Jesus

Sitting by Another’s Well…

At this time of the year (or, perhaps at any time of the year here in Northern Ireland!), it is hard to imagine the heat of the noon day sun in Palestine and the sheer physical impact it has on those active outside in it and without shelter from it.

While the disciples went on looking for food, a weary Jesus stopped for rest from his journey by the local well; hoping for a drink of refreshing water. The difficulty was, however, he had nothing with which to draw it up from the well. It seems, at least in the films, that there is always something at wells to use for drawing up water, but here it appears there wasn’t (nicked or vandalised – I wonder?).

So, Jesus sat waiting in hope that someone else might arrive and offer him water; though, it is hard to imagine he would not have known the very limited possibility of someone drawing water at the time of the day when people tended to stay indoors while the sun was at its height and the heat was most intense. Whether it started out as a forlorn hope or an imagined, shimmering mirage someone did arrive, however, with their own gourd-skin ‘bucket’.

Two strangers found themselves unexpectedly meeting at an historic place of contested life; yet, while one was without the means, the other was without the understanding. It would have probably been more straightforward for Jesus to remain stiff, tight-lipped and full of ethno-religious self-righteousness, and thirsty, but he took the initiative.

The boundaries separating the woman and Jesus were immense and otherwise fixed in their own sectarianism. Life was going to be limited for each of them unless a way could be found that would allow things to be different.

Jesus could have begun by demanding water on the basis of his power and authority but to what would that have led? Would that have been the way to new possibilities of living; or, would that have been the way to reinforce the old ways? Would that have given him a drink or allowed the woman to find a new well for life?

Instead, Jesus chose to admit his need, place his vulnerability before her and ask her for help. Here then was the way that led to Life for the woman and, in turn, her community; and, maybe even led to a drink for Jesus!

Thus, may God grant us the grace and courage to sit for a while by the contested space of another’s well and, through this way of Jesus, may sectarian conflict be transformed and new Life flow.

Amen: Lord, have mercy.

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Equal to the Angels…

Give them their due. It was a clever question in keeping with their commitment to the text of the Law (Luke 20: 27 – 38). While liberal in engaging with the world around them, they were fundamentalists when it came to handling the scriptures. They were also consistent in their approach. They did not believe in the resurrection because it was not mentioned in the teachings of Moses.

The question put to Jesus could have come straight out of Deuteronomy (25:5) and may well have been one of those eternal essays assigned to every class of trainee Sadducees in their respective training courses. So, of the seven brothers, whose wife will she be at the time of resurrection?

Whatever of the possible rationale supporting family, land, inheritance and the perceived blessing, in and of children, which underpinned the teaching of Moses promoted here by the Sadducees, Jesus appears to allow the questioners their fundamentalism. He does not challenge their use of the words of Moses. He does transcend, however, their interpretation of the scriptures using them to challenge the Sadducees’ position on the resurrection.

Yet more than this, Jesus also pushes the hearers to consider their value before God. A value which is not based on whether or not people have children but on the reality that each and every one of them is a child before God!

Thus, it seems Jesus is trying to encourage the questioners, and any others who are listening, to realise primary family connection is through each one being a child of God. When this is acknowledged and recognised all other family arrangements become secondary and therefore less relevant. So the key point at issue is not whose wife is the childless woman going to be in heaven, but to whose family does she belong as a child of God.

This may well be a challenge to many today who promote an understanding that when we reach heaven we will remain within our families and see those loved ones who have gone before. While not directly challenging this, Jesus’ words again reminds us that being with our loved ones is secondary to being primarily loved by God and belonging to his family when we reach heaven.

Here, not only will we be counted as children of God, but we will be equal to the angels in relationship with him!

So in this week to come,

  • may we acknowledge the integrity of people where they seek to live out lives of faith based on their understanding of scripture, even when it does not accord to our understanding nor practice
  • may we find ways to dialogue that share understanding and enable constructive insights to be gained
  • may we ever affirm people as children of the God and who are each counted as equal to the angels before him; and,
  • may we strive faithfully to bring the heavenly resurrection into earthly living that all may live in him today

Amen; Lord, have mercy…

Today Salvation Has Come…

It was probably incumbent upon him to know what was going on. His employment as Chief Tax collector demanded it, while his social standing as a wealthy man required it. So when word came to him about this man Jesus who was passing through (Luke 19: 1- 10), he just had to go and see who it was that created so much interest and fuss. For who knows, maybe there was something about this event that would give an edge to getting more taxes out of the people or maybe this could be an opportunity to further increase his wealth. Whatever the reason was, Z found it impossible to stay away. He had to see this man.

It seems that, even with his wealth and power, however, Z was not able to see Jesus due to the crowd and his physical stature. The crowd simply got in the way and if anyone had a reasonable place to see what was going on they certainly weren’t going to give it up to someone maligned and despised in the community. In addition, his physicality curtailed him from either seeing over the heads of those gathered on the road, or pushing his way to the front to ensure a viewing spot. That said, I cannot help but wonder if his physical limitations may have also been indicative of his spiritual, religious and moral shortcomings as he was lost within, and to, the community of his faith and culture due to his tax collecting.

It is sad and chastening to reflect on how the crowd got in the way of preventing someone from seeing Jesus. Does this happen still? Are there people who would like to see Jesus today, know something about him today or even begin to journey with him today but who can’t get near him because the church crowd has got in the way? Worse still is that it can seem as though the ‘in-crowd’ can erect barriers of expectation, tradition and judgment which help to keep them securely in and others, not of their group, out.

Despite this, the shock in the story for me is that Jesus saw Z even though he had been prevented from seeing Jesus. Not only was Z seen up the tree, but Jesus took that next step of initiating a transformative relationship towards salvation by offering to step over the threshold of Z’s malignment and exclusion into his home. The simple reason for this being that Z still belonged to the community of his fore-fathers and fore-mothers; he belonged, even if he was lost to his community. He was not, lost, however, to Jesus.

I wonder how many people who belong have also been lost to their community through malignment and perceived limitation. The challenge for all of us may be to realise that no matter how lost they, or we, may feel, no-one is lost to Jesus. Hear his offer; no, his desire, to come home with us and, when we allow him in, may we know again we belong at home with him, and within his community of welcome, even as we are all passing through.

Amen; Lord, have mercy…

Thank God!

Of course, I’m not like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story (Luke 18: 9 – 14), thank God.

Imagine being contemptuous, opinionated, judgemental, competitive, discriminating, excluding and (self-)righteous, and then turning up to church to worship God. It would seem God was far from impressed. No wonder! Who does he think he is, standing there emphasising his goodness and worthiness to God? Imagine! It seems like he is another one of these hypocrites that fill religious places the world over.

Yet, to be fair, is this not the world we inhabit… one where we are taught from earliest days to judge others by their failings and weaknesses; one that makes me a success because I am not like that – poor, weak, uneducated, incompetent…

Success is often viewed in terms of worthiness, material gain and the capacity to separate ourselves from those lesser than us and whom we don’t like; and, because they are less and we don’t like them, we believe God doesn’t value them or like them either. Nevertheless, even while trying to be fair, thank God, I’m not like that there Pharisee! He is really into some serious finger pointing!

If I am honest, however, it is probably true to say, I am like him and he is like me! I might believe I am, and want to be, more like the tax collector, but I know I can be more like the Pharisee.

So, the issue isn’t just one of a misplaced pharisaic confidence before God; it is about how that competitive focus manifested itself in his relationships with others who shared his world but not necessarily his outlook. His way of worshipping allowed the Pharisee an excuse to exclude those who were not ‘pure’ like him and I can’t help but wonder if he would have thought he was doing God a favour by pointing out the failings in everyone else, and especially the tax collector.

The Pharisee was living according to his own culturally set and false standard of purity which served to justify his separation from those who failed in living to his sense of religious rigour. Sadly, while so focused on seeing and naming the failings of those around him, he seems to have lost sight of his own sin, and therefore God as well. The condemnation he thought he was helping to bring on others was the condemnation he brought on himself instead! Thus, in the end, he came to be standing alone; worshipping himself, by himself.

If true worship engages head, heart and hands in a constructive and creative synergy of faithful living; then perhaps the Pharisee could be considered guilty of a false worship. He may have engaged his head and hands but he seems to have misplaced his heart.

In viewing the world around me, and in particular those different to me who stand afar off the church, I need consistently to hear with my heart rather than judge with my head and exclude with my hands. God does not stand afar from them. His view of success involves repentance and compassion. Here the shocking thing is for me that not only does he like them but he loves them as well, equally; even in their difference and lives of other religious rigour.

But, at least as good, his mercy and love can release me from my captivity to any false standard of purity and religion of exclusion.  As God does not stand afar from his world, and all in it, neither does he stand afar from me.  Indeed, God can never stand any further away, and never stand any closer, than the vacant cross which is eternally standing and welcoming home my soul.

For this, I can truly say, Thank God!

Amen, Lord, have mercy…

Increase our Faith!

The disciples seem to have got Jesus on an off day. It’s hard to imagine them asking for anything more in keeping with what Jesus was about – faith, and its increase. Yet, according to Luke (Luke 17: 5 – 10), when they ask him simply to ‘increase our faith’, the disciples get a sarcastic retort and a story about remembering their place instead of his smile and affirmation . What is it about their request that appears to evoke his begrudging response?

The stories told by Jesus in response to the disciples’ request are salutary. He seems to have heard something from them of a request for reward and appreciation. Maybe this is not an unfair expectation recognizing everything, even up to that moment, the disciples had given up for him and experienced with him. In truth, who of us does not look for some kind of reward as one of his disciples? After all, have we not also proven ourselves sufficient, at least occasionally? Perhaps, the human in them, and in us all, wanted to be noticed and thanked for their response, their commitment and their support of him.

But the responding challenge to uproot and plant the mulberry tree in an alien environment appears something of an ironic joke at their expense. Of course, this won’t happen. However, it suggests to me that Jesus wants to challenge the disciples about the faith they already possess rather than how much faith they don’t have.

Where the people of God believe they do not have enough faith, it can give an excuse for not living in faith. So we say, ‘If only Jesus would give me more faith just think what I could do!’ Here the blame for not taking the faith into the world, and not bringing the kingdom in, lies with Jesus. It becomes his responsibility, not ours… because if he wanted me to do that then he would give me more faith that would enable me to respond better to his calling.

Yet what is it we are prevented from doing? What would we do differently for the kingdom if we had more faith? What can we not do, even with the mustard seed of faith we already possess?

This is the paradox. It is not that someone can give, or be given, more faith. However, as the faith which we do possess is tested and proven while we live out God’s calling in the day to day, the more faith is found; faith is indeed increased!

Mustard seed faith is about doing… it is about uprooting and planting in extreme and/ or unfamiliar environments; taking risk; practicing the miraculous; remaining open to the disbelief and laughter with the incredulity of the ‘You’re doing what?!’.

With such practices of discipleship, faith is increased.

Thus, the more we live in faith the more faith we find in which to live; even until the end when irrespective of our need for reward, we are simply welcomed as those who have done our duty and lived fully by the faith we have.

Amen, Lord have mercy…

What is this I hear about you?

There was no argument about it, no attempt at self-justification; simply a recognition that he had been caught (Luke 16: 1- 13). But rather than throw himself on the mercy of the rich employer, the manager started trying to figure out how to make the best out of a bad situation.

Jesus does not elaborate on what the manager had used the resources at his disposal for. We are simply told he squandered his employer’s assets. If this was a substantial charge to be levelled against someone then, squandering assets is almost considered unforgiveable today. Careers and reputations are lost in these days of austerity if it is perceived that a manager, whether in the private, public or third-sector, has been guilty of squandering hard earned resources, especially financial ones.

Yet, there are times when we must all be wary. ‘What is this I hear about you?’ calls us all to account and lets us know we have been accused of squandering. Perhaps not financial but what of our squandering the resources of the earth; our squandering the resources of young, middle aged and elderly people alike while we participate in a socio-economic system that seems content to allow their gifts and talents go to waste; our squandering the resources of power and privilege exercised for personal and group gain rather than the common and global good? There may not be many who can stand without remembering how we have been guilty of squandering that with which we have been entrusted as stewards of the things of heaven.

The manager was concerned (rightly!) with his future. Yet, instead of throwing himself on the mercy and compassion of his employer, he decides the way to ensure future welcome and friendship was through fraud; so he rewrote the debtors’ bills. It is a hard challenge to hear how this approach seems to have been appreciated by the owner (and Jesus?) who, rather than castigating his manager, commends him for shrewdness. Behind this shrewdness is the wisdom word of the wise man who built his house upon the rock (Matthew 7:24) and the virgins in contrast with the foolish who had sufficient oil in their lamps for the whole of the wedding feast (Matthew 25: 1 – 13).

Can Jesus really be sharing this as an example for his disciples to copy? This is complicated. For me, I am trying to hear here a challenge to consider how I wish to be welcomed by God and remain friends with him, even with the noise of the accusatory ‘what is this I hear about you?’ filling the air, and fill the air it does.

The squandering manager acted in character to save his future, and acted in fraud. So, how are the disciples, the people of God, to act in character when they/ we wish to know the welcome and friendship of God, into the forever eternal future beginning today? If the manager acted as he did to save his major asset, his life, what will the children of light do to save their major asset, the salvation of their life and soul?

Given this, what assets do we have before a creator God? It would seem that we have lost sight of the fact that any assets we have before God are ones that have first been entrusted to us by him. Our accusation may be we have taken as gospel that we are the creators rather than the created and as such can do what we like with those things we believe are ours and ours alone. We live without remembering that anything we own has been granted unto us for the purposes of the kingdom rather than personal reward. In this, we have become servants of mammon, rather than servants of God.

Thus, as God asks of us in this coming week, ‘what is this I hear about you?’, may we respond in a spirit of repentance and hope; may we strive to live out the grace granted unto us in salvation through God’s greatest asset, and our richest blessing, even his Son Jesus Christ; and, may God hear of lives of service given on behalf of the Kingdom rather than of assets squandered.

Lord, have mercy…

Found and Lost? Lost and Found!

While heaven rejoiced, the religious muttered (Luke 15: 1 – 10).

What a sad and telling indictment on those who had at one time been lost themselves and now considered themselves to be found. How easy it is to forget the bewilderment, uncertainty and anxiety caused by finding ourselves in the place of dark, aloneness and disorientation. If any should have been welcoming the sinners and tax collectors, it should have been those who themselves have been lost but now rejoice in being found, held and loved with mercy and compassion.

So comfortable had they become, it seems, in their traditional righteousness, Jesus left them alone to fend for themselves, while he searched for those who had become detached and lost. This is an important theme. This was not Jesus telling stories about going out after those who had never belonged but rather seeking out those who had at one time been part of the community and now had been detached, for whatever reason (traditions, structures and attitudes of the religious?), from the faith and supposedly beyond grace.

Jesus offers two remarkably poignant stories of himself and his mission. There is the image of the shepherd going out after the sheep which has been lost, with which we are all familiar. Then, in addition, there is the image of Jesus as a diligent woman (a tax collector’s wife or mother?) lighting lamps and sweeping floors; perhaps an image with which we are less familiar. In both instances, the issue is that, while what was left was valuable in itself, so also were the ones that had been lost. Perhaps a further challenge was being highlighted which indicated that the whole was not complete without the lost being counted, found and celebrated as well.

Could it be, then the real indictment was that those who had been found had lost their awareness of the value, before God, of those who had become detached and lost. The lost were not so lost that they were beyond grace. The religious had placed a higher value on their religious tradition and practice and were in danger of becoming lost again themselves because they failed to value those whom God valued so much that He sent his Son to find them… us… me!

In the stories, the credibility, integrity and trustworthiness of shepherd and housewife alike are dependent on finding what has been lost. Could it be said, the credibility, integrity and trustworthiness of Jesus is also dependant on His search for the world which is never beyond his grace and, therein, finding the lost? Yet what of the church, wherein lies our credibility, integrity and trustworthiness? In muttering or seeking?

Upon finding that which was lost, the woman and the shepherd each invites friends and neighbours to rejoice with them. Maybe we should note, the religious are not included here. Yet, if we want an example of a real church plant, a new fresh expression of missionary joyfulness, then do we need to look much further?

Lord, have mercy…