim her right to walk away and remain in charge of her own destiny.

In some ways, then, Ruth’s story is very contemporary. It brings us up sharp against the modern debate about rights and responsibilities. Today we would be concerned about the rights of people like Ruth and how to protect her from exploitation by Naomi and Boaz. The Old Testament chooses, however, to focus on responsibility - Ruth’s perception that she was responsible for looking after Naomi and Boaz’s perception that he was responsible for looking after both of them. Ruth emerges as the hero of the story precisely because she chooses to put her own rights and self-interest to one side out of a sense of loyalty and love for her mother-in-law.

The second Old Testament story is a more straightforward one. It’s about another widow, this time unnamed. However, like Ruth she is not an Israelite. Elijah goes to stay with her to escape the consequences of a drought and to hide from his enemies and takes advantage of the traditional Middle Eastern custom of showing hospitality to strangers.

Elijah asks for food and water, without even saying ‘Please’. The woman happily obliges with the water but points out that she has almost nothing to eat. Elijah asks her to trust in his God to supply the needs of all of them - the widow, her son and himself - but, in a supreme gesture of faith, she must give the first bun that she bakes to him and not to her starving child.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, ‘I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.’ That’s what Elijah asked the widow to do. She had to deny the certain knowledge that there was only enough flour and oil left in her storage jars to make one last meal for herself and her son, and in faith she had to bake a bun for Elijah before they fed themselves. The woman did make room for faith, as Elijah had asked. She denied the evidence of her own eyes and her faith was rewarded. Her household ate for many days.

Do we make enough room for faith? Are we too quick to be cowed by the facts into believing that what God wants is impossible?

I heard a comedy sketch in which someone was told that he couldn’t have his favourite drink because the barman had run out of stock, to which he replied, ‘I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer’, and, ‘I’m the kind of person who always gets what he wants.’ Of course, it didn’t make any difference. The barman still didn’t have his favourite drink in stock.
Some things just can’t be done. But Elijah was effectively saying the same thing. Sometimes we do have to be willing to refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer if we are to get done what God wants done.

The kind of person who always gets what they want is traditionally an aggressive, often unpleasant and pushy sort of person, who disregards the needs of others. But Jesus is a different kind of person who gets things done an doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. He doesn’t do it by ruthlessly pursuing his own interests; he does it by putting his own life on the line for others.

During the First World War a man disobeyed his commanding officer and crawled out into No Man’s Land to rescue his friend who had been shot while laying barbed wire. He picked the friend up, put him on his back, and started running towards his own lines. Just as he reached the safety of the trench the German machine gunner opened up and peppered him with bullets. He and the friend fell into the trench covered with blood. The friend was dead and the man who had gone to save him was dying.

‘Why did you go?’ said the officer furiously. ‘You have thrown away your life. And for what?’

‘No,’ said the man. ‘It was worth it. When I got to my friend he said to me, “I knew you’d come!”’

Well, we didn’t know Jesus would come to rescue the human race, though the prophets had predicted that God would act to save us. He came and, in the process of saving us, he himself lost his life. But his was not a sacrifice like the soldier’s sacrifice, that has to go on being made in each generation to save wounded men under fire, like the soldiers who have lost their lives or limbs in Afghanistan going to the aid of their friends. His is a once for all sacrifice.

Sacrificing yourself is not a popular idea in a culture obsessed with success, but Jesus is someone like Ruth who puts obligation and responsibility above self-interest. In her case it was her obligation to her husband’s family, even when he had died. In Jesus’ case it is his sense of obligation to God and to doing what is right.

Are we willing always to do what is right, whatever the personal cost, and to refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer in order to do God’s will? Are we willing, if necessary, to deny the odds against us in order to make room for faith?

Monday, October 29, 2012

What it Means To Be A Priest

Hebrews 5.1-10

The writer of Hebrews tells us a great deal here about his understanding of Jesus, but he starts with his understanding of what it means to be a priest. Of course, in the traditional Methodist understanding of priesthood we are all priests, so perhaps he is also telling us what it means to be a Christian.
Part of our job is to be a go-between, a bridge, between God and people on the fringe of our church life - people who are supporters rather than joiners - and people in the neighbourhood too for whom we are their community church. A lot of people look to us to do God shaped things for them. They're not ready yet to it for themselves. They might never be ready! They want us to do religion vicariously for them, on their behalf.

Of course, being a Christian doesn't mean that it's necessary for us to do anything on behalf of other people or that we have to represent them to God as a priest would normally do. None of us needs an intermediary, we can all approach God directly if we want to and - as the writer goes on to say - Jesus has made this possible for everyone by his once for all time sacrifice to make us acceptable to God no matter how unworthy we might otherwise be. But quite a lot of people, who would call themselves believers in a fairly loose and undogmatic way, or who think of themselves as honest seekers after truth, do look to us - the regular churchgoers - to do religious things vicariously for them. They're glad someone is praying and they would like us to pray for them in their hour of need, and perhaps help them to have a dignified funeral for their loved ones, or provide a worshipping community where they can celebrate weddings and baptisms. In that sense they do look to us to fulfill a priestly function for them. And being a righteous servant, getting alongside them in Jesus' name, is a priest-like function, a representative role.

You might say, 'What, me? I'm not good enough to lift other people and their concerns up to God! But isn't this what we all do every time we offer our intercessions, our prayers of concern for other people? And the writer reminds us that when we do this we must remain conscious of our own weakness. We can pray for other ignorant and wayward people, he says, only because we know how weak and wayward we are, and because we also know that we are loved and accepted by God through Jesus. We can deal gently with other people only by first recognising that God has dealt gently with us and we no longer need to offer anything to God as a way of saying sorry for our shortcomings. And, of course, representing our community to God and praying for them is something that we can do and an honour that is given to us only because we are called to it by God. The priestly task of a christian, or a church community, is not a job in the ordinary sense. It's not something we apply for or choose for ourselves. It's a vocation that is entrusted to us.

Anyway, enough about us! What are the implications of all this for what the writer believes about Jesus?

The first thing he says is that Jesus was chosen or appointed by God to take on the priestly task of representing all of humanity, and indeed the whole of creation, to God and making it an acceptable gift. I think he perhaps differs from other New Testament writers in seeing Jesus' mission as a vocation given to him at a particular point in time rather than something he was born into. He isn’t perfect from birth, he is made perfect through suffering. In the writer’s understanding Jesus is a man to whom was allotted a unique and timeless task, a role that stretches back to the beginning of all things and forward to the end if all things, but he is a man who was made perfect for the task rather than someone who was born perfect.

Whether that's quite the same as what the Creeds have go say about Jesus I'm not sure and maybe the difference has to be acknowledged, although we might think that what the creeds say is the logical conclusion of the writer’s line of thinking.

The second thing the writer asserts is that Jesus is not the sort of high priest who was in charge of the Jerusalem temple in his own day. Instead he belongs to a much older pattern of priesthood. He is a royal priest according to the order of Melchizedek, who had been the king and priest of Jerusalem in the time of Abraham. Later Israelite kings also modelled themselves on the pattern of Melchizedek, but the writers of the Old Testament didn’t entirely approve and only hints of this kind of royal priesthood remain.

However, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews hasn’t forgotten this tradition, and he includes a quotation from Psalm 2, one of the psalms once used at the coronation of the ancient kings of Judah, when explaining how Jesus was called to the priesthood. ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you,’ God tells the king during the coronation ceremony, and those are the same words that Gods uses when he designates Jesus as the true and everlasting high priest.

Jesus understood that the kind of priesthood he was being called to was a new and radical kind where he would be offering himself as a sacrifice, not animal or human substitutes, and the writer tells us that he wasn’t immediately reconciled to the idea. He offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, hoping to be saved from death, and the writer insists that God heard him even though in the end Jesus wasn’t spared and he understood that he must submit to suffering and death for our sakes in order to be able to complete his work.

The Gospels also describe Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, but Hebrews does so with an amazing amount of psychological realism. He is clear that Jesus really did not want to accept the way of the cross and was dismayed and desolated by the knowledge that he would have to submit to such a terrible death. This is why we can be sure that, no matter how afraid or alone we might sometimes feel, Jesus understands our feelings and is there with us.

Celebrity Come Dancing & The Righteous Servant

Isaiah 53.4-12

This passage resonates so strongly with the experience of Jesus that, from the very beginning of the Church, Christians have identified the subject of the prophecy with him. Yet the Prophet identifies this person only as the righteous servant - perhaps the faithful remnant of God's people who had been taken into exile with all the unfaithful ones. 

One of the most striking things for me about Celebrity Come Dancing is the way that the dancers are punished for the mistakes of the celebrities. Indeed some of the dancers are harnessed over and over again, series after series, with people who have two left feet, or are seriously overweight or who just can’t dance. No matter how hard they work, and sometimes they work very hard to choreograph creative and entertaining routines and then dance until sweat pours off them, they are doomed to be condemned by the judges. The righteous share the fate of the unrighteous. And thus it ever was.

In ancient Babylon the righteous servants of God had shared the suffering of the other exiles, but in their case it was undeserved. Their punishment was a perversion of justice. People lumped them together with all the other sinners and assumed that they must have done something terribly wrong, but they had been wounded for the transgressions of the whole nation.
The suffering of the righteous will not be in vain, says the Prophet. God has not forgotten them and will honour them, especially for the way they have been willing to endure hardship with, and have prayed for, their fellow sufferers, even to the point of death. The Prophet says they will be allotted a portion with the great.

There can be little doubt that Jesus was inspired by this passage and modelled himself on the righteous servant. Luke tells us as much in the Emmaus story.

The passage reminds us that none of us can escape the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. We can never be immune from, or sheltered from, the calamities which befall the community around us.

This is true whether we're talking about the impact of the recession on the life of our church, or about what it feels like to be the church in a community where mines and factories have closed and people have been left behind while others were prospering.

Do we always remember to stand alongside and pray for those who are being hit hardest by unemployment and falling incomes? What practical things are we doing to support them and show our solidarity with them? And do they know that what we are doing, and our simply being alongside them, is meant to be incarnational - that it is our way of mirroring Jesus' own identification with struggling humanity?

I was at a conference this week where a vicar shared with us two recent encounters with his parishioners - one an elderly bus driver who had suddenly lost his wife and was feeling very alone, the other a single mother with six children, living on benefit but full of passionate love for her demanding brood. What does it mean, he asked, to be a righteous servant to these ordinary people?

How, without making them feel self-conscious or singled out, can we affirm people like these, encourage them, remind them that - in their daily struggles - they are loved by God and upheld in prayer by the church?

Jesus, Downton and The Million Pound Drop

Mark 10.17-31

It would be easier for a great ocean liner to float on a puddle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

My wife, Helen, is a local preacher and she usually gets me to look at her sermons. She generally writes them before I sit down to think about mine, so it can be very difficult when I find that she’s used some excellent illustrations because then I find that I want to borrow them. Fortunately she’s in another circuit, so I can go ahead  with a clear conscience - anyway - and share with you two of her illustrations about today’s Gospel passage.

The first is from the television series Downton Abbey, so I hope you’re some of the many millions who tune in faithfully every Sunday night! The central couple in the story of Downton Abbey, around whom all the others revolve, are Lady Mary Crawley - the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham - and her cousin Matthew Crawley, Lord Grantham’s heir. Throughout the different series they have had a stormy, on - off sort of relationship, and that’s chiefly because of Lady Mary’s biggest character flaw. She has a number of character flaws actually. She can be flirtatious, bossy, spiteful and impulsive, and some of these character flaws have got her into trouble in the past. But her biggest flaw, which has nearly ruined her relationship with Matthew on more than one occasion, is her love of money. It can be easier for a great ocean liner to float on a puddle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Now, in fairness, one of the reasons why Lady Mary wants to have money is to be able to better protect the family inheritance. She’s not just a spendthrift. But on the other hand she can’t contemplate a life of genteel poverty, or even middle class affluence. She needs to be filthy rich.

When, briefly, it looked as though Lord Grantham and his wife Lady Cora, the Countess of Grantham, might have a baby son who would disinherit Matthew, Lady Mary wasn’t sure she wanted to marry him after all. How hard it is for a rich person to do what’s right, what will make them happy even, when money is at stake. Their first care can so easily be for security, and for the little inconsequential luxuries which they have come to expect as an everyday part of life!  

And are we so very different from Lady Mary? The days of great country houses, where the aristocracy whiled away their time in genteel pleasures like huntin’ and shootin’, or attending dinner parties and balls, may be a thing of the past, but don’t we all face the same challenges on a smaller scale? How can we be truly happy? And how much money, or how many possessions, do we need to make us happy? Do we need a little, or quite a lot, or are we the sort of person who must have the very latest thing?

Last week we were talking to a family friend, a young man who has just landed his first job after university. We congratulated him on his success, which had come only after a lot of interviews and heartache. ‘Next time I see you I’ll be in my Porsche,’ he said. Of course he was joking, but as the Poet Horace famously said, ‘Many a true word is spoken in jest.’

And so to the second illustration, which is not about rich people as such, but about people who are tempted by riches. The Million Pound Drop is compulsive viewing on Channel 4 around bedtime. Avoid it if you can.

The compulsion doesn’t stem from the game itself, which involves answering eight fairly trivial questions where the answers often have to be guessed - because the question could be something like, ‘What was such and such a famous person wearing when they walked down the red carpet at a London gala premiere tonight?’ Instead, the fascination lies in watching the reactions of the contestants. They’re not generally clever people battling their way to a well deserved prize, because cleverness can only get you so far in this game. Rather, they’re gamblers, people ready to stake all on a hunch. So the real compulsion of the programme lies simply in watching them as they go through an increasingly stressful and gut-wrenching experience, which almost always ends in disaster although it might end in a big, big win.

Only the other week a very lucky couple went home with £300,000. It was the biggest amount that anyone had ever won. And it is always a couple who are competing, never an individual, so not only do you get to watch the stresses experienced by each of the competitors, you also get to see the strains put on their relationship as they try to decide the right strategy for the next round of the game.

The rules are these, a security guard solemnly gives the couple a million pounds, in bundles of £25,000. They have to spread this fortune over a series of trapdoors, each one linked to a different multiple choice answer to the question. They can’t spread the money evenly over all of the trapdoors because they must always leave one hatch uncovered. And anyway, the more evenly they spread the money, the less will be left at the end, because once they have decided how to spread their bets all but one of the trapdoors opens, swallowing any money left on top of it.

As the bulk of the million pounds disappears from their grasp, or even if they are lucky and it’s still there after all the incorrect trapdoors have opened, we get to see the nervous looks, the anxiety, the desperation, the naked greed etched on the faces of the contestants. Often they begin with a devil-may-care attitude. After all, they came into the studio with nothing so, if they leave with nothing - as they often do - what does it matter? But as the game proceeds gold fever begins to grip them. They scream - in horror or delight. They weep uncontrollably - tears of joy or despair. They cling to one another or - while they’re trying to decide how to place the bundles of money - they argue.

It’s riveting television, but it’s an undignified spectacle. You get to see what it would be like if someone accidentally opened a suitcase full of money in the High Street on a windy day. As it swirled into the air everyone would be after it, passers-by scrambling to get a piece of the action.

The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil. And perhaps it’s the love of money, rather than wealth itself, which is the real obstacle to entering the kingdom of God. Certainly, generations of Christian commentators have veered towards this seductive solution in their attempts to water down the impact of what Jesus had to say about wealth. It isn’t money that’s the problem, they insist, but it’s corrosive impact. If we can guard against trusting in money - and just use it as a means to an end - we will be all right.

That’s the attitude of the people who enter the studio to play The Million Pound Drop. They’re not going to let the game wind them up. They just want to win a few quid, it doesn’t have to be the whole million. If they do win a lot, they’ll probably give some of it away anyway. And so on. But it’s very hard to have money in your grasp, even a comparatively small amount of money, without finding yourself drawn to its siren call. Why should we not put our  trust in its power to make our lives easier? Why not stake everything on the security it appears to offer?

Why else do some people insist on huge salaries or obscenely large bonuses which they know will make them unpopular with everyone else? Why do they want bigger houses than they really need, or more than one house, or other inflation beating investments of various kinds, from fine art to gold bars?

The disciples were dismayed when Jesus said that a rich person cannot easily enter the kingdom of God, not because they were rich but because they were thinking, ‘If rich people are in trouble, then who can be saved?’ They lived, after all, in a culture which saw wealth and status as signs of God’s approval. But Jesus will have none of it.

Of course, the million dollar question is, ‘When does it become harmful to have money and possessions? When does the acquisition of wealth tilt over from being reasonably prudent to becoming a dangerous obsession? Is a modest pension all right? Is a desire not to be a burden on others compatible with Jesus’ call to follow him? Is a determination to look after yourself - and not rely on others - a good attribute to have, or does it tend to encourage an unchristian degree of self-reliance?

There was a party political broadcast the other night in which the prime minister was extolling the virtues of making our own way in life and not being dependent on state handouts. He insisted that most of the population agree with him about this, and they probably do, but of course when we get ill, or frail, or fall on hard times , we do want a safety net to be there, don’t we? Being self-reliant has its limits. We still want a helping hand when all the other options run out. It’s only scroungers and work-shy people that the electorate wants to cut out of the deal.

And there is a further problem with self-reliance. As we acquire more and more possessions, and surround ourselves with a stronger and broader safety net of our own making, does that perhaps make us less willingly to share with the unfortunate and the deserving? Do we become harsher, more judgmental, more certain about where the boundaries should be drawn between those who ought to be helped and those who ought to fend for themselves? It’s not inevitable, but it’s a very real danger that our attitudes can harden to an unchristian degree.

Of course Peter and the first disciples were radical followers of Jesus. They had left everything to follow him and Jesus recognises this - he refers to home, family and ancestral lands, all given up for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel. We are told that they will be rewarded a hundredfold for their commitment.

The Prosperity Gospel, or Health and Wealth Gospel, is an interpretation developed in the United States, by people who take absolutely literally Jesus’ saying that his disciples will be rewarded one hundred times over for following him. They believe that God wants Christians to prosper and will make it so for them if they have enough faith. Of course, believers have to invest in order to accumulate, so tithing to the church is compulsory, otherwise how is the minister going to prosper? But the basic principle is that, in the end, the disciples of Jesus will make good.

The problem with the Prosperity Gospel is that it ignores the last part of the saying: ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’

It would be possible to imagine that Jesus wants to give his disciples a free entry to The Million Pound Drop competition, if it weren’t for the mention of persecutions. What’s healthy and wealthy about being persecuted a hundred times more than other people? And that suggests, of course, that the houses and fields which come as part of the package might be metaphorical ones - mission fields, preaching houses, and so on - and the new family members might be members of the family of God. Because the health and wealth which Jesus is offering here belong to the age to come. He promises riches beyond our imagining, but they are riches which rust and moth cannot attack. Peace, joy, hope, love - these are the rewards of enjoying eternal life.

Last week there were a lot of stories in the news about the poor harvests around the world this summer. ‘Did this mean,’ journalists asked, ‘That there will be a shortage of food?’ One of the experts wheeled out to comment said that there was no need for anyone to go without enough food. All that is necessary is for western consumers to let go of some of our greedy habits.  If we eat less meat and waste less of the food we grow or buy the problem could be solved. Of course, one or two other commentators said this was a touch simplistic but they couldn’t disagree with the general tenor of the argument. If we gave up some of what we enjoy - endless supplies of cheap, perfectly shaped food of all kinds - the poorest people on earth could have enough to eat.

Similarly, some economists now argue that, if everyone in employment agreed to work shorter hours - perhaps three days a week - we could put an end to the scourge of youth unemployment and longterm unemployment. There would be a price to pay. We would all have to settle for lower wages and fewer rewards, but the whole of society could be more content.

Jesus’ challenge to the rich man, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,’ is as relevant now as it was then. Is it a challenge which shocks, grieves us, or perplexes us, or is it an exciting opportunity to discover an entirely new value system which we find ourselves willing to seize?

Jesus the Bridge

Hebrews 1.1-4 & 2.5-12

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews begins by reflecting on the way that God has spoken to his ancestors through prophets like Moses, whom he would have believed to be the writer of Genesis. Genesis, as its name implies, talks about the creation, but the writer of Hebrews says there is something missing from its account. All of the things that Genesis describes were created through Jesus, God’s living wisdom.

He uses terms to describe Jesus which border on ideas that were later branded as heresy. Jesus is a bridge between God and creation. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s very being. But is that quite the same as being God? Some later readers interpreted Hebrews as meaning that Jesus is not the same as God but like God, more like him than human beings but not totally and exactly the same. Whatever the writer really meant, these later interpreters were condemned for their pains.

The first men and women fell short of God’s plan for humankind. Their relationships with one another and with him were never as perfect as he had intended but Jesus has offered a sacrifice which makes purification for, or wipes out, those mistakes.

Human beings have been given a special role, the role of working in partnership not just with one another but with God. In the days before most people could afford to own a book, even copies of the books of the Bible, the writer cannot remember who said that human beings have this special place in creation. It’s actually the Psalmist. But, in any case, says the writer of Hebrews, it’s not really true yet - except in the person of Jesus who, by his own death on the cross, has tasted death for everyone. What does that mean? The Contemporary English version says that it simply means Jesus died for everyone, but I think it means a bit more than that. It means he has tasted our death, he knows what it will feel like for us to die and he will be there to hold our hands. So now he is not just the one who was present at creation, he is the one who will be present with us at the end too.

Jesus, not Adam, is the person who takes priority in all things. He died because God wants to complete and bring to perfection the project which he began  with Jesus in Genesis. The men and women who are described there, and their descendants, are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Elsewhere we’re told that being married is also like being in the kind of self-giving relationship which Jesus offers. So Genesis tells us that human beings are meant to live together in relationship, and Jesus shows us how.

How did Starbucks get its name?

Genesis 2.18-24

How do things get their names? For instance, why are Starbucks coffee shops called Starbucks? Was there a Mr Starbuck? Well, yes there was, but he was a character in a book, in the novel Moby Dick. The founders of Starbucks named their coffee shops after him because he loved coffee.

Or what about the colours we paint our homes with; where do they get their names? From professional paint namers, of course! All of the names are carefully chosen to sell more paint. Barley White is supposed to conjure up the image of a warm summer’s day, with skylarks singing overhead and poppies bobbing gently on the breeze as we stroll through a field of harvest white barley. Love Note is supposed to remind us of the love letters we either sent, or received, on tinted lilac paper before the invention of mobile phones. Soft Stone is supposed to make us think of country cottages or dry stone walls. Tuscan Sunset is supposed to conjure up that romantic holiday in Italy. And Antique Map... Hang on a minute! Who chose Antique Map? Probably the same person who dared to name another colour Ancient Artefact. Don’t those names make us think of dusty old libraries and museums rather than sparkling new homes or cosy firesides? 

And what Trenchcoat - which is actually a sort of camel colour? Doesn’t that remind us of soldiers floundering in mud? Well, maybe not. Maybe it takes us back to that oh so fashionable coat we owned in the Seventies. (Actually, I had two trench coats!) But talking about mud, surely the worst name for a colour has to be Muddy Puddle! Who chose that one? It makes me imagine some crazed paint boffin mixing all of the colours together to see what you get. I certainly wouldn’t want it on my wall.

Where do things get their names? What about zebras, for instance? Where does that name come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s a Congolese word, though some people think it comes from a Latin word, equiferus,  coined by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder and meaning wild horse. But how do you get from equiferus to zebra? #Or what about duck billed platypus? The duck billed bit is easy. The platypus has a mouth like a duck’s bill. But where does platypus come from? Actually, that’s an easy one. It’s a scientific name derived from two Greek words, ‘platus’ meaning flat and ‘pous’ meaning foot. Apparently the duck-billed platypus has big feet too!Genesis Chapter 2 is a story designed to explain why things are the way they are. Why are cows called cows? Why are sheep called sheep? And so on. The answer given in Genesis is probably closer to the truth than we might care to imagine. While their wives were out toiling in the fields, or grinding corn, or cooking the dinner, a group of men sat round the fire and got down to the serious business of finding a name for everything! Whatever they chose to call every living creature, that became it’s name.

Of course,  there’s a name for the business of naming - etymology, and to this day some lucky people make their living from naming things, like the people who name paints. Adam is a name. It means, ‘made from the earth’, and also ‘good looking’. To call someone Adam is to suggest that he might be a bit of a hunk, apparently. But it’s also a collective noun, meaning humankind or sometimes mankind, and a singular noun meaning ‘a man’. So Adam is a word with an intriguing range of meanings. 

According to Genesis, what sets human beings apart from all other living things is their curiosity, their desire to investigate things, delve into their origin, find a name for them, identify them and classify them. There’s something a bit godlike about this capacity. All other creatures just get on with the business of living, but human beings have to sit down and ponder over the meaning of it all. And Genesis insists that it’s something which God positively encourages us to do. It’s a collaborative venture with him. For naming something is not just about putting it in the dictionary, it’s also a way of recording it for posterity and saying that it matters. In the whole of creation on our planet, only human beings keep a register of all the other living things and mark it with a cross when something becomes extinct, or with a highlighter pen when it’s endangered. And, of course, naming and recording things is only the first step towards protecting and looking after them, to sharing in God’s stewardship of creation. 

How sad, then, that we often fall short - as a species - of that ideal. I saw a poster recently which said, ‘Human beings are the only species which believes there is a God, and the only species which behaves as though God doesn’t exist.’

So far, then, Adam could be male or female really - except for the well-known tendency for men to do all the sitting down jobs while women get on with the chores, which suggests that the etymologists were probably male. But then the story veers in an alarming direction, at least if you happen to be a feminist, for it tells us that the first woman was a variant form of the original male of the species. And, of course, it’s only a small step - though not actually a necessary one - from saying that men came first in creation to arguing that they have priority over women and can tell them what to do.How paradoxical then, that modern science should have turned the Genesis narrative on its head and proved that women came first, and being male is a variant of the original female form of the species. All of us begin life in the womb as female and then some of us take on male characteristics, and the first genuinely human being was a woman.

This unexpected turn of events reminds us that it is best not to make false assumptions about the superiority of any one human being over another. We’re all born equal under God and we have a shared responsibility to care for one another.

In our English translations, however, the name Woman, which Adam gave to his wife, certainly reinforces the Genesis version of events. Woman derives from the Anglo-Saxon word wiman, meaning ‘a man who is a woman’. It’s also closely related to another earlier Anglo-Saxon word, wifman, meaning ‘a man who is a wife’. And that’s clearly how Genesis conceives of women - they are derived from men, and subordinate to them, and intended to be their wives and helpmates. They’re mutant man, men who have become women or wives.God had noticed men were lonely, so the story goes, and not very well organised without a partner to help them. None of the other animals could do the job, so God created women to fill the vacant position. As the fridge magnet puts it, ‘Do you want to talk to the man in charge, or to the woman who knows what’s happening?’

Notice how this is the first marriage, and there are no registers, certificates, vows or ceremonies. A man simply leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, and they become one flesh. The word ‘clings’ is a rather odd expression. It suggests a drowning man clinging to his wife to keep afloat rather than finding a partner to help him through life’s ups and downs. But, on the other hand, the Contemporary English Version says only, that ‘a man...marries a woman, and the two of them become like one person’, which is far too lame. The Authorised Version says that a man shall ‘cleave unto his wife’, which is - I think - a much more robust idea. 

To cleave to someone means to join yourself to them and be faithful to them. It carries much more the idea of two people becoming one flesh, almost as if they were stuck together, reinforcing one another. Using the word cleave makes the first half of the verse complement the second half in a way that the image of two people becoming more like one another, or clinging to one another simply fails to do.Dr Janet Reibstein is an academic from Exeter University. A few years ago she published a book, based on her research, which she called 'Best Kept Secret'. It was about one hundred happily married couples who had , in some cases, been together for as long as fifty years. One of the most interesting things she discovered was that, once people had been together for at least nine years, the longer they stayed together after that, the happier they become.That first nine years are the most important, she says, because that's the period when a couple move on from the most intense feelings of love for one another – when they're completely wrapped up in one another - into a phase of their relationship where they begin to give more energy to other things. It's also the time by which most couples have had children, if they're going to have them, and parenthood changes their relationship too. It takes commitment, and a certain amount of resilience, to get to year nine, but Dr Reibstein says it's worth persevering because couples who succeed in building an enduring relationship are happier, healthier and more successful - on average – than people who don't.

Dr Reibstein describes four ingredients of this kind of relationship: first, ring-fencing some time every so often just to be alone together; second, remembering to say 'thank-you'; third, making the effort to see life from the other person's point of view; and finally remembering to do things together which are fun. Doing the washing-up together is not enough. Dr Reibstein says that even the happiest couples will have bad spells – the for better for worse moments – but if they've made sure that their relationship includes those four basic ingredients they'll be able to cleave to one another through thick and thin.

The kind of relationship described in ‘Best Kept Secret’ is a far cry from the traditional interpretation of what Genesis means, with its hints of male dominance and superiority, but I think it’s the right interpretation of what it means for people to be true helpers and partners to one another. Two people becoming one flesh is not about one partner submitting to the other, it’s about two people seeing life from each other’s point of view and walking in each other’s shoes.