The Wheat and the Tares

The turning point of destiny does not lie only in the garden of Eden, but in the battleground of Heaven, where the angels of God triumph over the demons and Satan is hurled into the abyss.

 

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Trinity

Matt.13:24-30; 36-43

Two sermons about seeds and sowing on two consecutive Sundays. Someone is trying to make a point. You might say that it’s Jesus himself, but then is he talking to the same group of people on each occasion? Some of them will be the same. His disciples were following him around, so they would have heard last week’s story about the seed that fell on the good soil, as opposed to on dry stony soil. Or is it the editor of Matthew’s gospel? Editorial privilege allows for a certain ‘slant’ on things, even for manipulation of the facts, as we know from the newspapers we choose to read. If you want one particular view your ‘go-to’ paper will give you what you want to hear, even reinforce your prejudices at times. This is something we know we have to be wary of, especially in the digital age we now live in. Anything can be done to the news.

With Matthew’s gospel we know that there is a particular editorial slant, but it is not the kind of slant employed by tabloid journalists or various kinds of malware that gets hacked into our computers. The writer of this gospel is writing primarily for a Jewish readership, which is why we frequently see him set the sayings and parables of Jesus in the context of a Jewish festival, or of the Law. He is concerned with, among other things, Jesus’s Jewishness and his understanding of morality, and of how his very different approach to moral questions is to be understood when it comes to the way Divine judgment works.

So bearing all these considerations in mind, what is this Gospel saying to us today? In what context does it speak most forcefully to us? As with last week’s gospel, we are dealing with questions of good and evil, and of ultimate judgment.

This week, we hear about the kind of evil that, to use a common expression, ‘messes’ with things. If we relate the story to last week’s, the good soil has indeed yielded the wheat but somewhere along the line something got in there and wrecked the crop – ‘messed’ with it.

I am reminded of the situation we face in regard to Russia seemingly trying to mess with the Covid vaccine that is being developed by other countries. The question is, why would Russia want to do this? Why would anyone want to mess up something that is so badly needed by the rest of the world? I don’t think you need to be a political pundit to find an answer to this question. People usually mess up the good that another does out of envy and spite. So much of the evil that we see happening in the world around us – in international relations, in scurrilous business deals, in countless personal betrayals – stems from this evil root. We, or ‘they’ want something they feel they don’t have.

Historically, Russia has always felt that it does not quite belong. Somewhere in its heart is a sense of being denied access to the family of nations, to being part of Europe. So it behaves like any alienated person who needs to belong by messing with the things others have. In this sense, Russia is behaving like an alienated individual, someone who feels shut out of things, but makes it very difficult for people to include them. The alienated individual is someone who allows the good that is in them to be ‘messed’ with through envy and jealousy.

The Creation story itself embodies this ‘myth’. The turning point of destiny does not lie only in the garden of Eden, but in the battleground of Heaven, where the angels of God triumph over the demons and Satan is hurled into the abyss. Satan wanted to be like God – greater than God, in fact. In more prosaic terms, you could say that this cosmic battle was in fact a battle between love and hate. The battle has been won for all time in the Cross, but it also continues today in every malicious thought and in every betrayal that invades the human heart and messes with its potential for goodness.

But the story does not end here. In both the parable we read last week and in the one set to be read for this Sunday, we hear of judgment. In last week’s story, it is as if we bring our own judgment upon ourselves, depending on the state of our hearts. The word either thrives and bears fruit, or it withers and dies of its own accord, because of the state of the soil (our hearts) that it is planted in. But this week’s is quite different. This week, Jesus tells us that the weeds are to be allowed to grow up alongside the good plants and that they won’t be uprooted until the last day. Whether he means our own individual last day, or the end of time as we know it is open to conjecture. The main point is that there will be judgment.

The good news though, is that the judgment that Jesus is talking about is a redemptive one, if we are willing to play a part in it. We are not passive recipients of evil thoughts and impulses. Neither are we passive recipients of salvation. We have a part to play. We have choice and we have at least a measure of control over the things we do and say. The judgment for us, then, involves being truthful with ourselves about the real motives that drive our words and actions. What is the ‘desire’, to use a phrase often repeated by St. Paul in his letters to young churches, that drives us? Sin, as St. Paul often tells us is driven by ‘desire’; the desire, or need, to be better, richer, more powerful or more important than someone else, the desire to win at all costs.

It is important to own our real desires before God so that he can effect a redemptive judgment on them, so that he can burn out of our hearts the desires that ‘mess’ with the goodness that is innately ours, by virtue of the fact that we are made in his image and redeemed by his Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. In the end, he will do the necessary ‘burning’ whatever happens, as the parable of the wheat and tares suggests, but we will be a great deal happier, and the world a more peaceful and just place, if we begin this work with him today.

 

 

 

Alan Bennett’s Irene

Bennet’s Irene is not a bad person. She is a deeply wounded person.

 

We watched the first instalment of Alan Bennet’s ‘Talking Heads’ (currently streaming on BBC i-player) last night, starring the incomparable Imelda Staunton. It made me think of all the people I have labelled ‘difficult’ over the years, mainly for want of the patience needed to get into their ‘heads’, to meet them on the road of wherever it is they’re coming from in life and so understand them better. And perhaps to meet myself along the way too, piecing together memories and associations, separated from each other by time, but which, taken together, reveal who I am, and yield self-acceptance.

Bennet, as always, holds up a mirror for us to behold ourselves as we are. But what is more important, on the basis of last night’s episode, is what he reveals to us about the people we, or society, or the Church, or the government, have given up on; people who are, for any number of reasons ‘difficult’, who don’t tick boxes and who appear not to care about that.

What we are seeing, of course, is a picture of the alienated individual, the person who, for whatever reasons or circumstances, has painted themselves into a corner in life. These are the people it is easiest to dislike, even to hate; the ill-tempered receptionist, the interfering and sometimes destructive neighbour, the carping and over critical parent or partner, the person who cannot recognize kindness, or acknowledge it when it is shown to them, the selfish, the controlling, the overbearing – all of us, in fact, because all of us have in some measure for at least some of the time, been directly affected by unhappy people and become like them ourselves. The memories associated with them continue to wound us and unhealed wounds lead to hardness of heart.

Bennet’s ‘Irene’ is not a bad person. She is a deeply wounded person. This in no way exonerates her for her treatment of the neighbours across the road, who she spies on and persecutes mercilessly. Neither does it oblige us to like her. This is a mistake that many well meaning people, especially Christians, make in regard to difficult people, that we must at least act as if we like them, that we are, in fact, under a moral obligation to ‘love’ them. To pretend to love someone who you find it impossible to like, for whatever reason, is pure hypocrisy, and yet the Church persists in communicating this impossible message to its members.

Bennet does not ask us to like Irene. What he does do, brilliantly, is to allow Irene an opportunity to reveal who she truly is, despite her new surroundings. (No spoiler here). We see what appears to be a transformation of her personality as a direct result of her being accepted by those around her. We sense, of course, the barbed nature of this ‘acceptance’. She is laughed at, but she is also given a sense of belonging and purpose. As a result of this, a new person emerges.

When a person is accepted unconditionally, either because a particular set of circumstances makes that more possible, or because love in its true guise gives them the benefit of the doubt, they get another chance at life. They can reveal their true selves to others, and perhaps to themselves, as Irene seems to do.

So what is Bennet inviting us to do in all this? I don’t think he is talking about the need for patient kindness, in the hope that our being nice to someone will somehow transform them over time. Irene gets that kind of niceness from the social workers and the occasional police officer who visit her. I think he is asking us to try to at least imagine where the annoying, mean, miserable individuals who may figure in our lives are really coming from. What is the unbearable grief that binds them to itself? What is the failure or disappointment, or heartbreak from which they will never recover? Where have they been crushed and humiliated? How can we begin to reach them in these places, without, of course, them realising that we are doing that, because that would only hurt or humiliate them further?

These are not questions waiting to be asked. They are pain that is waiting to be salved. We salve the pain of others through silence, not through superfluous, if well intentioned, words. Silence means giving undivided attention to another person, listening to them as we hold their underlying pain, even if only for a few brief moments, and then taking it home with us to hold in the ambient grace of a loving God.

 

 

 

 

A Bounded Freedom

As someone who is called to serve the Church in an ordained capacity, I have been giving some thought to how we can best respond to this calling, and to how the Church is to be for people, once churches are allowed to fully re-open for public worship. What will be asked of it?

 

It seems that these endless weeks of bounded freedom, the only name I can think to give to this period of lockdown, are drawing to a close – for the time being at least.

There will have been days which literally defy description and there will be have been others which have passed like a dream, with day and night merging into a single colourless continuum. We have been thrown back on ourselves and on our own emotional resources. For many people, these resources are now at a very low ebb. Our faith, if we have one, may have been severely tested through depression or loneliness, through disorientation and a strange sense of uprootedness and disorientation, perhaps.

Faith is nurtured through relationship, through human exchange at every level. For Christians it is also nurtured through coming together to seek God on a weekly basis, with whatever words and actions we are given, or that have been handed to us by tradition. Despite everything that is being done online, some of us miss our Sundays, the day that punctuates the week in this rather formal way. We miss our church and its regular pattern of worship and ministry. We miss the communion of it, communion through the sacrament if we have that, and communion with one another at a very real level, real in the sense of being physically present to one another in a shared space that has been used for this purpose for generations.

Church is a place of rootedness. But people are mistaken when they think of church as a sterile environment stuck in the past. If roots are simply ‘stuck’ a plant or tree cannot live. Similarly, if prayer and worship are no more than habit, if it is emotionally stuck or out of touch with people’s lives today, it will not be a channel of life. But if prayer is genuine, if it consists of everything a person has to bring to the moment, worship will be genuine too. It will also be rooted, not boring, repetitive or trite, but sourced in the unchanging nature of God and rooted in the richness of our individual lives.

God does not change and yet God moves, within us and around us. Churches exist to signal this particular reality that we experience together. In the context of a church service, we are present to God from what can only be described as our real self, the place of no pretence where we meet the God who knows us and loves us as we are.  We are also among people we trust, or at least we should be. The purpose of church is to affirm and celebrate this rootedness in God and in one another, to celebrate a trust between people that has accumulated across the generations and throughout the centuries and will continue to do so for centuries to come.

The other name for this is communion, the communion of ‘saints’. Saints are not perfectly holy individuals. They are flawed human beings, past and present, who recognise their need for Christ and try to love one another in that place of need. Some of them will come together on a Sunday and do this in church.

The responsibility for celebrating this communion, or union of people at the deepest level of meaning in God, lies with those who minister the church service. They can be ordained or lay, depending on the tradition of individual churches. Either way, it is a particular calling and one which extends beyond the confines of any one parish or church building.

As someone who is called to serve the Church in this way, I have been giving some thought to how those of us who share in this calling can best respond to it, and to how the Church is to be for people, once churches are allowed to fully re-open for public worship. What will be asked of it?

I am getting a sense of what this might be from the relationships that have been formed or strengthened up and down the lane where I live. It is more than a sense of people looking out for each other, or being more friendly than usual – notably when it comes to negotiating one or other of the few passing places we have along this lane. We smile and make eye contact with the person who gives way, which is not something that always happened in the past. Courtesy is very much part of our shared life these days. We are not in such a hurry as we were. There is deeper communion between us as a result of the restrictions imposed by the Covid pandemic.

Being in deeper communion with one’s immediate neighbours, as a result of our shared experience of lockdown, says something about what it means to be the Church. We are in fact being the Church when we practice courtesy to one another. But there is more to it than that. For the Church, courtesy is a graced action. It comes from having spent time engaging with the source of all courtesy and kindness, with engaging deeply in God. The isolation and solitude of the past months have meant that many of us have had to re-learn the habit of dropping down into silence in a way that sees silence as the source of all goodness, and of life itself. There have even been times, during these months, when silence literally ‘commands’ our attention.

To pay attention is to respond to a command from God to listen deeply to the world and to our immediate surroundings. It invites us to draw people we know into the presence of God, from within our own deepening encounter with silence and with whatever we wrestle with in moments of real solitude. But we also do this in solidarity with our neighbours, naming the ones we know, or simply holding the ones whose names elude us in the ambit of God’s love. This is what the Church of the future will consist of, a body of people who have learned how to hold others in God.

Despite lockdown, some figures suggest that there has been a marked increase in interest in Sunday church services over the past weeks. On one particular Sunday the internet briefly collapsed under the sheer weight of Christian prayer, teaching and worship. This is interesting because there are many parish clergy who have felt lost and disorientated over these past months, despite some of the wonderfully imaginative outreach that has been effected through the internet and despite the pastoral sensitivity and vision of some of our bishops. It has been a wilderness time for them.

The Church, like many people, is enduring a wilderness period, not only because its doors have been closed, and may remain so for a while yet, or because collective worship has not been possible, but because we are being invited, perhaps, to deepen into this sense of loss and absence, into the wilderness, and, what is more difficult, to not be in too much of a hurry to emerge from it.

As with lockdown itself, I believe we clergy need to emerge slowly and cautiously from the wilderness we may have been experiencing. We need to own it fully. Owning our own wilderness enables us to minister in the fullest sense to the emptiness and loss which many people experience in their lives, irrespective of Covid. These feelings of loss can be attributed to specific crises, of course, but for the most part they constitute a general state of mind, a sense of purposelessness and futility, a lethargy of the soul. If the Church, and its ordained ministers in particular, are to speak to this soul sickness, and thereby proclaim the good news of the Gospel, those of us who do so in an official capacity will need to re-learn acceptance, acceptance of who and what we are before God (and that takes some doing) and acceptance of the world and the Church itself, as they are before God. In the eyes of God, both the Church and the world are fundamentally good and deeply loved.

Herein lies the paradox of the Church’s prophetic vocation. We are to know ourselves as loved by God, and capable of goodness, while at the same time being acutely conscious of the evil and suffering that is perpetrated in the world and within the Church’s own bounded structures. Holding these two opposites together, the capacity for good and evil, becomes a way of life, not just something we do when we feel up to it, or can find the time, but as the guiding knowledge that we are called to live by.

We also do it in solidarity with previous generations. We inherit both the good and the consequences of the evil that may have begun through their actions, in both the Church and the world. We are in solidarity with the BLM movement now, because injustice and racism continue, but we also bear the burden of slavery itself which, lest we forget, continues, as people are trafficked all over the world into various forms of modern enslavement. We carry the burdens of previous generations, and of our own, but we do all this from within a place of inner silence which is not closed in on itself, but open to the possibilities of redemption and of forgiveness. We do it from a place of knowing that all that we are holding is held in God, as we ourselves are held.

Those called to the ordained ministry will need to have learned to know themselves from within that silence and see it as their ‘default position’, the place or ‘locus’ of understanding to which they continually return in order to rightly understand and live out their calling as deacons, priests and bishops in God’s Church. Lockdown may have helped some of them begin to face the realities of this calling, the seeming loss of direction and purpose, the irrelevance of status and ‘job description’, and of pointless and energy sapping meetings and committees. Without this time-consuming activity, some of them will be feeling marginalised, even redundant. They may even be questioning their calling. This is hardly surprising, since these very skills were probably being sought for when they were first selected, and subsequently trained, for ordination.

But the good news is, that much of what we clergy have become accustomed to, and even comfortable with, is not God’s idea of what it means to be the Church. In fact, without all these distractions from our true vocation, during these wilderness months, the Church’s life is only now just beginning. We can be confident then, that as long as we love one another and God’s world from within that often lonely and silent place, and work together for healing, as the apostle Paul wrote to the clergy in Corinth, we ‘do not accept the grace of God in vain, for now’ he says ‘is the acceptable time; See, now is the day of salvation.’ (2 Cor. 6:3)

 

 

 

Pentecost at Minneapolis

 

Pentecost is upon us, the season of fire and purgation. Is this what we are seeing in Minneapolis? The anger is righteous, though the violence is not. The poet Yeats might have envisaged it as ‘mere anarchy loosed upon the world’. Random chaos, in other words.

It’s easy to think of anarchy as random chaos but this anarchy, that we are seeing right now, is rooted in something. It is not random. It is the unforgiven sins of history being visited upon us, yet again. It is also a kind of holy void which God may be filling with the rage itself.

I have been reading the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament recently and it seems to me that God is not averse to the use of extreme violence, something that I have always found puzzling. But perhaps this is only due to my own partial understanding of the picture, when it comes to the Bible in relation to the violence we are seeing in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the US.

What if we think of these events as reflecting something of Pentecost, the feast of fire which emboldened and enlivened the disciples and the Church of today to stand for the truth? The anarchy we are seeing is dangerous because it has spilled over into attacking one of the last remaining institutions that speaks for truth and objectivity. Suddenly what is righteous dissolves into dangerous anarchy. A reporter is arrested, on camera, while reporting these events. There is a complete absence of law enforcement – no police, no national guard. The streets belong to the angry and the oppressed.

We feel something of this dangerous situation wherever there is a failure or absence of wise governance, or of leaders with integrity who can be trusted. It is almost naïve nowadays to talk of trust in relation to politics, perhaps because politicians so despise the people they are paid to serve that their arrogant patronising of them will, they think, go unnoticed. But sooner or later, far too late, people will wake up to the fact that they are being played for fools. The rage of the oppressed (and there is none so potent) and the contempt of the powerful for their own people runs the risk of spilling over into ‘mere anarchy’, not only in Minneapolis but, as the Cummings affair suggests, also in the UK.

It is time to hold the fire of Pentecost in our hearts, so that its energy can spill over into a world crying out for leaders and law enforcers who will enact justice, speak the truth and let the oppressed go free.

How will the Church, post Covid respond to this challenge?

Social Media and the Virtual Church

There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed on social media, regarding virtual church services. Are the issues themselves the cause? Or are there other things surfacing in our common life?

 

There is a monumental twitter and facebook spat going on at the moment, having to do with whether and where it is or isn’t right to celebrate the Eucharist outside a church. It’s raised other questions too, about the validity, for want of a better word, of streaming worship and whether church buildings should remain open, and if so for whom. There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed, to the extent that I find myself wondering whether the issues themselves are the cause, or whether other things are surfacing in our common life of which, until now, we were not aware.

The controversy seems to be largely focused on church people, ordained and lay, some of them highly placed. Perhaps it has extended itself more widely in the social media scene, and it is only because of my fairly limited following that I’m not aware of whether other people are concerned about these questions, whether they feel they have a particular interest in them. I think I can safely hazard a guess that most of my non-churchgoing friends are fairly indifferent to them.  So where does that leave those of us who, willingly or not, have been caught up in this fracas?

Where it leaves us has to do with what it is about these questions that really matters to the individual and how the whole question of public worship needs to be thought about theologically. It would take a book to answer the second question, even if it were to be limited to the contextual circumstances of a pandemic. But I think there are other more pressing pastoral issues at stake right now. These have to do with feeling very disorientated and afraid in these unprecedented times, and with the attendant anxieties which that fear brings to the area of public ministry, to its relevance and place in our lives. In this respect, it feels that those of us who are ordained are coming adrift from our moorings. It would not be fair to blame bishops or other church leaders for this sense of dislocation because many of them are probably feeling the same way.

Be that as it may, our passionate attachment to the issue of public worship and its attendant questions may also have to do with fearing the loss of a certain kind of purpose, of calling, perhaps. Ordained people are feeling vulnerable, especially those who do not have other paths along which they can minister, such as the continuation of food banks, homeless shelters and other permitted good works. Church buildings witness to the abiding presence of God in our midst in practical, as well as spiritual, ways. We all belong to our buildings, as our buildings belong to us. We also belong to one another in the context of social media.

I am not a parish priest, but I can imagine only too well how at a loss many priests must feel when they have only the internet and the phone to rely on for exercising pastoral and liturgical ministry. The tone of the exchanges on social media does not seem to acknowledge the challenges they face, still less express the affirmation which they must be needing. There is very little kindness in it all. If we were to begin to outdo one another in human kindness, we might find that questions of liturgical practice under lockdown would resolve themselves. Would the Church then look significantly different after Covid?

Quite a bit has been written about the Church’s structural future, but we also need to think about what that structure will embrace, and what it will convey to the world. Will the Church consist of people who are so anchored in God’s love that whatever they do or say will convey God’s love for them and for those they serve?

Right now, we are like the frightened disciples, huddled in the upper room when the risen Christ appears to them. They are busy arguing about the truth of the reports they have heard, as we are busy arguing about how public worship is to be conducted under lockdown. They are unstable and afraid, as we all are right now. Christ breathes peace into their individual fears, as he breathes into ours. He makes it possible for love to take hold of them again.

To be effective in ministry, wherever that takes you, is to know God’s love, to love God in return and to love his people. It also should inform how we conduct discussions online.

All The Time In The World

There was no internet connection this morning. Like many people, I find being unexpectedly cut adrift in this way frustrating but this morning it induced panic. It takes very little to throw a day off kilter during this pandemic. We need certain structures to stay in place for the various components of the day to hold together, so that the day retains its shape and forward momentum. The internet is vital to structure, but it must not become indispensable.

Perhaps what we need right now is a modified rule of life, broadly suited to the situation we are in but adaptable to individual circumstances and to the kind of stress inducing situations which would normally be quite easy to deal with. We need habits of mind to fall back on, a basic template for living in a way that ensures that a person thrives during this period of lockdown, rather than just surviving it.

We could start by being more kind to ourselves. This is not selfish individualism. Being kind to oneself when there is so much suffering everywhere is quite difficult to achieve, given the feelings of guilt it can induce, and the mental and spiritual distortions that these feelings can lead to. It helps, in this respect, not to get over tired. We need to live within our physical and spiritual means if we are to remain emotionally stable for the duration of this pandemic. Getting up an hour later not only ensures we are more rested, it brings the added benefit of shunting the whole day forward, making the day itself feel a little shorter.

Having got up a little later, spending the first hour of the waking day in the presence of God, sustained by tea if necessary, gives a person a firmer footing on which to begin the day itself. It is important to be honest about what we feel during this hour, while at the same time not allowing yesterday’s preoccupations and emotions to dominate it. A certain equanimity is needed for grace to do its transforming work. Facing one’s real emotions and allowing them to be held by God may provide a way for them to be used as the means for building something new for ourselves or for someone else in the day that lies ahead.

Whether a person lives alone or is part of a household, the way in which they spend the first hour of the day will significantly impact on the hours that follow because during that first hour, we can be open to the possibility of seeing things differently, of noticing things around us. In being available in this way, to the good that is around us, time acquires a value of its own. Learning the habits of openness allows for reflection and for consideration of what others, close to us or far away, might be thinking or feeling at any given moment.

The first hour spent with God also teaches us the value of silence. While it is important not to run from silence by filling the day with internal or external noise, we need to be kind to ourselves where these distractions are concerned. Most of us need social media right now because it connects us with people. It is a great antidote to loneliness and can be a real source of encouragement and support to anyone who engages with it in a generous and creative way. Social media works best when we consciously use it to support or enrich the lives of others. Giving and receiving ‘likes’ and positive comments strengthens our sense of belonging together in these difficult times, so we should be kind to ourselves by not feeling guilty about the fact that we find these positive interactions good and helpful.

It is equally important to have a meaningful project to work on, not just to fill the time, but to give substance to the day and to dilute the stress that comes with living with other people in a more concentrated way than we’re used to. Any project or activity that leaves a person feeling better about themselves, whether it is writing a novel or clearing out a garage, benefits those they live with.

This is a blessing in itself and a direct result of what normality may yet look like for years to come. Perhaps we will have got used to not having to prove ourselves, to achieve and to be driven by the need to work or be busy because we cannot bear the thought of time wasted. Perhaps we will become less in need of proving ourselves and better at living within our limits and at the same time living richly towards God and other people. So much death and suffering may yet teach us to value not only the time that is given to us but life itself.