Wednesday, 28 March 2007

stones Luke 19 28-40

We at Harrow Baptist Church will be waving our palms and singing and shouting our hosannas on Sunday. It comes therefore as a bit of surprise that neither palms nor hosannas are mentioned in Luke’s version of the story.

The crowd throw their clothes on the ground in front of the donkey as a sign of the royal dignity of the one riding it. Their shouted and sung greeting made clear who they presumed him to be:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

The king who came in the name of the Lord could only be the anticipated Son of David who would restore the fortunes of his people. The song of peace and glory that had been sung at his birth by angels is now repeated by the crowd. Jesus was the man who was going to put the shalom back into a Jerusalem built in war by David the mercenary. This city of the nations, to which even the queen of Sheba came in splendour, so many times destroyed and now governed uneasily as part of the Pax Romana was about to be restored as a place of peace not under the aegis of Rome but of heaven. This king was not only making peace on earth but peace in heaven, too: a king in the reconciling business at the highest level.

Of course the crowd would have no idea of how that was to be achieved. But in their song at least they seemed to realise that there could be no glory without peace. And for peace to be lasting the violence and aggressive selfishness that humanity had carried like the mark of Cain on its psyche had to be defeated.

The enthusiasm of the pilgrims terrified those in charge of the temple cult. The glory songs of the psalms had their place and it was not the street. This exuberant and spontaneous worship challenged them as the professional leaders and orchestrators of worship and prophecy. Let loose from the dignity and formalism of liturgy these worship shouts had a revolutionary fervour that mortified the ruling class. They called on Jesus to silence the rabble.

With another idiosyncratic insertion into Mark’s account Luke reports Jesus’s devastating reply.

“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Which stones? The next time stones are mentioned it is to refer to the impressiveness of the stones of the temple. Could Jesus have been referring to the verse in Habakkuk 2 11 where it is said that the mansions of the rich will for ever cry out in testimony to the injustice of the system which so divided rich and poor. Was Jesus saying something like, “You are so proud of your temple worship in this fantastic building. When the day of judgment comes this flamboyant building will cry out against you”.

Perhaps Jesus was thinking that they might try to stone him for blasphemy. Perhaps he was issuing them a challenge: “Stone me and it will be for the glory of God for every stone you throw will be for the peace of heaven and earth for by my death and only by my death will peace and glory be restored.” In the Acts of the Apostles, the second volume of Luke’s work, precisely that happens to Stephen. Luke surely heard the story from Paul. As those stones hurled in hatred at Stephen thudded into his body the glory of heaven was revealed and the righteous judgment of God resounded with a ring of resurrection so true that it echoed into Saul’s ears for the rest of his life. Certainly the death of Jesus was to be means by which reconciliation was achieved: Jesus was a king in the reconciling business - and his most important reconciling task that of reconciling man with God - he was to be God's offering for us and our offering to God. With sublime irony Luke indicates the reconciling power of Jesus as he reports that at the moment of Jesus’s condemnation to death Pilate and Herod became friends from that day onwards.

Or was he saying something altogether different? “These rough hewn stones you regard as rubbish will praise God more resoundingly than all your neatly cut, dressed, polished marble stones of the temple.” The great words of Psalm 118 ring throughout the passage: we will already have sung them today: they include that prophecy that became so important a part of Christian tradition,

“the stone that was dumped at the back of the yard now has the place of honour.”

This was remembered not least by Peter whose nickname gave him particular reason to take the comment on board. It was to be the disciples, leading the worship that the leaders wanted to be silenced, who would be gather as “living stones” around that great stone rejected by the temple leaders, and built up into a temple that would outlast Herod’s flamboyant folly. And it would be through that community, the incipient sign of the true kingdom of righteousness that heaven and earth would united in glory and peace. They, the disciples, would indeed become the new royal priesthood.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

The rebellious tenants Luke 20 9-19

Many of the members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, would, themselves, have been absentee landlords. Some of them may even have experienced the difficulty of collecting rents and tithes from their tenants: some may even have experienced the extreme case that Jesus here exemplifies of servants sent to collect the dues being beaten up, abused or threatened. It was a story he may have witnessed many times in his life in Galilee, which had become increasingly lawless and rebellious. So it was easy for Jesus to suck his Jerusalem hearers into being sympathetic with the landlord in his story. To them the vineyard would have been their Galilean estates, and the escalation of violence shown to their representatives, a barometer of the increasing rebelliousness of that truculent territory, where zealots were, finally, seeking to claim independence both from them and Rome. They may have been pleased that, at last, Jesus seemed to be taking on real issues of importance, siding with them against these dangerous northern dissidents.

But Jesus was actually speaking within the prophetic tradition in which the vineyard stood for Israel. The ruling class seem to be under the illusion that they can control the country: the prophets, God=s messengers are persecuted. With the sending of his son he plays the last card in his pack. Kill him and the vineyard will be in the hands of the tenants for ever. The parable plays up the patience of the landowner to a most unlikely degree. Few landowners would be either so foolish or have sufficient resources to send so many servants on an unsuccessful mission to collect the rents: in no real case can any landowner have been so naive as to send his beloved son thinking that they would respect him. This is a landowner acting totally irresponsibly. The son is murdered and his body is thrown out of the vineyard to be at the mercy of the wild beasts. Jesus turns to his audience of absentee landlords and asks them what the landowner should do next. The answer comes: AHe will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.@ Indeed some of them might already have done that with their estates. Then Jesus quotes from the very Psalm that had been sung at his entry into Jerusalem two days earlier. It was generally assumed that the rejected one who was restored in that Psalm was David himself, who brought the ark into Jerusalem, and laid the plans for the temple itself. The blind man in Jericho had identified him as the Son of David. The crowds had greeted him with the royal Davidic chorus, ABlessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord@, he who had cleared the temple was himself the chief cornerstone of all that was essential to the salvation of Israel; he was the Son. It was Jesus who had been sent to the vineyard whose body was to be thrown outside the city wall to dogs and crows. And God who had looked for justice saw only bloodshed: who looked for righteousness and heard only a desperate, forsaken cry of a dying man.

This was a clear answer to those who had questioned on whose authority Jesus was acting and speaking. In the context of the parable, John the Baptist had been the last of the prophets who had been killed. Jesus was the Son. If ever there were a self-fulfilling prophecy this was it. The Son was due to be killed: the vineyard was soon to be lost: the new council of tenants had already been formed and trained (the twelve). Just as there was an inevitability about the story of the sower and the magnificent harvest, so also there was a frightful inevitability about this one. The response of the hearers ensured that.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Son or slave Luke 15 11-32

Sometimes the parables of Jesus are like cartoons: the characters, larger than life, sharply etched, strongly contrasted and sketchily fleshed out. Like these two sons: the one generous indeed rashly prodigal – the other tight-fisted and mean; the one adventurous and risk-taking, the other cautious and unambitious; the one lazy and sociable, the other hard-working and solitary. Yet they are both sons of the same father. Both carry his good qualities to such extremes that they become faults in opposite directions: his grace becomes wild spending, his careful management becomes obsessional graft.

There are many themes in this wonderfully complex, multi-layered story, but perhaps the most poignant is the way it highlights the contrast between son and slave. When the younger son decides to go back home it is as a slave (or at least hired hand) that he expects to be welcomed. By squandering his inheritance he believes he has squandered his sonship. It shows a total lack of understanding of the love bond of the father-son relationship. He is his father’s son not because of what he has done or not done: he might even be ritually unclean by working down the pig farm but to his father he will always be a son – living or even dead.

The other son reveals a similar failure to understand his relationship. He is, of course, bitter towards that younger son whom he even fails to acknowledge as a brother. But that bitterness extends to his father, too. In their sad conversation he says that he has “slaved his guts out” and never been adequately rewarded. This is the talk not of a son but of shop steward. His relationship with his father is contractual not filial.

The younger son repents : he accepts the totally unmerited generosity of his father. But then he has been even more irresponsibly generous himself in the past and it does not take him too long to swing into party mood. But the elder son’s bitterness is not melted so easily. It is not easy for him to forgive his layabout brother. His slavery is by now deeply ingrained. The “everything” that his father had given him had included a great deal of responsibility and hard work that his young brother should have been sharing.

The Bible bangs on all the time about how God adopted as his child a slave people suffering under Egyptian rule. But how they continually persisted in turning what God wanted to be a relationship of loving commitment back into the slavery that was easier to live with because it made fewer demands. Obeying orders is easier than taking responsibility. Working grudgingly and unwillingly for fixed hours is easier than open ended commitment out of love. And even the pain of the slave master’s whip might more easily be borne than trying to love the brother who squanders your livelihood.

So we routinely turn our love relationship with our Father into a master–slave contract. We treat home like a hotel, and charity becomes a drudge. Faith and works become opposites instead of organically connected like trees and fruit, prayer a shopping list, and worship a bribe. In the end we even refuse the generosity of God because we would prefer to earn our own salvation. In our consumer mindset that which money can’t buy must ultimately be worthless.

This story stands as a stark warning not just to those who have wandered off into far countries and need to return, but perhaps more poignantly, to the faithful who have never left the farm. They too have forgotten what it is to have the honour and responsibility of being a son not for what they do but for who they are.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Fruitless Luke 13 1-9

Who=s to blame? A bunch of terrorists out of sheer bloody mindedness incite a mob to action over the building of an aqueduct: it stands as a symbol of a regime that has been imposed upon them by a foreign imperialist government which is more interested in milking their economy than giving them proper civil rights. The governor responds by ordering a cavalry charge indiscriminately into a seething mass of freedom marchers: pour encourager les autres. Whose fault is it? The terrorists? The governor? The crowds? The soldiers? Or the system?

The expert replies by reminding them of another disaster recently in the news

In a separate incident eighteen construction workers involved in building this aqueduct are killed when one of the towers collapses. Was this just a tragic accident or was someone to be blamed for that too.?

We live in a fragile world where relationships are all askew: so immensely valuable that it can=t be priced life is nevertheless ended so easily and unpredictably: we all live cheek by jowl with death. Life seems to hang by a hair=s breadth. Allocating blame isn=t the point: we can of course say that it all goes back to the fall but that=s not a helpful analysis since it only pushes the question of blame back a couple of million years.

Rather than waste thinking time allocating blame it is more constructive to think how we should respond to the facts. In a violent suffering world it is all the more important that we make our lives count while we have them.

Think about this for a moment:

A man owns an orchard: on one of his routine visits he notices that one of the trees never seems to have any fruit on it: I suggest we chop it down and replace it with one that is more worthwhile he says. It=s a waste of space , time and resources says the businessman.

No please don=t says the gardener; he has a different relationship with trees: for him they are not simply to be valued in economic terms but for what they are: he who loves to grow them has grown to love them.

It might not be the poor tree=s fault: the blame may lie with me: perhaps I have not been attentive enough to it: I have allowed the soil in this corner of the orchard to become poor: the roots are competing for nutrition with weeds and rubble: give me time. I=ll give this tree a bit of TLC and then we=ll review the situation again next year.

We have been given a life to live both as individuals are more to the point in community: it is important that in whatever time is given to us that we are fruitful and fragrant for the world in which we live often seems like a barren wilderness and we are sorely needed as fruitful oases. That may require - from time to time someone coming along and digging in a bit of manure around our roots: - perhaps I=ll use my father=s euphemism - a bit of good stuff. We may need to be disturbed, at root level before there are signs of fruit at branch level. But thank God he isn=t chopping us down yet: for he loves the trees too much. But nevertheless life is short: sometimes shorter than we think it will be. And the need for fruit urgent.

Not least because we live in a world of pain and dislocation: in the wilderness of despair there have to be signs of hope: there ought to be a difference between a cultivated tree and a wild one: the russet should be sweeter than the crab:

Paul would say that we have been grafted on to the best rootstock the world has ever known: even Jesus himself: the life of the church should stand out as a paradigm of what it is to be human: a human life lived in an eternal dimension: where it matters when it matters for a world that matters: and it matters if we don=t.