Saturday, 23 October 2010

All painted purple

Reading: Luke 18 v 9-14

It’s not THAT long since I went to college to study theology – a mere 20 years!
In those days, the range of theology textbooks was fairly narrow and fairly limited.
Names like Barth, von Rad and Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann and Tillich.
Huge tomes destined to induce sleep very quickly.
Today, there is so much choice  for students of theology– there is, for instance, theology according to The Simpsons or the Theology of Winnie the Pooh, even Eeyore’s theology.
Studying the gospel passage this week reminded me of another theologian – or group of theologians – the muppets.
And, since I’ve not been able to get this song out of my head all week, I thought I might as well inflict it on you too.
So, in the light of our reading from Luke, the parable of the two men praying in the temple, I offer you this commentary by the muppets:

There has been a lot of discussion through the ages on which character in this gospel we should most resemble – AND – on which character we are most likely to resemble.
We probably think it straightforward:
Of course the tax collector, only too aware of his sins, is much more commendable than the Pharisee, puffed up by his own righteousness.
But, even drawing that conclusion, renders us more like the Pharisee, standing in judgement, considering ourselves as better, all too conscious of our own goodness.
It’s like a catch 22 – isn’t it?
But maybe that kind of quandary is not the point of the parable at all – or a minor part of Jesus’ motive in sharing this story.
Maybe, in many ways, these two men are minor contributors to the point of Jesus telling us this story.

It seems that, often, a huge part of Jesus using parables, is to get us to examine the many different layers of his story- not to focus on the most obvious but to dig beneath the surface to get to the real heart of Jesus message.

Today’s gospel passage is one of those that seems to throw up so many red herrings, enticing us to look at the two men in the temple, inviting us to compare them, perhaps even stand in judgement of them, when really, our focus perhaps shouldn’t be on the two men depicted in the parable but on what this parable reveals to us about God.
Of course that involves a lot more digging, a lot harder work to get to the point.
And maybe that’s why we welcome the red herrings, it’s easier to be distracted by the details of the story than to be challenged by the God who meets us here.
We’re always quite happy to be sidetracked rather than have to face up to hard teachings that demand hard decisions.

That’s always been one of my misgivings about opting for Unitary Constitution in the church of Scotland :
Castlehill church operates, at present, with a model Constitution – a Congregational Board and a Kirk Session – two different governing bodies, looking after two differing aspects of the church’s work.
The notion is that the congregational board should look at so-called temporal affairs – matters of finance and property, that kind of thing, while the Kirk Session should look after spiritual matters – mission and outreach and spiritual nurture, for instance.
Often, the distinction between the two is extremely blurred.
And so, many congregations opt for Unitary constitution which means that one body looks after the whole lot.
Sounds simpler – and is designed to be.
BUT, it is so much easier to get caught p in the minutiae of a leaking roof or the colour we should paint the ladies (restrooms) than to really get into discussing spiritual care, nurture of young folk, care of the more mature.
And so in Unitary constitution, often, many important elements are overlooked – or body swerved.
We get caught up, instead in the distractions.
We lose sight of God in the whole picture!

And that is always a danger when we approach the parables that Jesus told.
To be distracted by the colourful detail and to gloss over the challenging message.

Some of you will be aware that I recently joined facebook – a social networking site that allows folks to keep in touch. Its hilarious when folk who live in the same house exchange messages with each other on facebook but it IS good for linking friends, present and past  who live further away and for keeping abreast with how life is – a useful tool – as are many of these internet based initiatives. Of course it is open for abuse. But it is also helpful – and fun.
Facebook has also been quite powerful in promoting campaigns – serious and fun. Because of the huge numbers of ordinary folk involved in facebook, campaigns for justice and other useful initiatives can gather pace and take on a global dimension that otherwise would not have been possible.
This week, Wednesday was declared  “Spirit Day”
On facebook.: subscribers throughout the world were encouraged to wear something purple in solidarity with those who suffer from being bullied – particularly those who are being bullied for their sexuality.
Recently, in America, a number of young men, took their own lives rather than endure the bullying any longer.
And, in this country, that kind of bullying has been to the fore recently too.
Folk being bullied because they are different, from school children, to elderly differently abled people.
People made to feel that their life is worthless and so better off ended.
We cannot imagine the despair felt that gets to such a pitch that death is seen as the only way out.
That kind of despair, the kind of treatment that leads people to experience that kind of despair goes against EVERY ounce of Christian teaching and of Christian theology.
And is so, so far removed from the will of a God of infinite love.
The God revealed in this parable we read today.
A God who calls each of us special.
A God who loves us in every situation.
A God who accepts each of us – and all creation JUST AS WE ARE.
Who accepts us and lifts us up when we feel wretched – like the tax collector.
Who accepts us and lifts us up when we are puffed up with our own pride – like the Pharisee.
A God who accepts us and tells us that we are worthwhile, that we matter.
Who tells us that we can never be beyond the grace of God.

The danger is that, reading this parable, we are tempted to make judgements – to divide people into those who deserve God’s forgiveness and those who don’t.

This parable reminds us that only God is able to judge the human heart.
And God judges us all redeemable.

God stands alongside the good, the bad and the ugly, offering grace to all.
God does not divide us into groups – some more acceptable than others – but judges us all as deserving of God’s love and grace.
So when the world puts us down, makes us feel different, makes us feel unacceptable, God calls us beloved.

This parable is not a call to adopt one style of prayer over the other but a call to find a way to pray together – in recognition that we are all sinners – sinners whom God justifies.
And then, once we find a way to share prayer here, to go from here celebrating our shared humanity, and celebrating the God who loves us – as we are.


Sunday, 17 October 2010

Persistence pays off


Luke 18 v 1-8  

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This week's lectionary gospel spoke so closely into the unfolding events this week in the rescue of the Chilean Miners. Those moving scenes of men, trapped underground for 69 days, being brought into the light, freed at last.
Buoyed up by prayers that rippled day and night throughout the world.
It was so moving to see many of them pause to thank the God of freedom and light. And so reassuring to see persistence being honoured.
Miracles indeed.
I'm sure that Jesus told that parable with his tongue firmly in his cheek. The images he provokes of the persistent widow haunting the judge day and night - always there as he goes about his daily business, peering through the windows of his home as he enjoys his evening meal, haunting his dreams as he attempts to escape in sleep. Wearing him out. Until he gives in and grants her petition.
I don't believe we need to wear God down to achieve justice but a little persistence does no harm.
This week we have surely seen persistent prayer answered and it was wonderful to see the goodness of God acknowledged so publicly.
The question is - can we maintain that evidence of faith in adversity?
As we face a changing world, as indifference emerges once more, can we bring faith back into the limelight and maintain belief in a God of freedom and of light?