Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Samaria Woman. Lent 3.

As we have seen before, the Gospel of John is differently put together than the other three Gospels. In chapter two we had the changing of the water into wine and then Jesus cleanses the Temple. In chapter 3 Nicodemus, the member of the Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus by night. Then, in this chapter, Jesus meets and talks with a woman at a well in the Samaritan city of Sychar.
The Gospels in Lent are stories of encounter. Jesus encounters himself and his own calling in the Temptation in the Wilderness. Nicodemus finds Jesus by night, today we have the Samaritan woman, next week the man born blind and, finally, Lazarus is raised from the dead. The lectionary deliberately skips through the Gospel in order to give face to those who have met, and been changed by, Jesus person to person.
This is, of course, a key message for Lent. That during Lent we are invited to so order our lives that we make space for Christ. We do this both by special acts of devotion and charity but also by reformation of life – that is the process of straightening ourselves up and trying to iron out some of the kinks which we know we have in the hope that year by year we will walk closer and closer to Jesus through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
There could not be a bigger contrast between Nicodemus and this woman. For one Nicodemus has a name, this woman is one among many who would have been considered outcasts amongst the Jews. She is a Samaritan, remember the hated Samaritans, she is a woman and, it turns out, a woman with a jaded background – not necessarily reflecting her own immorality, but definitely showing her own vulnerability in a male dominated society.
Yet Nicodemus comes by night, he is cautious and he takes the whole Gospel to make anything like a public declaration of faith. It is not until after the crucifixion that he is seen carrying that heavy load of spices to the tomb, apparently one of the followers of Jesus. This woman meets Jesus in broad daylight in what seems like a chance meeting. In broad daylight she runs to her fellow townsfolk, not afraid, apparently, of repercussions, or of not being believed – she runs because she is changed by this meeting.
Perhaps a key difference between the two is that Nicodemus is coming from a place of power and caution. He has always believed that he is OK. That his learning and grasp of the law means that he is faithful and chosen. This woman can publicly have none of that – although her conversation with Jesus shows that she has a grasp of history and theology – she is educated, but not in the formal way of the Pharisee and neither is her role in the public arena of the legislature.
To her, Jesus proclaims who he is, fully. And from this proclamation she becomes consumed as a messenger of the Good News. Her response to “ I am He,” is to tell people. This is a message of abundant gladness, overflowing joy, exuberance. It is a fountain which will not run dry and a spirit which will never thirst again. Through this brief encounter the woman is washed from the inside out and given value and purpose.
If you heard about the fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, last year you may also have heard that Dollywood came close to disaster. A lot of people laugh at Dollywood but my children were raised on a diet of roller coasters and bluegrass and Dollywood checks both of those boxes. One of the resident singing groups is called the Kingdom heirs, notable in our family, because my late father-in-law, who never cared too much for Church, would go to their shows multiple times in a park visit. They are a Gospel Vocal group, and we are that family who sing in the car, yes, in four part harmony. This might not be your cup of tea but one of their songs is about this Gospel. The line which jumped out to me this week was:
“Give me a drink, that I should never thirst again, so she went away a’telling the news about the water of life.” She went away a’telling.
Appalachian culture is one of stories. If you are familiar with the mountains you know not to expect a short answer to most things, stories abound and you may as well settle in an enjoy them. Bluegrass songs often tell long stories, larger than life characters fill their notes. A’telling is a big part of life when there is nowhere to rush to, and nowhere to be except right where you are, on long winter nights.
The woman rushes, but she drops everything she is going to go and tell the story – she even leaves her water jug. I wonder when we are so compelled to simply stop everything and involve ourselves in a story. If you listen to talk radio, you may have driveway moments, when a story has grabbed your attention and you sit and listen to the end on the driveway instead of going into the house.
There are incidents and disasters which catch our attention but many become background noise as we put aside the distraction they cause. We have blurred the line between the reality and drama of life and the tales we weave around movies and television. We are no longer shocked by things which should make us stop and weep. The 24 hour news cycle moves us on to the next story, the next person, the next nation.
What do we engage with which causes us to change our path and leave the water jug at the well. What makes such an impression on us that we just have to move and move others?
Apathy was precisely what Jesus was calling the people of Israel to move away from and it was a hard all because we do not notice when we are there. There are so many calls in the Old Testament for people to behave as if their religious rituals mean something – Amos 5, Isaiah 11, 1 Samuel 15 to pull but a few chapters.
Perhaps this Gospel is a reminder to us that apathy, a lukewarm response, is not an option. Where do we encounter Jesus and do we remember that promise of water, water which is gushing up. You can see that image, water which is so eager to break out of its confines that it cannot be contained. With this water we become the same, so eager to tell the story, so eager that our story is known and valued by God, that we rise up, we gush.
There is a song from the Iona Community in Scotland about the Holy Spirit, in it the Holy Spirit is referred to as the enemy of apathy. We, the church, are not a painful trickle of vaguely good news, we are a mighty roar of excitement and wonder. We are those who are send to challenge apathy, not become its victim.
“But those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty.” Imagine that. Never thirsty – unless we shrug, and say “That’s nice” and fill our pitcher and go to our house and drink alone. Then we are thirsty, really thirsty.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Blessed are....

There are a whole lot of movies around about seeing history differently at the moment. I have not yet seen Hidden Figures although I have been told by many people here that it is one of the best movies they have seen. In case you have not come across it, it is the story of the african american women who worked for NASA in the space program as mathematicians and scientists.

Over the weekend I saw Bridge of Spies, based on the story of James Donovan, a New York attorney, called to defend and accused Russian Spy in 1960 and then asked to negotiate the release of Gary Powers and a student, Frederick Pryor.

Recently I have seen a lot of the Beatitudes, well at least parts of them, popping up on my Facebook feed. They are well known, they offer comfort and it makes sense, in times when it is difficult to know what to say, difficult to make sense of things in the ways which we are used to, that we turn to something familiar which might seem to frame our own concerns and offer us hope and stability.

Verses of the Bible often appear in social media, together with a pretty sunset photo or a challenging social photo.  They are popular because they are like drive through religion or cramming down a bar of chocolate - immediately satiating, somewhat addictive - but we all know what happens when the sugar high wears off.

Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry. He has survived, thanks in no small part to Joseph (remember we are in Matthew, not Luke). He has been baptised, has survived the Temptation in the Wilderness, chosen disciples and now is surrounded by crowds of people interested in hearing, seeing and being touched by this new preacher and healer.

We cannot be sure whether the Beatitudes were actually preached to the whole crowd or whether they were a message to the Disciples. It is easy to overlook that first verse about going up the mountain with his followers - Matthew does not make it clear whether the crowds followed and were in earshot. It might not matter, only, having the thought that Jesus might only be talking to His inner circle should make us take seriously the possible intensity of His message.

The Sermon on the Mount sets the scene for Jesus ministry - this is what a Disciple is like, then, as we go through the chapters, this is what Christian community is like. Mountains and high places, of course, indicate the closer presence of God - going up to say these words is a powerful symbol of their origin. Moses went up the mountain to receive the tablets which summarized the old law, Jesus ascends to proclaim a new paradigm of covenant and being. These sayings are no spiritual candy and we would do well to hear them in their context.

This idea of claiming an alternative view - or actually, seeing things as they actually are, is at the heart of the Beatitudes. The Greek is strange - a string of adjectives at the beginning but no noun or other object and no verb in the first part of some of the sentences. Interpret as you will. The Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate,  gives us the word Beati neatly at the beginning of each sentence. If is from here we get our word Beatitude. Blessed or honored from the Greek.

The thing is that Beati has almost opposite meanings in secular and ecclesiastical Latin. In the secular world it meant the rich, those who had been blessed with prosperity and wealth. However, the Church took the same word and turned it into a word about Saint. The blessed, the saints. This blessing, then, is a characteristic, not something we are getting. It is not a thing, a noun, something that is going to be done to us - it is who we are, an adjective.

And it is who we are, not who someone else is. It is tempting to use the Beatitudes as a sort of checklist as to how we are doing. How blessed are we, will we make it. We treat them as some sort of Spiritual inventory. I mourn, I hunger after justice, I tell people to be nice to each other - that is peacemaking, right?

But let’s for a moment see the Beatitudes in a different light. Let’s see them as a challenge and not a panacea. What if being a Disciple means that I am already Blessed - then I am already meek, poor in spirit, I mourn, I hunger and thirst after justice etc. If I have said yes to Jesus, if I bear the name Christian, then what if I have already signed on to all these things? What if this is a challenge to us to live into our faith and not a promise of future reward if we manage to check enough of them off on the list?

The thing that really stood out to me in the movie Bridge of Spies was when James Donovan was talking to a CIA agent who tells him there are no rules in the game of international espionage, that his attempt to defend Abel, the accused man, is lost. Throughout the movie Donovan has been driven by what he sees as a quest for ultimate justice, doing the right thing. A sham lawyer for a sham trial is not in his vocabulary, no matter what it costs him.

“My name's Donovan, Irish, both sides, mother and father. I'm Irish, you're German, but what makes us both Americans? Just one thing, one, one, one, the rule book. We call it the Constitution and we agree to the rules and that's what makes us Americans and it's all that makes us Americans so don't tell me there's no rule book and don't nod at me like that….”

What is is, then, that holds us together as Christians? What is our Constitution? I would suggest the the Beatitudes are a good place to start. I wish I could tell you all how to live into these sayings, how to act into the blessedness which we receive from God, but I am not really sure I know for myself. I do know I need to ask.

“For theirs is the Kingdom of God,” is how we are accustomed to thinking about the Beatitudes. This makes it easy for us - we act, others are the poor or the oppressed and we look after them and then we all get, like a super prize, the Kingdom of God. But there is another way to translate these words, “because of them is the Kingdom of God”. That is a very different thing. That is not something that we will get around to when we have time, when the kids leave home, when it does not cost us much and might not cause embarrassment.

If because of us there is the Kingdom of God we must get on with being the Kingdom of God on earth. This is not, as my father would have said, all about “pie in the sky when we die”. This is about finding our common story and those things which bind us together as the Body of Christ here and now. We are in confusing and dangerous times, far too confusing and dangerous not to take this seriously.

This is not a “when I get around to it” thing, it is a here and now thing. It is an important thing. It is an unsettling thing. The Beatitudes are not a panacea but a challenge. A challenge to live lives which are transformed and transforming. “Blessed are you….” says Jesus. Blessed are we and we must learn to live as those who understand both the gift and the gravity of that title.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

advent 3 2016

Advent 3 2016

I am not the best movie watcher. I like to know what is going to happen to characters before I commit to them. Strangely I do not have this problem with books but getting to the last scene of a movie and finding out that she chooses the wrong one or he chooses stability over a dream – those things leave me feeling disappointed – talking to the screen – I didn’t see that one coming or even worse a movie which just stops, almost mid-sentence and you are left wondering.

When we meet John the Baptist he is fiery, he is a prophet in the manner of all good prophets – outspoken, daring. Now he is in prison. In the real world we should not be surprised, he called the Pharisees and Sadducees sons of snakes – children of that first evil which in the Book of Genesis sets up a rift between humanity and God. The reference to the Biblical story would not have been lost on them.

John is an exciting character, ushering in a new age. I suspect what happens for a lot of us, it did for me,  is that we meet John by the Jordan a lot earlier than we meet John in prison. The John of the Jordan is great for children’s stories – he is weird and you can elicit a big “Yuck!” when you talk about locusts and wild honey. In many ways he might look like a sort of Biblical superhero. When the penny drops that this is the same person who is now sending a message to Jesus asking if he even had it right there is a sense of profound sadness – we want to rewrite the end of the story. We want Jesus to sweep in and do something. But this is the real world.

That Jesus leaves John might be disconcerting. That John has doubts also gives us uncomfortable questions. We really want him to be on the same page as Jesus – pretty much automatically. If  John, who has stepped so far out on a limb for faith is having doubts  - what about the rest of us? But the Gospels are not a corporate annual report – they are not set out to impress with smiling faces and carefully rounded numbers – they are messy. Like the hero dying before the credits or the pollution remaining in the city, if we look at the Biblical narrative we will see a direction – which is always towards relationship with God and with each other – but we will also see a lot of loose ends and tangled threads as people deal with being, well, people.

Jesus does not even say, “Yes, I am the one.” He sends back a message which might sound a little obscure to us – but, actually, to John, this will be a profound reassurance. We know John knew the prophets – he was quoting the texts at the river. The message that Jesus is healing and freeing is what has been told for centuries – perhaps the paradigm is not what John expected, perhaps he, like others, was looking for a more forceful entry into society, but Jesus clearly says – this is what you have been saying – it is OK.

The messengers go back to John and this is the last we hear from him. We hear of him later, that he is executed but Matthew’s point here is not so much to let us know that John the Baptist’s fears have been allayed but rather that Isaiah’s prophecies are being fulfilled.

The rest of the passage addresses that unspoken piece of the question to the crowds. Jesus turns to the crowds and asks them what people expected. Royalty – another Herod? Herod who took the reed as his symbol and held is staff as a rod to beat the people of God. Herod who dressed in fine linens but was broken as a vassal king in a Roman state. I was thinking about those old cartoons this week, cat chases mouse, coyote chases road runner. The inevitability of those stories and the resolution always being that the victim turns into the oppressor – and on it goes. The ending is obvious, the stories are clever and how revenge is achieved is what kept us glued as children.

This endless chase, this endless struggle for power is not what Jesus is offering. He is not just bringing bigger and better of the same. In these stories there is not any room for change.
Herod is part of an endless cycle, the cat chases the mouse until the mouse learns to become a cat – and so on.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” And this is enough, this is a powerful testimony. But hang on, you say, Jesus picks and chooses, not everyone gets healed. What good does that do? If this is going to mean anything then, surely, he should be a bit more universal in his efforts – why not release some sort of healing ray over the earth so that there is no more sickness or pain or dying.

All three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have a story about a man who is paralyzed and who is lowered down through the roof of a house where Jesus is. Jesus words to him are, “Your sins are forgiven,” there is outrage. Jesus told the man to walk and he did – that is the piece we want to notice. First though, he sets him free.  Sin and illness were linked in the Jewish mind. Illness might even be a punishment for inherited blemishes from previous generations. This healing is a revolution of forgiveness, of breaking the tyranny of old oppressions and guilt.

Jesus frees all those who come to him not only from physical burden but from indebtedness to something which they could never hope to understand. Jesus removed them from the controlling power of the Jewish orthodoxy and orthopraxy which kept them away from relationship with God by underlining the sinful nature of their very existence. Mark Davis uses a wonderful phrase – Jesus re-describes them. He re-describes them as beloved and new.

Yesterday Kris was watching a TV show whilst I was in the kitchen. It was called “Last Chance University”. The show is about a small college in Mississippi which gives young men who are great at football but not so adept at life a second chance. I did not get to watch to the end but will try to go back to it. There is a fundamental piece of any rehabilitation and that is to give worth and independence and this is hard work when everything in a person is wired to think the opposite.

I know this from my own life. I have said before that I grew up in a difficult household. You don’t really notice at first but then as you get into school you realize with a growing dread that everyone is not the same. It all ends up with little sense of self-worth. With a fractured understanding of a theoretical love, with a theoretical basic humanity and every grain of your being knowing that this is just not true, that you are just not there and so it goes on. I am sure each of the young men on the TV show has a story which has, in some way or other, led them to this place and they have walls a mile high, thinking that no one can see it.

This sort of pain is what Jesus is confronting in His people. They are told in words that they are
Covenant people but they are sick and suffering and the pieces do not tie up for them. This is not just the messiness of humanity – this is the sin of a sick system. Physical healings demonstrate a reality of reconciliation which is happening. Jesus redescribes these lives as worthy – God makes us worthy. All of us.

This is not an easy act. If we think through the subversive political nature of Jesus inviting oppressed people to worth it is huge. John the Baptist might actually seem quite soft and cuddly in comparison to allowing people who have no belief in themselves to function as beloved, as full human beings with their own voices, opinions and joys. In Advent we must struggle with this. We are called to radical healing, to describing people around us as children of God, to offering healing and light. But how do we do that? What risks are we taking that in redescribing someone else we allow God to redescribe us. Where is the star and the manger? And where is God’s pen in our hands?