July 13 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 55:10-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Theme: Another hard week! For some reason I keep coming up with phrases that look more like a clue for a cryptic crossword than a theme for a service! But something around sowing (or being sown?), receiving, growing, or harvesting, perhaps. As usual, it's a bit of a stretch to find something that would bring in the second lesson, but perhaps "Sown with the Spirit of God" might do it.
Introduction. We start with Isaiah at his musical best – it is almost impossible to read chapter 55 without bursting into song. [The NRSV edition I am using has a heading for this chapter reading "An Invitation to Abundant Life". Amen to that! I wondered whether to suggest that as this week's theme, but then a thought struck me: isn't that the theme of the whole Bible?] Today's verses may not have quite the same effect on us in mid-winter as they would have had to desert-dwellers of Isaiah's time, but they still must rank among the most uplifting and inspiring in our Scriptures. St Paul, too, has switched into a more positive mood this week as he continues to build up his argument that we have been rescued from our powerlessness (we might even say, rescued from ourselves) and are now free to live the life intended for us by our Creator, guided by the Spirit rather than by our natural appetites and instincts. And we close this week with one of Jesus' most important parables as we continue to reflect on what it means to follow Christ, to be a disciple, or, more simply, to be a Christian.
Background. Three things are buzzing around in my head as I come to my encounter with this week's readings. First, an image from Brazil, but not from the field of play. The day before their semi-final there was a brief news item about how the whole country was going mad over football and, of course, over their national team; and one example of this was a local priest or shaman, or whatever he was, offering supplications to the gods, spirits or whatever it is in his belief system that can be relied upon to influence the outcome of football matches. He had a little altar on which were some effigies, some wearing Brazilian colours, and some wearing German colours. Of course, he prayed different prayers over those effigies. The tone of the news reporter was that of a curious and rather superior tourist inviting us viewers to laugh with him at this poor deluded primitive man. Instead, I found myself wondering about the content and purpose of my own prayers sometimes. And about what would happen if a local commentator drew attention to the number of times we see rugby players, football players, and even tennis players praying, pointing to heaven or signing themselves with the cross before or during a match.
More importantly, I'm thinking about David Cunliffe's so-called "apology for being a man", and the reaction to it. Personally, I think it might have been better phrased: I take it that what Mr Cunliffe meant to say, in the context of domestic violence, was that sometimes he felt ashamed to be a man. Whatever his political opponents might make of that (and early responses have been all too predictable) St Paul would be leading the cheering. For whether Mr Cunliffe realised it or not (and as the son of a Presbyterian minister it is just possible that he did) his remark is classic Pauline theology. It illustrates the idea of solidarity: all men do not commit sexual assault but all men are capable of doing anything that any man does. And, of course, we can (and must) extend that to all human beings. To hold otherwise would be to assert that only some men (or some human beings) needed to be set free by Christ; the rest of them are inherently good and can and do always make the right choice in all circumstances.
Incidentally, one of the reasons why I have been enjoying the drama series Boadchurch on T.V. One over recent weeks is that it showed that many of the people in the little town were guilty of all sorts of things, quite unrelated to the murder that was at the heart of the serial; but that, of course, did not stop them turning on someone they suspected of paedophilia and driving him to suicide. Who in that little town did not need Christ's liberating grace?
Which gets me to the third thing that is buzzing around in my head this week. Recently I found a reference to a novel by John Updike called A Month of Sundays, and the reference said enough to motivate me to go to the local library to track it down. (It was published in 1975, and so had been consigned to the dreaded "Stack Room"; but three days later it was in my hands.) It is told in the first person, that person being an Episcopalian priest who has been given a choice by his bishop: he can either go to a place for erring priests and get sorted out or he can be unfrocked and dismissed from the ministry. So he is at this strange "rehabilitation centre" for fallen priests, where all talk of God is banned, no Bibles are allowed on the premises, and the "guests" (he prefers the term "inmates") are not even supposed to know what day of the week it is (in particular, when it is Sunday.)
The idea seems to be that the erring priest is to confront his own failings, and not hide from himself in theology, Scripture, or any other religious safe haven. (Think about that for a moment.) I am only half way through the book, but it has certainly shaken me up! As the hero begins to tell his story it becomes clear that he has committed adultery with the organist, and may be other women, too. So far, so trite and obvious. But Updike is far too good a writer to deal with this theme superficially – Peyton Place this ain't (though it is much more explicit than I was expecting)! And one of the gifts of this book is how theologically educated Updike obviously was. He uses his learning to show how easily the hero can live in his head one minute and his flesh (back to St Paul) the next. And when the hero works out that Sunday has dawned, he preaches to himself two of the most brilliant, enthralling sermons I have ever heard or read, and certainly more compelling than any I have ever preached. Suffice it to say, on the first such occasion he takes as his text "Neither do I condemn thee", spoken by Jesus to the woman caught in adultery.
But here's the thing. Despite his rhetorical brilliance, and his insight into the (male) human condition, the sermon has one major flaw. It is completely contrary to the teaching of Christ. It is self-justifying heresy – wonderfully funny in places, but outrageously untrue. And why I think it matters is precisely here: I am tired of hearing people knocking the idea of "orthodox belief", whether in the form of the historic creeds, the Scriptures, or our prayer books. Yes, we can go too far in turning Christianity into a set of abstract beliefs or propositions to be memorised and trotted out when occasion demands. And yes, we should always recall St James satirical attack on those who talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. But walking the talk without knowing the way (and the truth and the life) is not discipleship or Christianity either, however many good deeds we might do.
I've gone on too long, I know, but what I'm trying to say this week is this. Discipleship for me has three strands. First, it involves learning what Christ has taught and is today (through the Spirit) still teaching. Secondly, it involves putting the teaching into practice. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly of all, it involves accepting that none of that can happen without opening ourselves up to the transforming power of God so that we become disciples in ourselves, capable of learning and doing just what that means in our lives.
Isaiah. And here is our first reminder that it all begins with God. Any other approach is simply a self-improvement programme devised by humans for humans, and doomed to ultimate failure. This lesson is an apt choice to accompany the Parable of the Sower, of course, but equally it could go with John's account of the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus: John 3:3, and so on. As mentioned already, this is not the best time of the year for us to get the full impact of these verses, but we can imagine a time of drought, or a time spent in desert country – a time of frustration for a farmer or gardener desperately waiting for rain to save her crops and help them grow. And the great relief, the great joy, when the rain finally starts to fall. Translate that into your prayer life and what doyou get? Those arid times, those times when God seems to have gone into hiding, when your prayers seem as fruitless as the Brazilian gentleman's proved to be; pray for the rain of grace to start falling and know the joy when it finally does.
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on the Brazilian man offering his prayers. What do you think about that? What does it tell you about your own prayers? Have you ever prayed for a successful outcome to a competition, for the All Blacks, perhaps, or Team New Zealand? What about the outcome of a General Election?
· Is there a difference between those sorts of prayers and praying for the successful outcome of an operation? What is the difference?
· What about praying for rain? Or for a fine day?
· Do you agree or disagree that knowing what we believe as Christians is important?
· Do you agree or disagree with the concept of solidarity as outlined above? Are you sometimes ashamed of being a human being, or a man or a woman?
· Reflect on this passage from Isaiah. Imagine a day of steady gentle rain. Is that a helpful image of God's grace watering your life?
Romans. St Paul has reached a turning-point in his long argument. Having wrestled with the paradox of being unable to do our own will, and stating emphatically his belief that Christ has broken the power of sin over us, he now turns to the question of how we might live out our new-found (or new-given) freedom in accordance with God's will. It is not by using our freedom to comply with the specific provisions of the Law (the Maker's Handbook form of Christianity) but by becoming attuned to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all the circumstances of our lives. This is what he calls "life in the Spirit" in contrast to "life in the flesh" (whatever feels good is good). Perhaps the biggest difficulty with this reading is the impression it might give that our conversion from life in the flesh to life in the Spirit is instantaneous and complete. Experience suggests that such conversion is a life-long process for most of us, with many missteps along the way.
Taking It Personally.
· Try to recall a choice or decision you made in the last month of some consequence. What motivated you in the choice or decision you made? Custom or habit? The expectations of others? A desire for the approval of others? Your perception of your own best interest, needs or wants?
· Did you seek, or were you aware of, the leading of the Spirit? Is it your practice to seek spiritual guidance from others when facing an important decisions? Has anyone else asked you for such guidance recently?
· Meditate on verses 9-11. Write your own summary of them in your own words. How do you feel about this teaching? Does it ring true to your own experience?
· Are you convinced that Christ is in you? What does that mean for you?
Matthew. Here surely we have the foundation of a life of discipleship. Unless we receive the Seed of Life no growth is possible; and healthy growth is only possible if we are receptive to that seed, and consciously nurture and nourish its growth. That perhaps is where the analogy begins to fall down. Even good soil requires someone to tend it. We must do our part, first in preparing our own "tilth" so that the Seed of Life can enter into us; and then we must tend the plant that grows from that seed. Apart from anything else, we must ensure that it does not become choked by weeds.
Taking It Personally.
· An excellent passage for a thorough spiritual stock-take. What is the present state of your soil? Are there any weeds that need to be removed? Are you watering it regularly with prayer? Are you feeding it regularly with the Bread of Heaven?
· Are there any changes you need to make in your present practices?