Sunday, 23 October 2016

A cinematic parable

A sermon preached at Mattins at Guildford Cathedral on 23 October, which marked the celebration of our Cathedral Singers' 30 anniversary.  Philip Moore composed a setting of Jubilate Deo for the occaision. The texts were Isaiah 59:9-20; Luke 14:1-14. Although this was a (rightly) joyous occaision, I couldn't overlook the parallels and challenges of Jesus' parables and Ken Loach's film I, Daniel Blake.

Today we gather in the house of the Lord with gladness: praising God, giving thanks for our Cathedral Singers, for the dedication and enthusiasm of successive generations of musicians; in their singing of the Te Deum, we hear praise the God of our redemption, and pray for grace and mercy; after this service we will celebrate with them in hospitality and fellowship. However, first we pay attention, together, to the parables of social life lived before God which Jesus sets before us.

Ken Loach has been described by the film critic Peter Bradshaw as 'the John Bunyan of cinema; a bringer of parables'.  In  I, Daniel Blake he returns to a narrative of 'social outrage'; a parable of power and kindness of bureaucracy and dignity. Daniel Blake is witty and wise; a respected tradesman, proud of his craft; he's honest and resilient, making no attempt to play the system.

A heart attack leaves Dan caught between following the advice of his consultant that he cannot return to work yet; and the judgements made by so-called 'medical practitioners' and the remote 'Decision Maker' which deem him fit for work. As walk with him, we too long for the justice and righteousness and truth which echoes throughout Isaiah's plea to God.

We watch Dan, who is 'pencil by default', navigate a world which is 'digital by default'.  Like Bunyan's pilgrim Christian, Dan faces his own 'Slough of Despond': doubts, fears, temptations and guilt and shame. He tries to maintain his dignity and honesty in the face of a system of punitive sanctions. When he's forced to sell furniture and carpets to pay a final electricity demand, he keeps his tools; he hopes he'll get back to his trade.

As with Pilgrim's Progress, Dan meets characters like Hopeful, Ignorance and Little Faith along the way: those who exploit and demean; those with entrepreneurial flare; those who reveal a depth of compassion in ordinary things: in libraries, supermarkets, job centres, food banks and building sites. We wonder if his appeal will be heard - a glimpse, perhaps, of the Celestial City on earth.

Loach paints dignity and shame and humanity in vivid colours: there's an uncompromising seriousness about what he wants to say.  Like the prophet, he rages against oppression and the uttering of falsehood: We roar all like bears, and mourn sore like doves. There are parallels with the way in which Luke recounts Jesus' parables. He tells us of crafty stewards, harsh masters, unjust judges and persistent widows; of proud religious leaders and humble tax collectors; of the rich man and Lazarus.

Today we are drawn into a set of socially subversive parables about community, conduct and generosity. Jesus is under scrutiny - those in positions of power are watching him. He goes to eat a meal - and in the face of the silence of his host and guests - he brings healing. He restores the marginalised to community. In that moment he reveals that we cannot add value to people; rather we are to treat them as being valuable. God made us with intrinsic worth.

God gives us value: yet worldly dynamics of power undercuts that with questions of who we count as the 'deserving' poor. Even within the realm of hospitality Jesus is aware of our human desire to 'get on' to be viewed in the 'right way'; of our pride and ambition; our concern for status and false humility.  Jesus' teaching recognises that our that fear of social embarrassment or disgrace can motivate us to do the right thing. If we raise ourselves up, we will be humbled; the humble will be honoured.

In these parables, he invites us to consider our conduct and to extend our vision of community.  Jesus breaks open the closed circles of reciprocal invitations which are as deeply engrained in our own social conventions as they were 2000 years ago. He shatters a pattern reliant on wealth, aspiration, obligations and the people we like.  If we affirm that relationships of mutual affection and friendship are part of our common life; here, Jesus is taking what we know, value and understand and inviting us to stretch our habits of hospitality.

At our public lecture on Thursday night, Dr Margaret Adam reminded us that food and meals can become the means of powerful ethical choices. It's precisely the ordinariness of eating that enables it to be a conduit of grace. Those moments exist when we invite those who cannot or would not offer us what the Authorised Version calls recompense, what we might call payment, by inviting us back.

Those moments exist, when we offer a sandwich to a person who is hungry; when our donation to a food bank enables others to be fed, or allows them the dignity of sanitary products; those moments exist when we sit with someone on the fringes, when we take risks in relationship: welcoming the one who is not yet a friend, but who is our kin, valued by God. That circle is kept open, deliberately, when children who've endured more than we can imagine arrive to take refuge.

I, Daniel Blake takes us to the heart of graced hospitality. When Dan meets Katie, he sees beyond his own circumstances to befriend her in vulnerability; to become to her children Daisy and Dylan reassuring quasi-grandfather. When she's sanctioned, he buys some food. He dignifies her by eating what she offers, knowing the cost of that to her.

He walks with her to the food bank; he comforts her and gives value when her desperation is humiliating. He cooks for the family knowing they can't afford to entertain him. There is no recompenses or repayment; but there is relationship and mutual love, value and dignity; in his isolation and illness, it's the ten year old Daisy who hammers at the door, who won't walk away; who brings him couscous she's made.

At the end of his review, Bradshaw quotes a line from Dickens' Bleak House: 'what the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God'.  If Loach's cinematic parable has expanded that knowledge, then our worship restores of vision of God's will for us and what is demanded of us.

Our longing for God's kingdom resounds through all that we say and sing and pray; we rejoice in God's forgiveness and loving-kindness; we come into the house of the Lord with gladness; we seek after peace and plenteousness. In the words of the Jubilate Deo, composed by Philip Moore for this occasion: 'the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth from generation to generation'. In that mercy, grace and truth  we are sent out in his Spirit, to witness to and embody God's love made manifest in Jesus Christ.

© Julie Gittoes 2016

Monday, 17 October 2016

Grant justice

A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on justice and prayer. The texts were 2 Tim 3:14-4:5 and Luke 18:1-8. Parables open up an imaginative space which can disrupt our assumptions and deepen our understanding about what it is to follow Christ. The parable that Jesus tells about an unjust judge and a persistent widow says something about prayer - but perhaps it also challenges us to think about how we enact the call to justice in our lives.

Grant me justice against my opponent.

The widow in the parable that Jesus tells, takes us to the heart of human longing for justice.

That desire was played out in The Archers: when after three years of increasing tension, Helen Tichener received the not guilty verdict we'd been waiting for.  Whether you're a fan or not, the nation was gripped by a story which highlighted the with chilling accuracy the impact of domestic abuse and coercive on control real life Helens.  

There was a feeling of sheer relief that the judge and jury recognised Helen as a survivor of serious and sustained abuse at the hands of a manipulative man who chipped away at her self-esteem, undermining her identity and free agency as a human being, subjecting her to physical harm.

Grant me justice, said the widow.

That desire was played out in a powerful speech by the First Lady of the United States. Michelle Obama is a skilled orator with a passion for justice. In a week where a powerful man defended his attitude towards women as banter, she recounted the experience of girls facing obstacles to attend school; knowing some had jeopardized their personal safety and freedom, that others faced rejection by families and communities, she wanted to tell them that they were valuable and precious.

Her words went viral. She said: 'I wanted them to understand that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls. And I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them, and that they should make their voices heard in the world'.
Grant me justice, said the widow; grant justice for the weakest and the most vulnerable; grant justice to those who aren't accorded human dignity because of their age, gender, health, capacity, sexuality, ethnicity or socio-economic status.

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?

Justice is at the heart of this quirky parable framed on by our need to persevere in prayer; and on the other, by a challenging question about finding faith on earth.

It might seem that it is simply a call to a sort of spiritual 'pester power' in relation to God.

We're told that the judge has no respect for people; that he has no fear or love of God either. He has no sense of responsibility to those on the biblical 'at risk' register if you like: the widows, orphans and others who have a special claim to justice and protection because of they are without security or patronage in society.

We aren't told the nature of the widow's case: her relentless perseverance and determination perhaps belying a desperate need for a wrong to be put right; for justice to transform her material situation and place in society.

If a terrible judge can do what is right to rid himself of person he sees as a nuisance and irritant a waste of his time, how much more will God hear the pleas of those who cry out. So is this parable in part an encouragement to persevere in prayer - for ourselves, for others, for our world - to be relentless is our pursuit of justice? Is it a call to prayer that is urgent, passionate and focused on those who are marginalized?
And yet, there's a niggle which might make this parable even more challenging to us as disciples. 

In our gathering for lectio divina this morning, something of the fresh insight broke in:  finding assurance in offering the cries of our heart to God, however inarticulate or hesitant;  waiting on God and discerning his will for us.  What is Jesus saying to us today? What is he revealing of his love and justice?

Perhaps we can go beyond seeing God as a bigger, better more just judge. For surprisingly,  Jesus puts the word of justice on the lips of a widow. She isn't naming a specific cause - for an inheritance to be restored to her; for a family dispute to be resolved; for a fraud to be put right.

Her claim is to justice; she expresses something intrinsic to God's very nature. She seeks and names the ways of God - and she speaks out for it constantly and consistently.

The widow addresses the judge in a prophetic way: in doing so, she also challenges us.  Is she speaking a word of God in the face of our human tendency to be slow to act when things don't directly effect us? Are we the ones being challenged in this parable - that we might make decisions out of a sense of God's love and mercy; that we might respond to others out of generosity not expediency?

The paradox of our human condition is that we are created in love and for love; created in goodness, freedom and beauty; and yet we are also flawed. We get drawn away from the light of God by the glittering prizes of this world. We can be easily dazzled by power and status; by what we can possess and control. We can be impatient to fulfill our desires; we sometimes fail to act as an advocate for others when they are vulnerable.

But that is not the end of the story, for in all this,  God doesn't stop loving us. He never forgets us; and knows our innermost longings. God doesn't stop calling us back to justice and compassion.  God doesn't simply call us; he comes to be with us. In Jesus, God reveals his way, his truth and his life.  In him we see justice not as abstract principle; rather it's embodied in human flesh. In our human weakness, God's love is made manifest. In all that Jesus did and said, in his death and resurrection, we see the fullness of healing and reconciling love.

And by the power of God's Spirit, God's cries for justice become ours; our cries are his. Prayer is the most risky, dangerous, transformative thing that we can do.  In the words of John Donne, it's in prayer that God approaches us relentlessly. He wrote:
Batter my heart, three person'd God;
for you as yet but knock, breathe, shein and seeke to mend;
that I may rise, and stand, o'erthorow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

In prayer, God works away at us - with a patient, persistent love. God acts on us, in us and through us with the careful force of a chisel on stone; a waterfall carving our rock.  Our heats melt; we are shaped and made new. Last week, some of us heard Archbishop Justin talking about prayer - praying not only thy kingdom come but also thy will be done. He quoted something Pope Frances had said to him: that 'when we pray we make room in our hearts for mercy and grace'.

In prayer, the Spirit breaths new life into us: our cries are God's cries; our lives become channels of grace and mercy. Breath by breath, and moment by moment.  Often that will entail wrestling with the responsibilities that we face.  In our homes and in our work places, where are the cries for justice, for encouragement? In what we do, can we build others up with dignity, in a world so quick to demean based on superficial judgements.

May our hearts be set on fire with love for Jesus. He is God with us - answering our fears, uncertainties, hopes and desires.  Like Timothy, we are urged to proclaim the message of God's just and peaceable Kingdom: encouraging others in prayer; convincing them of the transformative power of God's love. Today we eat the bread and drink the wine of God's Kingdom - as people of faith on earth, in the power of the Spirit, cry out for, pray for and embody God's loving justice, which restores all things.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

It's a long road....

It wa a tremendous priviledge to preach at the Eucharist at the start of the Affirming Catholicism (Ireland) theology seminar. I was apt to gather as we commemorated St Teresa of Avila - and to consider our friendship with God in discipleship, worship and mission. 

It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way. If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday.

Words not from Teresa of Avila - though perhaps they do echo something of her longing for God; the intimacy and intensity of sustained awareness of abiding in the movement of God's love towards us in Jesus.  

No they are lyrics from Bob Dylan's 2012 album Tempest.

I came late to Dylan. A friend's obsession sparked my curiosity; if Bob was the soundtrack to his life, it was a gapping hole in my musical repertoire. 

Listening was a revelation. It familiar: known by me; making me known to myself. The melodies and chord structures; the images, characters and turns of phrase, sung in that recognisable husky drawl. Like Shakespeare or the authorised version of the bible, his language has shaped our imaginations; his songs responding to cultural shifts and personal upheavals; a universal biographer, describing what we think or feel or fear. He's more than a commentator on loves, betrayals and breakups; for he's been a sharp tongued critic of power, alienation and our desire to consume. The marks of a Nobel Laureate indeed!
It's a long road...

Dylan himself was shaped by the Judaeo-Christian tradition: it's truths reinterpreted it through his own lens; its ways refracted in the prism of our works; the questions rubbing up against the experiences of his own life. In Desolation Row he journeys with an eclectic band: Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, Ophelia, Einstein and a jealous monk.

 Einstein and the Jealous Monk - Chris Gollon 2004

A long and narrow way: with a deep longing at its heart. Recognising the frailty of our human nature; our struggles within and without. If we can't work up to God, God will  surely have to work down to  us. Someday.  Is Dylan reframing our deep desire for God; naming the necessity of incarnation? Is he challenging us to make known that in Christ, God is with us? Is he provoking us to witness not to a past event, but an enduring reality? 

Wherever we place Dylan on that trajectory of desiring and naming God; his words reveal some of what Teresa was seeking to express. In her as a theologian and sister in Christ, we see a model of life as friendship with God; a God who comes down to us without status or dignity; save the status and dignity of our creatureliness, in order that we might be redeemed. 

It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way. 

This journey into the heart of God's love is the very essence of discipleship. Church of England papers describe discipleship as being rooted in prayer; sustained by worship and community life;  coming to maturity in faith; knowing the love of God in Jesus and, in the power of the Spirit, witnessing to that love in the world.

The language is of following, learning, obeying and growing; the dynamics are upward, inward and outward; paying deep attention to God, to our human nature and to the world.  Teresa's vivid language is a gift to us; revealing something of way, truth and life of God.  Today we pray that her teaching might awaken in us a longing for holiness.   What is kindled in us is not only a desire for God, but a process of being caught up into the crucible of refining love. 

As we learn from her, we are challenged that to love God is to love the world ever more deeply; to long for holiness is to desire the well being for the other. This way, this truth, this life in Christ is not an escape; it's not philosophical abstraction; its profoundly practical. As Teresa herself said: 'accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul’.

Teresa's pattern of following Christ is particular to her: her social context, nationality ancestry, gifts. Her discipleship was shaped by her experience of illness, the wisdom of others and the reality of a troubled Europe. In that, we have much in common with her. What unites us is that, in baptism, we are drawn into a sustained awareness of living in the movement of God's love; a movement which pours out into creation; is made manifest in Jesus's life, death and resurrection; and which wells up within us as the first fruits of the Spirit.

Like us, Teresa knew physical frailty, sickness and convalescence. Like us, she went through periods when her pray life felt arid or lax. Like us, she was frustrated by some of the attitudes within the church's institutional life. Amidst all of this, she showed discipline in habits of devotion and had an awareness of the presence of God which was so intense she underwent a profound spiritual awakening. 

That might feel quite unlike our discipleship: and yet, why are we not alienated by her? Perhaps it's because she does more than chronicle her visions or heightened states of consciousness. Rather than stand apart from us, her experience of God's holiness is directed towards drawing others into an understanding of Christian life as friendship with God.

Yes, she was a challenging and not always popular reformer and founder of religious houses. Yes, she was a unique spiritual writer, influencing Spanish literature as well as theological writing. It's an impressive legacy. But it pales into insignificance alongside the deep desire to know Jesus and her commitment to point others to the God who is with us. The one who, to return to Dylan, came down to us. She draws us back to the compelling fire of love divine.

In his book on Teresa, Rowan Williams says: 'what is perhaps most striking about her is her ability to preserve intact a simple and coherent sense of the requirements of the Christian gospel through all the complexities of her life in the Church, through all the wearing negotiation with secular and ecclesiastical authorities that occupied her almost to her last breath.'

Her writing in Life, expresses struggle and conflict. Victory is brought about by God's grace in disciplines of prayer; the shaping of Christian lives in friendship, sacraments and conversation in a culture concerned with status. She established her spiritual authority; she begins to describe the experience of union with God in relation to human growth. In The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle she continues to develop how the incarnate Christ is to be communicated to the world in our human lives; she explores how we keep God at the centre - witnessing to the joy of that sense of belonging. 

It's a long road... but God's come down to us.

Way. Truth. Life. All found in Jesus, the incarnate Word, drawing us into the Father's love; bringing reconciliation to troubled world by his cross. 

Way. Truth. Life. All flowing from the Spirit as we wait for redemption; as we pray in our weakness; breathing through us in hope. 

Jean Vanier wrote of Jesus: 'his body is the body of God and gives meaning to the body of each person'. In this Eucharist we encounter Christ - his broken body touching our weakness; enabling us to be his body bringing joy, dignity, forgiveness and hope to others.

For Teresa awareness of this movement of God's love is dependent on what she called the 'living book' of lives lived in prayer and compassion. In the power of the Spirit may we who eat the bread and drink the wine of the kingdom be such a living book; reflecting God's love breath by breath. 

©  Julie Gittoes 2016