Sunday, 5 August 2018

When Will There Be Justice For The Landless Poor?

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth"

Something like that, anyway. Jesus told a story about workers in a vineyard: casual labourers who worked for a daily rate which was just, and only just, enough to live on. So if you were only hired for part of the day then normally your family went hungry.

Land was important in Biblical times: if you had your own piece of land you hand a chance to grow food for your family. Otherwise, if you were part of the 'landless poor' - a group most English translations unhelpfully render as 'the meek' - then you were destitute, dependent on rich landowners offering work, at the lowest pay possible, or on begging. Even if you had land and were poor, the rich landowners would try to unjustly pressure you until you were forced to sell the land. That's the way the world seems to work; but it wasn't meant to be the way God's people were to do things.

The idea that everyone had their own little piece of land was fundamental to the way that Jewish society worked – it was their living and their security. That is why the Jewish Law specified that no family could lose their land permanently – every fifty years there was to be a Jubilee when the land was returned.

Of course, this was never followed: throughout Israel’s history the rich acquired the land of the poor and exploited those who were now landless. In Jesus’ day land injustice was a major social issue, as it is today in much of the world (see the picture above for just one example).

Psalm 37 counsels patient trust in God:
Be still before the Lord
   and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
    when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
    do not fret — it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
    but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity.
Both the opening beatitude and Psalm 37 tell us that those who are currently oppressed and landless are to wait patiently, trusting that the Lord will provide the inheritance of the land which they need. Their security lies in their faith as they wait for God’s Kingdom to come down to earth and for God’s will to be done here as in heaven.

“The landless poor are secure in God because they shall inherit the land,” is one translation of today's beatitude. But, more generally, it is about those whose relationship with their neighbours, with their society, and with the world around them has been broken by injustice and oppression.

Like the first two beatitudes this is about people who are desperate and without hope in the world being given good news by Jesus: that God keeps his promises and that he will have the last word.

The trouble is that Jesus said this two thousand years ago. Two thousand years! Where is the hope of justice from a God who leaves injustice to thrive for two thousand years after the price has been paid to end it? One theory is that Jesus wants to work through his church, but it has spent much of the time refusing to cooperate – something to ponder, perhaps, as we seek to genuinely follow Jesus today.

Singer/songwriter Harvey Andrews wrote a song some years back, called Requiem, about the loss of hope that comes with growing older. It included the lyric (about Jesus): “For two thousand years he’s brought nothing but tears, and the crosses to plant on the graves.”

If you have the song (or can play it from Spotify), try playing Requiem, and as you listen consider the lost hopes of your neighbours, whether in Caversham or elsewhere, and how we can restore people’s hope in God.

"Faith, hope and love remain, and the greatest of these is love". May your life be filled with all three in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Comfort In Times Of Loss

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted"

Comforted by whom? The ancient prophet Jeremiah spoke of God himself comforting those who suffered devastating loss, but Jesus' second beatitude just says they will be comforted. Is that because God works through people? People like you and I? But how?

How can a ten-year-old girl deal with the death of her father; or a middle-aged couple come to terms with the suicide of their son; or an elderly man who has already buried both his children find peace when his wife follows? You don’t have to travel far in Caversham and Reading - or doubtless wherever you live - before you come across stories like these. What can we say? What can any church – as a community of those seeking to follow Jesus – have to offer in the face of such loss? And where does Jesus come into the story?

Maybe you can turn to the Bible – Jesus often did that.

There are three approaches (at least) in the Bible to comfort in the face of devastating loss. There is the 'God will make it up to you' approach, for example Joel 2:25a: “I will repay you for the years the swarming locust has eaten,” and Job 42:10: “The Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.”

Then there is the 'God will bring them back,' approach of resurrection, for example John 11:23b: “Your brother will rise again” and 1 Thess. 4:14: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”

And finally there is the 'God is with us in the midst of suffering' approach, for example Isaiah 13a: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” and 43:2a: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” along with Matthew 28:20b: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” as well as the evocative “Jesus wept,” in the middle of the story of his friend Lazarus, who had died:.
"When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept."
You might want to consider when it is best to talk to people about such things. Is it useful to say them to someone who is already devastated? Or are they most useful to know in advance, before the devastation comes, so someone can cling to them in the storm?

And maybe, when the storm does come, the best comfort we can provide to someone is to stand with them in the heart of the storm and weep, then to provide practical support and help as long as it is needed – often longer than you might expect. Maybe share some Psalms of lament. And tell them stories of Jesus, who stood with his friend’s sisters and wept.

The Two Become One Flesh

"'A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

A proud father moment!

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Whose Is The Kingdom Of Heaven?

Beatitudes: long pause, life happens, church happens, let's see if I can get back on track ...
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"
So, to answer the question in the title: it's the poor in spirit. Umm. One of the most important things in studying the Bible is to keep asking questions, because the easy answers will often be like this one and - at least in themselves - not really answer anything. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit: it's good news for them but ... who are they?

Let's start with Jesus: who was spiritually destitute in his society and to whom did he offer God's kingdom? And let's follow Jesus' example by starting from a story, the story of Simon the Pharisee:
A Pharisee invited Jesus to have dinner with him. So Jesus went to the Pharisee’s home and got ready to eat.
When a sinful woman in that town found out that Jesus was there, she bought an expensive bottle of perfume. Then she came and stood behind Jesus. She cried and started washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. The woman kissed his feet and poured the perfume on them.
The Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw this and said to himself, “If this man really were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him! He would know that she is a sinner.”
Jesus said to the Pharisee, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher, what is it?” Simon replied.
Jesus told him, “Two people were in debt to a moneylender. One of them owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other owed him fifty. 42 Since neither of them could pay him back, the moneylender said that they didn’t have to pay him anything. Which one of them will like him more?”
Simon answered, “I suppose it would be the one who had owed more and didn’t have to pay it back.”
“You are right,” Jesus said.
He turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Have you noticed this woman? When I came into your home, you didn’t give me any water so I could wash my feet. But she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You didn’t even pour olive oil on my head, but she has poured expensive perfume on my feet. So I tell you that all her sins are forgiven, and that is why she has shown great love. But anyone who has been forgiven for only a little will show only a little love.”
Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
In that story, who is spiritually lost and who is spiritually wealthy? Who does Jesus invite into the Kingdom (by forgiving her sins - all that kept her apart from God)?

To be a Jew in Jesus’ day was to belong within the People of God. It was to have an identity as part of the tight-knit community, and it was to have the hope and assurance of a place in God’s Kingdom. Unless you were a ‘sinner’.

Then, despised and rejected, especially by religious leaders, you knew that the community did not want you and that God did not want you. You were lost. People like the unnamed woman on the fringes of Simon’s party, forever looking in from outside; people like Matthew the religiously unclean tax collector. Spiritually destitute, living lives without hope and without meaning.

The ancient prophet Isaiah wrote of one to be sent from God who would be despised and rejected himself, who would suffer to redeem the lost. Jesus identified with the spiritually destitute and he brought them good news. The good news that even though their community - especially its spiritually privileged elites - rejected them, God does not. They are a part of God’s Kingdom: in him is their hope, their meaning and their future. They belong. Jesus came to save the lost, the poor in spirit, not because they deserve it but because that is who Jesus is.

It is not hard to find people around our communities today who feel excluded and unwanted by at least some churches in the area, for example:-

  • Wheelchair users;
  • Remarried divorcees;
  • Parents with noisy or hyperactive children;
  • Same-sex couples;
  • Those with mental health issues (in many different ways);
  • People who just don’t find that sitting in rows being talked at and singing songs from an alien culture in any way helps them relate to God.

Sometimes Jesus met with people who came to him; sometimes he took the good news to them. There is a need for those who follow Jesus today to welcome strangers who come to us. Also to go out and announce his message that God’s Kingdom already belongs to spiritually marginalised people … remembering, in due humility, that where we churchgoers might fit in is not stated.

Leonard Cohen, in his song Anthem, includes the chorus:
"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."
It's a great track to listen to whilst considering the strangeness of a God who chooses to show his power through his followers’ weakness.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Secure In God


Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up to a raised place where he sat, his disciples gathered around him, and addressed them, teaching:

“Spiritual rejects are secure in God because the kingdom of the heavens is already theirs.
Those devastated by loss are secure in God because they will receive comfort.
The oppressed landless poor are secure in God because they will inherit the land.
Those starved of justice are secure in God because they will be fully satisfied.
Those who compassionately forgive are secure in God because they will be compassionately forgiven.
The clean of heart are secure in God because he is the one they will see.
Those who restore shalom are secure in God because they will be called his children.
Those persecuted for following God’s way are secure in him because the kingdom of the heavens is already theirs.”