Sunday, 28 October 2018

Lessons from Catfish Row

On the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, I found myself grappling with Isaiah's challenge to place our trust in God rather than making lies and falsehood our refuge. It seemed so pertinent especially when heard in the context of Jesus' words about the world's hatred.  

But as I was writing this sermon, news of the attack in Pittsburgh unfolded. I am grateful to Paula Gooder who shared words from the Talmud on Twitter. How do we resist the hatred manifest in antisemitism? How to we testify to God's reconciling love in world which seems to intent on deathly falsehoods?  In part, by refusing to be daunted by the world's grief and showing mercy, now.

In that sense, Porgy and Bess might seem like an opening which sounds a lighter note: but this unlikely pairing echo Simon and Jude's commitment to a better world in resistance, kindness and refusing to see the other as a lost cause. There are lessons from Catfish Row.

Preaching today felt like an intense exercise of the poverty of my speaking. 

And the livin’ is easy

So begins one of the most famous opening songs of any opera or musical: we hear a mother swaying to the bluesy melody.  

So hush little baby
Don’t you cry.

Around her couples sway with each other in sultry dance. It’s hot; it’s airless. The day’s long; the night’s beginning. Dice roll; money’s won and lost; tension rises. This mother keeps on singing; it’s a lullaby of parental protection.

There’s a’nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mammy standing by.

For the residents of Catfish Row such harm comes in several guises. They face the divisions of race and whiteness; livelihoods are threatened by storms; violence, addiction and exploitation are near the surface. 

And yet, on Catfish Row there’s a depth of solidarity and resistance. It’s a community which pulls together; which mourns and laughs together.  It’s a community which calls boldly on the name of Jesus; where cynicism about religion is chastised. 

It’s a world where people rise up singing. 

Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky.

This lullaby is no whimsical folk song; it’s a call to struggle, liberation and hope. 

This is the world, if you’d not guessed it already, of Porgy and Bess

When Bess’s drunk and aggressive partner abandons her, it’s Porgy the crippled beggar who shows her human kindness. It’s he who protects her and gives her shelter. Together, they find happiness within community. Even when the darkness of Bess’s past haunts their present, Porgy’s love determines not to let her go.

We don’t know the end of the story but Porgy and Bess leaves us with broken silences: there story is an operatic cry for justice. Decades before campaigns such as #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, the songs they sing rise up against sexual abuse and racism. Through their eyes we see the ways in which human agency and dignity can be diminished; and we glimpse, albeit fleetingly, the power of love. 

Porgy refuses to write Bess off as a lost cause.

Today we celebrate the witness of a different pairing: Simon and Jude. Though we know little about them, like our operatic duo, they teach us something about both prophetic resistance to oppression and the refusal to see people or situations  as irredeemable.

Something in Jesus’ words and actions resonated with them: the challenge he represented to the powerful, his preferential treatment of those on the margins, his teaching about self-giving love, the way in which his touch brought healing, restored dignity and formed community.

Simon and Jude

Neither Porgy and Bess nor Simon and Jude are under any illusion about the impact of the choices we make on ability to flourish and grow in trust.  

Isaiah makes this contrast in stark terms: when we collude with falsehood and lies, we sign a contract with death. Lies which tell us who to blame, who to mistrust, who is drain on the system; falsehoods about quick wins - staking our futures on the role of the dice.

Isaiah cries out that we are to place our trust in sure foundation; to walk in God’s ways; to chose moment by moment that which makes for peace; to align our wills with justice and compassion. 

A theme picked up by Paul as he writes to the Ephesians. If falsehoods set up a series of divisions and lies generate hostility, God, in Jesus, points us to a different path. He is the cornerstone; the one in whom we trust. In Christ, we move from being strangers and aliens to citizens. 

We literally have a place. 

We have value and dignity as God’s beloved. 

Jesus’ words also remind us of our belonging in God, to each other. To become a disciples and friend and follower of Jesus is to take to heart the call to love one another. And to do that we are called out of the world - the world of falsehood, exploitation and illusions; and yet we are sent into that world, to be a presence of relentless and purposeful love.

The world is loved by God - in all its fragility and beauty. Yet within our world there are places where love is not present; where fragility is exploited and beauty ruined. Our relentless consumption of plastics causes harm within the ecosystem; our enslavement to arms continues to destroy and oppress; our hatreds and fears lead to death. But this is not the end of the story. 

The world is loved by God - in all its fragility and beauty. And the light of the world stepped down into darkness; the word of God spoke truth to power. Jesus gave his life totally in order that through his death we might have the fullness of life.  

Love wins.

Our lives, dedicated to him, are likewise given for truth and justice; to love and cast out fear.  Jesus warn this disciples that the relentless pursuit of love will mean that they too face opposition, misunderstanding and suffering. And yet, the song of that love rises up through us. Even in our smallness and weakness, life breaks in. 

The first disciples, among them Simon and Jude, said “no” to lies, oppression, injustice and abuse; they said “yes” to freedom, truth, compassion and self-giving. 

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche Community, continues to challenge and inspire us to live together in ways which embody this Christ-like love. It is not easy. 

In what he describes as the martyrdom of daily pinpricks we will sometimes be rejected or misunderstood; regarded as a threat or pushed aside; the hatred of indifference or inconvenience. 

Sometimes those pinpricks arise not from outright hostility but because the Gospel is not understood.  We must continue testify God’s love in our institutions which shape the fabric of our common life - the welfare of the poor, wisdom in education, compassion for the sick, justice for the victim, restoration for the guilty, dignity for the dying.

It would be tempting to risk compromise with a culture that erodes these values or marginalises the weakest. As Vanier says: We are fearful of speaking out about Jesus or about justice and truth. We are afraid to rock the boat. We are frightened of what people might think or do to us if we disturb them or the cultural order. So we water down faith and the gospel message. 

Our witness is not dependent on our own strength but on the gift of the Spirit: our Advocate and guide; the power of God’s love at work in us. Through the Spirit we are to testify to the truth in the name of Jesus. We are to be lights in our world. 

In the face of human prejudices, ambition and loneliness, we are to use the gifts entrusted to us to speak and act for the ultimate values of God’s Kingdom.

As we do so, we are being built on the foundations of Simon, Jude and all the apostles; Christ is our cornerstone, bearing the weight. 

In a world where a gun man attacks members of the Jewish community gathering in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh: how does our testimony condemn anti-semitism; how does our witness strive to choose life, to grant others dignity?  

As we are built up as members of God’s household, words from the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly now.
You are not obligated to complete the work, 
but neither are you free to abandon it. 

© Julie Gittoes 2018

Monday, 10 September 2018

Just Pray

This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral, Evensong on 9th September. The readings were Exodus 14:5-end and Matthew 6:1-18 leading to a particular focus on the Lord's Prayer.

If you tuned into Radio 4’s  Just a Minute this lunch time, you would’ve heard Paul Merton attempting to talk for 60 seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation on the subject “Abandon Ship”.  

He began: “The Titanic had a band on ship and they were playing tunes as the ship sank into the murky waters below…’. He paused and Julian Clarey buzzed in with 51 seconds to go.

Merton, as a satirical comic, is adept at humorous word play, even in the face of tragedy.  Tragedy feels particularly acute when we are on the cusp of new possibilities; when it feels as if freedom is within our grasp; when we delight in the scale of human ambition; when hopes are thwarted by forces beyond our control.

Titanic encapsulated those feelings and in the hands of James Cameron it becomes an epic romance and disaster movie staring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as Rose and Jack. They transgress boundaries of wealth, class and the constraints of an arranged marriage as Celine Dion sings: ‘my heart will go on’.

Southampton’s Titanic Story conveys the realities behind this Hollywood blockbuster: hundreds of head shots of the people who lived, worked, traveled and died together on one fateful night.

The meticulous order of a two person birth is recreated: neatly folded linen on compact bunk beds - hat and gloves casually set aside. 

The devastating disorder of the ship breaking apart is recreated: a light and sound installation of gloom, water, and dawn light - furniture breaking up.

The words of eye-witnesses bubble up across the screen; they fade and drift of away, these echoes of memory, disbelief and trauma.  Their speech tries to piece together all that was breaking apart: lives, dreams, relationships, Titanic herself.

One survivor says:
We all said our prayers there, the Lord’s Prayer, altogether.

We reach for these words when there is nothing left to say; when we cling to another in heartrending grief. 

The words Jesus taught his disciples intersects with our lives; we reflect on the meanings given to each word and phrase, listening with the ear of the heart for what consoles and challenges. 

It is said with hope and trepidation at the beginning of a day; in exhaustion and thanksgiving at its end. It’s familiar rhythms lending us an inner stability.

It is the prayer which teaches us how to pray. It is a living text. Simple enough to be memorised by children; broad enough to express the depth of our longings; ordinary enough to name our basic needs; ingrained enough to be recalled when dementia means we can no longer remember who we are; profound enough to sustain a lifetime of praying.

Last year, the Church of England launched a 57 second film called Just Pray (which your can watch here):

Our Father in heaven: as Archbishop Justin walks though Lambeth Palace Gardens.

Hallowed be your name: as a young man places flowers on a grave.

Thy Kingdom Come: as a first responder is called to the scene of an accident.

Thy will be done: as a guy lifts free weights.

On earth as it is in heaven: as a farmer feeds his cattle.

Give us this day our daily bread: sung by a gospel choir and spoken before a meal.

Forgive us our trespasses: as a computer train speeds into London.

As we forgive those: in a men’s group in a gym.

Who sin against us: by a woman carrying private grief.

And lead us not into temptation: as a policeman responds to the next call.

Deliver us from evil: as the Community of St Anselm share in worship.

For thine is the Kingdom: as an adult is baptised.

The power and glory: at a school assembly.
For ever and ever: at the end of a wedding.

Amen: said and sung, for this prayer is for everyone.

We add our voices today: in the silence of our hearts; in the music written by Clucas: Our Father.

Jesus is inviting us to stand where he stands: to put ourselves in the presence of God, with the Spirit of his Son in our hearts; and to cry Abba! Father! He invites us to ponder the depth of love divine, all love’s excelling.

He invites us into a vision of a world infused with the light of God.

In that light, we ask for what we need: for mercy, protection and forgiveness; for daily bread, for strength and sustenance; for grace to bear the needs of others and humility for others to support us.

Prayer of this sort demands a kind of ‘forgetfulness’: a letting go of our overpowering sense of self; with all the literal and metaphorical filters we might apply to our appearance and self-presentation. The ‘selfie’ we captures a moment but airbrushes our all that is not perfect.

Jesus cautions the hypocrisy of living preoccupied by our image; of living to be noticed. He cautions against turning acts of generosity into attention seeking; or making our inner spiritual lives into a spectator sport.

Instead we are invited to make space and time away from distraction and competition. To find a private place where our desires, emotions and needs can be held in peace.

This is a practical way of praying: noticing what gives life; and what drains our energy; to discern glimpses of goodness; to name hurts or selfishness; for our lives to be shaped by God’s love; allowing heaven to be known on earth.

Praying these words, expands our imaginations with generosity; increasing our capacity to be vulnerable, resilient and compassionate. Letting go of conflict and rivalry; living out the words that Jesus taught be seeking justice and reconciliation.

Exodus is a stark reminder of the way in which moments of liberation can mingled with the hardening of hearts, mixed motives and anxiety about the future. The flight towards freedom confronts the pursuit of power.  There are some injustices which are so systemic and horrific that putting them right demands humility, penitence and a radical change of culture.

The Lord's Prayer is not easy; it is hard be liberated from bonds of indebtedness;  forgiveness can’t be a demand or a crude bargain to just ‘get on with life’; rather it takes us to the heart of truthful recollection, in incremental steps of release.

Tonight we are invited afresh not to learn about it, but to pray it.

To pray for mercy and healing, vision and strength; allowing the Spririt to breathe through each word and phrase.

Just pray. 

Today, this week, this month: on the train, before sleep, as the kettle boils; at the gym, before music practice, as you do the online shop.

We all said our prayers there, the Lord’s Prayer, altogether.

Our Father...

Who art in heaven.... hallowed be thy name

Thy Kingdom Come

Thy will be done...

... on earth...

as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses...

as we forgive those... who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation...

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the Kingdom...

the power...

....and the glory.


... and forever. 


© Julie Gittoes 2018

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Disgust, holiness and hospitality

This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on Sunday, 2nd September. A couple of years ago a friend recommended Richard Beck's book "Unclean"; and the themes of disgust, holiness and hospitality resonated with the questions about the law raised by the following texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-end; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15,21-23

It’s 19th April 1987. A 25 year old woman visits a London hospital. She’s perhaps the most photographed fashion icon of her generation; but the image captured on this day isn’t remembered because of her striking blue dress.

Instead it continues to be remembered because it broke down barriers of stigma. Princess Dianna had looked a nameless AIDS patient in the eye, smiled and shook his hand without wearing gloves.
Photo: Princess Diana shaking hands with an AIDS patient ...

Research had demonstrated a few years previously that HIV AIDS couldn’t be transmitted by person to person touch. However, it was this ordinary gesture of human interaction, in front of the world’s media, which began to challenge ignorance, misunderstanding and fear.

A nurse at the London Middlesex Hospital said, “If a royal was allowed to go in shake a patient's hands, somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same”.

Today, HIV-positive people live full, healthy, loving lives, serving in professions from lawyers and haulage drives. Nevertheless, HIV remains an urgent global challenge with more than a million people dying from AIDS in 2015; and many more being infected, orphaned or losing their livelihood or social status.

HIV-AIDS induced fear and exclusion because it touches on triggers of disgust outlined by the psychologist Richard Beck in his book entitled “Unclean”: sex and bodily fluids, sickness and contagion, contamination and death. 

He explores the visceral reactions of disgust and avoidance, but this  is more than an exercise in psychological analysis. He also explores what it means for those patterns to be redeemed.  Beck grapples what it means for God to desire mercy and not sacrifice; for Jesus to eat with tax collectors and sinners; or for the church to draw boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. 

He sets this out as two impulses: “one impulse - holiness and purity - erects boundaries, while the other impulse - mercy and hospitality - crosses and ignores those boundaries”. 

Spectrum Summer Reading Group Gets Unclean

The commandments in Deuteronomy, negotiate these impulses of holiness and mercy. They were teaching about giving honour to God in worship, delighting in sabbath rest and by shunning forms idolatry; and observing them all to strengthened community through giving honour to parental and martial relationships; outlawing false witness, theft and murder.

The people of Israel were called to be a distinctive community; to be wise and discerning. It’s not surprising that as they encountered other nations and traditions debate arose as to how to guard, teach and live out these ordinances.  What was allowable on the sabbath? Should wealth be set aside for God or family obligations? What about food was safe or unclean? What about sex, sickness and death?

Teachers, priests and scribes didn’t the people to forget. They didn’t want to take anything away from the commandments; but diligence in observing them led to more  burdensome detailed laws were added in.

In Mark’s gospel we glimpse part of that ongoing debate. The scribes and Pharisees have continue to challenge Jesus about the nature of purity and the keeping of the law. Elsewhere, this division is focused on human need such as hunger, illness or isolation; in part Jesus exposes our vulnerability and kindles a desire for mercy; for loving embrace.

In order to remain ceremonially clean, the priests had to be careful about what they ate or touched. Over time such prescriptions were observed more widely. So they attack Jesus and his disciples - for eating with unclean hands.

As Jesus’ explores elsewhere in the parable of the good Samaritan, the impulse for purity set up boundaries which made it hard to fulfill the impulse for mercy.  Today, he challenges the hypocrisy of getting things out of proportion. By focusing on the minutiae of the tradition, Jesus accusers risked failing to fulfill the will of God which the commandments embodied.

He goes on to describe with a bluntness, which may evoke an element of disgust, the way in which food is eaten and digested, asking: how can something which passes through our bodies be a source of defilement?  

Drain (plumbing) - Wikipedia

Instead we are to examine our own hearts and consider what human nature is capable of: envy, deceit and adultery; greed, pride and stupidity; anger, self-indulgence and deceit.

No wonder the psalmist cries out: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51).  As my spiritual director put it. We have to guard our hearts. We guard our hearts from being misled by the overwhelming power of sexual chemistry which plays on our loneliness, and desire for intimacy.

We also have to guard our hearts when we seek self-advancement at the expense of others; when our guilt or failure tempts us to be less than honest, eating away at trust within community; when our envy, conscious or not, diminishes others; when our frustration drives us to despair rather than facing the challenging but creative conversation.

It is because of the frailty of these human hearts, that God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, came from the intimacy of his Father’s heart to be with us. To be with us in the fleshly and messy reality of our lives. Love draws near in our bodily lowliness and prideful hearts.  
William Butler Yeats - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre

As the poet, W B Yeats puts it: “Love had pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement; / For nothing can be sole or whole / that has not been rent”. It takes our proximity with birth and intimacy, illness and death to realise that that is where love is; in the midst of nappies and bedpans. And God goes there
What then does it mean for our fragile, sensual, muscular, ageing, graceful and imperfect bodies for the Word to become flesh? Out of his fullness, we have all received endless grace. The law was given by Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”. We are redeemed by grace; by God becoming one of us.

Jesus touched the sick with healing love and restored the dying to life; he embraced those made ‘other’ through sexual exploitation or mental distress; he ate with those whose hearts were open. He was betrayed and abused; cursed and humiliated. He died. And in dying broke death’s power; in his risen life is forgiveness, mercy and love.

The aspiration of our cathedral community to be warm-hearted is an expression of the commandments to love: to love God and neighbour. We cannot do that in our own strength; it is God’s Spirit who warms our hearts, kindling that flame of love. As James writes, all our generous acts of giving come from above; through grace our creatureliness bears the truth of God’s image.  The fullness of life in God is revealed in a fruitful life.

James uses language which is vivid and physical. He senses that the good that we do begins with what is planted in our hearts, that God’s word of love.  We are to be quick and attentive in our listening; but slow in our speaking and our anger.

Doing what we hear is mediated in a multitude of loving gestures.  The gentleness of which he speaks is not a soft option. It means caring for orphans and widows; protecting the vulnerable; listening to the dispossessed;  showing compassion to the stranger. Seeking what is just in this world - walking with humility before God.
 The Children's Society Case Study | Virtual College

No human being, whatever age, should feel alone. As Christians we don’t offer simple answers to complex problems. But we do commit to being alongside those who feel unloved, isolated, scared; those who self-harm, who’re grief stricken and unable to cope. As the Children’s Society tagline puts it:  We listen. We support. We act. 

In our workplaces and homes, may we who are united in prayer and the breaking of bread bring hope and hospitality to others. The impulse for holiness is made real in the impulse of mercy; breaking down barriers of stigma and despair.

© Julie Gittoes 2018