2014 Trinity 1 Evensong Luke 14
We’re all used to hearing of the abuse of power by political leaders, somehow expecting to hear this from developing countries, shocked when it happens in developed countries. Exaltation of and by our leaders seems the norm, as it had been for this one African village on the shores of Lake Niassa.
The new provincial governor was coming to visit the village, a previously important and now run-down and remote centre of influence in the colonial years. The village’s claim to fame as the immigration entry point for that remote area meant the one government official was a powerful, if lonely, person that the governor needed to visit. The village church had recently been renovated, and a new community health project of the church begun, so the governor, wanting to learn more, accepted the project leader’s invitation to lunch.
The village soon learnt that this was not the usual kind of governor, not the usual kind of governor’s visit. This governor somehow knew that how he lived in and with his new-found power would be important. The project leader was keen to let him be who he wanted to be to this community. So when the food was laid out on grass mats for the project workers and community leaders under the shade of the mango tree, the governor also sat and ate with them there, eating the same food, washing his hands in the same basin, talking on the same level.
The governor’s entourage sat embarrassed in the cars waiting, but the community learnt something that day about humility and honour, power and action, that words could never have conveyed.
Luke and his audience knew the protocols surrounding formal dinners, and he uses the dinner-party setting on several occasions in the Gospel, such as the dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7) and, of course, the Last Supper. In each case, a point is being made that undermines social status, and here, in the parable of the wedding feast, that is unmistakeable. Humility is a condition of discipleship.
In Matthew’s record of this parable (Matthew 23:6), the bare comment that the scribes and Pharisees want to take the places of honour at banquets is made, but Luke turns this statement into a story of keen wisdom and even humour. In Luke, some of the guests deliberately place themselves lower at the table than they think they deserve, and then wait anxiously to be recognised and moved to a more important position, with everyone watching and noting the humility of this very important person. Tongue in cheek, Jesus recommends this course of action: if you start off at the bottom of the table, the only way is up.
That’s the lesson for the guests at this unusual feast. But it isn’t only guests who use dinner parties for social advancement, so there is also a lesson for the host.
The lesson for the host is to invite those who cannot repay. This is a Gospel message that’s very clearly socially subversive. The lame, blind and crippled were specifically excluded from the regulations for community meals held in Jesus’ day, as perhaps they might be from many a privileged dinner party and social event around our world today. Luke shows a society that works in systems of safe, socially accepted ways of doing things, where status can be carefully measured and enhanced. But the kingdom of God is not like that, and its rewards will not enhance our status in others’ eyes, only in God’s.
To live counter-culturally takes courage, conviction and persistent action, whether on a personal or communal level. It takes humility to believe that even my little service and effort can affect others’ lives, and that it matters how I inhabit the power I have to change this world to include all. And how encouraging it can be to see the effect this change can have on a global scale – the success of the fair trade campaigners has led to many of us now questioning whom we buy from and supermarkets are following suit; to cancel the enormous debts of Third World countries, governments were lobbied by Jubilee campaigners; and that many now “reduce, reuse, recycle” has come about through the concerted efforts of environmentalists.
For others to be included in the goodness and life of our world, humility and courage are needed. It is with our sights and minds set on an inclusive world that we can begin to walk and work towards it, and those excluded now can begin to share in it all.
Trinity 1 Year A Matthew 10. 24-39
Mordechai Vanunu is popularly known as the Israeli whistle-blower. In 1986 Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear scientist, publicly exposed Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. He was arrested, tried in secret and sentenced to eighteen years in prison, eleven of which were spent in solitary confinement. He was released in April 2004, but lived under virtual house arrest in St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, having earlier converted to Christianity.
After giving an interview to the Press, he was re-arrested last year on Remembrance Day, 11th November. Since this happened to be also the day that Yasser Arafat died, the world’s media attention was inevitably focused not on Vanunu’s re-arrest but on Yasser Arafat.
Mordechai Vanunu is regarded throughout Israel as a heinous and dangerous traitor, a criminal who has revealed Israeli secrets to the rest of the world. Yet a woman who befriended him in prison said this about him, “After 18 years that were so difficult, this man has not even a drop of bitterness, he has no desire for revenge. I do not know if I could behave like that after so many years of continuous suffering. He is a wonderful man.”
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the case, Vanunu has already paid a huge price for his conscience. He could be said to have lost his life, or, at least, many years of it, languishing in prison. Yet it seems from the words of his friend that through being prepared to risk all for that in which he believed, he has found himself. He has discovered the depths of his being and has become “a wonderful man”.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus said to his twelve selected followers, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother ….”
Harsh words, which at first glance seem to be the very reverse of Christian love. But then Jesus explains what he means. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Christian love is tough. Christian love holds truth in such high regard that all other considerations pale into insignificance beside it. Christian love demands that the truth be told even when it is almost certain to alienate those who are nearest and dearest. For some people, like Jesus, truth will alienate the entire nation and send the truthful person to the gallows.
Jesus warns his disciples that those setting out on the Christian life need to be aware that they are called to be utterly truthful, even when that truth apparently destroys their entire existence. But as he showed in his own life, death leads to resurrection. Those who lose their lives for his sake will find them.
Most of us are not called to be a Mordechai Vanunu. But we are called to be scrupulously honest, even at the cost of upsetting those we love or losing our own status or reputation.
Christian love is about bearing the pain of rejection and refusing to compromise the truth. For some people, especially those involved at some higher levels of big business, that might mean a long, hard look at their job, because a job which requires the worker to lie is not compatible with Christianity. Such workers might lose their jobs for the sake of the gospel, but gain their life.
For many of us, perhaps it is about the courage to disagree with those whom we like and respect. It is so much more comfortable to be of one mind with those around us than to stand alone and to be at odds with them. But by being prepared to risk our own comfort for the sake of the truth, we gain our life.
Love which cannot speak the truth for fear of hurting or upsetting the other person is not real love, but is self-indulgence. Love which really has the genuine needs of the other person at its heart is tough and painful and may lead to crucifixion. But the other side of crucifixion is an unexpected and magnificent resurrection, a new and different kind of life.
Eternal life is life lived with God in glorious freedom, because the truth really does set us free. If we really want to enjoy the rewards of Christianity, then we too must take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Pentecost Sunday 2014
Father Ted is an irreverent comedy series about a trio of truly awful priests living in their own personal and hilarious hell on an island peopled by eccentrics. In one episode, the action is set on a plane full of priests. In a glorious spoof of all aeroplane disaster films, something terrible goes wrong, in this case precipitated by the unbelievably stupid Father Dougal, and Father Ted finds himself called upon to save the day by going outside the plane as it flies in mid-air, and somehow holding some vital structures together until the plane lands safely.
The irony of this situation is that Father Ted is terrified of flying, and when the plane has landed safely, he is so frozen with fear at the realisation of what he has just been through that he can’t move at all.
At Pentecost, we see a group of people whom we have come to know quite well through the Gospel stories; but now we see them doing things we would never have believed they were capable of. Our Gospel reading today tells us what has happened to them to make that possible.
We see them sitting in their usual meeting place, with the doors locked, afraid that they will suffer some terrible repercussions from Jesus’ death. We have no idea how realistic their fears are; possibly, they don’t know either. If they were truly afraid, then it seems a bit stupid of them to be sitting, most of them together, in the place where they were known to meet. And that suggests that at least some of their fear is generated by their loss and their shame. Without Jesus, they don’t know what to do.
But then Jesus comes to them. He comes, John tells us, “on the first day of the week”. On the first day of the week, in Genesis, God the creator begins to bring life out of empty chaos. On the first day of the week, here in John’s Gospel, God the redeemer comes to bring new life out of the empty chaos of grief.
He shows them his wounds, so that they know it is really him, and then he breathes on them. In Genesis, God the creator breathes life into the creature he has made out of earth, and human beings come into existence. In John’s Gospel, God the redeemer breathes life into people emptied of all hope, and new life comes into existence.
Here, then, is the beginning of the new creation. That’s why the day on which Christians celebrate is Sunday; not the Sabbath, on which God rested, but the first day of the week, on which creation began. When we see the disciples step out on the Day of Pentecost, full of the courage and joy of the Holy Spirit, they are speaking from their own experience of what God has done: he has re-created them.
When Father Ted had saved the plane, he just went back to being the old Ted he had always been, still terrified of flying. The extraordinary pressure of the occasion had brought out in him some temporary surge of courage, but that’s all it was.
The disciples, on the other hand, are now genuinely changed people. From Pentecost onwards, these people left their locked rooms and went out, preaching, teaching, healing, courting the danger they had previously so feared. Immediately after Jesus’ crucifixion they may or may not have been in danger, but as their mission continued the danger was very real. Yet they, and generations of those who believed because of their testimony, were no longer afraid.
Most of us here will not need the kind of courage that allows us to face persecution and death. But we all need the kind of courage that takes us out of the rooms in which we have locked ourselves. Some of our fears may be real, some may not, but either way, they imprison us.
To us, as to those first disciples, Jesus comes on the first day of the week and breathes new life into us. The Holy Spirit fills us with the unquenchable life of God, the life which even death could not overcome, the resurrection life of Jesus. And we, filled with joy, are commissioned to go out and share what we have been given, and to call others into God’s new creation, free from fear, and full of the life of the Holy Spirit.