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. 


Saturday, 30 August 2014

Getting in the way

GospelMatthew 16:21-27 

Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord;’ he said ‘this must not happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’
  Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life? Or what has a man to offer in exchange for his life?
  ‘For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and, when he does, he will reward each one according to his behaviour.

To think I never used to like Peter - but I was younger then and more certain of what was right and wrong - I was probably a lot like Peter; that's often the way it works.

Peter finds it hard to follow. Peter is way beyond the age of following. He is the head of a family,  a business man and the captain of a fishing boat. Used to responsibility and harsh choices. Of a similar age to Jesus; he could have, with the business and the family, the greater standing in the community. It would be customary to regard Peter as an elder, someone to be respected, someone who you would turn to for advice and guidance.

Surely, no-one with this sense of responsibility  is going to stand by and listen to their friend lay out the plans of their own death. Peter has made some challenging changes to his life; he has stepped out of his own boat long ago to walk with this man; he stepped out of yet another boat to risk his life to this man and now he is being asked to leave another boat behind  - the boat that puts him in control of 'what should happen next'. 

  Was it only last week that Peter recognised his friend as the Son of God?  Now this week he thinks that the rock Jesus placed him on means he can decide what God can do. 

The Hebrew meaning for satan is to oppose or obstruct. Often what we want to oppose or obstruct is change or freedom. And it seems so justifiable. Love often plays outs rather than 'wanting the best' as 'knowing the best'. 

We have to imagine that not everything the world offers is wrong  - the world is, after all, full of God - but then we have to ask ourselves if sometimes we are tempted by ideas that do obstruct our following of the Way, especially when the way is dark and uncomfortable. 

Matthew speaks to his own persecuted people, surely tempted with denying their faith and their friends. Surely tempted to find another, violent or underhand way, to belong, to be accepted. 

Peter was never Satan, but the request he made - out of his sense of love - was. 

Jesus is beginning to give voice to the path he was destined to take; each word uttered out loud making it more realistic, more true. For Jesus, 'power' means the power to submit to a dream greater than his own. It's not an easy choice to make. And then to have his closest friend say  - No, you can't do this to me, You mean too much to me. You can't leave me -   must have been an even greater temptation than those on the mountaintop.

 It can be so difficult to give those you love their own freedom. 'If you love someone you let them go' - no wonder that was written by 'Anonymous' - how hard it is to do. Even harder to release them to the mystery of God's Will - why Peter struggles with the need to suffer, why we still do today. 

 Jesus doesn't turn his back on Peter, only the temptation and the show of ego that tried to put Peter in charge of Jesus' life; to second-guess God. 

Which is why he says to all of them that they must renounce themselves -not who they are in God's eyes - but who they are in their own eyes and the eyes of the world.  

The cross is heavy enough without trying to balance ego and ambition - one or the other will topple - which is up to you. 


Sunday, 24 August 2014

Carved with faith

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 16:13-20

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he said ‘who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up, ‘You are the Christ,’ he said, ‘the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’ Then he gave the disciples strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

Jesus is still leading the disciples into a bit of a twilight zone; a withdrawal from all they know. A withdrawal from what Jesus himself knows. Whilst there may be traders among them it was considered preferable to stay close to their own Temple not the temples of Syrian and Roman gods.

The region of Caesarea Philippi would have been one of those places you talked about or knew people from, a place of hearsay. Jesus chooses to bring his disciples to the feet of one of the greatest displays of gentile culture and spiritual endeavour.The city, built high on top of an escarpment, crowned by a marble temple to the godhead of Caesar. The vertical rock incised with shrines and altars displaying the wealth of the city for all to see. The region was also known as Panias - the place of the pagan god Pan - another son, another shepherd. A sight to behold - even if they never set foot in it.

There, in front of all the decadence of this alternative culture and spiritual practices, Jesus realises that his mission has more than one dimension; more than one language; more that one flock of lost sheep. Needing their consciousness to deepen, Jesus asks the disciples to say who he is.

Not to drag a name from scripture or scribe nor to rely on tradition or prophecy. To search their hearts and minds, to put a name to what they have witnessed and experienced. To own the relationship that exists between them and this friend who called God his father.

Like the disciples, we can spend a great deal of time outside the faith of our youth. It's an easy business to identity our faith by the totems of what we know - prayers, rituals, saints and angels. A childish faith will has its own sense of certainty and superiority until challenged by all the world has to offer. Then the question is 'What is important? What is the relationship that has come to me through faith?'

For Simon, who is seemingly bedazzled by his friendship with Jesus, there is nothing that is good enough except the words that the Spirit draws from his mouth. Jesus has made his faith live. He knows that what he has seen and experienced is beyond sorcery or trickery. Through a friendship that has become more important than boats, or temples or even family, one title emerges - Son of the Living God. And Simon's reward is to be re-named.

The disciples may have been mesmerised by the ornate carvings in a vast escarpment of solid rock. Peter stands as a man, a leader speaking for a small band of believers. Yet faith has marked him. Carved into him a new way of being. A new building tradition has begun. Neither the Temple at Jerusalem or Caesar's monument mean anything next to the living stones of witness.

Within a few decades of this event the Temple has been destroyed, the shrines and altars of Caesarea Phillipii will be faint tracings in the wasteland strata of the Golan Heights - the statues and finery erased by time. 

Peter is the first, but not the last.  In time  the living stones, the family of God, have held together, bonded in faith throughout the centuries and across the ends of the earth.


Saturday, 16 August 2014

Who sees who cares?

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 15:21-28 

Jesus left Gennesaret and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Then out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting, ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ But he answered her not a word. And his disciples went and pleaded with him. ‘Give her what she wants,’ they said ‘because she is shouting after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ But the woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet. ‘Lord,’ she said ‘help me.’ He replied, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.’ She retorted, ‘Ah yes, sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.’ And from that moment her daughter was well again.

A friend of mine tries to convince me that this is a set-up. That Jesus has full knowledge of his ministry and this includes seemingly chaotic scenes like this. They tell me that Jesus has something to prove and this is how he does it. 

I find it hard to believe. I find it hard because Jesus is human and what is divine about him would have never said 'no' in the first place. The whole point of Jesus' life, is to find the relationship that knits together his humanity and his divinity. The same reason that any of us live a 'life'.

I find it hard to believe because Jesus has been raised in a culture that rejects outsiders. And whilst Jesus may know in his heart that this is not what his Father intends,  his reaction is still one of a man outside his comfort zone. 

Jesus has 'withdrawn' to Tyre, to a place of pagan worship, to a place where he should not have to deal with either the accusations or the entreaties. Unfortunately, perhaps, his fame had gone before him and the rumours were beginning to flow about the stranger and his entourage - a little too far from home. 

In modern day parlance, the woman is a long-term carer. She is a mother whose daughter has multiple and complex needs. The demon that inhabits her daughter actually torments them both, tearing at their health and well being. The weariness of the relentless routine of feeding, washing, restraining and reassuring will have taken its toll. The energy-sapping battles tending hysteria and manic outbursts leave them both teetering on the edge of sanity. 

There will be plenty of spells and cures among the pagan altars. Perhaps she has tried them all. Doubtless, she is at the end of her tether and hanging on, only by the wiry strength of maternal will-power. Willing to clutch at any straw the universe throws her. Even a preacher from the wrong side of the sea.     

Asking for pity is the mark of a person with nothing left to bargain with. Pity may get a prayer, a sacrifice, a chance. His first response - nothing -  suggests that she has the wrong man. Her instincts tell her otherwise. Her frustration is let loose and who cares who hears it? 

But it is simply a source of embarrassment. Clearly, the disciples have been trying not to draw attention to themselves. It's in frustration they ask Jesus to give her what they would have denied any other foreigner. And he still says 'no' because it's not fair on those he had been promised to. 

Now the woman has a focus - she has lived with 'not fair' for long enough. 'Not fair' means nothing. What is 'fair' in her life? In her daughter's torment? In the exasperated huffs of the disciples, in the disregard of the man she has witnessed as a Holy Man? 

It may come across the page as 'banter' but these lines are full of desperation and passion. This woman has no pride left, no ego, her soul is laid bare. Preternaturally, her words return to the other shore and to the baskets of scraps left after the sheep of Israel had had their fill.

 'Lord, give me the scraps.' 

From her place in the sand this is an outburst of prayer not defiance. And her prayer is answered.

This gospel shows that Jesus learns about faith from the people that he encounters. Jesus is sometimes the student and it is his lesson that we learn, walking alongside him. Jesus didn't know the answer. As he has told us before, only the Father knows all. Once his attention had been grabbed, he asked meaningful questions and practiced compassionate listening. He celebrated her strength and returned it back to her in the healing of her daughter - the healing of herself. And Jesus learns that his Father loves all those who are lost. 

Maybe we also learn that there are those in our communities who need the same care. Those who are weary of life. Those who are weary of the life they are in. Those we quickly walk by or pretend not to hear. Those whose issues keep us from getting on with our own lives; who throw unwelcome images and experiences at us until we can't pretend any more.

Can we make room in our lives to stop? 

Not to throw back our advice and opinions but to listen with compassion. To honour suffering and weariness and distress and to acknowledge the courage and determination that is carried with it. And when there seems nothing to offer, to offer ourselves - even a scrap of ourselves -  as witnesses and perhaps, as something more. Offering our time and our hearts in fellowship and faith. 



Sunday, 10 August 2014

Defying the Odds

Matthew 14:22-33 

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side while he would send the crowds away. After sending the crowds away he went up into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, while the boat, by now far out on the lake, was battling with a heavy sea, for there was a head-wind. In the fourth watch of the night he went towards them, walking on the lake, and when the disciples saw him walking on the lake they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost’ they said, and cried out in fear. But at once Jesus called out to them, saying, ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.’ It was Peter who answered. ‘Lord,’ he said ‘if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.’ ‘Come’ said Jesus. Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. ‘Lord! Save me!’ he cried. Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. ‘Man of little faith,’ he said ‘why did you doubt?’ And as they got into the boat the wind dropped. The men in the boat bowed down before him and said, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’


When I was very small, so long ago  'old money'  was involved, there was an annual school charity project to support the third world. Each class would be given a poster representing Jacob's ladder and each student would be given a paper cutout of an Asian, South American or African child that would sit at the bottom rung of the ladder until a penny was provided to move it up the ladder, one rung at a time, and into heaven. It was the one time of the year that I knew our family was poor. My 'baby' never, ever made it to heaven. Whilst other classmates had whole nurseries of angelic children, me and a few others would see their babies hover neither here or there. In a time when Limbo was, superstitiously,  considered a probability I worried one from one year to the other about the ones I hadn't 'saved'. 

At the time. children's spirituality, like education, was a case of being told what to think. I told the teacher about my worries. The reply was that it was my problem that I had not saved, begged or earned enough and how would I have felt if that 'baby' had been me? I was eight or nine. Catholic guilt started early in those days. 

I don't know why but it has lived with me ever since. Overwhelming at times and a struggle to let go of all the self-worthcontrol and failure issues that the memory revisits. 

The recent atrocities that are going on around the world has reminded me of those paper icons. Posts on social media, news items, email notifications challenge my perceived discipleship. The future world of my own grandchildren is at stake as much as the present world of the little ones lost each day. And the world seems frozen, unable to act. I feel unable to act.

In the gospel, Jesus is set on stirring people. The 'crowd', satiated and made well, sit complacently at his feet and are dismissed, having to make the walk home that will leave them hungry again - and then what? 

The disciples,  sitting back on their, by association, laurels yet again, need to be reminded that there are others who are waiting to experience the good news - and so what?

It doesn't even take that long to cross the Galilee - two hours or so - suggesting that the disciples have been reluctant to complete the journey. Perhaps they were replenishing their larder from the deep. Then the storm hits. The fishermen should have noticed the signs. Maybe they did, but thought they could cope. Into a head wind they couldn't use the sail so they would have rowed - and rowed for hours to still be at it at fourth watch. At least twelve strong men, at least four experienced boatmen; surely working together they could have made some headway. Jesus watching from the hill must have been perplexed. Were they together, arms straining to follow a steady beat as the oar fought the waves? Or were they arguing and blaming, doubting themselves and doubting, yet again, the direction in which Jesus is sending them? The shrieks of fear suggest the latter. 

The whole world feels like that boat at the moment. A storm of raging and mindless violence threatens and assails the very existence of a civilised society. Diplomacy and reconciliation have taken residence on a far off shore that we are being driven further and further away from. Practical help seems a drop in a ocean; reasoning -futile. Signing petitions, sponsoring projects, sharing media information feels like straining at the oars. It feels that we are helpless; that God is a ghost of a dream - that we are on our own now. 

At that final moment, when Peter realises he could lose his life and the lives of his friends; he also realises that he cannot save himself. 

Peter is a doubter in a boat full of doubters who, for a moment, walks in complete faith. And whilst faith doesn't last, when Peter calls - Jesus is there, the strong hand to a drowning man. And then, as Jesus enters their lives again, everyone is made safe.

Peter is often portrayed as the one who gets it wrong. What he gets right, what he teaches us,  is that when all seems lost - hope, trust, pray

Give me courage.

Call me to you.

Lord, do what I cannot do. 

Save me.

Save them.