Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Wrestling of the heart

On a Sunday full of high profile sporting events, this is a sermon preached at Evensong on wrestling from Wimbledon to Jacob and the struggles of our hearts. 

The texts were Genesis 32:9-30; Mark 7:1-23

Simona Halep’s face beams from the front pages of the Sunday papers: she holds aloft the famous Venus Rosewater Dish; she’s fulfilled a dream her mum had when she about ten years old.

Yesterday, the 27 year old played near-flawless tennis to defeat Serena Williams. Williams, perhaps the game’s greatest player, paid tribute to her opponent’s tenacity and power saying ‘she really played out of her mind’.

This weekend is full of dreams being made, or lost. 

New Zealand pile pressure on England in the Cricket World Cup; Lewis Hamilton races his way into the record book; and back at Wimbledon, Federer wrestles with Djokovic.

Paul is particularly fond of sporting imagery: athletics, running, boxing.  Early today, my friend and church leader, Pete Greig, posted some tips for preachers on Facebook saying:  

When Moses served in the courts of Pharaoh, he was clearly playing tennis.

When Peter stood with the eleven, raised his voice and was bowled, he was presumably playing cricket.

And there’s Formula 1 in 2 Kings 9:20 ‘The driving is like that of Jehu son of Nimshi,’ cry the spectators. He drives like a maniac.

Perhaps he takes it a little too far into dad-joke territory;  but in Genesis we have an episode of wrestling and struggle which evokes the determination of today’s sportsmen and women. 

This nightlong wrestling bout is a life-changing encounter: his name is changed and his future is reshaped. The physical, spiritual and psychological struggle comes as he prepares to reconcile with the brother whom he deceived.

In the poem ‘Jacob Wrestles with the Angel’ [full text], the priest Malcolm Guite writes of Jacob’s fears: he dare not face his brother; he dare not look on his act of betrayal. Having sent his family and goods ahead of him, he is left alone on the river bank; wrestling with the embodiment of human dread and divine love.

Guite voices the poem for Jacob, but it could tell of all the things we wrestle with. He writes:

But in the desert darkness one has found me,
Embracing me, He will not let me go,
Nor will I let Him go, whose arms surround me,
Until he tells me all I need to know,
And blesses me where daybreak stakes its claim,
With love that wounds and heals; and with His name.

This strange wrestling - at first fighting God; then holding God close; being embraced by God, yet also emerging from the encounter both wounded and blessed. 

Jacob has seen God face to face; he has wrestled and prevailed. His new name bestows upon him a renewed call - to be reconciled; to establish a people; to be a blessing.

This wrestling isn’t over a match point or personal best: it is a wrestling that heals memories of hurt and failure; and a process of re-directing our hearts towards our first love. It is by fixing our attention on desire for God, and God’s love of us, that shapes our character, our decisions and our actions. 

Mark recounts an episode of wrestling with the stuff of the heart - and our human tendency to create rules which deflect our attention quite literally from the heart of the matter.

Whether it was the traditions of washing utensils; or the mechanism of dodging the responsibilities of human kinship; Jesus challenges us to align what we say with our lips in worship and how we behave towards others.

As the words of confession in Evensong remind us, ‘we have erred, and strayed’ from the ways of our almighty and merciful father, ‘like lost sheep’. We have followed too much ‘the devices and desires of our own hearts’. 

In neglecting God’s holy laws of love we have ‘left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things we ought not to have done’.

Jesus lists those things which mar God’s image in us - which harm our relationships and break our hearts: from pride to envy, wickedness to theft, fornication to slander. And yet, this is not the end of the story.

Like Jacob we wrestle with who we - and who we are called to be - in the intimate and physical proximity of God. However, we find that it is God who comes alongside us and is indeed with us.

The metaphorical dislocation of a  hip joint is painful; but it might just be the nudge into awareness of our faults and the the prompt to turn our hearts from what defiles to what gives life.

At every Evensong we wrestle with what we desire and what God desires of us. And in receiving afresh the assurance of forgiveness are hearts are opened, cleansed, set free. 

As the words of absolution put it: let us beseech God to ‘grant us true repentance, and his holy Spirit, that those things may please him, which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure, and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy’.

We ask this in the name of Jesus who is with us in our wrestling.

Our hearts long for something more: something beyond us; something that heals our broken hearts and which makes us open hearted to the other.

The God who forms us knows our hearts; the God who knows our hearts dwells with us in Christ; the God who dwelt with us sends the Spirit to restore our hearts that we might find peace and purpose.

As St Augustine eloquently put it in his Confessions, this is the end of our wrestling: Lord ‘Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.'

© Julie Gittoes 2019

Love that heals

A short homily on Love Island, Jacob's wives, John the Baptist, Salome and the love of God which heals:  Genesis 29:1-20; Mark 6:7-29

A couple of years ago, the Church Times included a review of Love Island.

Somewhat surprising, you might think.

Love Island is on a TV shows I’ve never watched from Downton Abbey to Call the Midwife. 

But in the line of duty, the Rev’d Gillian Craig ventured to step into the realms of contemporary culture which I have long avoided.  

He wrote, tongue ever so slightly in cheek: Given St John’s focus on agape as the key Christian doctrine, I as­­sumed that Love Island  would be a documentary travelogue all about Patmos; but, having watched an episode, I am clear that the love in question is in fact eros. Or possibly porneia.

He goes on do describe the clutch of bronzed, barely clothed young people who, rather than been marooned in a luxury villa, are scrutinised, set up and paired off under the gaze of so called ‘reality TV’.

Craig notes that this set up is less about falling in love, but a series of relationships which as he puts it ‘function for the time being as an adequate substitute for that happy state’.

Since its relaunch the show has been compelling and guilty viewing for many; whilst also generating thousands of complaints to Ofcom. Love Island takes human experience and places it under a microscope; manipulating and exploiting people who find every facial expression turned into a meme; who are left with inadequate psychological support. 

From Chaucer to Shakespeare, the Brontës to the latest Zadie Smith level we know that relationships can be complicated; that hurts and desires linger; that love can provoke all sorts of insecurities, rivalries and jealousies. 

Our Scriptures themselves range from the unashamed desires of lovers expressed in the Song of Songs; to the more complex love triangle of David, Bathsheba and and Uriah fraught with betrayal, power and remorse. 

Today’s readings are examples of the ways in which God’s purposes continue to be woven through the messy stories of human loves; and how those human stories reveal something of what God desires for us.

In Genesis, we meet with Jacob again: after falling out with his brother Esau over placed and misplaced blessings, he is in exile. There he begins to establish himself by hard work and he falls in love.

We’re told in more subtle terms than a Love Island voice over, that ‘Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful’. It’s the younger woman Rachel that Jacob falls for; and he serves her father to earn his bride. Those years fly by, such is his love and devotion.

However, Jacob who hasn’t been immune to trickery and deception meets his match in Laban: and beyond the scope of this passage, we learn of how he substitutes his elder daughter for the younger, and how Jacob works a further 7 years for his true love; and six more for his own flocks.

After two decades, he has two wives, a growing family and because of his good husbandry, is now a man of considerable means.

And yet there is little joy. Leah the unloved wife with lovely eyes hopes to win her husbands affection with the birth of each son. Rachel the lovely and loved wife remains childless; with all the heartache that that involves. 

And yet, there is new hope for Jacob: as we’ll hear next week, it is in wrestling with an angel that his future is reshaped and aligned to God’s plan for reconciliation within family and blessing to all nations. 

And yet, there is hope in future generations: Leah’s son Levi establishes the line of priests; her son Judah the royal line. Rachel’s Joseph faces both the consequences of favouritism - in his arrogance, dreaming and slavery - and the fruit of calling in his gifts, eventual ability to save his kin.

In our second lesson, Mark draws us into the way in which the disciples are drawn into the work of preaching and healing and making whole. They are trusted with responsibility; and in anointing those they meet, they assure them of the nearness of God’s love.

The risks of travelling light and relying on the hospitality of strangers give a vulnerability as well as urgency to their witness. The nearness of God’s Kingdom feels a million miles away from the vulnerability and physicality of Love Island.

And then we get a sudden change of scene. We return to John the Baptist who has been languishing while Jesus begins his public ministry. His message about love of neighbour, compassion for the marginalised, challenging those in power, setting people free from fear serves as a trigger for Herod.

Herod suffers something of a flashback, haunted as he is by his part in John’s death. He was an insecure ruler, swayed by the whims and passions of those around him; his own whims and passions were denounced by John as being scandalous.

The dance of death had been depicted in various ways by those staging Stauss’s opera Salome: whether that’s using veils or borrowing Beyone’s dance moves. 

It is Herod’s fear, instability and weakness that leads to a brutal end. An end more notorious and lurid than anything on Love Island.

Mark continues beyond Strauss’s bloody end: he takes us to the depths of a  love so amazing so divine. A love raised on a cross and lowered in a grave only to rise again. A love which in turn raises us up from guilt, despair and isolation;  a love which demands our all in lives of service and blessing. 

It is a love which enables us to live more fully with one another; a love that heals and does not hurt; a love that builds up and does not destroy. 

© Julie Gittoes 2019

See, respond, reach out

The text of a sermon preached at the Eucharist on 14 July. The familiar parable of the "Good Samaritan" is familiar, yet calls out readings which continue to challenge us.  Deuteronomy 30: 9-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Writing a cover story for the New Statesman, Rory Stuart asks “What is wrong with us?”

Reflecting on his failure to translate his  #RoryWalks campaign into success in the Tory leadership election, he writes that ‘our country has entered a midlife crisis. The answer cannot be to try to lurch back to an adolescent fantasy of being saved by superheroes, but instead to move forward into maturity’.

For Stuart, maturity means recognising that our democratic life isn’t about echoing prejudices, comforting abstractions or only talking about economics. Maturity celebrates success; it is angered by injustice in modern Britain. 

Maturity, he argues, demands an urgent and ambitious response; a response that harnesses the energy across parties rather than gravitating to extremes. 

To see what is around us.

To respond with urgency.

To reach out across political divides.

Seeing, responding, reaching out.

As we hear one of the most well loved of all Jesus’ parables. It feels familiar, safe and comforting. We know how it goes and it’s easy to miss how demanding it is. The challenges of our political and social landscape makes us different questions of this text - to appreciate afresh just how radical it is.

Our national midlife crisis leads to the headline, ‘what is wrong with us?’

A lawyer’s question about inheriting eternal life, leads to a lesson in love.

Jesus invites the lawyer to answer on the basis of his own expertise - what’s been written; what does he read?

His answer takes us to the heart of the commandments: to love God and neighbour. 

Observing the commandments and decrees of the law is a source of blessing. God delights in this: human lives are more fruitful when love is at the heart of our undertakings. 

Such obedience is life-giving.

We are to turn to the Lord; and to turn towards each other. 

This law of of love leads to the fullness of life; it demands all that we are, in heart and soul. 

This word of love is near to us: as intimate as every breath we take; every heart beat; every gesture.

We are to love with every fibre of our being; in thought and feeling, word and action. In a delightful phrase of Paula Gooder, we are to love God with all our ‘muchness’.

Do this, says Jesus, and you live. 

But the lawyer, presses on probing the limits of neighbourly love: who qualifies, he asks? 

The Hebrew Scriptures sets out commitments to two circles of neighbour: one’s own family, the bonds of kith and kin; and the stranger, the foreigner in your midst. 

Jesus himself goes on to stretches our imaginations even further. Rather than defining boundaries and recipients of love he asks the question - who shows compassion?

This is a story of someone who was attacked and abandoned. We’re in the ditch with him - semi-clad, semi-conscious. 

This is a story of people going about their business on that  dangerous road. We walk with them weighing the risks; shouldering responsibilities; thinking about the consequences. 

This is a story of someone moved with compassion; a stranger who sees, responds and reaches out. We look upon this outsider, the despised one who does the right.

There’s oil to sooth, wine to cleanse and cloth to bind up wounds.

A journey is disrupted; transport redeployed; time, money and energy are devoted to the care of another.

This is subversive because, as one writer puts it [Levine/Witherington on Luke]: ’It is one thing to learn that the command to love encompasses anyone who is in need, even the outsider or enemy; it is far more disturbing to have to acknowledge that the enemy or outsider may be more quick to show love than those who are certainly fellow “insiders”.

That we call this one ‘good’ challenges us too. 

To see what is around us.

To respond with urgency.

To reach out across political divides.

Such seeing, responding, reaching out might mean that we recognise the goodness, compassion and energy in those with whom we disagree.

To say ‘good’ implies offence; as if this person is the exception within a group viewed negatively; yet even the apparent enemy can respond with mercy; can become friends; can break the cycle of violence.

The good Remoaner.
The good Tory.
The good Socialist.

To say ‘good’ challenges us to recognise acts of generous and costly love being displayed by those we see as ‘other’; those we disagree with; those society criticises.

The good Brexiter. 
The good immigrant.
The good journalist.

Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question; he illustrates how to love.

Jesus doesn’t define who the neighbour is; he illustrates what a neighbour does.

Jesus presses us further in inviting us to see, respond and reach out. 

The good Samaritan’s open-ended and costly commitment points us to the sacrificial love of God.

The God for whom there are no limits.

The God who is with us In Jesus.

The God who binds up and brings soothing balm; who cleanses and saves; who restores life. 

In telling this parable, Jesus demonstrates the outsiders act of unexpected love to the wounded traveller; he also points us to the life-changing power of that love as he is raised up on the cross. 

It is Jesus’ death and resurrection love reaches to the depths and transforms the universe.  In the words of Paul, God has rescued us from the power of darkness; and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. Life in Christ begins with the obedience of the one who restores us; in who we have redemption and forgiveness. 

When we look at our nation and ask ‘what is wrong with us?’ we are called to see, to respond and to reach out. Our nation needs people who can be channels of mercy not hate; people who build up, rather than destroy; people who heal rather than harm.

The word of God is very near to us. As we take bread and wine, the word of in in our mouth and in our heart. We become one in Christ; and as his body we are to observe that word. By the power of the Spirit, worship and service are one act of generous self-giving.

Go, Jesus tells the lawyer, do likewise. 

God and respond to the other with compassion and wisdom: on the Tube, in the supermarket and at work. Go and learn from those we’ve disagreed with or dismissed. Go and bridge the gap between us and the wounded, and pray for them today.

Paul’s letter is full of patience and joy; grace and strength; it is rooted in faith, hope and love. Our capacity to be fruitful is rooted in the truth of Christ and our maturity rooted in prayer for each other.

Nourished by the goodness of God’s word of self-giving love, may we bear the radical claim of love in seeing, responding and reaching out. Amen.

© Julie Gittoes 2019

Monday, 8 July 2019

Eating what's put in front of you!

This is the text of a sermon preached at St Mary's and at Christ Church: I was struck by the phrase about the 70 disciples being told to eat what is set before them; and the sense of peace being shared over food and in a household. The challenges of bearing burdens and being restored in gentleness flow from this sense of deep peace being gifted and shared; a peace shared in households and work places. 

The texts were: Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:1-10; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Writing in The Guardian’s food supplement, Yotam Ottolenghi says: ‘now’s the time when we all head outdoors to soak up every last bit of rare sunshine’, so it’s only natural he muses, that we take food outside with us.

The al-fresco options in this feast include spicy pulled pork vindaloo; lime and poppy seed law; mango ice-cream; and summery savoury tarts filled with lamb and courgette; tomatoes and mozzarella; crab and broad beans; salmon and fennel.

It’s mouthwatering fare, but it’s not the stuff of the average hastily assembled picnic of baguettes, cheese and porkpies; nor is it the spontaneous, seize the moment it’s stopped raining BBQ!

But most of our dealings with food and hospitality are not like the glossy magazines. We have family favourites: the meals of our childhood; the recipes we learnt in food-tech; the comfort food we can cook without thinking; the pasta and pesto standby. 

The food landscape we inhabit stretches from Deliveroo to food banks; from indulgence to basic need. The food we take outside with us, might be wrapped in plastic for convenience; consumed in a way which publicly reinforces the pace, isolation and inequality of our food culture.

There’s a line in today’s gospel which takes me straight back to school meals, Saturday tea and a variety of invitations given and received: eat what is set before you. 

What sort of economy of food is this? 

Jesus sends out 70 disciples: they’re officially commissioned or appointed to go ahead of him. They operate as a critical mass of witnesses; dispersed in pairs, walking the roads, covering the ground. 

Jesus describes this task as a harvest: there’s a sense of urgency and abundance. Time is short; the labourers are few.

There’s risk to this enterprise: they take no money and go with the clothes they stand up in. They won’t be taken for wealthy travellers or merchants; they will be vulnerable and defenceless. They walk the roads, cover the ground prepare the way; and they do so by finding a place to stay.

The place for greeting and witness, for safety and harvest is in the home. The place for encounter is around the table; it’s over food and drink provided for them.

Embedded in Luke’s narrative is a system of mutual relationship. 

Peace is given, received and shared.

This peace is something tangible; something we can experience.

It’s a gift of wholeness, of calm, of bringing together: to begin with such a greeting to offer a physical gift. A gift of being present, or words which create a feeling of belonging. 

Peace isn’t spoken of on the road - but in the home. In the place of birth and marriage, of parenting and intimacy, of family and household. As one biblical writer these ties are ‘disrupted and a new family connected through loyalty to Jesus and through hospitality, is created’.

This peace can rest on and bring rest to the household willing to receive it.

This peace can be rejected and return to the one who gave it; but it doesn’t evaporate or shrink or disappear.

Peace is given, received; shared, returned. 

This is an economy of gift within which we can live and relate and flourish.

Food is part of this peace-able social system: the disciples themselves aren’t to seek out a better offer - rejecting the eastern equivalent of the beans and baked potato in favour of the perfect spinach and ricotta cannelloni!

They are to eat what is provided for them: complaining or pushing food around the plate causes offence.

To eat what is provided to them is not only reward for labour but a seal of new relationship. 

Sharing food in peace is a sign of the nearness of God’s Kingdom. 

The small moments of acceptance, of breaking bread, of fellowship at the table, point towards something bigger.

There are moments of rejection in this story too: of bread not broken, of quieter tables which point us to the pain of separation and brokenness.

Not every place is receptive to a message of peace; not every seed will bear fruit. 

There are times when we have to let go and move on: shaking the dust off our feet. 

But when the disciples return, what is it that they rejoice in? It’s not proclaiming good news or seeing a change in ordinary homes; it’s not in proclaiming peace or seeing it accepted.

No, it’s the stuff that sounds more heroic: defeating powers of darkness, what we Paul sometimes calls principalities and powers. Jesus’ response reminds them that the struggles of this world are all too real.

Rather than boasting of their own power and taking pride in what they have done, Jesus reminds that God is the source of all insight and power. He reminds them that at the heart of the good news is the work of drawing others into relationship with God. 

By reaching out to the poor and despised; by restoring hope and bringing healing, victory over sin and death is embodied; and in bridging that separation, we are better equipped to overcome our separation with others. 

There is no place for lone-rangers or superheroes in this way of witness: there will always be vulnerability alongside this work of transformation. To sit and eat together, to eat was is provided for us, is one of the most intimate, generous and powerful things we can do. Here we become family.

It is across that table that we build networks of support and friendship, resistance and peace. Over broken bread, light breaks into our lives.

Jesus is invested in who we live in the world now; how we find peace in our own hearts and our own households; how we seek to follow the commandments of God. 

Paul describes this as sowing in the Spirit: not because we are reaping a harvest through our own efforts, but because we are taking our share in God’s harvest. This harvest signals the fulfilment of the Isaiah’s promise: there will be joy and gladness; that we will be nourished and comforted; that even grief and mortality will be transformed.

This is a harvest of the new creation. 

Through the triumph of the cross, this new realm is everything.

At the Eucharist is a place where we come together around one table and break one bread.

Each time we come to this place, we receive afresh a message of peace. 

We are invited to eat what is put in front of us; what is placed into our hands.

This meal nourishes us here and  now as we find new strength for the journey. We are fed by the life and love of God, given for us in Christ Jesus; we are given a foretaste of the eternal heavenly banquet. 

At the end of the mass, we walk away from this holy place, fed by this sacred food. And often the frustrations and separations of the world confront us more acutely. We get swept up in them. 

The challenge of living and working for the good of all raises challenging questions - what does peace feel like here, what action leads to justice there?  How does this meal change our own households? Whose burdens will we cary this week? Who will be the one to restore us in a spirit of gentleness?

May we who eat what is placed into our hands this day, dedicate our freedom to God’s service: may our households reflect the economy of life-giving love; may we speak and act for peace; for we are a new creation.

© Julie Gittoes 2019