Love Life Live Advent – 9th December – give a free gift

Today’s action is possibly the most quandary-inducing of the whole four weeks’ worth. We are to give a Christmas gift to someone who will not be expecting it, and who will not be giving one to us. Ah, free grace and generosity are fraught with such dilemmas of social ettiquette! What if our gift induces a flurry of last minute reciprocation? Or guilt at failing to reciprocate? Would an anonymous gift solve the problem or intensify it, as generosity goes unthanked, or is mistakenly thought to be more than it is – a simple act of kindness?

Unless I am the only person in the world who worries about such things, then this action could be hugely important, not so much in the act of giving but in the act of receiving. For it may well be more blessed to give than to receive, but it is often far harder to receive gracefully than to give gracefully: This action could teach us how to receive that which we have not earned. And there it is: a little glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.

Argh! I’ve got the Son of God sitting right there on my sofa and I haven’t hoovered!

A little sermony something on Mary and Martha (Luke 10.38-end)

Let’s start with what I’m not going to say:

1. I’m not going to say that this story is an argument against hospitality and a criticism of those who give their time and skill in the service of others: the coffee makers, the cake bakers, the washer-uppers…. not least because I’d probably never again be brought a drink after the service!

2.  I’m not going to say that the story means simply that housework is bad and self-indulgent religious experiences are good.

3. I’m also not going to say that it’s a simple contrast between ‘being’ and ‘doing’, between the interior life of faith and the outward expression of that faith in actions that serve others.

So, if I’m not going to say that this story is about any of those things, what is it about?

First it’s about expectations.

To sit at the feet of a Rabbi was what you did if you were planning on becoming one – you learned the stories of the faith, and you learned to share them, to interpret them for others. You learned the faith so you could teach it.  And in those days, a woman could not become a Rabbi, so there was no point in Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet.  Martha would have seen it as being (at best) self-indulgent and (at worst) cringe-makingly arrogant and inappropriate.

But Jesus says that Mary is, in fact, in precisely the right place, and defends her right to be there. Why?

1. Because Jesus seems to have a rather different attitude to women than most of his contemporaries – briefly, he seems to treat women simply as human beings.

2. He knows that women will be the sharers of the faith – they are already disciples, and by the end of the gospel accounts of his life, death and resurrection, they are also revealed as apostles (the very first apostles, in fact).  Just think first of the Samaritan woman at the well whose testimony brought her whole city to faith in Jesus, and then think on to the women in the garden who first brought the good news of the resurrection.

3. Because God does unexpected things.  He calls Galilean fishermen to be great preachers. He calls tax collectors to be ministers. He calls women to be apostles.  God is clearly incapable of pandering to stereotypes and working purely within our expectations. God does unexpected and odd things, and gives us new and exciting directions to go in and gifts to explore. Just because you’ve always done the washing up or the flower arranging doesn’t mean God can’t call you to lead the intercessions. Or the other way round.  Just because we might not fancy ourselves as apostles doesn’t mean that God shares our narrow expectations, and he may well put opportunities in front of us for the sharing of the faith in word and in deed.

The second thing this story is about for me is quite simply this:  Jesus has come to Mary and Martha’s house. The Son of God, the Messiah, the Second person of the Trinity, is sitting in their living room !!!! I do know that tea making ad washing up are important, but really, what could possibly be more important than the fact that The Son of God has come to my house and he’s come to see me!

When the woman at Bethany annointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, and Judas accused the gesture of being wasteful, Jesus said to him, “You will always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”  He might well say the same to Martha in this story: “There will always be housework to do, but you won’t always have me right here, with you.”  And it needn’t just be housework either, or any other gender-stereotyped activity – it could easily be mending your fishing nets, or making good that hole in your boat.  And if you want to bring it up to date I’m pretty sure we could all add our own list of things that get in the way of us actually spending time with the God who’s come all this way just to be with us.

Spending time with God is incredibly important. The busier you are, the more precious a gift that time is.  Learning the stories of the faith and learning to articulate them for ourselves is equally an incredibly important process, and the less confident we are about it, the more we need to be given space to ask the questions, and the encouragement to share our doubts and ideas.

Serving God is also incredibly important, and we know that when we serve one another, when we offer hospitality to one another, when we metaphorically or actually wash each other’s feet, it truly is Christ we are serving.

But the flip side of that is that Jesus, here among us isn’t only our guest, and our action and busy care are not the only ways that we can serve him.  He is also our host, for it is his world in which we dwell.  Martha sees Jesus sitting in her living room and treats him as a guest, asking herself how she can serve him, faffing around and not actually spending time with him.  Mary sees Jesus sitting in her living room and treats him as a host, asking what he wants to give to her, what wisdom and grace he has in store for her.

It may be a case of “Do not ask what you can do for God, but ask rather what God can do for you.”

We need to do both, to be both. But if we never give ourselves time to stop and bask in the presence of God who has come all this way, in the incarnation, to be with us and among us, then we’ll never have sat still long enough for him to give to us whatever gift it is that he’s brought, just for us.  And we are, after all, what he came for.

A sermony thing for Luke 7.36-8.3

The eyes and hands of Michaelangelo...

unfinished slave 1unfinished slave 2unfinished slave 4unfinished slave 3

The great sculptor Michaelangelo, who created some of the most beautiful figures ever to be carved from marble was once asked about his method.  He replied, “I simply work on the block of marble, removing all that is not part of the sculpture until only the sculpture remains.”

We can see this most profoundly in his unfinished ‘slave’ sculptures.  Michaelangelo was commissioned to create them in 1505 by Pope Julius, for the Pope’s own tomb – there were supposed to be thirty in total, but the Pope died soon after planning his own tomb, and the project was never completed.  If you ever go to see Michaelangelo’s famous and very perfect statue of David, as you walk through the gallery leading to it you will pass some of these unfinished slaves, exhibited precisely because in their unfinished state they seem to say something profound about humanity.

They seem to emerge from the rock, some gracefully, some full of struggle, seemingly desperate to gain their freedom.   And in them we can see Michaelangelo’s process at work.  His own expressed intention of freeing the figures that already exist within the stone is reflected in his technique. Almost all sculptors who work in stone tend to block out the main shapes of the whole sculpture roughly, and then gradually fill in the details. Michaelangelo, though, chiselled away at the stone, bringing individual parts of the sculpture to a perfect finish before moving on. That’s what makes the unfinished slaves seem to be freeing themselves from the rock that keeps them captive.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, because if we see a block of stone most of us will see simply that, a block of stone.  It takes a Michaelangelo to see a beautiful figure, waiting to be liberated.

If we see a sculpture that is part finished in the normal way, full of rough edges, we might only see its imperfections, all the ways that it fails to live up to what it should be. We might even say, that’s a bit rubbish. Every extraneous bit of stone that’s marring that perfection is condemned.  It’s not very neat, is it?  It’s not been carefully done.

It takes a Michaelangelo to see the truth: all that needs to happen is for all the stone that is not part of the true sculpture to be carefully removed.

In today’s gospel we see a woman viewed in two completely different ways.

The Pharisee looks at her and passes judgement based on how she’s kept the law – or how badly she’s broken it.  For him, her sin is what she is: “If Jesus really was a prophet he would have known what kind of woman she is: a sinner.”  If that woman were a statue, the Pharisee is judging her based on all the bits that aren’t right, all the rough edges.

Jesus looks at the same woman, and sees her capacity to be forgiven and to love. He is like Michaelangelo, seeing the true figure hidden in the block of marble, trapped by all the things that aren’t part of what that woman was called to be, created by God to be.

The Pharisee sees only the bits of the marble block that are stopping the figure from being true to who they were created to be.

Jesus sees the person as they were created to be and then helps them to strip away all the bits that are stopping them from being that person.

The two views could not be more different. To look on someone and see their sin, or to look one someone and see their capacity to be forgiven.  To look on someone and see only how they have fallen short, or to look at someone and see their potential to become who they were created to be.

Thank God we have a God who is like Michaelangelo, who can see inside all the stuff that clings to us and clogs us up and grinds us down – the weight of past sins, the regrets of things done or not done, said or not said, the resentments and wrongdoing, and then helps us gradually to free ourselves of all the stuff that isn’t part of who we truly are.

Will that be a gentle process?  Not always!  Sculpture does, after all, involves chisels and hammers.  Will it be quick?  No, I suspect it’s a life’s work, and is completed only at the point of our entry into heaven.  But God can make us beautiful – as beautiful as we always were to him, precisely because he can see through all the rubbish to what lies at the heart of us, and his forgiveness chips away at everything about us that isn’t what we should be.

May God give us eyes like Michaelangelo’s, able to see the beauty in one another, even if it’s hidden, able to forgive one another for all the stuff that gets in the way, and in so doing, help us to free one another from all the stuff that keeps us from being who God created us to be.




Marriage and Divorce

This is a sermon I wrote last time this passage came up in the lectionary – I’m posting it here in case anyone finds it useful for this Sunday (7th October 2012). I believe that it owes rather a lot to the very helpful, erudite, and generally fab Tom Wright.   And probably some other people too.

During the 1990s it was not uncommon for clergy, and especially bishops, to be contacted by journalists and asked about their view on divorce. Of course, this was not a general hypothetical question, but an extremely loaded one, and no matter how the bishop in question tried to make it clear that what they were saying was a general statement rather than being about a specific situation, the journalist would always end up saying, ‘so you’re saying that in the case of Prince Charles and Diana…’

Similarly when Jesus is asked the question about divorce in today’s gospel reading, it is not, in fact, a general hypothetical question at all.

Consider that the location for this whole argument is just beyond the river Jordan – that’s John the Baptist’s old stamping ground.  And consider that the reason John got into trouble with Herod in the first place, and so ended up being beheaded, was that he had dared to criticize Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife.  When  you bear all that in mind, the Pharisees’ question that claims to be a general one about divorce and adultery, is in fact a very specific question, designed to trick Jesus into revealing where he stands on the whole subject of Herod’s marriage, and hence, where he stands on Herod’s viability as a leader of God’s people.

As usual, Jesus is wise to the trick question.  If we needed proof that he understood that the question was really about Herod, then we need look no further than his explanation to the disciples: although it was almost unheard of for a woman to initiate divorce, Jesus includes it as a possibility in his explanation because this is exactly what happened in the case of Herodias.   Jesus undoubtedly knew what the question was about.  So in public he answers just like he did with the question of whether a Jew should pay taxes to the Romans: he widens the question back out again, and (a) asking what he law says, and (b) pointing out what really matters.

So much for the question and what lies behind it.  How about Jesus’ answer?

Well, another thing that’s easy to miss, or misunderstand, with this passage, is Jesus’ reference to Moses.  Jesus asks, ‘What did Moses command you?’  And the Pharisees answer that he permitted divorce, in certain circumstances.

But consider whether this was really what Jesus was asking them.  In Jesus’ day, and indeed for centuries afterwards, everyone believed that Moses was the author of the whole of the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible.  So when Jesus asks ‘what did Moses command?’ and then goes on to and then goes on to talk about the book of Genesis, this is what he really wanted them to think about: the initial command of God to Adam and Eve, as Genesis explains it.

This Genesis passage that Jesus refers to is all about the relationship between human beings, and about our relationship with God and with God’s world. Relationships, and marriages that are loving and committed are one manifestation of the image of God in us.  But it’s not hard to look around and see many, many ways in which we, as a species, have fallen short of God’s perfect creation, and marr that image.  Divorce and indeed any relationship breakdown is but one of those ways.  And indeed, all of us, in all our relationships, even when they are working well, are but imperfect and distorted versions of the divine image.  That’s who we are, we are fallen people, and in a sense, we should not seek for our relationships to be perfect – if we do that, then we set ourselves up to see in every marriage grounds for divorce.

Every broken relationship is a crack in the mirror that we were designed to be, the mirror of God’s love for the world. This is not to lay a huge burden of guilt on divorcing couples, but to ask that the whole Christian community should play its part in supporting marriage, relationships and families, because what they symbolise is so essential to our being.  That’s why in the preface to the marriage service, it talks of marriage enriching society and strengthening community.  But that’s also why later in the service, at the end of the declarations, the family and friends of the couple are asked if they will support and uphold them in their marriage, both now and in the years to come.  This is a serious responsibility, and I do heartily wish that more of the people who come to weddings realized how serious the responsibility is.

What Jesus does in this encounter, is point out, in his usual subtle way, that the Pharisees are asking the wrong question.  Yes, he says, in Deuteronomy there is a permission for divorce to happen, because human beings are not perfect and we do fall short of what God intended for us.  We each, individually and in our relationships, contain the divine image, but imperfectly and in distorted and clouded form.  But to ask whether divorce is lawful betrays an attitude to ethics that approaches all dilemmas with the question, ‘what can we get away with before God will really mind?’ rather than, ‘what is God’s deepest desire for us?  Jesus’ ministry is not characterized by a quest for ‘what people can get away with’, nor with condemning others for doing things that are just the other side of that ‘lawful’ line.

This is where we come to the crux of the problem, whether we’re talking about Jesus’ own time, or our own.  For the fact is that divorce is something that it is almost impossible to talk about in general terms, because it isn’t an abstract idea that one can pronounce upon from the pulpit, or from anywhere else for that matter.  It’s a very human tragedy, that happens one case at a time, to people we know and love, and perhaps even to some of us.  Jesus spent enough time in his ministry with those who had been hurt by life to be very aware of this.  A broken marriage is a tragedy, and causes untold hurt, no matter whose fault it was, and no matter how mutual or otherwise the decision to end the marriage.  And doing it all ‘by the book’ and on the right side of the law can never take away that pain and hurt.

What Jesus says is tough; it’s hugely tough – almost so much so that it makes one want to preach on something other than the gospel!  But I don’t believe it is the sort of tough that we have sometimes believed it to be.  I don’t believe that Jesus is saying that a marriage cannot be ended, that second marriages after divorce are not marriages at all, as in the traditional Roman Catholic position, though of course I know that many do believe that, and that many people who have been left by their husband or wife do not feel in themselves that they are unmarried.  As I read Jesus’ response, it seems to me that he is saying, yes, there is a provision there in the law, but know how serious it is to tear two people apart who have given themselves to each other. Don’t get sucked in to asking merely what is legal.  Don’t let society, or the law, or anyone else, tell you that it doesn’t matter.  It does matter.

Jesus says to them, it’s wrong to ask ourselves how and to what extent we can break and damage the image of God in us without God minding too much, because every way in which that image is marred matters, and it all causes pain to us and to others, and to all of God’s creation, and grieves the heart of God.  Each of us, individually and corporately, break that image again and again, every day.  Our energies would be better spent it we stopped thinking legalistically and working out how to justify ourselves before God, asking ‘is it lawful’, and instead concentrated on coming before God in all our brokenness – with the cracks in the divine image that our own sin has made, and the cracks that have been made in us through the sin of others – and asking for God’s healing.