6th September, Trinity 14: Proverbs 22,1-2 8-9, 22-23, James 2, 10 14-17 & Mark 7, 24-end.

 

I really enjoy going to the cinema and it is never just about the film itself, for I really enjoy the whole pre viewing experience. Okay, what I really mean is I enjoy buying the pick and mix, or sometimes pop corn.

 

I enjoy filling my tub with a wide variety of confectionary some of which taste sweet and others sour. I enjoy the contrast. I think sweet and sour, and sweet and salty work well together, although I have to admit I recently bought a tub of salted caramel ice cream and wasn’t at all convinced.!

 

And today’s bible readings feel, at least to me, a bit like a bucket of pick and mix. The readings from Proverbs and James are wonderful, full of sweetness and the gospel, at least at first reading, tastes in some ways to me a little sour. Yet, the readings as we shall see really do enhance each other.

 

Lets chew on a few verses from Proverbs, part of the Bible’s wisdom literature: ‘the rich and poor have this in common, the Lord is the maker of them all,’ ‘do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils the life of those who despoil them.’

 

James, in his pastoral epistle continuously stresses that all, yes all, are equal before God, irrespective of rank or position. If you remember from last week, James defines religion that is acceptable before God as ‘caring for the widows and orphans in their distress and keeping oneself undefiled by the world.’ Equality, justice, compassion, being doers of the word are James’ great themes, all of which allow him to finally assert that ‘faith by itself if it has no works is dead.’

 

I suspect that none of us would want to disagree with the sentiments expressed through the wisdom of Proverbs or the pastoral imperatives of James?  But what of the gospel reading, how to you experience it, or even taste it, on first encounter?

 

Well for me, compared to the other two readings, initially it tastes a bit sour. If James’ pastoral pre-occupation is with equality and, the wisdom of Proverbs stresses the commonality of all before God doesn’t Jesus reaction to the outsider, the Gentile, appear at best a little rude and at worst down right racist? I suggest that it does at face value. But our task is to dig a little deeper for that is where we find real meaning.

 

Imagine for a second or two that you are watching this encounter, as if you were at the cinema.

 

Because the story is set in a house capable of receiving guests this means that you are probably male (the women would be out the back) and well educated. You know your Old Testament Scriptures and have no difficulty in accepting that salvation will come from the Jews, and for the Jews.

 

And then a foreign women, with a demon possessed daughter walks into the room, uninvited. This is not part of the script. Then it gets even worse she throws herself on the floor at His feet. What on earth is happening? Then she asks Jesus to heal her daughter; an impossible and, heretical demand. She is not a member of the chosen race, she is not male, and she doesn’t even know her manners.

 

And, he talks to her. What is he doing? Debate, theological debate is an exclusively male and Jewish pastime. At first it seems as though Jesus is set on rebuking her. It feels like Jesus is on your side, or our side, after all. But then it starts to go wrong again. This gentile, it appears, is not too interested in race and gender; she is in fact quite happy with the idea that salvation will come from the Jews and, is for the Jews. She makes absolutely no attempt to persuade Jesus otherwise. But, she does understand this:

 

That God is there for all, that ‘rich (both materially and spiritually) and poor alike have this in common, the Lord is the maker of all.’  She understands that God doesn’t want to see her ‘despoiled.’ She understands that unlike those who regard themselves as supremely worthy in human terms God isn’t that bothered by rank or status. She has a better understanding of the God’s radical equality which has been evident since Genesis 1 than the so called religious elite. She, this Syro-Phoenician woman, knows that real faith is about doing, and specifically about healing and reconciling and she dares to challenge Jesus to agree with her; in front of a Jewish, male and theologically educated audience. It is a scandalous story. And the sting in the tale is this:

 

Jesus agrees with her. He affirms her he gives her what she desires.

 

The challenges from today’s readings are that:

 

We must never be complacent or even self possessive about our faith, or overly protective of our community. We must all the Church must have porous boundaries.. We must constantly seek to welcome the stranger into our community. We must reach out to all, affirm all, feed all and bless all; these I think are the challenges from today’s readings.

 

Are we willing to accept them?

 

Amen.

Rev Andrew Lightbown

 

 

 

 

30th August: 13th Sunday of Trinity.

Readings: James 1, 17-end & Mark 7: 1-8, 14,15, 21-23

 

Just think for a second if you will and call to mind a word or phrase that really gets you going: okay, here are mine: Leicester Tigers (and increasingly Saracens). You see I am a massive rugby fan, Northampton Saints is my team, and I have convinced myself that Leicester and Saracens are somehow the antipathy of everything that is good and noble about my beloved Saints. It’s nonsense of course, but there you go.

 

But I suspect that if we were to identify one word that set peoples teeth on edge, or provoked the most intense forms of reaction it would be ‘religion.’ Many people claim that religion has been the cause of more wars than any other phenomenon. Not true in modern history according to the Institute of Peace Studies at Bradford University. The biggest political killers of the 20th century Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Amin, Obotoe and so on paid scant regard to the claims of religion. But, with the rise of Isis we have to be honest and say, yes, religion badly practiced causes untold harm to so many people. Bad religion, practiced by any faith, denomination or sect is a scary thing.

 

And, today’s readings contrast the practice of good and bad religion. Jesus knew a thing or two about the abuse of religious and political power: the toxic combination of these two ingredients put him on the cross. So Christianity cannot therefore be about anything other than religion at its best! But what is religion?

 

Well James gives us the answer in the only New Testament definition of the word religion: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself untainted by the world.’

 

Good religion involves the exercise of compassion; compassion directed to the marginalised; the outsider, those who without the exercise of good religion would be isolated, cut off from healthy human relationships. Healthy religion includes, or re-ligatures.

 

And, as Jesus reminds us good religion isn’t too bothered with external form, or even how it looks when judged by the standards of the world. The practice of true Christian virtue cannot involve ‘vanity,’ or the ‘teaching of human precepts as doctrine.’

 

Good religion gets down and dirty and we, as Christians, must be prepared to get some muck under our finger nails and to wear out a bit of shoe leather in the service of the gospel. And, we must pay close attention to the state of our hearts, because what we carry in our hearts will overflow into our treatment of neighbour. Just as evil intentions come from the heart so do good intentions.

 

So we must pray and allow the Holy Spirit to form us. Yes, we must enjoy and be fed by the traditions of the Church, but we must also remember that they are means and not ends, and if we confuse the two we are in trouble, for you see the really frightening point about today’s readings is this: ‘bad religion’ is presented in it’s less violent and benign form.  But here is the problem; bad religion just like good religion is viral. Both take root and grow.

 

The answer to bad religion is not, whatever secularists say, no religion but, instead good and better religion. Jesus knew that, so did the apostle James. Our job is to cultivate virtue, to act with compassion, to love, include, affirm, re-ligature and to reject anything that gets in the way. We must never ‘abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ Instead we must care for the lost and grieving and keep ourselves ‘unstained by the world.’

 

Then, at the end of the day, Jesus might just call us Christian! Amen

Rev. Andrew Lightbown

Sermon Trinity 12

Readings: Psalm 84, Ephesians 6, 10-20 & John 6, 56-59

 

Well it has to be said that today’s psalm is  majestic; language at its best and most beautiful. Language capable of lifting our spirits and taking us into a different realm. In religious terms today’s readings, and especially the Psalm, evoke a sense of transcendence, taking us out of the realm of the ordinary, mundane and day-to-day.

 

Let’s just consider some of the verses from the Psalm:

 

How lovely is your dwelling place O Lord of hosts

 

My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord

 

Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion

 

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in tents of wickedness

 

As parents have suggested to their offspring throughout the generations: ‘they just don’t write lyrics like that any more.’

 

And yet, the psalmist really is the lyricist ‘par excellence!’ And, surely if the wisdom of the psalmist is to be believed surely no one would reject such a divine and holy perspective?

 

And yet the Gospel reading tells us that many do.

 

The difficulty is perhaps not in the words themselves, for they are truly transcendent, but in Jesus’ assertion the way to the ‘dwelling place’ – eternal life – is through Jesus. Jesus is the ‘word’ of God as expressed in the Psalm. You see those who rejected Jesus simply could not, no would not, accept that he was, and is, the revelation of God in human form.

 

And I suspect that part of the reason, at least, is that religious folk both back then and now are far happier constructing God in their image. Yes, people of faith are happy to accept the metaphor as God as the ‘bread of life,’ perhaps even Jesus as the ‘bread of life,’ but many, many people aren’t content with simply receiving their ‘daily bread,’ as a pure gift (grace), they also want to be the master baker! But, as Jesus constantly reminds us throughout the bread of life readings it is the Father who is the Master Baker; not us.

 

In the Gospel reading Peter gives us some words to really live by: ‘Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.

 

And that is the understanding we must get to. We must firstly believe, in order that we might come to know Jesus, not just in the here and now, but for all eternity.

 

Perhaps during the course of the week you might like to utter these words quietly to yourself, see if you can engrave them on your heart: ‘Lord to whom can we go, you have the words of eternal life.’ And, then you might like to add ‘Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ, King of Endless Glory.’

 

They might just be the most transformative words you ever utter! Amen.

Rev. Andrew Lightbown