Saturday, September 26, 2009

Harvest Reflections

(I note that a number of people have been accessing this post this week...possibly preachers looking for inspiration, as I often do myself!  If you are such a one, do let me know if this reflection has been helpful to you.  A comment at the bottom would be appreciated).

It's not easy for us city dwellers to get our heads around the concept of Harvest, is it? I mean, our food arrives on gigantic lorries, is unloaded into our gigantic supermarkets, and then brought out to our cars in gigantic shopping trollies. It's too easy for us to forget that our food had to be grown for us. We forget the skill involved in sowing and weeding and watering and harvesting and packaging and transporting all that food into our local supermarket.

And yet - its important that we do remember. We must remember for lots of good reasons.
So what is Harvest all about? Many things...of course. But here's my take on some of them:

First and foremost it is, of course, a time for giving thanks for many things:

We give thanks to God for our food – which, in the West, is more abundant and varied than at perhaps any other time in human history. We never have food shortages – the shelves of the supermarkets are always well stocked. But it wasn’t always like this, as those who were alive in the war and before can, no doubt, remember. So we are thankful for the abundance, the variety, and the sheer quantity of all we receive here in the UK. We give thanks for the fact that we live in relative peace - a peace which enables the free-flow of goods.

And, we might ask, why do we give thanks to God for this abundance? After all, it wasn't God who planted the seeds, cared for them, packaged them and transported them. We thank God because God is the Creator. We thank God because despite the cleverness of human beings, we are still incapable of copying even the simplest act of our Creator.

Scientists have learned a great deal about how things work. They've learned that all the instructions for creating life are woven into strands of DNA. They've even learned how to splice two pieces of DNA together to create different forms of life. But there is not a scientist in the world who is capable of taking the raw ingredients of life - say a few molecules of hydrogen and carbon - and then imprinting coded instructions on them and making them live. Life is the weird force which makes me live and move and have being - while this lecturn remains dead and lifeless. Life is something we don't understand at all.

Even if, as scientists, we could believe that the Universe has always just existed (as theologians claim that God has always existed) we are still unable to understand why a rock has no life, but a plant or an animal does. We simply don't know what the animating force of life is. We can't re-produce it ourselves.

The book of Genesis gives us a picture to hold onto. It paints a picture of God breathing life into the nostrils of a human being, created out of dirt. Life is seen by the writer of Genesis as a spiritual force - something given to us by our Creator-God. Otherwise we would be just dirt, still.

Do you know the story of the Scientist who decided that God was no longer necessary? One day he climbed a mountain and called upon God. “God! We humans now have the ability to bring people from the dead, we can create our own life, we don’t need you anymore so you can leave us alone.” God listened to the scientist and nodded his head. “Okay, I’ll tell you what, if you can really create life, let’s have a competition, if you can create a better person than me, I’ll go, but we’ll have to do it the way I did it in the old days.” So the scientist agrees and begins to collect some dirt to make his person. God simply watches him and finally asks him what he’s doing. “I’m using the dirt to make a person.” God smiles, looks at the scientist and replies, “First you have to make your own dirt.”

So at Harvest time, we give thanks to God for the life sent forth into the Universe. We thank God for it's complexity and beauty. We thank God for the way that the life in plants and animals sustains us, as well. We thank God for the way the systems of the earth are balanced so that we might have a life-span in which to grow. We thank God for the food we eat that sustains us along the path of our life - a life given to us so that we might grow more and more into God's own likeness.

Another reason we spend time thinking about Harvest is that it is a time for remembering to use the earth’s resources wisely and sustainably:

We need to make sure that the long-term consequences of today’s actions will not jeopardise the lives of generations to come. Did you know that the idea of sustainability goes back centuries? It feels like a really modern thing doesn’t it...for those of us who have grown up in a world 'addicted to oil' (to borrow one of the more positive Bush-isms) and to not worrying about our environment. But sustainability is something that Christians and Jews have been advocating for thousands of years.

For example, in Old Testament times, the ancient Israelites tried to ensure that their agriculture was sustainable; that too much was not taken from the earth without giving it chance to recover. This meant giving the land a rest every seven years, and also every fiftieth, or jubilee year.
Genesis talks about this very principle of using the earth’s resources wisely. In that great mythological story, we see God giving the Garden of Eden to Adam - under a sort of tenancy agreement. In that agreement, God tells Adam that he must rule over the earth, and take care of it. The sad fact is that ever since those days, we have learned how to rule over the land...but only now are we beginning to understand the importance of taking care of it.

We have lost that ancient wisdom from our human consciousness. We plough and plough the land until it turns to desert. We lift the resources of oil and gas laid down over millennia, and plan to use them up with three or four generations. Instead of letting land lie fallow every seven years, to recover, we fill it full of chemicals in the hope that we can keep going - making money from crops - for just a little longer. It's madness...and it flies directly in the face of the wisdom of our ancestors, and of God, passed on down through the pages of the Bible.

Harvest time is also a time for remembering to share the fruits of the earth:

Alongside that idea of letting land lie fallow every seven years, Hebrew Bible law had another ground-breaking idea that we have also forgotten...that of the year of cancelling debts.

Here are some words from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15. In verse 4, God is reported to say “There must be no poor among you…” In those words, God sets down a condition of the tenancy agreement which simply says...”You must share what I have given you. You may not keep more than you need...and there shall be no poor among you”. Later in verse 7, God is given these words by the writer: “Do not be hard hearted or tight fisted towards your poorer brother. Rather (in verse 8 and following - & somewhat paraphrased) be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs - and when the seventh year comes...the year for cancelling debts...freely forgive your brother your debt to him."

"There must be no poor among you". As you'll be well aware, the Harvest has failed in South Sudan again this year. Millions of people are facing starvation because of two things: the lack of rain, and the unwillingness of the world to share what we have.

It does us good, I think, to remember that we have green fields and flowing rivers entirely by accident. I did not choose to live in England...I was born here. I live in a country with bulging supermarkets entirely by accident. If I had been born in South Sudan - I would be starving today. The same goes, frankly, for all the wealth and comfort that we have. We have it only by an accident of our birth. I benefit from central heating and a warm dry house. I benefit from owning a car, and having a television to watch. And yet I didn't invent central heating. I didn't invent the car. I don't know anything about how a television works. I possess all these things because of the accident of my birth. And now, I find, that English law give me rights to possess these things. I have the right to live in my house, drive my car and watch my television.

But as a wise man once said, 'with rights come responsibilities'. Once we begin to really understand that we have all we have only comes by the accident of our birthplace, perhaps we will begin to take God's love for the poor - for those who don't have these things - more seriously. I have the right to possess my stuff - but I have the responsibility to share my stuff as well.

Perhaps if we took that responsibility seriously - personally and as a country, then, perhaps the people of South Sudan will be able to thank God for the harvest today, as much as we can. Not the harvest in their own land - but the abundant harvest taking place across the whole world in which they should be able to share.

So as we give thanks to God today - we remember our responsibility to help create a world in which everyone can give thanks...wherever their food comes from.

Jesus often talked about the perils of having too much and keeping for oneself what should be shared with others. You will remember I’m sure that parable of the rich man whose crops were so abundant that he planned to build more barns in order to store them. He did not sell or share his harvest. Then, on the night that he had finished building and stocking his barns, God said to him, “You Fool! This very night you will die!” So he died, and was not able to enjoy the results of his wealth. Jesus said that we should not store up treasure for ourselves on earth, where it will rot. Instead, we should build up spiritual treasure that will last.

So maybe harvest time is an opportunity for trying afresh to get the balance right between providing for ourselves and our families, and building a world which is based on mutual support and help for those in genuine need - rather than on materialism and greed.

There is a new phrase doing the rounds in Christian circles, which I rather like...and which is a constant challenge to me. It’s the phrase “living light” - and implies that we need to live in such a way that we are not shackled to anything material. That doesn’t mean that we give up all material things - God has given us physical bodies with physical needs - and its right that we should relish in God's creation. But we should never let any of them become our masters.

Linked to that idea, Harvest is, finally, a time for remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts, and wants them to bear an abundant harvest. In that story of the man who built huge barns, Jesus reminds us that earthly food is transient, and to seek the food that lasts for ever - the spiritual food which is offered to those who follow his Way.

You see - God gives us a choice - pure and simple. Either we can live for ourselves, and reap the consequences (for example of an unsustainable world economy). Or we can look for spiritual wealth, through Jesus - and join with all of God’s people in building a better world.

So for me - and I hope for you - that is what Harvest-time is all about. Yes, remembering to give thanks. But also reminding ourselves to use the earth’s resources wisely; remembering to share the fruits of the earth, and finally remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts. It is of course entirely up to us whether we listen to these messages, and let those seeds germinate and grow.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Who is the Greatest?

Mark 9. 30-37

Let me start by asking you to use your imaginations for a moment. What would you do if you knew that you only had a week to live? Assuming you were fit and healthy, that is. If you had full health, and freedom of movement, what would you do with your last few days on earth?

It's a puzzle isn't it?

If it was me, I'd probably want to spend time with the family that I hardly ever see - because they are scattered around the country. Or I'd want to do something really bonkers - like sky-diving. Perhaps I'd go on that trip to Egypt that I've always promised myself. Who knows?

What about you? What would you do?

Of course, this is all very theoretical. None of us is ever likely to have to make those kinds of choices. None of us really knows when we are going to die. But that wasn't the case for Jesus. He knew that his journey towards Jerusalem was going to result in his death...and he had to decide what he was going to do with his final days.

In today's gospel, we hear the second of three occasions in Mark's Gospel that Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to suffer, die, and rise again. We find Jesus knowing with absolute certainty that his road to Jerusalem is going to lead to death - and a painful one at that. The question we are presented with is this: how does Jesus choose to spend his last days on earth?

He could have gone sight-seeing. Perhaps he could have had a mega-party with all his friends and followers. Being God-on-Earth, he could have held mighty rallies, and shown mighty acts of power to wow the crowd.

But no. Instead, Jesus chooses to spend some of his last days on earth teaching his followers about what it really means to be a disciple. He teaches them about two vital things. Two things that are so important, that he takes his disciples aside to make sure they've got the message. Those two things are: the vital importance of humility, and the command to reach out to the weakest members of society.

When they arrive at a stop-over in Capernaum, Jesus turns to his followers and asks them "What were you arguing about on the road?" (v. 33). "But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest" (v.34)

Mark adds a nice little detail now. He says; "Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said...". Sitting down was what a Rabbi did when they were teaching their disciples. Sitting down was a sign that serious teaching was about to take place. When a Rabbi sits down, you take notice. Now what it is that Jesus wanted his disciples to take notice of? He says to them...

"If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all".

It's the topsy-turvey Kingdom of God again, isn't it? Time and time again, Jesus turns our eyes away from human notions of power. He turns the world upside down - away from people having power over people. Instead, he says that real power is found in service.

Last week, as most of you will know, we had the pleasure of a visit from Bishop Daniel of the Cape Coast. He reminded us that Bishops are called to be the 'servants of the servants of the servants of God'. Let's just break that down!

The people of God - all of us - are called to be servants of God. Priests and ministers are called be servants to the servants. And Bishops are called to be the servants of the servants of the servants! It's quite different from the way that we often view Bishops and church leaders. We tend to look up to them - and give them deference. Over the years, church leaders have accumulated 'the Reverend', or 'Father'. Archdeacons are called 'Venerable', and Bishops are called the 'Right Reverend', or 'Lord Bishop'.

Actually - as Bishop Daniel reminded us - all these titles are a million miles from the notion of service that Jesus spoke about. Thankfully, all these titles now have very little meaning. They are pointers to the job that each individual priest does...not attempted descriptions of their 'levels of holiness'. And, thankfully, most of the Bishops, Archdeacons and priests that I know are a long way from demanding that kind of deference. For example, at his farewell service last week, I remembered that when I first met Bishop Kenneth, he invited us to think of him as 'cuddly Bishop Ken'!

The notion of service is absolutely central to the Gospel. Jesus teaches us that it is in serving others that we find wholeness of life for ourselves. Rather than being a sacrifice, in fact we find that when we serve one another, there is a kind of freedom, and a kind of joy, that infects us. This is an essential part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Jesus served us too, by living among our ancestors, teaching us through them what God is like, and then showing us the way to perfect freedom through his own service and sacrifice on the cross. Before he died, one of his most significant acts was to wash his disciples' feet. Just imagine that. Smelly, dirty feet. Covered in camel dung. That was a job that usually got done by the lowest member of the household - a slave, or a child. It was certainly not a job that was done by the master of the house.

But Jesus found liberation through his own service. Because of his willingness to serve others, by dying on the cross, the Scriptures tell us that God raised him up. God gave Jesus the liberation of resurrection.

And we too can find a sort of liberation as well. There is the sort of 'liberation from self' which comes from thinking about others, instead of being focused on myself. There is the liberation which comes from giving money away, and seeing lives transformed through it...rather than keeping all my money for myself. There is liberation in giving time to the service of others, instead of time for the serving of self.

Ask anyone who works in a charity shop, or who serves soup at a soup kitchen, or who labours in the African sun to bring relief to the starving. They will tell you that there is liberation in serving others. Ask anyone who works in the Community Cafe - giving their time freely in the service of others. Ask them how they feel when one of their regulars, perhaps an elderly widow who lives on her own, comes in for some warmth, a smile, and a chat.

Ask those who serve in the choir - giving up their Friday evenings to try and make sense of my bumbling conducting. Ask them how they feel when they get to serve you, the congregation, with their music on a Sunday morning. Ask those who came yesterday to the church work-day...what did it feel like to serve the whole church community with a few hours of labour? Ask Roy and Josie and Shirley and Eileen and Jeanette and Martin and Chris and Sheila and Geoff and Clare and Emily and Mary and Andy and Caitlin and Chloe. Ask them whether it felt good, deep down inside, to know that they were serving others. Ask Brenda Le Provost and Pat Atkinson who give up every Monday and Thursday to keep watch on the church, welcome visitors and distribute the pew news. Ask them whether they feel a sense of freedom, a sense of joy that comes from serving each other in that way.

The fact is that the church of God, and the work of God, exists entirely on the voluntary service of its members. Without that sense of service...we could not be here. Without the gifts of time (and indeed money) that you give, this church would have closed years ago...and with it would have gone all the good that we are able to do in this community.

But Jesus' message in today's gospel was not only about service. After making his great statement that those who would be great must be the servant of all, he "took a little child, and had him stand among them"(v.36). Taking that child in his arms, he said to his disciples, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me".

Why did he do this? What's so special about children? Well that's a question you hardly need to ask if you are a parent! But, in Jesus day, children were treated rather differently. For one thing, a child was a burden on the family - until they were old enough to work. (Come to think of it, nothing's changed!). Children didn't have any of the rights that children have today. There was no 'criminal records bureau' protecting them. There was no state education. There was no right to free medical treatment. There was no protection in law against exploitation and child labour.

If an adult called a child over to them, in Jesus' day, it wouldn't usually be to give them a hug. Adults used children as runners. "Come here child! Go and get me that bunch of grapes!". Children were, most definitely, to be seen and not heard. Did you know that in some circumstances, it was even legal for a father to kill his child!

So children were essentially treated as goods and cheap labour...even slave labour. They were the least powerful members of society. They couldn't change anything. There were no school councils asking for their opinion. There were no youth workers and teachers who tried to help them develop as whole human beings.

Jesus didn't take that child into his arms because he was sentimental about kids. He picked up that child to show that he, Jesus, was on the side of the poorest, the most dis-possessed, the most abused and sometimes despised members of society.

And so that was his message, that day, in the house in Caperneum. Anyone who wants to be considered great in God's kingdom must be the servant of all...and especially a servant to the poorest and most outcast in any society. We are called to bless and serve the poor...not only for the sake of the poor, though that would be a good enough reason. But for our sake too. As we bless others, whether it is with gifts of money or of time, we ourselves will find blessing. Our as Good King Wenceslas reminded us..."Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourself find blessing".

Finally, I believe, this message needs to be a challenge to the way that we give. The thought of that Christmas carol reminds me that the dreaded season of present buying is pretty much upon us. No doubt many of us will be starting to wrack our brains to think "what can I buy for my son or daughter or mum or dad - something that they don't have already...or which they wouldn't be capable of going out to buy for themselves if they wanted it?" Let me encourage you to think 'outside of the Christmas box' this year. Let me invite you to think about whether you could bless the poor with your gifts - as well as bless your family.

Think, for example, about buying a present of a cow, or a goat, that could be used in Africa or India to feed a starving family. The harvest has failed in Kenya this year. Millions will be going hungry while we are stuffing ourselves with turkey and chocolate. Could we perhaps spare some of our wealth for the table of a poor family?

There are now plenty of charities who enable us to buy presents that will really help someone in need - presents which can be sent on behalf of our own already rich relatives. Let me encourage you, seriously, to think about whether you could change the pattern of Christmas this year - whether Christmas really could be about goodwill to all...not just our family and friends.

So finally, may you discover the liberation that comes from service. May you discover the joy of taking the lowest members of our society into your arms and blessing them.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Children and Dogs

Mark 7: 24-27

Insults. I like insults. I confess it. There is nothing quite so pleasing to an old cynic like me than a well crafted insult.

Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Madam, you are ugly. However, come the morning, I will be sober but you will still be ugly."Priceless, isn't it?

Most families have their own little insults, thrown at each other in fun. When I was a child, I tried to copy my Dad who once called me a "dopey ornament". But I couldn't say it properly, and so from then on we called each other a 'dopey onument'!

In my own family, we have two favourite expressions. If one of us does something stupid, we get called a 'plant-pot'. Don't ask me just works. "You plant-pot!". Our other favourite, is to refer to each other as being as 'mad as a bag of spanners' - which has a certain resonance. Sometimes it gets shortened to 'you spanner'.

But these are all in good fun. Everyone understands the rules...and no-one is offended. We all know, though, don't we that insults can easily cross the line between gentle playful fun, and downright hurt and offence.

Sometimes, the line is very thin...and it can take our children many years to learn how to straddle it. Imagine two children, say a brother and a sister, calling each other playful names. The girl says to the boy "You dog". And everyone around them laughs. The boy thinks this is fun, and tries a response..."If I'm a dog, then you are a bitch". Suddenly, the room falls silent. And the boy finds himself without any supper that night.

Certain words have the power to wound...for all sorts of reasons. Understanding the power of certain words - and especially the more offensive ones - makes it even more surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross insult. And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'.

Jesus appears to be saying that his ministry, his power, his gifts, are meant only for the people of Israel - not for anyone else.

What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me saying that only white people can come to this church. It would be like me saying that God only loves people of my race. There is no other word for it. What Jesus said was, on the face of it, a racist statement.

And this is where we need to have care. Because if we are not careful, we can suddenly find ourselves justifying racism. Last year, as many of you will know, the British National Party put up posters asking 'What would Jesus do?'. They attempted to suggest that their vision of a monochrome Britain is something that Jesus would have supported. And they were following a grand tradition.

This week we have been marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war. Hitler and the Nazis also claimed that God, and Jesus, were on their side...the side of so-called racial purity.

So is there any basis for that assumption? Does this story actually support the idea that Jesus was a racist?

When we read the Bible, we have to very very careful. It is too easy to take individual quotes from pages of the Bible, and then to use them to justify our own position on something. Three words which must always be in our minds when we read the Scriptures are these: context, context, context!

Only a few pages earlier, in verse 8 of Chapter 3, Mark reports that many people came to hear Jesus from all around the area surrounding Galilee - including the towns of Tyre and Sidon which were well known Gentile cities. There is no sign that Jesus tried to send those Gentiles fact he preached God's good news to them as much as to the Jews from Jerusalem and Galilee.

In Chapter 5, Jesus heals the man called Legion, who was said to have many demons inside of him. This man was also a Gentile... living in a region which kept pigs. (As I'm sure you know, Jews would never keep pigs).

At the end of Mark's Gospel, (16:15) Jesus commands his disciples to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation".

So the immediate context of Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus was happy to preach to non-Jews, happy to heal them, and wanted the whole world to know about God.

And that theme is repeated throughout the Gospels.There is a wider context too. John's Gospel, chapter 4, records Jesus' conversation with a Samaritan woman. Men of Jesus' time would hardly ever have spoken to a woman in public...let alone a Samaritan.

So - let's break down the evidence. First we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist. But then, we've got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much hated each other. So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus statement about children and dogs?

Again, I want to drive you back to context. Do you remember what we've heard over the previous weeks from Mark's Gospel? Do you remember how the crowds followed Jesus for all the wrong reasons? Do you remember his theological battles with the Pharisees and Sadducees? He is opposed by his own religious leaders, doubted by his family, followed often for the wrong reasons by the crowd, accompanied by disciples who only partially understand.

At the beginning of this story, Mark tells us that after all these battles, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee. He entered a house and, according to Mark, "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in hiding...trying to get away from it all for a while...needing to get his head together in a quiet place without crowds all around him asking for another miracle.

Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle, a miracle of healing for her daughter. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, tired, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap. One can imagine him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I need to focus on Israel...I need to get them to understand before we can take this message any further". He gropes for a metaphor. Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all they want...".

Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world - Jesus needs to focus on the Jews first.

Then comes the difficult line: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic response. In fact, although we translate the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!

But the woman is more than a match for the tired, worn-out Jesus. And she's desperate to get Jesus to change his mind. So she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".

You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly taken his own metaphor and turned it around in her favour. Mark tells us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter".

So what have we learned from this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?

First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt the cold, like we do. He felt hunger, like we do. He felt tired, and stressed, and worn-out like we do. And, like we do, when he was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things wrong.

There is no sin involved in getting something wrong. Jesus was not sinning when he thought that he should not help this woman. He was simply, for a moment, in error. For Jesus to have sinned, he would have had to continue in his error, after it had been made clear to him.

The same goes for us. It is not sinful to hold a wrong opinion. But it would be sinful to continue steadfastly holding that opinion in the face of truth. That's why the British National Party is an inherently sinful organisation. Every major political party, every major religious teacher, every major philosopher agrees that racial separation is stupid, wrong, and counter-productive to the whole notion of humanity. And yet, the BNP persists. To answer their own question on that awful poster, 'what would Jesus do?', Jesus would have insisted that God's good news of love was a message meant for all of humanity...not just white British people.

Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong. A few weeks ago, while answering one of the 40 or 50 emails which pour into my computer each day, I wrote a line to one of my parishioners which offended her. I said something without giving it enough thought. It doesn't matter what was between me and her. Her response, however, was really gracious...The next time she saw me, she took me quietly to one side, and let me know that what I had said was a bit thoughtless. As soon as I realised what she meant, I was mortified. I had intended no insult. But I had been wrong. So I asked for forgiveness...and was willingly given it by a lady who has far more grace accumulated than I do.

That's precisely how we should be towards one another. Recognising that we can all mis-speak from time to time...and being always ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another.

How different that approach is from the approach of so many in our society. One wrong word, one misplaced phrase can be quoted back to us for the rest of our lives. Families get broken up and destroyed because of a wrong word at the wrong time...because some people seem to almost enjoy feeling insulted. They revel in it...and take a sort of warped pleasure at being at war. Nations go to war with each other because of an insult cast by one politician towards another. Just think, for example, what harm was done by George Bush when he referred to a few nations as being part of an 'axis of evil'. Words do matter. Words can hurt. But forgiveness is stronger. Forgiveness is holy. Forgiveness is worth pursuing.

And so, finally, this story drives us on to an essentially Christian imperative. Following our Master, the Christian church must see itself as being totally committed to the breaking down of all barriers that prolong human misery, or which prevent the needy from getting help.

In order to share God's love with a neighbour, we are not expected to agree with their theology, or their life-style.

In order to love a neighbour, we don't have to be the same colour, or the same culture.

In order to love our neighbour, we don’t have to agree with every our neighbour says, or even the words he has used. Jesus was of a different nation to the Syro-Phoenician woman... and yet, as soon as he was challenged by her, he set aside all that, and gave her the help she needed.

In order to love a neighbour, we simply need to get on with the job of loving them.