Sunday, 17 July 2016

Sarah's story

Sermon for Trinity 8.

Genesis 18: 9 - 10a. They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ 1Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’

There was news recently that women over forty are having more babies than the under twenties.

Today’s story from Genesis introduces us to Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who was promised a baby at the ripe old age of 90.
In a year when we have celebrated another remarkable 90 year old woman, our own Queen Elizabeth II, it is time to trace God’s purposes through the 90 year old wife of that great patriarch Abraham.
Why do we do this?
Why do we trace the story of Sarah today?
We do it for the same reason that people trace their family history.
Your family history matters because it gives you roots.
Our faith in Jesus Christ is rooted in the Old Testament and the way God brought about his purposes through individuals who were flawed – just like he does through us.

So we go back in time today, back past Elijah and Elisha to the time of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, whose family story you can read in Genesis.
The names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob tend to run off the tongue because they are the patriarchs.
But what of the matriarchs?
Sarah was the first of those, and her story today appears to be a classic example of how God cares about the individuals that are left out.
The sense of feeling left out of the story is something our new Prime Minister sought to address in her first speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street this week.
There is some evidence that many who voted to leave the EU felt left out of the story of the UK, the story of others’ prosperity and others’ opportunities, not universally shared
Those who feel so left out of the story that resentment and hatred are burning quietly away, have a habit of suddenly gaining the headlines, which can be a very sinister thing, as our TV screens show us.
So listening to those who are left out of the story may be the most important thing we can do.
In fact, as if to underline how left out Sarah actually is today, the Lectionary compilers, in their infinite wisdom, have actually themselves left Sarah out of her own story (the reading ends at verse 10a)*
Let’s have a look at that story.

Abraham is settled in the land God had promised him. However, 25 years have past since the promise of a son, and now he and Sarah are, to be blunt, past it.
Or as the bible delicately puts it, physically they are as beyond the kind of pleasurable activity that leads to the conceiving of a child, as Sarah is beyond the bearing of such a child.

In this hot Middle Eastern landscape, the shade of a tree in the middle of the day was absolutely vital.
Here we find Abraham in the heat of the day.
He sits at the entrance of his tent, master of all he surveys.
But where is Sarah?
We don’t know; we presume she’s in the tent kitchen.
Visitors arrive.
Abraham looks up and sees three men, who have clearly travelled far and must be sorely in need of refreshment.
Middle Eastern hospitality dictates that their feet must be washed, they must rest and they must eat.
We might recall Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.
And here perhaps we have a little comedy going on: Abraham bowing ceremoniously to the ground as the three visitors approach.
Here are three extremely important men - commentators normally cite this visitation as a ‘Theophany’, an appearance of God in the Old Testament in the form of a man; the other two visitors presumably angelic messengers, also in appearance as men.
So this is no ordinary visitation.
Abraham bows down to the ground and asks that he might have the great honour of providing them with refreshment.
And of course, this is where Sarah comes in.
The scene I imagine is Abraham solemnly bowing to the men and being terribly polite and deferential and calm and dignified, then rushing into the tent and shouting for his wife to grab the ingredients for the baking.
He then runs to the field, slaughters a cow; the servant hastens to prepare it then reappears with the meal, suddenly all calm and decorous.
I looked this up and it probably takes 7 hours to roast a calf, so we might imagine that while Abraham and Sarah prepare the food the divine visitors sit calmly in the shade of the great oak trees, the sun slowly descending into the cool of the evening.
Abraham and Sarah have waited a long time for this intervention.
It always seems a long time when God plants an idea, a hope inside us, because then we have the do the work of waiting.
And waiting can be very hard.
Maybe you’re still praying for someone, for a situation, after 25 years?
After 50 perhaps…
Don’t give up.
God will bring his purposes about.

After the long, slow meal, the question. 
‘Where is Sarah?’
(Not sharing the meal, that’s for sure).
‘She’s there, in the tent’, answers Abraham
There, so often in the background, but now called forth by God.
This is her moment.
‘I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son’, pronounces the divine visitor.
*And that’s exactly where the Lectionary ends the story -
without Sarah’s own, very human, personal, very understandable reaction.
Because if we read on, beyond the set reading, we get her reaction: she laughs!
If we read on, we discover her in fact listening at the keyhole, metaphorically.
It’s classic picture of women in the Old Testament – listening at keyholes, off at the side, while the men get the main parts.

But God is no respecter of gender.
Thankfully the accounts of family life in Genesis are very human and touching, and honest, especially about the things that go wrong in families.
There is no attempt on the part of the writer at covering up her reaction – because our reactions reveal our hearts and God is interested in hearts.
If you’re interested enough to read on you will find Sarah’s reaction to God’s angelic promise of a son.
She laughs.
Her laughter is not the laughter of joyful acceptance.
It is not Mary’s may it be to me according to your word.
It is the laughter of someone who’s heard it all before.
It’s the laughter of a woman who’s seen it all before, but who’s not felt personally included in the story.
God’s promise was delivered to her second hand, via her husband.
But now it’s her turn to face the music.
After all, Abraham can’t have the son (God may do the impossible, but he generally respects biology).
It has to be Sarah who finds herself pregnant, not her husband.
It’s when things get personal with God that we finally feel included in the big story.
Because if God isn’t experienced as personal, he isn’t God.
So Sarah laughs.
She doesn’t believe.
In fact the text says ‘she laughed to herself’.
So perhaps it wasn’t even an audible laugh.
But God knew her on the inside.
The speaking visitor asks Abraham ‘why did Sarah laugh?’
This supernatural knowledge is verging on the spooky for Sarah.
The visitor wants to know, doesn’t she realise nothing is impossible for God?
But Sarah is now afraid.
She denies her reaction.
‘I didn’t laugh’, she says.
‘Oh yes, you did’, answers the angel.
‘Oh no I didn’t’.
‘Oh yes, you did’.
Oh no I didn’t.
It’s comedy again.
There’s no judgment though – just the observation that, in fact, she did laugh.
And then, a year later, Isaac is born.
And Isaac means laughter.
God takes her reaction and weaves it into the story of the patriarchs, the story of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Judah, from whom would come the Lion of Judah, the saviour of the world.
By then, I imagine, Sarah’s laughter was joyful, unbounded, hilarious and full of gratitude.
From being outside the story, she was now in the centre fold.
God’s big story is so wonderful, so crazy, so expansive.
May we who are nurtured by the roots of our faith in the Old Testament stories of God’s people, continually find ourselves in the centre of God’s story, and especially if till now we have felt somewhat outside of it.

Gracious God,
Sarah laughed long ago.
You made her laugh.
You showed her
that there is no distance between her and you.
Please, God,
make us laugh, too.
Come close to us,
and let us see your miracles
in our lives.


Sunday, 10 July 2016

Factions, flags and Brexit

Painted at Llennerchwen, Brecon. July 2016.

Some things are best addressed by art and on a recent retreat I had the chance to respond to the political fall out from the UK referendum to leave the EU, by painting. All I can say is that it was very cathartic.

I was a Brownie Guide once, but even so it was noticeable how ignorant I felt about 'my' own flag, and also that my feelings about it were very complicated. Flags are about identity and I tried to imagine what will happen to the United Kingdom if Scotland and Northern Ireland decide that staying in the European Union is more important to them than staying in the United Kingdom. Sad and extremely regretful as I am about the 'Brexit' vote (and immensely cross about the mismanagement of the UK, the misinformation that the country was fed and the lamentable failure of truth and leadership that has ensued), this will be nothing to the feelings I imagine the break up of the Union will engender. 

However it's always the way, as you withdraw and ponder, that you find that things are not as black and white as they seem at first. Sometimes in a union, it is the dominant party that calls the shots about how identity will be represented. So for instance, the flag of St George, waved in certain contexts, would make me nervous about a kind of English nationalism that could be perceived as aggressive and isolationist. I don't identify with that sort of flag waving, English though I am. With regard to the Scottish bit of the Union flag, this was the bit I remembered quite well from being a seven year old Brownie (I've always been 'proud' of being a quarter Scottish, for reasons that are undoubtedly emotionally complex) so aged seven, I had a vested interest to remember that bit and forget the rest. I was ignorant of the St Patrick's cross and the fact he wasn't a martyr (there seems to be a lot of blood associated with the Union flag...) and I hadn't even realised that Wales isn't represented. I imagine a Welsh person feels a bit different about the Union flag for that reason.

One time I did feel especially 'proud' of being British (represented by our flag) was during the 2012 Olympics, but even then, it was because the London Olympics seemed to bring out the best of 'our country', i.e. hard work, determination, brilliant role models, sporting opportunity for those that might not have had it ordinarily, working together, celebrating our diversity etc. So these were the things made our country 'great' - and not some imagined former state of greatness (which may have involved oppressing other weaker groups).

So, the bleeding, dissolving Union flag. I hope I'll be proved wrong, but that is all I can imagine now. One 'Leave' will prompt another, and another. And because I was blessed with retreat time to ponder how I perceive my identity, both as a Christian, an English person (with Scottish blood) a Brit and, I hope, still a European, I also attempted a poem... 

How did we get the Union flag, what influences fed into it, and what might happen if we abandon it and everyone just makes their own? I couldn't (weirdly) summon any feelings towards the EU flag, though recently on Facebook I've noticed a version of it on some people's accounts that shows one of the stars in the circle weeping. Weeping, yes.

Factions, flags and Brexit. With all our political disagreements, and problems around connecting with people from different groups, and holding to some united vision with them (they're so difficult and so different, and some of them are so threatening, apparently, even though they have absolutely nothing; and some of the more dominant groups want to boss the others around, and we never do that, unless you count....ooops) it's going to be a lot easier if we all just create our own identity and have done with it. 

Isn't it? Or should flags be completely immaterial, if you're a Christian. Maybe the Quakers are right after all.


I’m planning to fashion a brand new flag
one where the rivers of blood don’t run
as red as the cross suspended dead
on white, in the gap between triangles of blue
like the azure sky and the battle cry
when prayer to St Andrew came true
(that very un-Scottish apostle who left his nets
by the salt of the lake, for the catch would be human too).

My flag will do without the kiss shaped cross
- the crimson saltire: Patrick’s sign.
He wasn’t a martyr to the cause
like that most un-English gentleman, George,
and unlike poor St Andrew’s cross, he didn’t discover
that X marks the spot where you lose your breath.
He followed the faith, but not to death.

My flag will hang together by more than a thread,
its colours and shapes finely tuned like a song
both written and played and conducted by me.
Nostalgia will rule, like Britannia the waves
on my island divorced from the rest of the slaves.

I’ll have green for the ground and white for the clouds,
for the raindrops a shade of Welsh grey,
an umbrella will do for the crest; it’s the best
of the symbols when martyrdom’s put away.

I’ll be committee and board and king
and authority, parliament, judge;
there’ll be no dissent, no bullying head
or continuing historical fudge,
no union of parts with sharp edged hearts
no fighting, no promises broken
no mornings of doubt when luck has run out
and the food bank lady so softly spoken.

The red and the white and the blue, so nearly true
not to mention the gold on the blue. Stars in the heavens now
fallen to earth. Such flags all torn.
Can they be mended
now that something has ended?

For sewing together and piecing together is hard
like the ground when you fall by the hand
of a friend. Like guns when peace has come to an end.
So a flag of my choice is the only voice I can hear
as the papers fly up in the air
and the vote of the summer blows far and near.

CLA. July 2016.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Wash and be clean

Sermon for Trinity 6

2 Kings 5:14 - The Healing of Naaman the Syrian Commander
So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Humility leads us to salvation and wholeness.

Today we meet another big bible character who eventually came up against his limits, but through his limits, found God.
Last time we looked at Elijah and his big battle against the prophets of Baal, his fleeing from scary Jezebel into an exhausted, low state in which he wished to die, and couldn’t find God in the usual ways.
Until God surprised him with the still small voice.
Today we find a similar humbling in the OT reading.

We’re sadly quite used to hearing of Syria in connection with war and it seems it was no different in the times of the Kings, roughly 800 years before Christ.
Naaman was a commander in the army of the king of Aram – one of the traditional enemies of Israel.
So we note firstly that this story is not told from the point of view of one of God’s own people, but from that of a foreigner.
It’s a feature of both the Old and New testaments that God’s loving purposes are entirely inclusive: we think of Elijah and the widow of Zarapeth; the Centurion’s servant and the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter: all people who were outside the ‘in group’, ie. the group who would normally expect God to act for them, but not act for ‘the others’.
There’s a message here for us as we look around our community, and our world, and wonder how and where God is at work.
God is not bound by our group, but he graciously chooses to reveal himself to whoever is open…which can be a threatening thought sometimes…because our group is right (isn’t it?)

Back to Naaman.
He was a big, fearless, fighting figure: ‘a great man and in high favour with his master’, and used to victory: ‘by him the Lord had given victory to Aram’.
We sometimes see people like Naaman and we might well feel inferior.
Let’s imagine him as tall, and really rather good-looking.
His name means ‘pleasant’ so perhaps he was also a decent man, and popular.
He was certainly a war hero to the Syrians.
We’ve just remembered those who fell in war with the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and it’s natural to salute the men who felt they were doing their duty by standing up to an aggressor.
But it’s not so natural for us to focus our sympathies on the aggressor.
In this OT scenario, the Syrian army, championed by Naaman, is typically against God’s people and yet there’s apparently no biblical judgment on Naaman for this.
The story takes him entirely as one human individual with deep spiritual needs.
Can we so bold as to say that a long time before what we do, God is concerned with who we are?

In my childhood illustrated bible Naaman had enormous muscles, brown eyes and a brown beard.
He was definitely the hero of the story and you wanted things to come good for him.
Perhaps when people met Naaman the commander, the rather superior human being, they felt a bit like some have felt on meeting President Obama.
A US journalist who had one such meeting vividly describes the impression President Obama had on her (and she wasn’t a natural Democrat supporter).

She writes: ‘So there I was, happily sitting (she was waiting in the White House for a meeting)… and then behind me I heard a deep, "Hello, Everybody."
I spun around. President Obama walked past me and took a seat at the table.
First reaction: My jaw dropped. …
Then I came back to earth and remembered where I was and why. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss economic policy, rising gas prices, and the economic recovery. …Then I told myself: Hold on, you just met the President. This might not happen again in your lifetime. It's okay to be dazzled.
Obama shook all of our hands.
The man knows how to shake a hand! He gave great eye contact, with an enviable grip. Firm around the edges and soft in the middle, if that's even possible. And he doesn't appear to "shake" your hand, but it does move, in a soft sway...'
Some people are just a bit dazzling.
Naaman was one of these.
But, and here’s the big BUT, he had a fatal flaw.
And we’re not even talking about the fact that he’s led men into war and doubtless has much blood on his hands.
His fatal flaw is not even a reference to the fact that during one of the raids he led, a young Israeli girl was carried off – kidnapped - and is now the slave girl of his own wife.
Which to our ears is perhaps like hearing that Boko Haram have carried off Nigerian schoolgirls and all the horror that entailed.
So, conscious of that struggle to make sense of some very brutal things that we encounter, in the bible as in life, we start the story with Naaman’s fatal flaw.

Naaman is sick.

He is a leper.

Leprosy is described in the New Testament as covering a number of infectious skin conditions that Naaman might have suffered from.
He would have been disfigured and in pain.
In addition, leprosy brought social stigma – in fact Naaman was known as Naaman the Leper.
It was his fatal flaw.
If it hadn’t been for this particular suffering of his, life would have been pretty perfect: military honours, second in command to the King; popular, good looking, nice wife, nice home.
The problem with a perfect life though is there’s no room for God.
Why would you need God if your life were perfect?
I expect you know lots of people who essentially feel like this.
What with the nice house, the nice children, grandchildren, pension, hobbies, charities, etc. there’s really not room at all for God…
The upside down nature of the gospel though is that when we are weak then we are strong.
In other words, weakness, failure, illness, disappointment; these are all things which give people a window to God.

Naaman’s window opens up via a little girl.
An old Ladybird book I had of this story was called ‘Naaman and the Little Maid.’
She served Naaman’s wife and, crucially, she knows where healing and salvation are to be found.
She knows something the Arameans don’t.
She knows there’s a prophet in Israel who serves the most High God, and that healing and salvation are found, not in might or strength or victory in battle, but in the gracious deliverance of a God who cares for individuals.

So the females get together to sort things out.
The little maid said to Naaman’s wife: “if only my Lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy!”’
Naaman gets to hear of her plea and spectacularly gets hold of the wrong end of the stick.
He doesn’t understand ‘prophet’: he only understands ‘king’ – the language of this world, not the next.
The language of hubris, not humility.
He goes to his king, and his king also spectacularly gets hold of the wrong end of the stick, sending a letter to king of Israel asking for him to heal Naaman and sending a load of material goods along to pay for it.
This is tantamount to a cheeky, verging on dangerous, provocation – even to war.

‘When the king of Israel read the letter he tore his clothes and said “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me”.’
Luckily the prophet Elisha hears of the rumpus.
He tells the king to redirect Naaman to him.
‘Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’
Interestingly, not ‘let him come to me that he might be healed’, but ‘that he might learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’
In other words, the healing is important, but what is of life changing spiritual significance, is that this is Naaman’s chance to humble himself and find God.
It’s like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:
in the test to pass safely through the whirling swords that cut off your head if you stand up straight, ‘only the penitent man will pass’.
The penitent man gets down on his knees (thus avoiding the whirling swords and continuing onwards towards the holy grail).
Only the penitent man will pass…
This is the hard, the universal lesson, that Naaman will learn.
Universal, because every human being on the earth will come up against this sooner, or later.
Only the penitent man…
Naaman learns it slowly.
He takes his riches and his worldly goods and offers them to Elisha the prophet: mistake number 1.
You cannot buy, or earn, or deserve salvation.
Elisha ignores all this of course, and sends a simple message: go and wash in the river seven times.
He could have said anything: it’s not about magic water, it’s about obedience.
The point is, can Naaman humble himself to receive God’s healing and salvation?
He cannot, at first.

Mistake number 2: he thinks he can dictate to God how his healing will be effected.
That’s the problem with us people who are used to the world going our way; who have money, resources, reputations, employees, followers.
It’s hard for us to exercise spiritual humility.
Blessed are the poor, the meek, the hungry – that wasn’t really Naaman, by habit.
But God is patient – you could even say God has a lovely gentle, patient sense of humour.
Here is Naaman (who has an anger problem as well) railing and ranting about how humiliating this whole healing thing is.
Elisha hasn’t even put in an appearance: ‘I thought at least he would come out an stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy?’
Perhaps Elisha looked out of the window and smiled ruefully and shook his head and said ‘these grand men – they’re so dramatic!’
He’s a diva, in fact.
He reckons the rivers in Syria are a better class than this grotty brown puddle.
He goes away in a rage.
He nearly, nearly misses the window, the opening of the way between the whirling swords – he so nearly misses the time of his salvation.
But thankfully, he has courageous, kind, firm and sensible friends.
‘If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said was “wash and be clean”?’
Wash and be clean.
The gospel message in a nutshell.
Wash and be clean.
The message of healing and wholeness in a nutshell.
Wash and be clean.
God’s done it all but we have to respond.
Wash and be clean.
It will cost us our pride.
That is why it is so hard for us to truly find God – but when we let go, embrace failure, bend the knee, practice penitence - salvation and wholeness will surely follow, and quickly.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.