Monday, 29 December 2014

A Gangster, a Prostitute and Jesus Walk into a Bar...

Matthew 9:9-17
We start with Jesus and Matthew. Matthew is sitting in his office, on the street, when Jesus walks past. Jesus walks up, ignoring the fact that this man is running the first century equivalent of an extortion racket, and tells him to get up, get his things and become Jesus’ apprentice. We can imagine Matthew might have stared at this dusty northern preacher for a moment: then he quits his job on the spot, grabs his coat and follows him down the road.

He’s so excited and proud to have been chosen to start this new life that he throws a banquet in Jesus’ honour, and invites all his friends to the party: fellow tax collectors, well known petty gangsters. Jesus is seen laughing and eating and drinking with this infamous gang, renown for their breaking of the Jewish law and cosying up with the enemy, and two different groups take issue with it, and challenge him on different accounts.

Firstly, the Pharisees.
The Pharisees ‘[The Pharisees] said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, [Jesus] said, “Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”’

The Pharisees get a bad rap in the gospels. In actual fact, they were the ones who had reacted against the rich, powerful Sadducees (the Tories of their day) who were content to cosy up to the Romans and ignore the watering down of their religion in return for a rich, comfortable life. The Pharisees treasured the Law that had been handed down to them by Moses, and reacted fiercely against any compromise of this. The scriptures were of vital importance to them, and they knew them inside out. They were famous for creating ‘a fence around the law’ - rules that were even stricter than the law, so that you wouldn’t even come close to sinning.

They were so focused on obeying God’s Law that they even tithed their dried herbs. I mean, seriously. Imagine going to the supermarket, buying in your weekly shop a little pot of dried basil. When you get home, you empty the contents of that jar, carefully weigh it out and set apart an exact tenth of the contents, putting this in a little bag to give to the church. And then you do exactly the same for EVERY OTHER ITEM OF SHOPPING. In Luke 11:37-44, Jesus lays into the Pharisees for focusing so much on the externals that they forget the internals, and the point of the law: ‘You tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God,’ (11:42). ‘Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’,’ (Matt 9:13).

He calls them ‘unmarked graves’: they look normal on the outside but the external is covering up death and emptiness beneath. Because their focus has been so much on getting it right, on not coming anywhere close to sinning, on the correct external actions, they’ve forgotten what it means to engage their hearts: ‘Give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you,’ (Luke 11:41). They have become so focused on not sinning that they have neglected to love their neighbour, to expose themselves to vulnerability by squatting in the dirt next to the crack addict, the homeless man, the pregnant sixteen year old drop out, the bag lady. As a result, their hearts have become hardened, and they’ve ceased to see these people as humans, as anything more than ‘sin’ which means ‘something to stay far away from’.

The trouble is that if you focus really hard on getting it right, on not sinning, on avoiding temptations to sin, you distance yourself from people. You distance yourself particularly from the type of people who are engaging in lifestyles of sin. And when you’re so focused on what your actions are, it’s very hard not to look at other people’s actions; and when you’re looking at other people’s actions, you become aware of them looking at your actions, and when that happens, you suddenly become preoccupied more with what you appear to be doing than what you’re actually doing. And then you’re on a slippery slope to sitting in the right seat in the ‘happening’ church and praying articulately and passionately for revival in big prayer meetings (but not at home) and name-dropping that hotshot pastor and the famous worship leader.

When you’re focused on your heart, and on giving it to small, unimportant people, you don’t worry so much about all that. Because no one can actually see your heart except God, and so there’s no one to compare it to except his. Jesus says that if they give as alms ‘those things that are within’ - if they give a part of their heart to God, which means giving a part of their heart to that 16 year old swearing, smoking, wasted girl, living off benefits in a council house - then ‘everything is clean to you.’

This is a statement I kind of struggle to get my head around, honestly. But I know of my own limited experience that when you allow yourself to become vulnerable to God, or vulnerable to someone who is a ‘sinner’, often you receive within your heart a softening, a holiness which is a natural growth rather than a strained for, hardened husk. You flower into holiness: your heart shines through your actions, filtering through every small moment, so that your whole life becomes a tithe to God, not just a tenth of what you own. The second disgruntled group Jesus has to deal with are the disciples of John.
The Disciples of John ‘Then the disciples of John came to him saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”’And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”’

John and his disciples were almost certainly Essenes. The Essenes were a strict, ascetic sect, who lived communal lives vowed to poverty, asceticism, and daily ritual cleansing, and for some, celibacy. They had forsaken all worldly pleasures and were focused on developing their spiritual lives. John was missional: he was Messiah-focused, and baptised hundreds, calling on them to repent of their sins and their former way of life. They were strict, and would have fasted a lot. They lived a life of renouncing revelry and excess. So when they see Jesus, the promised Messiah whom John has spent his life of fasting, celibacy and asceticism waiting for, laughing, drinking and eating a feast with a group of notorious gangsters who had acquired their wealth by stealing it from poor Israelites - they were understandably a bit upset.

Jesus response to them is gentle. He emphasises the new and the old: he and his disciples are the ‘new wine’ which cannot fit in the old practices and forms of religion: it must create its own, new forms. But the old isn’t wrong; it isn’t to be thrown out or disregarded: ‘New wine is put into new wineskins, and so both [old and new] are preserved.’ There is nothing wrong with the way John’s disciples are doing things; it’s just not suited for this new thing that God is doing.

And what is God doing? Christ compares himself to a long-awaited bridegroom. John and his disciples spent their lives looking forward to the coming of the Messiah; they lived lives of expectation, of hungering, of yearning and desiring for what was to come. This focus is appropriate to fasting, to desert, to asceticism. That’s why traditionally advent has been a season of fasting: because we are longing for the coming of the Christ, and so our religious practices manifest and mirror this spiritual hunger and thirst in physical hunger and thirst. But now Jesus is saying, “Look - your long awaited Messiah has come: I’m here! Put away your advent fasts. It’s Christmas!” Nobody fasts on Christmas Day. It’s party time!

For God is as much in the celebration as he is in the fast. In Zechariah 7:5-6, God asks, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seven months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?” It has never before struck me that not only our fasts, but our feasts are for God: and equally so. Of course, of course, it should be obvious, because our feasts - Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, Pentecost - are all celebrations of God’s goodness; and so of course they should be feasts which are all about celebrating with God. It’s clear when you’re fasting that you’re fasting for God - you wouldn’t be doing it for fun! But I’ve tended to think of feasts as God being nice and letting us enjoy ourselves after fasting. In fact, our feasts are just as spiritual as our fasts are. Why on earth would they not be?! This is the God who is kicking off eternity with a huge party and feast in heaven (Rev 19:6-9). This is the God who started his human ministry by supernaturally creating six extra kegs of beer for already wasted party guests (I mean, seriously: has it ever struck you that the week-long wedding at Cana is pretty much the first century equivalent of freshers’ week?). This is the God who parties.
Vulnerability and Celebration Jesus’ reputation was as a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of prostitutes and petty gangsters. The Pharisees were so concerned with not sinning that they overlooked the fact that God doesn’t want people just not to sin, but to actively live full, rich, generous, loving lives, vulnerable and open to humans and God. The Essenes were so focused on yearning for God to come that they forgot how to behave when he arrived: they forgot how to celebrate. Let’s be a church that remains open and vulnerable to humans, that doesn’t pigeonhole people or situations as just ‘sin’, but embraces all people and all situations as places where we can share the presence of God. Let’s be a church where in amongst our yearning for God to move, in amongst our revival meetings and our desiring for more of God, we notice what he is doing in the here and now, and we throw ourselves unreservedly into celebrating his kingdom here on earth.

And let’s be a church known for throwing absolutely incredible parties in the worst parts of town, just like our merry vagabond rabbi, Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


I write this from a nunnery near Bristol where I’m currently on placement.
I’ve been here for just over a week now and my opinion of nuns has been thoroughly revised. Prior to my stay, my mental picture of nuns was built on Sister Act and The Sound of Music – so basically, a lot of singing. Further garnishes to this melodic scene were habits, constant praying and slow, graceful speech. This picture does not do justice to the wonderful and lovely Sister Anita who is seventy years old, surfs the web on a Macbook Air and reads the lectionary from an app on her Galaxy Note. Nor does it come close to capturing Sister Annaliesse, famous for wearing trainers to the Royal Wedding, who can most often be found immersed in the raucous chaos of the Loaves and Fishes foodbank operating out of the Bristol community house, surrounded by volunteers and homeless clients, juggling boxes of cereal and babies and bags of clothes, cutting across the din with a ringing Essex accent as she directs and jokes and cajoles. Perhaps in my previous mental image, becoming a nun somehow wore down your personality until you became a replica model; on the contrary, I’m beginning to suspect it actually distils you to become even more distinctively yourself.
My time here has been shared between the parishes of the East Clevedon benefice, where Sister Anita is part of the clergy team, and the Loaves and Fishes project running in the Bristol house. I preached in one of the local churches last weekend, and am preaching again this coming Sunday. In the Bristol house, over the past three days I have gift wrapped hundreds (literally) of men’s socks, gloves and scarves to be given out with the Christmas foodbank parcels; I’ve also helped pack two hundred Christmas parcels. These are special extra parcels which get given to the foodbank clients at Christmas alongside their regular ones. They have a few extra treats in them: biscuits and chocolate and Christmas puddings.
It’s been an absolute privilege staying here. The week has flown by and I’m sorry to only have a few days left. It’s fascinating talking to the Sisters and hearing their stories of vocation; fascinating too to discuss community with them. Their take on new monasticism and the different forms of community springing up is intriguing to hear, as is their understanding of the meaning of communal life. It’s all going into the melting pot of my thoughts on community as I try to discern what God’s saying to me in that particular area.
All in all, I’ll be sorry to leave next Monday when it comes to it. Not least because this is the view from my bedroom window:
Pretty hard to beat, eh?

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Day in the Life

I went to London last week and one of the questions people kept asking me was, "What do you actually do?" Being a trainee monk (as I like to think of myself) is a somewhat vague answer and probably not all that helpful for visualising what my life is like here. So here's a day in the life.

8 am: The Stithians Community House creaks into action. We are not early risers. Nor are we particularly morning people. This is definitely a gentle, sleepy, stirring sort of wake-up. None of that 5 am praying malarky. We're not masochists.

9 am: Morning prayer. This takes place in the chapel, which is a small room off the kitchen, with a small altar table with candles and a cross, and icons on the walls. We light the candles and use Common Worship, which takes about half an hour.

9.30 am: The day begins. On a Thursday, we meet with the staff team to celebrate communion together, followed by staff meeting (for them) or a theology tutorial (for us). Our tutorial is with the Rev. Canon Tony Neal, a small retired priest in his late seventies with an impressive beard and an encyclopaedic knowledge of church history. He's in the middle of studying for a PhD and he's taking us through the theology of priesthood, ministry and the church. On a Friday, I meet with Dr. Lucy Larkin, the Cornwall tutor for the South West Ministry Training Scheme, which is the regional training scheme for ordinands. She's giving me one-to-one theology tutorials on Christian doctrine, and is the reason for the ever-increasing pile of thick theological tomes heaped in every corner of my room.

If I don't have a theology tutorial, I've probably got some reading to be doing, or an essay to write. So mornings are quite often spent hunched over dense text, trying to pin Rowan Williams in the midst of his mystical, abstract metaphors down into some sort of sense.

12 pm: Lunch. We quite often have other members of the clergy team around for lunch, and it usually involves freshly baked homemade bread and soup.

1 pm: Usually I'm off in the afternoons, biking down winding, wooded single track lanes to one of our eight villages for a church event of some sort. Yesterday for example, Ben and I spent the afternoon with Maureen, a retired priest's widow, who taught us the ins and outs of serving at the Eucharist. Coming from a baptist background, and then spending the last five years in Christ Church which is so low it scrapes the ground, I really haven't got the first clue about what goes on in an anglo-catholic eucharist. I am proud to say I now know exactly how many bells to ring and at which points, which hand to give the decanters of wine and water to the priest with, the name of the utensils used to ceremonially wash the priest's hands pre-communion (lavabo, if you're wondering), and what the hell a purificator is.

I also managed, three weeks ago, to serve at an anglo-catholic eucharist in full bike leathers. (It was a last minute thing, otherwise I suspect I would have found myself cassocked or albed.)

5.30 pm: Evening prayer. Again, we meet in the chapel and use Common Worship. Often we're joined at this by members of Stithians community, like Melissa, a local twenty-something who lives across the village, and Molly, a lovely and beautifully soft-spoken Cornish woman who is active in village and church life.

6 pm: Dinner. We take it in turns to cook, between Bridget, Nigel, Ben and Lucy and myself. We try to eat together as a community at least twice a week, and hopefully more often. This is usually a fairly rushed affair though, with one or more of us dashing off to get to a 7 o'clock meeting somewhere.

7 pm: Meetings! Deanery meetings, village meetings, advent services, carol services, scout/beaver/brownie services (seriously, you have no idea how many scouting activities go on in this place), harvest suppers, PCCs...there are a lot of meetings. Almost all of them are mind-numbingly boring. But they're important. The local churches and villages have incredibly tight-knit communities, and the seemingly small community events have huge significance for them. So it's important to go to the beaver carol service, because that's your best connection with the parents and children who attend, and because they'll remember if you weren't there.

9 pm: I'm usually vegging, skyping, Buffy-ing (thank you Netflix) or reading (something other than theology. Currently: Dorothy L Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series, Plato's Republic and Karen Armstrong's A History of God. I get bored if I read just one book at a time, so I have to mix and match).

12 am: I stumble into bed and sleep. The end of another monkish day!