Friday, July 21, 2017

Talents

Our youngest child finished primary school today. Earlier in the week, I attended his Leavers’ Assembly. The theme was Journeys—physical, emotional, and spiritual, with their years at the school being presented as a journey in each of these senses. At one point, every child said something about their talents or passion, something they had discovered about themselves along the way, something that reflected both their unique make-up and what they had in common with others. It was heart-warming.

And then one of them read out the parable of the talents, from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27 also tells a version of this parable), and my heart sank.

My heart sank because I have heard this parable presented so many times, with the message that God has given each one of us gifts which we should use to the best of our ability. I don’t dispute that this is true. But I don’t believe it is the message of that parable: and when we teach the parable in this way, the deeper message we present is that God is harsh, a self-serving despot, exploitative, prone to anger and violence, quick to view us as worthless if we do not perform for him. Our motivation, then, in relation to God, is rightly fear of judgement, fear of punishment.

If you tell this parable as God giving us gifts, you cannot separate that from the message that our deepest motivation before God should be fear. You just can’t. Children pay attention to everything, understand the implications of what we tell them better than we do: and that is the message our children will hear and store away in their hearts.

And I don’t believe that this is the good news Jesus brings.

Yes, this parable is presented by Matthew as one that tells us something about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. But where is the kingdom of heaven hiding in the parable? We so often jump to conclusions far too quickly; we assume that the parables tend to say the same thing in a variety of ways (so, if God is presented as a king in one parable, every time we come across a king in a parable it must be God) rather than recognising that the parables might tell us many things.

In Luke’s account, Jesus tells this parable as a corrective, on his way to Jerusalem to die, because his followers assumed that the kingdom of heaven was about to arrive—and do so in a triumphalist manner.

I want to suggest that the ruler in this parable is not God, but a description of the way in which earthly rulers operate (per Matthew) and indeed a thinly-veiled dig at Herod (per Luke). The first two slaves make profit for their master, presumably by operating in the same unethical manner he has schooled them in, and are rewarded. This is a description of ‘the world’: that is, the political-militaristic-economic matrix, that invests in us—unequally—and demands a multiplied return, or declares us worthless, even brands us a problem to be eliminated. And it is equally true of right-leaning, centrist, and left-leaning takes on the political-militaristic-economic matrix.

I also want to suggest that the slave who, despite being afraid of the consequences, refuses to play the world’s game, and as a result is thrown outside the city wall, put to death, and allotted a place among the dead where the weeping of the relatives of those put to death never ends, is Jesus speaking of himself.

What this parable says about the nature of the kingdom of heaven is that it resists the unjust ways of the world. Even when it feels like it will make very little difference. Even when to do so comes at great personal cost.

The very opposite of triumphalism.

Hear, then, the parable of the talents: the world invests in you to further its construction of reality, in which the powerful rule over the rest, and your best hope is to advance yourself within the system (though you might not sleep at night, for fear if not for guilt). We all live in that world, but we do not need to be of that world. Another kingdom is present, subverting the world: or, rather, restoring it to how it was meant to be. Removing the resources of injustice, little by little.

De-activating them.

Relying instead on the resources that God has, indeed, planted in you. And trusting in God, with whom even death is not the end of our story [1].

Parables, of course, are not morality tales. The moral of the story is not ‘walk away from what others have invested in you’—in the context of a Leaver’s Assembly, is not, ‘throw away your education’. There is no moral to the story. It is far wider and far more wild and free than any such tale. But it does whisper:

What will you do with what you have been given?

What kind of world will you invest in?

And what kind of world will you refuse to invest in?

Our society is as unjust as it has ever been. We need to sow an alternative imagination in our children [2]. Politics cannot do this. But, I believe, the gospel can.

My prayer for my son, and for his cohort, is this: that as they continue their journey through life, they might see the world for what it is, and see the kingdom hidden in its very midst—and that they might divest themselves of the one, and invest in the other.


[1] In Matthew’s account, as the story-telling continues, the ‘worthless slave’ returns from the outer darkness as the true Human, appointed judge. The people of the nations are judged according to what they have done to care for ‘the least’ among them. Those who have attended to the needs of the least inherit the kingdom of heaven—only now fully revealed—while those who failed to do so, despite their attempts to justify themselves, find themselves cast out, judged by their own measure and sharing in a punishment never intended for humanity.

[2] The worthless slave in Jesus’ parable is surely the precursor to the resistance in fictional dystopian republics such as Gilead (The Hand-maid’s Tale) or Panem (The Hunger Games). It is no coincidence that Jesus told stories.


End of an Era






From today, we no longer have any children in primary school.

And breathe…


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Embrace

The Minster’s ten bells rang out between 11.30am and 12.30pm yesterday, the second of four towers in a regional bell-ringers’ Ringing Ramble.

When I arrived sometime after twelve, for the Summer Fayre that was to begin once the bells fell silent, I noticed a man I had not seen before, sitting by himself in a middle pew, taking in his surroundings.

After a while, I went across to him. I introduced myself as Andrew. He introduced himself as George [1]. I sat down next to him, and we got talking.

George told me that he had come in, drawn by the sound of the bells. He had walked past many times before, but never been inside. In fact, he did not know that the building was an open one [2]. But he had heard the bells, and had stood outside for some time, before someone came along and told him that he could go inside.

With tears welling in his eyes, George told me that he could never have imagined what he would have found inside, but that he felt as if he had won the lottery.

As he continued to talk, and I continued to listen, George turned to the subject of suffering. There were so many different views, it was confusing. Some saw suffering as evidence that God does not exist. Others, as reason to not worship God. Others claimed that if you believe, God would protect you from suffering. It was confusing. The only thing that made sense to him was the experience of sitting here, in this place he had not known about till now.

In this, George reminded me of one of the Psalms [3], in which the psalmist wrestles to make sense of the world, until he went into the sanctuary of God, and there perceived a deeper reality. And it did not surprise me: after all, George was sitting in a space where people have contemplated mystery for a thousand years.

Only then did George go on to reveal that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When the doctor had tried to explain the implications to him, he had stopped them: ‘I already know; my mother and my grandmother both had this before me.’ He was still quite lucid—although he was aware of having memory issues, the only obvious tell-tale sign was when I asked his age, and he told me he was 48: George clearly was not 48—but his fear was informed, and it was clear that he was grieving a future that would be taken from him by degrees.

More than once, George told me that he felt as if he had won the lottery. For what he had found was a safe place, sanctuary, somewhere he could come and sit. A place that holds memories, before God, for as long as is needed—far beyond the memory of any individual. A place in which George found himself, like many before him, sitting in God’s embrace.

More than once, George asked me if he was keeping me, from something more important. No, I reassured him: I was there to sit with him, for as long as he wanted. That was why I was there—and I’m grateful to have had that space held for me by other members of the congregation who were doing other things around us, all the while aware of us, and holding us in prayer.

Church is more-than a building, more-than place; but it is never less-than place, and often not less-than building [4]. This is certainly part of the charism of our church, rooted in our community. We are God’s people, sent to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near—has come alongside us, in joy and in sorrow—among an aging population, increasingly living with dementia. In being sent, in living among this people, we are also able to gather: to experience sanctuary ourselves, and to say to others, Come and see!

This is something worth our reflecting on.


[1] In fact, I have changed his name, to respect his privacy; but I felt important that he should have a name in this story, not just a(n im)personal pronoun.

[2] George is not alone in this misapprehension, despite an open door, signs, and people coming in and out of the building throughout the day, every day of the week. We need to get much better at word-of-mouth.

[3] Psalm 73.

[4] This is certainly true biblically: just consider how the churches of the New Testament are addressed in letters, as the church in such-and-such a place, or that meets in so-and-so’s home.


Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The other side

The Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today is Matthew 8:28-34.

Jesus regularly took his disciples out of their comfort zone. He took them to Caesarea Philippi, where immigrants did unspeakable things. He took them to Tyre and Sidon, beyond the border of God’s own people.* And here, he takes them across the Sea of Galilee, to ‘the other side’.** Here, the people are different. They have different cultural norms and values and practices. They eat different food.

The first people Jesus and his disciples encounter are demonised: afflicted by unclean spirits. That might sit uncomfortably with us in our own culture which has elevated the good gift of ‘Science’ to an unquestionable idol; but plenty of people still believe, experientially, in things that science cannot measure; and plenty are troubled by their experience. We ought not dismiss them.

These two demonised people are not only beyond the disciples’ community; they are marginalised by their own community, driven out: and they are hurting. In fact, they are in effect the living dead. But their torment has been invisible to the disciples until now, because they were on ‘the other side’. After all, who knows? Perhaps everyone on the other side is demonic? (And in this way, everyone on the other side is subtly demonised.)

Jesus takes his disciples beyond their comfort zone, beyond their familiar culture, in order to reach them, in order to bring liberation.

His actions cause a disruption, potentially getting the swineherds in trouble, incurring cost to the owners of the swine. Indeed, the community come together to ask him to leave: they were, they claim, quite happy before he turned up, uninvited. Please, just go. Let’s not romanticise our story with a happily ever after end.

Jesus is a creature of habit. He still sets off over the horizon, taking his disciples beyond their comfort zone, to the other side, whoever might live there, and with particular awareness of those who are isolated and terrified.

Today sees the publication of a report into the death of a disabled Iranian refugee, who reported being the victim of racism to the police 73 times over 7 years, and was consistently failed, until he was beaten to death and set on fire. Read it, and weep. It is a salutary case study in why we need to follow—and keep following—Jesus to the other side.

Lord, have mercy.


*Matthew records both these events later, in chapters 16 and 15, respectively.

**From the context we can infer that they have gone to ‘the other side’ of the lake. But Matthew does not spell this out for us. Instead, he opens up an ambiguous and more creative space, in which ‘the other side’ refers just as well to a ‘them’ in relation to an ‘us’.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Petertide

Today is the Feast of St Peter, or of Saints Peter and Paul.

Outside the colony town of Caesarea Philippi there is an enormous cave, held throughout the Greco-Roman world to be one of the entrances to the underworld. The stories of what went on here—allegedly involving sexual acts performed with goats in honour of Pan—would make a feisty fisherman blush. But this is the location Jesus chose to take his disciples—don’t believe everything you hear, boys—to ask them who, exactly, they thought he was. Who would be so brazen?

And there, standing in front of the gate of Hades, Jesus declared:

‘… I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it …’

Matthew 16:18


Fast-forward several years to the anniversary of Jesus’ death and resurrection:

‘About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.

‘The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”’

Acts 12:1-11 (italics added)


According to the gospel, the world in which we live is passing away, and a new world is being brought to birth even as it does so. A passing out from death into life. The kingdom of heaven colonising this world, even as the Greek and Roman Empires had colonised it—except that this kingdom would have no end.

The gates of Hades represent the power and authority—the ultimate end—of the powers of this passing world. They might look impressive, but they are a shadow existence, lacking the substance of life in its fullness.

The gates of Hades stand for the prison gates behind which Herod, a puppet monarch installed and propped-up by the Romans, attempted to hold Peter captive.

But Jesus had promised that the gates would not prevail. The church prays fervently, and the gates swing open, apparently of their own accord.


Fast-forward again, to today. As I read these passages, a friend of mine comes before a magistrate who will hear his appeal to be granted leave to remain, permission to stay in this country, to work and make a new life here because it is not safe for him, as a known and active member of the church that Jesus has been building, to be sent back to Iran.

My friend finds himself at the gates of Hades, on the inside. His life as an asylum-seeker is a shadow existence, caught in limbo.

Today, the church is praying fervently to God for him.

This story is our story.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Thorns : part 2

In my previous post, I wrote about the imagery of thorns in our sides, and what that might have to say to us about extremism within our communities, and neighbourliness that can embrace difference.

But extremism is not the only aspect of community that causes us pain. Indeed, it is impossible to live with others without being hurt, intentionally and unintentionally.

At Sunderland Minster we regularly host art installations. The current work includes two large-scale hands carved from wood, by local artist David Gross. One is held up in the sign of blessing. The other is pierced by a nail, driven into the fold between thumb and fore-finger. The hand of blessing is worn smooth to the touch; its cracks and fissures part of its beauty. The impaled hand is fresh and raw, unfinished; it reeks of wood butchered—however skilfully—by a chainsaw.



It is possible to be pierced by others, and withhold blessing from them—or, indeed, turning in on ourselves as wronged victim, to withhold blessing from anyone at all.

But it is not possible to extend blessing with anything other than a pieced hand, a pierced side.

The choice is not, how can we cut ourselves off from those whose difference disturbs us, from those with whom we disagree—in pursuit of greater purity; in pursuit of being more acceptable, more effective—but, will we continue to be a community that chooses to bless others, even though thorns grow up alongside the fruitful harvest?

The thing about an impaled hand is that it opens.

It lets go of whatever it has sought to hold on to for itself, or control for others.

It recognises its need for the ‘other’.

In this way, God works to transform something meant for evil, so as to bring forth good.

As someone who wanders around town in a vicar’s collar, I am regularly stopped by people who ask me to bless them. By people who have reason to hate the Church for its thorns, but nonetheless long for God to bring good out of their lives. It is not possible to bless without recognising something of their wounded nature, and my own.

The hand stretched out to bless is the impaled hand stretched out in hope of blessing.
You cannot know the one without the other.

Gross’ wooden hands point to another sculptor. They have been a disruptive gift to us.


Thorns : part 1

There is a great deal of talk these days about rooting out extremism within our communities—both ‘owned’ communities (whether “British Muslims should do more to combat radical Islamisation among their community” or, “The tabloid press preaches hate to their readership”) and those ‘other’ communities living alongside us (“We should deport xxx).

There’s an image in the Bible that feels pertinent to this. When the Israelites, rescued from slavery in Egypt, were in the process of colonising the land God had promised to their ancestor Abraham for his descendants, they were warned that if they failed to expel the other populations already settled there, those people would be ‘a thorn in their flesh’—a lifelong irritation, perpetuated down the generations. God’s warning even hints that the Israelites will experience the humbling of being exiled from their homeland.

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.’ Numbers 33:55, 56

For if you turn back, and join the survivors of these nations left here among you, and intermarry with them, so that you marry their women and they yours, know assuredly that the Lord your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you; but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land that the Lord your God has given you.’ Joshua 23:12, 13

This begs the question, was God advocating ethnic cleansing? Or—and bearing in mind that no such cleansing took place—was God instructing the Israelites about living with such a thorn?

Millennia later, St Paul, steeped in the Jewish scriptures from birth, picked up on this image of the thorn in the flesh, in a way that might help answer the question.

‘Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”’ 2 Corinthians 12:7-9

Paul uses the term not to refer to a community living alongside him, but to describe a minority element within the Church: those who followed him wherever he carried the good news that the Gentiles were now welcomed into the people of God, telling those converts that they must also be circumcised and follow the Jewish law.

Through a process of struggling with this thorny issue, Paul discovers that it is not simply going to go away. God is not going to sanction their expulsion from the Church. The community of love to which Paul is wholeheartedly committed [1] will include within it a deeply problematic minority element.

People are complex, and such complexity is inevitable. But this element will serve a purpose, within God’s plan to reconcile all things [2]. They will stop Paul and the wider Christian community from being elated, from complacent self-congratulation. And they will provide opportunity for Paul and those with him to learn what it looks like to operate out of the grace of the Lord Jesus, and not their own strength.

It is easy to point to extremism within other groups, and judge them for it [3]. But if we are honest, there are extremists within every faith and ideology, among theists and atheists, religious and irreligious alike. There always will be. That doesn’t mean we ought to ignore it. But it does mean that we should be neither surprised nor dismayed. Instead, we should be honest about ourselves, and others—their struggles are our struggles; we have much in common—and embrace the grace held out to us, empowering us to be a community of good news.


[1] See the thirteenth chapter of his earlier surviving letter to this community, for example. And note that the whole Christian community needs to be challenged for their failure to be loving.

[2] This is a major theme Paul expands on in his second surviving letter to the church in Corinth.

[3] Of course, the ancient inhabitants of Israel were not extremists. They were civilians. Yet there is the perennial temptation to view difference as a danger to our way of life, the crowd that hides within it dangerous individuals.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Confirmation


Bishop Paul confirmed Jo, Susannah, and Noah at the Minster.

Alan Ward came up from Sheffield, representing Susannah and Noah’s godparents.