Saturday, 18 February 2017

Sunday Semon: Matthew 6.24-34 Worry and anxiety

Matthew 6:24-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

 I have a friend who lives with anxiety: the smallest thing can throw his equilibrium and lead him down paths of paranoia as he looks for some motive or outcome that’s designed to do him down. In his mind he has what I call the reverse Midas touch – and I won’t tell you what he believes everything he touches turns into. That’s not only emotionally challenging for him but it’s also draining for those of us he unburdens on. He looks inwards all the time and rarely seems to look outwards.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with that level of worry and yet I'm very much of the opinion that worry is a fact of life. Just take a moment to think about what your worries are.  It seems to me that worry is a continuum and we’re all on that line somewhere. Yes, of course significant events can push us further along that line but most of us live relatively worry-free lives in that we’re fed, we’re clothed, we’re housed, we’ve parented reasonable effectively and most of us have enough money to cope. We also live in a society that, whatever its shortcomings, has various social safety-nets in place for the most vulnerable. Where does that leave our personal concerns – the one’s we’ve just considered? How many of them I wonder, are just … well, a bit trivial in the wider scheme of things? So, I’ll share a couple of mine: we’re going abroad in the summer and I am worried how the falling value of the pound will affect our spending power. I’m worried because my younger daughter and her chap are moving back in with us for a couple of months and I’m worried that Ben-the-dog isn’t doing as well as his trainers expect in his guide dog training. They’re all valid worries but saying them out loud makes them seem what they are: a bit shallow.

Knowing that, of course, isn’t much of a consolation if you happen to be prone to anxiety or are going through a particularly difficult patch at work or with the family or have a serious health problem or an unexpectedly large bill. Being told to get a sense of perspective because other people elsewhere are much worse off than you is at best trite and at worst downright insensitive.

My mother’s mantra was always, “Remember the starving children in Africa.”

“O.K. I’ve remembered them. Strangely, that doesn’t make me feel any better. Now what?”

And how well do we take to the suggestion that we should count our blessings in times of personal trouble?

However true Jesus’ statement, “ … can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life span?” may be, and it clearly is because medical studies suggest that prolonged anxiety significantly shortens our lives, I wonder how someone really burdened and careworn with worry hears such a passage as this today.

This is such a familiar passage that I suspect, with very little notice, most of us could cobble together some spiritual insight: and yet over-familiarity runs the danger of leading us into lazy thinking and trite analysis. After all, we've heard this before and we pretty much know what to expect, so I've decided to go out on a limb a bit and approach this text in a slightly different way.

On Friday I was talking to one of the lads who regularly comes to chapel in the prison. I’ll call him Terry. He’s had a very rocky couple of weeks: he lost his job in the prison kitchens for stealing food, and therefore his major source of income; his partner has gone off with someone else: he started using drugs again and lost his two front teeth in a fight. (Those of you who watched last week’s edition of Panorama will have some inkling of what I’m talking about.) His take on things was very interesting. “I’ve hit rock bottom because I took my eyes off the Lord.” His main worry was not all the woes he faces but the fact that, in his own words, he had ceased to be a pillar for the Lord but had become, instead, a pillock for the Lord. He’s stopped looking inwards and is looking outwards.

His troubles had driven him to some extreme behaviour but his main concern was for his compromised Christian witness. His concern wasn’t what people thought of him but what people thought of the God he follows because, he feared, people judged God through his discipleship. “Call yourself a Christian?” Of course, that’s another sort of worry for him – you’d think - but no, “I’ve given it all to the Lord. It’s my only option. I’m back on track and I’m going to use this as part of my testimony of what God can do in your life.”

“I’ve given it all to The Lord. It’s my only option.”

I am often surprised by the spiritual insights these men have.

I’ve been spending some time in the prison with a man who murdered his wife. I’ll call him Joe. I’ve never met anyone as remorseful, and he has attempted suicide so is on a constant watch because he may try again. At the moment he sees that as his only solution. However bad life is in prison she’s worse off, is his reasoning, and he can’t rationalise that while he’s fed, clothed and warm, she’s lying in the cold ground. “There is no punishment good enough for me.”

He asked if I could take him to the chapel at the very time of her funeral and there is a short liturgy in a book Brunel gave me for those unable to attend a funeral. Distraught as he was, it was a profound experience for him and it has shifted the way he sees things: he wants to start coming to chapel regularly; he is starting to understand that God has forgiven him and that’s the first step to being able to forgive himself. There’s a way to go yet for him, and I’d be grateful if you’d keep both these men in your prayers, the men I’ve called Terry and Joe, but I use these examples because for me they illustrate today’s Gospel in a way that most of our lives probably can’t. For both of them the way out of worry and anxiety and, indeed, self-loathing, has been to turn to God: either to turn back to him or to begin that journey. Out of the depth of their experiences, their pain, their guilt, the messed up lives – theirs and others - and their bad choices, is a sense that hope comes through faith in God. They have started looking outward rather than inwards.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that to experience what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel needs each and every one of us to plumb the depths and I know that what I’ve said comes perilously close to saying, “Look, other people have it worse than you so get a grip”,  but the context of these stories shows how true Jesus words are when he says, “ … do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …. You of little faith …. your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness ….”  The Kingdom of God: our spiritual lives and how we live as disciples should be the focus of our concerns. Instead of turning our worries inwards, we should have a wider concern for how we bring God’s Kingdom closer to others.

For Terry, the witness that he was so concerned he’d compromised is part of bringing the Kingdom of God to others: he is striving for it for himself and for others – and prison is not an easy place to be a man of faith. For Joe, it’s about learning that no one is beyond redemption in God’s eyes and, as he undertakes a listener’s course, he will become the go-to man for other prisoners who believe that no punishment is good enough or who are deeply remorseful, to speak to and gain support from. That too will serve the Kingdom of God.

Can we take a leaf out of their books? Can we trust that despite our woes and worries God is in control? And if we believe that, can we leave those worries behind and concentrate on the job at hand, our witness as disciples and the part that plays in bringing the Kingdom of God closer? Looking outwards and not inwards.


Saturday, 4 February 2017

Sunday Sermon: salt and light. Matthew 5.13-20


Matthew 5.13-20

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,* not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks* one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
We start today part way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Prior to this passage, Jesus had been encouraging the poor and marginalised by telling them how blessed the downtrodden and powerless are in the section we call The Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the reviled.”  This isn't written for everybody everywhere, whoever, wherever. Neither is it intended for people with a casual interest in God. It's meant for people who are committed: much of the Sermon on the Mount makes no sense unless you have already decided to follow Jesus. It's a text for pilgrims, for people on a journey of faith.

Paul, when writing to the Christians in Corinth says that he didn’t come using ‘lofty words’.  These words we hear Jesus using this morning are not lofty words: instead they’re down to earth words, down to earth images, salt and light, which convey, as Paul went on to describe it, “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden’ but now made known.”

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to his disciples. That’s a commonplace statement today isn’t it? “So-and-so is the salt of the earth”, we say. But I’m guessing most of us haven’t paid much attention to where that idea comes from and to me it seems an odd phrase. “Salt of the earth? Why is someone the salt of the earth? How is someone the salt of the earth? What does it mean, particularly at a time when health-conscious people are advised to avoid salt? We live in a culture – certainly in the West – where salt is seen as rather a bad thing: high blood pressure, strokes, heart-attacks etc. Nevertheless we instinctively know that when we describe someone as the salt of the earth we mean that he or she is a simple, down-to-earth, good person – someone dependable, approachable, reliable, and responsible: someone we can trust.

We need to dig a bit and, as twenty first century people, come to an understanding of some of the realities of the first century.

The Old Testament speaks of 'covenant of salt': in the book of Numbers we read, "All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the LORD I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and your descendants as well".  'Covenant of salt' means a permanent relationship; eating salt with someone meant to be bound in loyalty. So there’s a significance that is lost to us today but might help us to understand what Jesus was driving at. The people of God, then as now, were, by agreement, in a relationship of loyalty.

In Jesus’ day, the primary use for salt was as a preservative as there was no refrigeration. People used salt to prevent food, especially meats, from spoiling. No doubt people also used salt as we use it, to enhance flavours and to add zest to our food but another thing about salt is that it gives us a thirst.  In the time of Jesus, salt was not purified in the way that we know but was collected from deposits left by the Dead Sea as it dried.  This salt was exposed to the elements and could break apart and lose its flavour.  In that respect salt is a very appropriate metaphor for discipleship, which can and does lose its vigour over time if care is not taken to keep it alive.

Is there a message for us there?

In the same way, Jesus says that his followers are to be a light in the world. No one can hide a city set on a hill, and no one lights a lamp and places it under a basket: that, too, would be foolish – trying to hide a city on a hill, or hiding a light makes no sense at all. Jesus’ friends are to let their light shine out in the world, so that everyone will see that light and glorify God. Why? Because the light is revealing God through the actions of his followers who are lighting the dark places and practices of our societies and working to bring God’s Kingdom closer.

I find these analogies of discipleship a real challenge because they talk of a distinctiveness about Christians and the Christian way of life that I don’t really see very much of in our society, and I include myself in that analysis. The saltiness and the light are there in us to make a difference: certainly a personal difference in the people we are: our attitudes and behaviours; our spirituality and so on, but we are also to make a difference to those around us by the very fact of our being who and what we are: disciples.

 You can’t hide a city on a hill.

Are we that visible as Christian witnesses to those around us? Are we really? I mentioned before about one of the qualities of salt being that it encourages thirst. Do we behave as if we are thirsting for what God wants for us and the societies we live in, or do we behave as if we are full? Full to our own satisfaction rather than God’s?

By our deeds, we who call ourselves disciples are to influence the world for good. We should no more escape notice than a city set on a mountain. If we fail in our discipleship, we are as useless as flavourless salt or as a lamp whose light is concealed.  By inviting us to be “light,” Jesus invites us to make him present in the world. 

The God we know is passionate about justice; the God we know is passionate about truth – it was a passion that took him to the cross, it’s a passion that the Holy Spirit fires up within us, it’s a passion that sends us to the world and to the church with the message that things should be different.  How can we be quiet when we’re so passionate?  How can we be quiet when there’s so much injustice around, how can we stop saying things until people hear, really hear, and are challenged to change as a consequence?

Being salt means that we bring out the true taste of what it means to be a Christian – that’s the taste of justice and righteousness, living in God’s way.  If we lose that then we lose our savour, we lose who we are and we’re good for nothing.

Bland. Food without salt is bland. Are we bland Christians?

Being light means that we’re a beacon in the church, not just locally, but nationally and internationally as well.  We radiate Christ’s light, divine light and that searching light shows up not just where individuals have to change, but where the church has to change and where society has to change.

Are we up for that?

And what does it mean in practice?

We live in interesting times: BREXIT; President Trump; politicians on both sides of the Atlantic not knowing the law and seeking to undermine it; arms sales to some of the most despotic regimes around; a growing tide of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia fuelled by hate filled newspapers and the phenomenon of fake news and alternative facts; social inequality on the up for the first time in a generation with zero hours contracts - to name just a few nasty current issues. At the same time it seems to me that the sort of people that are disproportionately affected by these issues are the very people Jesus was talking about where we picked up this morning: the poor in spirit; the meek; the persecuted and the reviled.

Being a light surely means revealing these dark places and practices, otherwise what is our light as disciples for? Are our voices being heard? If not, why not? Are we speaking out? Are we being a prophetic voice to others over the issues of our age?

The German Theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was shaped by the conviction that the church is only truly the church  when it lives for all God’s children in the world and that Christians fulfil their faith as Christians only when they live for others, and he called on Christians to “speak out for those who cannot speak”. When we realise that he said this in 1934, in the midst of deeply troubling times in Germany, it should make those of us who also live in deeply troubling times pause for thought, because he went on to say that the church has, “an unconditional obligation towards the victims in society even if they don’t belong to the Christian community.”

Is that us? Because it seems to me that that’s exactly what being salt and light means in practice: because Jesus described the downtrodden and marginalised as blessed in The Beatitudes, isn’t a free pass to inaction on their behalf for the rest of us. That, I think, is implicit in the reference from the book of Numbers I mentioned earlier: “ … a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and your descendants as well”. A covenant is an agreement. What’s our side of the agreement then? We know what God has done for us. What does he require of us in return?

When I was much younger, there used to be a question that regularly circulated like a spiritual checklist, it asked: if you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? I do sometimes wonder whether we are in danger of going with the flow to the extent that we have become the very type of bland, saltless Christians that Jesus warned about.

We are in a covenant with God. What does God require of us in return? The prophet Micah gave us an answer that encompasses our dealing both with God and with our neighbours, “ … To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Perhaps our prayer as we approach the season of Lent should be to ask God to help us to look at our society and it’s marginalised and downtrodden, those who Jesus called blessed, and while we seek to walk humbly with God, to ask that we do indeed act justly and love mercy in our dealings with them: not in a passive, but in an active way as advocates for them.