Friday, 11 March 2016

Lent 4

Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2nd Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-2, 11b-32
Gilgal was the most rock and roll place in ancient Israel—it’s all in the name, which has more than one possible etymology. For Joshua, the name could hardly have been as important as the events that took place there. The first (coyly left out of the lectionary) makes for uncomfortable reading, and involves a renewal of the covenant; the second is the cessation of the manna. It must have been a bit like coming off emergency rations and beginning to eat real food. It might also be seen as the completion of a rite of passage. The ordeal is over, and full responsibility for an independent life has begun.

The story of the lost son in Luke 15 is, in some ways, a reprise of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. His return to his father’s house involves an honest admission of his own responsibility for his life, and the renewal of at least two relationships. Brilliantly, the story finishes before things are all sorted out, so that we’re given a snapshot of a situation that carries hope, but no certainty. It’s a fictional story, but completely true to life.

St. Paul claimed that ’if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new’. It sounds good, but sometimes seems distant from everyday experience. How new and Christ-like do you feel just now? The point is that none of these situations represents ‘destination reached’. We may at different times identify more strongly with one or other son, or the father, or the mother—an unseen player in this story. The only certainty is the possibility of grace.

Lent 3

Isaiah 55.1-9, Psalm 63.1-8, 1st Corinthians 10.1-13, Luke 13.1-9

Today’s reading from Isaiah contains a couple of contrasting thoughts to ponder in Lent. One sounds quite familiar: ‘Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.’

The other seems a little out of place: ‘Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.’ It’s part of a prophecy about the way in which people work like mad but remain unsatisfied by what they have to live on. The suggestion is that a satisfying, enjoyable diet is far less effort than we might think. I can’t imagine that the prophet was talking only about good cooking, but I’m sure he meant to include it.

So what’s the connection between the good life that the prophecy offers, and the forsaking of wicked ways that leads to it? Simply that it’s all to easy to set our sights too low: God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours, and our thoughts and ways can easily obscure them.

St. Paul, characteristically, comes up with a list of sins to forswear or avoid. If he’s not the patron saint of Victorian morality, he should be. He’s easy to criticise, and we should criticise him, but here, as so often, there’s something  vital we mustn’t miss: a common theme, perhaps, in the sins that Paul mentions: a persistent refusal to relate honestly to God and to other people, and to accept the sheer given-ness of life.

Isaiah 55 begins with a celebration of the gift: ‘You that have no money, come, buy and eat! As a Lenten discipline, we might practice noticing and accepting life’s gifts.

Lent 2: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18 Psalm 27 Philippians 3.17 – 4.1 Luke 13.31-35

Genesis 15 is one of those strange chapters in the Bible that reminds us of what a very different world we are hearing from. It starts, immediately after the Battle of the Kings, with a simple statement that Abraham will receive a great reward from God. The continuation focuses on Abraham’s lack of an heir, the implication being that reward is pointless, as he has no offspring to inherit his wealth.

The real strangeness sets in, not with the story of Abraham’s children, but with the obscure ritual through which God’s covenant is communicated to him. Presumably, the writer (or earlier links in the oral tradition) felt that the whole thing was a completely obvious way into the presence of God, which he experienced during a deep and terrifying darkness while he was asleep.

The covenant is preceded by a prophecy about the coming slavery of Israel, perhaps inserted after the event, and excised from the lectionary reading. It’s worth noticing, though, in the context of our reading from Philippians 3. St. Paul assures his readers that their citizenship is in heaven, but it is at least implied that there is something equivalent to a period of slavery to be endured before they can fully realise it. It’s also interesting, in this connection, that Paul was so ready to bring his other citizenship into play when, a little later, he was seeking justice.

Jesus’ own take on his dual citizenship, after some friendly Pharisees warn him of the danger he faces, seems to be one of defiance. The one thing he won’t do, when there seems to be a tension between heaven and earth, is act as if this world is of no importance.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

A Sign of Glory

Isaiah 62.1-5, Psalm 36.5-10, 1st Corinthians 12.1-11, John 2.1-11

Today’s set of readings provides some good source material for reflecting on New Year revolutions. There is resolution in the words given to Isaiah in the first reading, but today’s gospel sounds much more like a revolution: something actually happens, and it changes lives.

Do we have any New Year resolutions or revolutions to share? Mine tend to fall into two categories: those that I was going to do anyway, and those that I have no chance of doing. 1st Corinthians 12 might have a word for me about that, with its reminder that the same spirit insists on dishing out a variety of gifts, but not all to the same person.

On the surface, it’s simply the story of a wedding feast rescued from disaster, at which the best tasting wine is brought in at the last moment, and in an unexpected way. Similar stories are found in other ancient sources. Some find it easy to believe, others rather less so, but concentrating on ‘what actually happened’ at an event which is well beyond further investigation won’t really change anything.

What is clear, among the intriguing illustrations of Jesus’ relationship with his mother and his friends, is that a source of renewal is present. Should we focus on the instruction to the servants, or on the vessels they used, or should we just stay close to Jesus and see what happens next? Jesus’ glory went un-noticed by the vast majority of those present. The vital thing is that those who didn’t notice felt the difference, and the few who did notice had their eyes opened to a new world.


Isaiah 43.1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

Epiphany, meaning ‘a showing’, is traditionally associated not only with the visit of the Magi to the holy family, but also with the baptism of Jesus. Hence, today, three readings and a Psalm replete with water imagery that can be associated n various ways with baptism.

In the words of Isaiah, water symbolises life-threatening events and experiences through which God will be with us. In Psalm 29, the power of water is sued as a backdrop to the greater power of God. In Acts 8, water remains in the background: it must have been part of ’baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus’, but the real story is that there is more to baptism than the Samaritan converts had experienced.

It’s as if they had prepared for the voyage of discovery that we call Christian life, but had not quite set out. John the Baptiser would have been familiar with the idea: he was well aware that he was merely preparing people for something greater.

The story of Jesus’ own baptism concludes with a mention of heaven being opened. Looking at the different gospel accounts, it’s not clear whether everybody saw what Jesus saw, but the point is that baptism opens up a whole new perspective on life. We should, at least sometimes, expect to see ‘heaven in ordinary’, and humanity ‘well-drest’. We might well see it before it is obvious; perhaps even before we are justified in seeing it. Perhaps, in some situations, hope can only be justified by faith.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Romance and Truth

Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 12.38-44

The story of Ruth is heart-warming and romantic, but also of huge theological significance. The wedding speech words about not so much losing a daughter as gaining a son are perfectly illustrated by this young woman whose loyalty to her foreign mother-in-law outlasts the brief life of her husband and steels her nerve to enter a country where there is no guarantee that she will be welcome.

Once in Israel, Ruth becomes the foreigner: a gentile in the land of the chosen people, some of whose scriptures suggest that the gentiles are to be avoided, enslaved, or even liquidated. The fact that the story of Ruth is included in the canon of scripture is valuable evidence that faith in a loving, inclusive God is the vital centre-piece of the tradition we have inherited.

Ruth stands for the blurring of the boundaries, a tradition represented by some of the less well-known characters in the Bible (e.g. Rahab, Cyrus), but also including a young woman named Mary, and culminating in Christ himself, the ultimate insider-turned-outsider, or vice-versa. Jesus is the great inside-outer, who blurred the boundaries between holiness and unholiness by getting so thoroughly inside the world’s mess that his way of love earned him the death sentence

Like his ancestor Ruth, but on an infinitely bigger stage, Jesus shows us a way of life that does not divide people into those who belong and those who don’t. The rulers of this world erect walls, and imagine they are safe behind them. Jesus makes himself known on the other side of those walls, and invites outsiders in.

All Saints (Sunday 1st November)

Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalms 24.1-6, Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44

The stories of the saints make it clear that we are not talking about a set of perfect people, but about ordinary people who are remembered for the way in which they lived their Christian lives.

The point of being a Christian is to become Christ-like by inviting God into our lives and allowing God to work on us. God is, as the liturgy reminds us, both the source and the final purpose of our lives: our spring-board and our destination, however distant. The gift of being a Christian is that we are accompanied on life's journey by Christ himself, however inconspicuous. The saints are people who have lived with that purpose and that faith, and we belong with them.

Today's readings remind us that, in our final destination, every tear will be wiped dry. Isaiah even fills in a couple of details of the menu at the grand celebration. The gospel reading, however, gives us a paradoxical glimpse of the way to the kingdom. The resurrection, he says, is about more than a general raising of the dead at the end of the world. He then demonstrates the point by what must have been a very temporary resurrection of Lazarus. Tears are wiped away, only to return later,my it the real focus of the story is in a few words of protest from Martha, implying that Lazarus is too far gone for Jesus' attention to do any good.

What aspects of our lives or our worlds seem 'too far gone'? To be beyond hope of any sort of redemption? The message of today's celebration is that they, too, belong among the saints.