Thursday, July 27, 2017

PENTECOST VIII 2017 (Proper 12)

Rembrandt -- St Paul
St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the most theological book of the Bible, is an intriguing mixture. It alternates between dense, often convoluted reasoning, and poetry of quite extraordinary power.  The Epistle for this Sunday falls into the second category, and it constitutes one of the finest, most insightful and most inspiring passages in all of Scripture – “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In this single, admittedly lengthy sentence, Paul perfectly captures and expresses the meaning of the Gospel in the lives of ordinary Christians, both past and present, and the assurance that it gives.

But he also thereby brilliantly illuminates the Gospel for today. The Lectionary has omitted some verses from the 13th Chapter of Matthew and in this way intensifies its rapid listing of short parables about the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses the different analogies he employs to impress upon his hearers – and upon us – this thought: when we sign up to Christian faith we are making a choice of the greatest significance. Initially it may seem a little thing, just as yeast makes up a very small part of the ingredients of a loaf of bread. Even so, it transforms all the rest. Faith that, despite so many contrary appearances and experiences, the world is under the control of a personal and loving God, and faith that the humblest and most marginalized can be valued participants in God's kingdom, transforms life from the inside. That is the point of the parable about finding a treasure so priceless that is to be preferred to everything else we possess.

The Hidden Treasure - James Tissot
Of course, to many people the Gospel these parables articulate is not new. They have grown up in the faith, and been “trained for the kingdom of heaven” to the point where sheer familiarity dulls the sense of its significance. Consequently, their task is to bring out of the treasure they have been given both “what is new and what is old”.

To gain or regain the gift of faith, however, is not to be given guaranteed protection against sickness and injury. Faith is not a kind of cosmic insurance. Rather, Paul tells us, it is to know that, whatever injustices, illnesses, and temptations befall us, “in all these things we are more than conquerors" provided we view them all "through him who loved us” -- and demonstrated it by dying for us.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

PENTECOST VII 2017 (Proper 11)

Jacob's Ladder - Marc Chagall
The Old Testament lesson for this Sunday recounts one of the most compelling and significant episodes in the history of Israel’s relationship with God – Jacob’s dream as he sleeps in a remote spot, his head resting on a stone. When he awakens from the dream he declares "Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!"  The possibility that we should be standing at “the gate of heaven” and yet be unaware of the fact, is the underlying motif of Jesus’ parables of the sower. The first of these, which provided the Gospel for last week, alerts us to the spiritual dangers of indifference, passing enthusiasm and worldly projects. This week's rather different application of the image, shows the ‘good seed’ of the Gospel confronting not merely human weakness, but the active agency of Satan.

The Sower and the Devil --Albin Egger-Lienz
'Satan' sounds like one of those 'pre-modern' ideas that modern ways of thinking have  abandoned.  Yet our news media are filled with actions and events that regularly seem to show forces of evil taking possession of human hearts and minds, and driving them to levels of wickedness and cruelty far beyond mere selfishness or indifference. The most problematic instances are those in which truly evil systems of religious persecution, racial discrimination and mass incarceration are staffed and sustained by people who are neither terrorists nor gangsters, but ordinary citizens educating their children, caring about friends and family, and maintaining the pattern of everyday life. Here, we might say, we find the decent and the devilish living side by side -- precisely the phenomenon that Jesus' parable depicts.

So whether we use the language of Satan or not, the world in which we find ourselves does indeed seem to have evil ‘tares’ growing alongside divinely planted ‘wheat’. An important part of the parable, though, is that these are inextricably intertwined, and will remain so until God brings the harvest in. This alerts us to another danger. One of Satan’s favored strategies lies in exploiting our inclination to leap to judgment and sort out the world ourselves, often by strengthening the powers of police and judiciary, or by employing advanced technology and military might. But, Paul, who in this week’s Epistle is also addressing a world that is  waiting "to be set free from its bondage", tells the Romans that Christians must "hope for what we do not see”, and consequently “wait for it with patience”. Waiting of this kind is the real test of faith in God.

Monday, July 10, 2017

PENTECOST V 2017 (Proper 10)

The Sower - Grigory Myasoyedov (1888)
‘A sower went out to sow’. In this week's Gospel, Jesus employs one of the most famous allegories ever used. This simple story is made homely for most of us by its familiarity. Yet it has a meaning we can miss altogether, just because it is so easy, and so tempting, to think of the sower as scattering seed on virgin land. Perhaps this is partly what Jesus had in mind, though his image of sowing seed, as his Jewish audience would have known, picks up on a passage from Isaiah which provides the thematic Old Testament lesson for this Sunday. At any rate, in the modern world the Gospel is not being preached and heard for the first time. On the contrary it is 'old' news, because the soil on which it must be scattered, we might say, has been cultivated farmland for a very long time.

Even so, the parable still has radical application. Week by week in the course of an ordinary Sunday service, the Gospel goes on being ‘sown’ among regular as well as occasional church goers, and the different ways in which it can be received – carelessly, half heartedly, seriously – are not confined to the ever expanding secular world outside the Church, but are possibilities in the heart of the sanctuary itself. Indeed, for the faithful there is an additional danger; the story’s sheer familiarity easily sustains an unspoken assumption that the Gospel has already found fertile ground in their hearts. But has it? We can set ourselves a simple test. On Monday, without recourse to the weekly bulletin, try to recall the Bible readings from the day before, and especially the Gospel reading. This simple test is not so easy to pass as one might hope. Professedly Christian minds, it may turn out, often lack any depth of soil.
Descent of the Holy Spirit -- Jean Fouquet (1472)
In a wonderful phrase the section of Psalm 119 set for this Sunday, says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ thereby beautifully capturing one way in which Christian faith can accompany us through life. But it applies only if casualness, complacency, daily distractions, or worries and anxieties have not prevented the 'seed' of God’s word from properly taking root in our minds and souls. The real purpose of regular worship is to stop them doing so, and thus allow us to hear the Gospel afresh. If it can be properly rooted and regularly nourished, there is hope for life of a quite different order. As Paul says in this week’s reading from Romans “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” The task of the Christian is to make worship and liturgy the avenue to be this Spirit's dwelling place.