A little pre-Lent ramble

Today’s reading at the morning Eucharist was Mark 7.1-13.

I can’t think of an instance in the gospels when the Pharisees would have come away from a conversation with Jesus thinking, ‘That went well, I think we really convinced him this time.’  And they try so hard, so very hard, to get it right, and they always miss what’s right in front of them.

Today, this reading comes across not as a last Alleluia before the fast begins, but perhaps more as a comment on Lent itself and how we keep it.  It reminds us that the whole point of the law when it was given was to give another way, alongside all the many other gifts and self-revelations of God through the centuries, for us to ‘learn to be God’s people once again.’

It invites us to think about how whatever Lenten discipline we’ve chosen to undertake is going to help us draw closer to God – and warns us against anything that might inadvertently become an end in itself and so drive a wedge between us and God.

It took the ancient Israelites 40 years – a whole lifetime – to learn to be God’s people, and they still kept getting it wrong, just as we do. The law that was given to them during this time at Sinai was supposed to help, but in every generation since, God’s people have done as the gospel’s Pharisees tend to do, and made the law into a thing in itself, rather than as a way of learning to be People of God. All that time in the wilderness, trying to work out how to do it right, and all along, through the visceral and dramatic pillars of fire and cloud, and through the daily gift of manna from heaven, God was right there with them, inviting his beloved children to trust him, to draw up a chair at his table, sit and eat.

The poor Pharisees in the gospel reading are in a similar boat. They try so hard to get it right, and all the time they’re missing what’s right in front of them: Jesus’ friends, with their unwashed hands, are drawing up a chair every day and sitting down to eat with God.  I pray that when the last judgement comes, all who tried so hard, yet missed the point, will be confronted with the raw love and generosity and hospitality of God that says, ‘Sit, and eat’, and finally reply, ‘Thank you, I’d love to’.

This Lent, I pray that whatever we ‘do’ may be a way to draw closer, to become God’s people once again, whether that process takes 40 days or 40 years. I pray that it will be a time when we can hear God’s invitation and respond by drawing our chair closer – in worship, work, leisure, and rest – and enjoy table fellowship with our Lord.

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.