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No  fools in April

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rose Theatre KingstonOne of the earliest images (from around 225 CE) we have of Christ being worshipped is of a man in front of a crucified figure. The caption reads ‘Alexamenos worships his god’ . This is thought to be an anti Christian piece of work – or certainly an anti-Alexamenos one! But the representation of Christ is the real curiosity for it shows Jesus as having a donkey’s head. Donkeys were thought of as foolish creatures, something we see in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream where a village workman is made to have an ass’s head and falls in love with a fairy queen.

In the first chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about foolishness and how, on the one hand we are called to be fools for Christ, proclaiming a gospel that makes us look stupid and naïve, to have faith in a man that was crucified was considered exceedingly stupid and it was, as Paul says, a stumbling block to faith in Jesus for many people then and now.

 On the other hand, Paul talks about the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of man. I Corinthians 1, 23 -25;

…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

But those of you who read carefully will have noticed a sleight of hand here in my writing. I have made it look as if foolishness and stupidity are one and the same – which they are not. ‘Stupid’ is not using the brains you were born with to think something through. We may think of it as dull-witted but stupidity is not so much about mental ability as mental willingness. A fool though, is someone  like a jester, far from dull-witted but agile of thought and sharp as a pin and, in kingly courts of old, expected to speak truth to power where others would simply fawn and flatter. How many of our current day ‘kings’ could do with someone to speak truth in their ears! Again, to quote the Bard, ‘jesters do oft prove prophets’  as Shakespeare says in King Lear,  a play which examines foolishness in all its guises from stupid folk to professional wit via old age folly, and malice which gets its come-uppance.   Jesters use humour to teach deep truths, sugaring the pill. It’s why Jesus used parables and why so much of His words are full of humour – if only we could take off the ‘must-be-serious specs’ and perceive them.

 

How does this affect the Christian? How are we to be fools for Christ and speak truth to our hearts and those around us?

Text Box: I’m not a complete idiot, some parts are missing Not by being daft about life and doing reckless things that threaten our health and that of those around us. Not by behaving as if forgiveness is a gift to be taken for granted as we habitually do those things which, by omission or commission hurt others deeply (‘we have not done those things which we ought to have done and have  done those things which we ought not to have done’ as the old prayer book puts it). Not by pretending that all will be well and just let things go by without taking action against climate change, poverty, waste or other things which engage us and challenge our sense of justice. Not by failing to think about our faith and doing what Jesus tells us when He says ‘You  shall worship the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your mind …’) Too many Christians want a ‘simple faith’ which is fine if you are ‘simple’ but many of us are far from this. ‘Engage brain before putting mouth in gear’   as the fridge magnet philosopher has it.  I think that those of us capable of tertiary level education owe it to God to do this with our faith and explore the wonderful intellectual integrity it has.

So what to do then to be good fools for Christ? To follow where we believe He is leading which  may indeed make us look foolish in the eyes of those lead by seemingly brighter lights. To give from the depth of our pockets and the depths of our hearts. To go beyond reason and act from love. ‘God so loved the world…’ says John, not  ‘God so thought the world’. It was not as an act of capricious amusement that God called the world into being but as an action of love, God sharing the joy of being alive with us hence we are made in God’s image, capable of great creativity and great compassion.

 At the point of decision reason fails us and we go with our hearts be it the colour of the car (‘resale value’ or ‘the kids/wife/granny….  like it’) the location of the house (Cotswolds or Trondheim?!) or following Christ when there is nothing to commend Him other than that He seems to make just about more sense than the others who attract us, as Peter says in John 6.6. As Easter draws on, the common sense (intelligence) of the common good will keep us separate yet a while but the common sense (feeling) of us as a community of praying, worshipping and joyful Christians will hold to eternity. ‘Speak the truth in love’ as Paul says (Ephesians 4. 15) not out of malice, but do speak the truth that Christ teaches us which is no folly nor ignorance but grace personified (John 1.14).

 

And the Word became flesh

and dwelt among us,

and we have seen his glory,

the glory as of a father’s only son, 

full of grace and truth.

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Matthew 15 A Hand-Washing Tale

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ 3He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
8 “This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’

 

Well, they wouldn’t get away with it today!! Not washing hands is now as unthinkable as not taking off your shoes when you go into a Norwegian’s house. Of course this was long, long, long before the trials of today and global infectious diseases. It’s a bit of fun to hear of the disciples not washing their hands against the context of our present and necessary preoccupation with making our mitts clean and healthy but as an example of how to make a big story out of a little one it has a lot going for it.

The Pharisees come out all the way  from Jerusalem just to pick a fight.  This was no casual encounter but a ‘let’s go and find the troublesome rabbi’ expedition. They went mob-handed.  They went out fighting and prepared. They may even have thought that this argument was more water tight than their last one (Matthew 12, ‘why do your disciples eat on the Sabbath?’ – presumably it took them a week to fathom out the next bit, eating on the Sabbath then  not washing hands before they eat, thinking backwards they were good at, well, better than thinking forwards at least).

Jesus comes out fighting too, ‘OK, if you want to talk about breaking commandments, let’s have a look at some of the ones you Pharisees break…’ And here is a lesson for us today in our c-virus ridden time. Caring for those who have cared for us, our parents, our elders, our weak and frail and vulnerable. These are the commandments of God we should be keeping. Don’t look at the petty stuff, look at the big stuff. C-virus is not about washing hands but about caring for the community at large to stop infection spreading –  look at the bigger picture.

Hierarchical institutions, such as the Pharisees belonged to, are often concerned with upholding their man-made laws to maintain the position of those in charge in the institution. Power is a heady drug and the Pharisees were trying to enforce their power on Jesus. But Jesus is no fool and no mean power either. They were trounced, as so often they are in the Gospels and small wonder they wanted Christ dead. Our own Church history sometimes reads like a power-grab story with the Church making rules where God’s grace would be.

In a complete upending of the dynamics of this story, where the Pharisees had sought to get the crowd on their side (how daft could they be? They’d only manage that at the rabble-rousing crowd scene with Jesus and Barabbas) Jesus turns directly to the crowd and, in the sight and hearing of the self-righteous Pharisees, tells the crowd that what the Pharisees teach is Wrong, capital W. ‘Red faced’ doesn’t begin to describe how the Pharisees must have looked, puce with rage, white with anger, black with loathing, green with envy,  a whole rainbow of colourful language is available here!

It’s what comes out of the mouth  that defiles, makes dirty, impure, unacceptable. When we speak ill of the living, when we fail to help those threatened and weakened by circumstance, that is when  we break the 2 salient commandments of God – Love the Lord your God, and then, love your neighbour as yourself.  

 

The disciples were worried about the reaction of the Pharisees to the way that  Jesus humiliated them. ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ they say to Jesus, as if He didn’t realize He’d only gone and upset The Pharisees, like, the powerful people, the top set, the ruling clerics, the men who knew where they lived and had boys to send round??? Jesus’ reaction is amazing when you hear it for what it is. ‘So what? They are blind people leading blind people. If they all fall into the pit, it will be no loss.’ This isn’t the stereotypical Jesus of compassion and gentleness fame but a Jesus who is sharp to the point of caustic and damning almost with judgment of the Pharisees behaviour. Some scholars would argue that this is evidence of Matthew’s anti-Pharisee attitude. If it makes you feel more comfortable to attribute Jesus’ attitude to Matthew, think  why that should be.  How would our behaviour stand up to such scrutiny? To what are we blind? About what are we sure to the point where we challenge even God who tells us different? Let’s start with ‘love your enemy’ and see how far we get. We have examples enough of this not happening in our midst without need to go outside the Body of Christ.

‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desire known and from whom no secrets are hidden’ has to be one of the scariest opening sentences in the  whole of the liturgy. Thank God for the grace of the Holy Spirit to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts.

More thoughts and reflections will appear here from time to time.

 Vocation Sunday / what is it  and what it is to be called.

 

 

‘I have called you by name’, says God in the book of Isaiah,’ you are mine’. God was speaking to a whole nation, the errant, badly behaved and wilfully, perpetually disobedient Israel - the very name means ’one who contends with God’ With a name like that to start with you’re almost on a loser to start with, or at very least in for a rough relationship. Israel was the name God gave to Jacob after Jacob had fought with God as we read in Genesis 32. It’s perhaps not such a bad name after all as at least it suggests an engaging with God that has real strength and consequence to it. Not some weak and feeble acquiescent assent but a struggling to fathom who God is and what God wants of us. There are worse names to be called after all. Peter was called the rock – which of course is why he sank when he tried to walk on water. Others have said that if Peter was a rock it was limestone -the stuff chalk is made of! Peter is famous in equal part  for his betrayal of Jesus  and his being the first head of the church after Jesus. And there’s the 2 sons of thunder, James and John, roaring fishermen with  load voices and loud characters to go with it. All of us have names, some given to us by our parents, some taken from our marriage, some given to us by friends and some chosen by ourselves to be known as. Secret names, nick-names, birth names and more besides. The names we call other people -kind or vicious, caring or  dismissive.

 

There are other examples of calling that we might look at. God calls Adam and Eve to walk in the garden, and when God cannot find them, God calls out to them – and then there’s trouble. God calls us to reason together at the very beginning of Isaiah and goes on to tell us that ’my ways are not your ways but as far as the east is from the west I will put your sins from you.’ God calls us to look at ourselves in the context and presence of God, creator, judge, forgiver, lover. These are more names that we can give, names that describe a characteristic or a function.

When Jesus called the disciples he called fishermen but told them that that description wasn’t going to be their defining title any more. When we are called by God our self-description changes and continues to change throughout our days.

 

So, let’s put this together. In order to be called, we have to a) have a name and b) recognise that that name is ours and c) have someone call us. You cannot call someone by name if you don’t have  these 3 things in place – as you will know if you’ve tried to skype and haven’t got the right address -an address is a place where a named person lives so my addressing you now is a calling to you. At the beginning of this service I asked you to name someone as you lit the candle and in doing so you called them to mind. You remembered them – that is you brought them back in your mind to be part of , a member of, your thinking, your company. When we call out to each other we are doing something which is actually quite a complex sequence of organization.

When God calls to us, what name, what description does God use of us? How do you think of yourself in relation to God? What do you think God thinks of you?

When we call on others we present to them different things at different times. We appropriately have different ways of reacting to different people and our understanding of that relationship is based on who and what we understand those people to be. It is readily understood that a mother can also be a daughter, a granny, a sister an aunt but also other things too, a refugee, an official, a old or young person and so on. Names can define and can limit us but when God calls us, the name God uses sets us free for in relationship with God we are known, understood and loved, forgiven, and blessed, assured of grace and made new.  

 

It’s easy to think that vocation Sunday is about calling people to become ordained. The word vocation comes from a Latin word meaning to call. Churchy things are called ecclesiastical and ecclesiastics, clerics or priest or ministers, are people who have been ‘called out’  from the congregation, it’s a Greek word. These days to be ‘called out’ has a different meaning but with equal relevance – God calls us out if you like, because God knows us for who we really are. Scary stuff this God relationship. But  vocation is not about ordination, it’s about where we start with God, knowing in the secret places of our hearts that God is calling us, haunting us, following our moves and waiting for us to catch up with God. God is not lost that we should find God, it is God who seeks out us, calls to us by whatever name we know ourselves.

We begin our life with God when we recognise that God is looking for us, but it’s not only for  then. At every turn of life we are being sought by God to walk the day together, to change direction and keep to the same path, to wrestle and struggle or to stay peacefully, hopefully pressing on or resting a while to regather our strength.

We are called the children of God, the body of Christ but a far more wonderful name is  friend. To not only have Jesus as our friend but to think of ourselves as His friend, someone who walks and talks and shares conversation and silences with Him and others in the company. Some friends we share our lives with, others we meet only every so often. True friends are those we pick up the relationship with as soon as we meet as if there has been no time between. If this is a definition of a relationship how would you describe – what would you call – your relationship with God?

 

 

 

All the reflections on this page are the intellectual property and copyright of the author, Sheila Rosenthal 

Ascension Day

Do you think Jesus wore socks? It’s far from unusual for the Israel to have snow on the mountains and the Ascension Day events are recorded as having taken place near Bethany, just east of Jerusalem, or Galilee, depending on whether you’re reading from Luke-Acts or Matthew. Snow is not unknown so I wonder, in my absent-minded, cold-footed way, if, when they went up the mountain it was cold enough to want to wear socks.

Ascension Day is celebrated on a Thursday which is a great relief to most clergy as it means only the very faithful will turn up for the services. This further means that the awkwardness of explaining the events of suddenly being taken up into the clouds is more likely to go unchallenged. Crucifixion is a matter of record as is the Resurrection ( we have more first hand documentary evidence for the existence of Jesus than for Shakespeare)  but the Ascension is, speaking personally, the most mind-stretching, faith testing moment of the whole life of Christ. For me the credibility is restored by the events taking place on a mountain. Luke compiled recollections from eye-witnesses he tells us while Matthew’s gospel is traditionally attributed to the apostle. Luke is later than Matthew – possibly – so I’m taking Galilee as the place where these things happened and Matthew definitely mentions a mountain.

Having spent most of my life until my early 50s living in valleys or southern England, the nature of mountain weather was something that didn’t really impinge on me. Since then I have lived in Scotland and now Norway. Where I live can properly  be described as mountainous so the weather here informs and censures all activities. A dry sunny day can turn to snow in seconds –  and frequently does! You need to go out prepared or at very least alert to the weather and you do not go high up without checking weather reports even if the walk is only the 3 mile regular dog walk. Mists and low cloud can scupper the best of days with invisibility. The dogs are always on leads and they have GPS trackers on them – in case we get lost, let alone the dogs! It’s much easier to imagine a day out with Jesus turning into a ‘where d’e go?’ moment. I’m not suggesting that Jesus spent the last years of His life wandering around the hills of Judea looking for the footpath but I do wonder if He deliberately used the mountain  weather to take His leave of the disciples and then make His way home up the mountain. I can imagine the disciples getting lost and shouting for Jesus and Him telling them, through the mists, not to worry, to go back and continue what He had started. The two men in white that Luke speaks of tell them to go back, just as they told Mary not to be afraid.

You have to be honest and say the events here are a nightmare of inconsistency and certainly do not smack of a conspiracy or collusion to get the story straight and singular. It may add to the authenticity that there are ‘variations on a theme’ but it does bend the mind a bit. Of all the miracles this is, for me, the most eye-screwing one of all and any of them. Resurrection, no problem, Ascension -  give me a moment.

So up on the mountain side together and the mist comes down disturbing and disrupting the group, lost on the mountain they hear but do not see as Jesus the Son of God goes back to the Father. ‘Go back, get on with it. Wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit and it will all begin to fall into place. I’ll be with You, trust me.’

And that’s the knub of it, knowing and trusting. I know Christ is a reality as have many thousands of thousands before me. He is not a figment of an over-heated, delusional brain but a filament of light in my heart that engages my brain with challenge and integrity of purpose. I know Christ so what I do not understand I can take on trust, but, I can also use my intelligence to try and understand how it might have come about. For me the misty mountain works because I like to visualise events by pulling together the information available. When I ask ‘how does this scene work?’ the answer I get makes me look at mountains and what I know them to be like. Norway is not Judea but they both have ‘weather’ that challenges, as they are fond of saying here, ‘no such thing as bad weather, only bad kit’.  So I wonder, did Jesus wear socks under his sandals? Did His mum knit them for Him? Did the disciples pull their cloaks round them and pull up their hoods and then wonder ‘where’s He gone this time?’ You can imagine what Peter might have said had Jesus come straight out and said ‘I’m off now then’, another row, another rebuke and another mega-sulk (‘you know I love you…’). Too much wrangling  now at the end of it all, best just get off and let the Holy Spirit take it from here.

‘Go into all the world and make disciples of all peoples, and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ 

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