They say God left the best till last. I’m not talking about the humans, created as our genesis narrative would have us think on the sixth day, at the 11th hour. Better throw something into the mix to stir it up a bit. It’s all a bit too perfect. Closing time never offers the finest work, a last thought after a busy week, oh yes the humans. I know it’s a caricature, and it is all a bit Eddie Izzard. If we look at the genesis material, there is nothing to say that what came last is best or better than the rest. That’s just our understanding of it because, strangely enough it was written down by us, or at least our early relations perhaps in Iraq somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates – trying to make sense of the world they saw around them. On most calendars Sunday is the first day of the week. Or is Sunday the last day of the week on yours? Is Sunday what you build up to, or work from. The Jewish Sabbath was the last day of the week. The Jewish celebrations for Sabbath centre on the Genesis narrative of creation building up to the seventh day. As God rested from all his work, so Jewish communities honour it. It is a chicken and egg question. Which came first? Creation narrative or Sabbath rest. I’d go with sabbath rest. Why? Because the early tribes who followed this particular way of life were nomadic and were closely attached to the land. They understood the natural seasons far better than we do. Look at the jubilee regulations. Every seventh year there should be a sabbath for the land. This wasn’t just thought up, this was good land husbandry. There was also an economic jubilee. So however it came about, the Jewish tribes followed a Sabbath at the end of the week and at the seventh year and the 70th year. In Christianity, the first Easter was the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath. In effect we moved sabbath to Sunday, we’ve just added the Easter celebrations to the Jewish festival, and transferred that on top of Sunday. However, I wonder if it is possible to recapture the essence of sabbath. Not viewed in a strictly linear way as the genesis narrative would have us think. But what is intended by a day of rest. Sabbath, for me, should stand outside of time. It is not a day but a state of mind. Do we allow ourselves to think in terms of true sabbath at all? Sunday can become so holy and precious that we are not able to rest for all the business of services and worship preparation, planning and looking to the future. I want to distinguish between Sabbath and The Sabbath. What then has The Sabbath become? A day (for some) to twiddle thumbs waiting for the shops to open once again? Those days are long past. The Sabbath in that sense has been forgotten save for a few faithful travellers. A return to those days is a wistful dream. But what is the essence of that? Though Sunday closing for shops, business and pubs will not return, there is something to be honoured in that desire for stillness, to see seventh day restfulness for ourselves for the land and for the economic. I’d like to suggest that sunday ought to be the ‘day of preparation.’ In the Jewish tradition this was the sixth day of the week. All the preparations for the sabbath were done on this day. The meal, the house everything was prepared to observe the Sabbath. I always wonder, as indeed did Jesus, what happened to all the farmers on the sabbath, surely they could not prepare everything for the animals in advance. Jesus asks, who would not untie his donkey on the sabbath to allow him a drink of water. It is not about doing nothing, but about having the right state of mind. In order that we can carry that state of mind of sabbath with us throughout the week, in order that we can have sabbath moments in all our work and in all we do, perhaps Sunday should become for us the day of preparation. A day not necessarily to prepare food for the week, or though for some that is what it has already become – by that I mean the shopping day! I don’t think we ought to beat ourselves up about this. I think we can give a new significance to Sunday without diminishing the aspect of Sabbath which is most important and without making us feel guilty for doing something on one particular day of the week when days are so full for the rest of it. Sunday is a Coda day. A day to reflect, but also to rise up and be engaged. A day to take notice of all that is around us and to care about it. A day to help us prepare to take sabbath into the rest of the week where we can we be co re-creators with the divine re-imagining, regenerating the lost beauty, faith, justice and art of creation.
You may have heard that it was said: An eye for and eye makes the whole world blind. Gandhi had a particular way of distilling the wisdom of not just one set of religious teachings. It is said that he saw himself as Hindu and Muslim and Christian. This often angers people, mostly, I think, because they don’t understand it. He is saying, I think, that no one person owns truth, goodness or love. In order to find this out we must begin to live it in humility. In this particular passage from Matthew (5: 21-37) after the well known part of the sermon on the mount Jesus continues to teach with something that is often overlooked and relegated to the occasional Sunday reading that doesn’t often get heard except when Easter is late in the year and we need to fill in time in the lectionary after Candlemas. Jesus is seen to be teaching in a traditional Rabbinical style. Well, at least he begins in that way. As usual he doesn’t play by the same rules as everyone else. So much for the call to obedience. We can’t expect Jesus to do as he might be expected. When the formula You have heard it said was used, it would be normal to expand upon the law with traditional wisdom of the age encouraging those who heard it to keep the law. But Jesus prefers to do something different. Jesus prefers to interpret the law again not for the benefit of a particular group, but for the benefit of all in the light of what he sees, and the actions of those around him. Don’t stick to the letter of the law, stick to the spirit of it instead in terms of compassion and mercy and humility. So when you have heard that it was said… Jesus says don’t stop with what you are duty bound to do – go on and walk another mile. (as this passage continues to say if we read on) That too broke the rules. The rules of engagement between Roman soldiers and the people was that they could command a civilian to carry their pack for one mile. Jesus says no. Carry it for two. In walking further they will be in your debt and will see that you do not hold the law against them. You are duty bound to carry it for one, but the second you carry it in love. If however you throw down their pack after the one mile, they will see that you hate them as they expected and begrudge their presence. Walk the second mile and you may begin to understand each other. It is the beginning of reconciliation. Jesus shows that following the letter of the law does not honour the spirit in which it was intended. Jesus shows up the trap in which we find ourselves and offers a transformative solution. Conventional wisdom says something simple, a teaching like those contained here. Relatively straight forward. However Jesus suggests that it is possible to get caught in the position where, though you have kept the letter of the law you are still constrained by what led you to that position. Then Jesus offers a transforming initiative, he offers a way out. Don’t let the feelings which lead you to that position build up. Instead, be reconciled and do it immediately. Recognise and own your feelings for what they are and deal with them straight away.
Therefore paraphrase Jesus: It is said, don’t murder; but I say: don’t let your feelings take you to that place – deal with them and be reconciled.
It is said, don’t commit adultery; but I say: don’t live in a fantasy, it ruins our relationships. Live in the real world.
It is said, divorce is just a piece of paper; but I say: Life is not a game. Things become broken, recognise the reasons for that and own up to any mistakes we have made. Treat everyone in mutuality and with kindness. Every human should be treated with equity and dignity no matter what.
It is said, don’t swear falsely… but I say: don’t let language become an outlet for negative desire and anger. Use words properly for the use they were intended. Always speak truth.
In the film Gandhi a Hindu fighter tells Gandhi his story. He has murdered a Muslim child as a revenge killing for the murder of his own son and says that he is going to hell. Gandhi suggests to him that there is a way out of hell. He tells the Hindu man to take a Muslim boy and raise him as his own. But to be sure that he, a Hindu, raise the boy as a Muslim. No-one said reconciliation was easy. If we allow ourselves to lose the false pride of truth, rights and simple morality we can begin to live in mutuality and with kindness towards all, no matter who they are or where they are from.
Br. Francis suggested we use words to preach as a last resort – that is one reason I often resort to poetry. That kind of relates to the message tonight and just in case I fail miserably and you decide to tune out about half way through I’ll come out with the punch line right at the beginning, then you can try and figure out how I got from here to there by the end… Where is the nearest pub? Perhaps for the next Valley Praise: Beer and Hymns at the (Insert pub name) Arms? There’s the challenge. The question is, Why?
So a poem you might already know: … The Bright field, title of the year before last Greenbelt festival. Most recently I’ve been working as a volunteer for them being hospitable to contributors, artists and speakers. Generally I end up driving them around. That particular year I ended up driving a Scottish theologian and author to and from the airport. Alistair McIntosh. We barely stopped talking the whole journey. By the time we had arrived at the site, and again on the way back he was energised by the whole experience. I was exhausted. He had so much energy and excitement for his view of Christian spirituality, working for peace and justice and environmental concerns. Recently he has recorded a short video on what gives him hope. There is a great deal of truth in his mode of expression. Now you might think it is a big jump between Alistair McIntosh and Donald Trump. (What do they say about handshakes and six degrees of separation?) Alistair McIntosh suggests in his short video that Donald Trump gives him hope because he illuminates the American shadow. The shadow side of us is that which we dare not air in public, the things we dare not even admit to ourselves, let alone tell anyone else. You might want to brush up on your psychology, Carl Jung in particular and his work on the unconscious mind. It is not a big deal at all to have a shadow side, everyone does, however much you might want to kid yourself that you don’t, and I guess that is part of it!
What can be dangerous is when we attempt to deny such a shadow. Donald Trump illuminates the American shadow. He is the personification of almost every unwelcome shadow. He is a binary and transactional being. It is good to illuminate the shadow, when something illuminates the shadows around us it is a blessing, for then we can see them for what they are. Broken and fearful, and we know then how to begin to counter it. Apart from the fact that this is ever so topical, what does it have to do with us here tonight? We have such shadows as churches, hopefully not as extreme as Donald Trump. I’d like to suggest that Ministry Areas, as much as we love or hate them are a blessing because they illuminate the shadows that are within the church. One shadow of a church is looking inward and forgetting to do two things which are illuminated beautifully for us in our readings and RS Thomas’ poem the bright field. Forgetting to turn aside like Moses at the burning bush. And second thing that we forget is to love as Jesus taught. Ministry Areas shine a light on the shadow side of parishes because they force us to refocus our attention on: Loving the World, Growing the Church and Worshipping God. I hope you recognise those three things, and that I’ve have quoted them out of the order they are usually presented in. They underpin everything that a Ministry Area or for that matter an individual church should be. But the parish system was broken. If you disagree, then I refer you back to the shadows I mentioned earlier because we often deny them. Something needed to illuminate that for us, because in a way it was our shadow side. The theology of Trump, his Lewisian genesis (there’s your degree of separation, his mother emigrated as a young girl. Alistair McIntosh is a native of Lewis.) gives him this, is binary. Right, Wrong. Black, White. Forward, Backward. In, out. For, Against. This is a fear and vengeance view of God where you are either in or out, either the elect or the damned. We need to change that language into the language of Love. Jesus continually absorbs violence, consistently speaks peace in the face of confrontation. Remember the reading from John. Jesus asks a simple question of peter, to illuminate his shadow, it is predicated on the threefold denial that peter claimed he would not make. So to counter it Jesus asks peter three times: Do you love me? and sends him out to care for those whom he calls the sheep and lambs. That echos our encounters in this world. Now and again the church hears the call to go out to the sheep and the lambs or as Paul has it in Romans 13 in the summary of the law as fulfilled in Jesus to love one another as I have loved you. Ministry Areas call us to focus our attention on Loving the World, Growing the Church and Worshipping God. We’re very good at doing the Worshipping God bit. We might not get it right, rarely get it perfect, it might need refreshing now and again, but by and large, Sunday by Sunday, season by season we continue to Worship God. And we’re continually talking about growing the church. which worries me greatly because normally it just means making clones of ourselves and as Richard Rohr has said we make them twice as fit for hell as we are. However, if we begin as I have it Loving the world we will naturally grow which in itself is the worship of God. The church might look very different to what we have now, but it might just reflect the call of Jesus to Peter, Do you love me? Yes! Then feed my sheep. Two reflections to finish. I’ll be taking the funeral of a lady this week who never went to church much after she was told she was not welcome at the communion table for being divorced. Though I know few of the particulars of her situation, I felt I had to apologise to her son for the treatment she had received at the hands of a church of which I am a part. For me that is not how to love the world. At the very point she needed the love and support of the community, she was out, cut off, because her life was broken. When things are broken, Jesus offers a way back and asks, ‘Do you love me?’ and then we are directed to feed and support those around us. Often when we do this we receive far more than we give. I’ll finish with another poem which might illustrate that. I spent a few days this last week in Cardiff, particularly in the city centre. It is a busy city, very connected, if you’ve got the correct device, but it seemed to me there was little connection between people – especially strangers. It can be a lonely place when everyone passes you by. So I stopped and chatted to Kaz a person who is I guess termed a ‘rough sleeper’. but I think I prefer: refugee from the world.