Saturday, 11 July 2020

Hearing God's Word


Hearing God’s Word
(Romans 8: 1 – 11 & Matthew 13: 1 – 9; 18 – 23)
Great free clipart, silhouette, coloring pages and drawings that ... 
Many of us are familiar with the Parable of the Sower. It’s a parable that is sometimes read at school harvest services. And yet, perhaps this usage misses the point – for this parable is not principally about sewing seed and harvesting crops. Rather, Jesus is simply using the farmer to illustrate a much deeper spiritual point – and that concerns people’s reception of God’s Word. It should be said, though, that  Jesus is providing a picture which more or less everyone in Palestine would understand: In fact, the Lord was taking an ordinary scene from the here and now, as it were, and using it to transport his listeners to another place in their thinking and understanding – to the there and then! He was basically using the boat by the lakeside as a makeshift pulpit; and presumably in a field near to the shore, a farmer was actually sowing his seed and could be seen by all. Jesus would have begun by saying something like this:  “Friends, look at the farmer sowing his seed over there in that field”:  And so the Sower would provide the context for the Lord’s teaching which was shortly to unfold. Jesus began from something which at the moment they could actually see and used it to open their minds to truths, which as yet, they had never seen.

Firstly, we might well ask, what do we know about the way seeds were sown in Palestine? Well we know that in Palestine, fields were in long narrow strips and the ground between the strips was always used as a common pathway. In fact, the ground here on this pathway would have been pressed down as hard as a modern pavement by the feet of countless passers-by. The sower tended to walk along on the pathway scattering his seed from side to side. The term used to describe the method of sowing in the time of Jesus was ‘broadcasting’.  We are familiar with the term from radio, television and mobile phone networks – where the signal reaches far and wide. The term originated in this farming method – casting seed everywhere and it reached, like sound waves, a variety of places. Sound messages and images infiltrate places where they can be ignored; or partially listened to when other issues distract attention; or alternatively, people can be rivetted to them. Much relies upon the recipient, not the quality of the message. The sower’s broadcasting process was not an economically sound method of planting – perhaps this is the point Jesus is making. God is not bound by our rules – God invests in the seed and invites the faithful to cast it around the world in the hope and trust that it will take root in some people.  
From the parable, of course some of the seed was bound to fall directly onto the actual hard pathway itself where it had virtually no chance of penetrating into the earth and growing. Jesus also talked about seed falling on stony ground. This really refers to the fact that in many places there was a layer of hard limestone just a few centimetres below the surface of what appeared to be good soil. Seeds falling on this area would certainly germinate – but there was no depth of earth – so when the plants sent their roots down in search of nourishment and moisture they would meet only rock. Such plants would soon starve to death and wither under the heat of the sun. And then there was the thorny ground. Such ground was deceptive for it looked healthy enough. It is ground that would have been turned over such that the fibrous roots of the weeds and the wild grasses were just lying dormant under the surface, ready to spring to life again. Now weeds usually grow at a much faster pace than productive plants. The result was that the good seeds and the dormant weeds grew together – but the weeds were so strong and fast growing that they literally choked the life out of the seeds. Another problem was caused by a particular weed – folium temulentum. This weed, when it grew in areas where wheat was was grown, was often mistaken for wheat itself. However, unlike true grain, it is poisonous. It can cause blindness and even death when its black seeds turn up in the bread dough. Then, finally, there is the good ground which is deep, clean and soft: The seed could gain an entry and germinate; it could find nourishment and grow unhindered; and in the good soil it would bring forth an abundant harvest.

So that’s the context. But this parable is really about the word – God’s Word. It’s about those who hear the word – but it’s also about those who try to live and share that word. If we take the parable as a warning to those who hear God’s word it means there are different ways of receiving that word; and what this goes on to produce is entirely dependent on the hearts and minds of those who hear it! It is not for us to determine the growth, but to ensure that we cast the seed. Our mission and our witness is what is important, and thankfully we are not responsible or held accountable for the harvest. 

Who then are the hearers described and warned in this parable? Well maybe the first of these is the person with the closed mind. There are many people into whose minds the word has no more chance of gaining entry than the seed has of settling into the ground of the hard-trodden pathway. And you know there are many things which can make people’s minds closed: Certainly, prejudice is one thing that can make us blind to what we do not want to see; it can foster in us a disdain for that which we don’t understand and which we make no attempt to fathom, accept or even to engage with. Now I’m sure there are times when perhaps all of us have the potential to erect barriers that are difficult to break down; but there are some people who seem to be particularly close-minded; for whom everything is either black or white – with no shades of grey. And it seems to me that this sort of close-mindedness can come from two sources – one being pride (or arrogance) – the belief that you alone have a monopoly on the truth; pride that does not know that it actually needs to know; and the other being fear – fear of change, of new things; fear of new truth; new understanding, new revelation – the refusal to embrace new ways of thinking. Of course, sometimes just our very lives themselves can cause us to shut off our minds and hearts to God: Maybe there are truths of faith that challenge and sometimes condemn us – and we thus refuse to embrace them. Indeed, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

Then there is the hearer with the mind like the shallow ground – basically the sort of people who fail to think things out and think them through. Again I’m sure that could apply to more or less all of us at some time: For instance, some years ago I joined a gym – and I was full of great promise to myself that I would go religiously twice a week; but you soon fall by the wayside and go back to your bad habits and old ways. You know many people’s lives are littered with things began and never finished. Someone one said that the smallest good deed is better than the greatest grand intention. Perhaps faith can be a bit like this too: There is a great evangelistic rally; the speaker whips his audience into an emotional frenzy; many commit their lives there and then to Jesus – and then rather quickly they discover that you can’t base your life of faith simply on high emotion. We have minds and brains and it is a moral obligation on us to have an intelligent, thinking faith. Christianity has its demands and these must be faced before they can be accepted. The offer of Christ is not only a privilege but a responsibility: A sudden enthusiasm can oh so quickly become a dying fire. So, it’s important to think it all through – to be rational about faith; and for that to be on-going.
Then there is the hearer who has so many interests in life that often the most important things get crowded out. Before the lockdown, people seemed to live lives that were increasingly crowded and fast. There were not enough hours in the day or days in the week to get things done – and the one thing, in such circumstances, that gets neglected – is our spiritual nourishment and development. Life was and still is a balance of body, mind and spirit – yet, sadly, we so often we overlook the importance of the spiritual dimension. For instance, we become too busy or too lazy to pray; and we neglect to read God’s word. Perhaps the lockdown has given people more time to think about the things that are really important to them – and maybe even among them has been matters of the soul and spirit! Maybe it also makes us consider what the Church is really about: You know within the pre-Covid Church we could become so focused on committees, structures and programmes; on organisations and on organisation; that we forget that we are here fundamentally to bring glory to God to extend his kingdom and to love our neighbour. No-one really knows what the post-Covid Church will truly be like – but love of God and love of neighbour and the drive to nurture disciples and build the kingdom must surely be to the fore.

And then finally there is the person who is like the good ground – the person whose mind is open and who is willing to hear and to learn: That same person is the one who is never either too proud or too busy to listen to the voice of God. Such a person both understands what is heard and translates that hearing into action. And so, the real hearer is the one who listens, understands, obeys and serves. If we have said that at times all of us are a bit like those other kinds of soil; then maybe at times; just maybe we might see a glimpse of something of this good soil from time to time in us too. That would be wonderful. What is certain is that this is not for us to judge – that must always be the prerogative of God himself and we must place ourselves at the behest of his judgement, mercy, grace and love.

So far, we have focused on ways to hear the Word of God and responses to that word and maybe that gives us cause for concern for it highlights our failures and weakness. But what we also have to recognise is that this parable is ultimately optimistic. In spite of our inabilities and flaws, our propensity for discouragement and our failure in listening and serving; in spite of all of this – the harvest is sure; it is a certainty. The ultimate lesson is in the climax of this parable – in the picture of the seed that brought forth abundant fruit. No farmers expect every seed they sow to germinate and bring forth fruit. They know quite well that some will be blown away by the wind, and some will fall in places where it cannot grow; but that does not stop them sowing. Nor does it make them give up hope of the harvest. The farmer sows in the confidence that even if some of the seed is wasted, none the less the harvest will still come.
So, this parable is one of encouragement not only for all who hear the word but for all of us who try to live it and share it. Yes, there is discouragement; yes, there is apathy; yes, there is close-mindedness; yes, there is misguidedness and a lack of vision at times. Yes, sometimes we are short-sighted and look for quick fixes for that’s the kind of world in which we live. But you know if this parable says nothing else to us then it simply says, as Christians, our task is hear the word, to sow the seed; and then to leave the rest to God. It is not for us to determine the growth, but to ensure that we cast the seed. Our mission and our witness are what’s important – thankfully, we are not responsible or held accountable for the harvest. 

Evangelism relies on the message being proclaimed, in a variety of forms and methods appropriate to our gift and opportunities. The transforming power of the Gospel is that of God and is not reliant on our abilities or qualities, or on our efficiency or persuasiveness. We take the message and then it is over to God and the individual who receives it – to respond and engage – or, alternatively, reject its power and appeal. Prior to Covid-19 this thinking would certainly have been counter cultural – for that was an era of ‘success’ where things were measured in numbers and profit margins (and bottoms on seats where many churches were concerned!) But, in our brave new world, maybe other things have become and will remain important – and each of us, reading through the lens of the gospel, must determine what they are. As the Church – as those who are the disciples of Jesus – and as we emerge into a changed world – all we can perhaps do is be faithful about our mission to glorify God, love our neighbour and share God’s Word and not be burdened with what might or might not be seen as success. The Word grows in fertile soil – for as it says in Isaiah, “….the word that I speak – it will not fail to do what I plan for it; it will do everything I send it to do.” (Isaiah 55: 11) And so we can but strive then to be eager in hearing God’s word; faithful in studying that word; diligent and joyful in living and proclaiming that word; but let us also learn to fully trust the Living God – who holds the whole world in his hands. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Thrawn!


Thrawn!
(Romans 7: 14-25a & Matthew 11: 16-19 & 25-30)
Proper A9
      "come to me, all of you
  who are tired from
     carrying heavy loads
               and I will give you rest...."
 
I wonder have you ever come across the Scots word 'thrawn'? It's an adjective meaning 'stubborn, uncooperative, twisted or ill-tempered. I used to always think my father was a bit 'thrawn'. Actually, he was really rather a kind and generous man; but just had that little twisted streak in him that meant he could create an argument in an empty house. But what's even more worrying is that people say I am so like my dad in my nature – so that implies I'm a bit 'thrawn' as well. Maybe it's a man thing! Maybe it's just a human thing – to be a bit difficult and stubborn at times – especially when you don't always get your own way. Indeed, another Scots word that comes to mind is the word written as 'contrary' but pronounced:  con-tray-ry! 'Thrawn' and 'contrary' – great Scottish terms that depict our oft human nature so well.

In fact, the theme of being 'thrawn' or 'contrary' surfaces in our gospel passage today from Matthew chapter 11. Professor William Barclay in his commentary on this passage from his ‘Daily Study Bible’ says: Jesus was saddened by the sheer perversity of human nature. To him people seemed to be like children playing in the village square. One group said to the other, “Come on, let us play at weddings,” and the others said, “We don’t feel like being happy today.”
Then the first group said, “All right; come on, and let’s play at funerals,” and the others said, “We don’t feel like being sad today.” They were what the Scots call contrary. No matter what was suggested, they did not want to do it; and no matter what was offered, they would find fault in it." Taking this theme of being 'thrawn' or 'contrary' further (the word perverse might fit as well!) Jesus is at pains to point out that people somehow and sometimes just don't seem to want to be happy – they seemingly cannot find any contentment in life – no matter what obvious goodness is placed in front of them.

In fact, he used both John the Baptist and himself as illustrations: John the Baptist was an ascetic, he lived in the desert, fasting, shunning food, isolating himself from society – and all that had the potential to tempt or corrupt him – or cause him to deviate from his true path of devotion and holiness. He removed himself from human society and pleasure – but people criticised him: ‘He’s a demon,’ people said. ‘He must be mad to cut himself off from all that we know and enjoy in our society.’ Jesus, on the other hand, lived a life fully immersed in the lives of the people of his day. He spurned asceticism and chose to engage with people where he found them. He mixed with all kinds of folk – sharing in their joys and sorrows. And the people said: ‘He’s a socialite, a party-goer, a glutton and a drunkard; a friend of all those who have the potential to corrupt – people like tax-collectors; and every kind of sinner.’ People called John's asceticism madness; and they called Jesus' sociability immorality. In other words, Jesus was saying: You just can't win with people sometimes – you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't! Jesus effectively said: "The truth is, you are never happy. You will find ground for criticism no matter what!’

The plain fact is that when people do not want to listen to the truth – that which is genuine and honest and upright – they will easily find an excuse for not listening to it. They do not even try to be consistent in their criticisms: They will criticise the same person and the same institution from quite opposite grounds – and even hold two opposing views at the same time! If people are determined to make no response, they will remain stubbornly indifferent and unresponsive no matter what invitation or advance is made to them. It's amazing how grown men and women can be very liked spoiled children who refuse to play no matter what the game is. Or who play their own game – and that isn't of any help to anybody.

As human beings, we can be so thrawn, so stubborn; so, perverse and so contrary that nothing seems to please us – not even faith in the Lord Jesus himself. But that stubbornness, that difficult streak within us doesn't have the last word for Jesus' final sentence in this section says this: ‘God's wisdom is shown to be true by its results.' or in the words of another translation: 'Wisdom is shown to be right by her deeds,' Jesus says, there is another way, better than human contrary nature: What is right and good will never be shown by the perverse or twisted nature that is so evident in society – but by events. John might be criticised for his strange ways – but look at what he achieved. He caused people to turn to God in ways that hadn’t been seen for generations. And the obvious point which Jesus is emphasising is this: The people might criticise the Lord for mixing too much in ordinary life and with ordinary people (and therefore, by implication, miss the whole point of the Incarnation) but in him, in this living presence of God among them, people were finding a new Way, and new Truth and a new Life, life in all its fullness, and a new way of living in God’s love as they ought to; and a new access to God.

And the conclusion? Stop being contrary, stop judging people by your own prejudices and perversities; stop being difficult and just open your hearts and minds a little to what's available to you. Begin by giving thanks for anything or any person that can bring people – and even you, yourself – nearer to God – even if their ways and methods are not ones that suit us. Jesus is saying, drop the attitude – cast aside the twistedness – and embrace truth and goodness. See and accept what is obvious: God is with us, here and now – and that is surely a cause for hope and joy.

For several months now we have been living through truly challenging times – surely unprecedented in our lifetimes. Life has been turned upside down and all of us have been affected by Coronavirus/Covid-19 in various ways: Many of us have had to self-isolate or undergo total shielding during this period. It may be that you have been even more profoundly affected by this virus in terms of your own personal health or that of a friend or loved-one. Indeed, our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have taken ill, have lost a loved-one or have lost livelihoods as a result of this pandemic. Certainly, all of our lives have been disrupted: Social distancing has been mandatory, we have missed being able to travel and to have physical contact with family and friends and to pursue the various familiar activities that add richness to our lives. This perhaps has been particularly acute for those who live alone. Although now the lockdown measures imposed because of Covid-19 are beginning to be eased, life still has not returned to normal. Indeed, people are now taking about the ‘new normal’ which is a recognition that we may not be able to return to the typical patterns and lifestyles of the past anytime soon. Even after this pandemic is judged to be over, there will be issues of people’s metal health and wellbeing that will still have to be addressed – perhaps long into the future. And, of course, there will be the fall-out for business, industry, tourism and the like that affect the lives and livelihoods of many people.

And yet, maybe we can take heart that, as we said a few moments ago, whatever happens, God is still with us – and there are still good reasons to give God thanks: For family and friends who are still there to welcome us to their hearts now that lockdown is partially easing; for the gifts of modern technology and social media that enabled us to keep in touch when the lockdown was at its height. For the many acts of kindness that have encouraged and inspired us – including of people volunteering to serve in food-banks; and of care staff choosing to self-isolate in order to protect their vulnerable clients. We think too of the dedication of NHS staff – and other key-workers – frequently placing their own lives on the line to care for the sick and the vulnerable during this pandemic. So, although, times have been challenging and dispiriting – love, kindness, care and goodness have still flourished – and these are signs of a living, loving God working in our lives and in the life of the world.

With that thought in mind let's now move on to the second set of verses we are encouraged to read from chapter 11 of Matthew's Gospel: Here we have a few verses which appear, at first, to be an odd intrusion into Matthew’s storyline. Yet, on looking again, we see they do actually fit the tone and content of what preceded them. These verses come to us in the form of a prayer – with significant meaning for us. Let's look at what Jesus is saying:

1n verse 25 Jesus says: ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth! I thank you because you have shown to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned.’ Perhaps the thrawn, contrary people are never going to get a handle on these words. Jesus was speaking from experience. The tradition of the Rabbis was to debate and intellectualise God’s Word and Truth. But clearly, the intellectuals – the apparently wise and intelligent – had no use for Jesus; while the ordinary people – those whom Jesus called the unlearned – saw a truth in him that was obscured and missed by the Rabbis. This is not a condemnation of intellectual power or ability – but a condemnation of intellectual pride. The true home of the gospel is the heart not the head. It is not cleverness that closes us off from God – it is stubbornness and pride. Similarly, it is not stupidity that opens us up to God – it is humility. We can all be as wise a Solomon – but if we do not have the innocence of a child-like heart, we risk shutting ourselves off from God. In fact, the only way we can understood and embrace God in Christ is though the innocence of a childlike heart.

Then in verse 27 Jesus says: ‘My Father has given me all things. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ Here is the core of the gospel, the centre of Christian faith – that Jesus alone can reveal God to humanity. What Jesus is saying is simply this: ‘If you want to see what God is like, if you want to see the mind of God, the heart of God and the nature of God. If you want to see God's whole attitude to humanity – then just look at me!’ It's the Christian conviction that in Jesus Christ alone we truly see what God is like; and it's also the mainstream Christian conviction that Jesus can give that knowledge to anyone who is humble enough and trustful enough to receive it.

The ultimate words of comfort in any challenging and troubling situation are found in verses 28 to 30: "come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest...." Here are words so powerful in their message and so graphic in their imagery that they need little interpretation.
For here is the ultimate reassurance from Jesus that if we move on from being contrary and thrawn to being the accepting children God looks for; if we can see beyond the present challenges, woes and worries of society and life – then we will know the peace which Jesus promises. When we are exhausted and weighed down by our burdens physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually we have the promise of rest – because our weight is carried on the shoulders of Christ. Jesus spoke to people who were desperately trying to find God: Here were folk who were keen to do good and to live and exemplary lives – and yet who were prevented from doing so – because they were, paradoxically, weighed down by their own intellect limitations – their ultimate sense of failure to know and understand. W B Yeats, the Irish poet and mystic, wrote in his diary, ‘Can one reach God by toil? He gives himself to the pure in heart. He asks nothing but our attention.' The true way to know God is not by exhausting mental search or by following endless rules or by hoping to store up merit for ourselves – the only way to truly know God is by giving attention to Jesus, for in him alone do we see what God is like.

Jesus said: the yoke I will give you is easy; and the load I will put on you is light'. Jesus had been a carpenter – and good carpenters went out of their way to make yokes for oxen that fitted the animals well and did not irritate their necks. Jesus said: The yoke I put on you is easy – the word 'easy' in Greek also means 'well-fitting'. It has been suggested the Jesus had above his carpenter's shop in an earlier life a sign saying, 'My yokes fit well'. This simply means that the life Christ gives us in not a burden to weigh us down – but a gift to embrace and cherish. Whatever God sends our way is made to fit our needs and abilities. Jesus said, ‘My burden is light.’ The burden Christ puts upon us is that of loving God and our fellow human beings. And so, let's turn to Jesus today. Let's cast aside all that's thrawn and contrary within us; all that is pessimistic and despairing within us – and vow to embrace and show love – for love makes even the heaviest burden light. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Saturday, 27 June 2020

Back from the Brink


Back from the Brink
Genesis22: 1 – 14 & Matthew 10: 40 – 42

drawing of Abraham & Sarah - Google Search | Drawings, Coloring ...Abraham and Sarah laughed when they heard about the baby: Just a little while before the baby was born, they laughed themselves silly, listening to this promise that God was making. They laughed until tears came streaming down their faces. How could they do anything else? And let's be honest - it is pretty funny to think about two folks, around 100 years old, trying to raise a baby, never mind thinking about giving birth to one in the first place. It's absurd - maybe even obscene. Maybe they laughed because they didn't believe it was possible. Maybe they laughed because they did. Of course, they named their son after their smiling joy: The name Isaac means “he who laughs.” And on his 8th day Isaac was consecrated to the Lord. This child of unexpected and long-awaited promise – this child of laughter.

However, Abraham was not laughing when he awoke with a start, in the long hours of the still dark morning. Abraham was not laughing as he slipped out of bed, trying desperately not to disturb Sarah in her sleep. He went to the boy, in reality, his only remaining son – and told him to get dressed, that they had somewhere they had to go.

Abraham did not laugh as he remembered that morning, only a few years earlier: That morning, not unlike this morning, when he went to his other son, Ishmael, and to the boy's mother Hagar, Sarah's slave, and told them that they had to go – banished at the behest of Sarah. Perhaps Abraham remembered the trusting look on Ishmael's face as he told him to take care of his mother. Maybe he remembered the quiet reproach in Hagar's eyes as she slipped wordlessly into the desert – exiled at the jealous command of her mistress – her more powerful rival.

No, Abraham did not laugh any more. Slowly, he, and his two servants, and
Isaac, make their way towards Moriah, towards the mountain where his troubling dream had told him he must sacrifice Isaac, his son, the son through whom the promise of God was to be fulfilled. As they leave the servants behind and make their way up the mountain, Isaac looks up at his father, “I can see the wood and the fire,” he said, “but I cannot see the lamb for the sacrifice.” Abraham, reaching for comfort from behind his cold, distant eyes, manages to say, “The Lord will see to that.”
Reaching the top, Abraham takes his son, effectively his only son, certainly his beloved son and he ties him up and places him on the makeshift altar. Isaac doesn't struggle – he trusts his father – as children ought to be able to do. Abraham pulls out the knife – and holds it high above his head. When the terrible moment comes, just as he is about to strike the killing blow, his hand is stayed by another voice – God's voice. Abraham relents, he finally sees a ram caught in a thicket, and offers the ram instead.

I have to confess, I don't really know what to make of this story: Every time I read it, I balk at it. I do my best to avoid it – but sometimes you've got to confront your nemeses. The horror of this story is driven home when we read that Abraham took the knife, in a deliberate and premeditative way, to kill his son. You know, only yesterday, as I write this, people were seriously injured by a knife attack in a hotel in Glasgow – leading to the shooting dead of the alleged attacker by the police – and in cities like London, knife crime claims the lives of many people – predominantly young people – so much so that it has become a national scourge, outrage and shame – and yet here we have God basically advocating knife crime. And Abraham was the accomplice and the assailant – ready and willing, not to die for his faith, but to kill for it – even to kill his beloved son. The Hebrew words are even more fear-provoking when you delve into the language: The English word that best represents the knife is actually a meat cleaver – and the whole scenario has connotations – not so much of ritual sacrifice, but of the butchering of an animal. Abraham trusses his son, tying him up like an animal for the slaughter. Abraham holds the cleaver in his hand, ready to kill Isaac – without so much as a hint of remorse. It's a terrible story – with spectres and shadows of the contemporary killing of innocents in so many places in our world beset with poverty, hunger, disease, strife and violence – and now with the horrors of Covid-19 added to mix.
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In the years after this incident, we hear very little from Isaac. In fact,
the story does not even make it clear that Isaac came back with his father.
An old Jewish interpretation claims that Abraham came back down the mountain, and that Isaac went down the other side, never again speaking to his father, to the one who had shattered his trust. We don't hear Isaac speak at all, until he is on his deathbed, passing along his blessing to a conniving and deceitful son. That son is Jacob, who will become Israel, the namesake of God's chosen people. The name that would mean blessing and hope and grace – to a world in sore need of all three. And later, when Jacob swears an oath, he swears it by the God of his fathers: “The God of Abraham, and the Terror of Isaac.”

"Take your son, your only Son, whom you love so much," Abraham is told. Here we have a hint of a conversation between Abraham and God:
 “Take your son.”...."But I have two sons" “No take the one who is your only real son; the one you had by Sarah, your wife, the one you really love. Take him – take Isaac.”

This is a terrible story, full of pain – the pain echoed in much of humanity today with the death of innocent children from hunger, war and disease; with the violence of so many places and communities – places like Yemen – so often featuring on the news – where so many innocent, emaciated children are dying; but also with echoes of betrayal and selfishness and a willingness to tread all over others to save your own skin. It speaks of the horror of those motivated by blind, obsessive, warped faith – who seem happy and willing to kill and maim to satisfy their twisted desires and distorted values.

If we refuse to hear the pain crying out from this narrative, then we lose the story completely. This is not just one more step along Abraham's journey. This is the defining moment of Abrahamʼs life; the moment for which he will be remembered; the moment which will haunt his thoughts and all his unspoken prayers, from that time on. This is the moment from which he will return, broken, to bury his wife and finally, to await his own death.

Many people have said that this is a story about being willing to sacrifice anything for God, even something as precious as a child. Now, I am not a father, and so I can only imagine the terror that must have seized Abraham
as he pondered the voice that he heard, a voice that had already asked so much of him down through the years. Other interpreters have looked past Isaac altogether, saying that he merely represented the promise of God, and that Abraham, in being faithful to the end, was willing to trust that God ultimately would find a way to fulfil his promise. The whole sacrifice scenario was just a means to an end.

But I think it's difficult, as a Christian, to look past Isaac – to say that he was not really a boy – but symbolic of a promise. As Christians we're taught, encouraged, even exhorted to see the God-given humanity in every soul; and its seems to me to be immoral to say that Isaac was not a real human being, but simply a means to an end. We are all children of God, we are none of us, ever, just a means to an end. So, should we be happy just to accept these traditional interpretations? Or are we set with the task of finding new ways to be in relationship to God; new ways of seeking the presence of God in the midst of these ancient problems?


Perhaps it all focuses on the words right at the beginning of the story where we are told, “God tested Abraham.” We have assumed for so long that it was Abraham's faith that was being tested. The writer of this story certainly seemed to think so, as he wrote this already ancient story down for posterity.
At first glance this is what we see: a man willing to sacrifice his own son, because God told him to. Thousands of years of interpretation call this a story about faithfulness; and remind us of the difficulty and hardship that can come upon us all as we try to be faithful to the calling of God. Moreover, many say that this narrative is a subtle piece inveighing against the practice of human sacrifice. Furthermore, for a very long time, the Christian tradition has seen in this story a prefiguring of the life of Jesus: God being willing to sacrifice his own and only son in order to enable us to know salvation. Ultimately, we have taken an ancient Jewish story about a faithful man – and a truly questionable act – and assumed that this story has something to do with our redemption. But what if this story is not actually a foreshadowing of the salvation of the world? What if this story is not a description of faithfulness?

What if, instead, this story is a description of the fall, a story of sin and a world out of touch with the love of God? What if Abraham's test was just that: a real test? And what if, for centuries, we have been wrong in assuming that Abraham passed his test? What if the real test was whether Abraham was willing – for once – to stand up, like a real father, for himself and for his family and say. NO – this is wrong? No to death, no to killing! What if Abraham's leap of faith was a leap in the wrong direction – and that Abraham, in fact, has failed to protect the dignity of every one of his family members: Firstly, by offering his wife Sarah to the Pharaoh to safeguard his own life. And then by sending his oldest son away to placate the jealousy that Abraham himself had helped to create. And now, when he has one more chance to redeem himself, when it seems that his choice must be clear, Abraham again stands aside, when he should be standing firm. Maybe this is a story of one man's failure to do the right and decent thing.

For centuries, Jewish interpreters have seen the ram as the most important part of the story. The ram is the symbol of the fact that, in the end, God stopped Abraham from committing this terrible act. A ram's horn is blown every year on Rosh Hashanah; the Day of Judgement, to “remind” God (and more importantly to remind his people) that in the end, God was opposed to human sacrifice, and that in the end, God will keep all of the promises that have been made. For these Jewish interpreters, the most important action was not God ordering Abraham to kill his son Isaac, but God stopping Abraham from killing his son. Just as for Christians, the key moment is NOT when Christ is lifted up onto the cross, but rather when he is raised from death into new life. The power of the cross comes into its own only through the power and redemption of the empty tomb.

Maybe, then, Abraham failed his test, and God did what God always does, God redeemed Abraham – brought his back from the brink – and sent him on his way, promise intact. And that's the real hope for you and me: Like Abraham, we fail, we struggle, we get it wrong, we miss the mark; we hurt and betray and are prepared to sacrifice others to get our own way – but God steps in and pulls us back from the brink. The love of God knows no boundaries – and even the twistedness of humanity cannot thwart it – for that love will prevail and the promise will be fulfilled – such that life abundant and eternal can still be ours. Let's give thanks to God for his grace and goodness – and for pulling us back, from the ultimate brink, through the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

God Cares


God Cares
(Genesis 21: 8 – 12 & Matthew 10: 24 – 39)

98 Best Genesis images | Bible for kids, Bible crafts, Sunday ...Today we are focusing on Genesis – the first book of the bible – and on part of the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah as found in Genesis 21. In chapter 12, God appears to a man called Abram – who is later renamed as Abraham – and instructs him to uproot himself, with his family and household and to travel to a land that God himself would show him. At this point, Abraham has no children – and at aged 75, he is by no means in the first flush of youth. Yet God declares that he will be blessed with many descendants – as numerous as the stars in the heavens! This declaration is God’s promise or ‘Covenant’ with Abraham. Later, three strangers come to Abraham and his wife Sarah with the news that they will have a child – even in their (especially her) old age. Now, it’s one thing to receive such a seemingly far-fetched promise from God, but it’s quite another to hang around waiting for it to come to fruition. And so, Sarah becomes fed up waiting for God to make good his promise – and decides to take things into her own hands: She says to Abraham: “The Lord has kept me from having children. Why don’t you sleep with my slave-girl? Perhaps she can have a child for me.” Abraham agrees – so Sarah gave Hagar to him to be his concubine. (C/f Gen 16: 2 & 3). Ultimately, Hagar conceived and bore Abraham a son, Ishmael. In fact, such an arrangement was not uncommon in those days. Women were generally not regarded very highly at all – being seen as goods and chattels – to be bought, sold and abused – even more so for slave-women.

However, it turns out than during her pregnancy, Hagar began to feel increasing contempt for her mistress – and this did not go unnoticed by Sarah – who blamed Abraham for her situation. Ultimately, Abraham said: ‘Well she’s your slave – do with her as you wish.’ Sarah then mistreats Hagar with such cruelty that Hagar upped sticks and ran away. Perhaps the inconsistency and uncaring nature of the human condition never ceases to amaze and appal us! So, Hagar leaves – but as she flees, she encounters God’s messenger in the desert, who instructs her to return to Sarah as her slave. He also gives her the promise that she will have a son named Ishmael – meaning ‘God cares’ – for God has heard her cries of anguish. This son would have numerous, countless descendants. Yet, there was a cloud on the horizon: “But your son will live like a wild donkey; he will be against everyone, and everyone will be against him. He will live apart from all his relatives.” (Gen 12: 16) Hagar returns to Sarah and Abraham and gives birth to a son and names him Ishmael. We are now told that Abraham was 86 years old. So, we have Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and the young boy all living together as a family unity. I somehow can’t imagine that it would be greatly harmonious – as many contemporary families still aren’t. However, the story doesn’t end there, 14 years pass, and just as God had originally promised, Sarah, herself, finally gets pregnant – she is 90 and Abraham is 100. Mmm – not sure! You can see why many Christians don’t take the Bible completely literally!

Anyway, according to the story, in due course, Sarah gives birth to a son and names him Isaac. (Chapter 21) Remember, Isaac was the one in whom the Covenant of many descendants, and a great nation, would be fulfilled as promised by God – not through Ishmael! The name Isaac name means ‘he laughs’ and yes, it is understandably laughable – from many angles – that such a situation should ever come about. Yet again – who are we to judge the ways of God? In due course, Isaac was weaned – and this was a cause for great celebration – a great feast was thrown by Abraham: Children would often die in infancy – as there was poor hygiene and no concept or provision for any sort of post-natal care.

However, still, back at the ranch, all was not well: It appears that one day, the older half-brother, Ishmael was playing with his younger brother Isaac. The Hebrew language here is apparently ambiguous. The word for ‘playing with’ used here might mean – mocking or even abusing – as it sometimes does in English. Or it might simply just be indicative of sibling rivalry – or of the innate jealousy of a mother. At any rate, Sarah said to Abraham: “Send this slave-girl and her son away. The son of this woman must not get any part of your wealth.”  This is seriously worrying and thought-provoking stuff: It seems that, even after more than fifteen years, Sarah has not put the Abraham/Hagar/Ishmael issue behind her. We don’t really know what Ishmael was doing with the toddler, Isaac – and perhaps it’s far too easy to read into it scenarios from our own contemporary discourses regarding child abuse. However, whatever it was, Sarah did not like it and she tells Abraham to get rid of her slave and son. Sarah still holds a grudge – even though ostensibly, she was the cause of the situation. But was she? Maybe she was a simply an unwitting player – just as Hagar was such a player – and perhaps they were both victims – of circumstance – and of a culture and society that valued males far more than females,  one race over another, and male sons more highly than even lives of their mothers. 

Wow – does this not speak to our contemporary situation – regarding whose lives matter – concerning what we celebrate and who we celebrate and how they are immortalised and why? This stuff, written thousands of years ago – really makes you think and worry and reflect and pray! You know, sometimes this stuff might lead one on to question the very benevolence and impartiality even of God. 

So, can we redeem this story – is there redemption in any form here? I read one commentary/reflection that said this is all about the will and plan of God and that we, basically, should just submit to it without question – regardless of who wins and who loses – regardless the basic human morality of the situation (or its violations). I don’t buy that! Unless we look at God’s Word through a critical lens – we become essentially subjugated. Far from setting us free – such a view of God and of God’s Word disenfranchises us and enslaves us.

The only redemption I can find here is that: “This matter troubled Abraham very much because Ishmael was also his son.” Again, this is only partial because it concerns only the men – or the men they would become. God, however, is more magnanimous: God says, “Don’t be worried about the boy and your slave Hagar. Do whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that you will have the descendants that I have promised. I will also have many descendants to the son of the slave-girl, so that they will become a nation. He too is your son.” ( vs 11 – 13) At least the women get a mention: God is concerned firstly for Hagar (more than Abraham was – Abraham cared only for his first son – not of Hagar, the mother – she remains unimportant to him).   And God also empowers Sarah – because her voice has finally been given weight. God is concerned also for the offspring of these women – and what they will become. Racial tensions remain, however, as Hagar is still referred to as ‘The Egyptian’ and Hagar found for Ismael an ‘Egyptian wife’. This passage strikes resonance for our contemporary situation – with its focus on birth-right, ethnicity, sex, worth and value – even if it doesn’t immediately provide all the answers.

At least, Abraham, although banishing Hagar and her son to the desert, gives her some food and a bag of water – big deal you may say! But, God, hearing of Hagar’s fear for her son – gives her a promise that Ishmael too will be the leader for a great nation – and reveals for her a well of water that sustains them both. Crucially, we are told that God was with the boy as he grew up – and empowered him with skills and the gift of a partner.

For those of us who are Christian – regardless of our ethnicity – God is the One who travels with us and Christ is the well that sustains us: Christ is the living water that gives us life in all its fullness. And Abraham, for all his failings, is regarded as the father of the three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism (through Isaac and Jacob) and Christianity (through Isaac, Jacob and Jesus) and Islam (through Ismael). We, as sons and daughters of Abraham, presently don’t all see eye to eye. But, one day, we shall: As St. Paul says: “What we see now is like a dark image in a mirror – then we shall see face to face.” (1st Cor 13)

Perhaps, it is too simplistic to read all our contemporary woes into biblical texts and equally too simplistic that we see the bible as defending or even advancing such woes – or actually, even solving them. I think the bible reflects the rich tapestry of human life – and all that, good or bad, has been woven into it – and we, now, have to unpick it – and do so with a critical eye – but a praying, loving heart.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Saturday, 13 June 2020

The Few


The Few
(Romans 5:1- 8 & Matthew 9:35-10:8)
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few | Flickr
'The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few'
Today’s gospel reading starts with Jesus and his ministry: Jesus is travelling around cities and villages proclaiming, teaching and healing. Here we see the threefold activity that was the essence of Jesus’ life:

Firstly, Jesus was the Messenger – he is the one tasked with bringing a message from God – bringing people “the good news of the kingdom”. The duty of the messenger is to proclaim the truth and to do so with conviction. We live at a time of great uncertainty – we can’t really be sure of anything. We’ve heard a bit about the ‘new normal’ when we emerge from Coronavirus – but we cannot be really sure what the shape of this new normal will truly be. Especially, what will worship look like when churches final re-open for it? Will we ever be able to go back to what we knew and had before? I was talking to a neighbour (at a suitable distance) recently – and she said: “You know, it’s such a shame churches are closed right now – just when people really need something in their lives”. What she was articulating was that faith brings with it a certainty and stability that is lacking in everyday life as we are presently living it. For many people – it is faith that has carried them through the darkest of situations – the knowledge and conviction that they are not alone – that God in Christ is with them – holding them, protecting them, carrying them…. somehow – and that fellow believers are praying for them. Jesus is the Messenger who brings the truth of God’s love and care and ultimately God’s salvation to human lives – and makes it real in human living.

Jesus is also the Teacher. One definition of a ‘teacher’ is a person who helps students to acquire knowledge, competence or virtue. Jesus taught his followers to truly know God through his earthly ministry – and they came to see him as the embodiment of God here on earth. A principal part of our calling as Christians is to teach others about the faith through sharing with others our knowledge and experience of God. However, our calling is not just to talk to folks about Jesus – but to show Jesus to others – in and through us. We show and share Christian faith not just by talking about it – but by trying to live it genuinely in our lives.

Jesus was also the healer: the gospel that Jesus brought did not stop at words – it was translated into deeds. If we read through the gospels, we can see that Jesus spent far more time healing the sick, and feeding the hungry, and comforting the sorrowing than he did merely talking about God. He turned the words of Christian truth into the deeds of Christian love. In Jesus’ day the Priest would have said religion consists of sacrifice; the Scribe (Teacher of the Law) would have said that religion consists of rules – but Jesus said that religion consists of love. Healing can take many forms – mental, physical and spiritual – but, for a Christian, it must have at its core, compassion and love – and these must show themselves in action.

As we read on, we are told that when Jesus encountered the crowds he felt compassion for them, for they were “like sheep without a shepherd”. The word that is used for ‘feeling compassion’ is the strongest word for pity in the Greek language – and describes that empathy that moves a person to the deepest depths and core of their being. As we read through scripture, we can see that Jesus was deeply moved by many human situations – sickness (Matt 14. 14), blindness (Matt 20. 34), sorrow (Luke 7. 13), hunger (Matt 15. 32), loneliness (Mark 1. 41) and to these we might add bewilderment. This is what moved Jesus on this occasion. The common, ordinary people were desperately longing for God – and the orthodox religious leaders of the day had nothing to offer them – except perplexity and confusion. The religious leaders couldn’t offer them guidance, comfort or strength. Religion had become enmeshed in a myriad of rules and regulations which only weighed them down rather than raising them up. Instead of being a support, religion had become an encumbrance – a weapon to beat them into submission. Religion is not meant to be a burden – it is not meant to be something that weighs us down – but that which lifts us up and brings hope, meaning and joy to our lives. The gospel is Good News!

It is in response to that Good News that we accept a task – and that task is ‘Working for the Harvest’ (vs 37 & 38). What did Jesus mean? Well working for the harvest is the call to reach out to the world to share the Good News in Jesus’ name. It is simply a fact that Jesus needs people to continue his work – of proclaiming, teaching and healing and loving. When he was on earth, his voice could reach only a limited number of people. He never left the borders of Palestine – and there was a world out there that was waiting. The world is still waiting – and Jesus still wants humanity to hear the Good News of the gospel – but they will never do so unless other folks tell it. The only hands Jesus has now are our hands, the only feet Jesus has now, are our feet, the only voice he has now is our voice –  and the only body he has now is His Body, the Church. We have to be out in the world for him – and the Church will truly be and do that again when this pandemic subsides! But what about prayer you may say – we can surely pray for other people and people in other places. Yes, of course, prayer is important – vital, even, but it is not enough. Prayer without action is empty. It is the dream of Christ that every believer should be a messenger and a harvester. Of course, there are those who, because of situation or health, can offer only prayer, and theirs is a vital support ministry – but for most of us – we have hands and feet and hearts and voices too!
It’s a challenging world, it’s a confused world and it’s a hurting world: Many voices are clamouring to be heard – and many are discordant. There is much passion around – indeed in the last few weeks there has been a lot of passion – much of it expressed in anger and irate actions – such as tearing down statues – lots of righteous anger and pent-up frustration. Much of this is totally understandable – but it must surely move beyond this raw anger to a mature conversation. Yes, lots of passion around – but maybe not all that much compassion. Amidst all these voices and actions – Christian voices still need to be heard – telling of Jesus. Amidst all the actions we see – Christian loving action should be out there too – offering practical care, support and compassion and ways to facilitate reconciliation when the situation allows it.

What is clear from this passage is that the disciples were charged with the task of rippling out and extending the ministry of Jesus. The disciples are sent out by Jesus to proclaim the Good News – albeit to a limited audience – to the people of Israel only. The disciples were Galileans, they did not have the knowledge base or necessary skills to converse meaningfully with Gentile people – their skills were best deployed amongst God’s own people. Jesus knew that another would follow who would take his message out further into Gentile lands – and that was St. Paul. But for the moment – its scope had to be limited. If we choose to read on we find that there are further instructions for the disciples – travel light, accept hospitality, offer peace but where no welcome is received move on. Jesus was not saying that certain people had to be abandoned as being outside the message of the gospel and beyond the reach of grace. It was simply due to the time factor. Time was short and as many as possible must hear the proclamation of the kingdom. There was no time to argue with the difficult, stubborn, quarrelsome people – that would come later. At the moment, the disciples had to tour the country as quickly as possible – and therefore they had just to move on when here was no immediate welcome for the message they brought. Jesus was a realist – he did not try to micromanage the disciples – but brought pragmatism to their mission and outreach. Jesus offers a warning that they may meet hostility, so they should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”. They may be arrested and punished but they are assured that God, through the Holy Spirit, will provide them with the words they need at the appropriate moment. In other words, they will not be alone and unsupported.

At the end of the day, the mission of Jesus and of his disciples was not simply a there and then mission – it remains a here and now mission. Furthermore, it becomes every believer’s mission – to proclaim, to teach, to heal and to love. This is the calling of the Church. As Jesus acknowledged – it will not always be easy. There will be opposition, there will be many challenges – but the Good News has never changed or diminished – it still needs to be told. When the world reopens for business – will we be ready to play our part in that telling? ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.” Thanks be to God. Amen.