Use your wits

Homily for Proper 20 Year C

Amos 8:4-7. Psalm 113. 1 Timothy 2:1-7. Luke 16:1-13

The trouble with Bible readings in church is that they’re usually from a translation that may be accurate, but doesn’t sound like the way we speak today. It is somewhat stilted and therefore the meaning is not always as obvious or forceful on first hearing as it should be.

Here is part of the the Amos reading in a modern American version, one that I think quite wonderful, The Message by Eugene Peterson:

Listen here, you who trample all over the weak, who treat poor people as less than nothing, who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up? How long till the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?” Listen here, you who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. You exploit the poor, using them—and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.

And they say that religion should have nothing to do with politics. Ha!

“Ah but,” you say, “that’s from the Jewish Scriptures, not Christian. “Well”, I respond, “Jesus was a Jew. Furthermore he was well capable of being narky, rude, abrupt and provocative. As I said last time I was here, he was not an agreeable man”.

Here is the essence of today’s gospel as if from The Message.

The rich man realised that his manager was on the fiddle. He’d used his position to siphon off money for himself. So he sacked him and said “before you go I want a complete audit of your books.” The manager said to himself, “What am I to do? I’ve lost my job. I’m not strong enough for labouring, and I’m too proud to beg. . . . Ah, I’ve got a plan.”

One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his boss. When someone said he owed a hundred jugs of olive oil the manager told him to write fifty. When someone else said he owed  a hundred sacks of wheat the manager told him to write eighty. And so on, the crafty guy making friends for his new life.

Note Jesus’ comments. He commended the crooked manager. “He knows how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to survive, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.”

In short, if only we put as much effort into working for the Kingdom as we do into trying to avoid the washing-up, or ironing, or hoovering, or cheating the taxman …. Today’s Gospel tells us to be crafty:

  • Use the ways of the world to further the cause of right.
  • Take risks like the steward—he was commended for his audacity. 
  • Don’t be lazy, or take things lying down.
  • Make good use of what comes your way. Don’t moan because it’s not what you expected or wanted.

It’s a call to action, and to shrewd action, planned action, cunning action. Use your brains and think before acting.

Amos gives us a focus for our craftiness:  to wage war against oppression. Isn’t Amos just wonderful? He is utterly blunt, never minces his words. Quite un-Anglican. In my ministry I have been incumbent of two churches that particularly need to hear Amos. But they didn’t and won’t. They are little more than social clubs for the respectable, for many of whom church is treasured because it reminds them of the security of childhood and a life gone by. What church is really for, of course, is to stir people up—excite is the word—to fight injustice. Instead so often it’s about cosy complacency and gossip.  That’s the trouble when Christianity becomes respectable. I’ve done my best to bring it back into the gutter but people don’t listen to me any more than to Amos.

So: be crafty for Christ. Work for the kingdom. And for this church community, working towards cooperation with St Paul’s under one incumbent, this command has particular immediacy.

It would be easy to come together in a way that requires minimal change: the odd tweak here and there, this a bit later, that a bit earlier, and things can continue more or less as now.

The trouble is they can’t. This generation, our generation, is dying off and each loss is not matched by a gain. There is no steady state, and soon there will be no critical mass of people for all the tasks.

If you take the gospel and Amos seriously you will stop trying to keep things much as they were. It’s like a dying patient on life support. You will instead try some imaginative thinking. Jesus laid into his disciples for not reading the signs of the times – and this is exactly what you need to do. 

Ask yourselves:

  • What will this part of Burton look like in 10 years time? 
  • How many C of E churches will still be open, and how many will have weekly services?
  • What are the likely forces that will shape society?
  • How can we build a church community to serve this part of Burton?
  • Is it right that decisions about the future are taken largely by people who won’t be around to see it?

Ask yourselves:

  • Why do you need a mass in each church every Sunday? Why not one in each church alternate Sundays with non-Eucharistic services on other Sundays?
  • Is holy communion the right hook to grab people? Weekly mass is a fairly recent feature of the C of E. 
  • Will people be attracted by the music on offer? the welcome of strangers? 
  • Is the church warm and are the seats comfortable?
  • In short, is church worth getting out of bed for?

If you treat church as a private club, then it will die, and it deserves to. If you heed Amos and as a church community love your neighbour as yourself by fighting injustice, I suspect people will come. 

Jesus said he wanted us to be smart like the man on the fiddle—but for what is right—using every means possible to stimulate us to work for justice and the common good.

Trust and be silly

A homily for Proper 14 Year C

Genesis 15:1-6. Psalm 33:12-22. Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16. Luke 12:32-40

I usually start thinking about a sermon on the previous Sunday afternoon as I’m in my groove on the sofa, dozing or whatever. “What can I say next week that I haven’t said already?” This is a bit of a problem because the gospel readings at the moment are variations on a theme, so the sermons are pretty much interchangeable. 

As I was pondering, into my head came David and Goliath. The little squirt versus the the big man. And David killed him! They weren’t expecting that. What sticks in my mind about this is an easily missed detail in the build-up. Saul gives the young David all his armour because, presumably, he thinks the little lad has no chance without it. David tries it on and says “no thanks, mister, too heavy, I can’t move in all this clobber, I’ll be better without it”. The confidence of youth!

No armour, no preconceptions, no assumptions, no prejudgments. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure that our lives will be predictable. We try to control the future. We try to manipulate people so that they do things that we can cope with. Is this because we want to feel powerful, as if we’re the boss, or because we’re so afraid that we can’t cope unless things happen in a certain way? Maybe those are the same. Either way, we want to feel that we’re in charge. 

The trouble is that if we’re in charge like that, we’re not flexible, we’re not open to inspiration, we’re can’t cope with changing circumstances. Think how many businesses go under because they are not responsive and able to adapt quickly.

If we are to live, as opposed merely to exist, it’s this flexibility that we need. We need to resist the temptation to dress ourselves in restrictive armour: David ditched all this clobber and marched off to meet Goliath full of confidence that since he could deal with lions and bears that attacked his sheep, dealing with Goliath would be a piece of piss.

We need to take the risk, like David, of stepping out without conditions, restrictions, safety nets, assumptions, expectations, efforts to manipulate. Without clobber. In Christian-speak (which I heartily dislike) you might say that the Lord wants us to trust him enough to live with him unafraid, totally defenceless in his presence. 

The Greek word for this is pistis, and in Greek mythology Pistis was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. Pistis, better translated as trust rather than faith, is a decision. We decide to trust. 

Trust in the uncertainty of life. Trust not to be fearful of possibilities. Work with the cosmos, don’t fight it. 

For us all, it means working with what we’ve got and enjoying it while it lasts. And when it disappears before we do, we work with something else rather than moan how good things used to be—an empty-headed activity according to Ecclesiastes. 

Let go of trying to control. Let go of what “I” want. Let go of ego. Do not be afraid. Step out, be ready, be alert to possibilities, be responsive. 

This means having faith in, trusting in, your own ability to make decisions as circumstances arise. In my theology, this means making contact with, and having faith in, the inner divine core, the little boy David within each of us. I rather think that someone once said that unless I become as a child, I will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Life is messy and unpredictable. Despite what anyone may tell us, or what we in the privileged West may think, we are not in control. We simply don’t know what’s around the corner. Live each day as if ‘twere thy last – a recurring message. Acceptance of uncertainty is the key to living in the moment, and living in the moment is the key to eternal life—eternal being a quality of life outside time, not everlasting. And when we acknowledge our powerlessness, and discard attachments, there is nothing left for us to stand on our dignity about, so pride (hubris) goes too. Think how much better the world would be without that sort of pride, based as it is on the notion that “I’m better than you”.

I know—this is hard. I say these things not because I’m good at them, but because I’d like to be. But we’ve got to start on this journey of trust sometime, and the right time is always now, before it’s too late. 

You can be sure of one thing: there is no alternative

Well, there is, but it’s putting a black bag on your head and living in a gloomy cellar never venturing forth in case something attacks you’

Bronnie Ware, a nurse working in palliative care,  wrote of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, a book based on her experience. Here they are (my summaries, not hers):

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live my life rather than the life others expected of me. Most people die knowing that their lives have been limited by their choices.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. This came from every man the author nursed. It is true for me. I missed a good deal of my children’s youth and Susan’s companionship.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to say what I felt. Many people don’t say what they think in an attempt to keep peace. They settle for mediocrity. The frustration, bitterness and resentment that build up inside can cause heart disease and cancer.
  • I wish I’d stayed in touch with friends.
  • I wish I’d let myself be happier. Happiness is a choice. Misery is a choice. People stay stuck in old habits. Fear of change makes us pretend to others and to ourselves that we are content, when deep within, we long to laugh and be silly. There is not enough innocent silliness in this world.

So there you are! Ditch the notions. Trust in uncertainty. Be silly.

Are you willing to be grateful to your enemy?

Into the gutter

I don’t often preach these days, but I am booked at Horninglow this Sunday. Here it is.

A homily on the parable of the Good Samaritan

Jesus must have been a very irritating friend.  Ask him a straight question, and the last thing you get is a straight answer.  It’s like dealing with a utilities company.  His excuse might be that rather than tell you what to think, he wants you to work it out for yourself. That’s why he uses parables, so that we can interpret them as appropriate depending on the context.

Today’s story of the so-called good Samaritan is just such a story.  On the face of it it’s a call to show compassion to all we encounter, not just to members of the club.  I imagine the rather supercilious and snotty lawyer who was trying to catch Jesus out being somewhat narked.  I hope so.  

The story today might concern football supporters.  Would a Liverpool FC supporter go the aid of a seriously injured Manchester United supporter? I once asked that question of a young lad in church, a Liverpool supporter, who responded “never”.  Do we even notice people who are not like us, the druggies by the canal or by the Town Hall? Do we greet them, or do we pass by on the other side?

This brings me to the Priest and Levite.  They are often painted as bad, hard hearted, lacking in compassion.  I don’t think they were.  They had roles in the Temple that required them to be ritually clean.  Had they touched the man who was bloody and may have been dead, they would have rendered themselves ritually unclean and thus unable to fulfil their professional duties.  They were guilty only of putting duty before compassion and humanity.  Is any of us free from guilt?  Who has been in too much of a hurry to help someone who needs it?  All of us. Who as a parent has emphasised duty at the expense of tenderness? All of us.

Now another way of looking at the story, one that was a revelation to me.  It’s a Jewish interpretation – and remember, Jesus was a Jew.  

Using the Manchester and Liverpool analogy, never mind whether Liverpool would go to the aid of Manchester, the question now is would the Manchester guy be willing to be helped by his mortal enemy? 

We are so very proud and stand-offish.  We are unwilling to expose our need for help to people we disdain.  We have in the words of the psalmist “a proud look and high stomach”.  We hide behind electric gates so as to keep out hoi polloi.  We are, again from the psalms, “inclosed in our own fat and our mouth speaketh proud things”.  

Are you willing to set all this aside and be grateful to your enemy?

Finally, a very personal interpretation.  The man was going down to Jericho on the shore of the Dead Sea, way below Mediterranean sea level, Fourteen miles by road, down, down, down more than three quarters of a mile.  Ears pop.  

This for me is an allegory of the descent into mental illness, overcome by the wilderness demons of depression until you simply can’t go any further.  For those of us who know depression and grief – I’ve been on antidepressants on and off for decades – it’s a realistic image.  We are immobilised, unable to make even the simplest decision or set foot outside home. Where is help to come from?

It comes from the most unlikely sources.  

The chance encounter.  The kind word that is nothing out of the ordinary to the speaker but that transforms your day.  The smile from a stranger that gives a glimmer of light and colour to the dark greyness within.  The Samaritan has been likened to Jesus, but every one of us has the divine spark within and with that spark we can with simple acts of humanity and kindness bring life to others.  We are the Samaritan.  If you have friends or family that suffer from depression, be kind.  Listen to them, talk to them.  Nothing dramatic, just tend their metaphorical wounds.  You are the Samaritan; you are the Christ who comes in the most unlikely of guises.

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not.  He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.  (Albert Schweitzer)

What’s in a name?

I’m a regular reader of the blog Thinking Anglicans (yes, I know there are very few of them ….). It keeps me up to date with the lamentable politics of the Church of England. 

There’s been an interesting discussion about whether contributors should be allowed to use fake names, as some do. The consensus is that real names are ideal but some people must hide their identities for various reasons. For example, a cleric using his/her name might feel obliged to stick to an official church opinion. That never bothered me for so much official church teaching is utterly bonkers and needs to be changed. I rather hoped that I might be hauled up before an ecclesiastical court – it would have been fun – but alas I seemed not to have been offensive enough. Must try harder.

Anyhoo, back to names, I am William after father and his father, Stanley after mother’s father, and Monkhouse because here at present we use the patronymic. Quite why my second name was routinely used I know not. 

I wonder if there is such a thing as a “me” that can be adequately encompassed in just one name.  You see, girls and boys, there are several “mes” living in my body. 

There’s adolescent me discovering things, 6 year old me playing in the sandpit, finger wagging me that gives out shoulds and oughts, 71 year old me that is angrier about injustice and more subversive than ever before (whoever said we get less revolutionary as we age was wrong), dutiful me that serves, eye twinkling provocative me, emotional me, fearful and inadequate me, depressive me that spends money as therapy, and more. 

Add to these the millions of creatures that live in and on me, bacteria, viruses, symbiotes, even maybe parasites, many of which produce chemicals that affect my thoughts and behaviour – we’re all at the mercy of circulating chemicals from whatever source, so is there really free will?

Having three official names to choose from I give different names to these various “mes”: Stanley, Stan, Will, William, Billy, Willy, Monk, Monkey (inevitable school nickname), fat git (used by one of my sons with then some justification). I like all these “mes” and love them even though some cause problems. Interestingly, the “mes” with the problems tend to be creative and good fun, and I wouldn’t be without them. 

As I reflect on these “mes” I return repeatedly to the profound question “would the child I once was be proud of the adult I have become?”

I am put in mind of this exchange on Life of Brian between Stan and his mates.

Stan wants to be a woman called Loretta so he can have babies. 

It is true that many men as they age and lose testosterone develop tits and become more female-like. Changing sex during the life cycle is not unknown in the animal kingdom.

I’m not there yet.

Easter freedom

An Easter homily if I were giving one. It’s based on the Easter sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes before King James at Whitehall on Easter Sunday 1609.

The New Testament word for sepulchre, tomb (as in empty tomb) is mnema. It’s the word that gives us memorial, memory, and mnemonics – phrases to help one remember things. The stories in the gospels about Jesus expelling demons from men living in the tombs are for me about freeing them from living in their memories, from living in the past.

People who live in the past cling to resentments, unable to let go, unable to forgive, unable to move on. They are entombed in the past. Think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Think of parents who live through the achievements of their offspring. Think of sad men propping up sports club bars boring all and sundry with tales of their sporting achievements decades ago before their hairy bellies started hanging over their belts.

Now think of the Easter story. Never mind if it’s literally true or not. Never mind if it’s a fable based on more ancient folk tales. It’s utterly psychologically authentic. The stone is rolled away. The contents of the tomb have escaped.

Can you see that this is an invitation for us to let go of the past? If we are to live life abundant then we have to let go and move on. The empty tomb means the past is cleansed. It is forgiven.

Think of people who refused to support Jesus, who deserted him, who told lies about him to save their skins or to curry favour with authority, who joined the chanting mob. How many of the Palm Sunday supporters joined that baying crowd? Now think how shocked they must have been to hear that the man they’d condemned wasn’t dead and gone, but might meet them in the street. It’s like gossiping with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who, just as you’ve made the most utterly bitchy remark, appears round the corner and cheerfully greets you. You want the ground to open up and swallow you.

How does Jesus react when he meets his so-called friends again? Does he berate them? Does he take them to court? Does he arrange for some big fellers from the local pub to kneecap them?

No, none of this. All he says is “Peace”. It’s like he says, “never mind the past, friends, let’s get on—we’ve got work to do.” Forgiveness.

Now, think of those times you’ve gossiped, betrayed, told half-truths to get you out of a tight corner, or blindly followed the crowd. The story is not just about 2000 years ago. It’s about human nature, yours and mine, NOW. It’s about death of pride and ego and self in order that selflessness can ascend. We need to, we must, forgive and let go, otherwise we become entombed in living death. This is not about an afterlife—if there is one—it’s about life abundant before death.

The most difficult person you’ll ever have to forgive is yourself. Some of us like wallowing in it, turning masochism into an art form. But life is to be lived. People make the mistake of thinking that forgiveness will just happen. It won’t. It’s hard work. We have to practise it like we have to practise any skill. We have to keep telling ourselves that we are forgiven. We have to brainwash ourselves. This is important as we get older, for it’s easy to dwell on the past and less easy to imagine the future. At least, I find it so.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you escape the consequences of your actions, but it helps you to move on and make the best of — that is to say, confront — the hole you’ve got yourself into. It helps you to escape the tomb and see the big wide world: eyes that see shall never grow old.

The penalty for living in the past is that we become wizened, resentful, odious, and mendacious. We risk becoming deeply unattractive miserable gits. If we behave like that, people will avoid us, and rightly so. The only person I harm by living in the past is me.

As Andy and Red say in Shawshank, “get busy living or get busy dying”. The choice is yours.

Happy Easter.

Even my own familiar friend

A repost of a 2019 blog.

Michael Burrows (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) inspired this reflection and Michael Ipgrave (Lichfield) directed me to Mynheer’s painting. Thank you.

Do you know this picture by Nicholas Mynheer? (used with his permission).

Two women embracing. Look at the background. The artist names the women as the mother of Jesus and the mother of Judas. Such sadness at the death of their sons.

I have a soft spot for Judas, bravado and posturing imploding to catastrophe. I’ve been there. Telling fibs to wiggle out of trouble. I’ve been there too. What was in his mind?

Was Judas disappointed with Jesus? Did they hatch a plot to have Jesus arrested deliberately in order to increase the profile of the “Jesus movement”? If so, it went horribly wrong.

Was Judas angry with Jesus? Perhaps Jesus did not live up to Judas’s expectations of being enough of a political revolutionary? The truth is that we never live up to the expectations of others because they’re not ours.

Was Judas Jesus’ special friend – a second disciple whom Jesus loved? There is no doubt about it, they were friends. And when Judas realised the enormity of his actions he couldn’t live with the shame and guilt. Just think how much hatred came into the world as a result of the way in which the Judas story was written up in the Gospels. I don’t know how the church can live with that shame.

Whatever was in Judas’s mind, his actions liberated Jesus. He started the process that allowed the Christ-imago to break free from the earthed cocoon.

I’d like to give Judas a cuddle. There’s a lot of him in me. Thinking about the distraught and desolate mothers makes me wonder about the fathers. Men grieve too.

You may know this story: the Vicar visiting the school asked, after some discussion of Easter story, “why did Jesus descend into hell?” After a silence, a small voice piped up “to rescue his friend Judas”.

Saints – who needs them?

In the church calendar, it’s All Saints.

I’m not keen on saints. They’re too perfect. The nearest thing to saints I’ve come across are those who live with the most awful grinding problems day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, yet still manage to keep their heads above water, if only just, smiling and glad to be alive.

Being a saint is not about piety and being seen to do the right thing. It’s about persistence, perseverance, determination, self-knowledge. It’s about disturbing the comfortable and not being swayed from the cause of right. It’s about being real and authentic.

Prophet Micah says do justly, be merciful, walk with humility. Prophet Stanley says Micah is right. One day you’ll be dead, and it could be very soon, so live life to the full: justly, mercifully, humbly. Those who do that, who use their gifts and lives to make the world a better place, are saints in Prophet Stanley’s book.

If you want to be remembered as a saint, forget it. If you don’t care how you’re remembered other than as someone who did their best, then you might be in with a chance—if that matters, which it shouldn’t. 

It’s trite to say that every saint has a past and every sinner a future, but its true. Prophet Stanley goes further and says that you’ve no chance of living life to the full unless you’ve cocked up in the past—cocked up often, and learnt from it. The words of an All Saints hymn “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine” are wrong, wrong, wrong. They shine, and we shall shine, because we have feebly struggled, and continue to feebly struggle.

We are creatures of this earth. From the earth we come and to the earth we return. Nature gathers up particles and atoms and molecules into what you see when you stand with no clothes on in front of the mirror. And when you pop your clogs you disintegrate as molecules and atoms and particles return to the cosmos for reuse. Some might say it’s a kind of reincarnation. Certainly, nothing is wasted.

Earth. Humus. Humility is the key. Feet planted firmly on the ground, living in the here and now, not in some la-la-land of your or someone else’s imagination, or of how things used to be when you were young.

People come, people go, but particles, atoms, molecules remain. And, get this: 

we are never not in the presence of particles, atoms, and molecules of those who’ve been before us; we are never not in the presence of particles, atoms, and molecules of those who will follow us: we are never not in the presence of past and future.

One of my former churches was often visited mid-service by a vagrant. He tended to arrive “tired and emotional” during the sermon. I welcomed him from the pulpit and told him to sit down and shut up. After some chuntering he did. He enjoyed the wine. We chatted afterwards.

That man suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune more than I shall know, for he died recently. He coped with life as best he could without the insulation I enjoy that comes from stable relationships, employment, a roof to sleep under, and a pension. His addictions more often got the better of him than do mine of me. His courage was all the greater. He added colour and earthiness to a narcotic and entitled church community. I shall miss him.

Is there a saint in this story?

The Holy, Blessed and Glorious Onion

220px-Moscow_05-2012_StBasilCathedralEthical veganism having been declared a philosophical belief (here) provides me with the new religion I was seeking for retirement.

The onion has more than twelve times as much DNA as you or me, so I shall worship the Holy, Blessed and Glorious Onion. I can set up onion temples with onion domes. I can invent liturgies in which clouds of incense mask onion odours. I can make garlands of onions, wear them, and do with onions what SWMBO does with them when she stuffs a chicken.

I can still eat chicken, of course, because in the US it’s considered a vegetable. Some people are vegetables, so I can eat them too. To quote Jonathan Swift, who proposed eating babies to alleviate Dublin’s poverty problem (A Modest Proposal), “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasee, or a ragoust.” I’m sure that well-cared for adults would be just as succulent.

A vegan was recently reported are saying that he didn’t like using buses because of the possibility that insects would be harmed in the making of the journey. Surely, that’s a certainty, not a possibility? Not only do I feel for the insect collection that develops on the windscreen and bumper, but also the poor dears that are squashed under the tires. I am well-known as holding the view that the only proper place for a cat is under the wheel of a heavy truck, but the possibility of an insect being squashed there is much greater than that of a cat being so flattened. Unfortunately.

Vegans need not only to ensure that they ingest enough protein, but also give serious consideration to what happens should they find themselves with an infection. You see, the things I really feel sorry for are our fellow inhabitants of planet earth, bacteria and viruses. The way that we use antibiotics in the genocide of these poor defenceless creatures is deplorable and indefensible.