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.'