Sunday, August 27, 2017

And On This Rock...

As some of you know, I was invited to attend a 10 residential conference at Windsor Castle in July. At one of the sessions we entered the room to find all of the chairs removed and it filled with a number of easels with large bits of blank paper attached to them with pencils and charcoal to hand, and we were invited to spend 2 hours drawing. I can’t draw or paint. I have been told I can’t over many years, most often by me. I can’t translate what my eye actually sees in terms of lines, shade and shape - all too often I try to draw what I am asked. I need to unlearn what I have been told about my ability and relearn to look and to really see what’s there and to represent that. I have bought a sketch pad and some pencils and I am trying to unlearn. Not to draw a thing but to look. To see lines and shapes.

We all come at life with presuppositions like this - previous experiences or statements in the past shape our response to something in the present, sometimes we can name that as something that happened to us at school or something a friend or family member said. Sometimes it’s things we just cant name. It’s the same with people. Daryl Davis, a black blues musician, has spent 30 years befriending members of the KKK. He goes to their rallies; he goes to their homes and eats with them. ‘How can they hate me if they don't know me?’, he asks.

People have been wanting to know more of Jesus’ teaching by the time we encounter him in this morning’s Gospel reading. By asking his disciples who the Son of Man is, He trying to gauge how much of what he teaches is hitting home, but also wether people have grasped who he is and by who’s authority he is ministering. By the disciples naming John and Elijah and Jeremiah - people are identifying Jesus with what they have known themselves or have heard in the stories of the faith of their ancestors from the past. They need to unlearn what they think they know about Jesus if they are to truly grasp who he is and what God has called him to.

Here’s the news folks - God was already at work in Peter. In foot in mouth, getting it wrong, Messiah denying Peter. God was at work in Him. So when Peter answers Jesus’ “Who do you say that I am?” question with “You are the Messiah the Son of the living God” this rose out of Peter’s experience of God at work in Jesus yes but also of God at work in Peter, enabling him to see Jesus his friend and teacher in a new way.

But Jesus goes on - I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it… What Jesus actually says is “I say to you Peter (Petros) that on this rock (petra) I shall build my ekklesia (assembly; usually translated church) and the gates of Hades shall not overpower her.” The word petra translated as rock is grammatically feminine and it agrees with the Greek word ekklesia, which is also grammatically feminine. Thus, the noun petra does not refer to Peter. Jesus will build his church on one so fickle, so week, who would let him down, who would deny him and yet despite all of this - the gates of Hades would not prevent the good stuff that God is doing in and through him - because Peter has come to know that Jesus is the Messiah. It is this confession on which the church will be gathered and built. On a shared belief; on a shared experience on the life changing news that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of the Living God - a God who enters our present experience; a God who is relevant to our here and now and not focussed on dead prophets or the things and ways of the past.

Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah cashed up. What he confessed with his mouth and heart impacted the life he lived. What this meant was that Jesus’ way and the values of the Kingdom were Peter’s first priority - his own concerns and needs were secondary. What we are presented with in this morning’s Gospel isn’t some early church creedal statement; this isn't a piece of doctrine inserted into Peter’s mouth - Peter seems to be a person who speaks first and suffers any consequences later. He couldn't help himself in saying what he said that day. It was a direct response to Jesus’ question and a response to being in his presence. 

What we confess of Jesus here in Church in our creeds and hymns and prayers, impacts what we live - our whole lives. Yes our response to Jesus is more formalised in our liturgy but at it’s heart is the same instant and vital response - yes Lord you are the Messiah; yes Lord have your way; yes Lord your will be done on earth and in my life as it is in heaven. Peter’s confession of Jesus’ Messiahship was due to God working in and transforming him. As we confess Jesus, God is still working in us, transforming us. And we’ll know we are being transformed by God ourselves by the way we act and react and I think that’s what Jesus means about binding and loosing and maybe why he told His disciples to tell no one about Him.

When we bind or restrict justice to the dominant and powerful and loose or release or enact injustice to the most vulnerable among us, heaven knows God sees and His heart breaks and people around us fail to see Jesus in us. When we bind ourselves to wanting things our own way, and do not release or loose ourselves into new possibilities for the good of us all, heaven knows, God sees, His heart breaks and people around us fail to see Jesus in us. If we fail to act because we are more concerned about what others will think of us rather that what others need, heaven knows, God sees, His heart breaks and people around us fail to see Jesus in us. Whatever we do and say in Jesus’ name on earth has an impact in the heavenly realm - God sees it - and others will either see or not see Jesus in us as a result.

Why does Jesus command the disciples to say nothing about him being the Messiah? How will they build the church or withstand oppressive powers if they tell no one? Because the confession of Jesus as Messiah isn't theological algebra but evidence of a heart and life being transformed by God. Nothing needs to be said of Jesus and the kingdom when we are actively looking to forgive and be forgiven; when we are working for justice especially for the marginalised and the poor; when we are loving our neighbours and even our enemies in demonstrable ways. It is on rocks such as these that Jesus has and continues to build his church.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Compassion in the Gut

Desmond Tutu once said: ‘… I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, Now is that political, or social? He said: I feed you. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread. When you are ill, I heal you. Those are physical, mundane, secular, nonreligious things… But you will be judged by whether you fed the hungry, whether you clothed the naked, you visited the sick and those in prison…’ The good news to a hungry person is bread…

What Jesus had heard about was the beheading of John the Baptist. When we hear of the death of a loved one - don't we all too often retreat either literally or within ourselves? Jesus needed to be alone. The crowds got wind of this and followed. I wonder what did the members of the crowd feel so convinced that what they were looking for could only be found in or satisfied by Jesus. They were certainly looking though. Perhaps that’s why this story is one of the very very few that feature in all 4 Gospel accounts. The people were hungry. People still are hungry for what Jesus can offer.

We all know how it feels to be deeply moved by something. We may know something of what Jesus felt that day. We even have an expression which catches it - I felt it in my guts. Sometimes something touches us so deeply that we are compelled to act.
‘…When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them…’ Gordon Hartman from Texas realised that there were no theme parks where his disabled daughter Morgan could go and play and be accepted, so he sold his property development business and used the money to build just such a park where everyone could do everything; where people with and without special needs could play. People come from all over the world. "Yesterday a man came up to me and just held my hand," Hartman says. "He pointed to his son, who has acute special needs and started crying. He said he hadn't been able to play in water before.”

Hartman says three out of four visitors to the park are not disabled, and that the park is having precisely the effect he hoped for.” It helps people realise that though we are different in some ways, actually we are all the same," he says. That’s compassion. That’s love. Moved to act but not just for selfish benefit, but for the good of many. Jesus felt splagchnizomai - moved in his gut. Compassion. Even though He is tired, or even grieving - Jesus gives of himself to those who have sought him. Here Jesus fulfils of of the consistent calls of God in Old Testament scripture to feed the hungry.

The disciples said, ’… This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Taking the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds…’ In recent days the papers revelled in news about how much the BBC's on-air stars get paid. In Norway, there are no such secrets. Anyone can find out how much anyone else is paid - and it rarely causes problems.

In the past, a list of everyone's income, assets and the tax they had paid, could be found on a shelf in the public library. These days, the information is online, just a few keystrokes away. Nothing is hidden. The disciples’ comments about sending the crowds away aren't words of practicality. I believe they reveal a hidden selfishness. The disciples wanted to tend to their own needs not those of those around them. Using words and actions that link to the Last Supper, Matthew depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever their initial doubt or self-preoccupation, the disciples are caught up in Jesus words of abundance and gratitude and distribute what they have and in so doing they share in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.” God used even these reluctant disciples, that is, to care for the poor and hungry that God loves so much.

We’re all guilty of responding like the disciples. We’ve seen Jesus at work and we’ve heard him teach but that’s enough religion for one day thanks. Can we just go home now? All too often we don’t realise that we are supposed to do something with what we see and hear in Jesus ourselves. I remember hearing about an American pastor called Rob Bell. He used to run a mega church - 30,000 people attending each week. He knew how to lead a service and to preach and for people to respond. But it took for him to have a crisis of faith of sorts to realise something about Jesus’ teaching - it isn't just abstractions - he said, ‘…I’m convinced being generous is a better way to live. I’m convinced forgiving people and not carrying around bitterness is a better way to live. I’m convinced having compassion is a better way to live. I’m convinced pursuing peace in every situation is a better way to live. I’m convinced listening to the wisdom of others is a better way to live. I’m convinced being honest with people is a better way to live…’

The real miracle in the gospel today - the disciples tending to the needs of others - continues when a graduate shuns a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, or when a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, or when a church makes the difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, or when one student stands up against bullies in defence of another student, or when, or when, or when… God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.

What miracles are we going to play a part in revealing? Messy church needs volunteers once in a while to sit at a table doing craft or preparing it or prepping or serving food; people are still needed to be part of our soon to be launched pastoral visiting scheme; the small group Lent listening exercise now needs a small group to work out how we respond to some of the issues in our church and wider community. 

The gospel to a hungry person is not a sermon. It’s bread. Jesus said to his disciples, you give them something to eat. Being a Christian is not an adjective it’s a verb.  What are you going to do?