Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Big Question - homily for St Matthew's, Trinity 14 B

I wonder what would happen if I stood in the Co-op car park and asked passing shoppers “Who's Jesus?”
The answers would surely be quite varied...from “dunno really” through “a good man and a wise teacher” to, maybe, just maybe “the Son of God”.

Who's Jesus? It's an important question – perhaps THE most important important that Jesus asks it himself.

Who do you say I am?”

His whole ministry is a story that points to his identity…and now Jesus wants to see if his disciples have learned the central lesson he came to teach
Who do you say I am?”

Imagine Jesus asking you….

Who do you say I am?”

What's your answer?
Son of God?
Good man?
Innocent victim?
Colossal embarrassment?
Disturber of my peace?

Who do you say I am?”

It's not a question reserved for theologians, for priests, for the great and the good, or those who like that kind of thing.
It's a question aimed at each one of us, one on which pretty much everything depends…for if we decide against Jesus, then there’s not much point in hanging around waiting to see what will happen next.

We can, of course, answer with our lips…like dear Peter, quick to leap in with his extraordinary insight You are the Messiah – but then as quickly disappointed when Jesus turns out not to be the kind of Messiah he expected .
That’s something I can sympathise with. I have my own preconceived notions of who Jesus is, based on childhood imaginings, on received wisdom, and some serious Bible study…
Sometimes I think I know…Often I get it very wrong.
I think Jesus should be over HERE doing THIS, when he is apparently over there doing something else, and I feel confused and at odds with him.
That’s when I’m specially grateful for Peter – so proudly and gloriously wrong, but redeeming his blindness with the warmth of his love! Peter can't be doing with all this talk of death & defeat...he wants a triumphant Lord, who will turn the world upside down and put everything right in an instant. In the end, of course, he won't be disappointed – but for the moment it seems he's way off course.

I suspect that I (and maybe you) would have felt very much the same...specially when asked to answer that great question not just with our lips but with our lives.
That's really challenging – specially when you hear today's gospel in the words of that modern paraphrase The Message

Jesus confronted Peter. "Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works! Calling the crowd to join the disciples, he said, "Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat;I am. Don't run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self Help is no help at all. Self Sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I'm leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you'll be an ever greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendour of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.

Don’t run from suffering…embrace it.
You’re not in the driver’s seat. I am.


That’s not the sort of thing we want to hear, is it? We believe in self help, in independence, in clear rewards for effort and in prudent business practice…
In fact, this invitation to embrace suffering is indeed deeply embarrassing for us, - conditioned as we are to seek an easy path for ourselves and for our families.
If this is what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then maybe we're not up for it after all.
We would so much rather choose the easy way, the way of green pastures and still waters. The hard way is, quite simply, too hard.
Why go there?
We want Jesus to lead us to life, but we want him to clear the way and make it easy for us. We want to enjoy the glory, but skip the slog.... But that's never been the way of it. Again and again, we find Christ in the hard places..In the washing of feet and the carrying of crosses.

Christianity - not for the fainthearted!

So, though we might make a reasonable stab at answering that crucial question with our words, our actions too tell others just who Jesus is for us.
"Who do I say Jesus is when I cut in on someone in traffic?"
Who do I say that Jesus is, when I ignore the Big Issue seller on the High Street?
When I fail to stand against injustice, at home or abroad?
When I put my own needs, or those of my family, ahead of the needs of my neighbour?
When I just can’t be bothered to go the extra mile?
When (to touch base just briefly with our New Testament lesson) my words are destructive and hurtful, not affirming and encouraging?
Who do I say that Jesus is, then?
If we are known as disciples, then our actions tell the world just who we say Jesus is as loudly as any declaration of faith…and sometimes they seem to be sadly at odds with our protestations here, Sunday by Sunday.

Think about that.

We need to show the world who Jesus is for us...Lip service or agnosticism just won't do.

Who do you say I am?”

He stands there, waiting for an answer…
There’s no time like the present…
We are each called to respond, and there’s no way to hide.
It’s such a deceptively simple question, really…but the answer must shine through all that we do and all that we are...
- for what will it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our life?

Saturday, September 08, 2012

BE OPENED – a sermon for Trinity 14

This time last week J & I were in Prague – a wonderful city that I can't recommend too highly – but a city very much shaped by its history.
The ghetto where the Jewish community was confined over many years no longer stands but the Jewish cemetery remains.
It's an extraordinary place, where 12,000 grave stones jostle one another for position and the burials themselves are some 12 deep, so that it's estimated that over 100,000 are buried a community as closely confined in death as in life.
You see, in Prague as in so many other places, the Jewish community represented the alien in the midst...the outsider, to be treated with suspicion, anxiety, even hatred.

We're not good, on the whole, at dealing with outsiders.
We are, all of us, more comfortable with familiar situations, familiar people...and that can make the Christian life a challenge.
We know the theory – God's love embraces all...but we tend to organise our lives, even our churches, into zones of like-mindedness.

And we're not alone.

1st century Jews, Jesus among them, had had many centuries to establish themselves as a race apart...God's chosen people...the ultimate insiders, secure in an identity reinforced by law, faith and practice. But in our gospel today Jesus encounters someone from the other side of the tracks – and is challenged and changed by the encounter.
He has crossed into Gentile territory, where Jewish law and custom have no remit – and comes up against a woman driven by that most compelling force, parental love.
She pushes her way in, intent on claiming the healing she believes her daughter deserves.
Like so many others, she throws herself on the mercy of Jesus. Kneeling at his feet she entreats his help.
And what happens?
For reasons that may be obvious, I’ve never tried to tell this story in a primary school assembly, but if I did, I know what the children’s answer to that question would be. 
"What happens?"
Jesus makes the child better”
That’s what we’d all expect.
Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely that’s the essence of his earthly ministry. Of course Jesus is going to comfort the mother and heal her child, without further ado.
Except that he doesn’t.
Not at first.
First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words of such staggering rudeness that they are almost unbearable. Jesus, JESUS of all people, tells that frantic mother that she and her child are no better than dogs….and I don’t think we’re under any illusion that he meant cute and cuddly pet spaniels.
He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human, and they’re therefore beyond the scope of his love, his healing.
It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”
It’s extraordinarily hard to hear this. We want to retain our soft focus image of Jesus, the source of endless compassion…but this abrasive stranger shakes us.
However, this woman is made of sterner stuff, and refuses to go away quietly.
Instead, she responds in kind, picking up Jesus’s words and turning them back on him without missing a beat.
We may be dogs, but surely you’re not so mean that you begrudge us even the left-overs.
She refuses to take No for an answer…
And in doing so, she stops Jesus in his tracks.
Against his own expectations, he is forced into really seeing her, - another human being, a child of God…and what he sees makes him change his mind in a radical way.

Hang on...

Jesus changes his mind?
Surely not!
As God’s Son, Jesus must be perfect…the unmoved mover, no shadow of turning, right?
Perhaps not! Surely, since Jesus is fully human, he must have lived and learned. Even Mrs Alexander was prepared to accept that Jesus went through all the normal stages of physical development – “day by day like us he grew”
So too, surely, he learned and grew in relationship…and maybe sometimes he changed his mind. It seems to me that today's gospel presents Jesus rethinking the scope of his whole mission, as he responds to that Gentile woman whose love for her child isas fierce and determined as any Jewish mother's.
His eyes, his ears, his heart are opened...and another miracle of scandalous grace occurs.

And oh, how badly we need that scandalous grace in the Church today.
We find it so hard to admit we might be wrong.
With God on our side,we cling to the notion that we don't really need to listen to the voice of strangers, because we already know the truth. 
Really it’s hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. We don't have to look far in our churches, or in ourselves, to find traces of that same approach.

Time, then, for us to be challenged.

This morning's gospel concludes with a second encounter, as Jesus heals the deaf man, transforming his life and his world with that great “Eph phathah” “BE OPENED”.

That, surely, is the call to us this morning.

We need to pray that God will open OUR ears, eyes, minds, hearts..
We need to allow ourselves to be challenged and changed, as we encounter a God who listens and changes his mind, whose unlimited love seems almost to surprise himself.
We need to be open to the realisation that with God there are no boundaries...that there is grace enough to include us all
We need our eyes opened so we may SEE our brothers and sisters as God does, as beloved children, neither better nor worse, more or less beloved than we ourselves.
... our ears opened to hear their voices – and our tongues loosed so that we can be their advocates, speaking for those silenced by circumstance.

We need, too, to pray for our Church – that it may become truly inclusive, a place where God's unconditional love and amazing grace can be encountered by all without hindrance– regardless of race, gender, orientation...


Because, you know, there really ARE no limits, so there's no need to see  any as outsiders. We all belong and there is enough and to spare for all….
Nobody need be content with crumbs from under the table.

See how, again and again, God’s reckless mercy sweeps us off our feet, how his love compels us to come in, so we find that we are all alike included in a boundless welcome, enfolded in the love that embraces all.