This is the post excerpt.
It’s probably something many of us have done…arrived at an event only to find we’re not suitably dressed. Or if we haven’t…we’ve probably worried about it.
As a teacher, the usual fears were added to by endless possibilities of getting the wrong day for non-uniform, red nose day, children in need…or worse still, the dreaded ‘World book day’. I have a vivid memory of walking to school rather conspicuously dressed as Willy Wonka – from Roald Dahl’s book about a chocolate factory. By the time I was half way I’d convinced myself I’d got the day wrong…so it was a great relief to meet a ‘Cat in the Hat’ coming the other way. We exchanged a wry smile…clearly a fellow sufferer who worked in a school!
It’s a very human failing isn’t it? Either we love clothes and spend too much time thinking about them…or we’ve no confidence with clothes…and spend too much time worrying about them.
Surely though, God is different? Surely God doesn’t care how we’re dressed? But then we hear this rather disturbing tale about the man without a wedding robe. A man just going about his daily business more or less forced into a wedding feast…and then apparently expected to be carrying a wedding robe – just in case.
We want to hear that God welcomes everyone – just as they are…and this parable disturbs that picture.
It’s fairly obvious the King in this story represents God. Presumably the party is for his Son Jesus…in recognition of his coming Kingdom. So we might assume he first invites the religious leaders, the great and the good – people who would expect to be invited to God’s banquet.
But they appear to think they’re already ‘in’ with God, they don’t recognise Jesus as his Son, so they find more important things to do…or even get angry at the repeated invitations…and kill the messengers.
So far so good, we know that bit of the story…many of God’s chosen people didn’t understand who Jesus was. They were indifferent, or angry and even violent towards him. So the message was taken out to others…the lame and blind, tax collectors, prostitutes, the riff raff…in fact the slaves were sent to fetch ‘everyone you find…both good and bad.’
Here’s the bit we want to hear…Christ’s banquet is for everyone. All are invited…the ones the world ignores…the ones who don’t feel themselves worthy…even the ones described as ‘bad’. Jesus welcomes us just the way we are…and then there’s that man without a wedding robe – who gets thrown into the outer darkness…
That’s the thing about Jesus…we think we have him pinned down, understood…but he upends our ideas leaving us totally disorientated.
So, let’s look at that bit of the story again. The king notices a man not wearing a wedding robe, and says to him “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” Not an angry dismissal – but a friendly enquiry. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”, a gentle encouragement to talk.
But the man apparently has nothing to say…’he was speechless’. He can hardly have been surprised…I don’t suppose 1st century Palestinians were any less embarrassed by not having the right clothes…but he has nothing to say.
Perhaps he had nothing to say because he just wasn’t interested, wasn’t bothered. He had somehow been gathered into the banquet, was happy to enjoy the food…but didn’t feel it required anything of him.
Is Jesus perhaps reminding us that God does indeed invite everyone to his banquet, good and bad alike…and does love us just the way we are, but that he doesn’t want us to stay that way?
God issues the invitation – but it’s up to us to really accept it. And that means being ready to change, to at least begin to clothe ourselves appropriately.
I’m not sure what appropriate clothes for the kingdom of God are…perhaps love, justice, mercy, truth? I’ve experienced enough of God’s love to feel confident that we aren’t expected to have perfected these before we’re welcome. In the parable both good and bad were brought in. It seems the only one who wasn’t welcomed was the one who couldn’t see the need for change. Who when gently asked about himself had nothing to say?
I wonder, what could he have said to the King?
“I was hungry and smelled the food…I hoped you would feed me”?
“I was lonely and saw the lights on…I hoped you would welcome me”?
“I was sad and grieving and heard the music…I hoped you would share your joy”?
“I didn’t have the right outfit…I hoped you would clothe me”?
Would he then have been welcomed…offered a robe?
I’d like to think so. I’d like to think this parable isn’t describing an arbitrary, ruthless God…who apparently on a whim throws someone out. I think it’s something just as tough – but much more loving. I think it’s a challenge to those of us who feel we’ve accepted God’s invitation…to those who have just stumbled through the door…to understand the invitation brings with it a requirement to at least engage.
Following Jesus is a call to action. A call to listen to his words and consider how they apply to our lives; to repent and reform. I don’t know what that looks like for you…reaching out to heal a rift with family or friends…spending more time in prayer…offering more of your time, talents, money to help others…finding time to enjoy God’s creation…owning up to a part of you that is especially unChristlike…giving faith a bit of serious thought?
I don’t think there’s one identical robe…but I do think we’re all invited to consider how we need to change…and to make a start.
I think this parable tells us these two things…God will go to extraordinary lengths and look in the most improbable places to invite everyone to his table…
…if we accept his invitation, we should be ready for change.
Harvest has always been one of my favourite church celebrations. As a child it was a time of making a basket of fruit and veg to take to church; singing harvest hymns; and best of all, the church barn dance. This was a magnificent occasion of pooled supper, putting on our long dresses (yes I did own a dress or two in those days), relearning how to strip the willow, and best of all, it didn’t end until midnight!
Harvest – not one of the beautiful, sombre times in the church calendar – but a chaotic community celebration. The festival always has that wonderful anarchic point where an apparently endless stream of gifts are brought up, with the first hymn having to be sung on repeat.
Harvest a reminder of the certainties of life. Leaves will fall, conkers will ripen, the harvest will be gathered in and celebrated in church.
I have to admit that this year it’s been hard to celebrate. Autumn leaves, conkers, harvest have still come round – but this seems merely to underline how few of our old certainties are still there.
Last Sunday our wonderful small choir began to rehearse as I cleared up at the end of the service. In many ways it was such a joyful sound…sacred music sung once more in this ancient place. But actually, I wanted to cry.
That harvest anthem – the only one I ever remember singing as a child – seemed more like a lament.
But although it’s not usually a part of harvest, lament has always been part of the journey of faith. Tonight we shared the beautiful psalm 42. I chose it partly for those words…’ When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday.’
God’s people have been lamenting for thousands of years. Not because they have lost hope – but because it’s ok to admit to each other and to God when we’re finding things tough.
It is almost exactly a year since my first services here, when I looked forward to travelling through the church year with you all. I find that today I need to lament what I have lost, what we have lost this year. And as usual when I don’t have the words…I reached for poetry to help me.
Firstly, a book I used in this service last year…at harvest it seems appropriate to ask nature to help us speak.
Little astronaut, where have you gone, and why is your song still torrenting on?
Aren’t you short of breath as you climb higher, up there in the thin air, with your magical song still tumbling on?
Right now I need you, for my sadness has come again and my heart grows flatter – so I’m coming to find you by following your song.
Keeping on into deep space, past dying stars and exploding suns, to where at last, little astronaut, you sing your heart out at all that dark matter.
I love the song of the sky lark, and have been very aware of them this year, especially early on when traffic noise was so much reduced. I love the song, but I find it plaintive, almost like a lament.
Plaintive – but still – as the poem says – singing its heart out at all that dark matter.
A beautiful parallel from the natural world for the lament of God’s people. For lament is not despair. It is sorrow for what is lost, held in the knowledge and trust of God’s steadfast love.
So, like the skylark, the psalmist can end with words of hope, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.’
So tonight, I come before God with tears of lament for what has been lost this year. But also as befits a harvest celebration, with tears of joy and gratitude for his faithful love, that is surer than the harvest.
In China in 1958, as part of the ‘Great leap forward’, a campaign was launched to rid the country of sparrows. Sparrows, after all, were gobbling up fruit and grain needed to feed people. Soon 1 billion sparrows had been killed. Of course, it turned out not to be that simple. The sparrows had been eating more insects than grain…particularly locusts…locust populations exploded…
Soon, far from increasing, harvests had reduced by 70%, mass starvation followed. Killing the sparrows wasn’t the only cause…but it certainly didn’t help. It’s a good example of how interconnected nature is…and how we too are part of this web.
Harvest festival has always been a celebration of our connection with, and need for nature…as we thank God for the harvest…for crops safely gathered in. In recent years, with people less connected to the land, Harvest has also been a chance to remember our dependence on farmers and others who produce food…and how they depend on us paying a fair price.
This year, interdependence seems an even more relevant focus for our Harvest celebrations. When the pandemic hit in March, we were suddenly made aware of how much we depend on one another – of how connected we are even in a world where many people hardly knew their neighbours.
We were forcibly reminded of how our lives depend on the many low paid workers often taken for granted. Care workers, refuse collectors, teaching assistants, hospital cleaners all found themselves on a list of ‘key-workers’.
Perhaps even more disruptive to our picture of society was the inclusion of fruit pickers and supermarket shelf stackers. As the official key-worker list described them…’those involved in the production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery of food’ had never seemed so vital to our daily lives. It’s obvious when you think about it – but in normal times we take it for granted that we can buy whatever we want, whenever we want. And we don’t always think much about those who put it there.
That very long list of key workers brought home to us just how much we depend on one another…how we are part of a community. How a problem for one part of that community is a problem for us all.
This virus has brought home the importance of community in more deadly ways. Restrictions have stolen our times together, even with family. Restrictions have stolen our children’s schooling; our dream wedding, our chance to gather to mourn loved ones…in losing them, we’ve realised how life-giving these connections are.
Yet we need restrictions because we are so connected…and the virus exploits this…spreading most easily when we gather. The paradox of this harvest is that the virus has helped us rediscover how connected we are – and made many of those connections impossible.
But Harvest is a time of celebration. So let’s celebrate our rediscovery of community: people who’ve reached out to elderly neighbours to offer help…and the friendships which have grown as a result; small local shops who stocked essentials…delivered to the vulnerable; gardeners and carers who became shoppers; young families sending cards to cheer older people and ensure they don’t feel alone; friendships which have blossomed out of phone calls.
Let’s celebrate how love has found a way. In words the Archbishop of York used at Synod last week, ‘We have learned that at the moment the best way to love one another is to keep a distance. And we have learned that love transcends boundaries and can easily jump 2 metres.’
But traditionally Harvest is also a time for action. We have our Foodbank collection – sadly more needed than ever. Do come along to the churchyard and add to it. But perhaps this year we can also act to build on the connectedness we’ve found.
Let’s do our bit to make sure restrictions are upheld and work for the common good. Let’s remember how local businesses supported us when we needed them; and think about supporting them not just when we run out of milk.
Whenever we find ourselves in a position to speak about or influence political decisions, let’s remember the value of the lowest paid in our society and speak out for their rights. We clapped our carers; let’s support them in more concrete ways.
And above all let’s build on the community links that have grown. Let’s come out of this horrible time with new traditions, things that grew out of necessity but turned out to be even better than what they replaced.
The slaughter of sparrows in China had unexpected consequences. Large upheavals always do.
An unexpected consequence of social distancing has been the rediscovery of community. An unexpected consequence of closing church buildings and restrictions on worship has perhaps been to refocus our faith.
We’ve been forced to reevaluate what it means to be Christian. And we’ve found that although the building and the rituals enrich our faith, faith survives without them, because it is Christ on whom we depend.
The removal of the usual ways we meet with Christ has forced us to think about what they meant to us, and why. Recognising what we miss has helped us find new ways to engage with Christ.
So, this harvest as we celebrate the web that binds us together, we do so knowing that the whole web is also bound in the love of Christ. He is the glue that joins us and holds us. He is the source of creativity, energy and love that will help us build new links and sustain us in the coming months.
This harvest – as we thank God for his goodness, let’s thank him for creating us to live in community. Let’s celebrate our interdependence, and pledge ourselves to work for the good of all. And above all, let’s remember our connection to Christ who in his life showed us how to value everyone, and through his death and resurrection gives us the courage to depend on him.
Mrs Battye is a good teacher, although she’s very weird…Mrs Battye’s a good teacher because she’s very weird…
These two statements may illustrate the differing opinions of my pupils. They also illustrate one of the challenges of teaching children to write well…explaining the difference between although, but, so, because…and why it matters.
The rules of grammar are often beyond the grasp of young children, but they understand examples. There wouldn’t be much point telling them, ‘if we use although it suggests something unexpected…if we use because it gives a reason’. We could however have a fruitful discussion on whether my weirdness helped or hindered my teaching…
I was reminded of that wrestling with grammar as I studied the reading for this week, and the various ways of translating it.
This morning we heard what is thought to be an ancient Christian hymn – describing how Christ, who is God, became human. I’ve heard that passage many times – usually in the version we had this morning. It tells us that Christ, ’though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.’
Though…although Christ was in the form of God. I think that’s the picture I’ve always had…something unexpected. Jesus is God, almighty, powerful…and yet despite being God he somehow chooses to give up all that power and might to become human.
But this week I’ve looked at other translations – I’ve found that word ‘though’ isn’t there in the Greek…so we could miss it out. You’re now probably thinking you didn’t come to church for a grammar lesson…but bear with me. It’s really quite exciting!
If we remove the word, ‘though’, we get something like, ‘Christ, who was in the form of God, didn’t see this as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’
That suggests Christ didn’t go against his divine nature in order to come to earth and save us…he did it because this is what God is like.
So the passage could go…‘Christ, because he was God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and was born in human likeness.’ That’s what God does – he doesn’t cling onto power.
That’s a mind-blowing thought. God who takes the form of a slave…not although he is God, but because he’s God. A slave…someone whose life is entirely in the hands of others.
So when, in the wilderness Jesus is tempted to use his power to make others follow him, he’s being tempted to follow his human nature. He’s being tempted to find his identity and authority by holding on to power over others.
Instead Jesus chooses to reveal himself as God by taking the form of a slave. He puts himself totally into our hands, even though we push away the love he offers.
Why does this matter? Well for me, partly because it enlarges my understanding of God a little. But more because we should try to be like Christ.
As Paul says in the previous sentence, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.’ This emptying, this giving yourself completely to others isn’t just something to wonder at in Christ, it’s something to copy in our lives.
And Paul tells us one way to do just that. ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit’, he says, ‘but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’
Well, as with grammar – examples are easier to understand than rules, so I’d like to give you two from my life. Two people rooted in God’s love, who don’t need to hold onto power to find their identity.
First, Ella. In 2002 I went to help at a Beaver Scout group…and 3 months later found myself running it. I knew nothing about Scouting – but Ella did. She’d been Scouting for 40 years. She came every week – stayed in the background serving drinks, washing up, clearing up at the end. She gave ideas when asked and regularly told me I was doing a good job. She asked for no recognition, but it was thanks to her that I survived and grew to love Scouting.
Ella – helped me to grow not although she was a good scouter herself…but because she was.
Secondly Matthew, my training incumbent at Whitkirk. He gave up hours to my training, answered endless questions, picked me up when things went wrong…but mostly he was generous. He gave away parts of ministry he enjoyed, things that were important to the running of his parish, so that I could have a go.
Although he gave plenty of constructive criticism, he didn’t fret when things weren’t done quite the way he would have done them. And when things went well, he rejoiced for me and with me. His identity wasn’t threatened by my growing identity as a priest, because his identity was rooted in God – who is always giving. A great trainer not although he is a wonderful priest himself, but because.
A couple of examples from which I try to learn.
I find the thought of God emptying himself and putting himself totally in the hands of others, almost incomprehensible. I need examples to help me understand. But when I find these examples – in Jesus’ life, and in the lives of some of his followers, I can see how this emptying gives life to others.
So, although I’ll go on wrestling with scripture…trying to understand, I’ll also seek to be an example bringing Jesus’ life-giving love to others. Jesus who took the form of a slave not although he is God, but because he is God.
They were the sort of class you get once in a teaching career. Sparky, creative, with enough lovely kids to affect the behaviour of the whole class. They weren’t all perfect, or clever, but somehow together they made something very special.
Then, a new child arrived. A difficult start in life had left her angry, frightened, and lashing out at anyone – especially other children. Lessons were suddenly punctuated by nipping, punching, spoiling of work.
Those children were amazing. Every morning our newcomer was greeted with smiles; no one avoided sitting by her. They didn’t ignore her poor behaviour…they told me…and they expected me to do something about it. But once action had been taken, it was finished with. The injured party would happily work with her…she was never short of a playmate.
And they did this again and again and again.
It was the best example of the power of forgiveness I’ve ever seen. By seeking justice but never revenge, that group of 6 year olds showed how true forgiveness changes us. How it’s not just about doing the right thing, or being kind, but allows the forgiven person to grow and flourish. How it enables a person to confront and accept their own sin, knowing it won’t be made to define them.
Our new child, let’s call her Amy, wasn’t labelled ‘the naughty child’, she was just Amy. She was allowed to learn that upsetting people doesn’t make you happy, but being kind can. By October half-term you could rarely pick Amy out as ‘troubled’, she was just part of a lovely class.
I think that example of forgiveness within a community illustrates something of what Jesus was saying in today’s gospel.
As usual, Jesus paints a ridiculously exaggerated picture to make a point. Ten thousand talents represent an impossibly large amount. That a slave could owe so much, that he could ever pay it off, that a king would just forgive the whole amount, would all have seemed incredible.
So, the slave’s next action, his refusal to forgive a tiny debt, comes as a shock. It seems outrageous because instinctively we know, as my class did, that true forgiveness changes. We can’t imagine that the first man – forgiven so much – would not forgive in turn.
Perhaps Jesus is saying to Peter – if that story seems ridiculous, it’s because you already know the answer to your question. As my followers you know just how much God has forgiven you. You know the change being forgiven has brought to your lives…so surely you can’t imagine being like that slave and not forgiving others.
It seems to me that Jesus teaches us to forgive one another over and over again, not because it is ‘good’ in some abstract sense, but because it allows each of us to grow and change. It’s not about ignoring wrongs; it’s about facing them and moving on. Being part of a community based on forgiveness is to be part of a community where people can change.
Had ‘Amy’ been met with hostility, I suspect she would have become more defiant, convinced herself others were the problem. But being met only with forgiveness gave her the chance to change quietly and without a fuss. She was able to accept that her actions were wrong, without feeling that she was a bad person.
That story is a good reminder to any group of Christians of how we should behave towards one another and ourselves. I’m sure Adel Parish church isn’t full of people bearing grudges and wanting revenge…but I suspect there are people who struggle to forgive themselves, or accept that God can forgive them. And most of us have times when we don’t want to admit we need forgiving.
Sometimes it’s hard to accept we need forgiveness because it means admitting guilt. We live in a society where people are quick to condemn, and one poor choice is used to define people as bad. Confronting our need for forgiveness makes us vulnerable.
I’ve experienced this powerfully in my response to racial injustice. Recent events have brought home that Racism is not just a problem of the US or extreme rightwing groups…it’s a problem here. This means it’s my problem too but it’s a difficult one to face.
I’m realising that growing up in a world where ‘white’ is normalised as right…as somehow superior…means I’ve internalised these ideas without ever choosing to. It’s uncomfortable to admit…because racists are really bad people, aren’t they?
A group of us from Adel church have begun to listen, read and consider what our response should be. Our first session, sharing a very non-confrontational video by a Methodist minister proved surprisingly emotional.
One person, watching the clip, said, ‘I’ve discovered I’m racist.’ One friend was reduced to tears at the same thought.
Facing it together as a group of Christians though, means acknowledging our need for forgiveness in a place where our sins don’t define who we are. We’re able to explore and admit to difficult things because we already know we can be forgiven.
I’m not talking about forgiveness from non-white brothers and sisters – that’s not a matter for me. I’m talking, as Peter was, about forgiveness within a Christian community. I’m talking about the power of an atmosphere of forgiveness rather than condemnation…power that allows us to admit and accept our failings…which then allows us to change and grow.
I’ve focused on that issue, because today is Racial Justice Sunday, and because it’s live for many at the moment. But whatever issue faces us – this is a model of what a church community should be…a community based on forgiveness, which enables those who join it to grow and change.
I pray that Adel St John’s will always strive to be a community of forgiveness, a place where followers of Jesus, new and old, can face their sins together whilst never being defined by them; where, surrounded by love and forgiveness we can grow and change together.
I am an ex-teacher and the child of teachers. For me, the year will always start in September. Early September: the anticipation of a new term; new children to get to know; exciting activities planned. Even in the church it feels a little the same as we restart activities after the summer break and look forward to events such as our Harvest Festival.
But this year things are different. Our first physical get together for months will happen this afternoon (weather permitting) outside. We’ll have to keep our distance. It’ll be great to see people…but we can’t shake hands or share a hug.
Next week church services restart. But we’ll be a small gathering with most of us wearing masks; there’ll be no Junior church…and no singing. We’re having to ask people to book…at a place where all should be welcome.
It feels all wrong, it feels almost worse than when lockdown hit, the church was closed and we started to grapple with online worship. Many of us, I think, are weary. And it’s hard to see pubs and restaurants re-opening when we can’t worship as we wish.
We know the restrictions are needed…the importance of protecting one another from Corona virus…but still it seems hard.
We may struggle to imagine worshipping without singing…worry about how empty the church will feel, how sad it’ll be not to hear the children rushing back in from Junior church – keen to share what they’ve been learning.
But that is why we need to hear again Jesus’ promise, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
I’m sure one day we’ll worship together again in a full church, but I fear that may not happen for months. As we restart after the holiday break, we’re not ‘getting back to normal’, but still finding new ways to be church.
So, this Sunday it’s good to hear those words of Jesus – not just as reassurance – but a reminder of why we meet at all. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
We gather in Jesus’ name, to be fed by word and sacrament, but also to be a place where the presence of Jesus is found. We meet not just for ourselves, but for our community. We gather to be one way in which Jesus is ‘Emmanuel – God with us’.
When we meet for worship, it may be strange and even difficult…but Jesus has promised that if we gather in his name…he will be amongst us.
Because we don’t have the space to make it safe – Junior church will for the moment remain online. I am sure parents and children miss getting together. Watching a video with your child, or even joining a small group on zoom loses something special. But however we gather…Jesus has promised to be with us.
Any studying we wish to do will also have to remain online – or in very small groups. Home group, bible study, looking at the issue of racial justice – mostly forced onto Zoom. It’s not the same is it? No tea and cake for a start, and somehow there’s less laughter. But if we meet as pilgrims on our journey of faith…Jesus has promised to be with us.
I’m not a great lover of new technologies. When we were forced to embrace online worship, it felt a very poor replacement. But the last 6 months have shown that however we gather, Jesus’ promise holds true. I’ve felt very aware of his presence in our midst. In some ways we’ve become even more a place where the presence of Jesus is found.
The shakeup has enabled people to find new roles within our community of faith. Being already outside our comfort zones has given people the courage to contribute in new ways. In some households there’s been more discussion of faith. Children are taking the lead: in our services and in their homes.
Moving worship online forced us to think about those who couldn’t ‘get to church’ – in a way we perhaps hadn’t done before. The limitations, and empty hours of lockdown encouraged people to join study groups and talk about their faith in new ways. Online worship has given new people a chance to explore faith in the safety of their own homes.
So, as we restart after a summer break let’s do so with Jesus’ promise in mind. We gather to meet him in word…in sacrament…in each other. We gather to be a place where the presence of Jesus is found…from where his love, joy and peace can spill over into the community.
I hope we can do that not as people ‘sitting it out’, waiting to get back to normal; nor people ‘making the best of a bad job’. I’m truly excited at the way time and talents have been offered…at the way faith is being shared and discussed.
Next Sunday at 9.30am, the Paschal candle will be brought into church…only 5 months late…as a reminder that we are an Easter people. Let’s step out in faith as people who believe in the resurrection.
Please consider joining a study course, or our group facing together the vital issues of racial justice. They may have to be mainly online – but if we gather in Jesus’ name, to learn more about him – he has promised to be with us.
If it’s not safe for you to come to church – please continue to worship online. We’re committed to keeping this going even when restrictions are lifted. COVID has taught us that Christians can gather in many ways – and Jesus’ promise still holds.
But there will be opportunities to worship together, to share the Eucharist, and hopefully before too long, the timeless words of Evensong. If it’s safe for you, please come. It won’t be what it used to be – it will be a new thing – and Jesus has promised to be with us.
I am notoriously unobservant.
After a couple of months as curate in Whitkirk, talk turned to the possibility of using the grand piano instead of the organ to accompany a service I was planning.
“Where is the piano?” I asked – only to find I’d processed past it at the start of every service…a grand piano…
So, rereading that familiar story of Moses – I had to wonder…would I have noticed the burning bush?
I began to look at this story differently some years ago – when during a discussion of the passage someone said, ‘I wonder if the bush had been burning for years…but no one noticed…’
With that thought, the story changes. No longer God more or less forcing his call on Moses, at that particular time; could it be that God called – and waited for someone ready to receive the call? Or maybe it was always Moses God was calling…for years before he was ready to notice, to respond.
I suppose a burning bush should be even more difficult to miss than a grand piano. But it got me thinking about where we tend to look for encounters with God, and how we perhaps ignore things that threaten to take us out of our comfort zone.
We could hear this story as an encouragement to be ready to receive God’s call. And we might try to do this by spending more time in prayer, in meditation, in church. I know from experience that all of these bring me closer to God…and when I’m closer to God I’m probably more ready to hear his call.
But this could also lead us to expect the call to come, the burning bush to appear, when we are praying, meditating, or in a holy place.
Reading the passage this week though, I realised something new. Moses was at work when he spotted the burning bush. He was a shepherd, tending the flocks of his father in law, and had led them to Mount Horeb, presumably looking for good grazing. This, for Moses, was an ordinary day at the office. His mind would’ve been on the safety of the flock, the availability of food and water.
I wonder how ready we are to spot the burning bush, the call from God, when we’re about our daily work, paid or voluntary. We’re part of a Christian community, we pray, worship and study to deepen our relationship with God. But we live out most of our lives at home, work, in the wider community. These are where we’re called to be followers of Christ, so it shouldn’t be too surprising if this is also where God chooses to speak to us, where he puts the burning bushes. The question might be whether we’re ready to notice them…or, having noticed them, choose to investigate.
Moses saw a bush that was blazing yet not consumed by fire. It was something outside his experience or expectations. It stopped him in his tracks, forced him to take a second look. Then he had a choice – he could have hurried on. Things totally outside of our experience can be scary, they hold the promise of lives changed.
I’m pretty sure there’ve been times in the past when I’ve seen a burning bush; something that was beyond my expectations, not part of my plans. And I’ve hurried by, for fear of getting involved, in trepidation of where it might lead me.
Moses, at this point in his life, seems ready to take the chance, “I must turn aside to look at this great sight”, he says. This turning aside gives God the chance to speak to Moses, to show how Moses can become part of God’s work on earth. And Moses finds himself on holy ground, face to face with God himself.
In some ways, I suppose, Moses had it easy: the actual voice of God; God so present he had to hide his face; at least he was in no doubt to whom he was talking. I suspect it’s unlikely ever to be so clear for any of us. But living in the expectation that God may speak to us in our everyday lives is a start…
Then, when the burning bush appears, we have to be ready to turn aside, to look. We have to be ready to join God’s plans, possibly even to have our lives turned upside down. Which means we are ready too, to have life in all its fullness, life as God intends for us.
I’d like to finish with part of a poem I came across by Jan Richardson, which captures the challenge and the joy awaiting us in the burning bush.
You will have to decide
if you want this—
want the blessing
that comes to you
on an ordinary day
when you are minding
your own path,
bent on the task before you
that you have done
a hundred times,
You will have to choose
whether you will attend
to the signs,
whether you will open your eyes
to the searing light, the heat,
whether you will open
your ears, your heart
to the voice
that knows your name,
that tells you this place
where you stand—
this ground so familiar
and therefore unregarded—
is, in fact,
A life-long Methodist turns up at the pearly gates. St Peter smiles and says ‘Welcome to heaven, go to door 10, but when you pass door number 2 be very quiet.’
Next a Baptist arrives. St Peter says ‘Welcome to heaven, go to door 17, but please be very quiet when you pass door number 2.’
Next in the queue is a Roman Catholic. St Peter says ‘You know the drill – door 6 but very quiet past door 2.’
This woman asks ‘Why the silence around door 2?’
‘Ah’, St Peter replies, ‘That’s where the Anglicans are, and they think they’re the only ones here.’
You could, of course, substitute any denomination…and no one really thinks like that do they?
In today’s gospel Jesus tells Peter that the church will be founded on him – and he will be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. That phrase has given us the picture of St Peter, at the gates of heaven, controlling who gets in. But it’s also led to churches down the centuries, feeling it’s their task to say who is in and who is out…who’ll get to heaven and who won’t.
There are churches which trace their authority back through generations to St Peter himself…and feel this gives their leaders the ‘keys to the kingdom’.
There are churches that feel this is all wrong, that authority doesn’t lie with individuals, it comes from God…so they start a new church, replace people with creeds and confessions, and use these to decide who is in and who is out. The bewildering number of denominations shows just how many times that’s happened.
It happens because people take faith seriously, and want to defend it against the world around. But I think it also happens because we remember only that authority is given to the church – not what this authority is based on.
So, let’s go back to that conversation between Jesus and his disciples. After asking what society is saying about him, Jesus asks them directly – ‘Who do you say I am?’
Peter blurts out what he’s perhaps just realised, ‘You are the Messiah, Son of the living God’. It’s this confession that makes Jesus call Peter the rock on which he will build his church. And, Jesus makes clear Peter has received a revelation from God.
The church, then, is based not on a perfect authority figure, or a set of rules, but on a flawed human being who, with God’s help, realised true life comes from Jesus Christ.
Actually, I’m happy to belong to a church with recognized figures of authority. I’ve been very grateful for the leadership provided by our bishops during this pandemic. For me the problem comes when we and they, forget to look beyond them to Christ.
When, having come to an understanding of some aspect of faith, we begin to think that if we are right, everyone else must be wrong…and that means they can’t be part of the Kingdom of heaven. And the church starts to look like an exclusive club – where some are not welcome.
Our understanding of Christ is always flawed and incomplete…because we’re human and he is God. But sometimes we forget we’re followers of Christ, and become defenders of our idea of Christ. And this can too easily be a Christ we’ve created in our image, to reflect our understanding of Christianity.
I used to teach RE to year 6 classes. At 10 or 11, they’re starting to question things, trying to make sense of faith for themselves, and they say some revealing things. Once, one began a question, “Miss, you know how our God is white…”
“…you know how our God’s white…”, I’m sure none of us think like that, he was 10 years old after all. But he had perhaps picked up our tendency to assume God is like us…that God will hold similar opinions to us on contentious issues.
And sadly, once we think we know what God thinks, we seem unable to listen to others, to contemplate that we might’ve made a mistake. Then churches are torn apart over issues of gender and sexuality. Or become so convinced of their authority that crimes are covered up, or prejudices such as racism become embedded.
And rightly or wrongly, people outside the church see Christians as people mainly concerned with whether others conform to ‘right’ ways of thinking and behaving.
Yet the rock on which the church stands is the recognition that Christ is the son of the living God…that Christ is the way the truth and the life. The church should be a community of people recognizing that for ourselves. And then working out together – in all our diversity – what that might mean for how we live our lives.
And since Christ rarely talked about rules or doctrine, but about costly forgiveness and love; since he defies attempts to box him in and tie him down but constantly surprises us; we should perhaps be wary of putting our words into his mouth.
As Christians we are called to apply our faith to the way we live, the way we earn and spend, the way we vote. We should take our faith and how we practice it seriously. We have to make decisions about what we think Christ’s followers should do. But I think we should be very wary of thinking we know who is in and who is out – in the Kingdom of God.
Here’s another St Peter joke to finish with.
2 flat-earthers (people who insist the earth is flat) go to heaven. They’re allowed to ask God just one question. So, asks the first, ‘Was I right?’…’No’ says God. Turning to his friend the man says ‘This goes higher than I thought.’
Again – nonsense – but also perhaps a warning against making God in our image, and losing our ability to be surprised and changed by the one we confess as Christ, Son of the living God.
The feeding of the 5000…when I hear that story, I’m transported immediately back to Greenbelt festival in the summer of 1984. If you haven’t heard of Greenbelt – it’s a Christian music festival. It’s definitely not my sort of thing…but at 19 and at University I was somehow swept along…
Looking back now, the only things I can remember are the queues for the loos, and the feeding of the 5000. It was the gospel at the Sunday service…and it was brilliantly told by someone pretending to phone home with an eyewitness account…breathless, amazed, puzzled…it was a great bit of acting, and it stuck with me.
I haven’t the skills to reproduce it, especially without an audience…but there is something very powerful about an eyewitness account…so, let’s go back to that day with Jesus in the wilderness.
Let’s imagine we’re his disciples…with Jesus we’ve just heard the news that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. Jesus, weary with teaching and healing, now overcome with grief, just wants to get away. He takes a boat to a deserted place.
But the crowds follow, bringing their sick, desperate to hear more of his life changing teaching. We want to turn them away…’can’t you see, he’s just lost the cousin he loved…can’t you leave him alone?’
Jesus though, stops us. He looks at the crowd, hungry for love and direction. Tired as he is, he has compassion. He heals and teaches for another long, exhausting day. And, following his example, we look at the people in compassion. We imagine how hungry they must be, and remember how far we are from any village. Tentatively we suggest that Jesus sends them away to buy food.
But Jesus does what he so often does…takes our idea and turns it into something much bigger and bolder. ‘If you care for them…why don’t you give them something to eat?’ he says. And we do what we always do…we make excuses. ‘We have nothing here…nothing to give them.’ But perhaps because we know Jesus knows…we qualify it with the truth, ‘Well…nothing except 5 loaves.’
And because we really do want to help Jesus in his kingdom building, we bring him the little we have.
Then comes the bit that made such good drama at Greenbelt all those years ago…Jesus looks up to heaven praying to his Father…he blesses the bread, like he always does…then he breaks it, like he always does…then he gives it back to us…
And we hand it out, and hand it out, and keep on handing it out. And people eat and eat, and still there’s more to hand out…but people start refusing it…too full to eat another morsel. And we collect up the left overs…12 baskets full…
And we know Jesus has done something amazing…but also that we seem to have had quite a big part in it. In Jesus’ hands, our meagre offering has achieved something huge.
I think in the last few months we’ve experienced something similar. Life changed very suddenly. Almost overnight, ‘church’ was not possible in the way we’ve been used to. We knew we wanted to keep faith and hope alive. We knew we needed to find new ways to worship, pray and care, but perhaps felt we had little to offer.
We did offer what we had though…in a panic, not really knowing what we were doing…apologetically, not really thinking we had the skills…anxiously, thinking it could all go horribly wrong.
And Jesus seems to have done what he did with those 5 loaves…taken our small, tentative, nervous ideas, and turned them into something much larger, bolder…and more use in building his kingdom.
We’ve found we can write prayers, read lessons, produce services online, coordinate an online choir, lead children’s groups, lead services, share our faith in words and pictures, turn our churchyard into a place of prayer…we’ve found ways of socializing, celebrating, sharing and supporting.
Which is wonderful, because I suspect the next step in this journey is going to be equally challenging. From 13th September we will reopen for actual services in church. ‘Hurray!’
With current restrictions, we’ll have 9 pews and 2 choir stalls available…hmm.
I spoke recently to someone who’s been unable to access our online services. Someone who is desperate for physical services to start again. He understands the challenges – but said to me ‘Be bold’.
‘Be bold’. What a great phrase to take into this next stage. We’ll probably need extra services…we’ll need to keep our online services going for those who can’t get to church…we need to work out what to do about music…Junior church…social events…fundraising.
So, we’ll need stewards, cleaners, extra readers and pray-ers, musicians…people to help with Junior church…and probably all sorts of other things we haven’t thought about yet.
It could feel like an impossible task. Or we can remember the feeding of the 5000. We can each bring out the little we feel we have and offer it to Jesus. And perhaps if we do that in trust and hope, he will take it, bless it, maybe break it…and give it back to us.
And maybe we’ll find our nervous offerings have been transformed into something wonderful, something much bigger and bolder than we dared to hope.
Since mid-March, I’ve been deeply grateful for the people who’ve quietly been doing the jobs they’ve always done…the people who’ve found new ways to do the things they used to do…the people who’ve come forward to try new things they never thought they could…the people who’ve emailed or rung to say how much they appreciate our efforts…and the people who through all of this have been praying…for me…for the church…for the community.
The next months hold at least as much challenge as the previous ones. And we will have to find solutions within our community. But today’s gospel reminds us that if we offer whatever we have, Jesus can transform our offerings. So together – let’s be bold!
I’ve always loved reading stories. I remember as a young child coming across a book of Aesop’s fables at my grandparents’ house. These are a collection of stories supposedly by an Ancient Greek – Aesop; you’re probably familiar with ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ and ‘The Boy who cried wolf’.
At first, I rather liked them. I was transported into the strange world of talking animals and my imagination got busy. But I soon became irritated by the way each ends with a fairly trite moral, which the story apparently illustrates…’be content with what you have’…’a kindness is never wasted’…they made the stories narrower and less exciting.
Today’s gospel story contains perhaps the biblical version of Aesop’s fables…a parable. In my bible it’s called ‘the parable of the sower’. A sower sows his seed – but it falls on lots of different types of ground. Only one type is ‘good ground’ and there the seed gives a fantastic yield.
If you look for a definition of a parable, you find this sort of thing…’a parable is a simple story that teaches or explains a moral or religious idea.’ To me that’s a rather sad little summary of something far, far richer. But it’s very typical of our age…we like things pinned down, categorized…explained.
We suggest that Jesus used parables to help simple people understand…so we look for a simple message. We assume each parable has one meaning, and our job is to work out what it is, to link each part of the story to what it represents.
In fact, in today’s reading the puzzled disciples ask Jesus to explain – and he obligingly tells exactly what kind of person each type of soil in the story represents.
However…if we look at where the reading comes from, we find a chunk is missing. A chunk where the disciples rather exasperatedly ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. Clearly, they don’t find them simple…and they want to know why he doesn’t just tell them the meaning in the first place.
Jesus’ reply is no simpler…but he seems to be saying, “I speak in parables because I want people to listen, to think, to discover for themselves.” I think parables are not meant to be simple, they’re meant to challenge us, to suck us into the story…to spark our imagination.
But the disciples still struggle…I can almost hear Jesus, in despair, saying ‘Ok, if you must have a simple explanation…you could understand it this way…’ And we, who like things cut and dried, often stick with that.
Today I’d like to offer another definition of parables…’parables are imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’ They’re fiction, they’re completely made up…but hopping around inside them is truth…real stuff. And because it’s in a strange, imaginary world it disrupts, it forces us to look at it differently.
So, for a moment let’s forget the four sorts of people represented by the four soils…and our expectation for Jesus to end…’and the moral of the story is…be good soil.’
Let’s go back into that imaginary garden and let the real toads surprise us.
Jesus said…’a sower went out to sow’.
Is this then, a story of a sower? If so, he’s an odd sort of sower. No prepared soil, neatly ploughed, for him. No careful use of precious seed…keeping it away from the path, the rocky ground and the hedgerow…where it’s less likely to grow.
So let’s wonder about a sower who seems to waste resources so foolishly, who seems happy to fling seed just anywhere. And if we think the sower might be God…what picture does that give us?
Does it suggest that ‘just anywhere’ is in fact exactly where God works? Does the casting of seed in rocky, barren, broken places suggest such places are part of God’s vision for his Kingdom?
If God is the sower, we have a picture of wasteful, profligate God. A God who knows it’s risky, foolish even, to throw seed onto poor, rocky soil, but who does so anyway. I’m reminded of Jesus who had to plant his seed again and again and again in the hearts of his closest followers; who saw them betray, deny and abandon him, but still cast his seed on them once more.
And I stop worrying about which type of soil each of us is, because I know that I’m all 4 at different times, and sometimes all at once. Often I don’t understand. All too easily I forget to spend time putting down roots, time with God, to support the rest of my life. Sometimes, however hard I try, the cares of the world get in the way.
But this is the story of the sower, who continues to throw seed at me, and you; who is willing to risk his love again and again in the hope of finding a small patch of good soil.
So, I let my mind wander in the imaginary garden of this parable. I go to the thorny edge of the field, and see, miraculously, some heads of wheat or barley growing amongst the brambles. And I recognise the ‘real toad’ of that definition…a precious truth. Because I’ve seen examples of God’s love flourishing in the most unlikely places…in the work of prison chaplains…in places of extreme poverty.
And the parable of the sower has escaped from the neat package with the moral at the end. It stays with me as I try to work out how to nurture God’s kingdom. It creeps into my decisions.
This is no more the ‘right answer’ than wondering how to be good soil. But I hope it might lead you into the imaginary garden of this parable…to be surprised by the real toad you come across.
And I pray that you do so trusting in the risky, wasteful, profligate love of our God.