Author Archives: Dugald Wilson

Peter and the Sheet

Acts11:1-18

Peter was a fisherman.  He worked on boats.  Most fishermen I know who work on boats are pretty rough sort of characters who are pretty handy with their hands.  You have to be able to fix things on a boat.  You  work hard and play hard.   

So when we read of Peter falling into a trance we assume this is not normal for him.  Practical, hard working, blokes like him don’t start seeing visions.  Having a bit much to drink maybe, but you don’t have trances out on a fishing boat when there is fish to catch.  By the way the Greek word used for trance is the word ekstasis from which we get our word ecstasy, but I don’t think Peter was doing drugs. 

There’s something else about Peter.  He’s an observant Jewish man.  You don’t think of hard working fishermen as religious but Peter and all the Jewish people of his village kept the Torah and like most religious systems it had much to do with avoiding impurity.  There were foods you were not allowed to eat.  No pork, shellfish, reptiles or rabbits, or birds of prey.  Fish had to have scales and fins.  Animals had to be slaughtered using the shechita process in which all blood was drained and the killing was done in a humane way, and only animals that had a split hoof were allowed.  You even checked that eggs had no blood in them, and meat and dairy products were not to be eaten together.    

But impurity laws also included people.  Touching a dead body made you unclean.  Going into a non-Jewish house made you unclean as did sharing an eating vessel with them.  Basically non Jewish people were unclean.

But back to Peter’s ecstasy trip.  I need to point out it occurs in the middle of the day so probably we can rule out drinking.  It’s so important that it gets reported on twice in two chapters of the book of Acts.    He sees a sheet coming down from heaven and it’s filled with all sorts of food.  Did you recall some of that food? Reptiles, birds of prey, all sorts of four footed animals without split hooves– unclean life.  But Peter hears a voice saying, “get up kill and eat.”  Peter is shocked and resists.  He’s not about to break years of religious habit and practice.  Eat that sort of stuff and someone is bound to say he’ll go to hell. But the voice persists telling him to not call anything impure which God has created.  This happens three times and the sheet then goes back up to the heavens.

So what was Peter to make of it?  His gut reaction was shock and resistance.  But what was that gut reaction based on.  Years of religious teaching, reading the scriptures, the expectations of the religious community he was part of.  It’s based on his devotion to God.  He resists God in the name of God.    It’s possible to resist God’s call to growth by appealing to your religious convictions.  Confusing isn’t it..

But as soon as the trance is over there’s a knock at the door and there are three men there…. A couple of slaves and a soldier – Romans.  There were ‘them’ and ‘us’ and these guys are definitely ’thems’.  They say come and meet our leader who was a Roman centurion – an officer of rank.  Peter feels the urging of the Spirit to go and true to character is prepared to take a risk.  Things in life are not entirely random and along the way he seems to work out the vision, because when it comes to entering Cornelius’s house he says,’ God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.’   And let’s be clear here.  This centurion washed every day and scrubbed up very well indeed.  His sandals were clean and shiny, his clothes spotless.  Unclean simply meant you didn’t think someone else was worthy or to be valued.  Unclean meant you could be nice to someone but actually you wouldn’t invest any energy to care for them.  Unclean meant that in your eyes they were not up to it, not really a fellow child of God.   Uncleanliness had to do with despising, writing off in some way, not respecting.  Unclean people are people we would prefer not to bump into or welcome into our lives…. Unclean is anything we would prefer not to enter or engage in our lives….a person we don’t like.  But it could also be some thing we don’t want to engage with in our lives, something we want to push away, a brush with cancer or illness.  It could be something about ourselves or past that we just want to bury and pretend doesn’t exist.

We don’t talk about people or things as unclean, but there are people we don’t want to engage with, there are things we don’t want in our lives. Unclean is not just then, but now. 

Peter was brought up in a faith that said Romans were not good people, not real people.  He’s almost certainly never been inside a Roman house before.  Stories had been told about how Romans ate unclean food, and had wild parties with much drinking and all sorts of carrying on.  Romans had crucified his messiah Jesus so there was a personal story as well.  I suspect there were other personal stories involving family members killed or raped by brutal Roman crackdowns in his home town of Capernaum.  Romans, especially soldiers, were not of God.   

The story tells us Peter thought about this.  Actually he battled with what happened next for years and I think never really quite got it.  God was at work in these unclean others.  God was bigger than his little clan.  Thank God Peter trusted his moment of ecstasy. 

He crossed the threshold, and I suspect feeling very uncomfortable, engaged with these outsiders.  And he discovered that his picture of them was blown out the window.  It turns out they were human like he was.  They did things differently but they were reaching out to search for God and the fulfilment and peace of true life.  God’s Spirit was alive within them.

This is huge.  Peter’s understanding of his religious convictions are being turned on their head.  The scriptures were quite clear.  Gentiles were gentiles and therefore unclean.   Romans worshipped idols and did disgusting things.  Things were simple, black and white.  But things now were turned on their heads.  The apple cart had spilled apples everywhere.  Peter’s whole way of looking at the world and others was shattered.  There is a word that describes what Peter faced and it’s the word DISRUPTION.   

But disruptions are the often the source of our growth.  You travel and taste, you meet people from other tribes, you read new things, you see other ways, you hear new perspectives and you discover your previous ways of categorising and labelling and believing don’t work any more.  I’ve seen it many times.  Someone vehemently opposed to homosexuals discovers a friend is gay and….We thought Muslims were all bloodthirsty terrorists but now discover they have aspirations similar to us.  And you have a choice.  Circle the wagons and hold fast to what was, or take the plunge to open yourself to something new along with the pain of leaving the old ways behind.  It’s actually exciting because your world becomes larger but it also becomes more complex.  It can be liberating, but also traumatic like the carpet being yanked out from under you.  But once you’ve tasted you can’t untaste.  Once you’ve seen you can’t unsee.

Peter crossed the threshold into the centurion’s house knowing this was risky business.  Heaven knows what would happen or what all his friends would say.  But he also felt something calling within…. This was the very right thing to do.  The Jesus Spirit within was urging him on.   

I wonder….is there someone in your family, is there someone in this congregation you see as unclean. 

Is God whispering of looking to disrupt something in you, to open your eyes to something new?  To enlarge your vision.  To enlarge your understanding. 

I believe our faith is about a journey in which we always have something more to learn, some new surprise to shake us free from the prison of comfort, some new step of growth.  I find it easy to slip back into a pattern of thinking I know it all and being an old dog that has no new tricks to learn.    

It’s strange but often God is speaking in our lives through those we label outsiders.  God speaks through the ‘not welcome’ places, the struggles in our lives, the places of pain.  The earthquakes or catastrophe’s where the what was smooth becomes rough and broken.   Haven’t we seen God at work in the outpouring of love and the hard work of reconciliation that so many are committing to following our massacre.    Learning the them’s are actually us. 

Listen, take note, and see what you can learn from the ‘not welcome’ places and the ‘not welcome’ people of our lives.  Listen for the Jesus Spirit within and take a risk.

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The resuscitation of Dorcas

So what do we know about Dorcas…  See Acts 9:32-43

  • She is known by two names.  Dorcas is Greek and Tabitha is Aramaic and it means ‘gazelle’.
  • She lived in Joppa now called Jaffa on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.  I imagine there was a small group of Jewish followers of Jesus there may be about 15. 
  • She is called a disciple – the Greek form of the word for disciple is the only time it’s used in the New Testament.  It has the connotation of someone with authority.  She is I think someone who is still very active and who has died not of old age but of some other issue.
  • She is revered among the widows of Joppa.  She seems to have a ministry of looking after widows who were often people on the edge.  In a patriarchal society where women had little financial independence widows especially immigrants were very vulnerable and without a husband were often in a precarious situation.  Without a husband they had no breadwinner and no protector. 
  • Dorcas was known for making clothing.  The widows who mourned her death showed Peter some of the fine clothing she had made for them.  She was a woman who had a ministry in caring for others.   The term used at the beginning of the reading to denote the Jesus followers at Lydda is saints or hagios.  It means the holy ones.  Holiness was about being different, and the difference is about being chosen for special purposes of God.  We are saints too but it’s not about greater honour or prestige in God’s eyes it’s about being chosen to fulfil the special purpose of God.  For Dorcas this was about caring for others.
  • She was the only person raised from the dead by an apostle and the story of this miracle obviously did the rounds of Joppa and some joined the small band of Christ followers there.

Miracles in the ancient world were important and a sign of God’s activity.  The ability to perform miracles was a sign that God was working in someone, and the elevation to sainthood in the Catholic Church still has this requirement.   You have to show the person has performed a miracle.  True to my protestant roots I would name Dorcas as a saint because she has discovered her God purpose and is living it out to great effect in caring for others.   There are wondrous things happening in this story and it’s easy to overlook the wonder of someone who has discovered their calling in life and who is living this out in the service of God.

The resuscitation of Dorcas after her body has been washed in preparation for burial however is also wondrous.   What happened and why.  If it happened then wouldn’t it be cool to get access to this power today.   I confess I have never prayed for someone who was dead to start breathing again – a resuscitation of the deceased.  I have of course prayed that they will return to be at home in God.    But I find myself wondering about all sorts of things.  How was Dorcas resuscitated and how could cells in her brain starved of oxygen survive?  Mysterious things sometimes happen with dead bodies which is why they used attach strings to dead people’s wrists when they put them in a coffin and run the string up to a bell above ground.  If the person came alive again the bell would ring and hence we get the term saved by the bell.  We also get the term graveyard shift because someone was appointed to listen through the night in graveyards for any bells.   Something obviously happened to Dorcas and she came alive again and Peter got some credibility.   But what does this tell us about God’s activity.  If only there were a few more Peter’s around could we solve the health system overload….. 

Imagine this.  The Lion Air Boeing 777Max plane full of passengers crashes because the pilots were unable to override the software that continually pushed the nose down.  Arriving at the pearly gates the passengers are informed by God, ‘sorry I would have loved to intervene and save you but not enough of you were praying.’    Or the alternative, as the pilots struggled to regain control the people on board were totally united in prayer asking God to save them.  God intervened and turned off the software causing the problem and the plane touched down safely.  ‘Phew, good thing we all prayed’ said the passengers.    Both scenarios raise some pretty big questions about the place of prayer. 

But so does this.  Some double blind studies have shown that people who pray and who are prayed for   heal more quickly than those not prayed for.  I have to say such research is inevitably dodgy, because the variables are impossible to tie down, but it makes sense to me that this could be the case.  What doesn’t make much sense is the picture of God waiting somewhere for enough prayer to as it were to twist God’s arm to act.   I believe there is a power of healing alive within our world which can be enhanced and freed to move through prayer so I want to encourage prayer for healing.  I believe also this power can be enhanced through other ways… love and knowing we are loved, but also through other means like medical science and good medical practice.   I don’t picture God intervening from the outside, from up there somewhere, but God acting through the healing power that is in us, in others, and in the world.

I also believe that healing is not just about physical restoration, but is a body, mind, relational thing. Often it’s about being strengthened to face the reality of what is.  I have a friend in a wheelchair who had many prayers prayed for physical healing which never happened, but she would say she and her husband have been strengthened to face their situation.  Their tragedy has seen much outpouring of love and actually their lives have touched many others and given them strength too.  For Dorcas resuscitation may have been for a couple of years or whatever but she still faced death.  It’s human to pray that the mountains we face be taken away.  Even Jesus asked in prayer for the cross to be taken away from him.  But the reality is that our faith is not an insurance policy that prevents tragedy and loss.  As I have said prayer does sometimes open doors for healing power to flow in all sorts of forms but the covenant or deal God has made with us is not to protect us from all pain, but to be with us no matter what.  There is I think a common temptation to believe that if we are good God will give us special favours, but being in relationship with God strengthens us and guides us in living life, whatever comes.  This also is not always apparent.  Jesus cried from the cross, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.   It’s human to see just a small part of the big picture and we have to learn to trust in something bigger than us.

The Psalm that is our lectionary Psalm for today proclaims this.  It is a psalm you know well, Psalm 23 and I invite you to join with me in singing it now.    

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Anzac Day 2019

There Has To Be A Better Way…. Matthew 5:3-9,21-22

   Fred was well on in his eighties when I got to know him.  He was a lovely old chap, and we had some good talks together.  One day he told me about his experience of going to war and how he had served in the Pacific in World War Two.  His descriptions of some of his experiences of living in the jungle had me awestruck   Fred had seen some terrible things, and I might say had done some terrible things.  I suspect I only heard the sanitized version.  To kill even in times of war is not something that one crows about. For him it was something that had to be done, but I suspect it left him with many many sleepless nights.  As we talked one memory that really seemed to bother him was going to Hiroshima just weeks after the war ended to survey the damage and assess the effects of the atomic bomb.  The devastation he said was like nothing he had ever seen or imagined..  He described how the nuclear explosion had sucked all the air out of the area and then when it rushed back in everything was flattened, even huge factories. 

   He admitted he had not liked the Japanese.  He spoke of a friend who had lived through the brutal treatment of prisoners.  Fred believed the Japanese deserved the atomic bomb, though as he said few of them really understood what it was.

   But then he saw Hiroshima.  He recounted how he and a mate had walked though the flattened rubble.  Passing by a small pile of bricks that had been sort of fashioned into a small shelter they saw a small girl behind a wall.  As Fred spoke there was a quiver to his voice.  She was, he thought, about 5 years old, and her clothes were tattered rags falling off her body. Her eyes were sunken and she was terrified of these strange white men in their military uniform.  Of course she had no English and they had no conversational Japanese. As far as they could tell she was alone with no-one to take care of her.  She was obviously scavenging for survival. I could sense he could still vividly recall the scene as if it were yesterday.  He recalled his feelings of helplessness as he realised she was just a little child and probably her parents were dead along with any extended family. Here was a little five year old alone, helpless, and fending for herself. None of this was her fault, and yet he knew she would soon die of exposure to radiation.  Fred a soldier who had seen it all, shed tears.  That’s war, and that’s why I hate it he said.  He still believed we had to defend ourselves and fight for our freedom, but why he asks did they drop the bomb on a civilian target with little military significance.  Why couldn’t they have found an area not so heavily populated.  Fred went on talk about more recent wars in Iraq and the lies that were told.  There has to be a better way he said.

There has to be a better way.

   As we gather on another ANZAC day we remember those like Fred who have served in armed forces to protect and defend a way of life we hold dear.  Some of us will remember family members or friends that never returned.   For those that did return this day is a day of mixed emotion.  No one who has lived through war want’s to glorify the killing, but we do want to honour the ideal of sacrifice for the common good and the standing up for what we hold dear.   Out of control madness and evil sometimes needs to be forcibly stopped, but let us ever forget the plea of Fred that there has to be a better way.

   That way I believe has much to do with working to build a world where respect and human dignity is taught and practiced.  We have to learn that it is wrong to demean another human being.  We have to learn that it is right to honour one another with good manners, respect, and the gift of empathetic attention.  It is right and part of the other other way that Fred longed for to go out of our way to listen to another human being and to seek to understand their story and how that has shaped their point of view.  The way begins with upholding human dignity.  Jesus said you know it’s wrong to murder, but I tell you, ‘you murder someone when you speak ill of them or find some way to put them down or demean them.’  You as good as murder someone when you consign them to scrap heap and don’t care, and then you are in danger of being cast on the scrap heap and fire of hell yourself.  These are strong words that should have us reflecting on our own propensity to writ  others off or put them in boxes.  The other way that Fred spoke of is not easy.  

    Most of us will easily say we are peace lovers, but Jesus invited us to be peacemakers and there is a huge difference between the two.   Peacemaking requires real effort, and sacrifice.  It takes hard work to reach out and look over the fences of fear that divide us.  It takes hard work to siddle up to those ‘other sort’ of people and begin to engage in some way that helps us see that they are human like me.  It takes hard work to look beyond the stereotypes and images often created by others to see human faces in those labelled different.

   Peace lovers often talk of tolerance and are happy if you do your thing and it doesn’t disturb me doing my thing.  Peacemakers know there will inevitably be conflict as we work to engage and find the goodness in one another.  There will be discomfort and clashes that will be painful as we are faced with differing lifestyles and values.   Jesus never promised us it would be easy as we seek to build bridges across the divides of race, age, sexuality, and so on, but in the end even in war the guns have to be put down and the hard work of peacemaking begun.

   We are a varied and diverse community and have become more so in recent years.  Even in my own whanau I find huge diversity. We see things differently.   Religion, politics, sport, race. I acknowledge that my way of seeing will be shaped by my journey.  Others have had very different journeys.  We see things differently.  We know this in this city where tragedy has opened our eyes to our Muslim brothers and sisters.  There are some real challenges in front of us now in how we can live with diversity and respect that is more than some lovey dovey sweep our differences under the carpet and proclaim our one-ness.   The way Fred dreamed of I think begins with our common human-ness and yet seeing sacredness in one another.  Seeing the presence of God in every person was something Jesus encouraged his followers to do.  Nurturing habits and practices like good manners and taking time to consider how it might be for another rather than just looking after yourself is where this other way begins.  

  Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.  I invite you to go from here this morning to work hard at this task.  Do not leave it to others.

Putting the hard yards and sacrifice in to genuinely listen and understand those who are different.

To the Freds of the world I want to say I have searched for and I hope upheld is a better way. .

Dugald Wilson April 25 2019 0 Grid

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The Power of Jesus is Alive

Easter 2019 John 20:1-18

   It was different back then.  You didn’t put the body in a casket and dig a 6 feet hole.  They actually practiced a recycling way.  When a death occurred it was important to attend to the burial immediately.  We saw this tradition in the desire for our Muslim brothers and sisters to bury their dead as soon as possible.  Ideally burial happened within 24 hours. As soon as death was certain the deceased eye’s were closed.  The corpse was washed and then wrapped and bound.  Perfumes and ointments, usually nard, myrrh and aloes, were used for the ritual washing and the body wrapped in a shroud with the hands and feet bound with strips of cloth.  A special cloth was placed over the face.  Again as we saw recently the corpse is carried on a funeral bier rather than a closed coffin to the burial site just outside the city walls.  Traditionally this was a cave or large tomb carved out of the soft limestone rock that is found all round Jerusalem.  The body would be taken inside and laid out on a limestone plinth or shelf.  The entrance would then be sealed by placing a large rolling stone that moved in a cut channel and left for a year.  At the end of that time relatives would return to gather the bones that were left and place them in an ossuary or bone box which might be engraved with the person’s name and stored elsewhere or within the tomb itself. 

In Jesus’ case his family owned no tomb but one of the disciple band Joseph of Arimathea did and he offered the unused tomb for the burial. It seems that this is where the preparation of the body took place but that this task was not completed on the Friday before the Sabbath began at 6pm.  The Saturday being the Sabbath meant the work had to be delayed until early Sunday morning but that’s when the drama began.  Where was the body. 

      Mary assumed someone had stolen the body, and was obviously distraught. The earliest versions of Mark’s gospel which represent the earliest Christian stories have no stories of resurrection appearances, just the empty tomb.  What did happen?

   There have been some interesting suggestions.  Most Muslims believe Jesus who they recognise as their second greatest prophet never really died on the cross.  The person who died was a substitute.  Others believe Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross and was taken down still breathing, and when he was put in the tomb and as he lay there in the cool or possibly with the aid of some special drugs administered by the disciples he came round again.   Whatever Jesus ascended to God and will come again.

  Other people talk of the resurrection as if it were a resuscitation of a dead body.  After 2 days in the tomb as a dead person somehow Jesus human body came to life again as if someone performed CPR on him and got his heart beating again….a resuscitation. 

   Yet others claim the disciples were suffering from cognitive dissonance, the phenomenon whereby people who believe something strongly go on believing it even more strongly even when faced with evidence to the contrary.  In other words they denied his death by actually reporting seeing him alive again.  Their minds tricked them into actually seeing him and meeting him, but actually it was all in their heads.  Grieving people I have found often have powerful meetings or encounters with those who have recently died and some of us will know this. 

   Interesting theories.  I think the disciples had no expectation that Jesus would rise from the dead, but it seems clear they encountered something –  a new  presence.  Jesus’ risen body had many of the properties of as an ordinary body – he could talk, eat and drink, be touched and so on, but it seems even closest disciples  didn’t recognize him until he somehow opens their minds.  Mary and the disciples on the road to Emmaus engage with him but don’t immediately see him as Jesus. It’s only when they break bread together that they recognise him.  He has other strange properties too.  He could appear and disappear in a manner not unlike Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. He can appear in the midst of a locked room, and it seems he can appear in one location and shortly after in another location hundreds of kilometers away.  He only seems to appear to those he knew.  There are no recorded public appearance after the crucifixion.  The appearances simply don’t fit any normal patterns.

This of course is very frustrating for scientific minds like ours. Science likes to study phenomena that can be repeated in laboratory conditions and this event, the resurrection of Jesus just isn’t one of those sorts of events. 

   I believe that there was a physical reality to this new way of being, but I don’t think I can tell you much more.  There is real mystery here.  If you want to get theological I think it’s important there was a physical reality to the resurrected Jesus because this physical earthy stuff is what Jesus was all about. However in the end these history questions of what actually happened come up against a bit of a brick wall.  A better question is what does it mean for us now?    

   For me the reality that God raised Jesus to life gives me hope.  It tells me that God’s love is stronger than the powers that killed him.  I rejoice because in Easter is the affirmation that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than indifference and apathy, light is stronger than darkness, truth is stronger than lies, and life is stronger than death.  All that separates and injures and destroys in the world does not have the final say.  The power that reconciles and heals and loves is stronger.  The powers of goodness and life in our world are stronger than the powers of death, destruction and darkness.  The stone was rolled away and Jesus wasn’t left defeated by the powers that consigned him to die on the cross.  In our reformed tradition the cross is always empty.   The cross was not the final word.  Death is not the final word.  This is a hope that sustains my faith and my life.  This is the great hope of Easter and it means I live with with a confidence that all will be well.

   But the resurrection is not just a hope or an idea.  I believe that the risen presence of Jesus is a living power.  All that Jesus stood for in healing, in reshaping, in opening our lives to life is not just an historical reality but is a living reality.  There is a power, a presence of Jesus alive in our time that we can invite into our lives and which can shape our living and live in us to be the continuing living presence of Jesus.  Compassion, kindness, truth, goodness.  Power to affirm and draw the best out of others.  Power to work to heal the wounds in others and in ourselves.  And on this day I invite you to be more aware of this active power and presence.. 

   You may find yourself moved deep inside by something that stirs you.    Seeing another human being abused in some way.  Seeing someone in need of healing.  Seeing God’s creation abused, seeing the sacredness of life trampled.  Here in Christchurch the terrible events of March 15th still weigh heavy.  Human beings just like us gathered in worship gunned down.    Our deep passions, our tears I think are closely connected with this living presence of Jesus.  

   In our personal journeys  we experience pain or tragedy.  There may be dark and dull days which engulf us.  Sometimes I think of these days as sitting in the tomb of darkness.  It may take weeks or months or even years but the day comes when it seems there is a ray of light, and the stone has been moved away just a fraction.  Often people will say that time heals, but I don’t think it is time.  I think the living presence and power seen in Jesus is at work, patiently working in our lives leading us from the tomb to the dawn of a new day.

   The earth is warming rapidly and slowing human beings are waking up to the reality that we are responsible and our children’s children deserve a future.  The power of seen in Jesus is alive. 

   The truth of Easter is that Jesus is alive.  Whispering, nudging, inviting, calling us to work with him in shaping a new earth in the power of love.  He’s continuing to reveal the evil and the darkness of the world, and to show us another way.  He is continuing to meet us as he met Mary outside the tomb, to call us lovingly by name, and to invite us to participate with him in shaping a new world of goodness, respect, and peace.

   Jesus is alive, and he invites us to take his life into our life. One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle.  He said, My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, selfishness, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority and ego.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, hope, serentity, humility, kindness, generosity,, truth, compassion and faith.”  The grandson thought for a moment and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”  The old Cherokee answered simply, “the one you feed.” 

   That’s why we gather Sunday by Sunday – to feed on the presence of Jesus, to be nourished by this presence, to encounter his love and truth, to be shaped by his life.  We need to take the life of Jesus into our hearts, and we need to be warmed by his love and compassion for us and all people we meet….and so we come to this meal.

    Together we can and will shape a new world of goodness, respect, peace, and justice for all.

Dugald Wilson 20 April 2019

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Us and Them

Us and Them   Luke 7:36-50

   Simon the Pharisee was a fine righteous man with one of the best homes in town.  Only a few people lived in homes with space to have a large gathering – and Simon was one of them.  He was one of the people of the town and when Jesus visited this town the important people were invited to a special dinner at Simon’s home. What is not immediately clear to us because we live in different times, is that Simon had some ulterior motives. 

   Simon was upright and in the eyes of the town was considered to be a sort of model citizen who obeyed the laws, prayed his prayers, and kept the expected standards.  God had, it seemed, blessed him with wealth and status.  Jesus on the other hand was causing a stir, healing people in the name of God and proclaiming a new Way if Life that seemed to hang a bit loose with the established traditions.  I think Simon wanted to put Jesus in his place, to sort out this upstart preacher who was upsetting the applecart, and this shows in his poor welcome of the guest preacher.

   We’re not big on welcoming customs, but when you invite someone into your home there will be I suspect a handshake, the invitation to have a seat, the offer of a cup of tea. All these things say something about valuing your guest.  The expectations then were that Simon would kiss his guest, offer him a place of honour reclined round the dining table, and ask the servants to bring water and olive oil for the washing of hands and feet.   Only then could grace be said and the meal begin.  As we discover in this story things were different this day. There is no kiss, there is no washing, there is no welcome.  This guest is not an honoured guest. …..  He’s been invited but he’s not really welcome.

   The house is a big house, and in those days there was no fence around the property or locked doors to keep unwelcome guests out.  People knew everyone in town and there simply were no need of such things.  This day a woman entered Simon’s house.  We never know her name – she is simply a woman with a reputation.  Luke tells us she was a sinner but everyone listening to this story knows she was a prostitute.   She certainly hasn’t been invited, and when she makes an appearance at Simon’s house there are whispers.  Maybe some were uncomfortable seeing her there for other reasons.  Whatever she was there. Maybe she has heard from a client what was planned in terms of humiliating Jesus and putting him under a bit of heat.  Whatever she is there and she has made her way over to stand beside him, and heaven forbid she is weeping!  What on earth is going on?

   Maybe she is feeling for Jesus as Simon puts him down in his snub of a welcome.  She is feeling the hurt and the dishonouring of someone she respects.  You may feel deep anger if someone you care about is publically humiliated, but this woman expresses her pain in tears.  How could they treat him this way?  I think it’s clear that she knows Jesus, and of course for those looking on that was the problem.  He knew people like this and yet claimed to be a religious teacher.  But I think she has experienced something in this man Jesus.   He has met him before and he has opened her eyes to see something she hasn’t seen for a long long time. There was a day when she was someone’s little girl, when she felt cherished and enfolded in the love of a father and mother but that was a long time ago.  Maybe actually even those first years weren’t that flash, and she was abused, and rubbished as a piece of cow dung.  We don’t know, but we do know she now has taken pride of place as one of the big sinners of town.  The looks, the interactions, the mutterings, and the payments all said she was just an object.  That woman.    It was a long time since anyone has valued her as a human being.  It was a long time since someone had looked into her eyes and seen something more than a body to be used.  It was a long time since someone had looked deep into her soul and seen the sacredness and beauty of God there. It was a long time since anyone had said you belong, you are one of us.  But Jesus had.  Looking with the eyes of God, Jesus had.  And the tears came freely.  They were tears of joy with being treated as a real human being, of relief that she was valued for who she was.   They were tears of  discovery of something very very precious – unconditional love.  

   She had some special perfumed oil kept for the high paying customers, kept in an expensive alabaster jar.   If ever there was a right time to use it this was it.  So she sets about anointing Jesus feet with the perfumed oil and her tears.  Then she did something.  She let down her hair.  Respectable Jewish women  always kept their hair bound in public. As good Muslim women still do today, hair was to be covered.  To do what this woman does, to let her hair down was a divorceable offense.   You may remember a recent Prime Minister of Iran, PM Rafsanjani.  One of his quotable quotes when asked why women should cover their heads was this: “ It is the obligation of the female to cover her head because women’s hair exudes vibrations that arouse, mislead, and corrupt men.”  We may laugh but we need to understand his view is sincerely held.  What was happening here was extremely scandalous and shocking.   In traditional middle eastern society a bride on her wedding night lets down her hair and allows it to be seen by her husband for the first time.  This woman knows all this, but she is desperate to express her gratitude for what she has found in Jesus.  She is responding to Jesus with an overflowing shocking gesture of gratitude that speaks of  what she has discovered in his accepting love.

   What is happening is now of course centre stage and Simon is waiting for Jesus’ reaction. If he were truly of God he would see into her heart and he would know what sort of woman was now (heaven forbid!) touching him.  Everyone in the room would be expecting Jesus to judge her and stop the shocking proceedings with a word to Simon who would have her quickly removed from the room by a servant.  Everyone would expect Jesus to express shock and exclaim how terrible it was that this woman had disgraced herself and the gathering, and put her back into the box she belonged in  – that woman who was a disgrace to the town and not welcome here.  She was after all no saint. 

   But that never happens.  Instead she receives a cloak of praise and protection from Jesus.  He’s not offended by the shocking behavior one little bit.  It turns out he is offended by Simon’s behavior in failing to welcome him as a fellow human being.  He is offended by this invisable barrier that puts some people in the ‘not welcome’, ‘not to be engaged with’ camp.  Jesus is offended by this very common practice of labelling a fellow human being as an outsider.

  I listened to an interesting conversation the other day.  I was with a group of good Christian folk talking about the terrible tragedy in our city inflicted on the Muslim community and one of the group said, “I’m worried they are going to retaliate.”  It’s a fair question I guess, but if you know a few Muslims you’ll know they are human just like us and retaliation isn’t what’s being discussed out there.  It is the pain, the sleepless nights, the worry about how we will cope without the breadwinner.  Of course there are bad eggs in every basket and who knows.  But my question to her was “who are ‘they’”.  You see the language we use tells us something and this language was telling me there was an ‘us’ and ‘them’.  ‘They’ were not part of ‘us’.  ‘Us’ are safe and reliable, ‘they’ are unknown and dangerous.  ‘Us’ are acceptable and good, ‘they’ are dodgy.  Weren’t so many of Jesus’ stories about seeing ‘they as part of ‘us.’  ‘That woman’ in Simon’s eyes was a ‘they’.   No name, no connection, no sense she is a fellow human being.  ‘That woman’ in Jesus’ eyes was ‘us’.  Precious child of God, a real person with strengths and weaknesses like us all.  Someone who bleeds like us, someone who has feelings.  When we keep someone in the ‘they’ or ‘them’ box, we don’t make any connection.  When we include them in the ‘us’ box we listen, learn, ask questions, see the human face, share some of their tears.

In my little Christian group I asked who actually knew a Muslim person and there weren’t many hands going up.  I gently tried to suggest that it often changes everything when we put a real human face on people we talk about, they ‘theys’ of the world. 

But I also want to look at this woman.  She had put herself in the ‘them’ basket too.  It was the basket labelled no good.  She saw herself as a ‘they’ or ‘them’. But in Jesus she has met a new way of life.  Unconditional love.  She has discovered God knows her name and she is no longer that woman but ‘Mary’ a precious beloved child of God.   She is set free from her past, she is set free from the need to impress others, she is set free to be her true self.  She is in Jesus’ words forgiven.  We may hear these words in our heads, but she has somehow directly experienced these words deep in her soul.  She now sees with eyes of faith, eyes of God, and when she looks at herself she is no longer the rejected sinner but she is the one who is loved..  People often say faith is about believing in God but I would like to suggest a different take on that idea.  I think this woman found faith in the amazing discovery that God believed in her.  She discovered that despite all her sins which were many, God said ‘yes’ to her.  This is the faith that saved her……  Belief in God changes little in our lives, but knowing God believes in you changes everything.  God put us all in the ‘mine’ basket.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about Abraham and the deal or covenant God made with him.  That covenant was about God’s belief in Abraham and Sarah and the promise of a journey into a new life.  We gather around a table today.  We share bread and wine and our scriptures tell us that this is a renewal of that deal, that covenant.  At it’s heart is the affirmation that God believes in you.  It is also an affirmation that God believes in the person you sit beside.  God believes in ‘us’ and  God is leading us to a new land where ‘them’ is an empty basket. 

This woman has much to teach us, and as we gather around this table may she speak to us afresh, because even in this room there are ‘us’ and ‘thems’.  Around this table we are family, we are us.      

Dugald Wilson 7 April 2019 he is feelin

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