Sunday, 17 December 2017

Comfort, O comfort ye!

This week I've been thinking about theological anthropology - and the way in which the Eucharist might shape our understanding of what it is to be human before God, and with one another. 

However, after last night's performance of Messiah at the Cathedral, I found that the opening recitative 'Comfort ye' was lodged in my mind.What light these two things mean in the context of the ministry of witness John the Baptist. 

Advent three: the light shining in the darkness

Last night, a story unfolded; of hope, struggle, joy and triumph.

The music captivated and inspired.

There were standing ovations.

It was an emotional journey.

But there were no jives, quick steps of show dances; no quest for a glitter ball.
For this wasn’t #StrictlyFinal

Last night, a story unfolded; of hope, struggle, joy and triumph.

The music captivated and inspired.

There were standing ovations.

It was an emotional journey.

This place resounded with orchestra and chorus:
For this was Messiah.

A tenor voice breaks in: disrupting the melancholic strings.

A word hanging in the air: Comfort.

Again: Comfort ye.

Words of God spoken to his people facing the distress and dislocation of exile.

Words of God which echo throughout the generations; which continue to resonate with us in the seasons of our lives. 

In the midst of political upheaval and personal anxiety; in the midst of the creativity and joy, untidiness and complexity of our lives;  in the midst of the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death: there’s a clarion call comfort ye my people.

To hear Messiah the midst of Advent, heightens our sense of waiting with expectation: for the light to break into darkness; for glory to be revealed; for healing, rejoicing and tidings of peace.

Handel’s musical mastery is in the space he gives for words of prophecy, hope, judgement and joy to unfold; and in doing so, those words enfold us.  

This meditation is an interplay of words and music which intensifies our experience of God’s ways and our human condition. This concentration of promise and fulfilment - moving us from creation to new creation - is generous and expansive. Allowing us to pray and ponder; being comforted and challenged. It becomes a dialogue as we are drawn into the story.

Comfort, O comfort ye, my people.

I wonder what might happen if we entered into our familiar pattern of worship in that same way - as a lyrical meditation on God’s story. An enacted story in which we play our part - listening, responding, receiving and being changed by what unfolds.

When he was congratulated on the effect the Messiah  had on an audience, Handel is reported to have said:

 ‘I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better.’ 

There is something profoundly sacramental about this: words of scripture are proclaimed with power. They are ‘voiced’: voiced with human breath and song. The gift of our creaturely embodiment becomes a means of grace, comfort and healing.

Comfort ye!

In this Eucharist, we are given a lens through which to see ourselves and our world: a lens which invites us to recognise God’s faithfulness and promise to us;  to encounter God with us in Jesus our Emmanuel; to be renewed as God’s people by the power of the Spirit. 

Here we are attentive to God’s commandments, faithfulness, forgiveness, love and blessing. Here we name  our desires, frustrations, imperfections, brokenness and joy; seeking forgiveness for all that separates us and giving thanks for signs of God’s gifts of kindness, hospitality and friendship. 

All this might be a response to that prophetic, lyrical plea: Comfort ye! 

The cry of the the tenor’s recitative is taken up in our lives, before God in our world.

Comfort is a recurrent theme in Isaiah: in the passage we hear today, he gives substance to that  refrain of ‘comfort ye’. The oppressed, broken-hearted, captive, and grief-stricken find good news, release, gladness and healing. 

This is the passage of scripture which Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth. He is the Messiah. The one who will both bind up our wounds and free us from all that binds us. 

Handel’s Messiah doesn’t focus on the things that Jesus did - the people he called by name, the parables he told, the meals he shared or the miracles he performed.  And yet, as in this Eucharist, we are given space to encounter Emmanuel - God with us. 

He is the light of the world; the lamb of God. The rejected one who bears our grief. The crucified one who brings judgement.   Judgement as the rebuke when we do not share God’s love of justice and mercy, pursuing instead our own selfish ways, diminishing others in the process. 

And still God says, Comfort ye! 

Comfort because God so loved the world, so loved us, that his Son bears that rebuke: the Hallelujah chorus greets not a birth alone, but a death which defeats death; a recompense that brings everlasting covenant and blessing. A judgement of forgiveness which brings forth tidings of peace.  

Comfort, O comfort ye!

John the Baptist isn’t named in Messiah - but we do hear the refrain found on his lips in today’s Gospel:  ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.

St John the Baptist: El Paso Museum of Art 
Jacopo del Casentino and assistant (c. 1330)

John isn’t someone we readily associate with comfort. Descriptions of him illustrate his abandonment of earthly comforts: living in the desert, wearing camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey.  He discomforted others - being willing to speak truthfully to Herod about his abuse of power. 

John’s Gospel most succinctly distils his vocation. He is the one who witnesses to the one who does bring comfort: he testifies to the light for the sake of others, that all might believe and find comfort.   

John is a humble witness.  His isolation draws people to him, seeking hope and comfort. In the wilderness they find a path of repentance, turning and retuning to God’s ways. 

When questioned, he replies three times confirming bluntly who he is not. 

When he does answer, it is to point to one who is coming. 

He is allows space: awakening new hope; fostering a sense of expectation. 

John’s humility points to the one who will come in the smallness of infancy; from the obscurity of a small town. The one who is greater than he is does not wield power and might. 

Our Messiah will come and stand on muddy river banks - sharing our humanity and restoring our dignity.  He will walk the land bringing love to those on the margins and shining light into the dark places of our hearts. 

Comfort ye!

Jean Vanier in his commentary on John, invites us to lead people to this Jesus, following the example of John. Like him we are not seek followers for ourselves or our own glory; they speak truthfully and with courage. He writes: 
They tell their story.
They tell how Jesus is healing their hearts of stone, 
leading them into the world of universal love and compassion
and breaking down barriers of culture, fear and sin
that close them up in themselves.
Witnesses tell how Jesus is transforming their lives
and bring them a new inner freedom, peace and joy.

We too are to be credible witnesses of this hope: as Paul reminds us, we do this by being rooted in prayer and listening to the prophets; being alert to the work of the Spirit; learning to live joyfully in the present. 

The one who calls us if faithful: in bread and wine, body and blood, Christ extends the horizons of our imaginations with a vision of flourishing, justice and peace.  Here we are formed as whole persons - within the body of Christ - receiving healing and nourishment in order that we might be with others, breath by breath. 

Comfort ye, o comfort ye, my people.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Monday, 27 November 2017

Sheep and goats

Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. As I was preparing to preach - including reading a Saturday paper - I was struck by the ways in which political cartoons seek to provoke and persuade in a world of turmoil.  I wondered if parables served a similar purpose - engaging our imaginations to challenge our attitudes or behaviours.  

In his commentary on Matthew, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas points out that there are those who ‘claim to need power to do good but in fact just need power’. Our shepherd-king reveals the fallacy of that; and uses the parable of sheep and goats to enable us to reflect on our place in God's Kingdom.  The texts were:  Ezekiel 34:11-6, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-end; Matthew 25: 31-end

Political cartoonists have an uncanny knack of distilling complex news stories and political agendas into a single image. 

In The Telegraph, “Nature Notes” combined Brexit negotiations and animal sentience with caricatures of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as ‘infant puppies’ which ‘whilst exuding great charm, are just agony’.

Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Martin Rowson depicts those same politicians in the Workhouse  of ‘Sovereign Penury” alongside Theresa May in leopardskin kitten-heels: the graffiti on the walls reads ‘Give up all hope’, ‘The wages of sin is stagnant’ and ‘Eternal Austerity’.

Cartoons provoke and persuade. To understand them, we need to interpret the exaggerated symbolism, alongside the captions and characters; we pay attention to the details, allusions and the use of irony. They make sense within the context of a wider narrative or set of situations. The same is true of parables - Jesus uses images and allusions to prompt us to think and act as God’s people.

What might your favourite cartoonist make of today’s parable: nations under judgement, acts of mercy and the division of the blessed and accursed. Who would “Nature Notes” depict as sheep and goats? How would Rowson express eternal life and eternal punishment alongside eternal austerity?

Such musing aren’t out of place. For we, like the disciples, live within the same matrix of earthly loyalties, international upheavals and domestic uncertainties. Like them, we need to learn how to live well in the face of change and adversity, by placing our trust in God’s faithfulness.

The story of the sheep and goats is the last in a series of parables which Jesus deployed in response to the disciples’ admiration of the grandeur of the Temple.  As Canon Paul reminded us, Jesus named the transience of worldly powers and impressive buildings; emboldening them - and us - to seek God’s kingdom.  

Parables - like cartoons - shed light on our motives, desires and the consequences of our action or inaction. They provoke and persuade us by engaging our imagination - to live without fear, bringing hope to others and acting with mercy.  To speak of sheep and goats reveals the impulses of our hearts, our priorities and divisions. 

To speak of sheep would evoke passages like those from the prophet Ezekiel: passages which depict God as the chief shepherd of the people: searching and seeking; rescuing and gathering; feeding and binding up; strengthening and judging. 

Ezekiel’s words resonate with the human condition. We live in a world where peoples are scattered; where greed, ambition and self-service distorts the responsibility of leadership. His words names our hopes - for a place of rest and safety in our life together. He also names the ways in which we can become divided amongst ourselves - the weak are bullied, the strong exploit their position. 

This is the backdrop to Jesus’ parable: a narrative of God’s faithfulness - of a love reaching out towards us, bringing us home. And that love isn’t abstract. Nor is it the cry of ancient prophets alone. This love is revealed in one who is heir of David; the shoot from the stock of Jesse; the one on whom the Spirt of the Lord shall rest. He is Emmanuel.

He taught the crowds on the mountainside and brought healing to those in sickness or distress.  Children have been blessed and the rich invited to store up heavenly treasure;  matters of divorce, taxation, hospitality and forgiveness have been debated.  

Now as we hear the parable of sheep and goats, our generation stands among the nations.  We face righteous judgement - standing before the loving gaze of one who is both shepherd and sheep; the king and the one in need.

This parable also sets before us a vision of God’s Kingdom which is marked by showing mercy, loving justice and walking with humility.  Jesus words hold leaders to account, but he also calls our attention to ordinary acts of feeding, clothing, welcoming, visiting and caring for others. 

Curiously, neither the sheep nor the goats know that in ministering - or failing to do so - that it was Jesus before their eyes. Perhaps our cartoonist would have given them expressions of surprise, shock, joy or embarrassment. Perhaps they too would have added the drama of hell fire versus heavenly bliss to spell out the seriousness of the situation. 

The consequences of our action or inaction having enduring impact - on ourselves and others; we can strengthen or scatter, bind up or wound. In this parable, the eyes of our hearts are enlightened. We know the hope to which we are called; the inheritance of faith and love we are to share. 

That’s because in these moments, we see and are seen at a level of authentic human engagement; it’s compassion which frees the host and the guest. In going beyond the realm of duty, we see God. In the least of these, we see the Imago Dei, the image of God. 

That likeness is embodied and enacted - in face to face intimacy as we counsel the distressed, comfort the anxious and sit with the broken hearted. 

This likeness is performed in participation with others in networks which feed, cloth and visit; using gifts to support economic transformation, sustainability and fair trade; in supporting and praying for those who work in immigration centres, prisons and shelters for the homeless or victims of domestic abuse. 

The dignity of the Imago Dei is restored as lives and systems are transformed.

Learning to live like this when the future is uncertain is to endure upheaval with our hearts fixed on the victory of the shepherd-king, Emmanuel.  

The disciples learn a tough lesson. And so do we. For the one who is God with us, is the least of these. He is stripped of clothing and agency; dignity is crushed, his face smeared with blood and spittle. Hail, king of the Jews!  

This king embraced the pain and suffering of humanity in his broken body; his outstretched arms reconciled us to God and each other. In him God’s power is at work - healing, forgiving, challenging, inspiring. As we hear in Ephesians, God’s power raised him from the dead. burst from the tomb, in the silence of the night, to renew our hope that life and death leads to risen life. 

Now the one who reigns above all rulers, authority and power,  pours out his Spirit on us that we might be united in a bond of peace. 

And the most remarkable thing is this: we are members of his body. 

We are ‘the fullness of him who fills all in all’. Our agency, our bodies, our breath, our wealth: all this can express the fullness of God’s love in unremarkable yet significant moments. 

Here we are fed by that fullness. Here we are called.

Bread broken. Fragments shared. Hands outstretched. Fullness tasted.
A body given that we might be that body.

Then we depart in peace with assurance, hope and challenge of today's communion motet*:

Christ conquers,
Christ reigns,

Christ commands. Alleluia!

* A setting of Christus Vincit by James MacMillan

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Light in darkness: comedy, cognitive dissonance and the gospel

Following this morning's sermon, and a comment I made about the inappropriate Radio 4 'joke', I was drawn back to the way in which comedy (as a craft) shines light into the dark places of our minds. That's very different from off the cuff jokes by those in positions of power and influence. It also set me wondering why the crowd were enraged by Jesus' teaching in the synagogue.  A vision of God's Kingdom demands a practical outworking of a preference for the poor; but it also demands that we cannot silence voices naming the abuse of power. The readings were: Isaiah 55:1-11 and Luke 4:14-30

Christ Preaching in the Synagogue at Nazareth. 14th c. fresco 
Visoki Decani Monastery, Kosovo

Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee.

He was praised by everyone.

He said: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

They were filled with rage.

They drove him out of the town

Luke’s Gospel is crafted with an artistry which paints a vivid image of God’s Kingdom and reveals the depths of human hearts.  The combination disrupts the status quo and creates space for fruitful response. 

But dynamics of acceptance and offence in this evening’s passage are intriguing: what is it that makes Jesus’ hearers so enraged?

Perhaps - in a slightly risky move - the world of comedy can offer a way in. 

The late Bill Hicks, an observational comic and satirist once said: ‘the best kind of comedy to me is when you make people laugh at things they’ve never laughed at, and also take a light into the darkened corners of people’s minds, exposing them to the light’.

This is what the gospel does too. It exposes us to the light; revealing our inner most thoughts and assumptions.

It’s what Jesus does - not through comedy but through prophetic judgement.  The dynamics between the synagogue and a comedy gig might seem far stretched. However, in both cases people gather with some sense of shared expectation - to be inspired, comforted or entertained. Some might want their ‘world view’ to be reinforced; others might expect provocation and challenge.  

When Jesus went to his home town, he went to synagogue as we might expect.  He stood up to read. He began to teach; to speak of the fulfilment of scripture in and through him.

What had the gathered community expected? An endorsement of their way of life or their values; a shared interpretation of the law?  Might he have something to say about the threat posed by the occupying Roman forces? May be they wanted to bask in the fame of a local lad ‘made good’. When Scripture is read, do they - do we - expect a light to shine in the dark corners of our minds?

In a book entitled Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, the scholar Kenneth Bailey writes: ‘no attempt is made to shape his message along the lines of their agenda. In bold and uncompromising terms Jesus announces his ministry of proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion to be inaugurated by himself, as the anointed one of God’.  

There can be no doubt that Jesus is the Messiah: God in the midst of us declaring that this is the year of the Lord’s favour.  The good news of salvation comes into our midst - familiar words are heard afresh. 

It starts with good news for the poor. It radically de-centres our understanding of power by empowering voices from the edge. It entails the recovery of sight - seeing things how they really are. Dark corners are exposed to the light. 

A priest in Liverpool, Ryan Cook, expressed this in a Tweet: ‘The preferential option for the poor calls us to make decisions with a preference for how it affects the poor, positively or negatively’.

This turns the concept of “kingdom" into something we can live, express and quantify.  It’s a compelling vision for witness and the pursuit of justice flowing from divine compassion. It sets in train an approach to mission which relies on mutual dignity: the one who brings freedom to captives sends them sending forth to free the oppressed.

So why the angry response?

Because perhaps he does not soften the radical message for the home crowd. Justice and compassion means that we can’t cling to power and privilege; it demands authenticity and a vulnerability. This Kingdom flourishes by the grace of God, not human control, and has space for all who yearn to be fed. 

Jesus illustrates the universality of the good news he brings by setting before them the examples of a Syrian general and a widow from Sidon. Not only is Jesus expressing equality of men and women - something which echoes throughout Luke’s Gospel - but he’s also demonstrating that grace is available to all, Jew and Gentile. We, like them, are to trust and obey. 

Light has shone in the dark places of their minds and we are exposed to that same light. 

Will we seek to chase it away, rushing to a cliff edge of our own design or will we begin our own risky walk of trust and obedience for the sake of God’s Kingdom?

Here I want to return to comedy as a means of shining light into the dark places of our minds. It’s risky but necessary. In part because Today Programme ‘joke’ troubled me greatly; and we need to pay attention to the reactions it’s generated.  

There is undoubtedly a dark side to comedy - Jimmy Carr’s work, for example.  Alongside his wordplay and silly or even whimsical jokes, he's someone who tackles taboo subjects. He’s provoked no shortage of outrage.  But he says that he’s ‘obsessed by cognitive dissonance - the idea that you can make people laugh and be disappointed in themselves for laughing at the same time. Or be disgusted at the same time’.  

Does such ‘cognitive dissonance’ become a means of revealing the scandal of any abuse of power? Does it reveal how easily we can be complicit in words and actions which dehumanise others?

Is Carr’s goal to generate a laugh despite themselves? Interestingly, no, that’s not his motivation. Or is it that as a clown he is able to expose the dark places of our minds, forcing us face the truth; making us think and act differently - somehow taking it more, not less, seriously?

The now infamous ‘clumsy joke’ reveals that when it comes to power, those who have it are often unaware of how much power they wield; or the extent of cultural collusion in what they say; or the way it silences the voices of others. Their influence can be readily co-opted to dehumanise, rather than used to challenge and transform attitudes. 

When Jesus proclaims the nearness of God’s Kingdom, may be the rage is a fearful reaction to the cognitive dissonance of light shining in the dark. May be its a failure to realise that justice and compassion is not a zero sum game - to extend the reach of God’s love does not mean there’s less of it; but it does demand that we allow it to change the status quo.

If we take the time to ask what really matters or what we could change, we catch a glimpse of the vision spelt out in Isaiah, fulfilled in Jesus and at work in our world through the Spirit. The book 200 Women by Karen Scott, previewed in today’s Observer Magazine, does just that.

The words that appear are: justice; solidarity love; respect; action; ubuntu - the dignity of every person.

Those sounds like kingdom practices. Jesus’ teaching will continue to challenge us. Let us pray that more may hear and respond to that message of justice and compassion, of freedom and preference for the poor. Responding not with rage but with imagination and faith. For God says to all, listen, come, eat and live.

May light shine in the dark places of our minds: for my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

May we be exposed to the light of Christ: returning to the Lord who will have mercy and abundantly pardon. By the power of the Spirit, may God’s word bear fruit in and through us, for the sake of the Kingdom.

© Julie Gittoes