Morning prayer thought – 7th December

I didn’t really fancy drawing a picture of today’s reading from morning prayer (the beheading of John the Baptist, Matthew 14.1-12).

Corruption and sleaze are nothing new, but have always been there, and that when those in power try to save face rather than face up to their mistakes, there are often casualties. We may lament at this, and at how those who speak up and speak out so often seem to pay too high a price for their integrity.

But there is no good news in any of that, no gospel, merely confirmation of what our sometimes-cynical minds know represents some of the worst of humanity. If anything, this shows us how much we – just as the world in Herod and John’s day – need the gospel.

And that gospel had been the whole meaning of John’s life. He’d spent his adult years preaching essentially three things:

  • Repentance and forgiveness are real, and necessary, and they are for everyone
  • The kingdom of God is coming closer, and this a promise of hope and a threat of judgement
  • There is someone greater coming: Jesus the Messiah.

These three messages were John’s whole reason for being.

The last one, that Jesus was coming, had finally started to be fulfilled. The baton has well and truly been passed on.  John’s role as the last great prophet has been accomplished, and his work is done.

But the other parts of John’s message are not yet finished. And Herod stands as the final person to whom John brings them, and with whom he tries to share them.

John brings Herod the gospel of repentance, the truth about sin and forgiveness.  Would Herod’s hesitation ever have led to a change of heart heart, that could, eventually have found expression in the way he lived his life?  We will never know. But undoubtedly John’s last act was to keep on preaching repentance to Herod, and keep offering him the chance of God’s forgiveness, the chance to make things right. John never gave up his calling to show Herod the reality of God’s mercy, even though in the end, no mercy was shown to him.

And John also spend his last days showing Herod what the kingdom of God was like. This, I think, must have been what really intrigued the king. It’s as if he caught a glimpse of a different way of doing things, of a different kind of power, or a different world order, and was both fascinated and frightened by it. I am sure he would have kept John around far longer to see more of this kingdom of God at work, had he not made that rash, wine-fuelled promise.

So Herod was faced with a choice. Save John, and keep alive the glimpse of another kind of kingdom, or sacrifice John to save his own kind of kingdom, his own political reputation. Herod fails the test, just as Pontius Pilate would fail his own test when Jesus showed him a glimpse of the kingdom later. Herod, like Pilate, chooses the values of his own kingdom over the glimpse of the kingdom of God, and rejects his own shot at receiving mercy by failing to show it to others.

There are so many pre-echoes in John’s story of the story of the passion of Jesus. Not only the corrupt leader who can’t seem to make the morally right and spiritually right choice, the condemnation on a whim – but above all the way in which both John and Jesus approach their deaths offering to those who are hurting them a glimpse of the kingdom and a chance at forgiveness.  Right up til the end.

Jesus and John lived their lives as a blessing from God to the world.  But God’s blessing was not always straightforward or painless. They brought life and truth and mercy, and these values are sometimes so much at odds with the ways of the world that they may seem impossible to accept.  Jesus and John showed how to make good choices even when bad choices were easier, and they showed integrity even when self-interest was easier. But above all they showed us that there is nothing that God would not do, no length to which he would not go, to keep on giving his people glimpses of the kingdom and offers of forgiveness.

This is also our calling – it may not lead to our death, but it may lead many to life.

Ash Wednesday hymn

Here’s  something for Ash Wednesday. The tune is ‘Let all mortal flesh’.

Dust to dust, we mark our repentance,
entering a guilty plea,
Ash to ash, we face our sentence,
Sin writ large for all to see:
Now these signs of all our falls from grace,
mark us for divine embrace.

Dust of earth once shaped and moulded
into this, our human frame,
Body, mind and soul enfolded,
given life and called by name.
Now O Lord remake our damaged form,
Hold us till our hearts grow warm.

Dust that fuels the lights of heaven,
Stars and planets passing by,
Atoms of creation’s splendour,
Earth to earth and sky to sky,
Now our dust, redeemed, sing loud and long
in that universal song.

Love life live lent (Ash Wednesday) – Say sorry

It’s possible that I apologise too much.  People sometimes say that to me. Maybe they even think that I don’t have anything to apologise for.  Maybe they think that someone in my position ought to put on a stronger face, not admit to weakness or failure.  Maybe they’ve just pre-forgiven me for whatever it was I did (or, more usually, failed to do) and don’t feel a need for me to do my bit….

But you know what? I’m not going to stop.

I’m also not going to stop, because while I am profoundly grateful for the people who forgive me for the same things again and again and again, the moment I take their forgiveness for granted, I’ve started to take them for granted too.  My missed deadlines mean someone else has to work later, or longer, or has to do their bit at the last minute when they (unlike me) are not natural last-minute people. My ‘sorry’ is an acknowledgement that my failure hurts other people, even if only in minor ways.   It’s an act of empathy, and I don’t ever want to lose that.

I’m not going to stop, because as long as I’m in the habit of being apologetic, then hopefully when it comes to the big things –  you know, the things that are actually really really hard to own up to, the things I want to hide, and hope nobody ever finds out about – I’ll be all nicely warmed up and the repentance will flow easily from my heart right out of my mouth.

I’m not going to stop, because although sometimes I repent and repent and the bridge remains broken, other times, by the grace of God, the person I realise ages ago that I’d hurt and finally pluck up courage to visit not only accepts my apology,  but also sits down with me over a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits, and shows me that I can be promoted to the rank of ‘friend’.  Real forgiveness is too wonderful an experience  to risk missing out on.

And I’m not going to stop, because saying sorry and meaning it is a way of  just starting the process of cleaning out the dark and dirty corners of the soul.  If my soul is a dark and cluttered cupboard, the ‘Sorry’ is that moment when I have the courage to open the cupboard door, with God standing next to me, so that he can turn to me and say, ‘Can I give you a hand clearing this lot up?’

A Psalm of repentance (ii)

Again with apologies and thanks to whoever wrote Psalms 22 and 139.

My God, my God, why do I forsake you?
When your salvation was so near,
so near to the words of my distress?
O my God, you cry to me in the daytime,
but I have not answered,
by night also, but instead I took my rest.
Yet you are the Holy One of Israel,
enthroned on their praises,
my forebears trusted in you
and you delivered them.
But as for me I am a worm and no man,
worthy of the people’s scorn.
Why do those who see me not laugh me to scorn?
Why do they take pity on me, saying,
“If only she would trust in God,
for God delights in her, and will deliver her.”
For it is you that took me out of the womb,
and laid me safe upon my mother’s breast.
On you was I cast ever since I was born,
you are my God even from my mother’s womb.
And you are never far from me,
even when trouble is near at hand,
especially when trouble is near at hand.
But instead I run to the mighty oxen,
and to the fat bulls of Bashan.
I have poured out myself like water,
and I have put my own bones out of joint.
I have turned the heart of flesh you gave me
into a heart of stone.
My mouth and my tongue are free
Yet I chose to choke on the dust of death,
And have not called on you for help.
I have joined with the hounds and with the pack of evildoers,
And I have pierced your hands and your feet.
I cannot look on as your bones accuse me,
While I cast lots for my own life.
And yet you are not far from me,
You are still my strength when I call upon your name,
Deliver my soul from myself,
My poor life from the snares that I have laid myself,
For you have always answered me:
My God, my God, why have you never forsaken me?

A Psalm of Repentance (and thanksgiving)

With apologies to whoever wrote Psalm 22 and Psalm 139,
and to the writer of John 21.

My God, my God, why have you not forsaken me?
For you, and you alone, see me as I am, as a worm and no man.
You see the sin in my heart, in my hands and on my lips;
You see me every evil doing
And you see the excuses that I offer to my own soul.
You have never forsaken me,
But you have chosen me, called me by name,
And invited me to share in your work!
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
And I cannot attain to it.
How can I feed your lambs?
Only with the bread of heave, the bread of life.
How can I tend your flock?
Only by the inspiration of the One True Shepherd.
O my God, make me into an instrument
Of your love for all your children,
For I cannot love them enough by myself.
I depend on you for my every breath,
For my every step, for my every word.
Breathe through me, guide me, speak through me,
For I am yours alone
And without you I am nothing at all.