Saturday, 22 November 2014

And yet

GospelMatthew 25:31-46 

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
  ‘Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
  ‘Next he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.” Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?” Then he will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”
  ‘And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life.’

And so, giving me no quarter, on the feast of Christ the King Matthew continues his fearful warnings. The final warning that must mean that the majority of us, and certainly me, are heading towards the eternal nowhere - as Private Fraser used to say in Dad's Army - 'we're doooooomed'.

And we must be, mustn't we? There is not even a penny balance given in this judgement - 'whenever' you do this or that. The virtuous life if one we all hope for and it can't be achieved simply by choosing which side of the fence we consider ourselves to be on. In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed those who found themselves on the margins. This scripture asks us to stand in solidarity and compassion with those people.  In our prayers, we ask for the grace'ful life where we can act as God wishes - trying to do 'this' and trying to avoid to do  'that' but I definitely with Paul on this one  - I still do and don't do - every day I am both a sheep and goat - every day.

Today I wonder why this is the reading for Christ the King - this judgmental God who finds it easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I believe that we are a people intended to love God and each other. We are a people led to offer God's gift of love to others, no matter what.  but where is the 'Love' here?

And then I remember that this is the last Sunday before Advent; before John comes to tell us that there is a new way; before the old laws are set aside. Because, whatever Matthew says, our King does not judge us solely on the Book of the Law.

Everytime I go to Mass I say it - I admit I have sinned; it was my fault; I am not worthy

and yet...

I believe that my King does not sit on a throne of Judgement but on a throne of Mercy

I humbly admit that I sinned through my fault, through my own most grievious fault

I have faith that my King stands not before me but beside me

I accept that I will never get myself into Heaven - never

and so, it is for you, Lord of Mercy...

Only say the Word and I will be healed.


Sunday, 16 November 2014

The question is...

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 25:14-30 

Jesus spoke this parable to his disciples: ‘The kingdom of Heaven is like a man on his way abroad who summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to a third one; each in proportion to his ability. Then he set out.

‘The man who had received the five talents promptly went and traded with them and made five more. The man who had received two made two more in the same way. But the man who had received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

‘Now a long time after, the master of those servants came back and went through his accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents came forward bringing five more. “Sir,” he said “you entrusted me with five talents; here are five more that I have made.”

‘His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.”

‘Next the man with the two talents came forward. “Sir,” he said “you entrusted me with two talents; here are two more that I have made.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.”

‘Last came forward the man who had the one talent. “Sir,” said he “I had heard you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered; so I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is; it was yours, you have it back.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and lazy servant! So you knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered? Well then, you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have recovered my capital with interest. So now, take the talent from him and give it to the man who has the five talents. For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away. As for this good-for-nothing servant, throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.”’

Yet another year when I find myself weeping at the apocalyptic threat that brings Matthew's gospel towards its end.

Can I blame Matthew with his folk feeling abandoned and expelled by those who do not listen, do not want to listen? Can I blame Jesus, who has taken the Good News to the people who should be watching with their lamps lit, only to find the doors bolted and the rooms in darkness? Can I blame the priests and pharisees who dream of a time when their 'chosen-ness' will really mean something? Can I blame the crowd who are delighted to weave their own abandoned wailing and grinding of teeth into a creation of doom-laden prophecy for those who are not like them?

Trouble is, it all feels like the worse kind of 'Christian'. The Christian who, feeling very self satisfied with their own place in the Kingdom, feels that they have been given the right to parcel out grace as they see fit. The one who, like the Sons of Thunder, are picturing themselves sitting there on God's right hand. Or the Christian who has given up on the whole thing. Who, through fear and loss has, not only lost the will to believe, but lost all hope. The one who sits holding their unworthiness and unbelief so tightly in both hands that grace drips off their fingers along with their tears.

It's the worse kind of God, who winds his people up like so many tin soldiers, then rejects those who lose their balance and fall when he wasn't even there to pick them up again.

It's the worse kind of God who teaches that faith leads to prosperity and a 'holier than thou' attitude.

It's the worse kind of God who relishes fear and punishment after telling us, 365 times, 'do not be afraid'.

So, how do I read this? How do I come to some reconciliation with this scripture that goes against everything I believe about God and grace?

The only way, for me, to imagine a missing piece of punctuation. To believe that, as a great teacher and student of human nature, Jesus knows the value of rhetorical questioning.

'This is what the kingdom of Heaven is like?'

Really? This is the God that you believe in? This is how you want God to treat you; to judge you; to punish you?

Well aren't you going to be surprised.


Friday, 10 October 2014

Ready or not?

GospelMatthew 22:1-14 

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding. He sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. Next he sent some more servants. “Tell those who have been invited” he said “that I have my banquet all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them. The king was furious. He despatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find to the wedding.” So these servants went out on to the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him, “How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

More weeping and grinding of teeth. Matthew will not be leaving his year without making sure we are searching both our hearts and our actions.

The most Jewish of the writers, it has been the desire of Matthew's people that the message of the resurrected Christ would bring about a change of heart in the Temple. Unfortunately the change never came and it was the Followers of the Way who found themselves without a home.

I know that these writings are from Matthew's resentful and regretful point of view. Luke's version opens the invitation to the poor and the unclean but has no need of vengeful anger. His people are more than grateful for the invitation. 

Perhaps the idea of such anger in a Gospel of love is what disturbs me - does Jesus really mean to send people, even foolish people,  into the dark when he is the Light?

That the first part of the parable refers to Israel seems clear; always intended to be the bride never mind the guest; yet when the promised one came she continued to hide behind the protective veils of the Law - it had been such a long time; maybe too long.

So, like Jesus, the king goes out onto the highways and byways and gathers in the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, the tax collector and the fisherman. The invitation is made and accepted; the new guests dressed in their best finery, thankful for this moment when they are seen as important; when they have a chance to shine - except one - and of him is made the biggest example.


Is it better that we don't come at all than we come unprepared?

And how do you know?

There's a book I have been reading for a long time called The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. It has taken a long time because almost every page has a thought on it that sets me thinking  - I could well be some time with this book.

 'Gift' is addressed from almost every angle. And one idea refers back to earlier cultures, particularly how much is entailed in  the giving and receiving of a gift (and here I am including the invitation of the king - surely a gift to those previously ignored)

In these cultures there is much ritual and symbolism; it has to be understood that when a person gives a gift - no matter what the object is - they are giving of themselves; a part of their creative spirit is being released to the 'other'.They need to be certain of who they are giving to...

And so for the person who receives; they must understand what they have been given and they must not only honour the gift by taking care of the object but must honour and nurture the spirit in which it has been given - as I do to you so you must do to others- using it to inspire and energise the life of the receiver. Sometimes the object itself is passed on but always it is expected that the spirit will be. It is even intended to find its way back to the giver.

In such a culture the very thought that a gift is left to gather dust  physically or spiritually  is enough to destroy friendships and alliances - even lead to war.

The invitation, the gift that Jesus gives us, in spite of our unworthiness, is the same; it is not meant to be left at home or even left in church. His gift contains the challenge of his own mission.

The gift of grace, forgiveness and love that we have been given no matter who we were, should be part of who we are now and it is meant to be passed on - as I do to you so you must do to others.  

St Paul tells us that when we are clothed in  love we are clothed in Christ - the important question is - can you tell?


Sunday, 28 September 2014

Yes, but...No, but...

Gospel Matthew 21:28-32
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ 

‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.’

Probably worth mentioning that this passage come after the temporary joyfulness of the entry into Jerusalem and the fearsome table-turning in the Temple. 

By this time there is very little polite discourse left between Jesus and the chief priests. It is all blame and accusation as the religious leaders seek to find the right button to press to incite blasphemy or treason. Jesus responds with a quicker wit. Firing challenges at them wrapped in parable and judgement, baffling them with both law and expectation. The same weapons they used on the folk they were meant to care for. 

The very nature of their culture condemns the first son. 'I will not go'? To defy your father is against the Commandments. How many people sat outside the Temple condemned for a similar thing? His father has every right to punish him but, in not doing so, the son's heart is given time to consider. The decision to work in the vineyard comes from an inner acceptance of the work that needs to be done. 

The second son understands how to speak to his father. That he does not carry out the request is something he will answer for but only if he gets caught. In the meantime he can continue as a person of importance; a person to be obeyed. The ability to avoid the work of the vineyard becomes a skill all of it's own. 

The chief priests have this skill. Dressed in finery and saying all the right words they suggest a holiness and a dedication that is not echoed in the work they do for the People of God. They placate the Law with a veneer that reflects who they should be and hides what they are really like. 

The reputations of the tax collectors and prostitutes are scrubbed raw. Their 'no' to the Law might just as well be tattooed on their foreheads. But they are the ones sitting and talking with Jesus. They are the ones finding fellowship and dignity in the promise of a forgiving Father. They are the ones who will make up the Followers of the Way, being true to a teaching that puts Love first. 

In society it is easy to make your mark. To fulfill expectations; a good job, a good manner, passing Sunday mornings in a church full of people just like you. Saying 'Look, Father, I am here. Your Kingdom come. Your will be done. But not by me. I've done my bit.' 

In the meantime - not in church, people say they are not religious. Yet they knock on their neighbour's door with a plate of food; slow down to offer a lift; ring a relative living alone; drop a couple of pounds into the hands of a street person; lift a pram onto a bus and smile at the driver. 

Truth is, even in Jesus' time it's not that black and white. Of course it's not. But it's enough to make us think, to test our understanding of what it is to be our Father's children. If our words give life to our actions then let our 'yes' be 'yes'. 


Saturday, 20 September 2014

Pay the man

GospelMatthew 20:1-16 

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.” So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.” In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.” So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. “The men who came last” they said “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?” Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’

This is a difficult reading. Particularly difficult when we feel that we are the workers who have toiled through most of the day; by faith, by ministry, by vocation, by offering up lives that have asked too much of us.  

It is a strange truth that the parts of the Gospel that deal with this type of reckless and unreasonable generosity seem to bother us the most. Certainly form the basis for a heated debate and much shaking of heads; wondering at the injustice of it all. 

God is not just?  If this is what I think then maybe I should ask myself if I have earned even an hour's pay. For this parable is not just about generosity but hospitality. 

The landowner does not need the extra workers; with so many crowded into the market place with the dawning of the sun he will have chosen those who were fittest for the task. The work is proceeding so well the landowner can take a wander through the market place later in the morning. Maybe he had never imagined that some would be left behind and, after all, it wouldn't hurt to have the vines trimmed and tied just that bit earlier. 

Maybe later, it was a sense of curiosity. What happens to those who are not hired? A day without pay, a day without food, without repaying a debt or offering a sacrifice. And then later, the realisation that this may not be the first day these men have  waited. Worn thin, heads shrunken into shoulders blistered by the afternoon sun. Without the protection of the cloak they have pawned to the moneylender. A day of discovery for the landowner. 

At the end of the day, the landowner pays the latecomers first; acknowledging their apprehension with no contract to rely on. The complainers shriek of bitterness that forgets the security in which they started the day. 

Hospitality is not an option. The Old Testament warned the Jews to provide for the poor, the traveler and even the enemy. The landowner offers more that food and shelter. His employment offers a day of dignity for those who have waited so long. These men are workers; they can buy their own food and shelter now.  

I recognise many modern day parallels. People on the outskirts of society and community. The worker on a zero hour contract 'efficiently' employed only when necessary. The minimum wage earner struggling to live. The person faced with the downhearted walk to the foodbank. Those being questioned on the extent of their disability and ability to work. People looking at swollen rivers or desert dust where their own land used to be.

Jesus speaks about the haves and the have-nots. To treat others as we wish to be treated; to love our neighbour as ourselves; to look at people and not down on them.  To offer hospitality; to recognise grace; to be kingdom workers. 


Saturday, 13 September 2014

So loved the world

Sunday GospelJohn 3:13-17 

Jesus said to Nicodemus:

‘No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who came down from heaven,
the Son of Man who is in heaven;
and the Son of Man must be lifted up
as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost
but may have eternal life.
For God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved.’

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a learned man of faith. He knows both scripture and the Law; he has lived his life by it; a teacher himself - he is a good man. Caught up in what Jesus preaches, although outside his experience, there is truth in it and Nicodemus wants to understand; desperately wants to understand.

The bronze serpent of Moses protected the Israelites from the poisons of snakes sent by God himself. An attempt to bring them back to him once again through the superstitions they found so easy to live by. 
It seems a bit surreal - not the actions of the Father  we are used to. 

Once bitten,  they were saved by looking on the bronze serpent held high on a pole by Moses. It was 'tough with a taste of jealous' love that  worked; but with a cost. Where is the integrity in faith born from fear; from obeying the Law - or else?

Of course, this is still early days in the relationship between God and his people; still very much a learning process. But, as in many relationships, if you don't have the right understanding at the beginning, you are going to struggle. It becomes easier to ask for a set of rules; a measuring stick; a sense of either/or. But then it comes down to being 'good' and who can be 'good' enough?

In the Book of Malachi, the Old Testament ends with a God filled with frustration - it opens with - 

“I have loved you,” says the LORD.

   “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’

No wonder the Lord went quiet.

And here Nicodemus is still asking that same question.

I have met many people like Nicodemus who find this Love idea too good to be true. People whose idea of God is a judgmental father waiting to catch us out; reinforced by spiritual leaders who find the promise of damnation a little too attractive. People whose lives are tormented by the idea that in everything that they do they are found wanting; who can't go to Reconciliation because of the shame of being 'found out' or who constantly go to Confession because they cannot believe they have been forgiven. People who do not realise that the only one who stands in judgement of them - is them.  

Cannot believe Jesus' own words;

God so loved the world

Nicodemus walks away under cover of night in confusion; Transformation rarely happens all at once. Here is the crack in the armour of certainty  allowing the Light to enter. And we know that this is only the beginning. Nicodemus appears again - a public supporter at the trial;  and again - a sorrowful witness at the foot of the Cross. A cross of sacrifice that echoes the Father's open embrace to all his prodigal children.

We are asked to have faith but it cannot be a passive faith. Jesus asks us to be aware of what action our faith calls us to. We must struggle, like Nicodemus, with what we already believe; struggle with the ties that bind us to tradition and convention. 

Allow ourselves the freedom to accept the glimpse of light; the invitation of Love; the call to truth. 

Have courage to step out of the shadows and stand beside the call to love; beside the outcast and the exploited. 

To have the compassion to take into our arms, into our lives,  a God who so loved the world that he gave us himself. 


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Do as you would be done by

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain any charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector.

‘I tell you solemnly, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.

‘I tell you solemnly once again, if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’

In writing the Gospels, one of the things the author did was to pull together the oral tradition that had already existed for a generation or so.

Just like the stories that are joyfully revisited at family parties and get-together's, the words of Jesus were repeated at every opportunity when the Followers came together in prayer and Eucharist. Even a sentence or a phrase would be preserved as a meaningful gift of witness from those who were there.

In Matthew, you see the phrases almost as sharp instruction. Matthew doesn't surround them with story as Luke does. So Jesus speaks on the way and we catch his teaching as a disciple would following along in his wake. 

The first part of this passage is not an altogether new teaching to the followers. The Old Testament always teaches the importance of making things right with your neighbour and the different ways it may be achieved. And the right order. After all, how many troubles have become impossible to solve because too many people got involved too soon?

Again, at the end of the paragraph is the instruction that the people would expect. If someone refuses to be part of the community - like a pagan or a tax collector - then they are outside the community. And it does happen even now, in Christian communities, that people who do something wrong are shunned by the community, excluded or expelled. 

Is this what Jesus is saying? Or what we are hearing?

If this is Jesus' teaching then - what would Jesus do? 

For Jesus, pagans and tax collectors were not people to be shunned. Jesus has embraced those people that he was taught to avoid. He understands that a person's actions may be made out of fear, of custom, of necessity. He knows that community is not just about a group of people who think the same way. He teaches that community has to be bigger, more inclusive and more tolerant than that. To welcome the pagan, even if their ways are not your ways. To love the tax collector, even if their priorities are not your priorities. 

A difficult teaching when you think about it, not one of self-righteousness but of humility and hospitality. 

In which case, the next two paragraphs must mean something more. 

To know that your must answer your decision to bind or loose before the throne of a merciful God. 

To know that all your deliberations are watched over by the One who was willing to forfeit his life both for the penitent thief and the one who rejected him. 

And whose teaching asks you to do the same.