Saturday, August 21, 2010

Jesus the Anarchist

Luke 13: 10-17

"He's an Anarchist! This Jesus is an Anarchist!" You can almost hear the teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, muttering to themselves. Another outrage from the Galilean teacher! "He's telling people to ignore the law of the Sabbath...he's leading people to their death!"

You've got to have a bit of sympathy for the religious leaders of Jesus day. After all, they believed that the Torah...the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, were the actual words of God, written down. They were like many Muslims today, who still believe (despite all scholarly evidence) that the Koran was dictated directly by God. The Pharisees and religious teachers were certain that failure to obey even one of the laws of God would be disastrous. Disobedience to the law, in their minds, should be punished with death. The Law itself said so. In the book of Exodus, chapter 31, the death penalty is prescribed for the crime of desecrating the Sabbath. On the other hand, they also believed that if the whole of the nation of Israel would keep all the laws, for just one day, then God would send the promised Messiah to free them from occupation, and establish the new Kingdom of Israel.

So, when they heard a teacher in their midst telling people that the myriad of these rules didn't have to be followed...we can only imagine their outrage. Here was someone who seemed to be trying to over-turn everything they believed...everything they followed. "He must be an anarchist!". Another word they may well have used to described Jesus was 'anti-nomian'. An antinomian is someone who, literally, is anti (against) laws (nomi). It's a theological word that has been used for 2000 years to hurl insults at people - especially those who have argued that our salvation comes through 'faith alone' (sola fide).

It was a worrying, perplexing time for the Pharisees. "If only people would keep the Law, then the Messiah would come, and we could kick out these Roman overlords. But here's this Jesus, letting people that laws don't matter!" You can understand why they decided that 'this Jesus' had to be got rid of, can't you?

The trouble is, human beings like laws. We use laws to regulate our society - to describe what is, or is not, acceptable behaviour. Laws help us to determine 'right' from 'wrong' - at least for the time being. Of course, laws change - and rightly so. The law which permitted slavery by the British was famously changed by William Wilberforce. The law of Apartheid was rightly over-turned in South Africa. But religious laws are rather more difficult to get a handle on...especially when significant groups of people believe that those laws are dictated directly by God. If you believe that God has ordained a law from on-high, then you are likely to believe that it cannot be least until God says so.

That's a large part of the trouble we are having in the Middle East, at the moment. Some Jewish people believe that God has ordained, by Law, that they should possess the whole land of Israel. Significant numbers of Muslims believe that adultery should be punished by death, that women should keep themselves covered up at all times, and that Mohammed was God's last great Prophet, whose writings are the actual words of God. Such attitudes are very difficult to change...because they are grounded in a belief that certain holy Scriptures are God-given, and can never be changed. It is no surprise, therefore, that when pressed to change their laws, people with such primitive beliefs about Scripture feel themselves backed into a corner. To them, giving up their laws would be like spitting on God. They cannot conceive of any other way of thinking. And that's essentially why the Middle East in particular, is such a powder-keg. The clash of ideas, the clash of deeply-held, primitive ideas about God, leads to the clash of armies.

But what, actually, was Jesus' saying about laws? What does this story of a simple healing on the Sabbath have to tell us. Was Jesus saying that the Sabbath law should be overturned...that it didn't matter anymore? What Jesus really an anti-nomian, or even an anarchist?

Let's look at his response to the synagogue leader who complained about a healing on the Sabbath. This man was similar to a Vicar in today's society. He was the leader of his congregation - the one charged with holding the faith while, sometimes, his congregation and the local population lived lives that were less than faithful. He would have been keen to point out error wherever he saw it. And to him, to this local Vicar, however wonderful and miraculous a healing might be, it was a bit of was an activity which should more properly be done on one of the other six days. He would have been terrified that God's Law, laid down in the Torah, was being flagrantly disobeyed, right in front of his eyes...right there, in his own synagogue. Because of his background and training, watching Jesus heal someone in his synagogue provoked the sort of reaction you would get from me if someone came in here this morning and started offering odds on the next race at Newmarket!

But listen to Jesus' reaction to his outburst. "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"

Jesus is not saying that the Sabbath doesn't matter. Instead, he is saying that we need to change our view about what the Sabbath is for. The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath isn't a day for not doing anything. It's a day for healing! The Sabbath isn't a day for restricting activity, it's a day, of all days, for doing something new. Jesus uses the newness of healing, the miracle of Divine love, to show that God doesn't rest on the Sabbath (as the writers of Genesis believed). Instead, God was alive, awake and active in the midst of his people!

What should this mean for us? It means that the Sabbath is the day when we draw aside from the normality of daily life, and embrace the 'numinous' - that is the power and the presence of God. If Jesus healed on the Sabbath, then we too can expect to come for healing, in body, mind and spirit.

Many of our neighbours in this parish have lost the habit of coming to seek God on a Sunday...which is precisely why, as a parish, we are embracing the idea of 'Back to Church Sunday' - on the 26th of September. Back to Church Sunday is a chance for us all to invite friends and neighbours to come with us, to find healing and wholeness through each other's company, and with God. On that Sunday, here in St Nicholas, Margaret Freeman will lead our celebration of Harvest, and baptise a new child into the Church.

I'm hoping that all of you will give some serious thought and prayer, over the next couple of weeks, as to which of your neighbours and friends you might invite to come 'back to church'. Think about those you know who perhaps used to come to church, but over the years have fallen out of the habit. Some people, when they have done that, become nervous of coming back to church...even when they feel that they want to. They worry that people will look at them and say "Hmph! About time you came to church!". Or that they will be pestered with questions..."Where have you been? Have you been to another church? Have you been ill?". Instead, on Back to Church Sunday, we want anyone who sets foot over the threshold of church...perhaps for the first time in many feel completely welcome, loved, and at home. We want to offer them, by our actions and by God's grace, the opportunity to connect again with the experience God's healing power...just like the woman that Jesus healed in the Synagogue all those years ago.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Eulogy for Jodie Deeming

Here's the text of the Eulogy I gave yesterday for Jodie Deeming.  It attempts to deal with at least some of the reasons why God allows children like poor Jodie to suffer, and to die - as well as paying tribute to a remarkable young woman.

Eulogy for Jodie Deeming
Delivered at St Mark's Church
19th August 2010

It is my task to attempt to sum Jodie up in a few short words.  Its not an easy task...because although her life has been short, there is a lot of life to convey.  I met Jodie for the first time just a couple of weeks ago...when she was slipping away.  Sadly, we didn’t get the chance to talk, because she was already heavily sedated.  I’m sad about that, because from all that I’ve heard about Jodie since then, I am sure that she is someone I would have really enjoyed getting to know.  There is no doubt that Jodie was a remarkable young woman - as all of you are obviously aware.  It’s a testament to the kind of person she was that you have all come to celebrate her life today.

Jodie was born in Birmingham, on the 17th of June 1996.  As soon as she become aware of her surroundings, her impish sense of humour started to show through.  Initially, Jodie was a little camera-shy.  She would dart behind the curtains, or behind the sofa, as soon as anyone pointed a camera at her - though I understand that she overcame that particular trait later in life!

Once, when Jodie was still a toddler, her sister Kerry was babysitting for her.  Kerry suddenly became aware that Jodie had disappeared.  “Oh no!”  Kerry panicked, and started looking everywhere for the missing toddler.  By the time Jodie’s mum, Annette, got home, poor Kerry was out of her mind with worry.  “Where could Jodie be?”  But Annette was wiser...she knew the tricks that Jodie liked to play, even at that age.  Annette pointed to the coat cupboard...and there, Kerry found Jodie, curled up and fast asleep - no doubt bored of waiting to be found.

When she was around 3 years old, Jodie’s family moved to Bognor, where Jodie started at nursery school.  Here, certain aspects of her character started to assert themselves.  With her new friends, Jodie would spend hours doing cartwheels, and then having competitions to see who could stand on their head for the longest.  It was at this early stage that Jodie’s artistic streak started to show through as well.  Painting and drawing were her favourite activities at nursery, by a long way.

By the time Jodie moved up to Michael Ayres School, as an infant, a certain shyness had started to show itself.  Jodie loved dressing up, and taking part in school plays...but she was not one for taking the leading roles.  She was happy just to be a shepherd or an angel when it came to Nativity plays.

Her slight shyness was, perhaps , an indication of Jodie’s imaginative streak.  She developed a deep love for the whole idea of fairies - after watching the story of two little girls who photographed fairies at the bottom of their garden in the time of Arthur Conan Doyle.  The Cottingley Fairies, as they were known, quickly captured Jodie’s imagination...and she began to draw fairies, and look for fairies everywhere.  When out for meals at Brewster’s Restaurants, Jodie would delight in having fairy transfer-tattoos stuck to her arm...and would leave them there as long as possible.

Dolphins were another creature which captured Jodie’s imagination.  She would dream of swimming with dolphins...drawing them often, and imagining herself in the dolphins’ watery-world.  Both dolphins and fairies became really important to Jodie in the later years of her life….they provided her with an escape from the more unpleasant treatments that she had to endure.

A few years later, Jodie and her family moved to Scotland, spending many happy days with Annette’s cousin Jean and her family.  Jodie was full of life and fun in those days - she loved swimming, golf at the park with her brothers, badminton and rounders.  She loved the park and the fair - especially Strathclyde park with its boats.  Of course, few of these activities were cheap...and when I met with them last week, Jodie’s cousin Bernie told me, with a wry smile, “she loved spending my money too!”

As I’ve listened to stories about Jodie, the word which has come up most often has been the word ’laughter’.  Jodie had an infectious laugh - and would quickly smile at the slightest funny event.  Her laughter has helped to imprint lots of little incidents in her family’s mind - such as:

  • the time when both Keiran, and later Anthony, had their sandwiches stolen by seagulls!
  • or the time when Annette’s cousin Jean had a bit of a struggle with a British Rail toilet door, which had Jodie on the floor with laughter!
  • or the time when the family were visiting the Isle of Wight - which Jodie loved - and missed the last hovercraft home.  (That meant a night on the beach...and some difficult walks up and down the steep streets of Ryde, with Jodie, by then in her wheelchair, and the whole family pushing from behind!

Jodie was rather a prankster, it seems.  Her early adventures in hiding from Kerry in the coat cupboard turned into a life-long love of little games and pranks.  She would often hide things for people to discover in strange places around the house.  She would give her friends joke sweets...innocent looking sweets which tasted awful!  On one memorable birthday which was held in hospital, she started squirting the nurses with a hypodermic needle.  That was no doubt a form of subtle revenge for Jodie, because she hated needles!  She would do anything to put off the moment when a needle had to be used...claiming she was hungry, or needed to go to the loo, or just asking ‘But what’s it for?’.  Another bit of good-natured pay-back would happen when bath-time came around.  If she got half a chance, Jodie would grab the shower-head, and soak the poor nurses!

Throughout the last few, difficult years - Jodie has always been looking for ways to bring joy to those around her.  She planted a garden at the family’s home...a garden of fairies and night-lights.  She planted shrubs which her family will be able to remember her by.  She made a beautiful mosaic pot, which I know Annette will always treasure.  Throughout her illness, Jodie has been always full of jokes, smiles and generosity.  She has been collecting and giving little gifts for family and friends...little gifts which I know will be treasured for ever.

There is something that Annette’s cousin Jean said to me last week that I think I will always remember.  She said “Annette was blessed...because she gave birth to an Angel”.  That seems, to me, to sum Jodie up very well.  Jodie had a light spirit, a spirit of laughter, a spirit of dreams, a spirit of generosity, and, ultimately a spirit that refused to be held down to the Earth.  The illness that she has suffered may have ultimately taken Jodie’s body, but it could not touch her spirit.

Annette told me that on the night Jodie passed away, just a few hours after we had prayed together with her, Jodie had a smile on her face.  That smile said a great deal.  Perhaps it was a smile of good memories - as Jodie remembered the laughter she has shared with her family.   Perhaps it was a smile of cheeky anticipation as she thought about the little things she has undoubtedly hidden around the house for her family to discover in the coming days.   Perhaps it was a smile of recognition as she saw relatives who have already passed on, coming to meet her - like her much loved grand-mother. I am sure it was all of these things - but also, I’m sure, she was smiling at the face of the God who loves her, and who wants her to live with him for eternity.

Some of us may be wondering where God has been in the last three years, while Jodie has been battling with her illness.  That’s a real question - and a right question to ask.  It’s one that  I have to confront often as a priest.  Let me share with you something of the conclusion I have reached.  God has given the human race enormous of intelligence and creativity.  We have the ability to create amazing things, and advance every day in our knowledge.  But, sadly, much of the human race seems to ignore the simple rule that God has laid down for his children...the rule that we should love God, and love one another.  Instead, ever since Jesus taught us how to live, we have been busy fighting each other.  We battle over land, we battle over ideas, we battle because of greed for money and power - and we don’t spend our resources on battling disease.

Last year, the Medical Research Council spent around a billion pounds on finding cures for diseases like Jodie’s.  That sounds a lot, until you realise that in the same year, we spent nearly 44 billion pounds on defence, and countless billions propping up our corrupt banking system.  Now, I know we need defence, and indeed banks...but that seems a very imbalanced picture to me.

So where was God, during Jodie’s suffering?  God was, as God has always been, calling out to a greedy, war-torn, consumer-driven society and saying - “for the sake of Christ, stop fighting and start loving! Spend your resources on things that are holy and healthy, instead of bombs and bullets, banks and bling”

I have no doubt that God weeps over the death of children like Jodie.  But God can’t intervene miraculously all the time.  If he did, the human race would never learn...never grow...never turn away from greed and war, and turn towards love.  Instead, for the greater good of the whole human race, God has to sometimes let children like Jodie slip away...because we are so often blind to the deaths of millions of adults, but the death of a child forces us to confront who we are.  It forces us to think about whether the way we live, and the actions we take as a society have, albeit indirectly, contributed to such a child's death.  Our insatiable appetite for oil - and for other 'stuff' - leads to wars.  Our greedy lust for money, and for living in debt, leads to the collapse of banks.  All these ways of living draw vital resources away from medical research, and into the pockets of weapons-dealers and billionaire bankers.  Every penny spent on mopping up our western life-style, every penny spent on dealing with alcohol and drug abuse for example every Friday and Saturday night in the centre of Portsmouth, is a penny which could have been spent on medical research.

But there is no doubt in my mind that, for Jodie, this moment is anything but the end.  Dying is something we must all do - none of us is immune.  But people of Faith believe that death is only a doorway, a doorway to an eternity of life with the Creator of all life.

I have a vision in my mind:  it is a vision of Jodie, happy and grateful for the love that she has shared during her short time on Earth...and now, while she waits for the short years before she will be reunited with those she loves, I see Jodie, swimming with dolphins, dancing with fairies, and flying with angels.  I see her caught up in the love of God, sharing God’s love and shining God’s love to all who would receive it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

He has put down the mighty from their seats...?

Luke 1: 46-55 "The Magnificat".  (See also this imaginative re-telling of the story

We've been living through really difficult times lately, haven't we? There have been wars going on all around the planet - Sri Lanka, the Congo, Iraq, and of course Afghanistan. In a thousand cities, we've seen small acts of violence too: even on our own streets in Portsmouth, we've seen a number of examples of citizens getting their heads kicked in by roaming bands of feral teenagers.

We've also been living through the collapse of our banking system - with something like half of the UK's banks being brought into public ownership. And we've heard about the massive, obscene, bonuses paid to senior bank officials who presided over these collapses.  And just this week, while public services are being cut to millions of needy people, school budgets slashed, healthcare and social services slashed - the banks have announced that they are in profit again!  And their Directors are once again receiving massive salaries and bonuses.

So its all around us, isn't it? Violence, war, greed, fraud and theft. It would be very tempting to think that the end of the world must be nigh. Perhaps I'll make myself up one of those sandwich boards, and walk up and down North End high street, with "The End is Nigh" on my back!

It might be even more challenging to ask ourselves what kind of world we are bringing the next generation of human beings into. A world of violence, war, greed, fraud and theft - to say nothing of global warming. Are we doing the right thing by bringing children into this kind of world? Is the human world, as we know it, about to end - burnt up in the fire of its own greed and corruption and violence? there another story? As we heard just now, in the Bible reading, when Mary received the news that she was to bring God's saviour into the world, her immediate response was to sing a song. In her song, she goes on to sing about the wonderful things that the Lord has done, and will do, to the proud, and the arrogant, and the mighty.

She says, "He has stretched out his mighty arm, and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands."

Mary's song gives us an entirely different perspective on the world - God's perspective. She sings of a God who deals with the proud and the greedy and the powerful. What really fascinates me is that Mary sings in the past tense - she is singing about what God has already done, as well as looking to the future.   And well she might...

The Hebrew Scriptures - what we call the Old Testament - are a story about exactly how God deals with the proud and the mighty. The story starts with Adam and Eve, who were too proud to listen to a very simple command... 'don't touch' - and decided that they knew better than God. The result - they are thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Next comes the story of the Flood, in which God decides to wipe from the face of the earth all those whose hearts had become devoted to wickedness. Moving on, there comes the Tower of Babel - built by a people who wanted to reach the stars, to become like God... who are then cast down, and confused by God. These are ancient legends - ancient stories designed to make us reflect on our own lives, our own attitudes.

Over and over again, the Bible teaches us that God will not tolerate the proud and the mighty. Time and time again he 'puts down the mighty from their seats, and exalts the humble and meek'. We see the same pattern in more recent history. Napoleon - conqueror of Europe, self proclaimed Emperor...lived out his days in exile on a small island. Hitler, murderer of Jews, conqueror of Europe, shot himself in a bunker in Berlin. Saddam Hussein, mass murderer of Kurds, despotic dictator with palaces all over Iraq, hanged by a rope. "He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted the humble and meek". (Luke 1:52)

Are we seeing something similar going on today? Mighty banks have collapsed. The corruption of some MPs has been laid bare. The mighty have certainly been humbled. This seems to be a cyclical element of history... the mighty rise, come to power, become corrupt, and fall. There's an old saying that "evil sows the seeds of its own destruction" - and perhaps that is what is going on. Another saying comes from Jesus: 'a house built on sand, will collapse'. Those who build their lives on the sand of money, wealth and power will find that their lives have no foundation.

But there is another way. There is an alternative... an alternative that God has called humanity to throughout its history... an alternative that humankind has steadfastly ignored. In the words of the ancient prophet Micah: "[God] has showed you O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8).

Jesus picked up on this theme. Jesus taught that acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God were the very essence of God's plan for the world. Imagining a judgment day, when evil-doers would be separated from the people of God, Jesus commends those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, gave clothes to the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Sometimes the old ones are the let me remind you of the story of four people, whose names were Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.  It goes like this:

Once upon a time there was an important job to be done, and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.  Somebody got upset because it was Everybody's job.  Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn't do it.  It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Isn't that so often the way?  All of us can be great at recognising the importance of a task.  But sometimes, we are all just a little bit guilty of leaving that task to other people.  We all imagine that our lives are the busiest ones...and the surely everyone else has got more time than we have.  And so we don't quite put our hand up to help, when help is needed.  We assume that someone else will do it.  Or we don't quite get our wallets out when our money is called for...because 'someone else will do it'.

Today...this day...this very day...people are dying in Pakistan.  14 million people have been displaced by a river that has swollen to over 18 miles wide in places.  1,600 people have already lost their lives - and many more will die as cholera, malnutrition and famine breaks out.  What are we going to do about it?  Are we going to let someone else worry about it...or are we going to do something ourselves?

Are we, in other words, going to grasp hold of Mary's message - and God's vision - that the humble and poor will be lifted this case out of the flood waters?  Are we willing to do our part as Jesus’ family to ‘fill the hungry with good things?’  Or, are we going to be content to let the wealthy, money-grabbing, mighty-in-their seats have their way once again.  Because, let's not be in any doubt.  Most people are not dying in Pakistan because of the flood.  Most people are dying because they lived in houses made of mud, they didn't have the transport to get out of the way of the rising water, their relatives were too sick from lack of medical care to be able to move, and the Government was too weak, corrupt and under-funded to be able to respond.  People are not dying because of water...they are dying because of their poverty. the end of the service today, there will be an opportunity to take some action.  Get out those wallets and cheque-books - and lets see if we can't send a message from the Christians of North End...a message which says to the humble and poor of Pakistan that God does care about them...he cares enough to have sent and Angel to the Mother of our Lord, with a message for all mankind to hear.


The Annunciation

An imaginative re-telling of the Annunciation. (Luke 1: 26-38, 46-55)

Mary plonked herself down onto her bed.  "Crikey, I'm whacked!" she said.  It had been a long day of household chores - chasing spiders out of corners, catching up with the laundry, sweeping, dusting, cooking.  But now, Mary had one more important job do.  She reached down, under her bed, and pulled out an old basket.  Inside was her nearly-finished wedding robe...the one she had been working on for the past several weeks.

Mary was engaged to Joseph, the old carpenter in the village.  No-one knew why Joseph had not been married before...perhaps he had been waiting for the right girl to come along.  Mary's mind started to wander as she stitched along the hem.  I wonder what its going to be like - being married.  Come to that - what's it going to be like to kiss him?  He's got that great big bushy beard...I wonder whether it will tickle!

At that moment, unbeknown to Mary, something began to happen in the corner of her room - just over her shoulder.  A twinkle in the air.  Now a soft glow. Then, suddenly, a tall figure with wings on his back appeared in the corner.

"Greetings!" said the figure.

Mary jumped out of her skin!  "Where did you come from?", she demanded.  "You shouldn't creep up on people like that!"  No-one in Mary's village ever locked the door...they had nothing worth stealing anyway.  People were always popping in and out of each other's houses...but they usually knocked first.

The tall figure with the wings, looked a little surprised at her reaction.  People usually quaked in fear when he appeared.  He wasn't used to being told off.  "Sorry", he mumbled.  "Didn't mean to startle you.  Can I go on now?"

"Alright"  said Mary, thinking that this tall fellow looked a little bit like one of Mrs Cohen's sons, from down the road.  "What's this all about....and why have you got those wings clipped onto your coat?  Are you going to a fancy dress party?"

"They're not clipped onto my coat." said the tall man.  "They're sticking out of my coat...they're my wings."

"Oh," said Mary who was beginning to realise that this wasn't Mrs Cohen's boy after all.  "Who are you?"

"I'm an Angel", said the Angel.

"Get away!" said Mary.  "You're pulling my leg.  What's this...some kind of prank?"

"No, really", said the Angel.  "I'm an actual, real, Angel.  Sent by God.  I've got a very important message for you. You are really very favoured you know.  Not everyone gets a real Angel sent with a message from God."

Mary was distinctly puzzled by now.  An Angel?  Sent to her?  Here in little Nazareth?  What ever can it mean?  Confronted by the reality of the situation, Mary started to shake.  "I'm sorry, Angel," she said, "I didn't mean any dis-respect.  I thought you looked like Nathaniel from down the road...dressed up.  Oh blimey!  What have I done?"

The Angel looked kindly at Mary.  "Don't worry about it, Mary.  Don't be afraid.  It was an easy mistake to make.  Visits from Angels are pretty rare, after all.  Now listen..."

"Ok," said Mary.  "I'm all ears!"

"Mary," the Angel started again, patiently, "I've got really good news for you.  You are to be given the greatest gift that any woman has ever been given."

"Oh, my!" said Mary, agog.

"Yes," the Angel went on, "You are going to have a baby, sent from God.  You are to name him Yeshua"

"What, like Yeshua who led the People into the Promised Land?"  Mary enquired...trying to take in what the Angel was saying.

"Yes," said the Angel, "Just like that...although years from now people will change the way they pronounce it, and will call him Jesus."  The Angel drew himself up to his full height, and started to proclaim, slightly pompously, "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever."  (The Angel was really working himself up to a climax now...the big finish.)  "His kingdom will never end...and..."

"Erm...", said Mary, holding up a finger.

"What now?!" said the Angel - a little bit annoyed that he had been stopped in mid-flow like that.

"Tiny problem." said Mary.  "Just a tincy wincy little problem"

"What?!" said the Angel

"Well, you see, I don't think I can have a baby.  I'm not married yet.  Haven't even kissed Joseph yet.  Do you know whether beards tickle, by the way?"  The Angel took a deep breath.

"Mary, Mary, don't be contrary".

"Oh - that was clever.  A little rhyme!"  The Angel raised his eyebrows, and went on regardless.  A little pomposity crept into his voice again.

"Nothing is impossible for God.  The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy baby that will be born will be the Son of God."  Suddenly, he had an idea.  "Haven't you heard about Elizabeth?"

"What, my cousin Elizabeth?"  Mary said.  "What about her?"

"She's pregnant....has been for six months"

"Never!" said Mary.  "But she's really old!"

"Nothing is impossible for God", repeated the Angel.

"Well," said Mary.  "It all sounds very unlikely, I must say.  I mean, why on earth would God choose a peasant like me to bear his son. The son of God will be born in the palace, surely? Are you sure those wings are real?"

"Actually Mary" said the Angel, "I'm completely sure.  You see, God doesn't like the kind of people who lord it over others in palaces.  He's much more interested in the poor and the humble"

"Get away!" said Mary.  "Well, they don't come much poorer than me.  Even got to make my own wedding robe" she said, holding up her sewing for the Angel to see.

"It's always been God's way.  Right back to the dawn of time.  Don't you know your history?  Don't you remember how God rescued your ancestors when they were slaves?  Don't you remember how he gave you a land to inhabit, even though you were just wandering nomads?  God has always loved the poor.  People whose lives are not cluttered up with stuff are so much closer to him.  Abraham was just a poor wanderer - and look how he turned out.  God says that Moses only become interesting when he had stopped being a prince.  God had been talking to him for years...but Moses only heard him when he had become a poor goat-herder up a mountain."

"Hmm," said Mary, still not quite convinced.  "Let me get this straight.  I'm going to have a baby, right?"

"Yep" said the Angel

"Even though I've not even kissed Joseph yet?"

"Even then"

"And my baby is going to be the Son of God...even though he will be born in this little hut?"

"Well," said the Angel cautiously, "He won't actually be born here..."

"Why not?" asked Mary, suspiciously

"It'll be a bit more rustic than this"

"A bit more rustic?  How much more rustic do you want it?" said Mary, pointing at her surroundings.

"Umm" said the Angel, with a worried look in his eye, "Think donkeys.  And cows"

"What!" exclaimed Mary.  "My baby is going to be born in a field?!"

"Oh no!", said the Angel.  "Nothing as bad as that.  More like a stable"

"A stable!" said Mary.

"Mary..." said the Angel, a little sternly.  "You've got to trust me.  You've got to trust God.  God knows what he is doing.  Yeshua has to be born somewhere that no-one would expect a king to be born.  He's got to be born in utter that God's priority for the poor and the humble can be made clear.  In years to come, people will help one another in his name, precisely because of his humble origins.  He will be one of the people, born like the poorest of the that the people will take him to their hearts and trust him."

"How will they help one another?" asked Mary, intrigued by these strange ideas.

"Well," said the Angel thoughtfully, "Let me see.  I's an example.  About 2000 years from now, there will be a great flood in a distant land."

"How distant?" said Mary...always one for detail.

"It doesn't matter" said the Angel. "Just trust me...a long way away.  The land will be called Pakistan.  It will be overwhelmed by water.  A river will burst its banks, and will swell to over 18 miles wide."

"Wow!" said Mary, in awe.  "18 miles!"

"Yes," said the Angel, " and fourteen million people will be made homeless by this great flood."

"Fourteen million!" exclaimed Mary

"Yes, and many of them will die.  They will be so poor, these people.  They will be poor because the rulers of the world in that time will be greedy people...people who are content to live in palaces, while millions outside are starving and dying from the kind of diseases which floods will bring."

"That's awful!" said Mary.  "Why won't God do something to save them?"

"He will." replied the Angel.  "He will send his son, through you, to tell people how God wants them to live.  Yeshua will teach the people that the way to gain life is to give it away.  He will teach people not to store up wealth for themselves, but to share their wealth with everyone who has need.  He will demonstrate the power of that idea by giving up his own life for others!"

"No!" said Mary.  "First you say I'm going to have a son, and then you tell me he's going to die!"

"Everyone dies, Mary" the Angel said kindly.  "The only question is whether their death, and their life, has any meaning"

"So what meaning will my son's death have?"

"By dying, Yeshua will show people how far God is willing to go to save them - how much God loves them.  Inspired by that love, people who follow Yeshua, 2000 years from now, will open their hearts and their wallets - and will give all that they can to help the people who are starving and dying in the great flood in that distant land.  Through the example of your son, Mary, many people will be saved.  Through your son, Mary, the humble and meek will be lifted up, out of the flood; and the hungry will be fed."

Mary slid forward off her bed, until she was kneeling on the floor in front of the Angel.

"I am the Lord's servant", she said.  "May it be to me as you have said"

The Angel smiled.  Mary had accepted what he had told her.  She had tasted something of her future, and the future that would be shaped by her Son.  Satisfied that his task was complete, the Angel slowly faded from Mary's view.  

Mary's heart was full to bursting...and she sang...

"My soul is bursting with God's news!
I'm dancing the song of my Saviour-God!
God took one look at me, and look what happened -
I am the most fortunate woman on Earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe of him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He has knocked tyrants off their high horses
and pulled their victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold..."

In the corner of Mary's room, the smile of an Angel hung in the air for a few seconds.  And was gone.

(N.B. Mary's song is slightly adapted from The Message - a 'transliteration' of the Bible, by bible scholar Eugene Peterson.   It is intended to convey the meaning of the ancient texts to modern ears, though not word for word.  Pedants, please note that according to Luke's account, Mary went to see her cousin Elizabeth before singing her song.  I've left that out for dramatic reasons!)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Not to be served, but to serve

Matthew 20. 20-28

It was a lovely sunny afternoon, that day.  The disciples and the crowds had been following Jesus all around the countryside, through Galilee and Judea, listening to his teaching, hanging on his every word.  Now, Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem.  Something had happened to Jesus.  He seemed, to the disciples, to be more sombre, more thoughtful.  It was as if a small cloud had settled over him.  He walked along in silence, staring thoughtfully into the distance, or watching his feet as they plodded along the road to Jerusalem.  Occasionally, he would look up from his deep thought, and would watch a bird as it flashed across the fields to the side of the road; or a bee as it buzzed from flower to flower.  Jesus was lost in thought.  Something was obviously preying on his mind.

Towards sunset, as the crowd started to cast about for places to camp for the night, Jesus motioned to his disciples.  Instantly, they stopped laying out their sleeping blankets, and clustered around him.  What did the Master want?  What did he need from them.

With a cock of his head, Jesus motioned his closest friends, his disciples, to follow him.  They moved off up a slope, a few hundred yards from the rest of the crowd, where Jesus pointed to a patch of shade under an olive tree.  The disciples sat down, teasing Peter as he lowered his slightly arthritic hip onto the dirt.  Matthew and Nathaniel leaned against the trunk of the tree.  And then all 12 pairs of eyes focused on the Master.  What was he going to say to them?  This was going to be interesting.

Jesus seemed hesitant.  What he was going to tell them was going to upsetting for them to hear.  It was going to shatter some of them...they would not understand it.  They would protest.  Some might even decide that they didn't want to follow him anymore.  Jesus took a deep breath, and began.
      "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said.  Judas and Andrew exchanged glances.  Yes, their eyes communicated.  We know.  We're not stupid.  Jesus went on,
      "And when we get there, the Son of Man is going to be betrayed to the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law."
      Simon began to protest.  "What?!" he said. "How can that happen?  You've got all these crowds...."  Jesus held up his hand, and Simon fell silent.
      "And..." Jesus went on, "They will condemn him to death"
      It was Andrew's turn now.  "No, Lord!" he protested.  "That's impossible.  Look how everyone loves you! Everyone is following you".  Jesus shook his head.  That sad look the Disciples had been noticing all day clouded his eyes again.
     "The Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law will condemn him to death," Jesus repeated. "And then they will turn him over to the Gentiles - to the Romans - to be mocked and flogged and crucified."  The Disciples erupted.  Each one tried to out-do the other with protestations.  "No, Lord!  We won't let that happen!  It's impossible!  No-one could do that to you".
      Jesus stood back and watched.  He let them rail their incomprehension at him for a while.  And then, he started smiling.  A smile crept into his eyes, and then made its way down to his mouth, until it took possession of his whole face.  The Disciples' protests dropped to a low murmur, and then to silence.  "Why is he smiling?  Has he been winding us up?"  Jesus fixed the Disciples with his eyes, and finished his speech,
      "But on the third day, he will be raised to life!"
      There was silence.  Thomas turned towards Thadeus and mouthed, "He's cracked!.  Must be the sun.  Go and get him some water".  Thadeus, shook his head.  This wasn't the first time that Jesus had said this kind of stuff.  Though this time, it looked like Jesus really meant it.   Besides, Thadeus wasn't Judas' slave.  If Judas wanted to get Jesus some water he could do it himself.  Thadeus wanted to stay and see what happened next.
        But nothing happened.  Having said what he wanted to say, Jesus turned away from the Disciples, and made his way down the slope to the rest of the crowd.  The Disciples watched him leave...wondering what it all meant.
       Simon was the first to speak.  "Well, I believe him," he stated boldly.  "Everything else he has ever told us has been completely trustworthy, hasn't it.  He turned to James and John, the so called 'Sons of Thunder'.  "James, John, don't you remember how Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on that mountain the other day?  When only the three of us with were him?  If he can do that, I can certainly believe that he could rise from the dead."
       "Yes," replied James.  "But what happens then?  Once he's raised from the dead.  What is he going to do after that?"
       Matthew, the former civil servant, piped up.  "Well, I reckon he'll start a new Government.  I reckon he'll sort out the Romans, and then set up a new, holy know, that 'Kingdom of God' that he's always been talking about.  I wonder who he'll ask to be Chancellor?"  Matthew suddenly had a far-way look in his eye.
       "And who will he make Prime Minister?" said Andrew.  "Simon...that's going to be you!"  Simon shook his head modestly - but he smiled as well.  Everyone knew that Simon was Jesus' right hand man.
       The Disciples continued to banter among themselves.  Who would be minister in charge of the drains?, they laughed.  Who would command the army?  But James and John, the Sons of Thunder, went silent.  They didn't like the way that their friends were talking.  They were not at all happy about having posts in the new Kingdom of God being carved up like this.  James listened for a while, but then decided he'd had enough.
       "See you later, guys."  he said.  "I'm off to bed.  Come on John."  John got up off the ground, and followed James down the slope towards the crowd.  When they got back to their pitch, their Mother was waiting.  Like many of the women-folk of the Disciples, she had tagged along on this expedition.  It was the most exciting thing to have happened in this part of the world for decades...and she wasn't going to miss any of it.  As her boys approached their little patch of ground, she pulled them into her tent.
      "Well?" she demanded.  "What did he want?"
      James looked at John, and raised an eyebrow.  Should they tell her?  Did Jesus want everyone to know what was going to happen?  Or had it been confidential?
      John made up his mind.  "Listen Mother," he began.  "I don't know if we should be telling you this - so keep it under your hat for now."
      "Ok Son," said his Mother.  "Just tell me what he said"
      "Well," said John.  "It was a bit weird.  He said that when we get to Jerusalem, he expects to be arrested, tried and crucified."
      "What?!"  said his Mother.  "That can't be right.  You must have mis-heard him.  I'm always saying you should pay attention when people are speaking to you!  James, you tell me.  What did Jesus really say?"
      "John is right, Mother" said James.  "That is exactly what he said.  But then he said something even more weird."
      "He said that after three days of being dead, he would rise to life"
      James and John's Mother didn't say anything.  She wasn't especially surprised.  She had seen things on this trip which had already blown her mind.  Nothing Jesus said or promised would surprise her any more.  She pondered for a minute, and then said,
      "And what then?"
      "I beg your pardon?" said John
      "What then?" said his Mother.  "What happens after he rises from the dead?"
      "Funnily enough," said James,  "That's what we were all talking about just now, after Jesus had left.  Matthew thinks Jesus is going to start a new Kingdom, with himself on a heavenly throne.  Matthew was wondering whether Jesus might make him Chancellor of the Exchequer...he used to be a tax-man you know!"
      John piped up. "And Andrew thought that Jesus would probably make Simon into his Prime Minister"
      John's Mother looked aghast.  "What!" she exclaimed.  "That bumbling fool!  I'll Prime Minister him when I get my hands on him!"
      James put out his hand and patted his Mother on her shoulder.  "Don't worry about it Mum.  We were only mucking around.  Just trying to use a bit of humour to lighten the mood.  I'm sure Jesus knows what he's doing...even if we don't.  Let's get some sleep.  Another long day tomorrow."
      At that, the three of them hunkered down for the night, and tried to catch some sleep.  Except for Sarah - John and James' Mother.  She lay awake, looking up at the roof of the tent.  I wonder, she thought.  I wonder.  If Jesus is going to set up a new Kingdom, what's going to be in it for my boys?  They've been with him right from the beginning.  I'll bet Jesus has got a plumb job in mind for them.  But what if he hasn't?  What if he's going to give all the best jobs to the others.  I couldn't stand it!  I'd be a mockery back in Galilee.  Everyone would say "there goes old Sarah who followed the King around for months with her two boys, and didn't get anything".  I'd be so embarrassed.  Maybe if I just have a little word with Jesus.  Maybe if I just plant an idea in his head...

      The next day, Sarah woke up early.  Her mind was made up.  She would talk to Jesus.  She quickly rustled up a couple of unleavened loaves for her sons' breakfast...and then poked them.  "Come on," she said.  "Time to get up".
      James opened one eye and moaned.  "It's too early!" he protested.  "Jesus said we would be heading off a bit later this morning".  Sarah plonked a bread roll on James' blanket, and went out of the tent.
      John rolled over and sat up.  "What's all the fuss?"  he asked.
      "It's Mother" replied James.  "She's hatching something.  I just know it."
      "Oh no." said John, tearing off a hunk of the bread and chewing thoughtfully.  "This is not going to be good"

     Five minutes later, Sarah came back into the tent, and pulled the blankets off both her sons.  "Come on!" she announced.  "We're going to see Jesus".  No son would dare argue with his Mother when she has got that look of determination in her eyes.  So James and John, reluctantly dragged themselves out of the tent, and followed their Mother as she marched determinedly up the slope to a large rock on which Jesus was sitting, looking out over the camp.
      "What's she up to?" said James
      "I've no idea." replied John.  "But its not going to be good."
      When Sarah arrived in front of Jesus, she knelt down on the ground in front him.  Jesus looked down at her, wondering, smiling.  "Hello Sarah", he said.  "Lovely day"
      "Rabbi", said Sarah, "I've come to ask a favour of you".
      "Oh yes?" said Jesus  "What is it that you want?"
      "I've heard all about what you said last night" Sarah began.  "I've come to ask you to grant me a great honour."
      "Really" said Jesus.  "What would that be then?"
      "Rabbi - I'd like to you grant that when you set up the new Kingdom, you'll let one of my sons sit at the right hand of your throne, and the other on the left".  There was a moment of silence, a pause while Jesus gathered his thoughts.  James and John stood stock still - like a couple of statues.  They couldn't believe their ears.  What was Mother playing at?  Smiling, Jesus looked down into Sarah's expectant face.
      "Sarah", he said.  And then, not unkindly,  "You don't know what you are asking".  Looking up at James and John, Jesus said, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"
      James looked quickly at John.  There was a chance here.  Perhaps they might just make it, and become Jesus' right hand men.  John nodded at James, and together they looked at Jesus with resolution and replied, "We can".
      Jesus looked disappointed.  He had hoped for better from these two.  He had hoped that perhaps they had begun to understand that his Kingdom was not like that at all.  He shook his head, and said, "You will indeed drink from my cup.  But to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.  These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."  James and John were a bit puzzled, but they they were wise enough to know when to back down.  What did Jesus mean?  We will drink from his cup, but the places of honour are decided by God?  That was typical of Jesus.  He always talked in riddles.
      Sarah was still kneeling in front of Jesus, listening intently to all that was going on over her head.  James reached down and gently lifted her to her feet.  "Come on Mother," he said.  "Let's go".
      Sarah got up, looking quite a bit more pleased with herself than James and John were feeling.  She had heard Jesus promise her boys that they would drink from his cup.  She had no idea what that meant.  But it sounded good.  It sounded promising.  "Thank you, Rabbi", she said, nodding her head ingratiatingly.  "Thank you, thank you".  And then bowing to Jesus, repeatedly, she backed away from him, and allowed herself to be led away by James.
      As they threaded their way back through the camp, Sarah turned to John and said, "Did you hear that?  He said you would drink from his cup!  And he said that God would decided who would sit with him on his throne.  He didn't say it wouldn't be you though!  And he did say that you would drink from his cup!  There's still hope, there's still hope".
      By now the camp was starting to stir.  "Sshhh, Mother", said James.  "You mustn't go on like that.  People will start to think that you are asking for special favours".
      "So what if I am?" said Sarah.  "Can't a woman ask for favours for her own sons?"
      And sure enough, people in the camp did indeed think that Sarah was asking for favours - and even worse, that James and John had gone along with her.  As people began to come to, some of them heard this exchange going on between the Sons of Thunder and their Mother, and they began to gossip.  Neighbour began to wake neighbour with the news that James and John had been up to see Jesus and asked for preferential treatment.  "That's not right!"  "Who do they think they are?"  Within a few minutes, the buzz was round the whole camp.  Within half an hour, the news had reached the ears of the other ten Disciples - Simon, Andrew, Thaddeus, Judas, and the others.  They were livid!  After a quick discussion together, they decided that this would just no do, and they all strutted over to where James, John and Sarah were striking camp.
       Simon, ever the spokesperson, spoke first.  "What's this we hear?  Have you been up to Jesus to ask for a place on his right and left hands?"
       James looked at the ground, and shuffled his feet nervously.  "Wasn't us", he mumbled.  "It was Mother".
       "That's not good enough" replied Simon.  "Can't you control your Mother?  Call yourself men!  And you let you Mother go and do your dirty work for you!"
       Jesus, in the meantime, had been sitting on his rock, looking over the camp.  He wasn't surprised.  Disappointed, but not surprised.  He had watched the little trio going back to their tent very sadly.  He had watched as neighbour gossiped to neighbour around the camp - and he had smiled to himself as he saw Simon stride across the camp over to James and John with the other nine disciples in his wake.  Jesus made a decision.  It's time for me to intervene here, he thought.  It's time that the lesson they've been teaching themselves this morning was explained to them.
       Wearily, Jesus climbed down from his rock, and wandered down the slope to where the ten disciples were gathered around the other two.  As he approached, one of the Disciples, Philip, looked up from the argument, and saw Jesus approaching.  He nudged Bartholomew in the ribs and pointed at the approaching Rabbi.  Bartholomew nudged Matthew, Matthew nudged Andrew and in a few seconds, the little group of angry men had ceased shouting, and waited for Jesus to approach.
       Jesus walked up to them and stopped.  He looked around at them with love, but also a little disappointment in his eyes.  Into the anger in the air around him, Jesus spoke gently.
      "You know how the Gentiles do things, don't you?  You know how their rulers lord it over the rest of the people, and how their high officials dominate everyone else?"  A few of the Disciples grunted.  They knew what Jesus meant - they had seen how the Romans bossed everyone else around.  "Well", Jesus went on, "That is not how it shall be with you.  Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant - not your Prime Minister," he said, looking knowingly at Peter, "and not your Chancellor", he said, smiling at Matthew.  "And whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to everyone else.  This should not surprise you.  The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.  The Son of Man came to give his life up, like a sort of ransom paid to a kidnapper, not to go lording it up over anyone."
     And then, the Disciples noticed that Jesus' eyes seemed to become distant.  He seemed to be staring off into the distance, over vast miles, and even through time itself.  And then, Jesus' voice was heard in a tiny little church in the heart of Portsmouth, in a little church named out of affection for another follower of Jesus, a man called Mark.  There was a congregation gathered that morning.  A congregation of ordinary people - people just like the Disciples and the other followers of Jesus.  These were ordinary people - but people who  had heard the call of Jesus, across the millennia - the call to live in ways that were life-giving; the call to live in love with God, and with each other.  These were people who longed to hear Jesus speak to them, and longed to hear from him how life could be richer, deeper, more meaningful.  And across time, and through the walls of the church that morning, the people of St Mark heard Jesus speaking to them.
     "In my service, there is perfect freedom.  By serving me, in your homes, in your jobs, in your schools, in your church, in your community - you will find me.  By serving me with your time, and with your talents and with your money, you will know me. When you serve others, you serve me.  When you reach out to others, you reach out to me."
     And all the people, in that little church in North End, said, "Amen".