Monday, 30 September 2013

If I were a rich man........

There is such a thing called the “prosperity gospel” which trades on the assumption that if and when you become a “real” Christian God will bless your life with money, possessions and good health.  These kind of churches flourish in the poorest parts of Africa, and have found a home in certain U.S. and British locations but you don’t need to delve too far under the surface of mainstream Christianity to discover variations on the same theme.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, if used as a parable of who goes to heaven or not (which I believe is a misuse of it) then it leterally means that those who are relatively rich in this life go to hell and only the poor and destitute go to heaven. Apart from being hopelessly dualistic, it is totally lacking in love and forgiveness.
Rather, the parable is about how comfort and wealth can provide a false sense of security and self-sufficiency in regards to our relationship to God and other people, and can blinker us to suffering, and lead us to treat others as lesser beings if they are not as rich or successful as us.
It is, like all parables a parable about how to approach life and our relationships with others. Usually a parable has just one main thrust with other details providing colour. They are lessons in how to walk the way of Jesus.
The lessons are simple yet profound.
Don’t let your good fortune and prosperity lead you to believe that you are more favoured in God’s eyes because you are not – God has an equal concern for all of his children.
There is also an associated  lesson on actually “seeing” the poor and distressed. Lazarus begged at the gate of the rich man and had probably done so for years so he would have been aware of his existence I’m sure, but he never really “saw” him.  He never connected with him or was interested in his life or condition. The first time he really acknowledged his existence was when Lazarus was standing next to Abraham after death, and his first response was to use him as a servant to do his bidding to alleviate his own suffering. Or if not that, then as a messenger to warn his five brothers against acting in the same way that he had.
But Abraham reminds him that the Bible is chock full of instructions  and warnings about treatment of the poor in society and exploitation, and if you don’t take any notice of those why would you take any more notice even if someone came back from the dead? A prophetic statement if ever there was one.
Perhaps the most damaging spiritual consequence of wealth is that it can blind us to real need, we feel cocooned and self sufficient and specially blessed, and so therefore superior to others.  We acquire a sense of entitlement, and feel really affronted when our every whim isn’t attended to immediately.
The reality that Jesus wants to confront us with and be challenged by is that no man is an island. Wealth cannot shield us forever, and we will all succumb to the ravages of age, illness and that great leveller death.
Death doesn’t care how much money you have, or where you live, or what you do. Death treats everyone as an equal.

It is good to ruminate on why Jesus told this parable? What do you think he was trying to achieve, and probably most importantly how did he think that by telling it we might change our attitude and way of living because of him having told it? The ball, as ever, is in our court.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Get yourself a backbone!

The gospel passage today if taken literally reads like this;
You must hate your family, be prepared to fight the authorities even if you are executed in the process , oh yes, and just for good measure give away all your possessions as well, if you want to be a true disciple of Jesus.
If ever there was a candidate passage needed as evidence that we cannot use the Bible in isolation, uninterpreted, then this one would rank highly. All those Christians who say that they follow the plain meaning of the text – well  let’s just say that not many are usually poor in my experience.
On a philiosophical, historical and theological point, the church did not originally form around the Bible, the New Testament did not exist for 300 years after Jesus died, the church coalesced around an experience of the Spirit of a person that led them to live their lives in a certain way. In short, the church wrote the New Testament, not the other way around.
And all things however benign and helpful can be misused. The Bible, like Bishops and the creeds were devices eventually used by the Roman state to forcibly impose order on a nationalised church.
There are also cultural differences.  Jesus was a Jew and that Semitic forms of speech are much harsher than we would use and we have a problem as to how to translate these hard sayings into an understandable and realistic form for today.  
The very heart of this text, given all that I’ve just said is that following Jesus is not a soft option. It demands dedication and not a little bloody mindedness, strength and courage – in fact traits that have always been thought of as more masculine traits (traits obviously not limited to men of course) Traits that many would say that have been eclipsed in mainstream Christianity as the church has become feminised over the centuries to the point where it is a real turn off to many ordinary men. As in everything there has to be a balance.
I often relay the story that when I announced that I had become a Christian in the warehouse where I worked at the time, some friends did inquire privately if I’d turned gay. They weren’t being nasty – it is just that this is how they perceived the church. That is another issue for another day.
The point today is that following the Jesus way is hard, and the costs may be great. And Jesus advises us to count the cost with a sober realism. He is being sensible and pragmatic. There may in our comfortable surrounding be much less of a cost that in Jesus’ time, but don’t assume so.
The costs today are very different to the costs in first century Palestine. In Britain we don’t run the risk of being crucified for being enemies of the state. Our cross is more likely to be things loss of profit because we refuse to exploit people, loss of friends because we refuse to exclude people, a certain ridicule in the media or more hurtful from our friends. The cost may be being thought gay by your workmates, an uncool goody two shoes by your peers at school when you refuse to be railroaded into shoplifting, drink or drugs or promiscuity.
Peer pressure is one of the strongest pressures there is, and young people in particular are desperate to fit in (and more to the point - not to be excluded and bullied) leads young people especially, to try and dress the same, speak the same, act the same. For any of them to break ranks and say something as currently uncool as “I am a Christian”, or more simply “I go to church” can be a harrowing experience that takes enormous courage and there can be costs.
Jesus says, be aware of those costs. Can you bear them? If not, I suggest you think twice. As we mature and grow, we become less vulnerable to these pressures and more confident, but even adults can feel very self-conscious and a little embarrassed about saying where they stand – that they are a Christian, and they go to church.
I return then to the qualities of mental strength and courage. A certain Assertiveness and confidence is nowadays needed in the face of a strident atheism. We need to be more determined not to be seen or used as a doormat – a determination to fight back when criticised or challenged. A chance to man-up and show some backbone.
I am going to end with a verse of a poem written by the envangelical humourist Adrian Plass. In it a man is giving all sorts of excuses for not choosing to commit to the faith and in the last verse he says what he has probably been scared of all along – that it is not a manly thing to do. I have always thought these lines were quite magnificent.
I’m very sorry Lord, I said, I’d like to follow you,
But I don’t think religion is a very manly thing to do,
He said forget religion then, and think about my son,
And tell me if you’re man enough to do what he has done.
Are you man enough to see the need and man enough to go,
Man enough to care for those who no one wants to know,
Man enough to say the things that people hate to hear, to battle through Gethsemene in loneliness and fear.
And listen! Are you man enough to stand it at the end, the moment of betrayal by the kisses of a friend,
Are you man enough to hold your tongue, and man enough to cry, when nails break your body – are you man enough to die?
Man enough to take the pain and wear it like a crown, man enough to love the world and turn it upside down.
Are you man enough to follow me, I ask you once again, I said. Oh Lord I’m frightened, but I also said Amen.  

Monday, 2 September 2013

Self awareness.

I looked up humility in the dictionary and the first definition was “to be aware of our failings” and the second one was “unpretentious”.
In the general confession and absolution every Sunday we are encouraged to be aware of our failings - to recognise where we fall short. So we are constantly being asked to be self aware, to know ourselves, to know our strengths and weaknesses – not in order to be punished for them but to name them, to confess them. Once our failings have been consciously identified we then at least have a chance to resolve to improve the way we are.
If we think we are perfect just the way we are then we live in a state of denial and will never move forward – unless like me, you really are perfect of course!
The inherent danger is that this constant confession and acknowledgement of our faults can descend into self-flagellation and guilt with the result that we have an irretrievably negative view of ourselves. This is a result that developed in certain areas of classical Western  Christianity that sees us all as evil and forever grovelling on the floor. It is about balance. A much healthier Eastern Christian view is that we are certainly all flawed but not irredeemably evil. We are after all, made in the image of God are we not, according to Genesis. We are made in his image and strive to be in his likeness as well, but know we fail often.
As a dinner guest Jesus it seems was a bit of a nightmare, hauling his host and fellow guests over the coals, deriding their own sense of worth and position in life relative to the other guests, when they all chose to sit in “places of honour” whatever they were.
But Jesus says, rather than assume they are the most honoured guests, they should assume the opposite and wait to be invited to the best seats.
It can’t be emphasised enough that the meal or banquet is in Jewish and Christian imagery a metaphor, a picture of the Kingdom of God, often a picture of heaven itself with God as the host.
This is the same for our Sunday Eucharist – which is a meal of bread and wine where the host is God.
The values that Jesus extols in his parable today hold true for us as well. There is no dinner guest here today intrinsically closer to God than anyone else. All are welcome and if approached with a certain self knowledge, a little humility, God will reach out and invite you close to him. “Friend, move up higher” as it says in the parable.
The parable turns the social status quo upside down – because all those who are generally intrinsically humble, because they have their shortcomings  made clear by society all the time characterised in the parable “as the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”. Jesus says they will be accepted and exalted. Whereas the rich and self-confident and those with a higher opinion of themselves will need to be taken down a peg or two.
Jesus notes how when we give parties we generally only invite who we consider our social equals who share our values and worldview. In our everyday lives I suggest that will always be the case.  But in church, at our weekly dinner party, we strive to make this a welcoming place for all, regardless of their social background, education, or wealth.
In acknowledging that we all have shortcomings of one kind or another, the playing field is levelled. From a divine perspective I am no better than you who is no better than you who is no better than you.  From a divine perspective we are no worse than each other either.   

We are assured that when we approach the ritual where we act out the indwelling of the divine and share the bread and wine, no-one is excluded.  All are welcome at the banquet of the Kingdom unless we exclude ourselves. At this banquet we are all on an equal footing – blessed though flawed, and loved.