Thursday, 27 June 2013

Truth and Reconciliation


I write this as Nelson Mandela’s life hangs in the balance. His has been a long life of struggle for freedom from oppression but from that place of freedom, exercising forgiveness.

He once said, ‘The feeling of freedom that infuses every South African heart at last liberated from the yoke of oppression underlines the fact that we have all in one way of another being victim to the system of apartheid....  In no activity is this more lucidly captured than in the heart rendering evidence being led at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission... It is only natural that all of us should feel a collective sense of shame for the evils that as compatriots, we have inflicted upon one another.  But even in the few days of these hearings we can all attest to the cleansing power of the truth.  It is to this that this Commission is committed.  We are committed to the truth so that we can all be free.  We are committed to the truth that we can all become reconciled one to another.  There is a very long road ahead.  We are only just starting...’

In the forward to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, ‘We have been privileged to help to heal a wounded people, though we ourselves have been, in Henri Nouwen's profound and felicitous phrase, ‘wounded healers’.  When we look around us at some of the conflict areas of the world, it becomes increasingly clear that there is not much of a future for them without forgiveness, without reconciliation. God has blessed us richly so that we might be a blessing to others. Quite improbably, we as South Africans have become a beacon of hope to others locked in deadly conflict that peace, that a just resolution, is possible. If it could happen in South Africa , then it can certainly happen anywhere else. Such is the exquisite divine sense of humour...’

Very powerful words reminding us that forgiveness is not just to be given and received between individuals, but if brokered carefully can be for the benefit of all, for the greater good of all, and freeing for all concerned into the future.

Jesus teaches that forgiveness is something that must come from the heart - it must be freely given - over and over again.  It is not just a matter of forgiving or loving those whom we like, because even ‘sinners’ do that but forgiveness must extend to those whom we object to.  We must not judge or condemn, but forgive and we will be - not by our enemies - but by God.  Much of the time when Jesus talks of forgiveness he does so in relation to sin.  Sin being the things that we do and say that build barriers between us, God and other people.  Jesus’ life, death and resurrection breaks down the barriers that we build between us and God once and for all.  Forgiveness for Jesus it seems is about receiving assurance of that fact, repenting, and living this new way.

Forgiveness is sometimes very hard to give.  We cannot do it under our own steam even though we know we should.  In the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, where he offers her living water springing up and giving eternal life.  The forgiveness of which Jesus speaks, must flow from us like streams of living water - the new life of God.  In that sense forgiveness is not ours to give, but God’s forgiveness flowing through us because of the presence of the Holy Spirit given in the living waters of Baptism.  Living the new way that Jesus inaugurates and allowing God’s forgiveness to flow through us is freeing and liberating for all.

An inability to forgive rests like a yoke on us, as individuals, as a community.  Yokes are used on animals and people in traditional communities when working the land.  They are heavy, and their burden restrains and directs us to walk one way or another.  The power of forgiveness is to lift those burdens from us - and if you have ever been forgiven you will know what a relief that feels like.

The forgiveness that Jesus offers - God’s new life - frees us from the oppression that divides us.  In Matthew 11:28ff Jesus offers to the weary, the sinful, those feel that they are unforgivable, another yoke in exchange for theirs - a light one - of love for ourselves and others.  This yoke of forgiveness, of new life, frees the wearer.  Instead of being bowed down with the weight of our burdens, only able to focus on them, constantly dwelling on their impact on our past and present, God’s forgiveness in Jesus liberates us to focus on God, and on our present and future with each other and Him.

We are all a work in progress - Christ’s forgiveness, his new life in us, enables us to be Christlike - to be reconcilers and to use Desmond Tutu’s words:  ‘to help to heal a wounded people, though we ourselves have been, in Henri Nouwen's profound and felicitous phrase, ‘wounded healers’.  When we look around us at some of the conflict areas of the world, it becomes increasingly clear that there is not much of a future for them without forgiveness, without reconciliation. God has blessed us richly so that we might be a blessing to others.’

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Naming and Shaming and Healing


The city of Geresa is to the south east of the Sea of Galilee, in what would have once been an area with predominantly Jewish settlers but by the time of Jesus it was pretty mixed. There was a huge Roman city called Jerash in the area, and presumably the swine mentioned in the morning’s Gospel reading were kept to feed the Romans.

The disciples would probably have been extremely reluctant to go with Jesus to this place. It was outside their comfort zone, the Jewish people were pretty superstitious, becoming unclean if they touched various things like someone who had died, or pigs, or even if they touched a woman during her period. So in a country with so many foreigners it was possible that there were all sorts of horrible things to be fearful of. And in this passage there are the pigs and the demoniac.

The demon shouts aloud ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ The demon in the man proclaims aloud knowledge we take for granted that the disciples had only just begun to get a sense of... that this man, Jesus of Nazareth was more than a Rabbi.

The disciples have been with Jesus a while now and heard Jesus teach about God’s kingdom and love, but in these chapters of Luke’s Gospel, they are beginning to see the power of God at work in him. This encounter stands in a line of miraculous events and teaching in the Gospel - calming of the storm, healing of the centurion’s servant, the raising of the widow of Nain’s son, the forgiving of the sinful woman we heard about in last week’s Gospel reading and the healing of the man with the withered hand. The demon proclaims what has been known in eternity, that Jesus is the Son of God, with the power of God at work in him.

I am intrigued by Luke’s little aside that the man was under guard and bound in chains. This man was as incarcerated as he could be, and yet the demon or the man or both long to be free - the man occasionally breaks the bonds and runs out of the city into the wild - the spiritual realm, the realm of angels and demons. The liberation that the man is offered by the demon is only a pale imitation of what Jesus offers them both.

Another interesting thing to note is that Jesus asks, presumably the demon, it’s name - Legion.

In the Bible, the power to use someone’s name is the power to control or completely understand them. It is interesting that for a certain generation of people - being known by their first names was never an option. It was disrespectful. When I was a child, we had elderly neighbours who lived over the road - I knew their names were Tom and Elmer, but they were always Mr and Mrs Nicholson. Always. In Genesis, Adam not only names all the animals, giving him dominion over them. God himself, when asked his name by Moses replies enigmatically ‘I am that I am.’ So Jesus asks for his name, and the man gives it - Legion. The word Legion means six thousand soldiers, and the man is identified completely by his Legion of demons. In naming the man, the control of Jesus feels like a good thing, like something that is healing and restorative. 

The restoration Jesus offers isn’t just psychological or spiritual, as in being healed, the man is restored to his community too. Following the healing the man is seated at Jesus feet - like Martha - sat as one who learns from a Rabbi. The man is healed, but the Greek word is saved, as he also now has a right relationship with God through Jesus.

The people of the town were terrified by the exorcism. In a way I can see why, but on the other hand should they not have been rejoicing? It is one thing believing in God, it is quite another thing to see him in action so to speak it is awe inspiring. It can be terrifying. We would respond in just the same way because our lives are very ordered and distant from a God who is confined to a tidy hour or so on Sunday morning. It is a fearful thing when God steps into our ordered lives and shakes them with His divine presence.

Is this why they sent Jesus away? Possibly, but I suspect that it might have had more to do with economics - they preferred swine to a saviour. Possessions, even at the cost of possession, are more highly valued than this once demon possessed man.

Was this episode a failure? By no means because Jesus leaves behind a disciple who longs to go with Jesus but instead is given a mission - go to your home and tell of how much God has done for you...

Two final thoughts. Firstly, I do believe in demons as spiritual entities in a Biblical sense, but also I believe that demons can be a spiritual expression of the reality of the world. The things we do and say can, as we demonize someone, portray them to be falsely what they are not and give spiritual expression to that by the way that we treat them.  Our lives can be completely consumed, obsessed by, addicted to any number of different things physically but their impact is so often felt spiritually, at our core, in our hearts. This morning’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus longs to liberate us all from the things which bind and possess us whether that’s words, actions, attitudes, politics, habits or substances. God longs to free us to be the people he made us to be - named as his beloved sons and daughters.

Secondly, at the heart of this story is the love of God. God’s love encounters this man in Jesus and sees him transformed. The man is then sent by Jesus with a specific task - ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. Proclaiming the all transforming love of God is not for the a job for the specialists - clergy et al - but for all of us whose lives are touched and turned upside down by Jesus.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Grace and Dangerous Love


I think it’s deeply ironic that this Father’s Day, our Gospel centres on Jesus’ ministry to and with women, but as the song says, behind every great man, there had to be a great woman... No, not so with Jesus. The gospels tell of great women who are not behind Him but with Him and before Him - serving, learning, proclaiming.

We do not know who this woman is but we are told she is a sinner. Her sin removes her from her place within a family, a community, in worship, in love.  Her sin ostracizes her and now renames her, redefines her as someone to be shunned and avoided. Her sin utterly dehumanizes her.  She is no-one. She has no status. No value. She is nothing. 

She hears that He is at the house of Simon the Pharisee.  She comes from the darkness of the colonnade behind where he is reclining to eat. She cannot bear to look Him in the face - she does not know who she is any more - He cannot know her, Hemust not know her.

She weeps. The tracks of her tears tell her story of shame.  As she offers herself to Jesus with tears and ointment - He offers her in return that which she could not find herself - forgiveness.

Did her actions repulse Simon? Did he curl his lip? Did his love for of the letter of the Law condemn her with a look of disdain? We’ll not know what prompted Jesus’ parable.

Who do you think would be more grateful, Jesus asks, a man whose debt of five hundred denarii was cancelled or the one forgiven fifty?  It’s simple.  All that’s required here is a basic understanding of mathematics, as the first man is forgiven ten times the debt of the other.

Simon knows how to count, and so answers grudgingly that he supposes (“supposes”? – really, Simon, you only suppose?) it would be the man for whom the greater debt was cancelled?

Jesus looks at and acknowledges this woman - something that has not happened to her for some time - but speaks to Simon. Her actions outwardly demonstrate the repentance, the true nature, of her innermost heart and He forgives her.

Forgiveness at heart is the giving back, the restoring of relationship. It is releasing any claim on someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy of the debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up a future.
 But it’s also something more. Forgiveness also gives you back yourself. You see, after being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, and set free.

Forgiveness in that sense is a transaction - giver and receiver in a mutual exchange - offering each other a renewed future together.

Forgiveness requires you to be able to put yourself where the other person is.  But because forgiveness requires that - it is nigh on impossible to truly forgive from behind a desk, or on an email, or over the phone. It is very hard to forgive from the heart unless you step out of your office and you are willing to give yourself to the other, to step round and stand alongside the them. Is it any wonder that, Jesus looks at this woman as He offers her her heart’s desire?

We all carry around within ourselves ‘stuff’.  ‘Stuff’ - memories, thoughts, acts, words, deeds that if others knew about them, might see us ostracized from our place within our relationships, our community, in worship, in love.  That ‘stuff’, our sin, ostracizes us and renames us, redefines us as people to be shunned and avoided. Our sin utterly dehumanizes us.  We are a bunch of nobodies, worth nothing with no status or value. But not to Jesus...

That woman didn’t earn the forgiveness that Jesus offered her that day. But by that unmerited grace - the forgiveness of God freely given to one who believed that she was the least deserving - she was set her free by Christ and her present and her future were transformed.

We do not know who that woman was or what became of her, but I wonder if it is no accident that several women are named at the end of our Gospel reading this morning - women who in Jesus’ day who had no status or standing. These women who were previously ill or demon possessed - are now named - Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Restored, Dignified, Hope and so on. They are identified, they have status, they are something - people loved and forgiven by God.

The grace of God is still unbound in our world. Jesus comes from behind the desk and joins us where we are. He knows what we each carry. He looks each of us in the face, into our inmost hearts, as He did that woman, and even though we may not want Him to, He knows us, He really knows us. His love for us is dangerous because it accepts all of us, yes all of us, yes all of us and offers to set us free into a present and future together with Him and each other - to be set free and forgiven. His forgiveness gives us back ourselves - as beloved children of God.  You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as someone carrying stuff around within us, someone broken, hurting, failing, a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and define us. We are no more and no less than what we’ve done, the mistakes we’ve made, the debt we owe and we are all there.

When we are forgiven by Jesus, all those limitations disappear and we are restored, renewed, set free to stand together with each other, named with the 12 disciples.  This is the grace of God at work amongst us still.  Speaking of our response, G.K Chesterton put it so beautifully,

‘...To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless...’

This is the Grace we are called to revel in, the forgiveness and love we are called to share.

~~~

Two final things. Firstly a poem by Sydney Carter:

No revolution will come in time
   to alter this man's life
   except the one
   surprise of being loved.

It is too late to talk of Civil Rights,
   neo-Marxism
   psychiatry
   or any kind of sex.

He has only twelve more hours to live.
   Forget about
   a cure for cancer, smoking, leprosy
   or osteo-arthritis.

Over this dead loss to society
   you pour your precious ointment,
   wash the feet
   that will not walk tomorrow.

Mother Teresa, Mary Magdalene,
   your love is dangerous, your levity
   would contradict
   our local gravity.

But if love cannot do it, then I see
   no future for this dying man or me.
   So blow the world to glory,
   crack the clock. Let love be dangerous.

And then this song from U2...




Sunday, 9 June 2013

Planting Flowers of Transformation

As part of what we did yesterday, we planted some flowers.  Not in the Vicarage garden though, but as part of a huge installation in Hyde park.  With 45,000 or so others, we spent much of yesterday at the Big If rally, calling on the leaders of the G8 nations and especially our Prime Minister to act to end global hunger now by stopping poor farmers being forced off their land by international companies growing biofuels rather than much needed crops; by stopping companies dodging paying taxes in the Developing world so millions can be fed; and by calling for a renewed commitment to giving international aid to help prevent the 2 million children who die each year from malnutrition from doing so.

It was an inspiring, emotional and challenging day and one where I felt at least my voice was heard - calling for political. environmental and social change in the developing world. But it was also an opportunity to my faith into action.

Let’s not kid ourselves that Christianity is not about substantive change. In this morning’s Epistle reading we hear more of Paul’s account for his ministry.

Paul is clear. His call to spread the Gospel was not a political one. He didn’t walk across the floor of the House metaphorically speaking, simply changing sides of a political or social argument. Paul seems certain that Gospel he shares is not about politics - it’s not of human origin or teaching he says - but one he received through revelation from Christ Himself; a reference to what we know as his conversion experience on the Damascus road; an encounter that utterly transformed him and reorientated him politically, socially and theologically.

He reminds the Galatian Christians - previously he was a very zealous Pharisee who’s prime joy was to persecute The Way - the earliest expressions of the Christian church - in an attempt to destroy it. Paul believed that God had already decided to reorientate his life, and that He was to use Paul’s zealousness for His purposes to make the Gospel known not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles too.

And this encounter must have done just that - suddenly Paul went proclaiming this Jesus he was so ardently trying to destroy previously and he set out to spread this Gospel in new places - in Arabia and Syria. If that weren’t evidence enough, later he visited Peter and James - the leaders of the earliest churches in Jerusalem - subjecting himself to their leadership and a prayers.

Paul’s life of persecution and destruction was utterly transformed, and that fervor was was rerouted and used by God to make known His love in Jesus Christ, to those who as yet had not heard - to Jew and now Gentile alike - inviting both to share in the promises of God like Abraham - and together to be blessed by God to be a blessing to others.

Paul’s encounter with God utterly transformed him. It changed his political and theological ideals. And, as we know as we read the accounts of how the church grew through his ministry, his transformation, transformed the hearts and lives of many thousands of individuals and their communities.  As we are confronted again with the issues of global hunger it is possible for us to be transformed by God in these issues.  In an age of compassion fatigue - ‘Enough Food If’ campaign isn’t asking for your money. It’s asking you whether it is right that people go to bed hungry.  Food or lack of it therefore isn’t just a matter of economics but of justice. The Scriptures speak time and again of God siding for the poor. Are we open to being transformed by this God to speak for Him on this issue of justice?

Paul’s encounter with God involved a revealing of Jesus to him. The words that Paul uses actually refer to Jesus be revealed in him. Something happened to Paul on the inside - his drives and motives and ideals were recircuited. The raw material of Paul - his passionate and persuasive personality was suddenly used by God in a new way.  As we are confronted with the issues of global hunger it is possible for us to be transformed by God, so that the outrage we might rightly feel about 2 million children dying each year because of malnutrition, can draw others in.  In an age of a myriad of political slogans - God says in Proverbs 31:8 - '...speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves...' Food, or lack of it, is not a political issue in this respect but a spiritual one. Where manna was given in the wilderness, a crowd in excess 5000 people are fed with 5 loaves and 2 fish and where people are still fed with the body and blood of Christ in bread and wine, God is to be found.  In an age of global hunger - the gospel we can share is not words but bread.

Paul’s encounter with God called him to a new way of living in and for Jesus Christ.  In the account we have of Paul’s conversion in the Acts of Apostles, Jesus actually calls out to Paul, speaking to him personally and commissioning him to a new work for Him. As we are confronted again with the issues of global hunger, we may turn to the sky asking what can I do? As we pray the Lord’s prayer we pray ‘Our Father’, we are called to work together under God as Paul was - called by Him to work together and together with Him in making the Gospel known. We can pray - pray for those around the world who are hungry and pray that they might know justice. We can think - think about how we might share. How is God calling us to be generous to those who have little. How from our great provision can we provide? We can speak out - we can speak out for those voice is so often not heard. You may not feel like going on a rally as we did yesterday but you can join in with the ‘Enough Food If’ campaign through Tearfund or Christian Aid for example, along with the Church of England and many other faith groups and organisations - to make the voice of the voiceless heard and calling on those who govern us to act justly on behalf of all - Jew and Gentile, rich or poor - so that all may be fed.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Which Way Now?

The tragic murder of Drummer, Lee Rigby, has forced us to do some soul searching on how we live together religiously, politically and ethnically and in community both locally and nationally.

Because the culprits of this heinous crime are Muslim converts, the Muslim community is once again under the microscope and finds itself on the defensive. Many commentators and detractors have used the events in Woolwich to call on British Muslims to work harder in rooting out radicalism within their communities, providing support to new converts and the young or impressionable and isolating any preachers of hate.

Many on the far right have also responded to these events. With little interest in building more wholesome or healed communities, they have used the murder in Woolwich as an excuse to stoke up hatred and to undermine good community and race relations work done within our towns and cities over many years.

Thankfully, this awful event has seen an alliance of faith leaders move quickly to provide guidance, encourage calm and generate a spirit of togetherness in the face of anger, fear and confusion. Religious figures have stepped into the breach to provide the measured leadership that will pour water and not oil onto a community’s or nation’s flames.

At such difficult times, many look to the heads of the various faith communities to provide some form of leadership. But speaking personally, I think the church is in a ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ place - where a failure to speak out again such acts of violent barbarism would be seen as us the church letting our nation and our Lord down, however on other occasions, when we do act decisively, some question our ‘authority to do these things’. This places us as the Church in a Catch 22 scenario.

In today’s Epistle reading, we see another faith leader, Paul, showing real leadership in a situation that was threatening to spiral out of control. Paul moved decisively to assert his authority upon a Christian community in which rival, maybe even meddling voices were threatening to drown out and even undermine the clear message of the Gospel. In comparison with some of his other epistles, Galatians is more curt than courteous, as Paul seeks to keep these Christians from deviating from he believes to be the truth.

We know that the Christians in Galatia were a very diverse group of people, both ethnically and culturally. While we know that Paul affirmed diversity of opinion, he appeared to value the truth of the message entrusted to him by Jesus Himself on the Damascus road over everything else.  He wanted this varied group of Christians to know that there was only ‘one gospel of Christ’.

As we can see in Galatia, the good news has the ability to bring people together, enabling there to be a unity in diversity. But what Paul is quick to point out that that diversity must not lead to division and dissension when concerned with the Gospel. Paul’s tone may sound strident but it’s perhaps out of a passionate desire that the Galatian church continues in the received truths of God, not about uniformity or conformity or power and control.

The church today is not much different to the church in Galatia. We are also a also a diverse group of ages, stages, expressions and depths of faith brought together as a unity in diversity. Whilst in no way do I see the church local or national spiralling out of control, we find ourselves in an England of many voices and stories and traditions. If we are to be a church in this parish, in this England for this England and be expected to speak from time to time with authority into and for a family, a community or maybe even a nation, we need to be clear what the Gospel in this 21st century England looks and sounds like.

In September we are offering you the opportunity to look with us as the received truths of the Gospel afresh in the Foundations course. We will be looking at and discovering or rediscovering the foundations of Christian faith that the church has been built on over 2000 years. This course is not about trying to provide uniformity in our faith, or about power and control, but it is about having confidence in God afresh and in a faith passed down through the generations, and how we live that faith in our world, our nation and in communities of dissenting voices and sometimes perceived political or ethical change.

Paul is of course addressing the church, encouraging the church, seeking to correct the church to live and live out the life of the Gospel as revealed to him by Jesus on the Damascus road. When the community or nation look to the Church today in times of flux and change, yes they look at her leaders our Archbishops, Bishops and clergy to speak into our shared life in authority and love.  Once the ink on the headlines has faded, our community and nation still look to a Church confidently living what it proclaims. To you and me together. And when unsure of which way to turn, of how to respond to times of confusion and change, we can confidently talk of and live together the way of forgiveness, reconciliation and love as directed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

~~~

I am very grateful indeed for inspiration in some of the above to reflections by Richard Reddie is a writer and researcher as posted on the Roots website

Laying the Foundations

We are now in Ordinary time in the church’s cycle of the liturgical year. That’s right, glorious green is back!!! Ordinary time is called ordinary, not because of it’s dullness or blandness, but because the weeks of the season are numbered.  The Latin word ordinalis, which refers to numbers in a series, stems from the Latin word ordo, from which we get the English word order. Thus, Ordinary Time is in fact the ordered life of the Church—the period in which we live our lives neither in feasting (as in the Christmas and Easter seasons) or in more severe penance (as in Advent and Lent), but in watchfulness and expectation of Christ’s return. It is in this season that we are expected to grow in hope and faith - hence the verdant green.

To help that growth in us in the parish we are running the “Foundations in Living God’s Love”, or Foundations as we have shortened it to, in the Autumn.

Foundations is a course to help us discover or rediscover the foundations of Christian faith and it covers similar ground as the Alpha or Emmaus Nurture courses.  It’s based on the three key themes of the Living God’s Love Diocesan initiative: Going Deeper into God, Transforming Communities, Making new Disciples. It has three core 5-session modules designed for groups, and a fourth module ‘Living God’s Love In Action’ designed for individuals.

I hope that many of you will want to seize this chance to look afresh at some of the key aspects of what it means to be a Christian and to be a member of the Church.  Foundations offers a wide range of topics, and encourages you to draw on your own experience, to deepen your knowledge and understanding and to reflect on how what you have learnt can make a difference in your life and the life of the Church.  As with all courses, to get the most out of the material, we’d like you to commit to coming to as much of the course  as you can!

We held a Foundations taster evening recently to which over 20 people came, 15 of whom have signed up for the course when it begins and we hope that many of you will want to too. If you are interested, please pass your details to the Parish Office as soon as possible so we can ensure we get together enough resources for the number of expected participants.

The course starts on 18th September 7.30pm in St Peter’s Church. If you’d like more information, please speak to Simon, a member of the Study and Nurture Group or a member of the Lay Ministry Team.