Monthly Archives: October 2020

Holy Disagreement!

Familiarity breeds contempt, the old saying goes, but to my mind the greater and more dangerous occasion of familiarity is indifference.  When we come to a text and we have read it so many times or heard so many sermons preached on it, that we lose not only the freshness of the text but its edge, its blessing, as well as its judgment.

Part of the task of preaching or teaching is to shake the dust of familiarity off the text, to open a reader or listener’s ears and let a text speak again. Matthew 16: 21-28 is such a text in point, we know (part) of it well “If any one would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up  the cross and follow me” but do we allow the edginess of Jesus words fill our lives? And how do we react to the angry exchange between Jesus and Peter?

Over the past few years I have led a membership class each year and used the Methodist Church’s membership material. As I have done so I have become more and more disillusioned by the course. Yes it does what its says ‘on the tin’ it makes people members but does it make them disciples? Are we so focused on membership of a nice cosy organisation, so concerned about not putting people off lest our membership numbers drop even further,  that we forget to begin peoples journey of discipleship with its many challenges – deny, take up, follow.

As a young student I attended the Hall of Residence bible study group when we studied this passage from Matthew someone said, “I don’t like the conflict, and I don’t mean between Jesus and the authorities, the rulers and such. I don’t like the conflict between Jesus and Peter, the argument between Jesus and the disciples.” 

Indeed, it is most uncomfortable to read of Peter speaking harshly to Jesus, and of Jesus speaking harshly to Peter, to see them on different sides of an issue. Just moments before all their words were blessing words, each for the other: “Thou art the Christ,” Peter said to Jesus; “Thou art the Rock,” Jesus said in return. Now the blessing has become cursing, a mutual rebuke, Peter barking at Jesus, “You don’t know what you are saying!” and Jesus barking right back, “You don’t know how you are thinking!” 

Jesus is often at odds with his followers, of course. That is another aspect of discipleship we don’t often advertise. Sometimes, because of overfamiliarity with our texts, our traditions and practices, we don’t realize that we, too, have our minds set on earthly things. We don’t always see how we, who are called to help convert worldly culture, are instead converted by that culture and so much so that we do not talk about crosses or suffering or the evil powers of this world. 

In our churches we can be so seduced by the theology of glory (which is a part of the gospel, but only a part, lest it become triumphalism) or, failing that, the theology of success (one writer notes that many churches study and master their ABC’s—attendance, buildings, cash—and nothing else) that we are as reluctant as Peter to embrace the cross. But when we empty discipleship of the cross we empty the cross of its power and thereby exchange discipleship with membership in our church. Jesus speaks sharply to those of us who set our minds not on heavenly things.

I, too, find it very uncomfortable to see Jesus and Peter at odds, and to know that Peter represents me, all of us, in the church, but how wonderful that although Peter misunderstands, Jesus does not abandon him. Yes, they are at odds, but they are still friends. Jesus corrects Peter; he does not excommunicate him. Having loved him, having called him—having loved and called us—Jesus will keep us in the fold, keep correcting and teaching, keep showing us the way till our minds are finally, fully, always set on heavenly things.

God bless and stay safe.

Alan.

Something for Sunday

This is a strange story. We are told that unlike most parables this one is an allegory. I wonder do you find the imagery as unattractive as I do. Would you tell a story to illustrate the nature of God in which God is portrayed as an absentee landlord-who demands his rents-and sends agents to get them at grave risk to their own safety?

We read that we should understand these agents to be the prophets sent by God to restore his people to their rightful obedience. They bring his message but the messengers are spurned. No wonder it’s spurned when the messengers bring rent demands with them.

And finally God sends his son –this is Jesus. He is not respected either. He is taken, killed and cast out of the vineyard. Why do the tenants do this? According to the text they kill the son in order to have the vineyard for themselves. There is said to be an echo here of some aspects of Palestinian land law.

It is said by those who know about such things that the story gives us a glimpse of the social world of the Galilean peasant. Harassed by high rents and absentee landlords and perpetually on the verge of revolt the Galilean had the reputation of being a tricky fellow. And does that not make the imagery even more unattractive. Just consider what it would have been like preaching the gospel by this parable to Irish tenants in the last century.

However consider the allegory in another way. What does a tenant wish for above all else. Surely to be free. Free of rent. Free of duty and service to a Lord, a master or even a parent. To be able to say to the boss stuff your pension. I want to be my own man. I want to come of age.

How can we do this? Well we could kill the boss and seize his property. Start a red revolution. Or in Freudian mythology one can kill ones own parent. In religion you bring in a reformation by overturning all the old images-sending the priests packing or perhaps we could proclaim the death of God himself.

Such tenants are familiar characters-rebellious children-revolutionaries-the discontented worker or peasant. In short we see in the tenants the human condition.

But in Christian understanding this boss, this master is different. It’s not as if he’s a benevolent despot not at all. This is a master who wills the freedom of his slaves-who seeks only to serve not to oppress-who seeks the fruit from the tenants not for his benefits but for theirs. A Master who offers his people the lives of his servants and at last that of his own son.

Of course the tenants don’t see it that way. They see only the burdens, the oppressive rules and restrictions, the dead hand of law. And they want to kick over the traces and break away from all that. What’s the point of the  church: dreary ceremonies, a fuddy duddy substitute parent-the crimping restrictions of custom and heritage? Let’s do our own thing. Let’s spend Sunday in bed reading the papers.

Christianity is a message about suffering love. God is love. The world itself is an expression of God’s creative love. This is how we should understand the vineyard-although another image one that we might feel happier with is that of a garden. Gardens are a nuisance but for most people they are symbols of creativity and love. Our creativity and that of God-our love and care but God’s as well.

And when God looks to his people for the fruit of the love he has expended what is he looking for.

Surely for signs that love has born fruit in yet more love. What St Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. Love creates love in return. Spend something of yourself and you will be enriched. You will be more of the person you were always meant to be. Love grows if give it away. Costly love bears fruit in renewed lives. This is the message of Easter.

In the Easter and Passion stories all this is laid before us in dramatic form.

The king who comes to his people-humble and riding upon an ass.

The master who kneels at the foot of his disciples to wash their feet.

The prophet, the man of God who is abused and reviled and yet does not open his mouth to reply.

The death of the messiah on the cross.

And everything in Christianity is based on this. The death of Jesus isn’t a tragic postscript to a successful teaching career. It’s central to the entire story that’s why it occupies such a large part of each gospel. What Jesus preached is important of course but what is really central is the life revealed in the death of this man.

The Christian story is one of mysterious love- a love so strong that it leads to complete self offering on the part of God himself. He was rich yet for our sakes he became poor. Here was perfection yet he became sin for us. Here is a story of status abandoned of kingship reduced to nothing, flogged, crucified, cast out.

This is the costly love that is offered to us. The love that we can embrace or reject. We can do as the tenants do-live for ourselves-claim our inheritance-demand our rights. Live as women and men come of age.

That’s always a possibility and in a worldly sense it’s quite an attractive possibility.

But the other possibility is always there to grasp the foot of Christ’s’ cross and take the love God offers us in him.

To live no longer for ourselves but for others and to bring forth fruit. Those gracious fruits that the tenants failed to bring forth.

Words on the Word – Sunday 4th October 2020

Today’s Lectionary Readings:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9 , 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew: 21:33-46

You can read these Lectionary readings here.

Exodus 20

Have you ever joined a club, a society, a union – in fact almost any group of like-minded individuals? Do you remember the first days in a new school or class? Perhaps you have family conferences to discuss shared expectations? All of these come down to the ‘laying down of the law’ and the establishment of exactly what it is that defines the group in question. We love to do it. Even children, getting together to plot membership of their latest “Supergirls HQ” or “Unicorn Club”, will grab a piece of paper and scribble down an agreed list of DOs and DON’Ts. There’s an excitement and thrill of this shared understanding – a special code that unites its members. Sometimes the list of rules is short (like the necessarily punchy rules of Fight Club) and sometimes the list is long (like the 25-page FIDE official rules of Chess). Sometimes it gets silly, although the reported 26,911-word EU regulations on the sale of cabbages turns out to be a myth.

In this passage, God’s people are being re-shaped and re-moulded in their transition between slavery and Egypt and freedom in the Promised Land. What is going to make them special as God’s people? The answer to that, of course, lies in God’s Covenant to them “You will be my people and I will be your God”. The detail of this covenant is hammered out on the two stone tablets as The Ten Commandments. The ‘two-ness’ is important. Unlike the films and the pictures, where we usually see five commandments on each stone, a moment’s thought would reassure you that if God wanted to write down some rules, God would have found a stone tablet big enough to do so, or at least planned ahead enough to write small on the one Moses brought! The two-ness IS the Covenant. It’s the contract – one copy (on one tablet) for God, and the other copy (on the other tablet) for God’s people. The two-ness is even emphasised by the detail that the first set of tablets i broken and their are written out again. Repetition is a biblical theme that always shows us the absolute truth, in the divine sense, of what is happening. Truly, truly I say to you…

These Commandments, then, were all about making God’s people distinct from the neighbouring tribes who had their own belief systems. We see profoundly important details such as strict monotheism (to contrast with the polytheism of their neighbours) , a ban on idolatry (contrasting with the pagan systems which depended on idols), we see a ban on murder (contrasting with the human-sacrificial cultures of others) and a forceful compulsion to honour the marital bed (lineage and ancestry being utterly dependent on secure knowledge of one’s parentage).

Yet let us not get stuck on the Ten Commandments as a restriction of freedoms. They are not all “Thou shalt not” commands – unlike the rather ignorant popular caricatures – but rather a summary of how God and God’s people are going to live together in a distinctive and superior way to all others. God’s motivation is simply LOVE for all of God’s people, and it took all those years for Jesus to point out that actually those ten comandments can be summed up in the formula “Love God and love your neighbour”. As Christians we are not defined by the ten commandments in the same way as those wandering Israelites, again contrary to ignorant popular misceptions. Jesus has given us a new, and arguably much stronger commandment – “That you love one another as I have loved you”. That is surely what makes us, as Christians, distinctive.

Psalm 19

Die Himmel rühmen des Ewigen Ehre! If you have ever sung in a choir or choral society, you are likely to have belted out these fabulous words of Psalm 19 set by Beethoven in his Op. 48 No. 4. You may also know them as “The Heavens Are Telling” from Haydn’s Creation. Either way, we are reminded that this Psalm simply can not be read in a whisper!

The Psalmist here is expressing a delight for Creation in general, and particularly a delight for the mystery of the Sun in its apparent movement around the Earth. How Great Thou Art! we might sing something as well. Sing with me, how great is our God! This goes straight on into a song of praise for “The Law of the Lord”. Note the parallelisms we have mentoned in WOTW before, wherethe first part of a verse is repeated in a slightly different but parallel way to reinforce the point – classical Hebrew poetry. In this Psalm, however, the parallelisms are extended even further as a tumbling succession of verses seeks to put into new words the same basic idea.

When the Psalter was edited and compiled into its current form, it was decided that there would be 150 Psalms. They were arranged into five ‘Books’ – precisely to echo the five-fold structure of the Torah or ‘Law’ (the Pentateuch = the first five books of our Bible), ending respectively with Psalms 41, 72, 89, 106 and 150. In a sense, then, the whole Psalter is a ‘delight in the Law of the Lord’. This Psalm, Psalm 19, acts as a Prologue, a foretaste, to the greatest of all the Psalms, Psalm 119, which is of course placed to be exactly 100 Psalms away. As you read through this Psalm, you may well comes across particularly well-known verses – this has been a source for many songs, prayers and liturgical responses right through the centuries.

All the time, the Psalmist is rhapsodising on the Law of the Lord, not because it is restrictive, but because it binds – through the Law, through the Covenant, the Psalmist is reminded of that great intimacy with God, the Creator of the universe no less.

Philippians 3

Looking forwards and pressing on, not looking back. This is the famous ‘filthy rags’ speech by Paul, and let the reader understand that most translations use extremely euphemistic versions of what Paul actually says in the Greek…

As you know, a great deal of what I do involves working with the bereaved and doing funeral visits – they used to be in the home but more often now they are over Zoom. The hardest such visits are to those families who have no real links with the church themselves, but “Nan’s sister used to go to the Chapel” and they want to give the deceased the best chance of “going to heaven” by having a Christian funeral. As other ministers have pointed out, there are rarely any deathbed conversions to atheism!

I mention that, because I frequently have to listen to the same attempts at point scoring that Paul is parodying here. When asked to expand on the Christian faith of the deceased, the relatives are often left desperately clutching straws. “He was basically a nice person” “He didn’t drink, apart from a sherry at Christmas, and a glass of wine with the evening meal, and a pint with the lads at the weekend” “She loved animals”. Even church members – living ones! – seek to tell me how involved they have been at the church, how long they have been attending, how many roles they have had, how generous they have been in the collection plate, and even how involved their parents were. IT’S ALL FILTHY RAGS. IT’S ALL JUST RUBBISH. NONE OF IT MATTERS.

Really the only necessary statement of Christian faith is “She knew that Jesus loved her”.

In this passage Paul is telling the Philippians that he could have boasted of any number of “points” (which he lists) but ends it all by saying that the only thing of any value is his desire to know Christ more. Furthermore, this is for Paul the ONLY meaning and goal of his life, so Christian discipleship for him is just about ‘pressing on towards that goal’.

Knowing Christ. Not scoring points.

Matthew 21

Possibly the most gory and shocking of Jesus’ parables, this story of the tenants in the vineyard is still a hard read for us today. The reference to vines and vineyards is important though – it’s a well-established Old Testament theme, and the readings paired with this one in the ‘related’ version of the Lectionary readings for today are Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80, although there would have been many other passages that would have been just as suitable. It is well worth looking them up before re-reading the Gospel passage for today. (They can be found in the Lectionary Link at the top of the page.)

Jesus tells a story to highlight the shocking treatment of the prophets before him, and the appalling treatment he himself would endure, even as far as describing his own death outside the city walls (“threw him out of the vineyard and killed him”). God continually calls the people of God back into Covenant, but the people reject that call via the prophets time after time. Even when God incarnate in Jesus comes to speak to them, he too is killed.

Did you not understand the prophecy of the Cornerstone? asks Jesus. You are bringing the consequences upon yourselves. The kingdom of God is enjoyed by those who respond to Jesus, but for those who reject it, the kingdom of God is not part of them. How comfortable are we with the idea of the choice to reject the kingdom of God? Do we may a choice between “heaven” and “hell” or is it more subtly the distinction between living life to the full in the kingdom of God, and living a dminished life which ultimately leads to annihilation by our own choice?

Do post your thoughts in the Comments.

Grace and peace,

Stephen