July 27 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Theme: We have a sort of "residual estate" gospel reading this morning: after the great gifts of individual parables, we get the remainder collected together as one lot. But for me one shines out from this collection (no pun intended) – it is the Pearl of Great Value. It fits nicely with our first lesson – the gift above all gifts chosen by Solomon. So a theme that reflects the idea of the "all-surpassingness" of God/Christ/Spirit would seem to be called for. Perhaps "Before All Else" or "Above All Else" would do. Or, for those with one eye on Glasgow for the next few days, we might choose "In First Place".
Introduction. We begin this week with the inspired choice Solomon makes when offered a divine gift of his choosing. He chose the gift of wisdom, the ability to discern good and evil, so that he may govern God's people. Our second lesson is the conclusion of the great chapter 8 of St Paul's Letter to the Romans, which also fits well with our theme of the all-surpassing greatness of Christ. There is also a sense of this in the gospel reading this week: I get the feeling that, after chapter 13, Jesus "goes up a gear", both in his teaching and action. There is far less of the class-room flavour of his later teaching, much more a feeling of "field work", integrating his teaching and his practical ministry in one seamless life of instruction. And the common theme that threads through chapters 14-25 is about seeking and discerning the will of God in all circumstances.
Background. I wrote last week about the complexity of life in the "real" world, and how we are called to seek the Spirit's guidance in all circumstances, including those where we are pretty sure we know what to do. For me this issue – which is essentially about a real, robust spirituality that makes sense in the world as it is – was taken to a whole new level by two snatches of music that featured within one five-minute news bulletin on National Radio this morning (Thursday). First, there was a wee bit of stirring Scottish pipes to introduce an item about the City of Glasgow and how excited everybody was as the Games were at last about to begin. Then came another item from Europe, this one introduced by a lone bugler playing the Last Post, as the first of the caskets carrying victims of the downed plane were brought back to Holland.
What are we to make of that? Is it enough to wear black armbands, and to have a minute's silence, before we turn our attention to watching sportsmen and sportswomen strutting their stuff? However dramatic the image, are two wreaths on otherwise empty seats in a soccer stadium enough to allow the rest of us to enjoy watching a game of football?
I had not got very far with that issue when the newsreader went onto others. Pita Sharples was insisting that it is not enough to preserve Te Reo as a language – it's important to ensure that local dialects are preserved as well. And, while he was on the air, could he also say how absolutely disgusting it was for people in Auckland to burn an Israeli flag at a protest about the situation in Gaza? Important to preserve differences? Disgusting to burn a flag in protest against killing people?
And the servants said, "Master, do you want us to go and...?" And what? Stop the Games? Learn a new Maori dialect? Ban protests – at least, by people who burn flags? Or none of the above?
Perhaps we could start with prayer, and what better way than to pray with Solomon, "Give your servant an understanding mind...able to discern between good and evil." And to acknowledge with Solomon our own incapacities: "I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in." And perhaps the Spirit will start interceding for us (translation: on our behalf) because we do not know how to pray as we ought.
There was one voice of reason on the programme just after that news bulletin. He was talking about the situation in Gaza, and he said all violence must stop: the only way to achieve peace is for all sides to come together and talk to one another. He was a member of the Jewish Christian Council, soon to be expanded to include Moslems and become the Abrahamic Faiths Council. But he started his argument by saying, "As a Jewish person myself..." and he lost me at that point, as he would have done if he had said "As a Palestinian myself..." Only a person who says, "As a human being myself..." will hold my attention now. Only a person who understands what it means to believe that in the New Creation, in the world as God intends it to be, there is no such thing as Jew or Palestininan, as Ukranian or Russian. Whatever our native tongue or regional dialect, there is only one language God has blessed and it is called the language of love.
What can we do in this sort of world? We can examine ourselves. On any ongoing issue do we instinctively take sides? Do we "understand" Israel's position, and accept that Hamas must be doing the Enemy's work? Do we side with Kiev against those "pro-Russian rebels"; do we condemn Russia for supplying sophisticated weapons to rebels in the Ukraine without wondering which European countries manufacture and export the most sophisticated weapons to virtually anyone who has the money? Or do we remember the lesson from last week's readings – that the work of the Enemy is to seduce (deceive) well-meaning servants of the Master to achieve the Enemy's purposes? Hamas and Israel, Ukraine and Russia, all believe that they are fighting for justice – for their own people. It is when they have the wisdom of Solomon they will realise that to create enmity, to increase the numbers of those who have reason to hate them and to want revenge against them, cannot bring them peace. It is when they realise that there is only one people, to whom all human beings belong, that they and all of us will says with St Paul, "Now in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."
May the Games in Glasgow show us that whatever our sport and whatever our national origins, we are capable of transcending our differences and celebrating our shared humanity. We owe nothing less to the 298 fellow human beings who died on MH 17, and to the countless others who have died and are dying in the Gaza Strip, Israel, and all the other parts of the world where men and women still claim separate identities for themselves and others.
Kings. How's this for political spin! No wonder the creators of the Lectionary thought they should protect our tender ears and minds from the first few verses of this chapter! But even so! A king can perhaps be forgiven an arranged marriage – "a marriage alliance" – to promote good relations between his nation and a powerful neighbour; and we do understand that to praise one's deceased father might be helpful to soothe feelings in a somewhat mixed (reconstituted) family; and, with Christchurch still fresh in our minds, we can readily accept that in the absence of a temple Solomon (and the people) would have had to use less desirable places of worship. But to claim that King David "walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart" is surely going a tad outside the bounds of truthfulness and accuracy. But that's the point, surely. There is no super-class of human beings, a kingly caste, who are immune from all the sins and weaknesses found in the rest of us. Kings are as human as we are, no better, no worse, essentially no different. All the more remarkable, then, that this human being, known to us as King Solomon, when offered whatever he wanted, chose wisdom.
Taking It Personally.
- What would you have chosen?
- Spend some time reflecting on your present circumstances. What one gift do you most seek from God at this time? Ask God for it.
- Are you "instinctively biased" towards one "side" or the other in situations such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Ukrainian-Russian one? Do you apportion blame to one or the other? On what basis?
Romans. St Paul rounds off his great argument to show that, in Christ, EVERYTHING is changed. The old understanding, the old identities, the old hostilities, the old values, and the old ways of life are all renewed, not because we have decided to do things better, but because the Spirit of God has chosen to reside in us and transform us from the inside out. Of course, all this is baffling and difficult for us to comprehend, but we don't have to. What we do have to do is yield control of our lives to the indwelling Christ. Let the Spirit do our praying for us, as we learn to live as one great family. God is on our side because there is only one side – who then can be against us? And who or what can ever come between us and God? Everything else is relative, everything else is of lesser value than our relationship with God in Christ. His is the victory over the Enemy in which we participate – in that sense, and only ever in that sense, can we claim to be victors, whatever may happen on the battlefields of the world.
Taking It Personally.
- Start with verse 26. Bring to mind some situation that is concerning you, such as the conflict in Gaza. Do you know what to pray for? If so, pray for it. If not, acknowledge that before God and remain silent. Let the Holy Spirit do your praying for you.
- Read through the rest of the passage slowly and prayerfully. What particular words strike you?
- Stay with verse 36 for some time. Is it defeatist? Or should we read it as the prelude to verses 37-39? How do those verses strike you? Empty rhetoric? Rampant triumphalism? Or reassuring and comforting, a sure ground for hope?
Matthew. Perhaps this somewhat motley collection of small sayings is the perfect conclusion to this week. The image that comes to my mind is that of the crash scene strewed over such a wide area of productive farmland, rich in beautiful sunflowers. Somewhere in that twisted, burnt metal – such a graphic icon of the work of the Enemy – there are human bodies hidden there, whose value is beyond price because they were and are precious to God. Their presence makes the whole area sacred, and in doing so overcomes the worst that that the Enemy has done. A scene created by sin and death is now glowing with the glory of God. The people looking for them may be compared to a merchant looking for the finest of jewels and discovering that each one is as fine as every other. The kingdom of heaven is like this Ukrainian field, full of such hidden treasure. The dead will be collected and honoured and commended to the mercy and love of God. The wreckage will be taken away and disposed of appropriately.
And Jesus asks all of us as we look at that scene: "Have you understood all this?"
Taking It Personally.
- Have you?
- Which of these parables speaks most directly to you? What is the lesson in it for you?
- Hold a seed in your hand. Gaze at it. What will it become if it completes its life cycle? Now re-read verses 31-32. Give thanks for the mystery of life and growth.
- Pray for the growth of new life Gaza, In Israel, and in Eastern Ukraine.
- Pray for new life in your heart, in your faith community, in our Diocese and in our country.