November 25, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- With the start of a new Church Year and the coming of Advent, it is worth while exploring what this season is for. Our readings today are particularly helpful in this task, since they are all about people who got things wrong. Like us, they belong to those whom St Augustine would describe as the ‘not altogether bad’, the mediocre Christians, as opposed to Pelagius’ notion that Christian perfection was achievable in this life. Augustine viewed the Christian life as a hospital for the sick, or a convalescent period, a time in which with the right care, we will become fitted for God –with and by his grace.
Our reading from Jeremiah (Jer 33:14-16) is about a king, Zedekiah who spectacularly misread the situation at the time and brought about the exile and deportation of his nation to Babylon. His people had been vassals of the Babylonians until the king decided to rebel under the promise of help from Egypt. It proved illusory, despite Jeremiah’s attempts to intervene and argue for a wiser policy. Prophet’s, as we see here, do not gaze into the distant future, but are hands-on political commentators and advisers the powerful would do well to listen too. This is the ‘virtuous Branch’ that Jeremiah looks to, kings who will choose wisely and for the good and preservation of their people, as opposed to hot heads and the easily-led whose actions bring about the ruin of the nation. All the prophet can do is warn and it is from within this warning that our prophet could promise good times to Israel and of course he paid a high price for his counsel, narrowly escaping death in Jerusalem and playing the role of go-between between the defeated Israelites and the Babylonians.
It was in a rather different context that St Paul wrote to the tiny Christian community in Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:12-4:2). Now Thessalonica was a Roman city, albeit of Greek origin, and had become the capital city of Macedonia. It was rich, and its port Neapolis a major trading city of the Mediterranean. On the great road, the Via Egnatia leading back to Rome, it had huge clout and maintained great temples to the Roman gods and especially its emperors, as well as to those of the Eastern cults. Cosmopolitan and rich, Thessalonica’s way of life was thoroughly Roman, and Paul would have to battle for the hearts and minds of the Christians who lived there, constantly recalling them to the wholly different understanding of daily life that Christianity embodied. He does this first of all by praising the community, assuring them of God’s grace and their already given holiness which he had met in their reception of the faith and their generous hospitality, but also by pointing out that faith and its daily practice are a journey towards holiness in which they must work hard to actually live as icons of Christ. This would have been something which would have been enormously difficult amidst the bustle and coarseness of a Roman city, with its easy resort to other gods, the sacrifices frequently offered them, their Games and bawdy holidays, not to mention the easy access to prostitutes, public displays of violence, and law suits. We modern Christians too are continually beguiled by a different set of pagan attractions which distract us from our belief in Jesus and continually tempt us into unwise and unhelpful ways of living.
The message of our Gospel (Luke 21:25-28.34-36) seems to offer similar advice to the Christian. By this time in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was already in Jerusalem for his Passion, and speaks to warn his followers not to be thrown off course by coming events. They were a people who could easily misread situations, just like we do today. Think how easily we might take such bible readings and misinterpret the events of the last few weeks, over reacting and embarking on actions which might be regretted later. Jesus reminds his disciples that we are on the Christian journey to God for the long term, and that no instant solution to our or the world’s problems can easily be found. His advice is that we adopt a policy of continual watchfulness – and that of our own behaviour. We desperately need to do this, following the pattern of Jesus and, as Luke puts it, ‘Praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. The point of all this is not simply our survival, as we see, but rather affects our eternal relationship with the Father; so that we are able to “Stand with confidence before the Son of Man.” Jesus looks continually towards our eternal inheritance, and has confidence that we can make it by grace. Our wills need to be constantly prodded to conform with his.
November 22, 2015
Today we celebrate the fact that Jesus was a different kind of King from the ones we see on films, waging battles and killing people to maintain their power. It would seem therefore, that we should be thinking today about a better way for people who have great power to use that power. Well yes we could. But rather than do the obvious, I want us to look more at what this teaching of Jesus means for us, in the way we live our rather ordinary lives; and I say this because I was struck by what one person said in our Bible Share on Monday morning, when we looked at these readings together. She reminded us that we all have power of some kind, as parents or grand -parents or as friends. People are influenced by us and what we say and do. We may not think we have much power, but we need to work out the best way, the Christian way, of using any power, however small, that we do have.
I was reminded of this truth by someone I know who visits her father in a Care Home. Recently she noticed that the level of care had got much worse, and she wondered what she should do about it. She began to think how she should use her power to help her father. Her first call was to talk to the manager. Quite right too. As Christians we have a duty when we see things that are wrong to complain about them to someone who has the power to put them right. Moaning about it when we get home is just a waste of time. So, “I want to see the Manager please” is a very Christian thing to say.
So she complained to the Manager, but did not get a satisfactory answer. What should she do next? Should she just struggle on to support her father by going in more often to help him and the other people in the home? Well she might, but a Christian also has a duty to take it up with a higher authority. It may not do any good, but we should still try, try to use the little power we have to make things better. I think that she was going to complain to the Care Quality Commission. but it was also suggested to her that she should write to her MP – in this case Andrew Smith for Oxford East. She was a bit surprised by this suggestion. probably because it had never occurred to her that this was what our MP’s are for.
It is easy for us to knock our politicians, to dismiss them as people who are just in it for the power. The scandals of the misuse of power by those who fiddled their expenses etc. can blind us to the good work done by many hard working MP’s, whatever the political party they represent. As Christians we have a duty not only to use the power we have as well as we can, but to encourage those with more power, like MP’s, to use their power in a better way. Notice that Jesus does this in the Gospel today (John 18:33-37) when he tells the man with the apparent power, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, what true power is all about. He says “I came to bear witness to the truth”. Jesus is, as we heard in our 2nd Reading (Rev 1:5-8) “the faithful witness”.
In his case, it would seem that Jesus was unsuccessful. Pilate ignores him, and has him killed. But actually those few words with Pontius Pilate have, over the centuries, actually affected any number of people in power. If you’ve been watching The Last Kingdom on the TV, you would have seen them emphasising the contrast between the savage pagan idea of power, with the Christian understanding of power exercised by King Alfred the Great. It may not be absolutely true to history but it’s great drama, and it makes the point.
So every Christian has the duty to be, like Jesus, a witness to the truth. Those of you who know the story of Oscar Romero, or other great saints who have died opposing those who misuse power, will know what I mean! Of course, taking a complaint about a Care Home to an MP is hardly likely to get you killed, but it can often be quite effective, and it certainly reminds an MP what we have given them power for – to serve us, not to serve themselves!
Given that Care Homes in Oxfordshire are some of the worst in the UK, the more people who complain the better; especially to MP’s who have the money to put their old people into private Care Homes, and might otherwise not be aware of such things. It’s always worth remembering that being like Jesus, being a Christian, is not just a private thing. It is also a call to bear witness to the truth in society as a whole, in one way or another, even if we think that what we say or do may will make no difference.
November 18, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- The feast of Christ the King originated in 1925 and under Pope Pius XI. We have to try to understand what that feast said at the time, and what it is saying to us today. In its original context of course, is originated in a war torn Europe at a time when France would still have been in tatters, and Germany a failed and disgruntled and humiliated nation. This is to say nothing of all the other countries which joined in, including a Britain suffering the loss of thousands of young men. So many places are still scarred by that war, as memorials all over the world bear sad witness.
The Near and Middle East has, throughout its amazingly long history, suffered the carnage of war in one form or another time after time. The amazing statuary of the Assyrians and Babylonians, now being blown to bits by Isis, stand as mute but powerful witness to the aggression of the superpowers of their day. It would appear that the whole understanding of kingship from time immemorial has been about the pushing out of national boundaries at any cost, and regardless of the harm that caused to others. Great empires like Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Rome and Britain were built on the ruins of those of their conquered enemies, who were absorbed into their states as vassals and slave labour. The development of what we so optimistically term ‘civilization’ is, we should pause to reflect, largely built on the blood of the conquered. It appears that somewhere along the human ‘development’ trajectory we have always got it horribly wrong.
In our gospel (John 18:33-37) in which Jesus more than holds his own against Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine, Jesus challenges this whole concept of kingship. The Jewish authorities had presented Jesus before Pilate on a charge of political unrest. Pilate, who hailed from a Rome which knew more than a thing or two about insurgency and its control, questioned Jesus as to the nature of his kingship. Jesus admitted that if he had been an earthly king he would undoubtedly have put an army in the field against him, but insisted that his kingship was of quite a different understanding. The kingship of Jesus is about revealing the truth, God’s truth to the world. Jesus, we must recall never mixed with the powerful and those in control, but had instead, a ministry to the sick and the hungry, the needy and the outcast. It was a mission which aimed to make whole, a message of sharing and compassion based in his knowledge that that is what God is like. His message had nothing to do with power and force and the subjugation of thousands. I guess his kingship is one which we still find it enormously difficult to fathom and mostly one which the world still rejects. Yet it is the model proclaimed by his resurrection from the dead.
This is precisely the message of the reading from the Apocalypse (1:5-8). The writer of this extraordinary book certainly lived at the heart of the Roman Empire, and was amply acquainted with its savage control of the medley of peoples in the Province of Asia (Western Turkey) to which he wrote his message. Asia was an immensely rich province, full of Italian traders and people of ancient stock going back to the Greek occupation of its coastal cities and subsequently subject to Persian policies of resettlement. Sacked by Mithradates, stripped bare by Brutus and Cassius to fund their civil war, Asia always bounced back. It was the jewel in the crown of Roman governors on the make, and its people knew all about kings and conquest. Power, naked power, was what ruled Asia, and it was into this killing-field that John brought his message of the ultimate and peaceful reign of the one, true God, one whose power would not be subject to the next attack and coup, but would last eternally. The extraordinary claim that he made, and that Christianity continues to make, that this universal and peaceable rule of God has been won by the death of Christ on the cross, vindicated in resurrection, is still a stunning claim, stripping empires of their power. If it was unnerving then, think of its impact now.
When Daniel (7:13-14) wrote his vision of the universal rule of God in the mid second century BC under the harsh rule of Antiochus Epiphanes IV, another of those super powers to hit the East in the wake of Alexander the Great, he again was writing to counter the prevailing thuggery of yet another conqueror of Palestine. This time one who demanded that Jews conform to paganism like the rest of his Greek empire. Our writer would have been all too aware of the history of his people from the Old Testament, and would have known too that these invaders come and go. Whilst their occupation of the land could be devastating at the time, Daniel knew that it would not last, and so he wrote his Jewish compatriots a story, in fact a highly subversive political tract, encouraging them to stand firm in the faith of their fathers in the face of the threat imposed by Epiphanes. He set his story during the time of the Babylonian conquest of Palestine some 400 years earlier, as a way of masking the urgency of his call to action, and at the heart of his call is the passage we read today. In his vision, a martyred man is taken into the presence of God and given universal sovereignty over – wait for it – not just some scrappy bits of the Middle East, but over “All peoples, nations and languages.” All the world becomes the servant of the one true God, and his kingdom is eternal, his empire indestructible. It was the stuff of every tyrant king’s fantasies; the very thing they all knew was unachievable because built on power, aggression and fear that could not be sustained indefinitely. Daniel knew differently, and offered his people a quite different hope of salvation, one which put its trust wholly in God and never in human force. It is one which can still offer us comfort today bombarded as we are with horror images from Isis, and other cults of death.
November 15, 2015
I have friend who lives in Paris with his wife and little 5 year old daughter who has been much in my prayers since the terrible events there on Friday. They are safe, but the whole horror of human violence hits one especially hard when it is so close to home. It could have been London! And it reminds us all of the thousands of others who are not safe, and who cower in refugee camps, or on the side of the road, as they flee the fighting in the Middle East. I saw a chart this week showing how dangerous different animals were to us humans. The animal that kills most humans might surprise you, as it is the mosquito; but the next most dangerous animal on the list is our fellow human beings – the terrifying cruelty and carnage that we can inflict on one another.
Being a Christian, saying our prayers, coming to Mass, does not mean we are safe from such dangers. Indeed more Christians face death for their faith than those belonging to any other world religion. So perhaps one of the things we most should pray for is not safety, but courage. Courage to serve our fellow men and women, even those who oppose our way of life, however hard it is, and courage to face the future, however hard the road.
This week we celebrated three saints all noted especially for their courage. Faced with Attila the Hun rampaging with his army towards Rome, St Leo went out and negotiated with him. Determined to bring his Orthodox Church in Ukraine into union with Rome, St Josaphat did it, but was eventually murdered by his enemies; and my own St Martin faced a hard life as a Bishop setting an example of love and service in the midst of many who opposed him.
Two of our readings today (Daniel 12:1-3 & Mark 13:24-32) use very colourful language to express the dangers that all of us face, if not in this life, then in the moment of death – the end of all things for us. They both use the same phrase to describe it – “times of distress”. And Jesus goes on to use the classic imagery of his age to describe all this. Of course such language is not to be taken literally – the clouds and the angels are images to describe heaven – but they express a deeper reality hidden beneath. But both passages go on to tell us that whatever we face, in the end, we will be with God.
Jesus says very clearly, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” And “words” here means a lot more than just words. Words, for us humans, express at their best, as they are in Jesus, the heart of what we are, the thing that makes us more than just flesh and blood and bone. Words are the outward expression of all our thoughts, our hopes, our stories. Words mean beauty in art and music and dance. And words, of course, are what we use to express the love and care and compassion that Jesus teaches us to share with others, however hard life may be.
Coming to Mass will not in itself give us the courage and holiness of the saints. For if we are not open to the grace and power that is present here, it will not help at all. But if we are open, then all that we need to endure whatever comes, will be given to us, even if at the time, we feel nothing. We won’t be perfect of course. In the end all of us will face God, knowing that we did not do as much as we could have done; but we also know, as our 2nd Reading says, that Jesus has “achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying. (Hebrews 10:14) So at every Mass, if we are open to it, Jesus is “sanctifying” us – which means making us holy. Holy enough to face whatever we have to face, and to endure it!
Unlike the terrifying nonsense of some fundamentalists, (Christian as well as Muslim) we do not believe that we will be wafted to paradise, the moment we die. We believe that all of us have to face a reckoning before God ; for, being sanctified, being made perfect, is not and will not be an easy process for any of us, and I doubt that some very evil people who kill others will get through it, which is why I believe in hell. Coming to Mass, and opening ourselves up to God, and then living that out daily, is what we need to help us on our final journey. It means that we need not be afraid.
The words of the hymn that follows expresses all this well.
Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
We wait the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Our longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.
November 11, 2015
Frances writes on nex Sunday’s readings :- All the way through written history literate people, artists, writers and so on have used different media in which to make comment upon the conditions of their time; to record it, to warn, to alert and prepare their nations for change. Later inheritors of this complex of ideas have to be very careful that they do not completely misread such things, always thinking they describe actual events or things which will happen in the future. Apocalyptic literature is particularly susceptible to such mess ups, and the way in which American films have abused apocalyptic makes it particularly important that Christians understand it in its original context. Far from being about pictures of terrible violence and chaos and the end of the world, as modern apocalyptic movies suggest, true apocalyptic is always good news for Christians, since it is an affirmation of the goodness of God and the ultimate triumph of his way for his creation. Violence may precede his triumph, but it is never of his making, indeed, will always be brought about by misguided members of his creation. God loves his creation and always intends good for it.
By the time the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 10:11-14.18) was written, in the late first century AD, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was merely a pile of blackened ruins. After the disastrous Jewish Revolt, Palestine was in lockdown, very harshly controlled by the Romans. Indeed, Jews were forbidden entry into Jerusalem, and the temple mount would become dedicated to the chief Roman god, Capitoline Jupiter. Certainly there would have been those who entertained the hope that the temple would be rebuilt and its high priesthood restored; but as they had died to a man in the final battle for the temple mount in 70 AD, that was somewhat wishful thinking. Our writer deliberately focussed on the complete inadequacy of the temple cult and its high priests in an effort to persuade Christians who were still committed to following a Jewish way of life that it was finished, irrelevant. With this in mind he continually bangs home that the new and eternal temple is the person of Christ, whose single sacrifice on the cross has dealt with our sin. “When all sins have been forgiven, there can be no more sin offerings.” The whole purpose of the Jewish sacrificial temple cult was redundant. It is Christ alone who matters.
By the time all four gospels were written this was also the situation. It does seem likely that Jesus may well have predicted the demise of the temple (Mark 13:24-32), but we need to beware of thinking that this was due to clairvoyance or visionary behaviour on his part. Any wise person, living as he did in the Palestine of his time, which positively crackled with potential revolt as it awaited its Messiah (invariably a warrior leader who would lead the nation to independence and throw out the Romans), would have been aware that the likely outcome of such a revolt would be the sack of Jerusalem and the downing of its temple, which was always such a focus for unrest. But then the entire ministry of Jesus in Mark’s account seems to have been hostile to Jerusalem and its religious authorities who would conspire at his death. Mark will show us a Jesus who consistently flouted the Sabbath laws to heal the sick; who performed miracles away from Jerusalem and mixed with foreigners, pagans and those who did not keep the Mosaic law, tax gatherers and harlots being his prime example. Whilst Jesus died in Jerusalem during Passover, this was to show that he was infinitely superior to the Jewish law and practices and that as God the Son his outreach to the world was what was supremely important. Mark’s tiny parable of the fig tree was surely a call to continual vigilance, alertness on the part of converts, rather that any warning of imminent catastrophe, and certainly not one brought by God, who is always in control of events. “As for that day or hour, nobody knows it; no one but the Father.” Mark’s gospel remember, was written in Rome for convert pagans, and he would have wanted his hearers to empathise with its message rather than events in Palestine.
Some 200 years before the time of Jesus, Palestine was under the rule of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes iv – he who in the historical books of the Maccabees forced Israelites to convert to paganism along with the rest of his vast kingdom. The Book of Daniel, (Dan 12:1-3) also a piece of apocalyptic literature, stems from this time. Ostensibly set during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC, it uses that situation of oppression to speak of current events during the persecution of Epiphanes and encourages the people of Israel in their faith and absolute conviction that, contrary to events, God will triumph in the end. It speaks of the resurrection to eternal life with God of the faithful, as does Maccabees, so that even those who lose their lives for the faith can know that their struggle would not be in vain. For some of the ‘sleepers in the dust’ will live with God and those ‘learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven’. It was an intoxicating and subversive picture for the downtrodden and oppressed; for those who resisted and died for their beliefs just as we still hero-worship members of the French Resistance who died for their loyalty to France during the Second World War.
So apocalyptic is about a covert language, one of resistance, and we have to remember that we can find it in many shapes and forms. For Christians, as it was for an earlier generation of Jews, it would be stirring, subversive and powerful. It was a form of speech Jesus himself would adopt as he approached his passion, death and resurrection. It is a language every Christian should become familiar with as we enter into the life of Christ, and are prepared to follow him faithfully, whatever the nature of the crosses we are called to bear.
November 10, 2015
Saint Martin, disciple of the Lord Pray for us Saint Martin, who gave half your cloak to the poor. Pray for us Saint Martin. witness of charity Pray for us
Saint Martin, humble to the Holy Spirit Pray for us Saint Martin, example of evangelical perfection Pray for us Saint Martin, witness of the Truth Pray for us
Saint Martin, father of monks Pray for us Saint Martin, pearl of priests Pray for us Saint Martin, model of those who care for their brothers. Pray for us
Saint Martin, founder of the Church of Tours Pray for us Saint Martin, good shepherd in the image of Christ Pray for us Saint Martin, evangeliser of the people Pray for us
Saint Martin, courageous defender of the faith Pray for us Saint Martin, servant of the glory of God Pray for us Saint Martin, splendour of the Church of the East and of the West Pray for us
Saint Martin, who consecrated your nights to prayer Pray for us Saint Martin, who never despaired of anyone Pray for us Saint Martin, who held for everyone a fraternal yet demanding friendship Pray for us
Saint Martin, thirsting for the salvation of all Pray for us Saint Martin, protector of those who trust in you Pray for us Saint Martin, whose wisdom enlightened the pagans Pray for us
Saint Martin, whose purity triumphed over the Evil One Pray for us Saint Martin,whose compassion relieved the hearts of the poor Pray for us Saint Martin, whose mercy reconciled sinners to God Pray for us
Saint Martin, gentle and humble of heart Pray for us Saint Martin, worker for peace Pray for us Saint Martin, consler of the afflicted Pray for us
Saint Martin, by whom Christ accomplished miracles Pray for us Saint Martin, by whom Christ healed the sick Pray for us Saint Martin, by whom Christ converted hearts Pray for us
Saint Martin, who by the holiness of your life has made us admirers of the beauty of God Pray for us Saint Martin, who by the preaching of the Cross has revealed the power of the Resurrection for the living and the dead Pray for us Saint Martin, who in the name of the Living God accomplished marvels Pray for us
Saint Martin, protector of our people and the people of Europe Pray for us Saint Martin, builder of churches, founder of monasteries and towns Pray for us Saint Martin, unflinching servant of all men and women, and of the Church Pray for us
Saint Martin, whose death filled the heavens with joy and sowed graces on the earth Pray for us Saint Martin, whose memory has been celebrated through the centuries Pray for us Saint Martin, whose holiness leads us already into communion with God Pray for us
November 8, 2015
Last week, I arrived at the Church day to find 8 great big bags of apples at the door. Some kind person had clearly donated them! So, first I had to move them to some more suitable place, back and forth carrying the bags, and then go and buy some plastic bags at the shop, so people would have something in which to take them away. My one hope, as I trotted around doing these tasks, was that, given the glut of apples in so many gardens this Autumn, no one else would have the same idea, and turn the Church into an apple depository!
I have a feeling however, that if I told this person that the Church is not really a free apple distribution centre, he or she would say “But surely the Church should be helping the poor?” To which I would say, “Yes, but the Church is not an organisation to do your work for you. You are the Church. You are the person who should have organised the distribution, perhaps by putting them out on the roadside, as some people do, or taking them to a Food Bank.”
I tell you this story, the story of the apples, because too often, the Gospel we heard today, of Jesus praising the poor widow who put two small coins in the Temple collecting box, (Mark 12:38-44) is seen as an opportunity for everyone to be encouraged to give more… to the Church. But actually that’s not what the story is about at all. For, yes, it is good that people are generous in their giving to the Church. But if they see The Church to which they give some of their money, as an organisation, an organisation that puts on worship for them, who provides them with a priest from some magic pot of men, an organisation that does good deeds on their behalf for others; then they have entirely missed the point. The Church may be seen by some, especially by the Media and those outside the Church, as that large organisation with a Head Office in Rome, but you and I know that this is not really what the Church is at all. We may be glad when Pope Francis sets such a good example for us, but we are also all too aware of The Vatican’s many imperfections now and down through the ages. Indeed, if that organisation, based in the Vatican, with all its human faults and failings, is really what the Church is, I tell you, I am giving it all up now!
No, the point I have already made, I must make again. You and I, WE ARE THE CHURCH, and so it is we who have to decide prayerfully what to do with the money we earn, and how to use all our other possessions to the glory of God. The poor widow is praised, not for those two insignificant coins, but for her attitude to life, her approach to God : the fact that she was prepared to give her all, her whole life, to God. That is surely why our 1st Reading today (1 Kings 17:10-16) is about another widow, who gave food and drink to the prophet Elijah, when she and her son were about to eat their last meal, all they had left, before they died of starvation.
I was struck last week, when they reported the statistics about the beliefs of people in the UK about God and Jesus and the Church. I wonder if you heard it or read about it? I was shocked that 40% of people thought Jesus was NOT a real person! But I was also intrigued that so many people, who knew a practising Christian, admired that person for their kindness and generosity. And who is that person admired for their kindness and generosity? That person is us, the Church of the real man Jesus Christ, the Church met today to do what he asked us to do the night before he was arrested and killed; to pray together and to break bread together, and to know that when we do so, he is with us in a special way, inspiring us to bring his message of love and sacrifice to the world.
Thus we come to our 2nd Reading (Hebrews 9:24-28) where the contrast is made between ordinary high priests, who have to offer sacrifices again and again to please God, and Jesus, the true High Priest who “offers himself only once to take the faults of many…… and to reward with salvation those who are waiting for him.” Here at Mass, we do not offer new worship again and again, but enter into that one sacrifice, the action of Christ himself. All that we do therefore, as his Church, is based not on our own efforts, feeble and imperfect as they are, but on in his presence empowering us.
As one of our parishioners said at the Bible Study we have here every Monday at 10.30am. “The fact that we can only do so little, is no excuse for doing nothing.” And why? Because it is Christ who works in us, and like the boy with the 2 loaves, can turn something little into something great. If we let him.
November 4, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I wonder what it was that drove the ‘poor widow’ of Mark (12:38-44) to put quite literally all the money she possessed into the temple treasury. Was it an act of extreme piety, of utter and absolute devotion to the God of Israel which prompted this act? Or was it a mark of her utter desperation, of trust in the God she believed had liberated her people at the Exodus, giving them new and abundant life over and against the prevailing death they had met with in Egypt, and her conviction that He alone would save her? Perhaps included within her devotion was also an act of rebellion, of outrage against the society which had so stunningly failed to offer her the succour, care and friendship which lay at the heart of the Jewish faith. In a traditional society like hers she could have expected more distant relatives to care for her in the absence of children of her own yet our woman seems totally alone, with no one to turn to. The fact that in the earlier part of our reading the scribes are castigated by Jesus as being those ‘who swallow the property of widows’ should not escape us. Scribes were the literate men in their society, one where many either could not read or certainly not to the level of conducting legal transactions, and would have paid scribes to do this work for them. Had these scribes cheated this widow out of what was rightfully hers, forcing on her a life of penury and despair? As the scribes were also among those supposedly zealous for the keeping of the Law of Moses, and would often have had some links with the elite through their work we can see how her action spoke of her outrage against the world, which may not just have let her down, but actually been the instigators of her fall. In the end all she could do was turn to God and commend herself to his mercy as she expected to die of starvation.
What is significant here is that Jesus does not perform a miracle and either restore her fortunes or give her a great supply of food or whisk her off to a place of safety, rather he leaves her as she is, she stands, as he will at his Passion, a doomed individual and a protest against a Judaism which had failed to live up to all that it was promised to be. She is going to die, and no one will rescue her and so she turns to the God of eternal hope and salvation; the only one who can be trusted when all else has failed. It is a stark and disquieting tale, unrelieved by rescuing cavalry. This small vignette stands as a signpost for the ministry and life of Jesus himself.
By way of contrast, we have the story of Elijah and the pagan Sidonian woman (1 Kings 17:10-16).There we meet someone, also a widow and in a time of famine and at the end of her tether. Facing starvation, she prepares a last meal for herself and her son, after which they will die. But the charismatic Elijah persuades the woman to share her meagre rations with himself, and promises her that her charity and, more especially her trust in his promise, will be rewarded. The upshot of the story is that she complies and is rewarded. Generations of children have feasted on this story of hope under its title ‘The Magic Porridge Pot’. Yet if you were to look back at the preceding chapters of 1 Kings you might also see the signs of a different and more disquieting story – well, it was for Israel anyway. At the time of Elijah, Israel was ruled by Ahab who had married Jezebel, a worshipper of Baal and converted to her faith, forcing the nation to follow suit, until God’s lone prophet brought about their downfall and slaughter. As a result of all this Elijah was on the run when he went to Sidon. So it came about that he worked his great act of convincing the woman to share her food with him – no small miracle given how desperate she was – and in return gave abundance – reminiscent of God’s great banquet of salvation to a despised foreigner in a deliberate act of rejection to those habitually known as God’s ‘chosen people’. It can be no accident of Jewish history that Elijah is seen with Moses, as the prophet of the final coming of God’s kingdom, and the one for whom a place is always made ready at their Passover meal –the great sign of Israel’s redemption from slavery and their entry into the Promised Land. The God of Israel, it appears, will work in and through the material he is given, and it may even be to the detriment of his own people.
All this is summed up in our reading from Hebrews (9:24-28) with its insistence that Jesus, a full human being is also wholly of God, and therefore capable of dealing with all human error. The writer significantly makes an unfavourable comparison between the Jewish temple high priests, those in Jesus’ time who were corrupt and heavily implicated in bringing about the death of Jesus, and the nature of Christ himself. He points out, that because Jesus is totally akin to the Father, his one sacrifice for sin has already redeemed believers and is in fact waiting to reward the faithful with eternal salvation. Our two tales, which we looked at earlier, are in fact stories of redemption, stories about how two widow women laid aside everything of value to turn to God, or to his representative Elijah. They are not comfortable stories, but wrought out of stress and pain, in which only the stark reality of their need drives them in the right direction. They represent us, for such Hebrews recognised was the extent of human sin, that only Christ could rescue us from its fatal grasp and restore us to the God who has always been waiting for us.
November 1, 2015
The other day I was trying to encourage some young people to offer to pray for their friends, and was a little startled when they told me that if they did so, some of their friends would just laugh at them. I suppose I was startled, because I had the naive idea that even if people don’t believe, they quite like the idea of being prayed for. It certainly works for some people, but clearly not all. Sometimes all we get is mockery and scorn!
We don’t like being laughed at by people do we? Especially if they’re our friends! Deep within us we have a strong desire to be liked and accepted by those around us. Indeed it is why many people give up practising the faith publicly. Some may continue to believe in the privacy of their own home, but others will give up even that, just accepting and absorbing the common view around them – that faith is just a fairy tale from the past!
So what sprung out at me from all our readings today (Rev 7:2-14. 1 John 3:1-3. Matt 5:1-12) was that putting one’s faith in God, far from being a modern problem, has always been a struggle for believers. Some atheists and sceptics have the idea that they are “modern”, but this is just nonsense, for persecution and mockery of those with faith has occurred all through history. This is particularly the case for those that we call saints. The first official saints of the Church were those who were prepared to face not just persecution but actual death for their faith. We heard about them today in our 1st Reading where John, in his vision of the glory of heaven, asks who the people dressed in white robes are, and is told, “These are the people who have been through the great persecution..”
Of course this vision of heaven is just that, a vision, for remember there is no space or time with God. So we are given images to evoke something that is beyond our imagining. Sadly some people have taken such images literally, so that “Apocalypse” instead of meaning the opening up of heaven, the revealing of the full glory of God, an image of beauty beyond words, has become some cataclysmic event on earth. Likewise, John, in order to show that the land and sea are material things that will one day be no more, uses the image of 4 angels destroying them. Again we must not take this literally and think of God as a puppet master sending out destruction when he feels like it. These are images given to those facing dreadful fear, and John hypes up these images to show such people that the in the end it is only spiritual things that will last, the things of God – whilst all that is physical, material, will one day be no more.
He goes on to say that the saints are a “huge number, impossible to count”. This was important for those facing persecution then, but is also important to us, precisely because we are part of that great number. They, like us, were ordinary people who tried to be faithful to Jesus, and found that what they did made them unpopular with others ; ordinary people who were given the grace to stand out against the mockery of the world. No wonder we ask them to pray for us! But, don’t think that they all succeeded easily. St Peter ran away from Rome when death threatened him, and only turned back when he had a vision of Jesus on the road asking him where he was going. Others crumbled in the face of persecution and, like many today, gave up practising the faith publicly, even if they maintained it privately.
Jesus knew that this would happen, just as he knew that eventually he too would be killed. We know this from the very end of our Gospel today when he says, “Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of false and evil things against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven.”
So All Saints Day is not really about those saints we can name. The named saints each have their special day throughout the year, whereas today’s Festival is principally about the unknown saints. The ones who are just like you and me, ordinary people who were never famous but were faithful Christians. Many, long before our time, have names that now only God and his angels know; but there are others we may know. People who helped us and are now with God? Priests? Teachers? Family members? Today is the day to give thanks for them as well, and to try as best we can, aided by the grace of God, to live the same kind of life they lived… quietly but persistently – despite the mockery of some around us – to love for the glory of God and for the good of our fellow men and women, whether they appreciate us or not!
October 30, 2015
Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Our reading from the Johannine Letters (1 John 3:1-3) in its Jerusalem Bible translation gives the impression, by its speaking of God’s lavish love for us, that we are thinking about a question of sentiment. But the Greek original is something rather different, it goes like this, “Consider the manner of the love that the Father has given us that we can be called God’s children”. In this form we are invited to consider or ponder upon the implications of such love, both for ourselves and for God. This indeed fits in much better with the later part of our reading which looks to our future in God. Most of us barely even stop to think about our relationship with God at all, let alone our ultimate futures in Him, but our readings for All Saints do provide some pointers to this issue.
Our reading from Apocalypse (Revelation 7:2-4.9-14) offers to us, as it did for the struggling early Christians of Asia Minor for whom it was written, a wake-up call and the promise of a firm conviction and encouragement to those, not unlike ourselves, who found the faith rather less than exciting, and in the writer’s view were not pulling their weight. It is his vision of our ultimate destiny in and with the Father that is so compelling. Rather like the description of the Pentecost experience of Acts 2, with its geography lesson of the spread of the faith around the known world, our writer speaks of the solidarity of the faithful from “Every nation, race, tribe and language” who are offered equal status among the redeemed, and can stand in the presence of the risen Christ (the Lamb). In the status conscious world from which they all came, when differences of citizenship in the Roman empire really mattered and affected your legal rights, and what you could receive by way of corn doles or help during famines, when your status was marked out in the very clothing you could wear or the accent as you spoke, when your very bodily stance would have differentiated the wealthy few from the others in an increasing lessening of significance; just imagine for a moment how stunning it would be to be told that your earthly status now, and more importantly your eternal status, had been won by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and that this cast all earthly divisions into the shade, nay into oblivion! For the hearers of this piece of Biblical writing who lived in an environment completely dominated by class and the different status it gave, such a message would have been utterly stunning in its implications. Even today, it is a difficult concept to grasp for all we bang on about equality and think that we don’t discriminate between those important – ourselves, and those of lesser status, such as the poor and those handicapped in some way, let alone those of different colour and creed. Those of us who post on Facebook can frequently find ourselves alternately uplifted by the generosity of others towards the refugees flooding into Europe, and appalled by the racism and crass inhumanity of others.
The Apocalypse reminds us that in the end, those called to be included among the saved, the saints, will share in the adoration and service of God, as we worship him continually. What we will all share in equally, as the redeemed, is this great privilege of acknowledging God for what he is and for what he has done in us. This is the “Manner of the love that the Father has given us”, a status in which we will all delight as equal sharers, worshippers, adoring the One who has given us everything.
In our Gospel (Matthew 5:1-12) we get an insight from Jesus as to how that destiny might pan out in present day living. The Beatitudes have, sadly been mistranslated and, I suspect totally misunderstood by the translators. These attributes are not a recipe for ‘happiness’, but rather, as the Greek says, “Blessedness”, our becoming God-like. If they are anything, they are surely a model for divine behaviour, schooling us in the ways of living which emulate God himself in his grace and compassion for his creation. If and when we can begin to see the Beatitudes in this light they will no longer be a boring and rather sanctimonious list for the do-gooder, to be dismissed as impossibly unachievable anyway, but a vision of hope for the creation the Father and Son willed into being, to share with the humanity they believe have it in them to live with a truly God-like capacity and grace.