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Sunday, March 15, 2015

"A SWORD WILL PIERCE YOUR HEART" - Mothering Sunday

Exodus 2: 1-10       Luke 2: 33-35

It took me a long time to realize that not everyone finds Mothering Sunday an easy or uplifting time. As a child I used to enjoy making my mum a card in class, and taking home a little bunch of daffodils from Sunday school. And as a parent with a young family I loved seeing our own children do the same for their Mum.

I didn’t begin to see the challenging side of this celebration until I became a form tutor at a secondary school. For a small rural community college we had a surprising number of children whom “Mothers’ Day” left feeling marginalized or excluded – not just those whose mothers were deceased or absent, but less obviously the unhappy few whose relationship with their mother was a source not of warmth and comfort, but of grief and insecurity. And it worked both ways, because at almost every parents’ evening I would get a least one mum pouring out her anguish over her child’s approach to life and agonizing that she must have done something wrong.

So working with children was an eye-opener. But it wasn’t until three years ago, when my own mother passed away, that I experienced the poignant aspect of Mothering Sunday at first hand. I still love it when our granddaughter goes forward to collect flowers for her mum, and I very much appreciate the opportunity to remember my own mother prayerfully and with gratitude. But it has become a poignant time, and I can no longer forget the many others for whom today is accompanied by feelings of loss or grief or even anger.

And so Mothering Sunday isn’t just one of the hardest of days on which to go to church; it’s also one of the hardest days on which to stand here in the pulpit and find a message to deliver that will offer something for everyone: a word of healing for those whose family relationships or memories are clouded, but above all a word of affirmation and thanksgiving for mothers, motherhood and parenting in general.

Our Bible readings this morning offer us two possible starting points, rooted in the stories of Moses and Jesus and their respective mothers.

Imagine the horror for Moses’ mother as a slave woman: giving birth to a son at a time when Egyptian guards were under orders to throw any Jewish boy-babies into the Nile. She manages to keep him hidden for three months, but she knows that she can’t keep him safe for much longer. And so, desperately entrusting his future to God, she lets him go. Fashioning a tiny floating basket, she hides him in the reeds at the water’s edge. There he is found and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, who unwittingly employs the baby’s own mother as a royal nanny to raise him to adulthood.

How painful it must have been for the natural mother, when the boy was older, to take him to the princess to be formally adopted as her son. But by letting go and trusting God she had seen him grow up into a young adult. And none of those involved can have foreseen the consequences: how a mother’s trust and a princess’s kindness would produce such a powerful leader: one who would be God’s agent in securing the release of his people from slavery; indeed, a leader who would lay the foundations not just for Israel’s future, but for the future of the world.

Our short second reading tells us what happened when Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple for his dedication. It’s nothing like as dramatic as the story of Moses’ childhood, but the day doesn’t seem to go quite as expected. It was the equivalent of a modern christening – it ought to have been a pleasant family event that they would look back on with affection and pride for years to come.

But in the event, something unexpected happens. They get accosted by a couple of elderly prayer warriors – the kind you sometimes find loitering in cathedrals today. These old people immediately discern that Jesus is someone of unique importance. One of them begins prophesying about the tribulations that lie ahead for the little one. And finally he turns to Mary and says, “And a sword will pierce your own heart also”.

As I read that last sentence, I thought it wouldn’t make a bad title for this sermon. “A Sword Will Pierce Your Heart”. For many, perhaps most of us, parenthood will have proved a joy and a blessing – for mums, for dads, and especially for the children. But for everyone who ever tries to start a family – whether or not they succeed in their efforts - there’s a health warning on the side of the package that says, “A Sword Will Pierce Your Heart”.

Mary herself experienced the agony of watching as an actual spear entered Jesus’ side, and it must have felt as if her own heart was being pierced. When we start a family, we can’t predict what form that spear might take for us, whether it will involve loss, sickness, alienation, or simply the cumulative impact of a thousand lesser anxieties over health, schooling, family relationships, career choices, and all the other ups and downs of life parents and children go through together. And however good our intentions, all parents make mistakes, some of which will haunt them for years. We can only put our trust in God, and hope for the best.

For others the pain may come when their efforts to start a family are unsuccessful, or when they realize that they have missed the opportunity to try. In a perfect world, Mothering Sunday would be a day on which every single person present is able to join together in giving thanks. But real life is more complicated than that, and it’s probable that for some people here today this is difficult territory.

If that describes you, then it’s our prayer that today will be a day of healing – a day when you feel able to do what Moses’ mother did, when she handed over to God the things that she could not accomplish by herself. And any feelings we may be carrying of hurt, of regret, of failure, of unforgiveness, may God take those things into himself and grant us peace. May you leave here this morning relieved of some of that burden.

In contrast, for many people here, today will be a day of joy, an opportunity to count our blessings, to give thanks for those who have loved and nurtured us, for those who have given us hope and a sense of belonging. In most cases, those will be our natural parents, especially our mothers. But I’ve known a number of people who owe their sense of wellbeing to someone else: a grandparent, or an unrelated person who has been there for them in the long term, supporting and guiding them through the ups and downs of life. For such people as these, this is also an opportunity to give thanks.

And that’s the cue for a final challenge to all of us. Remember, Pharaoh’s daughter became a mother to Moses, and shared all the joy and grief of his tumultuous coming of age, through nothing more than the kindness of her heart and the mixed blessing of having been in the right place at the right time. Similarly, when Jesus was dying on the Cross, he saw his mother Mary and the Apostle John standing there together, and he encouraged them to act as a mother and son to one another. Similarly, part of the wonder of this extended church family is the opportunity we have to act like family to one another: like parents, like grandparents, like children or like siblings; to accept our differences and support one another through life’s ups and downs.



Saturday, February 14, 2015

From the Desert to the Mountain: Transfiguration and Lent


Have you ever had a moment in your life when all the things going round in your head have just fallen into place? When you’ve seen your life in a fresh light, and all your old ambitions and expectations for the future have been turned on their head?

I experienced something like that many years ago. I had to deliver a long and complex business presentation to senior executives of the company I worked for. I’d never done anything remotely like that, and I was expecting it to be a disaster. But as I stood in front of that intimidating wall of charcoal pin-striped suits, in a way I can’t adequately describe or explain, everything came together. And while they didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the business plan, it turned out that my stand-up presentation was one of the most effective they’d seen.

Nobody was more surprised than I was. And this relatively undramatic event turned my life plans on their head. Because I couldn’t escape the conclusion that God had unlocked this hidden skill for it to be used in his service. And that realisation was the first step on a journey that led to a major career change and to the ministry it’s my privilege to have now. The journey is ongoing, and only God knows where it will lead in the future. But whatever happens, it’s radically different from anything I had ever imagined before one pivotal day in 1993.

Mark’s Gospel recounts a much more dramatic moment in the lives of Peter, James and John that similarly changed their life priorities. Jesus takes them on a hike up a mountain, where something happens that they can’t adequately describe or explain. The way they tell it later, Jesus is transfigured. His appearance changes. For a moment his physical presence seems to be eclipsed by the dazzling, divine radiance from within. And that’s not the end of the strangeness. They’re joined by Moses and Elijah, two of the key figures from the OT. Predictably enough, Peter does what he often seems to do at important moments – he talks nonsense. And he’s rebuked by nothing less than a voice from Heaven.

What can we say about this magnificent and mysterious experience? Theologians have been grappling with it for all the centuries since, with little agreement on exactly what it means. But the first question people today is whether things can  really have happened quite the way the Bible describes them. Or whether there’s a more natural, human explanation for the story that’s come down to us. And it’s a good question – a legitimate use of the rational, scientific brains that God gave us. And the sort of question that religious leaders refused to contemplate for much too long,

In fact there’s compelling evidence that something truly unique and mysterious did happen up there. But it’s possible for us to look past the supernatural elements of the story. And far from losing the wonder of the moment, it helps us see all the more clearly what’s going on in the minds of Jesus’ companions.

Remember, these are men who’ve been following Jesus for months. They’ve come to love and respect him. They’re in awe of his wisdom and goodness. And in the case of Peter, he’s already accepted Jesus as the Messiah – the godly king whose coming was foretold in the Old Testament. But there’s no clear evidence that James and John are as advanced as Peter in their thinking. And even Peter himself has yet to grasp fully who and what Jesus is.

All that’s about to change. Because up there on the remote mountain top, they have one of those life experiences that I described at the beginning – a psychological moment that turns their life and everything they’ve ever stood for on its head. And what happens in essence is that, for the first time, they see Jesus in proper context. So far, they’ve seen him as a spiritual master, a freedom fighter, and perhaps a national leader in waiting – that much is clear from the Gospel accounts. And they’ve taken pride, not always of the best sort, in their own status as his inner circle of trusted lieutenants.

But now something happens to make those blinkers of cliquish pride and self-interest fall from their eyes. And in that moment of blinding vision, they understand that Jesus is nothing less than the culmination of Israel’s history: that God is now present in a way that the Law of Moses could only hint at; present in a way that the great prophets like Elijah always looked forward to. And in that same moment, they perceive the revised life plan to which God is calling them: no longer just minions of a regional cult figure, but Apostles who will carry this astonishing and universal truth out into the world.

So, if we could look back in time, what would we see happening? A true miracle visible to anyone in the vicinity? Or three men lost in the throes of a mystical vision? Or was it simply a psychological quantum leap recounted in religious language? Opinions differ. But whichever view we take, supernatural or mystical or scientific, the Transfiguration has a vital relevance to the weeks ahead of us.

This coming Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent – the weeks of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter. For many people it will involve making some kind of sacrifice. This has traditionally taken the form of fasting, but I know people whose Lenten devotion involves giving up alcohol or smoking or television or the use of their mobile phone or even social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The point is that for a few weeks we give up something that makes us feel satisfied, something we have come to depend on for our comfort and relaxation.  And we do our best to replace that familiar source of comfort with something more reflective and life-enhancing.

In fact it’s not what we give up that matters, but what we take on in its place. It might involve coming to the Lent course that we’ll be running once again. Or it may be prayer, or some spiritual reading, or just a few minutes each day to be ourselves, to look for the face of Christ and listen for his voice in our own lives. But whatever we choose to do in Lent, we symbolically follow Jesus out into the desert to share his struggle against the incessant self-serving demands of our human nature. It can be uncomfortable at first, as we become more aware of our weaknesses and failings. But for countless people, Lent has changed the whole way they see the world and their place within it for the better.

And in a real sense, the desert of temptation and the mountain of transfiguration go together. We spend so much of our lives on autopilot, getting on with business as usual, that we become blind to Christ’s transforming presence in our lives. But as our reading from 2 Corinthians reminds us, God is always ready to give us “the light of the knowledge of his glory displayed in the face of Christ”. And it’s in making the space to reflect and pray that we open ourselves up to a fresh vision of Christ and new possibilities for our own future. This may take the form of a dramatic spiritual experience. More often it involves some very natural event such as I experienced two decades ago – something that takes us off autopilot for just long enough to hear see and hear things that we’ve been failing to notice.

And one of the most glorious aspects of this story is that we too are being slowly transfigured – the divine spark that lives in each of us will become ever more clearly visible as we follow in his footsteps. And it’s my prayer that this year, Lent will help many of us find the space to discover meet with Jesus in a fresh and life-enhancing way.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Music Review: Stacy Grubb's "From the Barroom to the Steeple"

It is 5 years almost to the day since I reviewed Stacy Grubb's debut album, 'Hurricane'. "Behind her pert image and vivacious personality," I wrote, "lurks a deep Christian thinker, a gifted song-writer, and an outstanding singer who is already able to command studio support from ace musicians and backing vocalists. The end result is a perfectly balanced album: thoroughly informed by bluegrass without being a slave to it. By turns haunting and exuberant, it is sonically beautiful from start to finish."

Five years of intense commitment to family life later, Stacy has released a new album: 'From the Barroom to the Steeple'. The arrangements and production are deliberately more stripped down but still gorgeous, the songwriting more assured but still deeply personal, and the style a little closer to pure bluegrass but still pleasantly inclusive.

Above all, time has addressed the few flaws in tone and phrasing that were audible on the debut album, and personal experience of adversity has helped to develop a deeper spirituality in Stacy's lyrics as well as a more searching and adventurous melodic scheme.  

Stacy's music is not corporate 'product' with vast marketing muscle behind it, but it's available from iTunes and other online retailers and deserves a wider audience.

Thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

BREAD - All-Age Talk (KS2 and up)


Resources: 
A small table covered by a white cloth, bearing a plate, a glass and two securely mounted candles
Bread roll
Some reddish liquid in a bottle or carafe

Notes: 
The science, history and theology are a little simplistic, but sound in outline. 
There are a few slightly more complex words and ideas that younger listeners may not get. 
The interactive questions are optional. Feel free to adapt. 
Above all, make it lively.

I wonder if you can guess what I'm going to be talking about. I'm going to give you some clues. As soon as you think you know the answer, put your hand up but don't shout out. (Emphasise the underlined words in the clues):
  • You start by gathering seeds from a special kind of grass whose scientific name is Triticum.
  • You grind up the seeds into powder, then you mix it with water and a special type of fungus, to make a sticky paste. 
  • The fungus converts the natural sugars in the paste to gas, and the mixture swells up with a mass of tiny air bubbles, becoming soft & spongy.
  • Finally, you put the mixture in a low oven for an hour or two. Then you eat it. 
  • But most people don’t bother with all this. They just buy it from a shop.

Get them to chorus the answer,  then put the bread roll on the plate, and light the candles on either side of it.

Question: Who likes bread? What are some of the ways we eat it? (Optionally prompt for favourite sandwich fillings and related products like pizza and pasta. Be sure to show appreciation for all answers.)

Let me tell you something about bread. It’s the most common kind of food there is. But bread is more than just the world’s favourite food. It’s nothing less than the foundation on which modern civilisation was built. Does that sound crazy? Let me explain.

Before humans discovered how to grow wheat and make bread, they lived in tiny wandering tribes. It took all their time and energy just finding enough food to stay alive. But once they knew how to grow wheat and make bread, they began to settle down, to plant crops, and to build permanent towns.

Over time the towns grew into cities. It was no longer necessary for everybody to spend their time gathering food. The cleverest people had time to gather knowledge, to research more efficient ways of farming and organising the community. The long term results of that were science and technology and law and schools…and us.

So, bread is so much more than just the world’s favourite food. Bread was the great invention that allowed lots of other inventions to take place and made a global civilisation possible. It's no surprise then that bread is an important symbol to people. 

Question: Can anyone think of a Bible story concerning bread?.... (Feeding the 5000, Temptations, Last Supper, etc.)

Let me tell you what I think are the two most important Bible sayings about bread. The first is where Jesus says: “I am the Bread of Life”.  After all I’ve said about bread, about it being the foundation on which everything was built, don’t you think that is a remarkable thing for someone to say? 

Question: What do you think Jesus might have meant by that?

And then on the night before he died, at the meal known as the Last Supper, Jesus told his followers something very surprising: Whenever you eat bread or drink wine, he said, I want you to think of me. 

On the night before he died, he took the bread and broke it (tear the roll into several pieces and hold it out) saying, "This is my body, broken for you." (Put the pieces of bread back on the plate, then pour the 'wine' and hold it out) Then he passed the wine round the table, saying, "This is my blood, poured out for you." Then he gave them a command: "Whenever you meet together, do this as a way of remembering me." (Put the glass back on the table)

Just like there are many different types of bread, there are many different types of Christian around the world. But there's one thing we all have in common: When we meet, we still follow Jesus' last command: we share bread and wine together to help us remember all that Jesus said and did for us – especially his dying on the Cross. It’s our way of saying, "Jesus, you are the Bread of Life: the foundation on which our lives and our society are built. You’re as important to us as food and drink. We worship you and want to follow your teachings."

And there’s one particular teaching of Jesus that’s really important to Christians. As you all know, not everyone around the world gets all the food they need to stay healthy and happy. In fact, thousands of children like you are dying from hunger every single day from hunger. And Jesus says, if you care about me, you’ll care about the poor. You’ll make sure they have enough to eat, enough clothing and shelter to keep warm and dry.


Wouldn’t it be great if every time we ate bread, we remembered something: It’s not just our bodies that need feeding. We need to feed our minds and our hearts. For Christians, a big part of that is learning about Jesus and talking to him in prayer. But for all of us, whether or not we're religious, the key thing is to care for one another. 

Let's bow our heads in prayer...

Backup question (if there is time in hand): What sort of things can we do to help people who don’t have enough to eat?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BLESSED? (The Beatitudes/All Saints/All Souls)

--> (Matthew 5:3-10, Luke 6:20-26)

One of the little thIngs I love about the Church of England is the Lectionary – the schedule of appointed Bible readings for each week of the year. At a previous church I attended, the Vicar chose the principal readings himself; some favoured passages came up over and over again, while others were never given an airing in all the years I was there. The Lectionary ensures that over time we hear the whole Bible on its own terms. That, to my mind, is a good thing.

All the same, I’m sometimes surprised by the choice of readings at important church festivals. This weekend is a case in point. However much it may be overshadowed by the over-commercialised monster-fest that is modern Halloween, this weekend we are celebrating the important festivals of All Saints and All Souls: giving thanks for those who have gone before us – the saints and martyrs, the pastors and teachers, and most especially our own ancestors and departed loved ones.

I can think of some admirable Bible readings to mark the occasion, but this morning the Lectionary takes a different tack: our main reading was from the Beatitudes: the opening section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus - rather surprisingly - tells some very unhappy and afflicted groups of people that they are blessed. 

There is a connection to this special season of the year, but it needs a little digging for. And over the next few minutes, I want to tackle the following questions:
1.  What does it mean to be blessed?
2.  What sort of people does Jesus call blessed?
3.  What might Jesus’ words mean for us, particularly as we celebrate All Saints and All Souls?

So, what does it mean to be blessed? It’s an important question, because while the word has distinctly religious overtones, most people (even Christians) use it in a very indistinct sense. When we say “bless you”, what are we expecting to happen? When we say that something we’ve experienced was a blessing, what do we mean?

In the Bible, the world blessing most commonly denotes a very specific and elusive kind of happiness: a 360-degree sense of wellbeing and fulfilment that can only be experienced when certain very specific conditions are met:
 - when you and those around you are prospering both materially and spiritually,  
 - when you’re living at peace with one another,
 - and when you and your community are in tune with God’s purposes.

It’s similar to what philosophers have called the eudaimonia or the Highest Good. It’s the state of mind and being that God repeatedly promises to those who obey his commands. It’s the universal goodwill conveyed in the Middle Eastern greeting of shalom or salaam: peace be with you: peace with God, peace with yourself, peace with others. And while that’s not the only way the word blessing is used in English Bibles, it is clearly this traditional idea of blessedness that Jesus expected his listeners to have in mind as they digested his words.

So, if that is blessing, who can consider themselves blessed? Jesus took a view that was radically different from that of his contemporaries. The Temple authorities taught that if you were under God’s blessing, then it would show in material ways. So if you were successful, healthy and prosperous, that was proof that you were blessed. If in contrast you were poor, hungry, diseased, disabled or a victim of misfortune, that was a sign that God was looking away from you – and that could only mean that you had been disobedient to his laws. You were excluded from the spiritual life of the nation.

All the power structures in Jesus’ society were built on this precept. Power and holiness were validated by health and wealth. Jesus’ words and actions were thus political dynamite. No wonder he was seen as a threat to the established order; he was declaring God’s blessing on those whom the authorities declared unclean – and by a clear implication pronouncing a curse on the ruling classes.

Some commentators have made too much of the differences between Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words and Luke’s. The picture Luke paints of Jesus is more radical: “Blessed are you who are poor; Blessed are you who are hungry…” And he utters the curse on ruling classes that Matthew’s version only hints at: “Woe to you who are rich; woe to your who are well-fed.” By comparison, Matthew’s version can seem generally less political, more about people’s spiritual state: “Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are the humble... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.”

But it’s in taking the two versions together that we see the true horror of life in Jesus’ time: The people Jesus was reaching out to were poor in spirit because they were poor; their poverty precluded any hope of education or spiritual development. They were hungry for justice because they were unjustly hungry. They were denied comfort because they were disabled, disfigured or in mourning. In each case, their practical hardships excluded them from the community of faith. And Jesus’ message was, “Come to me. I will give you the spiritual connection you so urgently need. I will build you into a community in which together we can tackle your material hardships.”

Thus, for Jesus, to bless others is not just to wish them well but to draw them in: to help them experience the warmth of God’s love, to include them, to help them meet the practical needs that are prevent them from seeing God’s purpose fulfilled in their lives.

And it is in the process of blessing others we are ourselves blessed. How can we be more blessed? Certainly in praying and reading the Bible and coming to church; all of these we know already. But surely the greatest blessing we can experience is in following Jesus’ own example: in feeding the hungry (e.g. volunteering in a foodbank, sponsoring a child), in liberating the oppressed (e.g. joining justice & peace or advocacy group), in reaching out to the lonely (e.g. hospital or prison visiting), and in providing companionship to those who are in mourning.

The giving and receiving of blessings takes on a special meaning as we celebrate All Saints and All Souls. At our All Souls service this afternoon we will celebrate and give thanks for the blessings that our departed loved ones have been to us, and recommit ourselves to passing the same blessings on to new generations. It will be an emotional time for some of those present, but it was Jesus himself who uttered the words “Blessed are those who mourn”. And as we join together in thanksgiving and remembrance, many people will find it a blessing as they have done in the past.

Let us pray…



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

FRIEND, GO UP HIGHER: Pride and Humility

(Luke 14:1-11, Ephesians 4:1-6)

My wife and I don’t get to fly very often, and when we do we book as far ahead as possible - in the hope of getting decent seats. Of course economy class is much of a muchness wherever you sit. But on a long, cramped flight just a couple of inches extra legroom, or an aisle seat, or being able to sit together makes all the difference.

We’ve had our reservation messed around once or twice, but we’ve never had the experience of someone I know: getting to his seat only to find it occupied by somebody else – and that someone was very reluctant to move. If that had happened to me I don’t know how I’d have reacted. But my friend didn’t hesitate: he doggedly ploughed his way up the aisle against the tide of struggling humanity to speak to the cabin staff.

And of course, once he’d done that, the issue was speedily dealt with. A large and slightly intimidating flight attendant bore down on the culprit and said, “Excuse me, there seems to be some confusion over seating. May I see your ticket, please.” And the interloper was on his way in seconds.

I’d like you to try and imagine it’s you in the wrong seat. Imagine the impatient flight attendant standing over you. Picture your fellow passengers craning their necks to see what’s going on as you gather your bits and pieces together, grinning as you get your bag and coat down from the overhead locker and shuffle your way back to your allotted seat. Humiliation.

Jesus painted a similar word picture for the ambitious socialites at a banquet he attended. He saw them jostling for position at what we’d call the top table, and he gave them a very shrewd piece of advice: If you really want to impress, don’t make a beeline for the top. Sit somewhere lower down the pecking order. Then, when the final seating is sorted out, rather than being evicted from somebody else’s place, everyone will see you promoted.

Good social advice, but is there anything else to it? After all, it’s not particularly punchy as parables go. In fact, if the Gospel writer hadn’t said ‘he told them this parable’, then I wonder how many of us would have noticed that it was one! On the other hand, there is a twist at the end – just enough of a twist to make clear that this is about more than just etiquette: ”For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”.

And yet, even that seems a rather commonplace thought, doesn’t it? A thought that’s expressed more punchily elsewhere in Scripture. “Pride comes before a fall” or “Blessed are the meek”. It’s such a familiar idea that we could easily miss just how pointed and punishing Jesus’ words are in this particular setting. And in order to see that, we need to go back to the beginning of the episode.

The story starts when Jesus goes to dinner with a senior religious leader on the Sabbath. He knows they’re watching for things they can pick him up on, and no doubt he’s looking for a chance to make a statement about his priorities. As it happens, there’s a man there with a distressing medical condition. Jesus knows how rigid his fellow-guests are about working on the Sabbath. So he asks an outright question. It’s effectively, “OK, what should I do here guys: follow the rules or do good for somebody.”

The sad thing is, when he puts it like that, he meets a stony silence. In their hearts, they almost certainly know what’s right. But no one will risk being the first to say it in front of their peers. So Jesus goes ahead and heals the patient. And can’t you just see them exchanging smug glances. “Hah!” they’re thinking. “We can tell he’s no holy man.”

So Jesus begins to reason with them. “Come on,” he says. “There has to be a limit. Suppose you saw a child fall down a well on the Sabbath, would you leave her there to die for the sake of your rules.” The answer is obvious, of course. But they can see that this is the thin end of the wedge, so again they stay silent.

And that’s the point at which Jesus draws attention to their jostling for the best seats. But it’s not the jostling itself he focuses on, so much as the pride and self-importance that drive it. Remember, he’s still tackling the misguided leaders who put rules before people. And here is what Jesus is saying to them:

You are so proud of your ancient traditions that you’re neglecting the amazing things God is doing right in front of your eyes. A time will come when the things of which you’ve been so proud will be revealed as worthless, and you will be humiliated.  In contrast, those who have humbly embraced what God is doing will be seen as the really important ones – the true heirs of God’s promises.

I wonder if Jesus sees a similar inversion of his priorities in the disagreements shaking the church apart today – the splits over worship styles, gender, sexuality and so on. He certainly valued the law and his people’s traditions, but not when they got in the way of healing and justice. And he demands that our first allegiance should be to him in person. He won’t accept second place to our religious or ethical traditions. He won’t be coopted by either traditionalists or reformers.

His words challenge us to think deeply about whom we are hurting, whom we are oppressing, whom we are excluding, and what it’s doing to our relationship with God, when we put our causes and traditions before him and before other people. And whatever we see as our justification for doing so, whether it’s Scripture or Church tradition or the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or an exalted view of human rights, we can expect to look back on our words and actions with shame when we see at last what our Lord and Saviour is really like.


The Apostle Paul cuts to the heart of the message in our reading from Ephesians, when he calls us to live in a manner worthy of our calling. Be humble and gentle, he wrote; be patient. Live in unity and peace. Because there is one body and one Spirit, one hope for all of us; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.