Trying out a new app!

My first problem when I decided to dip my toes back into the blogosphere pond was ‘How do I find my own blog?’  I’m on my third browser since I last blogged, and have lost loads of bookmarks.  I eventually found it through my Twitter account!

So here I am.  Back at work after FOUR weeks off because of stress!  Thought All Saints’ Day would be make an appropriate day to start over – Communion of Saints a bit like the blogosphere – celebration of unity within diversity, of openness and sharing, of being yourself within a community of others.

Have to get out of bed first, though.  Perhaps more later.

http://www.unitetheunion.org/news__events/latest_news/unite_forms_church_of_england.aspx

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”
Matthew 20.12

This parable makes both TUC members and CBI members lie awake at night…!
– a wages policy without differentials…
– an employer whose ‘bottom line’ is not profit but kindness…
“…you have made them equal to us…”

In real life, we all treat people unequally…
– we see someone…
– we take note of…
– what they look like, what they’re wearing,
what they’re doing, how they speak…
– and we place them somewhere on a ‘scale’ in relation to ourselves…

We do it unconsciously…
– we do it without malice, usually…
– we would probably hate ourselves if we realised what we were doing…
– but we all do it…
– we know we shouldn’t…
– but we do it anyway…

We evaluate one another…
– we note our relative positions in some imaginary league table buried in the deep recesses of our minds…
– and we like it when we feel we can put ourselves higher up than someone else…!

You will all probably remember the John Cleese, Ronnie Barker & Ronnie Corbett sketch – “I look down on him…”

What scandal then…
“…you have made them equal to us…”

And we do this not only with people…
– but with everything…
– we give everything a value…
– material things, words, deeds, thoughts…
– everything is worth something…
– and everything has its price…

But in all this…
– the place we assign to things, and to people…
– the value we put on them…
– is completely arbitrary…
– it comes out of our own heads…
– and almost everybody’s evaluation is different…
– and none of it has any real/lasting basis…!

But everything is equal in the eyes of God…
– everything is equally a part of his creation…
– created not for what they’re worth or what they can buy…
– created for the simple joy of creating…
– no reason why any one part should be ‘worth’ more than the other…
– all is equal in his sight…

God puts every part of his creation on the same level!
– and that includes us…!

The parable of the labourers in the vineyard begins with those most important words…
“The kingdom of Heaven is like…” Mt 20.1

The kingdom is a place/state without differentials…
– where everyone is ‘worth’ the same…
– where all are raised to the same level…
– where all receive the same amount of love/acceptance…

And furthermore…
– our place in that kingdom is not determined by how hard we have worked to get there…
– but simply upon God’s generosity in offering us a place…
– and our faith in accepting that offer…

It doesn’t matter whether we have…
‘borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’
– that we have been active church members since our youth…
– or whether we have come late in the cool of the evening…
– God welcomes us all equally…
– and give us all an equal reward…
– all we have to do is say ‘Yes’ to his invitation…

Genesis 1.1 – 2.3  &  Romans 8.18-15

When my daughter Alison announced the acquisition of her first tattoo, I was a bit taken aback.

Taken aback, not by the fact that she wanted a tattoo – part of being a parent these days is about getting to expect the unexpected – no, I was taken aback by her choice of subject matter for the tattoo.

She didn’t want any words – love, joy, peace; mum, dad, Milo.
She didn’t want a heart, or a star, or a butterfly.
She wanted an image of Darwin’s First Tree of Life!  

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(She’s studying zoology!)

This ‘branching out’ of different species from a common ancestor lies at the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  One species will, as it were, split into two, one going one way and developing in its own way, the other going another way and developing in its own way.  So the natural world diversifies, and the myriad different forms of plants and animals emerge.

This accords perfectly with the biblical reflection on creation in Genesis!  Each of the six days of the story are about a ‘branching out’ of creation, a separation of one thing from another, the beginnings of ‘diversification’ within the natural world…

1.     light & darkness
2.     water & sky
3.     sea & land
4.     days & nights
5.     ‘swimmer’ & ‘flyers’
6.     animals & humankind

This is not, of course, where the problem lies for those who don’t accept the whole evolution thing.
It’s not the description of what happened that is a problem, but how it happened, what caused it to happen.

Evolutionists would say it was due to ‘natural selection’; and creationists would say that it is  ‘the will of God’ (To simplify things greatly!).

My problem with the creationist’s view is that it is fine if we are talking about bunnies and butterflies, about spider’s webs and crystals formations…
– but what about the cancer cell or the mad dog?
– or the terrorist or the earthquake?

Why would God create (or allow to be created) all the destructive things we so often come across in life?
Are they meant to be a test? …or a challenge? …or a punishment?
Are they a reflection of humanity’s ‘fallen’ nature?

You could begin to think that this creator God may not be the kind of God we would want as a friend (never mind an enemy)!

Leaping forward to Romans 8, we can see some of these contradictions being aired by St Paul:

  • the ‘sufferings of this present time’ being contrasted with the ‘glory about to be revealed’
  • the ‘subjection to futility’ and the ‘bondage to decay’ contrasted with ‘obtaining the freedom of the glory of the children of God’
  • the ‘groaning in labour pains’ contrasted with the ‘first fruits of the Spirit’ and the ‘redemption of our bodies’

There is an acknowledgement here that the process of creation might not yet be finished and that the story has still not yet ended.

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”

This does not mean that we look like God, or that God looks like us!
It means that we share with God that thing that makes God God; – that that ‘God thing’ is reflected in us.

But what is the ‘God thing’?  What is it that makes God God?  What is it about him that is most typically God-like?

Power?  Wisdom?  Remoteness?  Invisibility?  Knowledge?  Love?  Strength?  What do you think?

I think it’s ‘freedom’.  I think that it’s God’s ability to ‘do what he wants’.  I think that the most God-like thing about God is that he answers to no-one else, and that there is nothing else anywhere that can stop God being God.

This is reflected in the Biblical creation story in the words: ‘And God said…’

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’
And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’
And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night;
And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’
And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’
Then God said,‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;

God ‘said’, ‘And it was so’.

What God says, happens!  And nothing can stop it from happening!  Total freedom from any restraint.

And that, I think, is his ‘image’, his defining characteristic.

And it’s that freedom that he imparts to his creation, the freedom to ‘be’, the freedom of a human body cell to be cancerous, the freedom of a person to take another’s life, the freedom of the earth’s tectonic plates to shift, and cause earthquakes.

Now that would be scary, if it were the end of the story.  But we’re not at the end, we’re just partway through the process.

And the process is driven, not by randomness, not by whim, not by accident, but by love.

God’s word is spoken in love – his will is achieved by love – and creation is perfected through love.

So, I’m with St Paul on this…              (Rom.8.18-21)

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus said:
“You are the salt of the earth…
You are the light of the world…”
Mt.5.13,14

I went to London last Thursday – for a meeting with a General Synod working party – about the formation of a “professional association” for clergy in the CofE – pretty boring stuff for ordinary mortals.

The meeting was in the Covent Garden area, not far from Trafalgar Square, and an area with quite a lot of theatres – I arrived there a bit early for the meeting so I popped into St Paul’s Church (Covent Garden – the ‘Actor’s’ Church!) – a pretty unremarkable church.

But when I went in I was hit by the smell of incense!  It was the morning after Candlemas, and I guess they’d had a service there the evening before, so the smell was still quite strong.  I love the smell of church incense – and I was instantly transported to somewhere wonderful!

I find that many smells have a similar effect on me.  They transport me somewhere.

I remember my first trip the other way round: from London to Manchester – interview for my first curate’s job – and when I stepped off the train at Manchester Piccadilly, the smell of hot oil and diesel hit me – and I was transported back to the steel works in my home town – transported back by smell alone!

I think that our sense of smell is connected directly to our memories – hardwired in our brains.

So I think that it is significant that Jesus, in today’s gospel, when he tells us what we are, he tells us that we are to be two things that impact directly upon the senses: salt and light!

You will note that he does not tell us to be preachers, or teachers, or philosophers – people who make their impact upon the minds of others – instead we are to make our impact upon others’ senses (specifically taste and sight).

Both salt and light are pretty hearty things as far as our senses are concerned.

Salt – both in deficiency and in excess – can either make, or totally ruin, a meal.
(Some Christians can be so lacking in ‘salt’ that they make no impact upon us at all, while some can be so over-salted with the gospel that they make us run a mile!)

And light – a vital component for all sight – without light we are all in the dark – and there is no sight, nor colour, nor vision.

We, as followers of Jesus, are to be salt and light – giving flavour and colour to the world – and hitting people where they know they’ve been hit (as it were) – without, of course, getting up their noses!

We are, in other words, to by-pass their minds, and aim for something deeper, something much more visceral within them – to be something that tickles their taste-buds and lights up their lives.

Notice that in this Gospel account, Jesus goes straight on from telling us that we are salt and light, to talking about the Law (the OT Law, the Law of Moses).

The Law was a preoccupation for the Jews of Jesus’ day (as indeed it is for those of today, of course), and it was a particular problem for Matthew (the writer of the Gospel).

Matthew is writing (particularly) for Jewish converts to Christianity – who might be a bit loath to tinker with what has hitherto been at the heart of their faith – The Law.

The problem with the Law was that it did not work.
It did not create good and holy people.  It created lawyers!

And the task of the lawyers was to find ways of getting around the law (in both senses of ‘getting around’!).

And it all became a kind of game.  The Law says this, the Law says that – but this bit maybe affects that bit – so you can do this, but not that – but if you do that, then maybe you don’t need to do this.  The Law became the subject to interpretation.  It became an intellectual exercise – a mind game.

Jesus knew that the Law would not (could not) save anyone – but he also knew that it was a gift from God – a gift that was to draw us closer to Him – something to be lived, rather than obeyed.

The Law was a collection of ‘pointers’ – commandments that pointed us to something greater:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt.5.20)

The real law lives in our guts, rather than in our heads.

It is all about ‘sensing’ the ‘rightness’ of the written law – and translating that into our everyday thoughts and actions – it’s about seeing the light and tasting the truth.

We are salt for the earth!   We are light for the world!

“On entering the house, [the Magi] saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Matthew 2.11

I don’t know how familiar you are with Monty Python’s Life of Brian – a spoof loosely based around the life of Jesus.  It was released in 1979, with some controversy – it was even ‘x’ rated at one stage by quite a few local authorities!  I remember seeing it in London not long after it came out.  I had to cross a picket line of Christians in order to get in!

It starts with a star, moving across the sky, followed by three men on camels; and continues with these three riding down a dark back street, and arriving at a hovel, with mother and child.

“Whad do yu want?” screeches the mother (played by Terry Jones).
 “We were led by a star”, say the first wise man (John Cleese).
 “Led by a bottle more like”, retorts the mother.

Eventually the three wise men get around to offering their gifts to the child: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The mother is not to sure about the myrrh. The third wise man (Michael Palin) has to explain that it is a valuable ‘balm’, which she immediately thinks is some kind of wild animal – until the wise man explains that it is an ointment!  She gladly accepts the gold and the frankincense – but is diffident about accepting the myrrh.

Anyway – the three wise men worship at the manger, and exit, only to re-appear almost immediately: to reclaim all three gifts, and dash back out!

The camera follows them… – as they cross to the other side of the alleyway to another hovel, this one surrounded in light, and peace, and with the baby Jesus, meek and mild, asleep on the hay.

But the film continues to follow the mother, Mandy Cohen, and her son Brian.

“What is myrrh, anyway?” Mandy screeches in those opening moments of the film.
 ‘What and why?’, we too may ask.

It seems that St Matthew was playing a little fast and loose with the Old Testament in his story of the wise men.  Gold and frankincense were to be expected, as was the wealth of the nations, as indeed were the camels – we have it all in the first Epiphany reading, from Isaiah 60.

Gold and frankincense were both in themselves powerful symbols:
gold, of kingly wealth and earthly power (recognised even today);
frankincense, of priestly worship and prayer rising up to God;
– but what about the myrrh?

Why did Matthew feel he needed to add that extra detail into his story?

If you read a biblical commentary, it will tell you that it represents Jesus’ future death and burial.  Myrrh was indeed used by the Egyptians when embalming bodies; myrrh is offered to Jesus on the cross as a sort of pain-killer; and myrrh was brought by Joseph of Arimathea to Jesus’ tomb as part of the burial.

All very plausible.  But all neatly evading the fact that, in a Hebrew context, myrrh was all about love – and not just spiritual love!  It was the Old Testament equivalent of Chanel No.5!

Myrrh is mentioned in one particular book of the Old Testament, exactly TWICE as many times as in all the other 38 books put together!

And that book is the ‘Song of Songs’ – sometimes called the ‘Song of Solomon’ – a love song, and quite clearly a love song!  Could myrrh be a symbol of that love?

You are unlikely to hear any of the Song of Songs ever read at a Sunday Eucharist – it just doesn’t figure in the Sunday lectionary scheme.  But part of it IS one of the readings set for the feast of St Mary Magdalene!

Now, I’m not trying to get all Dan Browne-ish – there is no DaVinci Code, Magdalene, plot in all this.  But I do think that there is a misreading here of the significance of ‘myrrh’ in the Epiphany story.  There is a much more obvious meaning.

In the traditional Epiphany hymn, ‘Earth had many a noble city’ , one verse runs

“Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
incense doth their God disclose,
gold the King of kings proclaimeth…”

I am happy with that – but less convinced by the final line:

“…myrrh his sepulchre foreshows.”

I think the myrrh may be an affirmation of Jesus’ down to earth humanity, of his intimate involvement in the life of this world, of his immersion in love with the humanity of us all – rather than a reference to his death!

“Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
incense doth our God disclose,
gold the King of kings proclaimeth,
myrrh his love for us he shows”

Jesus, to one of the criminals crucified with him…     (Luke 23.43)

“…today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Biblical imagery, generally speaking, was very concrete, and grounded in reality…
 – biblical people, generally speaking, didn’t usually go in for ‘airy-fairy’ stuff…
 – collectively they were all Lancashire folk…
  – they liked to call a spade a spade…
  – and certainly didn’t go in for harps and halos, clouds and angels…
   – at least, not angels as we generally regard them…

Take ‘hell’ for instance…

Hell was a real place…
 – called Ge Hinnom – the valley of Hinnom – just south of Jerusalem…
 – it was a rubbish dump…
  – were people dumped and burned their rubbish…
  – and where, too, the unclean dead, were likewise dumped…
 – a real place…
  – a smokey, smelly, horrible place…

Ge Hinnom, a Hebrew name, was know in Biblical Greek as Gehenna…
 – usually translated as the ‘hell of fire’…

So when Jesus, in the New Testament, spoke about hell…
 – which he does only 10 times…
 – everyone knew exactly what he meant…

The bible also talks about another sort of hell…
 – ‘hades’ in Greek, ‘sheol’ in Hebrews…
 – which was the old ancient Greek ‘underworld’…
  – dark and dank, but boring rather than horrible…
 – it was a ‘waiting room’ rather than a final destination…
  – I have been there…
  – Crewe railway station on a very cold Christmas Eve in 1976,
   waiting for the one train through that day…!

Paradise, on the other hand, was also a real place…

The word ‘paradise’, of Persian origin, means a walled garden or park…
 – it was the garden of creation…
 – situated somewhere in the East…
  – or, more precisely, in the ancient ‘fertile crescent’
   between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris…
  – commonly called the Garden of Eden…

Paradise was where the tree of life was located…

Interestingly…
 – the whole biblical story starts in the book Genesis with the Garden of Eden, paradise, containing within it the tree of life…
 – and ends in the Book of Revelation with a city, the new Jerusalem,
  containing, not one, but a whole bunch of trees of life…
  oh, and a THRONE…

Heaven, in Biblical Greek, simply the word for sky, is where God lives…

Heaven is not a place for mortals…
 – although it is the place there our hope is laid up…
  – the place from where our citizenship derives…
  – and the place from where the new Jerusalem descends…

We mortals are to keep our feet firmly planted on the earth…
 – albeit a ‘new’ earth…
 – a redeemed, renewed, and righteous earth…
 – an earth that contains the ‘city’…
  – the ‘come-down-out-of-heaven-from-God’ city…
  – the city with the throne of the Lamb and of God at it’s heart…
  – the city with the tree of life, ‘paradise’, within it…

Which all basically means that the Christian hope is not for a ‘pie-in-the-sky’, fairy tale, escapism from reality into a wonderland of angels and harps…
 – but the establishment of the rule of Christ…
  – in our hearts…
  – in the here and now…
  – and in the realities of our own lives…

Jesus’ words to the crucified criminal:
“…today you will be with me in Paradise.”
 – come in response to the crucified criminal’s request to Jesus
to “…remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

This exchange happens at the place “that is called the Skull”…
 – not, I suspect, ‘a green hill far away, without a city wall’…
 – no one would use a prime piece of real-estate for an execution site…!

It was, more probably, maybe, a rubbish dump…!
 – a gehenna of sorts…

And it’s from within the heart of that hell, that the promise of the kingdom is proclaimed…
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice.” – Isaiah 66.14

Sometimes we do look at things, and people, and what we see does make our hearts rejoice – but not always.

The recent re-emergence into the news of Jon Venables,  one of Jamie Bulger’s killers, from all those years ago, also brought out again those eerie photographs of both of the killers, aged 10.  Eerie, because to look at those photographs again, knowing what we know now, is really quite disturbing, and certainly not something that would make our hearts rejoice.

And yet they are two human beings, created by God, two human beings who have committed a terrible act – but is there anything left there to make our hearts rejoice?

It is one of the great clichés of the Christian faith, that “We should hate the sin, but love the sinner!”, but can we do that with Thompson and Venables?  Or, indeed, with Peter Sutcliffe or Myra Hindley or Harold Shipman?

Sin obscures our vision of the person of the sinner, so that when we see them, we see not the person, but the sin.  The sin ‘clothes’ them with a new identity, disguises them.

This is obvious (and understandable) in the case of Thompson and Venables (and Sutcliffe/Hindley/Shipman), but it’s also true of all people.  We all carry our own sins and shortcomings with us, our own loads.  And these ‘loads’ become part of our own ‘self-image’, and of our image of other people.  We become ‘clothed’ what we have done, the good as well as the bad, but especially the bad!  We see the sin, in ourselves and in others, and that obscures our vision of the person beneath.

But God sees all!

This is, more often than not, seen in negative terms:  “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires know,
and from whom no secrets are hidden…” – God seeing all our innermost faults, all our ignoble thoughts and words and deeds.

But God is not fooled by what he sees!  He sees the sin, but he does not let that obscure his vision of the sinner.  He sees through our ‘clothing’, our mantle of sin, to the person beneath.

And he sees in that person infinite possibilities – possibilities for growth and renewal and life.

And seeing, he loves.

And loving, he gives substance to those possibilities.

It is that clear-sighted love, made real, and given substance in the person of Jesus,  and through the mystery of the cross – it is that unobscured love of God that rids us of our outer garment of sin and allows us to stand before him as his beloved people.

He sees and his heart rejoices – even though it is that heart that also knows the pain of the cross.

Our vision of what is real and what is not real, of what is true and what is not true, both in ourselves and in others, makes us what we are.

Increasing clarity in our vision, our awareness, draws us further along the path to God.  It changes us.  “We shall be like him [God]”, writes St John, “because we shall see him as he really is.”

Our vision is clouded by sin, so clouded that we find it hard indeed to see through that cloud in order to love what we see.

But we give thanks that God is not so blinded:
 – that he sees clearly…
 – that he knows completely…
 – that he loves totally…

Father,
grant us your vision,
that we may see,
and our hearts rejoice.

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