Tuesday, October 18, 2016

PENTECOST XXIII (Proper 25) 2016

Death and Fire -- Paul Klee (1940)

What lies at the root of all religion, it has long been held, is not a belief about a supernatural world, but an awareness of the character of this one -- its contingency. Nothing about the world in which we find ourselves is guaranteed. When it comes to success and failure, prosperity and deprivation, health and illness, joy and sorrow, all the things that matter most to human beings, we are completely dependent on  time and circumstance. Our best laid political systems and our  most ingenious technologies are highly beneficial, usually, but they cannot give us absolute control -- of life or of death.

Religion starts in this awareness of a world that far exceeds our understanding and control, and prompts a profound awe. But this sense of humanity's awesome vulnerability generates a practical problem. How are we to make ourselves at home in such a world? The great religions, in different ways, offer answers to this question.

House of God - George Stefanescu (2006)
The Judeo-Christian answer runs through all of this week's readings. In even the most radical contingencies of life, the human heart can find security and a resting place in the eternal God who is both ever present and accessible. Thus the prophet Joel declares: "You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel. . .  your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions."., and the Psalmists write "My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God" ."Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts".

In just the same vein Paul writes to Timothy.  "The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so . . .  I was rescued from the lion's mouth". Having "fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith", Paul looks forward to a "crown of righteousness". The brief parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel, however, contains an important word of warning. The greatest spiritual danger human beings face is displacing true righteousness with self-righteousness. Self-righteousness complacently supposes that some mix of material  success and good works will make us secure. But that is precisely to lose the insight in which religion begins; human beings cannot be the means of their own salvation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

PENTECOST XXII (Proper 24) 2016

Jacob Wrestling the Angel -- Leon Bonnat
The common theme in the readings from Genesis, 2 Timothy and Luke that the Lectionary appoints for this week is unusually obvious – persistence. Jacob wrestles with a stranger (traditionally referred to as ‘an angel’) all night long, and even at daybreak will not let him go until he gets a blessing. Paul tells his readers to ‘be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable’ for proclaiming the Gospel. Luke recounts a parable in which Jesus invites his hearers to emulate the persistence of a widow who will not stop petitioning a judge until she gets a judgment in her favor.
The connection is easy to spot. But what lesson should we draw from it?  Do we really have to pester God as the widow does, or wrest a blessing from God as Jacob does? Does God act justly and benevolently only if, and when, we demand that he does? This is what Jesus seems to say. Yet the suggestion sits very badly with the idea of God that most Christians have, and proclaim – a God whose love is ever present and enduring, and who always takes the initiative, reaching out even to those who are hostile or indifferent.
The Widow -- Otto Dix
The same readings can point us in another direction, however. It is a fact that devout and serious people sometimes give up on God, and stop reciting prayers that they have said for years. Moreover, this happens not out of pique or petulance, but because it suddenly seems as though, despite their prayers, neither blessing nor justice is ever forthcoming. This is part of the reality of discipleship. Prayers are no recipe for success.
What is there for Christians to say in such circumstances, except this? We ought to persist in the ways of faith. Persistence, though, amounts to nothing better than beating one’s head against the wall, unless we can continue in the belief that God’s love and justice does not fail. In the face of silence, two things sustains that belief  -- a sense that no other blessing will serve, and the example of Jesus. Christ’s persistence in the face of hatred and social conformity resulted in death on the Cross, but by that very fact showed his love of God to be unshakeable. His persistence was then vindicated by the Resurrection.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

PENTECOST XXI (Proper 23) 2016

Jesus Heals the Ten Lepers (17th cent)
  • Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Psalm 66:1-12  • 
  • 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Psalm 111  • 
  • 2 Timothy 2:8-15  • 
  • Luke 17:11-19
    On first reading, the Gospel passage for this week seems to be a relatively simple healing story, with a moral about gratitude. Yet on closer reading the details are a little puzzling. Ten lepers appeal to Jesus. He instructs them to go and show themselves to the priest. They do as he says, and on the way there they find themselves cured. One leper  – a Samaritan --returns to thank Jesus, who asks where the other nine are. He then tells the Samaritan that his faith has made him whole. But where did the other nine go wrong? They did just what Jesus told them to, and they too, the passage says, were made whole? So why was this one specially commended?
    The answer is this. Despite being a Samaritan and therefore an 'outsider' to the faithful, only the man who turned back realized what the miracle revealed -- that the healer stood in a unique relationship to God. The wholeness that this perception brought him, was not merely freedom from leprosy -- which the others gained as well -- but a new, saving and transforming spiritual insight.
    Naaman is cured from leprosy (c.1151)
    The same insight into who Jesus really was lies at the heart of Paul’s extraordinary mission to the Gentile world. The essence of his preaching, brilliantly summarized in this week's Epistle, springs from his conversion on the road to Damascus. Someone who thought Jesus to be the dead leader of a renegade Jewish sect, becomes someone who can see in him the long awaited Christ. "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David -- that is my gospel".“To obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory, the saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;  if we endure, we will also reign with him”.
    The Gospel episode plainly echoes a familiar Old Testament story. Naaman, brilliantly successful Commander of the Aramean armies, is haunted and hindered by leprosy. Thanks to Elisha, he obtains a cure from the God of the Israelites. Yet it is not health, but knowledge that is key to this story.  When Naaman’s ‘flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy’, he, like the Samaritan, ‘returned to the man of God . . . and said,  “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” 
    Jesus made no special demands of the leper who returned, and gave him no special benefits. What marked him out from the rest was his ability to recognize Jesus for who he was. It is a test that many Christians more focused on health benefits and material advantages have found it easy to fail.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

PENTECOST XX (Proper 22) 2016

There are many occasions on which the cultural gap between our world and the world of the Old and New Testaments makes it very difficult for us to understand the Scriptures. The village images of the shepherd, the fisherman, the vineyard, have no very obvious counterparts in a world of freeways, skyscrapers and the internet. That is why it often takes an effort to find a modern meaning in some of Jesus’ parables.
The gap is at its widest in this week’s Gospel, which relies on familiarity with a world in which slavery is taken for granted. Not only is this a different world to ours; it is one of which we fiercely disapprove. So what can we make of Jesus’ assumption that no one would think of allowing a slave to rest until all the master’s needs had been satisfied? Or the instruction to his disciples to think of themselves as slaves – ‘worthless slaves’, indeed? Haven’t we rightly abandoned a world in which people are treated like this, and learned not to think of anyone as a “worthless slave”, ourselves included? And besides, doesn’t this fly in the face of the Epistle in which Paul tells his fellow Christians that ‘God did not give us a spirit of cowardice’?
These are understandable reactions. Yet, there is nevertheless a way of re-stating the Gospel's central point that has both modern resonance and relevance. Though our ideal is one in which every human being is  a free individual, this does not make everything a matter of choice. There are some things we are simply  'commanded' to do and for which we deserve no thanks. No one, for example, would think of thanking us for not murdering, assaulting, cheating or stealing from other people. Refraining from actions like these is  expected and required. So we are not owed any special moral credit from merely respecting the rights of others. It is only when we go beyond what is required of every decent human being that special praise and thanks are merited.
Church Pew with Worshipers -- Van Gogh
This is one way to think of Christian discipleship -- as being under a command. Viewed in this light, we don’t earn any special merit for giving God the time we should. It is something we ought to be doing simply as a matter of course. Moreover, picking up on a theme of the Epistle, we can (and should) say more than this. The service of God is ‘a holy calling’, a special gift which Christians are privileged to exercise, and there is no 'beyond the call of duty'. We cannot give God more than God can reasonably expect.
Yet the fact is that church people regularly, and easily, fall short in this regard. They expect from each other, and they give to each other, fulsome thanks and praise for their work as Christians, and even for making the effort to come to worship! That is to say, they thank each other for not neglecting God.  This is precisely the attitude that Jesus is rebuking in his disciples.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

PENTECOST XIX (Proper 21) 2016

Parable of Lazarus - Fyodor Bronnikov
The readings for this Sunday have a greater thematic unity than is often the case, and continue with the topic of last week's Gospel -- prosperity and its dangers. On this Sunday all the readings, apart from the Psalms, have to do with the possession and use of wealth in one way or another. The reading from Jeremiah concerns the purchase of that which is above all worth purchasing. The passage from Amos contains a prophetic denunciation of the rich. The Epistle contains the famous line ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’, and in the Gospel Jesus tells the story of the rich man who dies suddenly in the night.

The message to be learned from these passages is really very simple. The Epistle underlines the truth that the avid pursuit of wealth can easily ‘plunge people into ruin and destruction’, while the rich man in the Gospel learns a complementary lesson: that all the wealth in the world will not make us any less susceptible to death or to Divine judgment. Between those who put their trust in material well-being and those who put their trust in God, ‘a great chasm has been fixed’.

Mountains High and Streams Eternal - Wu Guanzhong
The choice with which we are confronted is plain enough. The difficulty does not lie in understanding it, or even making it, but sticking with it. It is easy to say that the love of wealth not wealth itself endangers us. Yet, psychologically speaking, it is hard to be wealthy without placing more and more trust in the things wealth brings. This is true even for those whose wealth is modest by contemporary standards.

One aspect of the Epistle is worth emphasizing. Contrary to any impression the Gospel story might give, this is not just about what happens after you die. The author of Timothy (probably not Paul himself) tells members of the fledgling Christian church to ‘take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called’. This is an instruction for the present, not the future. It is a deep mistake to think of ‘eternal life’ as a post-mortem state. Eternal life is a mode of living now -- a way of life that death cannot destroy because, through the Cross, Jesus has enabled us to participate in the life of one who alone 'has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light’. It is this great ‘prize’ that even modest wealth can put at risk, and it does so the moment we forget just how incomparable the two are.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

PENTECOST XVIII (Proper 20) 2016

St Luke - Frans Hals
This week’s Gospel parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Unjust Steward, is unique to Luke and one of the most puzzling passages in the New Testament, There is no consensus among Biblical scholars as to just how it should be interpreted.

To save his own skin, a manager under suspicion fraudulently changes the amounts owed to his master in the hope that he can call in a few favors after he is fired. The problem of interpretation arises from the fact that Jesus appears to commend, even to praise, the manager’s dishonesty – “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth”. This sits especially ill with the second Old Testament lesson for this week in which the prophet Amos denounces the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth.
Head of Plautus, God of Wealth - Prud'hon
The story in itself is troublesome, but the difficulty of understanding what Jesus means by telling it is increased in what follows. How does the broader lesson– “You cannot serve God and wealth” (or in traditional language, God and Mammon) -- flow from the parable that precedes it?

Here is one way of looking at this difficult passage. People often think that they can be worldly wise while remaining true to a noble purpose. They suppose that, with enough determination, they can successfully use material means to spiritual ends. Jesus warns us against this easy assumption. Worldly wisdom has a dynamic of its own, one requiring us to follow a path that, almost without our noticing, quickly becomes a downward spiral. To pursue material benefits energetically and effectively in order, say, to feed the hungry, may surreptitiously lead us to embrace purposes and values deeply at odds with the spiritual well being of both ourselves and others.

This hard truth does not necessarily carry the implication that only self-imposed poverty is spiritually safe. As St Paul says elsewhere, it is not money, but the love of money, that is the root of evil, and the poor no less than the rich can love money. What it does imply, though, is that a time may come when we face a real choice between love of God and love of Mammon -- only to find that, unwittingly, we have in fact already made it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

PENTECOST XVII (Proper 19) 2016

The Lost Coin Domenico Fetti (1588-1633)
In the Gospel for this Sunday, the Pharisees and scribes complain that Jesus is regularly found in the company of sinners. When Christians read this today, they rather too readily assume a position of moral superiority over the benighted Pharisees, and complacently identify themselves with what they perceive to be the non-judgmental attitude that they think Jesus exemplifies. This scarcely makes sense of the passage, which invokes the concept of repentance, and penitents, of course, must have something to repent.
But biblical interpretation aside, identifying Jesus with contemporary non-judgmental inclusivism is either hypocritical or deeply unattractive. In reality, no decent person is content to rub along with child abusers, wife beaters, racists, rapists or people who exploit the weak and vulnerable, and any one who refuses to 'judge' such conduct is in effect condoning great evil.
Lamentations of Jeremiah - Marc Chagall
It is the reality of great evil that Jeremiah and the Psalmists grapple with in the Old Testament lessons. Their context was the ancient world, certainly, but there are plenty of modern contexts to which their words apply,. The history of Africa, both colonial and post-colonial, is a terrible case in point -- ‘foolish’ adults who act like ‘stupid children’ and have no real understanding, together with ordinary people who have simply ‘gone astray’, and are ‘perverse’, and worse, people who are ‘skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good’. The same descriptions could be used of the warring factions in Syria and Afghanistan. But America and Europe are hardly 'evil-free' either.
So what, then, is the message of the Gospel for this Sunday? It is a truth of the human heart that the wicked do not easily turn from their ways. When they do, accordingly, there truly is 'joy in the presence of the angels of God'. This is not because they are in some way more to be praised or admired than people who steer clear of great evils. Rather, it is because stories of their repentance are signs of hope -- hope that in the end light can overcome darkness.