Speechless – Welcomed and Rejected.

You might think that the Parable of the wedding banquet affirms the boundless generosity and inclusive reach of God’s grace. There is the small matter of the destruction of villages of those first invited. After that though we can invite everyone. Celebrate the inclusivity, diversity of God’s kingdom shown in this parable. But then it gets awkward again. One person here is not in the right attire. There is one person not wearing their Sunday Best. As with all people who come inappropriately attired they get banished to the outer darkness (with weeping and gnashing of teeth). Doesn’t turn out very inclusive or welcoming. The traditional explanation is that Matthew says once we’ve been invited and included, to fully accept the gift we have been offered requires of us nothing less than our whole life. This is what is represented by the wedding garment: righteousness. This person has obviously just snuck in for the drinks and nibbles (Coffee and Chocolate biscuits) without realising there was a bigger agenda. The same commentators also link the earlier village destruction to the rejection of God’s plan by Israel. All of that is useful to a certain extent but it’s just information, it’s not going to aid us on our spiritual journey. I could say instead there is a real difference between going to church – out of duty, tradition, being dragged there as a child/ adolescent/ parent/ grandparent /grandchild *delete as appropriate.  There is a great deal of difference between the going to church to – Being Church, a community of faith of prayerful people. I could say that, but then we’d have to do something about it.  Let’s go back to the man who was speechless for a moment. Who is he? Here he was invited to the feast. One of the uninvited. Now invited. He comes along. He’s pulled out of the crowd for not wearing the right thing. The reaction of the man wearing inappropriate clothing is silence. Silence because he thought he’d been invited. Silence because he thought everyone was welcome from wherever and whatever their means. Silence because he couldn’t justify his position. Silence because he didn’t know what to say or how to react or what to do. Silence because there were no words he knew to describe the feeling of, in the same moment, being welcome and rejected. Is this man in the parable The welcomed and rejected Jesus? Welcomed into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.  Rejected, handed over to be crucified.  Silent before pilate. This parable makes sense if the one who is pulled out of the crowd represents Jesus.  Many are called but few are chosen is the final line. Not because the kingdom of God is an exclusive club, but because being chosen in this way means suffering – going to the places that only those who follow Jesus closely are going to be able to go.  Discipleship was not for everyone.  Going to Church the many, the feast, the wedding banquet – everyone is welcome.  Being Church – the few who gather to struggle and suffer alongside God in the community of faith.  Let me give you an example of what I mean.  Have you been in a church building to welcome visitors?  Gosh what a lovely church they say. Then they say, and I’m waiting for it, because I know it’s their very next question: When was it built? We need some creative answers to this because often mine is speechlessness. Why might I be speechless?  Because I don’t know how to respond? Because I’ve lost the art of conversation? More likely because the language of spirituality is difficult. And I suspect that is why they ask such questions – they don’t know quite what to ask or say. But being speechless is a good first response to allow the God space to develop, but we need to be able to teach others this art too – the art of Jesus welcomed but rejected going to the places we’d rather not go to be with the other rejected ones. So how do we help folk to go away with more than a few photos. It’s hard work rebuilding, but necessary. But we’re going to try anyway. A group of pray-ers are gathering this week to look at how we pray and worship in our area – in effect to look at that moment of speechlessness and say what is our response going to be.  One of those responses might be practicing the art of being still. (You don’t need to do this in a building by the way – but you do need a place with few distractions – so a church is probably quite a good option.) The point is that there is a wealth of spirituality that this place represents, we need to be offering to those who come in.  And in our days of difficulty, adjustment of fast change there are plenty of folk who need help and if we don’t offer it… Let’s begin again. Gosh what a lovely church building you’ve got here. They say. All the better to pray in we could reply. And then we smile, tell them the history And invite them to spend a few moments practicing the art of being still – speechless.

A painful truth

Take a ticket.  Stand (masked) in line, on the dotted line, or in the circle two meters away. ‘Would you like a receipt with that?’ the checkout operator asks? And because of climate change and using less resources and waste paper littering the floor I suppose, they expect you to say no.  Would you think twice though? To leave the scrap of paper behind an unheeded list of items and prices, the record of your visit. A glance perhaps is all it is given before walking out of the door as it falls to the floor with your shopping tucked under your arm because you forgot to bring your bag for life. How often do we give this a second thought. Confident in the knowledge that we’ve completed our shopping, paid for it and are on our way home.  Would you expect to be asked to prove you paid for your bread and milk?  And if you protested would you expect to be believed that you had simply ignored or refused or lost the slip of a receipt with the forgotten bags and shopping  tucked carefully under your arm walking away unsuspecting?   Yet for Amanda Khozi Mukwashi the lived experience of a Black woman living in the United Kingdom now, this year, is that she must take and keep her receipt from the checkout operator to prove that she has paid for the goods.  For a week or two this past year we said that Black Lives Matter.  Today 13th September 2020 is Racial Justice Sunday. The painful truth is that still, some lives matter more than others.  Amanda is the head of Christian Aid.  You can hear her interview on the Greenbelt podcast.  She simply asks for dignity for all as Christian Aid works, regardless of description to aid the uprooted, the overlooked and the ignored.  The sad fact is that the face of poverty is most often black or brown, the nations which climate change will affect the most are those inhabited by black or brown people and those who struggle most for recognition as a part of the human race are those who are from black or brown nations. And we try to say but don’t all Lives Matter, equally? Without realising the system is already stacked in our favour. As in Amanda’s experience. Equity is about realising we are not starting from the same position. Forgiveness must come from the heart. Forgiveness is not good enough says Jesus if we go our way and do not forgive those who wrong us as we are forgiven.  If we don’t treat with justice those we encounter as we were treated.  It’s called the golden rule, and is expressed in some way in every religion.  First we need to see clearly, to see that sometimes the tables are placed so that only some can be seated and we need to seek forgiveness not seven times, but seventy times seven for our part in allowing this still.  Gweld y gwir trwy’r gwyll.

Street Art. COVID-19 BLM

Build Bridges, not Walls

SamiTwo years ago in August I met a most extraordinary man.  He had made the rather circuitous journey from Bethlehem through Jordan to the UK and then to Cheltenham of all places.  He then had the mis-fortune of being driven around by my colleagues and I.  He had come to speak about his work of non-violence and to help to publicise the launch of a document called “Time for Action.”  His name is Sami Awad, he is a Palestinian Christian and the founder and director of the Holy Land Trust.  I say he is extraordinary because his vision for the peace of the Holy Lands rests not on one army defeating another, or one nation being moved out of the way to create space for the other.  His vision rests on a peaceful future that is possible.  It is a future which is based, not on fear, but on Love.  Fear often builds walls.  Love always builds bridges.  His is a vision of restoration and reconciliation for a land which has been deeply divided and has travelled through a great deal of pain and hardship over many years.  I reflect on this for the feast of St. Luke, partly because the daily tensions in the Holy Lands are once again making our news.  Partly because of a Cymdeithas y Cymod gathering this Friday at Plas Tan-y-Bwlch, Maentwrog with Palestinian Architect Naseer Arafat.  Also because Sami Awad’s vision is one of healing – not just the healing of broken lives, but the healing of a whole nation and the healing of broken relationships between neighbours.  Sami, and the Holy Land Trust which he directs, works for peace through non-violence.  This does not only mean not taking up arms, but it means having no violence in one’s heart.  For if we stand in protest, but have violent thoughts in our hearts towards those we appose, then there is little difference to that than taking up a sword.  Violence of the heart is still dehumanising and demonising towards the other.  The first step in healing therefore is personal transformation.  If we are to do the work of healing and reconciliation, first we must deal with all the baggage we carry and acknowledge it.  When we can acknowledge our own thoughts and feelings for what they are, we will be able to begin to have an empathy for the other.  There are many that make pilgrimage to Iona and those who go there seeking a retreat are often disappointed.  It is a small island.  Before long, all the baggage that one might have retreated from begins to turn up, washed ashore with the tide if you like.  For when we remove distractions, then we leave ourselves free to do the internal, personal work of healing and reconciliation, not that it is an easy task, as there are always things that we would rather forget or not deal with – baggage.  However, focusing on a future we would like to see can help us to move on.  We all seek to be successful in what we do – to get the results we want to see – whatever they might be.  In terms of healing and reconciliation, the result would be that there is resolution.  In terms of Israel / Palestine a result would be a nation living in peace within and outwith its borders.  Rather than basing our actions on what has gone on in the past, if we base our actions on the future we would like to see, then we have a chance at achieving it.  Our past cannot be changed, but our future is still to be written.  The call to reconciliation is a call to look forwards and work with the vision of hope.  And so there is a contrast in the readings set for this day.  We reflect on the old order in Isaiah, “the vengeance of God coming with terrible recompense.”  This is contrasted in the Gospel as Jesus sends out his followers with very little, not even a pair of sandals!  As he suggests, Lambs amidst the wolves.  The first thing they are instructed to do on arriving at a house is to offer peace.  The vision that Jesus has is echoed in the Islamic greeting ‘As-salamu alaykum’  to which one responds ‘Wa-Alaikumus-Salaam’.  Our first thought on greeting a neighbour ought to be in Love.  We must not allow the past to tell us what the future might be.
bridges-not-wallsIf the future I want is to live in peace with a brother or sister with whom I once fought, I can protect myself so that I am not attacked again by building a wall perhaps because I am afraid.  Or I can arm myself so that no one comes close.  Alternatively, I can do the work of inner transformation and realise in love that this is my brother, he and I are the same.  Then the peaceful future I have imagined becomes possible and can become a catalyst for my actions in the present, by showing love instead of fear.  Fear will hold you prisoner.  Love will set you free.

This uses material from Sami Awad’s talk on non-violence from the 2013 Greenbelt Festival.