Sunday, September 4, 2016

“Bah! Humbug!” exclaims Scrooge at any mention of kindness or festivity that surrounds Christmas. Scrooge is miserable, miserly – he hates others to be happy and he certainly hates to be drawn into anything that looks like concern or charity.
All those words we use – miserable, miser, misery come down to one thing and that is hate. The verb in Latin and Greek for “hate” is miseo. Whoever does not hate, says Jesus today, and goes on to list just about every family member we might have and, he adds, whoever does not hate their own soul.
Bah! Humbug! Are we all then supposed to turn into cold hearted Scrooges – locked away inside ourselves and fearful of anything which resembles warmth or human kindness? We might be tempted to take up this anger if we only read this passage. But in the context of a Gospel which is at times tough but which encourages love and community what are we to make of this apparent volte face on Jesus’ part?
Let’s look at what is going on. Last week we had the story about hospitality. Jesus suggesting that people move away from the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” model of living and social advancement – much of which revolved around meals and entertaining.
In the Jewish world, family was vital. Extended family. First cousins often married, thereby extending the bonds within a family unit. Sons usually remained at home and brought wives to their father’s household. Social advancement depended on everyone cooperating with social norms. Usually your job came with your family. You identity was bound up in family. That is why widows and orphans were needy of charity – they were no one.
The word “hate” is almost certainly hyberbole – it means make a clear choice between kingdom life and this strictly defined and often stifling family life. But even as hyperbole, it makes its point – this is a tough choice and following Jesus will involve everything in a person’s life changing. Hate is not the motivation which Jesus is suggesting – love is. But a person, who in love, chooses the way of the cross over the way of human influence will have an initially difficult time maintaining the life which they have known up until now. Much as they would, were they to revolt against those around them in hate.
 These crowds have begun to hang on every word, they are amazed at Jesus’ actions. They do not listen to the leader of the synagogues objections, they must be feeling empowered and ready for action and Jesus say, “Hang on! Not so fast!”. The discipleship which they seek is not just following around after a magical circus act – it is something more. Firstly it will cost them and secondly it will take work and preparation.
I think we often read those accounts of the early Disciples leaping from their boats and running to Jesus open armed as the usual model of Discipleship. We forget that they often limp through the Gospel, barely understanding and that they are broken by the events on Good Friday. Their journey is one of growing understanding and growing commitment. It might be vaguely heretical but I wonder whether Jesus started off with a lot more than twelve and we know about the ones who stayed the course.
Sit down and plan, says Jesus. Sit down and plan your tower, look at our enemy in the war. Use the wisdom of the elder to negotiate peace if that is what needs to happen. This is very different from the ebullient Peter and James and John dropping nets and splashing through the water. Much slower, more calculating. Much harder work.
Perhaps I need to work harder, pray harder, look holier, disable the horn on my car. I need to make sure I can build towers, accumulate bricks and wealth and workers. I can wage wars against the infidels if only I can focus my attention hard enough. If only I can make that magical clean break away from all those people who hold me down. Away from that ridiculous feeling that I have needs and desires which are actually OK. Hmm. Probably not.
You see, all of that makes the work of Discipleship up to us, and it isn’t. Jesus warns us that we need to take this seriously, that we need to understand the cost but that we are not all on our own. We are not striving after some bizarre sort of greatness which we can define and put in a nnice neat box.
During the London Olympics, Nike made a series of commercials which involved the central messaging that we should not limit our concept of greatness to those who we would watch competing in the events in the Olympic venues. It was not that others are not great, it is that what we think of as great does not include enough people.
The series was not shy about saying that you had to put in some serious time and effort to your sporting activities but it was saying that greatness is in everyone. Great.
But what if that was true. What if commitment and time and effort – no matter our level of performance in a sport, made us great? Is that OK? It is not OK in the way we define ourselves in our culture. But what if we choose against our culture? What if we question that need for advancement and climbing the ladder by promoting ourselves and our values over another. This is the criticism of family which Jesus makes, that it demands a self-definition which denies the worth, or worthiness of another.
Jesus says – try to deny the worth, to hate, the system you are a part of, try to see that you are only as worthy as the person across the room, the street or the religious divide and when you are willing to do that. When you are willing to count the cost of reaching up to heaven, when you are willing to assess possibilities without your ego controlling the outcome, then you are a disciple.
The parody of this has become a rather sniveling, subservient version of Scrooge but one with the same level of anger and hate in them. The words are right and a smile is often strangled out of terse lips. But love disappeared somewhere with the 63rd consecutive week on the coffee rota – not that anyone is counting.
This is how people have often experienced Christians, this is who many people assume Christians are. Squashed up and lonely losers who have no idea about real life and offer a bitter pill covered in platitudes. Jesus knows this. He sees it all around him in the Jewish establishment which he is so often at odds with.
Luke gives the clear message that the Kingdom of God is not for those who have, apparently, clawed their way to victory but for all those who find their greatness in defining themselves, first and foremost as those loved by, and in love with God.
It is uncomfortable to think this one through. It is no longer about best for me, or even best for my family. Life is a team sport but the team is made up of all sorts of people who we thought were playing on a different field. What do we choose? What do we not choose? Who or what are our gods and who do we allow to treat us as if we were, somehow, divine?
Our greatness, if it is anything at all, is not found in our self-definition or our own sense of achievement or failure. It is found in the image which is reflected in us, not a human image, but the image of God. Becoming a greater and greater likeness of Christ is the work of the kingdom. This is the greatness we live into because we are, not because we are trying to be.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Woolly life

Today we meet Jesus at the Festival of the Dedication of the Temple, or Hanukah. It celebrated the time, some 200 years earlier when the Maccabees (a family of Jewish warring heroes) successfully routed the Syrian, Antiochus IV from Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple. Think along the lines of 4th July. But imagine further the feeling if 4th July was celebrated with an invading force in the country. It would be a bittersweet celebration surrounded with the question of when these oppressors, the Romans, would be forced to leave as well.

We have seen many times how most people were expecting a military hero to overthrow the oppressive Roman regime. And so, this is the opportune time to get Jesus to say he is the new leader. Of course, this is not a simple question for Jesus to answer. He has already said quite enough in the previous chapters for those asking to know he is not playing to their script.

These folks did not want to be sheep. I am not sure I am always that keen either. After all sheep are pretty stupid, right? They follow around with those big bobble eyes, chewing away. Unlike us, sheep really do not make decisions or have opinions. If there is a good shepherd they will be OK, but they have no ability to do anything for themselves.

Well, here are some sheep facts to make you happier about being a woolly friend of Jesus. Sheep need each other. From my extensive research (Google) you need five sheep, less than that and they get leary, sheep live in community and only sick and lost sheep hang out alone. Take note - individualism is not a woolly virtue.

Sheep are not always quiet and cuddly. If you are thinking about getting after some lambs or if you messing with the Rams in mating season you probably  need to check your health insurance. Push sheep far enough and they stick up for themselves, so woolliness does not, necessarily mean simply letting things happen.

Our woolly friends might not be as stupid as we thought, either. This is a wonderful story from the BBC.

"Hungry sheep on the Yorkshire Moors (Great Britain) taught themselves to roll 8 feet (3 meters) across hoof-proof metal cattle grids to raid villagers' valley gardens. According to a witness, "They lie down on their side or sometimes their back and just roll over and over the grids until they are clear. I've seen them doing it. It is quite clever, but they are a big nuisance to the villagers." [Source: BBC News, July 2004]"

Clever wooliness, well who would have thought? So why not be a sheep? Well working together, needing others, working things out and trusting in a shepherd, those are hard. The tendency in our society is to try to exist as frightened and marooned individualists. Perhaps we should go easy on the sheep after all.

There is a movie called The Tale of Desperaeux. It is about a young mouse who refuses to be afraid. At one point his parents are called into the principal's office because his behaviour is causing serious concern. "He is just not afraid," says the principal. His parents shake their heads and exclaim that they did not realize how bad it was.

Despereaux refuses to live in a world where he is always the victim and where there is no hope of conversation with those who are presented to him as enemies. I wonder how many of us look at the world around us as a place which makes us afraid. Certainly, the amount of pharmaceutical commercials on TV during the evening news makes me think we are certainly eager to control illness. Attack ads on television makes me think that we are eager to control those who do not agree with us.

The general tenor of our society is one of individualistic protectionism. And whilst we have the right to look after whatever and whoever we want if we are not careful we lock out the things which make us fearful so securely that we lock ourselves in, and even there, locked in, there are variables which we cannot control and we become prey to our own anger at the unpredictability of the world in which we find ourselves.

This is not to say we do not have things in life which scare us and make us angry. Of course we do. There are illnesses and broken relationships. Jobs which disappear and changing times. The people who came to Jesus that day had real problems. They were living in an occupied country under an often brutal regime. Jesus is not doubting the reality of this, or preaching a simplistic message. Instead he says that they are not listening, they are dancing to their own drumbeat - they have lost the ability to hear the voice of the shepherd because they are trying to decide their own direction. "You are not my sheep," Jesus is saying, "because whatever I say right now you are determined not to hear."

How often do we do that? Do we come to Jesus with the story already written and ask Jesus whether he is in or out of our version of things? Dangerous for sheep. Without checking on the shepherds plans flocks of hundreds of sheep have been know to plough off the edge of cliffs. "Yes or no?" we say to God, little pausing to hear that that answer actually is, "ask a different question."

Sheep are fairly simple creatures but all creatures have the same basic need for food and shelter, for companionship and safety. That is the job of the shepherd. We have a more complex list of needs - that is what it is to be human. But sometimes we write more into that list than we need to. Sometimes we will not listen to God so that we understand the right question in our lives because we are so stuck on the track of the way we thing things should be.

The story of that mouse, Despereaux is the story of trust in a world which is not out to get us. It is the story of the possibility of change. It is a story about childhood which refuses to go away, about the trust in something greater than the walls we can build around ourselves and those who are like us. In other words it is the story of freedom. In typical cartoon form the freedom based on human spirit. But we know, from experience, that this is something which, despite the confidence of Disney, we cannot do on our own.

The people who came to see Jesus were desperate for a national holiday which celebrated a current freedom and not a remembered one. Jesus never condones their captivity but he seems to understand that military rebellion will have disastrous consequences. Freedom is in a different place. Freedom which goes beyond human constructs and circumstances.

We should, of course, always fight for an end to injustice and terrible circumstance. Jesus was not saying it was all OK the way it was. He was just asking them to start somewhere else, start from being in the flock of which He is the shepherd. That would mean letting go of their script, letting go of the questions which they asked again and again with little answer.

Jesus says the same to us. Listen to me first. Be a part of me first. Learn my voice, live with your flock. Know where your strength comes from. I wonder what the world would look like if we all stopped fighting our corners, all stopped asking for our own version of the Saviour, and looked at the world through Jesus eyes. A woolly world is not one of stupid inaction, it is one of allowing ourselves to trust that we can only begin and end a journey from the Shepherd who is our very beginning and our end.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

I have not written for a few weeks and I have a confession to make. I have not written because I have not had anything clever or particularly interesting to say. I realized this morning that this was probably the point which God was trying to make to me – that most of life is not particularly clever or entertaining. Yet, in the ordinary, we can find the profound truth of a God who was and is and is to come.
Most of our lives, I suspect, are fairly routine. People looking in from the outside might be amazed and wonder at what we do – but as we do it, we rarely stop to ponder that in the eyes of God we are all pretty extraordinary. We can begin to believe that it is always other people who are the heroines and explorers. But, on our faith journey, we are all called to take our ordinariness and be gathered into the great story of God and the saints of God. We are called to shine and tell, from our everyday places, an astounding story of breathtaking wonder.

We have all heard of the tears of a clown. Sometimes relying on the quick response and fast laughter of others hides a deep sense of longing within ourselves. When our cleverness comes from a deep wisdom and our entertainment from entering fully into life and expressing the joy which we find there, it is a Godly conversation. That is what Lent is about, owning our longing for God. Not as something to be shrugged off with the bouncing of a skimming stone of self-reliance but rather, embracing our need and finding a deep satisfaction which resonates in our everyday experience,  as well as in our unexpected otherness.