Sunday, February 20, 2022
Saturday, February 12, 2022
Every now and then, the experience of reading a Bible passage in order to prepare a sermon is DEEPLY unsettling, and makes me long for a positive Lateral Flow Test and a need to step away from ministry for a bit of a breather. Today is one of those days, as I've been confronted with Luke's version of the Beatitudes, and digested what they seem to be saying to me at any rate.
Of course, they are familiar, appearing Matthew as well as Luke. In both gospels, we encounter Jesus describing a set of values that he expects his followers to adhere to, and they’re radically counter-cultural values. Sometimes, the poetry and the familiarity of the Beatitudes, the statements starting with “blessed are …” might lull us into a state of false security, like the crowd listening to this sermon Monty Python’s Life of Brian who, straining to hear from their position at the back end up leaving saying, “oh, that’s nice … blessed are the cheesemakers. They are such nice, hard-working fellows.”
Of course, Matthew gives us a rather different version, softening some of the declarations so that “Blessed are the poor” becomes there “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. That can be comforting, can encourage us to believe we might, after all, make the cut to be numbered among the blessed.
If you’re tending that way, I’m afraid the next part of Luke’s account will come as a harsh awakening. Listen to the woes…
Woe to you who are rich.
Oh – that doesn’t mean me. I mean, RICH means having so much money you don’t have to be careful, doesn’t it? Well, actually, no. It appears that I am, even on a stipend, one of the richest 3% of people in the world. I learned this by visiting a website – www.globalrichlist.com –which presents the facts with unmistakeable clarity. I may not FEEL rich, but believe you me, in comparison with 97% of those alive today, I really, truly am.
And, I suspect, even if you’re among those who are currently fearful you may have to choose between heating and eating, you’ll still be in disturbingly better off than a high percentage of humanity.
So, “WOE TO THE RICH” in today’s gospel almost certainly means US…
And that is deeply, deeply uncomfortable
But I think we need a jolt sometimes to shift us from those patterns we’re stuck in ,to a place where we can more fully experience God’s blessing.
I’m grateful for Jesus’ difficult sayings – for things like the woes in today’s gospel – because sometimes, especially in a culture in which sound bites and enticements and warnings are flying at us constantly, we need something pretty shocking to get our attention. Jesus isn’t just trying to get us to change our diet or ask our doctors about a new medication. He’s trying to get those of us who are rich, full, and respected to change our whole approach to life, he wants to free us from entrenched patterns of relationship so that we can reorder society in ways that will be life-giving, for us and for the world.
We NEED to be poor, empty, grieving – because those needs will cast us fairly and squarely into God’s arms.
The first word is makaros, translated here as “blessed,” which doesn’t quite convey the full meaning . Some translations say, “happy,” which is even worse. This isn’t about an internal emotional state, and it’s not nearly as abstract or religious as the word “blessed” sounds. Makaros is more like “honoured” or “respected”; as a statement of community values, it’s like saying “we salute.”
On this racial justice Sunday, it might give us something to ponder if I stopped right there. Just think for a moment.Who is honoured in our society? Who is honoured in our church? Who holds the power, without even noticing the accumulated privilege they enjoy?
It’s NOT the poor, nor the hungry (though we will donate to a foodbank to help them) ….It’s not, on the whole, the people from BAME backgrounds who, we know, have suffered disproportionately in the pandemic
Perhaps you’re feeling as uncomfortable as I am now. I rather hope so, honestly. Because discomfort is often the work of the Holy Spirit, calling us back to our right minds, restoring our sense of the values to which Jesus calls us.
The Spirit spoke to me through this paraphrase, written by a remarkable American theologian, Sarah Dylan Breuer, who looked at the emphases of the media as she watched tv, and received the carefully tailored online advertising that floods social media.
Here’s what she wrote
salute the pure of breath, clear of skin, and white of tooth, for
they will have dates on Valentine’s Day.
We salute those low in body fat; their six-pack abs will win them love.
We salute the rich, for they are our major donors.
We salute the achievers, for we hope we’ll become what we envy.
We salute the winners, for they can reward our loyalty.
We salute the strong, for they can determine their own destiny.
scorn the poor, for they can’t provide for their families.
We scorn the hungry, for we fear they will disrupt our lunch to beg. We scorn the disabled, the clinically vulnerable, for caring for them will delay our economic recovery.
We scorn those who weep, for they remind us of vulnerabilities we prefer to hurry on from.
We scorn those the world scorns, for this demonstrates that we, unlike them. are insiders.
That’s NOT the world that Jesus calls us to. That’s not what Jesus salutes. But, there’s a health warning in the final beatitude, a reminder that following Jesus is NOT the route by which to win friends and influence people.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
That’s hard, isnt it. I LIKE to be liked and approved of. I’m actively afraid of being shouted at and defamed, and so I don’t speak or act decisively to challenge the many things that are wrong in our society, contenting myself with muttering behind closed doors…
So this morning I’m asking for the gift of courage that I may live into this calling. There is so much to do in this broken society, where wounds run deep
I’d love you to join me.
Three years ago I was away from the Cathedral for much of this Epiphany season, immersing myself in that fifth gospel that is a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I found myself renewing my baptismal vows in the Jordan on the very day that the Church recalled the Baptism of Christ, and just a couple of days later I stood beside one of the absolutely ENORMOUS water jars that are strategically placed around the possible site of today’s gospel story. Each one has the capacity of a wheelie bin -
We might think a bit more about those jars later, but in the meantime Id like you to join me in one of the countless shops selling olive wood statues, icons, rosaries...Do you want help in reflecting on Jesus and his mother? There’s a practically endless array of holy art designed to help you to so.
The Christmas-card images of a child snuggled safely in loving arms
The scenes of the crucifixion where that same mother, desperate and desolate, stands at the foot of the cross…
You’d imagine, looking at them, that Mary and Jesus were always bound together, that they remained as intimately connected throughout his earthly life as they were when she carried him in her womb.
And certainly, when I pray the rosary, when I consciously invite Mary to pray with me, inviting her intercession, that’s because she seems to have that intense connection that surely means she can speak directly into his ear…
But if we actually look at the gospels, we meet a rather different picture in the years between Bethlehem and Calvary.
Luke, whose text suggests that someone, somewhere had actually interviewed Mary, gives us not only the infancy narratives, all those extraordinary events which offered so much for her to ponder in her heart, but also that heart-stopping day when Jesus lingered in Jerusalem to “be about his Father’s business”…
Any parent who has mislaid a child will know how terrifying that experience can be.
And then, at the moment of reunion, instead of flinging himself into his parents’ arms, Jesus seems to push them away.
How would his words have sounded to Joseph? To me they seem full of teenage unkindess
Then, there’s that awful day when Mary and her other children turn up, concerned that Jesus seems intent on starving himself, and are rebuffed
“Who ARE my mother and brothers...”
Honestly, how COULD he?
Whatever the larger point, however pressing the claims of the kingdom, here is the woman who brought his divinely human body into the world, yet he turns away from all that family affection, relentlessly pursuing his vocation…
It must have felt like a slap to the face.
I’ve always imagined that Mary went home in tears…
It’s really not easy to mother the Son of God, and to hold on to the promise of heaven breaking in, if your child pushes you away and deliberately excludes you from his emerging ministry.
But in today’s gospel it sounds, at first, as if Jesus is actively trying to postpone that ministry
Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come...
WOMAN - that’s hardly brimming over with filial affection. In fact, Mary is never named in John’s gospel…she is only, ever “the mother of Jesus”, her own identity utterly subsumed in her role.
Later, of course, when his hour HAS come he will speak to her as “Woman” again, but in kinder vein
“Woman, behold your son. Son, here is your mother”
John bookends Jesus’s ministry with these moments – spotlights mother and son not in the soft focus of a nativity scene but with the full glare of God’s glory to be revealed in and through him.
My hour is not yet come
I am not yet heading towards the cross
Just leave me be…I’m enjoying the party...
Yet, there is something too important going on for Mary to simply give up and sit back down among the women…
A wedding should be replete with joy, flowing over to include the whole community...yet shame and ignominy are about to descend upon the hapless couple and their families.
How did Mary find out?
Was it a family affair? A niece or nephew trembling on the edge of disgrace?
Was she someone who always paid attention to those in the background, the servants looking at one another with incredulous anxiety?
We can’t know – but for me it matters tremendously that she was there, at that wedding, that she noticed, that she alerted her son to the pressing need
“They have no wine”
Oh my goodness! How often as we read the room, read the world, might those words be ours.
WE are surrounded by so much screaming need
“They have no money.”
“She has no cure.”
“He has no justice”
They have no home
I have no strength.”
They have nothing.
I Have nothing
No way to help…
My faith seems simply a matter of empty words.
God is on a long lunch break.
They have no wine
And all I can do is tell God this truth that God already knows...and wait in hope...as Mary waited that day.
The hope might have felt forlorn, as Jesus pushed her away – and yet she is confident that she has told the right person, that despite his unpromising words, Jesus will act.Though John’s gospel gives us none of the back-story, the angelic annunciation, the babe in the manger, the prophetic words and portentous stars, nonetheless Mary KNOWS HER SON...and knows he can help.
She brings her distress for others to him then, as she does, as we all do, whenever we pray, confident that he can, that he WILL make a difference.
Do whatever he tells you
Even if it makes no sense
Even if it’s hard (filling a thirty gallon jar is no mean undertaking)
Even if you’re pretty sure you’ll end up looking utterly stupid.
Do whatever he tells you
Interestingly, these are the last words Mary speaks in John’s gospel…
Her intervention has been a catalyst.
She has propelled her son into action…
She has no idea how he might act to transform the situation, but believes that he will do so
And this is because she has been attentive…
Attentive to the needy world and attentive to her extraordinary, baffling, beloved son
In the face of his apparent refusal, she persists in faith, speaking to the servants on t he strength of her long-standing trust in Jesus’s loving, generous character. and invites the servants to practice that obedience which enables faith to become action. Her quiet conviction persuades them to follow her advice
They DO what he says
After all, they’re up against it
They need a miracle and as God says to Bruce, in the film Bruce Almighty
“If you want to make a miracle, BE ONE”
Their obedience, of course, unleashes God’s abundance
As our liturgy will remind us, in the Eucharistic preface for this season
In the water made wine the new creation was revealed at the wedding feast.Poverty was turned to riches, sorrow into joy.
The glory of God is revealed in the wine outpoured and the party continues unabated...and will continue into eternity.
But for now, too often it feels as if all that we have is water. We may TALK about God’s abundance, but we are surrounded by scarcity, loss and need...We face the reality of loss and grief, of financial trouble, political corruption, institutional injustice...We struggle to believe that there WILL be enough to go round, that God’s love and God’s grace will encompass all…
So, what can we do?
Me, I think I’ll try to pray with Mary, and model my prayer on hers.
I’ll be honest to God about what I see – the pain of a dear friend close to death, the heartbreak of exclusion, even from God’s Church, the terror that drives refugees to risk their lives in tiny boats on perilous seas – and I will keep on naming those needs in the face of my own helplessness and I’ll try not to be deflected.
And, if it seems that I have nothing to offer that might change the situation, I’ll ask to have the courage to offer it anyway Perhaps if I dare to pour out the pathetically inadequate resources I seem to have available, God’s grace will intervene so that I , even I, can be enough to answer my own prayers.
Our Collect puts is beautifully...as it outlines the possibility that we too can be part of the miracle,
Pray it with me once again
in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory
What an extraordinary day…
Elizabeth 2nd has been our Queen for 70 years – so long that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else in her place – yet today is the one on which we remember that moment of transition, when even as she received the news of her beloved father’s death, she was at the same moment handed all the weight of the crown.
No opportunity to consider whether she wanted the job
No chance to say “Thank you, but I’m not sure I’m quite what you need”
On that day, the young princess responded the call of her country because she heard God’s voice too
Whom shall I send and who will go for me
And she responded wholeheartedly, even amid her grief
“Here I am, send me”
5 years before, on her 21st birthday, the Princess had proclaimed
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.
The Empire may have gone, but that promise of devoted service has been lived out every single day since then and we know, though she would never shout about it, that our Queen has depended on God at every twist and turn of the way.
Vocation lived out in the service of others.
Whatever your views on the monarchy, that’s inspiring I think…
But what does it say to us?
Thankfully, I don’t imagine that anybody is ever going to call you, or me, to take up a weight like that. So can we just sit tight and ignore all this grandiose talk about vocation?
When God asks “Whom shall I send?” surely God has something in mind altogether more exalted or demanding than we could possibly aspire to…
After all, the whole of our reading emphasises the huge contrast between the glory of God seated on God’s throne– the Christ on our tapestry in the Cathedral, if you like – and the tiny, insignificant human figure of the prophet – as diminutive as the human figure between Christ’s feet.
When God asks “Who will go for me?” it can be very tempting to look at those around us, intent on spotting someone more obviously qualified, someone with spectacular gifts, - honestly, someone ELSE. Isaiah feels pretty inadequate
“Woe is me...”
I’m not up to the job, whatever that job might be…
It’s just not going to work
You need someone special, Lord…
But that’s never been the way God works. Our NT reading confirms this..
As Jesus gathers his team around him, that group who would listen and learn and in the fulness of time and the power of the Spirit ultimately set out to change the world, he doesn’t hold out for powerful orators or learned rabbis. He calls those who are available, in all their run of the mill ordinariness.
Fishermen were ten a penny on the shores of Galilee – and THEY were those whom Christ called.
Over the last few days the Cathedral has been hosting performances of the “Symphony of Us” a new work for orchestra and six speakers (the “people” section, as they were dubbed)...Each of them would class themselves as really ordinary – one, indeed, made much of her self image as “utterly boring”- but each of them has responded to a call to live as the best version of themselves. So we met Nor, who cultivates her garden and brings people together to welcome the stranger; Duncan, a gay teacher who uses his free time to offer young people the support he himself needed growing up; Sam, a bereavement midwife, who offers love and care to families dealing with the deep grief of baby loss;...and I could go on. Each ordinary, extraordinary person is changing the world by singing the unique song that God has put in their hearts and on their lips.
One of my favourite vocation stories turns up in several different contexts in slightly different forms. It concerns Rabbi Zusya, a Chasidic master who lived in the 1700s who clearly had a clear understanding of the heart of vocation.“When I get to the heavenly court,” he said “God will not ask me, Why weren’t you Moses?, Why weren’t you Elijah?” Rather he will ask me, “Why were you not Zusya?”
Responding to that call to be fully ourselves for God, and to allow God to do with us whatever God might choose, if pretty much the work of a lifetime...but it’s never too late to begin.
It may not be a call to do anything that seems extraordinary, but to do the ordinary with as much love as you can muster.
So, today, give thanks that God has made you YOU
Give thanks for the tangle of gifts and struggles, of lived experience, joy and pain that has shaped you
And listen...listen with open mind and heart, asking for the grace that you need to respond “Here I am, send me” when God calls.