June 29 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Jeremiah 28:5-9; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
Theme: Nothing strikes me as obvious this week. However, as we are now in the second half of our liturgical year when the emphasis is on discipleship, perhaps something like "The Proof of the Pudding" might be a good way to start. More hazardous, but just as catchy, would be "Doing Is Believing", but on the feast day of St Peter and St Paul that might be going too far. (Perhaps file it away for the feast day of St James, whenever that is.) What we need to highlight is that, Christ having done all that is necessary for our salvation, it is time for us to show the fruits of his work in our lives.
Introduction. In the brief but rather subversive little passage from St Matthew this week Jesus assures those who welcome a prophet will receive a prophet's reward. Just in case that sounds warm and encouraging, our first lesson is from the Book of Jeremiah. Are you with me? The reward for welcoming a Jeremiah into your home is to receive what Jeremiah received? And it doesn't get any better if we run from Jeremiah to St Paul. He demands of us a righteous life, which again sounds okay until we go back to the gospel. The reward for welcoming a righteous person is to receive the reward of the righteous. Well, Peter and Paul were righteous, and today we remember them as martyrs. Do you see how modern the idea of providing the right incentives really is! In short, once again we are offered an opportunity to reflect on the difference between worldly and spiritual values.
Background. Over the last two or three weeks I have been reading a remarkable book with a remarkable title by a man with a remarkable name: The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Telden Lane. It was recommended to me several years ago by my then spiritual director, but at that time it was only available in hardback at a remarkable price. Now, Kindle has come to my rescue. I was about to note that I'm not making much progress in reading the book, before it suddenly dawned on me that such a comment would perfectly illustrate the theme I am trying to work with this week. What I had in mind, of course, was that, after two or three weeks, I am still well short of half-way through. It has been slow going. That is not because of any defect in the writing: the author writes very well. It is because the book has so many profound insights into subjects such as suffering and loss, silence and withdrawal, and the presence and absence of God, that I am constantly stopped in my tracks by a need to pause, ponder and reflect.
And that means that in the truly important sense I am making progress. I am learning things about my faith, my understanding, and above all about my own lack of deep seeing that I have not managed to learn on the journey so far. For instance, I am a coastal person. I was born and bred on the wild northern coast of Cornwall, and I do not thrive if I do not have ready access to a beach. Particularly, I need to walk on the beach when things have gone wrong: it's not simply that physical exercise helps me to unwind – a walk anywhere else does not have the same effect. It has to be the beach, but why? What is it about a beach that I find so healing?
Thanks to this book I am beginning to discover the answer to that question. The author refers to a short quote that he picked up from someone else (whose name I have forgotten): We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us. For some reason that simple little phrase has become one of my most important eureka moments. When we go out into the desert, or up in a mountain range, or in my case, down on the beach, we are in the presence of indifference on a huge scale. The desert neither welcomes us nor objects to our intrusion: it simply doesn't notice us. The mountains have been there for eons before our unheralded arrival and will be there for aeons after our departure. The sea's tides will continue their ebb and flow, with no sign that our presence on the beach has the slightest effect on their coming and going. We simply don't matter a jot.
And that is the beginning of the healing process. Gradually we realise that our focus has been far too much on ourselves and our petty problems. We have been living in a world of our own creation. Because we are troubled we believe that the world is a hostile one, hostile, that is, to us. And when we stand up and recite the creed on a Sunday morning, talking about a God who created all things, and about his Son through whom all things were created, those words crash upon the rocks of our real belief that this world is one of hostility and grief. Why, then, should we praise the God who created it?
The first stage of the healing is to rid ourselves of the belief that "all the world's agin us" by recognising that it is no such thing. All the world is indifferent to us. We are just not that important. And curiously, once we have gone through that deflationary process, it frees us to focus on God the Creator: it frees us to marvel at the creation, and to recognise that to be alive in such a wonderful world is an enormous privilege, a gift beyond price. And it does something more: it gives us a desire to know this God, this Creator, who is the source of all there is, seen and unseen. It allows us to read the wonderful closing chapters of the Book of Job and understand them; and to grasp at new depth what the author of Psalm 8 was saying, particularly in verses 3 and 4.
It gives new meaning to the theme of dying to self, and to the related one of humbling ourselves and being exalted. If "repentance" really is about a change of mindset, then it is no wonder that it was from a desert that John the Baptist emerged with his call. "Fierce landscapes" strip away all falsity, and confront us with searing truth – about ourselves and about God. Jeremiah was in constant battle against false prophets, prophets who told the people (and their leaders) what they wanted to hear. False prophets were always politically correct. Jeremiah told them God's truth. He received, no doubt, a prophet's reward – eventually. In such landscapes we learn what it truly means to be a creature, wholly dependent on the Creator of all. St Paul writes this week about slavery: we recall that it was in fierce landscapes of wilderness and mountains that God's people learned what it meant to be truly free.
Jeremiah. Give yourself a treat – start reading at verse 1. Suddenly we have before us a sort of Oxford Union debate – we can almost see the participants wearing dinner suits and black bow-ties.. Hananiah speaks first. Wrapped up in prophetic language he predicts the come-uppance of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, with the consequential release of all the exiles and the return of the treasures looted from the Temple. Cries of "hear, hear" (rather than Alleluia or Amen) ring out from the appreciative audience, and then all eyes turn to Jeremiah, eager to see how he will go against such a wonderful debater. Jeremiah shows his mastery of such debate. Tempted though he must have been to lean toward Hananiah and exclaim, "I can smell falsity on your breath", he restrained himself. How wonderful it would be, he proclaimed if Hananiah's prediction should come to pass, but history cautions us not to bet the camels on it. In the past, most prophets have forecast war, famine and pestilence rather than peace. That doesn't mean only such prophecies can be genuine – but the odds are against it. Let's wait and see: only if peace breaks out as predicted will we know that God has truly sent the prophet who predicted it.
Taking It Personally.
- Put yourself in the audience. Who would you have voted for? Are you more inclined to listen to people who tell you what you want to hear and believe?
- Ask yourself that question in the context of issues facing New Zealand and the world today. How do you react to forecasts about climate change, the creation of an underclass, or an obesity epidemic? Are those sounding warnings speaking the truth to us, or are they prophets of doom seeking a headline?
- Do you form your own view on such issues, or do you seek guidance from the Holy Spirit? What role is there (if any) for spiritual discernment in deciding how you will vote in this year's general election?
- Does the Church have a prophetic call? Is there any evidence that it is exercising that call? Who should speak for the Church on such issues of the day? Should we rely on motions from Synod, or should we seek those with a prophetic gift?
- In ordinary social situations do you attempt to contribute to discussions from a faith-perspective, or are you inclined to bite your tongue? If someone says something that is unfair, or disparaging, or otherwise ungodly, how do you react?
Romans. Again, it would be helpful to start reading at the beginning of chapter 6, although verse 15 captures much the same point as verse 1; and both show human nature as it really is! Can't you just hear someone saying, ah, well, if God loves us anyway, and if Christ died for me while I was yet a sinner, I can do whatever I like and I still get the same deal, regardless! That's really the problem with what I tend to think of as forensic Christianity. A sin has been committed, the culprit must be identified and held to account, and the punishment will be applied unless the culprit pleads "no contest" and plays the "get-out-of-hell-free" card which comes with membership of the Church. That approach fails to recognise that we are called to follow the way of spiritual growth, pioneered and made possible for us by Christ. Sin is not so much a particular act or omission that offends God, but a step backwards that slows or even reverses our spiritual progress, or perhaps a symptom of such spiritual regression. For St Paul, the essence of Christ's work is that he has set us free from the compulsion of sin: how we use that freedom – to progress or regress – is now our choice to make.
Taking It Personally.
- Start by reading the passage through slowly. How do you feel about it? How do you feel about Paul? Be honest with yourself. Do you find yourself switching off, or challenged, or something else?
- Focus on verse 17. To what extent have you "become obedient from the heart" to Christ's teaching?
- How do you feel about verse 19a? Does it strike you as understanding or condescending?
- Are you seeking ever greater "sanctification"? What does that mean for you?
- Paul writes often about "righteousness". How do you feel about that term? Is there a better way of putting it without using that word?
Matthew. This is getting monotonous, but you really do need to go back to verse 1, even if you can't bring yourself to read the whole chapter. This teaching is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple in the real world. Jesus wants his disciples to be under no illusion: it has echoes of the great debate in our first lesson. (It also reminds me of the nonsense the US authorities told their troops as they prepared to invade Iraq: "you will be greeted as liberators!") In this short passage Jesus prepares them for a variety of "welcomes". In effect he is saying, give your time and attention to those who welcome you, who recognise that you come bearing the word of God, and who offer you hospitality, not out of general cultural practice, but precisely because you are my disciple. Those are the ones who are on the way, and will receive their (spiritual) rewards. But what about the others? He does not tell us what to do about the mockers, the violent, or even the plain apathetic. We are to look for those who are receptive to the gospel.
Taking It Personally.
- What lessons might there be here for the outreach of your local faith community?
- Is there a distinction between social work, and Christian social outreach? When you offer help to another, do you do it "as a disciple"? What does that mean for you?