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.

The window in the wall

Francis of Assisi was a master of making room for the new and letting go of that which was tired or empty.  Oh to have him here now – I suspect we might not like what he would suggest – Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took the name Francis when he became Pope saying in the spirit of Francis “How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor.” The Church in Wales is, I fear, not there yet.  We are still far too wedded to our wealth!  100 years ago the Church in Wales was poor.  The greatest sadness of this centenary is the celebration of survival and the accumulation of wealth.  Now that we are rich, we are always seeking more, where instead we needed to learn how to begin again.  Francis’s first biographer said, “He was always new, always fresh, always beginning again.” Much of Francis’s genius was that he was ready for absolute newness from God, and therefore could also trust fresh and new attitudes in himself.  His God was not tired, and so he was never tired.  His God was not old, so Francis remained forever young. The way of St. Francis has been described as a gateway, a doorway, a window into the divine.  (Jesus – ‘I am the gate’ John 10:7) The image above is one I return to often.  It is a part of the ruined nunnery on the Isle of Iona. (It is mostly a garden now and will never be rebuilt. It reminds me that sometimes, some things come to an end and others need to find a new life.) Reflect on that image for a moment…  You cannot see the whole picture though the window, just the wall, the tall arched opening, part of the hill beyond and an expanse of sky.  I find myself wanting to see more of the picture on the other side of the wall but it reminds me that I can only see a part at a time.  It is another reminder of my need for humility, to be patient, to wait and to watch.  I wonder what you see in this image? Are you on the outside or the inside? Or does your mind even allow you the possibility of the question – Is this the outside of the building?  When the walls that we build around our lives become overly familiar it can become difficult to discern the difference between without and within. In a quiet moment ask yourself where you find yourself in the image.  Are you standing where the camera is? Are you leaning up against the wall? Are you sat on the ground with your back to the wall looking towards the photographer? Are you pulling yourself up the wall to get a better look through the window? Are you on the other side of the wall? Or are you on the hill in the distance with a totally different view point. And ask yourself the spiritual question what does this mean for you to be there?  Re-ligio(n) is at it’s best a re-connecting.  That is our task as it was the task of Jesus to re-connect those who had lost their way. I’m fascinated by the gospel reading, the parable of the ‘Wicked Tenants’ (Matt. 21:33-46) and the many interpreters who talk of it in terms of the Kingdom.  Notice at the end of the parable when Jesus asks the question it is the people who suggest that the ‘wicked’ tenants should be killed and new tenants found.  Jesus responds saying the rejected ones will become the corner stone. That’s hard. I see this parable as a test.  The religious leaders failed in their task of re-connecting. We don’t need to be the same.  The third thing to ask yourself about the image is where you would like to be. By the way, If that is on the other side of the wall, you will have to go there yourself and see what’s there.

Biographical information and comments on the life of Francis are from Fr. Richard Rohr’s daily meditations.

Shedding illusions

Many have asked if I had a good sabbatical.  The short answer is yes, thank you.  Even in that short expression there is much to elaborate on!  I was told before I went that a sabbatical would be disruptive to me personally. He wasn’t wrong. I think the best way of describing my time away is to say that I have shed (at least some of) my illusions. That is not to say that I have become completely disillusioned with everything, though that is certainly true of some things. Fr Richard Rohr, Franciscan Priest writes in his daily meditations: “Normally, the way God pushes us is by disillusioning us with the present mode. Until the present falls apart, we will never look for something more. We will never discover what it is that really sustains us.”  None of us really like this experience. Part of this is about letting go, becoming humble, the death of the ego.  It is the process described by St Paul in the letter to the Philippians. Stepping out of the place of safety into the unknown.  In Matthew 21:23-32 the Pharisees are trying to challenge Jesus and claim authority from their ordered world. Notice how Jesus responds.  Firstly he doesn’t respond from the ego. He recognises what is going on and he offers his questioners the opportunity to be humble, the opportunity to say that they were wrong, the opportunity for them to step out of order into disorder, so that he might enable them to rebuild. He is offering them the chance to let go of their illusion of control which in all probability may have led to them being held in greater esteem by the people and to reorder their lives.  Of course, that doesn’t happen.  They see Jesus as a greater threat to their authority.  They do not want to allow the disruption, the disillusionment of how things are.  Yet, it is necessary.  Jesus would say, “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” (John 12:24).  The image above is of my study wall, it is my reminder to be humble. For it reminds me that I am completely dependent on so many others, that who I am and all that I do is built upon the shoulders of others.  It is an eclectic gathering of people’s thoughts notes, well wishes, quotes, sketches and the occasional moan!  I’ve recently put it all back up, it has been sat in a folder for the past few years waiting for the right moment.  As I put each card on the wall, I read each note, or letter and remembered either who had given it to me or where it had come from.

Amongst the cards is a photograph I took of an exhibition by the welsh sculpture John Meirion Morris, whose obituary was recently in the news.  Although an atheist, John Meirion said the exhibition in the Anglican Chaplaincy was the most appropriate spiritual venue for his work, better than any gallery.  I had the privilege of working there at the time. It produced an incredible spiritual experience.  I took the photograph of the exhibition in order to sell a few cards as mementos for those visiting.  John was so taken with it, that he asked if I could create for him a ‘Christmas’ card using that image. He, a sculpture and artist with an eye for detail was incredibly humble in his appreciation of the image and I, humbled by his reaction.  We don’t always react with such generosity.  Often our reactions are to humiliate the other rather than to be humble. It can take a lifetime to allow ourselves to have as Paul writes the same mind as Christ to allow ourselves to let go and to let God.