Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mud, mud glorious mud!

Figures from ANthony Gormley's "Field" sculpture
There’s a story of an Archbishop who visited Kampala. He went to the Cathedral and found a young boy playing with the mud near the Church. The boy was very involved in moulding and shaping the mud and the Archbishop was fascinated so he asked what he was doing. ‘I’m making a procession for the Cathedral’ the lad said – then pointed to the figures made of mud – ‘there’s the choir, there’s the dean. there’s the vergers, there’s the clergy’. ‘Oh,’ said the Archbishop ‘Where’s the Archbishop?’ ‘I haven’t got enough muck for an Archbishop’ replied the boy. This response kept him humble!

We all need reminders every now and then of what we are made! We are a collection of elements that – through some great process divinely inspired – has evolved into living, breathing, speaking people. As the words for the Ash Wednesday Liturgy say ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’.

And yet, out of these unlikely elements God is able to do great things. We may not be perfect, we may not feel we are very special, but God thinks we are amazing! In many ways, its not believing in God that is important in the life of a Christian, but the knowledge that God believes in us!

Today we celebrate (slightly early) the Feast of St Peter - someone whom God took the elements of, the dustiness and brokenness of his life - and transformed his unlikeliness and ordinariness into extraordinariness by the grace of God.

Peter’s story is well known to us.  He and his brother Andrew are the first to be called to follow Jesus.  It seems like a very strange encounter - Jesus is just out for a walk by the lake, sees these fishermen and tells them to leave everything and to follow him and to catch people.  Peter was the one who puts his faith to the test and followed Christ onto the water.  Peter was the one who realised really who Jesus was and shouted it out loud.  Peter also regularly misunderstood Jesus; he denied Jesus; he hid after the crucifixion; and initially doubted the resurrection.

Peter when he first met Jesus would probably have been a young man.  A northerner, from Galilee, a part of the world where they call a spade a shovel.  There are 2 things that you notice about him immediately - working arms, the strong wrists, hands and forearms from years of casting out and hauling back in the nets from the lake, but also the equally strong piercing eyes, used to scouring the horizon for seabirds themselves fishing so as to locate the next catch.  His hair and beard unkempt and windswept only just framing the weather punished face - marked with the successes and failures of his job.  A face that does not suffer fools and sees through scams and silly ideas, after all, he cannot afford not to be too cautious.  It’s not a prosperous trade fishing.

Peter’s journey of faith in so many ways mirrors our own - trusting Jesus implicitly one minute and then either misunderstanding him or worse still denying him the next.  The man we hear about later this week in the upper room sees only Jesus’ lordship and divinity not the love of serving friend, or runs to the empty tomb to see what? is a contradiction as we each are, but somehow something happens, as between those places of intimate fellowship and supernatural disbelief we encounter a man continuing to be transformed, no transfigured through knowing Christ for himself.

Jesus loves Peter, whichever Gospel you read, of that fact there can be no doubt.  Despite faith, failure, denial, and disbelief, Jesus loves Peter enough to forgive him, and forgive him and forgive him.  Even having seen the empty tomb, Peter returns amazed, but not changed.  The man who had so easily denied Jesus in the half-light outside Ciaphas’ house now does not link what his eyes see with what he has heard Jesus himself teach about his resurrection - and that is so often Peter’s strength but also his failing - he does not connect head and heart.  ‘Let me come out on the water with you, you are the messiah of God, you must not wash only my feet but my hands and head also, I do not know the man’ - all come from the heart.  Peter the working man, Peter the uncomplicated man, Peter the passionate man - who spoke and acted from the heart was called by Christ because there was room in his passionate heart for the passionate God willing give up his son to death to perfect that which he began at the moment of creation - yes even in Peter and those of us like him.

The good news for us today is that Peter’s story is our story. For we, like Him, are loved and loved and loved by Christ.  We may not be perfect, we may not feel we are very special, but God thinks we are amazing! Like Peter, we are full to overflowing ordinariness, yet God, like His work in Peter, can fill us to overflowing with His Grace by the power of the Holy Spirit and look what happened when He did, and God God can do the same extraordinary things to and through even us. All we have to do, and it is really is pretty simple, is to be like Peter did which shouldn’t be too hard, and continue to accept Christ’s call to follow Him. Amen


I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend Alastair McCollum for the opening story and initital ideas here. His take on it all can be read here

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Podcast is back!

Wild Mustard and the Leveson Enquiry

It has been fanscinating watching the Leveson enquiry unfold. Hearing politician and journalist alike forced to talked about the all too powerful relationship, sometimes unhealthy link between politicians and the media. It has been very sobering to hear former and current Prime Ministers and significant journalists admit that they flirted with one another and opened all sorts of unwritten rules and how the media would stop at nothing to get the story for us to rubberneck at.  Leveson has shown us what we hadn’t seen, or did not want to see about all these relationships.  The enquiry has, I hope, reminded us that the electorate still have the power. Despite the agricultural imagery, i was shocked to discover my friends, that these parables have more in common with political intregue than growing potatoes with my children in our garden.

Jesus is the master of using images from the world around him to make his point. In a post-industrial age, these parables can seem rather quaint and whimsical, but they used the language and images of a local and agricultural world. Jesus says that the Kingdom is like a man scattering seed. Now I don't know whether I am reading the passage wrongly, but in my mind at least there is definitely a difference between scattering and sowing. Sowing to me implies a careful, deliberate, placing of a seed or seeds in soil that has been prepared. It is about maximising the potential yield of an expensive commodity - the seed.

Jesus here though tells us that the man scatters the seed on the ground. He goes to bed and wakes up in the morning to find the seed sprouting. The man is clearly astonished. He does not understand the biology of what has gone on - he doesn't understand how these seeds have grown.

Then we seems to get a bit of a gardening textbook, '...The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come...’ The man scattering seed may not understand how the seed grows but he does know when to harvest - only when the grain is ripe and full.

What is Jesus trying to say? Jesus talks of God's Kingdom - God had been worshiped as king by Jews for millennia. Talk of a coming Kingdom would normally carry with it images of political and military power. Yet Jesus seems to say that God's kingdom comes with no pomp or power. Rather it appears, almost surprisingly, as if from nothing - something as insignificant as some seeds scattered randomly on the ground. The when the kingdom starts to grow - the outcome, the results are visible and tangible for all to see.

Jesus goes on... the kingdom is like a mustard seed - the smallest of seeds which grows into a bush big enough for the birds to nest in. Mustard seeds are not the smallest seed nor do they grow to be the biggest trees. Jesus isn’t being literal here, but he is trying to make a point, the question is what?

The parable is probably loaded with symbolic imagery - the birds nesting in the tree might symbolise a powerful nation gathering other people under it's sway - as in Daniel 4:10-12.  There will come a time, says Jesus, when the nations will gather under the wing of a renewed Israel.

Alternatively, there is the ‘traditional’ interpretation which says something like - Jesus' ministry doesn't seem to amount to much at this stage, but looking at his ministry with a God’s eye view of history, there will be a time when it will have a huge universal following.

Another alternative - Jesus could be referring to what we would call wild mustard. This is a persistent weed that is almost impossible to eradicate once it has infested a field. It is not a tree, but at it’s most dynamic, it is a small shrub. The parable takes on a new meaning because all of a sudden Jesus is talking about politics.

Fields were generally owned by the wealthy and the poor worked on them for the benefit of the wealthy. It was hot, hard, demanding and poorly paid. The workers did not benefit from the fruit of their labours. If wild mustard stated to grown in your field you would need to get rid of it as it is a persistent weed and will take over if left unchecked. It will threaten the livelihood of the wealthy landowner who only make their money from the poorly paid field hand.

The Kingdom of God is like persistent wild mustard. It is so persistent, so virulent that it will grown to become something that in reality it cannot be - a huge tree offering shelter.
The kingdom of God is powerfully coming, but almost as if from nothing and largely unseen until it has taken a hold. As it does so, it will turn on it's head the usual enconomy of power in the world. It will work against the wealthy and powerful to the benefit of the poor - it will do the seemingly impossible. It will begin small, but will ultimately draw all people in.

How does this impact us here, today? These parables have more in common with political intregue in the corridors of the Palace of Westminster as the Leveson enquiry unfolds than gardening. It's almost like, whatever we do, almost perhaps in spite of and our faith, God will bring His kingdom to fruition persistently, virulently where He wills it. As He does, he will actively work against those abusing power and liberate those oppressed by ‘the system.’ Or perhaps put another way, we in the church so often try to control God - we say things like ‘we don't do 'that' we're Anglican/traditonal/Broad church/ whatever...’ In the parables this morning, Jesus reminds us that God will quietly and powerfully work amongst us, growing the Kingdom by the power of His Spirit.

This morning Jesus reminds us that God will bring the kingdom and it will grow where we do not want it - like a weed - transforming lives outside the church community, challenge structures and authorities and power in society. Not very seemly at all... The question is, who are we in these stories? Are we the landowner with an infested field - dismayed to see God at work in ways and in places that He shouldn’t be, or are we the liberated farm hands waiting for the harvest, longing for freedom and change? Amen