Monday, 29 July 2013

The Lord's prayer

The gospel reading today centres on prayer – and not the set liturgical prayers for a Sunday morning but our personal prayer life.
Very personal as we are encouraged to address ultimate reality, as Father. I think it is always right at this point to say that this term can be as much a hindrance as a help, but the point here is that God is close and connected. God is family.
Within the Godhead itself, the divine has attributes to which we can ascribe male and female characteristics for sure, but the point here is closeness and a bond that cannot be broken. Many families can be described as dysfunctional but nothing can ever alter the fact that your mother and Father are always going to be your mother and father. It is a given – you are forever connected to God your Father.
What follows is Luke’s very short version of the Lord’s prayer that I feel I’m on pretty safe ground in saying nobody uses any more, if they ever did, all preferring the longer version in Matthew – which is the version we use in our services with another ending to that one as well taken from another very early Christian source called the Didache.
But the form of words is unimportant in many ways.
The essence of the Lord’s prayer , in whatever form it takes, is to affirm the nearness of God, to ascribe due worth to God’s essence and character, and to ask that the qualities and character of God be embedded in the world.....starting with us
In the Christian tradition we ascribe to God the qualities of Grace, mercy and forgiveness leading to wholeness, the ability to create and re-create – to metaphorically bring life out of death in any given situation. Resurrection is not so much a once for all historical event, it is the stuff of life that results in hope that even in our darkest hours, even out of death itself, something good can and will emerge if we keep faith.
These are the qualities of the kingdom that we are praying will come. 
We pray for our basic human needs – our daily bread. We are real life human beings and need the basic stuff of life - Food, water, shelter.  Without these, nothing else much matters. Everything else pales into insignificance.
Knowing how leaden footed and how far from perfection we are we pray for forgiveness for all the times and situations we could have done better and contributed to the common good instead of making the world a poorer place through our words and actions.
Mindful of how easily led we are, compromised humans with feet of clay, we even pray that that we’ll be guided away from all temptations to be self serving and selfish rather than a God centred approach to living. It is a difficult road in a complex life. No better example of the complexity of modern life is the example that Archbishop Justin Welby’s foray into the world of finance provided.  A just and well meaning determination to give the poor a better deal, compromised the very next day by revelations that the church indirectly funds That is just a temporary embarrassment that will be addressed, but you see just how complex and compromised both the church as an institution and us as individuals can be. We have to live “in” the world and negotiating a path that does justice to our principles while having to survive and thrive is a tricky and complex one – which is why we need to keep returning to God in prayer.  
What follows this example of how to pray in Luke are two little parables.
The first one, we can call it the persistent friend or the churlish householder has always perplexed me. It surely doesn’t mean you can twist God’s arm through persistent nagging does it, because as Matthew has Jesus say in his prelude to his version of the Lord’s prayer.
“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words”    
Both parables seem want to engender faith that their prayers will be answered.
And here we enter a very difficult area. We all of us have seen so much unjust suffering and death in our lives, so much hurt and failure that to say that all our prayers will be answered sems very glib indeed.
I am not going to open up the can of worms that asks whether it is possible or even desirable that God can intervene to change a situation or third party because we ask for it.
But I will say that the primary reason we pray at all is that we are communing with God, simply resting in his presence and trusting despite many signs to the contrary in the end “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well”.
But of course a close second is that we praying for something to change. We are praying for a situation to be transformed. I will say this; the primary objet of that change has to be the person or people doing the praying. The change we are looking for in the world must start with us, the individuals doing the praying.
If you pray for a famine in Africa, does that mean that God will answer it by making crops grow in answer to our prayers.  Perhaps but I say that if the effect of the prayer is to change and motivate the people doing the praying to physically and pragmatically get involved to contribute to aid programmes, to fight corruption in these countries and change the world’s attitude to trade then that prayer has been answered. God works through us – in cooperation with us.
Both my sister and brother have cancer. Do I think that praying for them constantly will twist God’s arm to cure them? I might want that to be the case with all my heart, but actually I hope that God will work through the surgeons and consultants and perhaps motivate me to phone them more often and at least let them know that someone else cares and is with them and make me more aware and compassionate than I have been before, then the prayer is active and working. It is transforming us more into the likeness of God – more compassionate and loving.
Transformation is the key. Challenging us to walk in the light and avoid the shadows.  Prayer keeps us on the path or at least reminds us that the path exists and where we should be walking even when we aren’t. 

Personal prayer is the key to transforming the world – starting with yourself. Jesus encourages us to do it often and in trust.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Good Samaritan

A lawyer stood up and asked a pertinent question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The mutually agreed answer is the Golden rule “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself”
But the lawyer wasn’t interested in intellectual theories, he wanted to know “What must I do?” He was interested in the practical application of his religious tradition and the “Golden rule” for his own life and how to live it.
And so twice in the course of Jesus’ answer he says “Do this and you will live” (v28) and “Go and do likewise” (v37)
In the now famous parable of the Good Samaritan, it becomes clear that in practical terms, love involves risk, trouble and expense.  Moreover the action of the Samaritan wasn’t simply a good neighbourly act, it involves pushing through his own barriers of prejudice and inherited taboos and surpassing all basic obligations.
For both Jews and Samaritans “loving your neighbour “meant loving a fellow Jew or a fellow Samaritan – your own group - because there was a great hostility between the two groups. Although basically Jews, the Samaritans were the result of Assyrian invasion and through assimilation and  inter-marriage with the Assyrians, both they and their traditions and their interpretation of their religion was deemed to be adulterated and inferior to what was deemed the purer Judaism in Judea.
We know from just a cursory note taken of the situation in the Middle East today to see how virulent the hatreds and taboos can become between different cultural and religious groups. The most intense hatreds are usually reserved for our closest neighbours. The greatest hatreds in the Middle East today are not Muslim versus Christian or even Muslim versus Jews but between Sunni and Shia Muslims, two branches of the same Islamic family. Underpinning all the carnage that is happening in Syria today is that basic and simple hatred.
In fact the similarity between Jew and Samaritan in 1st century Palestine and Sunni and Alawite in modern Syria is striking. Just as the Jews looked down on the impure and adulterated form of Judaism practiced by the Samaritans so the Purist Sunni Muslim majority detest what they see as the adulterated form of Islam practiced by the Alawite minority government, a synchretised form of Shia Islam that has incorporated other forms into it – apparently even celebrating the birth of Jesus and Good Friday (so I read), interpreted in their own way of course.  
In this religious and cultural war, this is why battle hardened Shia fighters from Hezbollah in Lebanon are now fighting with the Government of Syria against their common Sunni enemies.
A direct application of this parable today in more or less the same area where Jesus preached it would be if a wounded opposition fighter from the Free Syrian army were to be tended and helped and found shelter and this was paid for by a fighter from Hezbollah. The application is the same for any protagonists, Jew and Arab, Taleban and American, Sunni and Shia, Catholic and Protestant, Black and White. Put into that perspective we see more clearly the risk, trouble and expense that the Samaritan was taking in a volatile social situation, willingly to help someone in trouble.
Ethically this throws down the gauntlet to all of us. It is a challenge to see the humanity and the need when it arises outside our own group. 
There is another little twist in Luke’s story. In verse 29, the neighbour is the one that is helped but in verse 36 he is the one who helps. Perhaps Luke si teaching us another lesson here.
To love one’s neighbour is not about establishing any superiority. Carer and cared for, need each other. Just as I said last week, for someone to give, someone has to be willing to receive. The Doctor needs the patient as much as the patient needs the Doctor. Each does good to the other.

So if you want eternal life, which is a quality of life here in this world,  Jesus invites us to go and do likewise, 

Monday, 8 July 2013

Giving and receiving

Paul uses the dichotomy flesh and Spirit as a kind of shorthand. In Paul’s language he uses the word flesh here to mean anything that just satisfies yourself and no-one else and builds up your own ego, and Spirit to mean any impulse that has its source in God and is for the common good.
He starts this extract by giving some pastoral advice on how to heal wounds that inevitably occur in any community – to do it gently and listen to the other.....easier said than done. He says that bearing each other’s burdens is actually fulfilling the law of Christ because it respects the other and gives then time and worth and therefore is the outworking of Love. Personally I think the most valuable thing you can give anyone is your time and attention, as this conveys respect and worth to the other.
This time given to the other is much more needful in a church than people who are puffed up in pride about their own spiritual gifts - people that he gently chides in verses 3 and 4.
An interesting line for us nowadays I think is that he writes “Work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
Showing partiality towards your own group could be interpreted as self serving but I think Paul uncovers an uncomfortable truth.
And that is that many of us are far more comfortable supporting others in far away countries, whether financially or with our prayers than we are showing any compassion or support for the person we are sitting next to in church.
Aid, whether material or financial to people far away is at arms length. It is impersonal  and takes very little effort and can often satisfy our own spiritual pride as much as anything. It is paradoxically much harder to show support, physical, emotional, financial or spiritual to those much closer to home.
There was a spiritual discussion last week of which I was a part, concerning giving and receiving. The concensus was that it is much easier to give than to receive. I think that the reason that we so often don’t give to our closest neighbours is that we are afraid of the response.
We are frightened that our offer will be misinterpreted, or our offer rejected or that we may have ulterior motives, that in the giving and receiving there is a power imbalance and the receiver may feel disempowered. Our sense of pride and autonomy may be threatened.
But for someone to give, someone must be open to receive.
This requires an openness to each other that may be hard work. But one other thing came out of that spiritual discussion. Giving and receiving is one thing, but what almost all of us without exception find it most difficult to do is ask for help when we need it..
We see it as a sign of weakness. Admitting weakness is not something to be encouraged in society at large because we know as sure as eggs are eggs we will be taken advantage of, trampled underfott and probably ridiculed as well just for good measure.
Perhaps the most important function an open and accepting church can offer its members is this safe accepting and open space where we can admit when we are weak and in need and actually ask for help.
But when people do ask for your help it is such a lovely thing. That they have approached you and asked you is such a lovely thing – it is a blessing.
We deny that blessing to people when we don’t ask for help when we need it. I am as big a culprit as anyone here. It is something we all need to foster and help each other out with.
It starts with us feeling comfortable and relaxed in each other’s company and is an acknowledgement that we are all in need all of the time. At root we are are all looking for love and we just want to be happy.
It sounds so lightweight that doesn’t it? No mention of sacrifice, or redemption or salvation or any other heavy religious terms, but it’s true.

That is the human condition. We are all looking for love and we want to be happy.  Happiness comes from within – a content and accepting and peaceful relationship with ourselves, life, the universe, with God and also from without – with each other our families, friends and for us our fellow travellers and seekers in the church. If we can’t offer love, acceptance and happiness in any of our practices then we are not fulfilling the law of Christ which is Love.  

Monday, 1 July 2013

Let the dead bury their own dead.

This part of Luke’s gospel is where Jesus resolutely sets his face towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where the great confrontation with the earthly powers is going to take place.
It was going to be the Passover, the greatest religious feast for the Jews, and everything that Luke considers important about Jesus’ life will happen there in a grand climax, the last supper, the betrayal, trial, crucifixion and the rising again on the third day.
It was a grand clash of kingdoms, in Jesus’ mind and worldview. The kingdoms of this world set in stark opposition to the Kingdom of God. They were going eyeball to eyeball, toe to toe.
There must be no distraction, no loss of nerve, no prevarication. The phrase “No-one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” is a direct reference to the great prophet Elisha (1 Kings 19:20) who when he was called was allowed a little respite to get his house in order before he followed Elijah, but Jesus says we can’t even allow that, the situation is so urgent.
Into this situation is uttered one of the most radical statements Jesus ever uttered. It is “Let the dead bury their own dead”.
Just as Jesus spoke of sighted people who were blind, so he spoke of living people who were dead.
Now in Judaism, the duty to bury one’s own father was one of the most sacred obligations, overruling even the Sabbath rules. For Jesus tp say something like that was really radical stuff.
But the symbolic meaning is clear. There is a way of living that amounts to living in the land of the dead. The saying also affirms that it is possible to leave the land of the dead. It is both an indictment and an invitation.
It is an indictment and an invitation that transcends time and space and is spoken to each one of us today.
Death as a metaphor for a way of living appears twice in the parable of the prodigal son. The Father says both “This son of mine is dead” and “This brother of yours is dead” to his angry elder son.
To state the obvious, the prodigal son was very much physically alive, yet his life in a foreign land is spoken of as equivalent to being dead. He came alive again when he returned to his family and was welcomed back into the loving arms of his family.
In fact if you remember that story, the prodigal son was very nervous about approaching his Father, it was his Father on seeing him in the distance ran towards his son and embraced him and proclaimed a feast to celebrate.
God running towards a person and embracing them is a lovely picture of what happens in baptism. No matter how tentative and nervous or unaware anyone might be, however young or old you might be, how deep or shallow our understanding may be, the embrace, the love is the same.
The Metanoia, the change of heart and mind is the beginning and the content of the way of Jesus. In the gospel reading Jesus also says “Follow me”. That is what he wanted.
So many Christian waste so much time grovelling at Jesus’ feet. He never never asked for any of that you know. He would rather you got up from your knees, and he’ll help you up, put you on your feet and help us to walk the path that he walked. To live as he lived.

If you want pointers to how to live as he lived, all the parables in the gospels are the direct teaching as to how to live as a child of God. It is a walk marked by compassion, forgiveness, but also of sacrifice and determination, courage and strength.