25. Sonntag im Jahreskreis – 20.09.2020

Predigt in der Alt-Katholischen Gemeinde Bottrop

Jesaja 55,6-9
Philipperbrief 1,20ad-24.27a
Matthäus 20,1-16a

Die Geschichte von den Arbeitern im Weinberg hat mich immer wieder beschäftigt.  Hier haben wir mehrere Menschen, die alle im Weinberg geackert haben, mal den ganzen Tag, mal etwas weniger, mal viel weniger, mal nur eine Stunde. Und sie bekommen alle denselben Lohn.  Was?  Wie geht das?  Wie ist es mit dem fairen Arbeitslohn und „equal pay for equal work“, gleichem Geld für gleiche Arbeit? 

Traditionell lautet die Antwort auf diese Frage Gnade.  Und sie ist sicher richtig.  Es geht in dieser Geschichte um die Gnade Gottes, die allen in gleichen Maßen geschenkt wird. Diese ist aber auch die Gnade Gottes, die nicht verdient werden muss oder kann.  Wir müssen gar nicht arbeiten, wir müssen nur im Weinberg des Herrn auftauchen und uns für das Evangelium engagieren und schon bekommen wir seine Gnade. Oder nicht mal auftauchen, wenn man das mit der frei geschenkten Gnade streng nimmt.  Gottes Gnade ist ein freies Geschenk, wird uns umsonst angeboten.  Auch wenn diese Geschichte von der Arbeit spricht, müssen wir – können wir – die Gnade Gottes gar nicht verdienen.

Psychologisch ist diese Geschichte aber sicher schwer zu verkraften.  Walter Brueggemann (et al.) schreibt in einem Kommentar dazu: „Stellt ihr die Welt vor, wenn es beim Arbeitslohn wirklich so gehandhabt würde. … Die Menschen würden ausschlafen und erst am späteren Nachmittagbei der Arbeit auftauchen, wenn sie wüssten, wie würden trotzdem einen ganzen Tageslohn bekommen.“[1]  Brueggemann liest diese Geschichte in Zusammenhang mit der Geschichte des verlorenen Sohnes und vor allem der Reaktion des älteren Sohnes, als der jüngere Sohn nach Hause zurückkehrt und gefeiert wird.  Sie ähnelt auch den Fall Jonahs, der sich geärgert hat, als Gott gnädig mit der Stadt Nineveh umgeht, statt die Bewohner und Bewohnerinnen zu verurteilen.  Für Brueggemann zeigt diese Reaktion eine unverdiente Eifersucht. Diejenigen, die sich über den Umgang mit dem Lohn ärgern, können die Großzügigkeit, die Wohltätigkeit Gottes nicht vertragen, die die Ersten, die Mittleren und die Letzten Arbeitern gleich betrachtet.[2]  „Die Nörgler sind eigentlich nicht gegen Gnade, sie sind nur dagegen, dass anderen auch die Gnade gezeigt werden,“ so Brueggemann.[3]

Für Jean-Claude Loba-Mkole geht es in diesem Gleichnis um einen Konflikt zwischen Jesus und denjenigen die „sich seinem Dienst widersetzten, den Ausgestoßenen einzuladen, am Erbe des Reiches Gottes teilzuhaben.“[4]  Alle sollten im Klaren sein, dass auch andere in den Dienst Christi eingeladen werden. Ähnlich vermutet Brueggemann, dass Jesus seine Jünger ansprechen will, die „Insider“, den inneren Kreis. „Wir Eingeweihten pflegen zu nörgeln,“ schreibt er. Wir fragen uns, ob nicht durch die freie Gnade die Gründe, sich richtig zu benehmen, in Frage gestellt werden – warum sollen wir Gutes tun, Werte und Normen pflegen, Regeln einhalten, gerecht leben?[5]  Für Brueggemann zeigt diese Geschichte daher „eine Möglichkeit, Gott völlig anders zu sehen und wahrzunehmen.“[6]

Ich möchte nicht bestreiten, dass es in diesem Gleichnis um die Gnade Gottes geht, die uns umsonst geschenkt wird. Ich lese diese Geschichte aber auch im historischen Zusammenhang. Im Kontext der frühchristlichen Bewegung waren es eigentlich die Christen, die ganz spät dazu gekommen waren, die Juden, die schon länger – ganz lange – dabei waren, Gott zu verkünden und anzubeten, wie die Pharisäer immer wieder betont hatten. So gesehen kann dieses Gleichnis als Hinweis auf die wachsenden Spannungen zwischen Juden und Christen verstanden werden. Die Christen, die Nachfolger und Nachfolgerinnen Christi, die Anhänger und Anhängerinnen der Jesus-Bewegung werden durch diese Geschichte getröstet: Auch wenn sie nicht all das durchgemacht haben, das die Juden in ihrer Geschichte mit Gott erlebt haben, können sie trotzdem zum Heil erlangen, im vollen Maße die Gnade und die Barmherzigkeit Gottes erfahren.  Und weiter – so sagt uns die Auseinandersetzung zwischen Petrus und Paulus – wer Jesu nachfolgen will, muss gar nicht jüdischer Herkunft sein. Diese Diskussion über den Status der Christen klingt bei Matthias mit.

Wenn wir diese Geschichte so lesen, verstehen wir auch, warum die Sympathien in dieser Geschichte ganz deutlich bei den erst sehr spät Dazugekommenen liegen.  Matthäus will vermitteln, dass Christen und Juden vor Gott gleichberechtigt sind. Die Gefahr dabei ist, dass das von der Geschichte vermittelte Bild unserer Beziehung zu Gott verzerrt ist.  Denn in dieser Metapher von Arbeit und Lohn schwingt mit, dass die Nachfolge Christi etwas Anstrengendes ist, wie eine körperliche Arbeit, etwas worauf man sich vielleicht gar nicht freut, und nur wegen die Hoffnung auf Feierabend – und den Lohn – überhaupt verträgt.

Danken wir manchmal so?  Diese Geschichte hat auf jeden Fall für mich eine solche Nebenbedeutung. Ist das aber nicht seltsam, gar schrecklich?  Denn die Nachfolge Christi, auch wenn sie keine billige Gnade bedeutet (so Bonhoeffer), auch wenn sie uns manchmal unglaublich herausfordert, ist doch eine Freude. Jünger oder Jüngerin Jesus zu sein bedeutet, wie Johannes Calvin mal geschrieben hat, dass unser Wille in Einklang mit dem Willen Gottes ist. Glaube heißt nicht etwas Widerwilliges zu unternehmen, sondern durchdrungen von Gottes Gnade zu sein. Ist das nicht eine wahre Freude?  Das heißt, wir sollen – können – uns freuen, wenn wir das Gefühl haben, wir sind schon länger dabei.  Denn diejenigen, die schon am Anfang dazugekommen sind, haben mehr Zeit mit Gott, können die Gnade Gottes länger genießen.  So gesehen, sind gerade diejenigen arm daran, die erst am Schluss den Ruf bekommen, denn sie lernen erst viel später die Großzügigkeit Gottes kennen. Sie lernen sie kennen, können sie aber nur kurz genießen.

Wir können wir uns diese Interpretation vorstellen?  Für mich ist ein kleines Beispiel dafür gerade unser Garten in Marl. Zwölf-ein-halb Jahre wohnen wir schon dort, und sind erst in diesem Jahr dazu gekommen, unseren völlig verwahrlosten Garten zu gestalten. Nun ist er zum Kleinod geworden, für mich eine riesige Freude, die ich jeden Tag genieße.  Die Freude darüber wird nicht dadurch kleiner – wird vielleicht sogar größer – , dass wir den Garten eigentlich seit Jahren hätten genießen können, wenn wir nur früher dazu gekommen wären, ihn zu gestalten.  Aber nun ist er gemacht, und die Freude fängt eben jetzt erst an… Und natürlich bedeutet er auch Arbeit, aber die Arbeit ist mit einer großen Freude verbunden.  Ist es nicht auch beim Weinberg Gottes so?  Können wir ihn uns als Garten Gottes vorstellen?

Schließlich dürfen wir beim Lesen dieser Geschichte nicht vergessen, dass es eigentlich um das Verhältnis zwischen dem Besitzer des Weinberges und seinen Mitarbeitern geht – zwischen Gott und den Menschen – und gerade nicht um die Höhe des Lohns.  Martin Luther hat es auf den Punkt gebracht, als er den Engelsgruß an Maria im Lukasevangelium übersetzt hat.  Dabei stellte er fest, dass Gnade keine Quantität ist, nichts Quantitatives oder Messbares ist. Wenn der Engel sagt, Maria sei voll Gnaden, gehe es nicht um ein Maß wie etwa Bier im Fass oder Geld in einem Geldbeutel.  Es gehe darum, dass Maria gebenedeit sei, dass Gott Maria liebhabe. 

Und darum geht es schließlich auch in diesem Gleichnis.  Gott liebt uns, egal ob wir ganz am Anfang zu ihm gekommen sind oder erst ganz spät.  Er liebt uns.  Und das ist Gnade.  Und wir können und sollen seine Liebe genießen.

Amen


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R Gaventa, James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 1995), S. 494.

[2]  Ebd., 495.

[3]  Ebd.

[4]  Jean-Claude Loba-Mkole, “Beyond Just Wages: An Intercultural Analysis of Matthew 20: 1–16,” Journal of Early Christian History 4 (2014), 112-134 at 127.

[5]  Brueggemann, et al., Texts for Preaching Year A, 494-5.

[6]  Ebd., 495.

23. Sonntag im Jahreskreis (A) – 6.09.2020

Predigt in der Alt-Katholischen Gemeinde Bottrop

Ezechiel 33,7-9
Römerbrief 13, 8-10
Matthäus 18,15-20

Im Namen des Vaters und des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes.

Jesus sagt:  „Was auch immer zwei von euch auf Erden einmütig erbitten, werden sie von meinem himmlischen Vater erhalten. Denn wo zwei oder drei in meinem Namen versammelt sind, da bin ich mitten unter ihnen.“

„Wo zwei oder drei in meinem Namen versammelt sind, da bin ich mitten unter ihnen.“ Darüber habe ich immer wieder nachgedacht in diesem seltsamen Jahr, in dem so viele von uns Tag für Tag die Zeit alleine oder nur im engsten Familienkreis verbringen mussten, in dem wir uns gerade nicht versammeln dürften, ob in Namen Christi oder überhaupt.  Wo zwei oder drei sich in meinem Namen sammeln, da bin ich mitten unter ihnen.  Aber oftt habe ich gedacht, oder auch feststellen müssen: A,uch wenn ich alleine bin, kann ich die Anwesenheit Christi spüren.  Wir wissen von diesem Versprechen, von dieser Verheißung Jesus, aber spüren wir seine Anwesenheit?

Es ist in dieser Gemeinde eine schöne Tradition, dass beim Zählen der Anwesenden den lieben Herrn immer mitgezählt wird.  Wir gehen davon aus, dass Christus unter uns ist. Was heißt aber diese Behauptung? 

Der Pfarrer Jörg Zink schreibt in seinem Buch Gottesgedanken: “Der christliche Glaube ist kein Lehrstoff, den einer auswendig lernt und den man dann abfragt. Er bildet sich vielmehr in vielen Erlebnissen, in Begegnungen mit vielen Menschen und ihren Schicksalen und im Horchen auf sehr viele Stimmen, auch in uns selbst.”[1] Jesus verspricht, dass er bei jeder Begegnung dabei ist, die in seinem Namen stattfindet – oder sich ergibt. Für die amerikanische Theologin Karoline Lewis zeigt uns diese Stelle einen Gott, „der darauf besteht, nahe zu bleiben, in der Mitte dessen bleibt, was wir tun und sagen.“[2] Lewis schreibt: Wenn ihr euch in der Mitarbeiterversammlung, in einer Sitzung, im Krankenzimmer, einer sozialen Begegnung oder einer Bibelstunde seid, ist Jesus unter euch.[3] (Das war 2017, das gab es alles noch!) Was sie damit sagen will: Bei jeder Entscheidung über die Gemeinde, ob zur Liturgie und Musik, zu Projekten oder Finanzen, zur Mitgliedszulassung oder Renovierung der Kirche ist Jesus unter uns. Das dürfen wir nicht vergessen.

Aber wichtig ist zu verstehen, dass Jesus auch dabei ist, wenn es nicht unbedingt um etwas explizit Religiöses geht.  Matthias Treiber schreibt: „seid nicht so kleingläubig, Gott in der Kirche einzusperren. Er ist in Jesus zu euch gekommen. Christus lebt im Alltag. Er ist mit uns auf dem Weg zur Arbeit und bei der Klassenarbeit in der Schule, er hält uns die Hand beim Arztbesuch und lässt mit uns die Sektkorken knallen, wenn wir Geburtstag haben. Gott ist einfach überall da. Und er ist jedem nahe.“[4] Ich habe gestern gedacht, dass auch mein Zusammensein mit meinem Mann – beim Einkaufen, auf dem Balkon Tee trinken, gemeinsam essen, oder einfach miteinander in der Wohnung sein – in gewisser Weise ein Zusammensein in Jesus Namen ist, so dass auch in unserem alltäglichen Leben Jesus mit uns dabei ist.  Diese Gedanke erinnerte mich an dem Moment in der Geschichte Jakobs im Alten Testament, als Jakob aufwacht und erkennt „Wirklich, der HERR ist an diesem Ort und ich wusste es nicht“ (1. Mose 28, 16).

Wie erkennen wir aber die Gegenwart Jesu?  Für Jörg Zink ist es eine Frage der Achtsamkeit: „Wir leben aneinander vorbei und achten zu wenig auf das Empfinden der Menschen, auf ihre Leidvolle Schicksale und ihr Elend.  Wir leben an uns selbst vorbei und achten zu wenig auf uns selbst, auf unsere innere Stimme, die auf die Gefährdung unserer eigenen Seele hinweist.“[5] Achtsam sein heißt innehalten, Ausschau halten, anders sehen.  In einem Segensgebet aus der Ökumene heißt es: „Geht in der Kraft, die euch gegeben ist, geht einfach, geht zart, und haltet Ausschau nach der Liebe. Gottes Geist geleite euch!“[6]

Achtet aufeinander, auf uns selbst, haltet Ausschau nach der Liebe, nach der Anwesenheit Christi.  Aber nicht nur als Einzelpersonen, sondern auch in Gesellschaft.  Gerade das haben wir eben gesungen:  „Suchen und fragen, hoffen und sehn … miteinander glauben … aneinander glauben … füreinander glauben und sich verstehn“.[7]  Das bedeutet, die Augen aufmachen – aufhaben – für die Gegenwart Gottes in unserer Welt und in den anderen Menschen. Wir sind nicht alleine, wir sind auch nicht nur unter uns, auch wenn wir das nicht immer sehen.  Gott ist mit uns in unserem Leben, in unseren Alltag, begleitet uns immer. Wir müssen uns dessen Anwesenheit nur bewusst sein, sie erkennen. Dabi erkennen wir, wie es inder heutigen Lesung aus dem Römerbrief steht, dass die Liebe – sowohl zu uns selbst als auch die Nächstenliebe – ganz eng mit dem Bewußtsein über die Answesenheit Christi zusammenhängt.

Deshalb schließe ich mit einem Segensgebet von Wilma Klevinghaus, das uns daran erinnert, dass wir die Gegenwart Christi nicht nur in der Welt spuren, sondern sie auch in die Welt hineintragen.   Christus ist für uns präsent, aber auch durch uns für andere präsent.

Geht, die ihr glauben könnt, und tragt den Glauben in die Welt!
Geht, ihr Geretteten, und tragt die Hoffnung in die Welt!
Geht, ihr Erwärmten, und tragt die Wärme in die Welt!
Geht hin, ihr Fröhlichen, tragt eure Freude in die Welt!
Geht, ihr Geliebten, und tragt die Liebe in die Welt!
Geht, ihr Erleuchteten, und tragt das Licht in die Welt!
Geht, ihr Gesegneten, und tragt Gottes Segen in die Welt![8] Amen.


[1]  Jörg Zink, Gottesgedanken. Vom inneren Weg eines Christen, Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2012, S. 13.

[2]  Karoline Lewis, “God is with us” (3 September 2017), online at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4961.

[3]  Ebd.

[4]  Matthias Treiber, „Impuls zum Predigttext für den Sonntag Jubilate: Apostelgeschichte 17,22–28,“ online https://www.evangelisches-gemeindeblatt.de/lebenshilfe/glaube/detailansicht/gottes-gegenwart-spueren-464/.

[5]   Zink, Gottesgedanken, S. 17.

[6] Georg Schwikart (Hg.), Gesegnet sollst du sein. Segensgebete für Seelsorge und Gottesdienst, Herder 2008, S. 34.

[7]  Eingestimmt, Nr. 509.

[8]   Schwikart (Hg.), Gesegnet sollst du sein, S. 36.

Proper 12 (A) – Ordinary Time 17 – 26 July 2020

Refelction written for St Margaret Newlands

Rachel the righteous

Genesis 29.15-28 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=462540533
Romans 8.26-39 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=462540661
Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=462540707

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God,” writes Paul to the Romans.  Big questions of good and evil lie behind this short affirmation.  Big questions that may trouble us when we find ourselves in the middle of inexplicable suffering.  How can this be working for good?  How can God be with me in this?  The danger is that a response to such questions is given too quickly, that such questions – and indeed Paul’s assertions – are treated as trivial, superficial truths.

Reading around for this reflection, I was struck by how often the underlying topic identified for this week was love, or desire.  Reflecting on how God’s love, God’s desire for us and our desire for God, affirms us and transforms us is an important aspect of our faith journey.  Desire – coming to understand our true desires – seems to lie at the root of images of the kingdom such as the treasure of the field.  What do we desire or treasure so much that we would give up everything to have it in our lives? “Is it possible,” asks Margaret Silf in her wonderful book on prayer Close to the Heart (UK title: Taste and See), “that our deepest desires flow in the same eternal stream as God’s desire for us and for all creation?”[1] Reflecting on that question and on the gospel images of the kingdom was what this sermon was going to be about.

However, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable reading the story of Jacob’s marriage – first to Leah, thinking she is Rachel, and then to Rachel herself – simply as a story of deep love and desire.  From Jacob’s point of view it is perhaps that: Jacob really wants to marry Rachel, and sticks by her even when he finds that he has been conned into marrying (and sleeping with) her sister, whom he does not much like.  This is Jacob’s love story but it is also the story of the trickery of the two women’s father, Laban, in his treatment of Jacob, who, we should remember, has himself just conned his twin brother Esau out of his inheritance. “The trickster tricked” as one commentary puts it.[2]  That trickery could be read as a testing, and Jacob’s love for, or desire for, Rachel wins out against Laban’s trickery.

But looking at the story from the women’s point of view, it quickly becomes a complex narrative of relationships blighted by love and hate, fertility and infertility. We don’t know what they felt about Jacob. The biblical narrative tells us that by God’s will Leah, the unwanted and unloved wife, is fertile; Rachel, the beloved wife, is initially infertile.  Both Jacob’s wives will present with one of their serving women (or slaves), Rebecca’s servant Bilhah and Leah’s servant Zilpah, to allow him to father more children.  This is a tale of strained, difficult relationships, which provided inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.  The consequences of infertility and the idea that another woman can bear children on behalf of the wife is a not uncommon theme in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (think also of Sarah and Hagar).  Juliana Claassens describes these stories as examples of “insidious trauma.”[3]  Citing Griselda Pollock, she suggests that by acknowledging the difficult aspects of such stories, “readers from vastly different contexts may recognize in these trauma narratives the painful reality of the daily suffering endured by especially women and other marginalized entities in their own contexts.”[4]  Similarly, Jean Jeffress sees Jacob’s household as “a dysfunctional family” and as an example that can help us to recognise such dysfunction in our own context.  She points out: “Everyday misogyny is woven into the fabric of our culture; it is normalized and therefore may not be noticed right away. If we cannot identify misogyny when it is disguised as normal, then we might not realize we are being harmed.”[5]  It is important, therefore, to name “the harm caused by patriarchy and misogyny in all women’s stories, from the Hebrew Bible to pop culture,”[6] and seek to heal it.

In short, Jacob’s household is pretty problematic, and it is important to recognise its problematic nature.  At the same time, we can see that in the book of Genesis these complex relationships provide a means to an end.  Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah will become the mothers of the ancestors of the tribes of Israel:  Leah’s six sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun; Zilpah’s two sons, Gad and Asher, Bilhah’s two sons, Dan and Naphtali, and Rachel’s two sons  Benjamin (the ancestor of Saul, later assimilated into the tribe of Judah), and Joseph, father of Manasseh and Ephraim, who gave their names to the final two tribes.[7]   The story of the people of Israel, and therefore ultimately our own story as Christians, springs from these problematic relationships.  But (fortunately) that does not mean that we should take them as a blueprint for our own relationships.

I remember many years ago Kathy Galloway taking about the phrase “the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons, unto the third and fourth generation” (which actually seems not to be a direct quote from the Old Testament; the NRSV has “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation.”: Numbers 5:9) She read this not as some kind of moral imperative, not as something that is meant to be, but as a statement of fact, that can be transformed by the redemptive love of God.  I think we could approach this story the same way, not by romanticising it, but as an example of the kind of problematic relationships (even if not quite on this scale) that many of us will find somewhere in our own histories.  It is not how things are mean to be.  It must have been deeply painful to those living through it.  But it is part of our history.  Recognising that this story is part of our legacy, that it is therefore part of our story and in that sense shapes affects our even lives now does not mean that we need to whitewash the relationships of Jacob’s household.

There are many parts of Scripture which are part of our story and legacy, but at which we need to look in a clear-eyed way.  At morning prayer we have been reading the account of Joshua’s entry into the promised land, which involved the conquering and oppression of the people already there.  It does not make for easy reading.  Here too, it is important that we do not allow the narrative of the God-given mission to blind us to the difficult aspects of what we are reading. And the same applies to our understanding of British colonial history, or the roots of the wealth of our own city of Glasgow in the slave-trade.  We can and we should look clear eyed at our history, and recognise that aspects of that history (for instance the experiences of women, the experiences of to many Africans, and indeed of indigenous peoples in many parts of what became the British Empire) cast very dark shadows now.  Recognising the dark aspects of history should help us to recognise some of the dark aspects of our world today, and may also give us insights into how we might try to counter them.  David Olusoga ends his book Black and British: A forgotten history with this hope:  “Knowing this history better, understanding the forces it has unleashed, and seeing oneself as part of a longer story, is one of the ways in which we can keep trying to move forward.”[8]

All this is to say that we need to recognise such problematic and traumatic human relationships are, at least to some extent, an inevitable part of human experience, because we are sinful human beings and this affects how we relate to each other. However, this does not mean that they are part of how God wants the world to be.  One of the important realisations of modern theology has been that hierarchies of gender and race are not part of the order of creation.  Rather, I believe that we are called to work against them to proclaim the gospel – the good news – of God’s love for every person.  Rowan Williams suggests that God gives “to the outcast, the powerless, the freedom to take part in renewing the world and setting aside the existing tyranny of faceless powers and human betrayals.”[9]  This, he says, is God’s creative power: “God brings life out of emptiness, reality out of nothing.”[10]

This also brings us back to the words of Paul that I quoted at the beginning: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”  Margaret Silf suggests looking back over our lives, our histories and making a time line of the important events in our lives, visible to others, but also of the internal developments, visible only to ourselves and God.

How have any life-giving moments made a difference to you since they happened?  And those events that seemed destructive at the time—have they actually destroyed you? With hindsight, can you see any way in which these dark patches of your experience have led you to new growth spurts? Which experiences do you most relish—and which do you most regret? Let them [all] be there, simply laid bare before God in your prayer. Don’t try to suppress the feelings you have about them. Let your joy be expressed. Let your tears be shed. This kind of prayer is an intimate encounter with God; let it renew your energy.[11]

Silf reads the Old Testament narratives as an account of “the struggles and the triumphs of the people of Israel—and of the whole human family.”[12]  The challenge is not to try to retell the story to make it romantic or uplifting, but to understand how the story of each of us as individuals is “connected with the whole human story of redemption.”[13]  “Prayer,” writes Silf, “if it is honest, does not deny the darkness in our hearts and the anguish in our lives, but it can lead us to streams in the desert and the morsels of food that we never expected.”[14]  And this (for me at least) offers a way that we can read the difficult stories of our faith, of our own history, of our lives, honestly but in hope of transformation.

Amen.

[1]   Margaret Silf, Close to the Heart: A Practical Approach to Personal Prayer (Chicago IL: Loyola Press 1999), 35. UK edition Taste and See (London: DLT 1999).

[2]  Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome, Texts for preaching: A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV – Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 1995), 417.

[3]  L. Juliana Claassens, “Reading Trauma Narratives: Insidious Trauma in the Story of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah (Genesis 29-30) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,” Old Testament Essays 33 (2020); online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2312-3621/2020/v33n1a3.

[4]  Ibid., citing Griselda Pollock, “Art/Trauma/Representation,” Parallax 15 (2009), 40-54, at 42; online at: https://doi.org/10.1080/13534640802604372.

[5]   Jean Jeffress, “Three’s company too: A midrash  on everyday misogyny, Leah, Rachel, Jacob, and the comedy of errors of this Hebrew Bible dysfunctional family,” Review and Expositor 115 (2018), 572-576, at 576; online at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0034637318795430.

[6]   Ibid.

[7]   “Twelve Tribes of Israel,” in: Encyclopaedia Britannica; online at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Twelve-Tribes-of-Israel.

[8]   David Olusoga, Black and British: A forgotten history (London: Pan 2016), 526.

[9]   Rowan Williams, On Christian theology (Oxford: Blackwell 2000), 231.

[10]   Ibid.

[11]   Silf, Close to the Heart, 54.

[12]   Ibid., 55.

[13]   Ibid.

[14]   Ibid., 153.

Proper 8(A) – 28 June 2020

Reflections for St Margaret Newlands

Genesis 22:1-18

Matthew 10:37-42

ot-sacrifice-of-isaac

The readings set for this Sunday are challenging.   Our Old Testament lesson gives us the story of Abraham’s binding, and near sacrifice, of Isaac, often read by Christians as a precursor of God’s giving his son to the cross.  The reading from Matthew looks quite innocuous if you only read the second half (from verse 40), as the SEC lectionary suggests, but if you read the whole passage, from verse 37, then it too becomes difficult, suggesting that family ties are not as important as following Jesus.  What are we to make of these passages?

The story of the binding of Isaac, the so-called Akedah, is one of the most commentated passages in the Bible.  Jews, Christians and Muslims all find this story in their scriptures.  Ellen Clark-King talks about its “larger than life, and darker than death, story-line,”[1] and I can very much identify with that description.  She asks: “An abusive father, a vulnerable son, an absent mother, and a God who orchestrates horrors – how are we to make theological or emotional sense of this? Where can we find meaning in the middle of this mess?”[2]  Her response is to think about the cultural setting:

The concept of sacrificing a child to achieve a ‘greater’ good, such as divine favour, would not have been an alien one to the original hearers of this tale. They may have been more moved by the fact that Abraham was giving up his only hope at a legitimate line of descendants than by the cruelty to Isaac. (Don’t forget that Abraham had just exiled his other older son, Ishmael, along with the child’s mother, Hagar.) The shock of the story originally lay in its ending rather than in its beginning – in the fact that the sacrifice was stopped rather than in the fact that it was asked for in the first place.[3]

Clark-King therefore reads the story as a transformation in the theology of the Old Testament.  In it, she suggests “we move … from an understanding of God as one who demands human sacrifice as proof of devotion to an understanding of God as the one who stays the knife from killing.”[4]

This is an attractive interpretation, but it sits uneasily with the difficulties presented by this story in our own context and in the Christian tradition. Clark-King suggests that for us, in our own context, “the shock is in [the story’s] opening – that God could demand such a sacrifice of Abraham, and hold Isaac’s life as worth nothing compared to the proof of Abraham’s faith.”[5]  Russell Barr asks: “What kind of disordered, deranged man is this, about to murder his own child? And what kind of disordered, deranged God would ask it of him?”[6] Barr connects the shocking demand made of Abraham with the crucifixion, but also with the expectations of discipleship:

Abraham is asked to choose.  God does not simply ask for good behaviour, that we live honest, moral and law-abiding lives. He asks for much more. God demands that Abraham surrenders himself willingly and completely, trusting all that he is and has, including his son, that which he holds as dearest and most precious.
Are you willing to do that, to venture all, to risk all?
Isn’t this what God did at Calvary?[7]

These questions resonate with Jesus’s words at the beginning of the gospel reading:  “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  The demands of discipleship are here presented as challenging, rigorous; not only the risking of all but the actual giving up of all.

To our ears this radicality may sound not only rigorous but also potentially warped, or even abusive. While I was pondering these readings, I came across an account of a man named Chris Flanders who joined a local yoga class which turned out to be a recruiting ground for a cult.  He writes:

The tipping point was when I was told I should leave behind my “unconscious family” (my parents), as my “spiritual family” (the organisation) was more important. One master hadn’t spoken to his parents for five years. It was tough, he told me, but said that saving the world was far more important. I know he believed he was doing the right thing.[8]

Others who have joined sects and cults have reported similar experiences.  And it is also clear that one of the signs of an abusive relationship is often that someone has “stopped spending time with friends and family.”[9]  Is such a radical break with family and friends a healthy aspect of discipleship?

Morevoer, the consequences of such a break can be far-reaching.  In a moving retelling of the story of the binding of Isaac, written from Sarah’s point of view, Sara Maitland depicts what happened at Moriah as toxic, not only for the relationship between Abraham and Isaac but also for that between Abraham and Sarah:

[Sarah] does not know what happened between Abraham and Isaac in the land of Moriah.  She does not speak to Abraham any more and she knows that Isaac will never tell her. … Abraham came back from the land of Moriah smug, contented, smooth and sleek. Isaac came back from the land of Moriah like a wild animal, bound but not tamed. For months afterwards he would wake in the night screaming and his mother, in the women’s tent, would hear her boy child sobbing and could not go to him, comfort hm, hold him. There was a look in his eyes still, evasive, distant, the look of a man who uses pride to cover betrayal.[10]

For Maitland, simply the fact that Abraham showed himself ready to do what God required of him had an horrific impact on his wife, on his son.  It was, in Maitland’s account, a betrayal which also destroyed Isaac’s future, because Abraham’s actions destroyed Isaac’s future ability to trust others.  Altogether we seem this week to be confronted with two passages which may lead us wondering what our faith could be requiring of us.

Clark-King sees the underlying transformation of the depiction of God in this passage as key to finding a way out of this dilemma:

we see a God who opens Godself to vulnerability and finitude, who takes death into the heart of the divine being, out of love for erring, vulnerable humanity. A God who does not consider any human life to be expendable and puts particular value on the most vulnerable, especially children.[11]

Accordingly, she sees the death of the Son not as a betrayal but as choice: “the Son, an equal person within the Godhead, chose the vulnerability of the incarnation.”[12]  William C. Placher, citing Thomas Aquinas, agrees:

it is surely important that Christ is not the passive victim of suffering for the sake of keeping things as they are but one who actively accepts suffering for the sake of transforming the world. “It is indeed a wicked and cruel act,” Aquinas wrote, “to hand over an innocent man to torment and death against his will. Yet God the Father did not so deliver up Christ, but inspired him with the will to suffer for us.” Christ is not a scapegoat, dragged to the Temple for sacrifice, but a volunteer in the battle against evil.[13]

The aspect of choice is key for Placher.  Indeed, some patristic traditions (not that explored by Maitland) see Isaac as a willing sacrifice as in this way as a true precursor of Christ.[14]

Not only choice is key, but also the underlying cause of suffering.  Placher argues that in the world, “there is still suffering, and we celebrate it—but not because the suffering is a good; rather, because it is the agent of the transformation of the world.”[15] He recognises “the protests of feminist theologians and others that women and other oppressed groups have been called too often by the Christian faith to endure suffering,”[16] for instance women who have been told that it is their duty to endure abusive relationships.  However, he worries that Christianity has become too comfortable:  “as I look at our typical congregations, I think one could also make a contrary case: that we have created the kind of comfortable ‘Christendom’ Kierkegaard decried and often do not ask enough by way of suffering.”[17]

Placher finds that there is a “crucial difference” between “whether we urge the endurance of suffering that perpetuates injustice, or the acceptance of suffering in the service of justice, peace, and liberation.”[18]  He here cites bell hooks, who makes “a definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as a site of resistance—as location of radical openness and possibility.”[19]  This seems to me also to be the difference between the demands of the call to discipleship, which may be radical, taking us to difficult places, including into conflict with our family and friends, but which will always call us to be attentive to the needs of the world, and the demands of the kind of cult described by Chris Flanders , or the kind of abusive relationship which focuses only on the one, abusive partner. Discipleship calls us to participate in God’s mission in the world. It might put us at odds with our families and friends; it might cause us suffering, but it will not close in on itself as an end in itself.  Clark-King sees the story of the binding of Isaac as challenging us to consider our own behaviour:

None of us who are in our right minds would dream of sacrificing our children to prove our faith, but very many of us allow children in the third world to sacrifice their childhoods in the sweat shops that produce our cheap clothes. Most of us would speak strongly against any military action of aggression towards those who disagree with us on matters of faith, but are still able to turn a blind eye towards practices of torture that we believe protect our own security.[20]

Those blind eyes are what we need to beware of.

A hymn by Kathy Galloway sums up what I am trying to get at.  We should expect our faith to take us to difficult places, and places which might be disturbing and set relationships into quetion. But this is not about giving up on our families and friends for the sake of doing so.  Rather it is about recognising that having an awareness of the wider needs of the world, and being called to respond to that, can take us – and those we love – to some difficult places.

Do not retreat into your private world,
That place of safety, sheltered from the storm,
Where you may tend your garden, seek your soul
And rest with loved ones where the fire burns warm.

To tend a garden is a precious thing,
But dearer still the one where all may roam,
The weeds of poison, poverty and war,
Demand your care, who call the earth your home.

To seek your soul it is a precious thing,
But you will never find it on your own,
Only among the clamour, threat and pain,
Of other people’s need will love be known.

To rest with loved ones is a precious thing,
But peace of mind exacts a higher cost,
Your children will not rest and play in quiet,
While they hear the crying of the lost.

Do not retreat into your private world,
There are more ways than firesides to keep warm;
There is no shelter from the rage of life,
So meet its eye, and dance within the storm.[21]

 

[1]  Ellen Clark-King, “26th June: Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1-14,” The Expository Times 122 (2011), 396-398, at 396.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Ibid., 397.

[5]  Ibid., 396.

[6]  Russell Barr, “29th June: Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1–14,” The Expository Times 119 (2008), 400-401, at 401.

[7]   Ibid.

[8]   See https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jun/26/experience-my-yoga-class-turned-out-to-be-a-cult.

[9]   See https://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/.

[10]   Sara Maitland, “Sacrifice,” in Angel and Me: Short Stories for Holy Week (London: Mowbray 1995), 30.

[11]  Clark-King, “Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1-14, 397.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  William C. Placher, “Christ Takes Our Place: Rethinking Atonement,” in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 53 (1999), 5-20 at 16; citing Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3a.47.3 ad 1.

[14]  See, for instance, https://themotherofgod.wordpress.com/the-sacrifice-of-isaac/ (also the source of the icon).

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  Ibid.

[17]  Ibid.

[18]  Ibid.

[19]  Ibid., citing bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End, 1990), 153.

[20]  Clark-King, “Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1-14, 397.

[21]  Kathy Galloway, in Janet Morley (ed.), Bread of Tomorrow (London: SPCK/Christian Aid 1992), 65

Proper 6 (A) – 14 June 2020

Reflections for St Margaret Newlands

Genesis 18.1-15 or Exodus 19.2-8a
Romans 5.1-8
Matthew 9.35-10.8(9-23)

SoThatYouMayKnowTheHope

“So that you may know the hope” Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayer Book
online at: https://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/11/19/so-that-you-may-know-the-hope/

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

Chapter 5 of Paul’s letter to the Romans opens with this promise of what it means to live in the love of God.  Reading it I was struck anew by the promise implicit in Paul’s chain of reasoning about how we get from suffering to hope: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” In our present circumstances, that chain seems deeply desirable but not entirely a part of my current experience.  It is easy to feel hopeless at present, but Paul is here urging that we should not, and indeed that we must not.

Reflecting on this passage I looked at a number of translations to try to understand better the range of experiences and the sense of development Paul is describing.  The version above is from the NRSV.  In the Authorised Version, Paul asserts that “tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope.”  The New Living Translation affirms: “problems and trials… help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.” And The Inclusive Bible offers “affliction produces perseverance; and perseverance proven character; and character hope.” It is clear from all these translations that Paul was seeking to who the Romans how suffering, affliction, tribulation, problems and trials, that is the challenges with which life confronts us, could strengthen them in their faith.  Living through these challenges, he says, will endue us with endurance, perseverance, and patience.  That matures our experience and builds our character.  We may recognise and resonate with these steps, especially the first three, which seem in many ways intuitive.  Tribulations do teach us endurance and help to strengthen us.  However, that final step, the one that gets us to hope, doesn’t always seem to follow.

The apparently counter-intuitive nature of this Pauline promise of hope is something that commentators on this passage have also observed.  The New Testament theologian Kathy Ehrensperger points out (drawing on the work of J. Ross Wagner) that Paul’s message of hope was spoken into exactly this sense of disconnect in his own times. Paul is drawing on a prophetic tradition “in which hope against hope continued to be formulated in situations which for many Jews in Palestine, and partly also in the Diaspora of the empire, were completely devastating.”[1]  The Old Testament prophets, and now Paul, were proclaiming hope in their situation “despite so much evidence that seemed to point clearly to the contrary.”[2]  Holly Hearon, an American New Testament scholar, reflects on the devastating situations in our contemporary context into which this passage may be speaking:

It is the gut-wrenching “why?” of parents whose children have been gunned down in schools. It is the anguished “how long?” of those whose unemployment checks ran out long ago. It is the persistent “when?” of those who have been waiting too many years for justice to be done.[3]

And yet, Hearon suggests, into these situations can speak “the burning hope that God’s justice will prevail despite all signs to the contrary.”[4]

It is worth reflecting here on what we might mean by hope.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions.  The first is hope as “expectation of something desired; desire combined with expectation.”  This might be hope for the fulfilment of promises or prophesies, “whether in the near or in a more distant future.”[5]  This reminds us that hope is not always a belief that change of transformation can happen now; hope helps us to look beyond the now to a different future.

Another of the OED definitions is “A person or thing that gives hope or promise for the future.” In his letter to the Romans Paul proclaims that Christ has fulfilled precisely this kind of hope:  “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (5:6,8).  Holly Hearon comments of Rom 5:8 that “The word ‘prove’ can sound legalistic: for example, proving a case in a court of law, or winning a point in a debate.”  She notes, however, that the word Paul uses here (sunistēmi) “belongs to a different semantic field that has at its root the idea of bringing things together.”  What Paul is pointing to here is “God’s overwhelming desire to restore the relationship between creation and the Creator”, revealed through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.[6]  Hope helps us to see that there might be another narrative, another way of telling the story.

The OED also defines hope as a “feeling of trust or confidence.”  Although this meaning is obsolete in modern English, it is closest to what Strong’s lexicon gives for the Greek elpida: “hope, expectation, trust, confidence.” Understanding hope as trust, or confidence, seems to me to shed real light on Paul’s understanding of hope. The context of this passage at the beginning of Romans 5 is Paul’s affirmation that justification – our being “reckoned-as-righteous”,[7] our being “made right in God’s sight”[8] – comes to us through faith, and this is all about being able to trust God.  For L. Ann Jervis Paul’s assertion that “believers are in a place of peace with God ([Romans] 5:1), … means that they are in a location where they have access to grace (5:2)—they are now close to God: ‘reconciled to God by the death of his Son’ (5:10).”[9]  Faith is the experience of having a trusting relationship to God, as Martin Luther realised when reflecting on Paul’s account of justification in Romans.[10] It is this new relationship of being close to God that Paul describes elsewhere in Romans as “being ‘in Christ Jesus’ (8:1) and ‘in the Spirit’ (8:9).”[11] This trusting relationship with God means, as Judy Hirst writes, that “As Christians we believe that there is a point to life; that things are more then they seem.”[12]  We “begin to see with the eye of faith that in all situations there can be a path that leads to a new and greater life.”[13]

Hope understood as trust is a reminder that hope is not optimism: it is something deeper and steadier, rooted in a sense that God is with us wherever and however we are, despite everything. Jan Richardson writes:

Hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when beloved lives have left us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, where Christ waits for us to work with him toward a more whole world now.[14]

This sense that hope draws us into Christ’s work to make a more whole world now also resonated with Romans 5. L. Ann Jervis argues that Paul wants to show how “the reality of God’s way of life,” is made available to believers through Christ and the Spirit,[15] and that this is “not an occasional or necessarily ecstatic or extraordinary experience,” but “a stable way of life for believers.”[16]  It is also, argues Kathy Ehrenberger, profoundly relational: Paul is clear that the grace he had received was not “a personal favour which he could enjoy for himself,” but rather caught up with his call to proclaim the gospel to the gentiles.[17]  Grace and apostolic calling or discipleship are inextricably entangled: “to communicate who and what [Christ] is, the life must be lived,” as Rowan Williams puts it.[18]  But this does not imply that God abandons us when we feel that we fall short.  Rowan Williams reflects that “Christ’s human life is open to the divine at every moment; it is not that God the Word deigns to take up residence in those parts of our lives that we consider important or successful or exceptional.”[19]  Life in Christ, life in the Spirit, is “a life that values every dimension of experience, including the routine, the repetitive and prosaic,”[20] and we might add, the difficult, the distressing and the challenging: suffering, affliction, tribulation, problems and trials.

The progression from trouble to hope (or indeed to perseverance or patience, or to character) may still not be easy.  The final stanza of one of George Herbert’s four poems entitled “Affliction” highlights his own struggles to accede to what God seems to require of him:

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout;
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.[21]

Janet Morley describes this as “a brilliant summary of the options open to the afflicted Christian soul”: acceptance, rebellion, and (my own interpretation) feeling cut off from – or cast off by – God.[22]

Let me end with yet another translation of Paul’s progression from trouble to hope, found in The Message:  “troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.”  Hope understood as being alert to whatever God will do next in our lives.  Perhaps that is the best translation yet.

Amen

 

[1]  Kathy Ehrensperger, Paul and the Dynamics of Power: Communication and Interaction in the Early Christ-Movement (London: Bloomsbury 2007), 94; summarising J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of Good News: Isaiah and Paul ‘In Concert’ in the Letter to the Romans (Leiden: Brill 2002).

[2]  Ehrensperger, Paul and the Dynamics of Power, 94-95.

[3]  Holly Hearon, “Between Text and Sermon: Romans 5:6–11,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 69 (2015), 347-349, at 347.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Ehrensperger, Paul and the Dynamics of Power, 95.

[6]  Hearon, “Romans 5:6–11,” 348.

[7]  Nick King, The Bible, Romans 5:1.

[8]  The Inclusive Bible, Romans 5:1.

[9]  L. Ann Jervis, “The Spirit Brings Christ’s Life to Life,” in: Jerry L. Sumney (ed.), Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 137-156, at 141.

[10]  See for instance Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, Luther’s Works 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House 1972), 36.

[11]  Jervis, “The Spirit Brings Christ’s Life to Life,” 141.

[12]  Judy Hirst, A Kind of Sleepwalking … and waking up to life (London: DLT 2014), 64.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Jan Richardson, “So That You May Know the Hope,” The Painted Prayer Book (online at: https://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/11/19/so-that-you-may-know-the-hope/).

[15]  Jervis, “The Spirit Brings Christ’s Life to Life,” 142.

[16]  Ibid, 143.

[17]  Ehrensperger, Paul and the Dynamics of Power, 88.

[18]  Rowan Williams, The Way of St Benedict (London: Bloomsbury Continuum 2020), 49.

[19]  Ibid., 48.

[20]  Ibid.

[21]  George Herbert, “Affliction,” in: Janet Morley, Love Set You Going: Poems of the Heart (London: SPCK 2019), 134.

[22]  Morley, Love Set You Going, 136.

Ascension – 20 May 2020

Sermon at the online Ascension Day service for the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Glasgow South region

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

Some years ago I published a book of “Reflections for Ash Wednesday to Pentecost”, a book for Lent and the Easter season.  (It has always seemed a bit odd to me that Lent books stop at the end of Holy Week, without continuing to the resurrection, the resurrection appearances, the Ascension and Pentecost.)

If you love something - cover

I called the book “If you love something…” based on the saying “If you love something let it go.  If it comes back to you it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, it never was.”

If you love

It seemed to me than, and it seems to me now, that this saying says something very profound about what happens to us, and what happens to the disciples, as we move through Lent, Passiontide and Easter, Ascension and Pentecost.  But it also says something very profound about our experiences of life, and about our discipleship.

Lent, Passiontide and Easter, Ascension and Pentecost took the disciples, and take us through a cycle of letting go and receiving, of giving up in order to be given anew.  With the disciples, we come to know Jesus, the man, the companion, his words, his miraculous touch.  With them we rejoice as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

360px-Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro_lorenzetti

But then, with them, we must let go of ideas of kingship and revolution and watch Jesus our Christ die in horrible agony on the cross.

170414+Image+3+-+Cimabue+Crucifix

And yet it is in and through the letting go of Jesus in his passion that the meeting with the resurrected Christ becomes possible.

2018-0408-pascha

It is that terrible loss and the haunting absence in the tomb which make possible the encounter with the risen Christ in the garden, on the road, in our lives.

Letting go of Jesus whom we love is necessary, for only then can Christ return to us.  This is the central movement of the Passion and the Resurrection.  This is not the end of the story. Today we celebrate the Ascension, and with the disciples we find ourselves once again having to let go: this time of the risen Christ who was Jesus, different and yet the same.

ascension-icon-small

After the Ascension, the disciples withdraw, as they did after the crucifixion, to another room.

20120513144615!Icon-Pentecost

There they are given the gift of Holy Spirit, that exhilarating gift of fire and rushing wind—that still small voice—which we celebrate at Pentecost.

Pentecost

But that gift too could only come to the disciples because they let go of the new way they had come to experience God in the Risen Christ:  let go of this experience of God—in order to receive the presence of God in a different way, in the Holy Spirit.

This experience of letting go and receiving through Lent and the Easter season also reminds us very clearly that the cycle of letting go and receiving is never a ‘going back’.  The crucified Christ does not return to the disciples as he was before—he is not Jesus, their companion of the road—but is different.  The resurrected Christ is not always immediately recognisable.

Noli me Tangere Fra Angelico

He is glorious, but also wounded and scarred.  He is the same, yet he has changed. The people to whom he appears have also changed.  They have been through the terror and the horror of Good Friday.  Christ has died in agony on the cross before their eyes.  Just as Christ bears the marks of that suffering on his risen body, so too the disciples carry on their souls the marks of the terrible, lonely pain they have witnessed, of their grief and loss.

window090307_02

This process of letting go of God, of Christ and of finding ourselves again in God’s presence in a different way is not only the central message of Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, of  the reality of our faith and indeed of our whole lives.  It is the movement of repentance and new life to which we are called through our baptism.  In our life of faith, it will not always be as dramatic as the passion and the resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost.

ascension

We find ourselves entering into it every time we find ourselves tripping over our expectations of how things should be, of having to give up something that – or someone whom – we have cherished.  Perhaps this might help us to make sense of the strangeness of our lives at present, in which we have had to let go of so much that was normal and precious to us. Letting go in order to receive is not giving up, but is about learning to see differently, to let go of how we wanted things to be, to be open to how things are.

letting go

Ascension reminds us particularly that there can be a transcendence to our experiences of loss.  That they can act as bridges between earth and heaven.  That they teach us something about God, and about the person God wants each of us to be. Lao Tzu says (apparently), “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”  There is a chant by John Bell which says something similar: “Take, O take me as I am; Summon out what I shall be; Set your seal upon my heart, And live in me.”  Ascension invites us to be summoned out, as Christ was summoned out, and to be drawn to be at God’s right hand, as he was drawn to be at God’s right hand.

final take

Creator and ruler of all,
open our hearts that the King of glory may enter,
and bring us rejoicing to your holy mountain,
where you live and reign, now and for ever.  Amen

 

 

Easter 5 (A) – 10 May 2020

Reflections for the 5th Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after VE Day

Acts 7:55-60 
Psalm 31:1-5,15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

On Friday, we marked the 75th anniversary of the declaration of Victory in Europe on 8 May 1945. VE Day.  I was meant to be doing two things over the course of this weekend: the first, from Thursday to Saturday, was an ecumenical meeting in Augsburg, Germany, working on a proposal for full communion between the (American) Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.  The second was preaching at Birmingham Cathedral on Sunday morning at their service to mark VE Day.  The coming together of those two events on this weekend seemed to me remarkably apt, and an important perspective on why for me VE Day is not about patriotism and nationalism.  Placing VE Day in the context of our ecumenical relationships forces us to look beyond our own viewpoint and remember how the end of war and the coming of peace had impact, not just for Britain, not just for the Allies, but for the whole of Europe, or even the whole world.  VE Day was the end of the war in Europe, but also the beginning of a project to build a better world, to build a peaceful Europe, to wage peace and not war.  That perspective is one of the reasons why for me Brexit seems such a backwards step:  the European Union grew out of the post war vision of a united Europe.

But the designation VE day also reminds us that while 8 May signalled the capitulation of Germany and the end of the war in Europe, it was by no means the end of the Second World War.  In May 1945, my maternal grandfather was in the Far East as a chaplain with the RAF.  VE Day was not the end of the war for him or the troops to whom he ministered or for any of the many who were stationed or interned or enslaved in forced work camps.  That came with Victory in Japan – VJ Day – on 15 August 1945.  And that came only after the dropping of two atomic bombs which began the nuclear age.  Together, VE Day in May 1945 and VJ Day in August 1945 ended the war and brought about peace, and that is indeed something to celebrate. Looking back, however, we realise that it was a complex peace.  Seventy-five years later the political uncertainties of the world in which we live are a constant reminder that peace is something that we have to seek, to work at – to wage.

What does the church have to say to such an anniversary?  How can today’s readings speak to us on this anniversary weekend of VE Day?  Our reading from Acts describes the death of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which we mark every year on the day after Christmas.  Stephen was arrested for speaking words of wisdom and truth inspired by the Spirit, which were accused of being “blasphemous words against Moses and God” (Acts 7: 10-11). He died for maintaining his convictions in the face of hostility. He was not at all diplomatic about it, saying to his accusers: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (Acts 7:51).  Stephen’s story might stand for us for the heroism of those who went to war believing that they were fighting a cause that must be defended. But if we read it that way, we must remember that that was true of some at least of those who fought on both sides.  And we must remember also that for many who fought it was not true at all.  They did not go to war for a vision but because they were called up, sent into the front line, doing their duty and not proclaiming a vision. Many of them died for that, as Stephen did.  However, Stephen’s story does speak to us of the need to maintain convictions in the face of hostility and of the consequences of doing so.  It is, for me at least, a reminder that such convictions can take us into a place where we have to suffer or even die for them.  Peaceful prophetic actions can stir up violent resistance.  It is a small step from that recognition to the realisation that if there are things worth fighting for, there are also things that are worth fighting against. There is no question in my mind that the horrors of National Socialist ideology and the reign of terror which it imposed, with its persecution, internment and murder of Jews, of Jehovah’s Witnesses, of homosexual people, of those with physical disability or mental illness, and of anyone who spoke out in opposition did constitute something that was worth fighting against.  But in saying that, we need to remember what that means we were fighting for: justice, free speech, the rule of law, what are now – post Second World War, and shaped by its experience – known as human rights, which ultimately means the recognition that all people are created in the image of God.

This brings us to our second reading, from the first letter of Peter, and particularly to what might be seen as the letter’s central assertion:  “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”  This is a vision of nationhood which is not narrowly nationalistic.  We are called, 1 Peter tells us, to recognise our shared identity as Christians, as those called to proclaim to love of God for the world, and God’s wondrous acts in the world.  Just as Stephen proclaimed God’s wisdom and truth, so too should we, but we should realise and understand that we do so together, not simply as individuals.  This vision of a national identity that transcends individual nations is one reason why we think of the church as catholic, as pertaining to all, but also as bringing all together.  That vision lies at the root of an ecumenical understanding of what it is to be Christian as well as at the root of a gospel understanding of what it is to be Christian.  It is no accident that the ecumenical movement has been deeply shaped by both war and the processes of peace.  The Meissen Agreement arose out of the peace movement in the 1980s.  The World Council of Churches was established after the Second World War.  It drew on the ecumenical impulse which shaped the interwar period,  when the budding ecumenical initiatives which had begun emerging before the First World War were deepened and given new impetus by the experience of dislocation and disintegration during the war.  These interwar ecumenical impulses were fuelled by the sense amongst churchmen (and they were mostly men at that time) that the First World War represented in part a failure on the part of the churches.

When the Lambeth Conference met in 1920, it took as its theme “fellowship,” and the Lambeth Appeal of 1920 (the centenary of which we mark this year) asserts – even proclaims – that “God wills fellowship.”  This is not a fellowship of uniformity, but a fellowship in which the riches of individual traditions are recognised, affirmed, and shared:  “It is through a rich diversity of life and devotion that the unity of the whole fellowship will be fulfilled.”  The holy nation, the royal priesthood celebrates what we bring to it as individuals, as churches, as nations and nationalities.  But we benefit from, and are enriched by, what others have to offer.  This is the vision of John the Divine:  “I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). Truly, as Jesus promises in John’s gospel, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.” Or “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” as the Authorised Version puts it.  These mansions, these dwelling places are not silos or ghettos, not pitted against each other.  They come together, complementing each other to complete the father’s house.

That is why for me the falling together this weekend of our marking of VE Day with an ecumenical meeting was so important.  In this time of COVID-19, our ecumenical group met, not for a three-day residential meeting, but for a short preparatory video conference.  Bishop Mark Eddington, of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches reminded us that while some are celebrating a military victory (or, indeed, marking a military defeat, and the fall of a terrible and terrifying regime), Christians have only one victory to celebrate: the victory of Christ over death, the glorification of the Father in the Son, as the Gospel of John also reminds us.  We come to God as our rock and our fortress, as a certain hope in times of trouble, as the source of strength to withstand whatever enemies and persecutors we may enocounter, to stand against injustice, to stand for the recognition that people are made in the image of God and deserve to be treated as such.

And so we give thanks today for all who gave their lives for peace in Europe.  And we give thanks, let us commit ourselves to work for the vision of a peace which is not narrowly national, but recognises that the “chosen race”, the “royal priesthood”, the “holy nation, God’s own people” is made up of all who are created in the image of God.

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
… Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
… My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.  (from Psalm 31)

 

Easter 4 (A) – 3 May 2020

Reflections for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday

the good shepherd

Acts 2.42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2.19-25
John 10.1-10

 

In her book Landmarks, also published under the title The Inner Compass, Margaret Silf remembers a walk she took one day along the Trent and Mersey canal.  She came to a lock and spent some time watching the canal boats pass through it, marvelling at how the still, peaceful water could take on the power to raise those boats.  But she also reflected on the experience of being in the lock, in words which may resonate with our current experience of living in lockdown:

I realised that I myself feel rather like a narrow boat in the lock chamber with the lock gates firmly closed on me.  … the lock chamber seems to be all there is. … It often feels as though I am here in a deep dark prison, facing brick walls on every side, and with no way out that my mind can guess at or imagine. This is a pointless and daunting place to be. If I think about my condition at all, I start to examine every brick or stone in that lock chamber, as if it were the whole arena of my being, in the hope that a minute examination of its walls might reveal some meaning in it or some way of dealing with it.[1]

However, as Margaret Silf points out, the process of examining the lock walls is “ultimately … futile”:

The lock chamber makes no sense at all unless you know about the canal. Without the canal, the boat is truly just a prisoner in a pointless place.  But when the reality of the canal is felt and embraced, then the transformation happens. Then the lock chamber is seen to be the place … where God’s grace might be flowing in to raise me to the place where I must be.[2]

That is, there is a canal that has brought us to this particular lock – this place of lockdown – and “which will, in some mysterious way, take [us] further.”[3]  We cannot see that at present, but the conviction that this may help us to bear the current situation, and may help us to see it as a space into which God’s grace can flow, filling the lock to take us to the place where we are meant to be. Or perhaps we are experiencing our lives at present as a place out of which something is flowing, as an emptying lock.  That emptying also taking us somewhere: a lock as it empties moves the boat down into the dank claustrophobia of the lock chamber so that the lock gates can open onto the next stretch of canal.  Change can come about through emptying as well as filling.

To recognise that there must be a wider perspective is not to romanticise the situation.  The lock is still damp, dark, and sometimes claustrophobic.  The pain of Good Friday is put into perspective by the transforming joy of Easter Sunday, but pain it remains.  Sheila Cassidy writes: “Stripping, whether by violence, illness or bereavement” – and we might add, or by the exigencies of lockdown – “is a messy business.  We look at the heroes, the brave survivors and are deceived by their outer serenity. Ignorant of their tears and rage, we forget that there is no shortcut to freedom.”[4]  Sheila Cassidy quotes T. S. Eliot:

                                                In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.[5]

The question which ultimately always faces us all, but currently brought into high relief by our present circumstances, is this:  how do we come through?  How can we be not broken by the times when there is no ecstasy, by experiences which are characterised rather by ignorance and dispossession?

The author of 1 Peter writes, “For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”  Later he will write: “Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”[6]  Nick King writes that 1 Peter is written “to Christians who (like Christians ever since) are enduring suffering, and they need to find some landmarks in the storm.”[7]  For Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter draws a “parallelism between Christ’s past and the Christians’ present,” which is suffering, “and Christ’s present and the Christians’ future,” which is resurrection hope.[8]  That is, Christians “should both expect and desire to share Christ’s experiences,” which means that in times of suffering, we can and should know “that Christ has been there before us” (an idea which Nick King finds, and I agree with him, “undeniably helpful”).[9]  For the author of 1 Peter the way to endure the pain of suffering and to enter into Christ’s present resurrected reality is, as Nick King’s translation has it, to “become ardent for what is good,” to “have an eager love for one another, because ‘love covers a multitude of sins’.”[10]

The new Christians in the book of Acts also find a way together in love. In the time after Pentecost, as this new community was finding its way of being, which must have been a period of disorientation, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  We are not able to break bread together at the moment except in our own homes. Praying may also seem hard.  We may be feeling isolated from God as well as from other people. This resonates with what Rowan Williams has described as the “ray of darkness”: “If you want God, you must be prepared to let go of all, absolutely all, emotional satisfactions, intellectual and emotional. … If you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable love of God, then you must be prepared to have your ‘religious’ world shattered.”[11] Lockdown has in many ways brought a shattering of our religious world, and we may well find, as Rowan Williams writes, that “This brings on a kind of vertigo; it may make me a stranger to my self, to everything that I have ever taken for granted.”[12]  William Johnston describes such experiences as times “of death and resurrection”: “The framework that upheld one’s life collapses leaving one adrift on a sea of insecurity. But in the midst of this turmoil comes a call … One is called to something new.”[13]

For Ivan Mann this call encourages us to enter into “the depth of pain and love” and allow it to become “the place of insight, growth and transformation.”[14] He warns that “in finding a breakthrough we may experience a seeming breakdown.”[15] That sense of disorientation and isolation does not mean that God is absent.  Psalm 23 speaks into this experience, with its promise of hope and help in times of distress and trouble:  “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.”  We may find more familiar the words of the Authorized Version:  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”  Psalm 23 affirms that even in times of darkness and isolation, we are not alone.  God is with us and God will comfort us. Remember too the original meaning of “comfort”: it derives from “con forte”, with strength.  God will be with us; God will give us strength.

Psalm 23 reminds us also that however daunting, challenging or uncomfortable they may seem, these are “right paths” which we follow for “his name’s sake.” And Sheila Cassidy believes that even when we feel trapped, isolated and inadequate, we are still able to respond to God’s call: “We are all frail, earthen vessels who may, should the potter choose, be fashioned in his image and for his own mysterious purposes. He chooses the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness. … All we have to do is remember that his love is better than life itself and say YES.”[16]

All this is to say that Christ’s promise, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” speaks to us here and now, even in the restrictions and disorientation of lockdown.  To affirm this is not to discount or ignore what we are going through: it does not mean that we do not feel the pain of these challenging times, and particularly the pain of those who are suffering, those have died, and those who are bereaved.  In all of this, through all this, Christ is with us:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.

[1]   Margaret Silf, Inner Compass: An Invitation to an Ignatian Spirituality (Chicago: Loyola 1999), 55.

[2]   Ibid., 55-56.

[3]   Ibid., 55.

[4]   Sheila Cassidy, The Good Friday People (London: DLT 1991), 91.

[5]   T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,“ Four Quartets.

[6]   1 Peter 3:13.

[7]   The Bible, translated by Nick King (Stowmarket: Kevin Mayhew 2013), 2335.

[8]   Christoph Stenschke, “Review of Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter (1996),” Scottish Journal of Theology 51 (1998), 384-386, at 385.

[9]   The Bible, translated by Nick King, 2334, 2335.

[10]   1 Peter 3:13, 4:8.

[11]   Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (London: DLT 1994), 97.

[12]   Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement:  Sermons and Addresses, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1994, p. 119.

[13]   William Johnston, Being in Love (London: Fount 1988), 89.

[14]   Ivan Mann, Breathing I Pray (London: DLT 2005), 129.

[15]   Ibid., 131.

[16]   Cassidy, Good Friday People, 188.

Prayers during the Easter Vigil

Prayers during the Easter Vigil, Rumours of Hope

(https://www.rumoursofhope.co.uk/)

 

I

Loving God, bring your light and restoring presence to the dark places in our lives. Bring your hope to hearts that feel defeated. Bring your love and compassion to those in pain. Open our eyes to see you at work, and give us your light. In Jesus’ name. Amen.[1]

rumours of hope 1

 

II

God of compassion, be close to those who are ill, afraid or in isolation.
In their loneliness, be their consolation; in their anxiety, be their hope;
in their darkness, be their light;
through him who suffered alone on the cross, but reigns with you in glory,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[2]

rumours of hope 2

 

III

O gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate upon you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[3]

rumours of hope 3

 

IV

Be with us, Lord, in all our prayers, and direct our way toward the attainment of salvation, that among the changes and chances of this mortal life, we may always be defended by your gracious help, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[4]

rumours of hope 4

 

V

Keep us, good Lord, under the shadow of your mercy in this time of uncertainty and distress. Sustain and support the anxious and fearful, and lift up all who are brought low; that we may rejoice in your comfort, knowing that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.[5]

rumours of hope 5

 

VI

I am giving you worship with all my life,
I am giving you obedience with all my power,
I am giving you praise with all my strength,
I am giving you honour with all my speech.
I am giving you love with all my heart,
I am giving you affection with all my sense,
I am giving you my being with all my mind,
I am giving you my soul, O most high and holy God.
Praise to the Father, Praise to the Son,
Praise to the Spirit, the Three in One. Amen.[6]

rumours of hope 6

VII

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it:
a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;
a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[7]

rumours of hope 7

 

VIII

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. Amen.[8]

rumours of hope 8

 

IX

Eternal God, we confess to you our sinfulness. You made the world a paradise, but we have turned our lands into places of tears and unhappiness. People are fighting each other, race against race. The holocaust of chauvinism sweeps through countries devouring humanity terrorising us into submission. Liberating One, free us from all bondage so that our faith in you will make us free to create with courage a new world and new societies. Amen.[9]

rumours of hope 9

 

X

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.[10]

rumours of hope 10

 

XI

May God bless you with a restless discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.[11]

rumours of hope 11

 

XII

We are not people of fear: we are people of courage.
We are not people who protect our own safety:
we are people who protect our neighbours’ safety.
We are not people of greed: we are people of generosity.
We are your people, God, giving and loving, wherever we are, whatever it costs, for as long as it takes, wherever you call us. Amen.[12]

rumours of hope 12

XIII

O God who is greater than the most powerful forces in this world,
enable us to be still and know that You are God.
O Lord who answers out of the whirlwind of everyday life,
breathe in us Your Holy Spirit to strengthen, comfort,
and guide us in the midst of the storm.
O still, small voice, speak to us this hour
that we might become makers of Your peace
in our homes, in our communities, in our world.
We pray all this in the name of the One who calmed the raging sea. Amen.[13]

rumours of hope 13

 

XIV

Eternal Giver of life and light, this holy night shines with the radiance of the risen Christ. Renew your Church with the Spirit given to us in baptism, that we may worship you in sincerity and truth, and shine as a light in the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.[14]

rumours of hope 14

 

XV

God of glory,
by the raising of your Son
you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope;
for a new day has dawned
and the way to life stands open
in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.[15]

rumours of hope 15.1

 

 

 

 

[1]  Based on https://hellohope.com/blog/prayer-light.

[2]  From https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[3]   A prayer of St Benedict, included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[4]   From https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[5]   A prayer from Common Worship, included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[6]   Adapted from Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica (1900), included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[7]   From https://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/online-resources/prayer-index/justice-prayers.

[8]   From St Patrick’s Breastplate, included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[9]   A prayer for renewal from Sri Lanka, https://www.uspg.org.uk/pray/.

[10]  Collect for Evening Prayer.

[11]  From https://aheartforjustice.com/2010/10/07/a-franciscan-blessing-may-god-bless-you-with-discomfort-anger-tears-and-foolishness/.

[12]  Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference, included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[13]  From http://www.myredeemerlives.com/prayers.html (found via https://cmbs.mennonitebrethren.ca/worship_resources/elijah-and-the-still-small-voice/).

[14]  Scottish Episcopal Church, Collect for the Easter Vigil, https://www.scotland.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/Collects-2015.pdf.

[15]  Church of England, Collect for Easter Sunday, https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/times-and-seasons/easter-liturgy.

Tuesday in Holy Week – 7 April 2020

Isaiah 49.1-7

Psalm 71.1-14

1 Corinthians 1.18-31

John 12.20-36

There is a wonderful richness to the readings set for this Tuesday of Holy Week in this third week of lock-down.  Paul writes to the church at Corinth about the cross: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  This resonates for me with the voices of those who say that lockdown is all a waste of time, and the voices of those who say that it is serving the purpose of lowering the numbers of those taken ill and particularly those who need intensive care.  Some around us are saying this is foolishness.  I prefer to believe – to hope – that what we are doing is important and meaningful.  Paul wants to look beyond human wisdom and human quarrels to see the deep truth that we mark each Holy Week:  “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  The arrest, trial and execution of Jesus, which by human standards look like abject failure, point beyond to the wisdom and power of God.  For Paul this is a turning of things on their heads:  “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”  We are in the midst of a situation that does just that:  turns our normal expectations, our normal measures of reality on their heads.  What will come of all this?  At present we cannot know.  But we can hope.

It may not feel much like that.  Isaiah writes of a sense of futility: “I said, ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.’”  Do we feel that as the relationships and proprieties which generally shape our lives slip away?  And yet, Isaiah can still say, “surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” Psalm 71 reminds us that God offers hope and refuge in difficult times:

In you, O Lord, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me.
Be to me a rock of refuge,
a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.

In this time of disorientation, a time in which many of our normal routines and normal places of safety may no longer be available to us, perhaps we can experience God in a new way as the place where our cause is rooted, as the rock upon which our lives are built, and a fortress within which we can take shelter.  As other certainties slide away, it may be easier to feel ourselves rooted in God.

John’s gospel reminds us that times of trial and times of suffering can be transformative.  And John’s gospel shows us Jesus reflecting on this theme.  Transformation, he says, will come about through death, through being broken:  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Is this our time of falling into the earth and dying?  If so, perhaps we can see this Holy Week, this time of lockdown, the necessary precursor for a time of growth and flourishing.  We hear God’s promise through Jesus: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  And his call to us to “become children of light.”

A prayer by John Rayner (https://gracecathedral.org/prayers-difficult-times/):

When evil darkens our world, give us light. When despair numbs our souls, give us hope. When we stumble and fall, lift us up. When doubts assail us, give us faith. When nothing seems sure, give us trust. When ideals fade, give us vision. When we lose our way, be our guide! That we may find serenity in Your presence, and purpose in doing Your will.

 

Image: detail from purple stole (designed and created by Annabel O’Docherty)