Tuesday, August 2, 2016

PENTECOST XII Proper 14 2016

Vermeer - Allegory of the Faith
Nowadays, faith is commonly contrasted with knowledge, and construed as belief in propositions or theories that can't be 'proved'. Both religious people and their critics use the concept in this way -- the first to reject scientistic demands of proof, and the second to underscore what they see as the groundless irrationality of religion.

This concept of faith, though, however widespread, is not the biblical concept, as this week's readings make clear. In the episode from Genesis, and  reflection on it in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find an importantly different concept. The faith Abraham displayed was related to the future, which by the nature of the case, cannot be known, still less proved, since it hasn't happened yet! Yet, all of our lives must be built around this unknown future, not as abstract speculation on what might happen, but as the basis of our plans, careers, aspirations and adventures.

Faith properly so called, then, is in a different category to belief and knowledge. It is allied to hope and trust -- and its contrary is not knowledge but fear. Fearful mistrust would have prevented Abraham from setting out, and stopped him from hoping for descendants, despite his age and difficulties. It was faith in God, not theological knowledge or belief about God that guided and sustained him.

Abraham Journeying - Gustave Dore
The author of Hebrews uses this as a model for a new generation, to help them see that with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a truly faith filled orientation to the future is enlarged. We can now set our hopes on a promised land far richer than a stretch of territory, and on belonging to a 'family' far greater than innumerable tribal descendants. This echoes the words of Jesus in the Gospel passage from Luke - 'Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom'. Faith in this promise, though, implies a different attitude to the present -- one that focusses on the truly important (because 'Where your treasure is, there will you heart be also') and shows a constant readiness to respond to the call of Jesus (because 'Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes').

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

PENTECOST XI Proper 13 2016

Rembrandt - The Rich Man from the Parable (1627)
  • Hosea 11:1-11 and Psalm 107:1-9, 43  • 
  • Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 and Psalm 49:1-12  • 
  • Colossians 3:1-11  • 
  • Luke 12:13-21
    • Generally speaking, people in the modern world are haunted by two great fears -- poverty and violent attack. Fear of the first, curiously, has grown rather than diminished as the world has become wealthier. One consequence is that economic growth is always a key concern -- and promise -- in elections and political campaigns. The second great fear underwent an important change in the course of the 20th century -- from war, to cold war, to terrorism -- each of them serving to sustain an intense anxiety about safety and security.

  • People in the world to which Jesus preached were far more vulnerable to both poverty and violence than we are. And yet in several places, including the Gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus, far from promising prosperity, warns against the danger of wealth, and the futility of our efforts to protect it. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul takes up the same theme - 'Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth' and goes on to articulate a set of values that are to be preferred to the pursuit of sexual satisfaction and material wealth.

  • If these truly are 'Christian values', there could hardly be a sharper contrast with the values of our consumerist world which ranks sexual activity and material possession very highly. Could these 'other worldly' values have any relevance or pulling power in such a world? The answer is that they must. At the heart of the Gospel message is the perception that wealth is only as valuable as the things it is spent on, and that power is only as valuable as the things it secures. So deciding what things are truly valuable is inescapable.

Burne-Jones Love leading the Pilgrim
It is a profound mistake to interpret (and discount) 'things that are above' as some sort of imaginary 'pie in the sky when you die'. The heavenly 'things' include love, truth, beauty, integrity, grace -- values that every human being can meaningfully aspire to, even if ever increasing levels of economic prosperity or political security are at risk. The danger Christ alerts us to is that of mistaking means for ends. Possessed as we are of greater wealth and power than human beings have ever known, that is a different but no less real danger.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

PENTECOST IX Proper 11 2016

  • Amos 8:1-12 and Psalm 52  • 
  • St Paul - El Greco

  • Genesis 18:1-10a and Psalm 15  • 

  • Colossians 1:15-28  • 

  • Luke 10:38-42

  • On the majority of Sundays in the Christian year, the lectionary readings include a passage from one of Paul’s letters. This is a fact with which we are so familiar that its extraordinary nature is often lost on us. These are letters written by an early follower of Jesus to tiny groups of people in towns and cities that in many cases no longer exist. Yet almost 2000 years later, millions upon millions of people, in countless different languages, read them and listen to them in the most worship filled moment of their week. What explains that amazing connection between an obscure past and a global present?

    The puzzle is intensified by the further fact that Paul's letters tell us almost nothing about the life and ministry of Jesus. Their whole focus is not on information, but interpretation. On this score, despite their humble origins, Paul’s letters have a depth of theological understanding and spiritual insight that no other Christian writings have ever matched. It was Paul, rather than Peter, John and the other disciples, who grasped the true significance of the Jesus he had never encountered in the flesh. Paul was first to understand the full import of believing that Jesus was the Christ promised by the God of Israel. Time and again he sets out the fundamental doctrines that such an understanding implies, even though he he does not use the names by which these doctrines have subsequently become known.

    This week’s extract from his letter to Colossians is a case in point. There is only a trace of the once vibrant Greek city of Colossae in what is now Turkey. Paul writes to correct some false understandings of Jesus that have arisen there. In so doing he articulates a key element in the Christian faith – the Doctrine of the Incarnation. “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God”. This is Christ’s divinity, and the means by which human beings can come to understand a transcendent God.  At the same time, Christ’s humanity –“his fleshly body through death” enables him “to present” human beings as “holy and blameless and irreproachable before God”. It is in Christ’s uniquely two sided nature that our salvation lies.

    He Qi -  Martha and Mary

    Set alongside Paul’s profound reflections, however, this week’s short Gospel about the all too human rivalry between Martha and Mary serves as an important reminder. The ultimate meaning of the Incarnation does not lie in theological doctrines, but in ordinary life and how belief in Jesus is best manifested there.

    Thursday, July 7, 2016

    PENTECOST VIII Proper 10 2016

    The Good Samaritan - Vasily Sukirov
    • Amos 7:7-17 and Psalm 82  • 
    • Deuteronomy 30:9-14 and Psalm 25:1-10  • 
    • Colossians 1:1-14  • 
    • Luke 10:25-37

      • The Gospel for this week is one of Jesus' most famous, and familiar, parables -- the story of the Good Samaritan. Its sheer familiarity  means that some of its implications are easily overlooked. This parable is not simply a morally improving lesson about how much better kindness and generosity are compared to selfish hardheartedness. For the devout Jews to whom Jesus told the story, ‘the priest’ and ‘the Levite’ were pillars of orthodox respectability. Their passing by on the other side was not simple hard heartedness, but the desire to avoid the religious pollution that would result from contact with a (possibly) dead body, something that would be widely appreciated. It is also important to remember that the Samaritans were regarded as second class Jews, because they subscribed to a debased form of Judaism. These facts intensify the meaning of the story, and make its subject matter true religion rather than moral rectitude. 

        Equally important is the fact that ‘the Good Samaritan’ is not a free standing story with a moral, like one of Aesop's fables. It is Jesus’ answer to a question. A lawyer raises a characteristically legal question. He does not dispute the ancient moral law of the Jews – ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ – but asks for a definition of terms – Who is my neighbor? This is not mere quibbling. The definition of terms is crucial to the law and its application. What the story shows, however, is that while legalism has its place, it can become a barrier to the life of the Spirit within us.

        Heaven and Earth - Ronnie Landfield (1967)
        These few verses thus take us to the heart of the Gospel. This sincere and faithful Jew wants to place the law of God as inscribed in Leviticus at the center of his life and obey God in all things. That is one, admirable, conception of ‘the Kingdom of God on earth’. But Jesus offers a radical alternative – a willingness to go beyond the rules to the point where our human concern with religious integrity is itself overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit acting within us. In short we are called to participate in Divine life, and as the reading from Deuteronomy affirms, ultimately, this is a matter of looking deep within our own souls.'Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.'

    Wednesday, June 29, 2016

    PENTECOST VII Proper 9 2016

    Saddle Horse in Palestine - Singer Sargent
    The Gospel for this week is one of those passages that modern readers can find it hard to relate to, especially at the present time. That is because, taken as a whole, it seems to portray Jesus as encouraging a kind of fanaticism in the simple people he recruits to his cause, and playing to their primitive beliefs about demons, Satan and paradise. The Lectionary omits certain condemnatory verses, and these just make the passage even harder. Still, if we believe in the Incarnation, we have to accept that the eternal God chose to be born into a world radically different from modern post-Enlightenment societies, so that the reality of that kind of world is one we must try to understand.

    Three features of this Gospel episode seem especially important. First, the people Jesus chose to spread the word of God’s kingdom on earth were not highly educated, politically powerful or socially prestigious, but notably ordinary. These are ‘simple folk’, and in the verses that follow the lectionary extract, Jesus underlines that fact. Secondly, he gives them the power to do some very remarkable things. This is in sharp contrast to their normal powerlessness within the prevailing social and political structures. No wonder they return from their excursions ‘with joy’.

    Sacred Flame - Kazuo Shiraga
    Yet thirdly, at the very height of their delight, he tells them NOT to rejoice in their new found power. It is not these astonishing abilities that matter, but the fact that their names are ‘enrolled in heaven’. In other words, these ordinary people have been entrusted with a task and a gift denied to far more sophisticated people. They have the ability to see what ‘what many prophets and kings wished to see, yet never saw’ (v 24), and thus to tell others that ‘the Kingdom of God is near you’. But this neither implies nor bestows a higher social status. They remain simply human.

    In the accompanying Epistle, Paul identifies very precisely a special danger confronting those who find themselves possessed of unusual spiritual gifts. He warns the Galatians: ‘If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit’. The warning is apt, but cannot disguise the great challenge that this presents to anyone who believes God speaks to them in a special way. The temptation is to use spiritual insight to limited human ends. Sometimes, as in the case of suicide bombers, this results in pursuing political goals with brutal disregard for others.

    Thursday, June 9, 2016

    PENTECOST IV (Proper 6) 2016

    King David does repentance - Albrecht Durer
    Durer - King David Does repentance
    The Old and New Testaments depict largely male dominated worlds. Indeed it is from the religious tradition of the Old Testament that our word ‘patriarchal’ derives. Yet surprisingly, given that tradition, memorable women make their appearance again and again, often playing key roles in the story of God’s dealings with humanity. Three such women feature in this week’s readings – Jezebel the wife of Ahab, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and an anonymous woman who anointed Jesus feet with perfume. Between the last two, there are some striking differences.

    Bathsheba’s astonishing beauty makes her a victim of sinful lust. David uses his royal status and 'manly' power, not only to force an adulterous relationship with another man’s wife, but even to contrive her husband’s death so that he can 'possess' her permanently. The very language of possession speaks to the conception of male/female relations at the time. For a while, this seems to go unpunished, though not ultimately. In a famous scene, the prophet Nathan tells David a story that a prompts David, inadvertently, to admit his own guilt. Even so, in the story Nathan tells, what matters is the relationship between two men, the one rich and the other poor, and the rightful possession of a 'ewe lamb'. This is the not very flattering analogue of Bathsheba, who, like the lamb, is the passive object of male desire throughout.

    Christ in the House of Simon Dieric Bouts (1415-1475)
    The Gospel passage has some interesting parallels. Jesus, like Nathan, tells a little story to person of some wealth and importance in order to elicit a moral judgment that will cast light on the hearer's own behavior. It works in this instance also. Simon concludes as he is meant to. But in this story one of the two main characters serves directly as analogue for the anonymous woman anointing Jesus' feet. Unlike Bathsheba, however, she is not the innocent party. In fact she is the more guilty of the two. All we know is that she is a 'sinner in the city', which tradition has  interpreted as prostitute. If so, she is a prime target for the culture's condemnation. Yet Jesus turns it all around. She is not the one to be criticized, but the prosperous Simon whose hospitality, like that of the rich man in Nathan's story, falls decidedly short. That too, is to be forgiven, but precisely because it is the lesser fault, repenting it is easier. It is the woman we should take as a better model of faith and repentance.

    The comparison of Jesus' attitude with the story of David and Bathsheba shows us just how counter cultural it is. This is not always easy to see, precisely because in some respects such an attitude remains deeply counter cultural for the modern world too.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2016

    PENTECOST III (Proper 5) 2016

    Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta - Strozzi Bernardo
    The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta - Strozza
    On this Sunday, unusually, the ‘continuous’ and ‘thematic’ readings from the Old Testament overlap. The first takes up the story of the prophet Elijah again, while the second picks out one element of that story. As it happens, perhaps not coincidentally, this means the Old Restament reading and the Gospel resonate especially well this Sunday.  The passage from 1Kings and the passage from Luke both recount episodes in which an only son dies and then is restored to his grieving widowed mother. The question, of course, is what we ought to learn from these. 
    A striking feature of the two episodes is this. The widows are grief stricken, and yet their first reaction to the miraculous restoration of their sons, is not the straightforward expression of relief and joy that we might expect. On the contrary, the widow of Zarephath’s immediate reaction is to hail Elijah as a bringer of ‘truth’, while Luke tells us, even more strangely, that a ‘great fear seized all the people’ who witnessed the Gospel episode. 
    Tissot - Raising the Son of the Widow of Nain
    Why these reactions? The answer is this. Though it seems obvious to hail events like these as wonderful miracles, this is not their most important dimension. Rather, they break the regular course of the natural world in order to point to deeper, spiritual dimensions. It is by means of miracles that both Elijah and Jesus momentarily draw back the veil of ordinary experience, and reveal the depths of mystery behind it -- the awesome presence of a transcendent power whose reality we can only glimpse. More importantly in those actions, Elijah and Jesus reveal themselves to be fully at home in that mystery. That is to say, these are men whose lives are oriented to the holiness of God.
    This is precisely what the references to 'truth' and 'fear' on the part of the beneficiaries reveals. The modern world’s success with health and healing, makes it is easy to be blind to what less medically sophisticated societies saw. We thereby often miss the true significance of the Bible’s miracle stories. Were we possessed of such powers, it is most likely that we would value them primarily as a wonderful short cut to dealing with illness, a way of dispensing with complicated and expensive medical procedures. For Elijah and Jesus, who did possess them, they are far more than that -- dramatic signs by which people can be brought to God.