Thursday, October 28, 2010
There aren’t many groups more in need of a public relations adviser than the Pharisees. The Pharisees are regularly vilified for their hypocrisy, or their self-importance, or their obsessive legalism which damages the consciences of others and drives them far from God. So the Pharisees become easy targets for that human, but ultimately lazy and distorting tendency to caricature and label, rather than that much harder learning to speak about other human beings in a careful, precise, and ultimately more truthful way.
Even in the New Testament, with a few notable exceptions, the Pharisees play to type, almost always the antagonists, rarely doing the right thing. Which makes it all the more difficult to listen to today’s gospel and not fall into easy caricature. We seem to be presented with a stereotypical Pharisee, and, for added measure a stereotypical tax-collector as well. It isn’t helped by the fact that neither of these two characters in Jesus’parable is given a name, because, although we still do it, it is harder to caricature and pigeonhole when people are named, when they have a name and a face and a family and a history.
But what if today’s parable is less about caricature than about turning caricature on its head, so that we are forced to re-evaluate both how we view Pharisees and how we view tax-collectors, and ultimately how we view each other?
First, the Pharisee. We might be tempted to think that he is a typical Pharisee, self-important, carried away by his own piety, despising the ‘people of the land’. After all, he seems to fit perfectly the definition of a Pharisee in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘self-righteous person, formalist, hypocrite’! But I want you for the moment to throw away your copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (it may be helpful for your prose style, but may prove disastrous as a tool for New Testament exegesis). I want you to reach instead for your copies of the Jewish historian Josephus, or your English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. If we spend a bit more time with the first century sources, we might come to the conclusion that the Pharisee in the parable is in fact a quite untypical Pharisee. The Pharisees, Josephus tells us, were the pin-up boys of first century Judaism, highly popular among the people (of course, he was a Pharisee himself, which always helps). If we are to believe other accounts, the Pharisees were the modernisers, those attempting to re-interpret archaic laws for modern times, which is why they often provoked the ire of the Sadducees. As for their supposed obsession with the minutiae of legal interpretation, let’s not forget that the community at Qumran called the Pharisees ‘the smoothies’, the ‘seekers after smooth things’, criticizing them not for being too strict, but for being far too lax in their following of the Law.
So the Pharisee in the parable may not be a typical Pharisee at all: rather, he is a caricature of a Pharisee gone-wrong, of what even a popular, liberal, pious, God’s law-loving Pharisee might become. Jesus’ parable shockingly turns on its head the usual expectation of the Pharisee, replacing one caricature with its polar opposite, just as it does precisely the same thing with the caricature of the swindling, disreputable, ungodly tax-collector. It is meant to shock. It is meant to force us to re-evaluate the caricatures with which we ordinarily operate.
But the real point of today’s parable is less about different kinds of people – caricatures or not – than about different kinds of prayer. The pious Pharisee prays a prayer which on a superficial level sounds like a eucharistic prayer: ‘God, I thank you …’ Yet as his prayer unfolds, it comes clear that it is a highly distorted eucharistic prayer. First of all, although the prayer is addressed to God, the Pharisee stands ‘praying to himself’, so self-absorbed that no real conversation, certainly no real thanksgiving, is possible. Second, his prayer doesn’t give thanks to God for what God has done, but rather gives thanks to himself for what he has done for God: ‘I thank you that I am not like other people … I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ Nor can he resist his own attempt at caricature, dividing humanity into manageable groups with their own neat labels: ‘thieves, rogues, adulterers’ … and then ‘this tax-collector’, who belongs to a group which might be even worse than those groups already mentioned!
On the other hand, there is the prayer of the tax-collector. It is not that what the tax-collector says is any more true than what the Pharisee prays. The Pharisee probably did go beyond what was required by fasting twice a week and tithing the whole of his income. And the tax-collector may well have been the disreputable rogue that the Pharisee implies him to be. But unlike the prayer of the Pharisee, his prayer is utterly focused on the mercy of God. And his is prayer which is acceptable to God. He stands far off, beating his breast in a sign of repentance, thoroughly aware of his own unworthiness. Luke make be hinting here of another scene – not in the Temple but outside the walls of Jerusalem – where others stand far off and beat their breasts. Ironically, the disreputable tax-collector is closer to those crowds who repented as they saw the crucified Jesus than the Pharisee who sees no need for repentance.
There is a second Pharisee in today’s readings, and he does have a name: Paul of Tarsus. This Pharisee has certainly been subject to more than his fair share of caricature and pigeon-holing. Yet the glimpses which the New Testament gives us of Paul’s prayer is of a Pharisee who is both utterly aware of his own unworthiness, and of the limitless mercy of God. It is not what he has done for God, so much as what Christ has done living in him, which permeates his prayer. So, on the verge of death, the Paul of 2 Timothy prayerfully reviews his life. Yes, he has fought the good fight; he has finished the race; he has kept the faith. But only by the grace of God working in him. It is the Lord who stood by him in his defence. It is the Lord who gave him strength. It is the Lord who rescued him from the lion’s mouth, and who will save him for his heavenly kingdom. That is the invitation today, for our prayer and for our Christian vocation: to glimpse what God has done, and is doing for Paul the Pharisee; what God has done for the unnamed tax-collector; what God has done, and is doing in us.
Monday, October 25, 2010
This homily was given by Gavin Cooper, a final year ordinand, at Evening Prayer on Monday 25th October 2010. (Readings; Ecclesiasticus 39: 1-11, John 17: 1-5)
We are now on week three of Michaelmas term, which, for us means that we have been here four weeks. I, for one, am surprised at how quickly the time has gone, already.
How many of us were told before we arrived, or even as we started at seminary how quickly the time would go- I know some of you who have just joined us have heard it, because I have said it to you- and it is true-time flows here.
We work hard in the course of our studies and all of us, whether we are on the BA, BTh, MTh, CTG all share a common occupation- what Fr. Robin would call ‘scribble, scribble, scribble’.
In the NRSV, the reading we heard from Ecclesiasticus is given the simple title- The Activity of the Scribe; and I actually think that it fits rather well our situation here as we daily ‘scribble, scribble, scribble’.
I am not for one minute suggesting that any of us are to be compared with the scribe- but this passage does sum up some of what we are about here.
The Scribe seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients and prophesies; he penetrates the subtleties of parables; he sets his heart to rise early; he gives thanks to the Lord in prayer. These are all things that we are part of in our studies here. Particularly if, like me, you think that setting your heart to rise early is to roll out of bed at 7am and wish you had got up ten minutes earlier to avoid the bell ringing whilst you are madly brushing your teeth.
We are lucky, in that we are given the time here to commit ourselves to study and prayer, and, joking aside- we do get the space to pray
He sets his heart to rise early to seek the Lord who made him, and
to petition the Most High; he opens his mouth in prayer and asks
pardon for his sins.
This evening’s second reading follows on quite nicely from this idea of prayer- for at this point in John’s gospel, we are shown Jesus at his most intimate with his Father- we are a fly on the wall in his own prayer.
His first petition Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify you. Fr. Damian, around this time last year told us that we should not wish our life away, and this evening’s readings do nothing but restate this message, for if we are to follow this example of prayer from Jesus, then we should express to God every now and again that it is His time frame we are working to and that it is His will that is being done (we hope).
Following this morning’s seminar, the inhabitants of the back row of these stalls should be able to speak at length on the danger of stress in our work without repetition, hesitation or deviation. We do, from time to time, get snowed under and our concern can be so much directed towards ‘scribble, scribble, scribble’ that we do have to learn to lean on the prayers of those around us and know that when they are troubled they can lean on our prayers- however, we should always know that in our doings here, it is God’s plan that is being carried out, and that, if we are lucky, we will share the gifts of the scribes
If the great Lord is willing, we will be filled with the spirit of
understanding; we will pour forth words of wisdom of our own and
give thanks to the Lord in prayer.
The Lord will direct our counsel and knowledge, as we meditate on
his mysteries. We will show the wisdom of what we have learned
and will glory in the law of the Lord’s covenant.
Monday, October 11, 2010
This homily was given by Imogen Black, a final year ordinand, at Evening Prayer on Monday 11th October 2010;
Today is the feast of Ethelburga, a 7th century saint who was abbess of Barking; not to be confused with Ethelburga, a 7th century saint who was abbess of Faremoutier-en-Brie; or indeed with Ethelburga, a 7th century saint who was abbess of Lyming.
Very little is known about her, making it an interesting question as to quite why she (unlike her two namesakes) has been singled out for the contemporary Anglican calendar. Perhaps it’s not unrelated to the fact that a church under her patronage in Bishopsgate made the news a few decades ago; almost destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1983, it was rebuilt as the St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, something that may have brought the saint a little more into the public eye.
What we do know about her comes mostly from Bede, writing some 50 years after her death. Her brother Eorcenwald founded the monastery at Barking and set her over it as its first abbess. In this task, we’re told, she proved worthy of her brother in all respects, “both by her holy life and by her sound and devoted care for those under her rule”, to whom she was both “mother” and “nurse”.
That is really all Bede has to say about her character. But he is convinced as to her holiness, to which visions and miracles bore witness. Most notably, an elderly nun had a vision in which a body brighter than the sun was drawn up from the monastery into heaven; a few days later, Ethelburga died, and such was her record, Bede says, that none who knew her could doubt that the gates of heaven were opened for her. Then another nun, badly crippled, asked to be carried into church to pray at Ethelburga’s body. There she asked her to intercede on her behalf in heaven, that she might be released from her suffering; twelve days later she was indeed released, in death.
So what, then, can we learn from such a figure, given how little we know of her? Perhaps that holiness does not necessarily involve doing things that are, in the end, particularly exciting or memorable, but can be a matter of simply faithfully seeking God’s will in the place where we are set, getting on with the job that we’ve been given to do. And that how we treat those around us, those people with whom we live and work, is a significant testimony to our holiness or lack of it. Those who believed Ethelburga to be truly holy, who sought and received her intercession, were from her own monastery, the people who saw her in day-to-day life, who had to live with her, under her authority. She can hardly have been faultless, but whatever her faults, her genuine care for her community was seen as rather more significant.
Let us pray.
To those who love you, Lord,
you promise to come with your Son
and make your home within them.
Come then with your purifying grace
and, at the intercession of St Ethelburga your virgin
make our hearts a place where you can dwell.
We make our prayer through Christ our Lord.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Homily given by Fr Damian Feeney, vice principal of St Stephen's House, on Trinity XIX, 10th October 2010.
Readings; 2 Kings v.1-3, 7-15b; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy ii: 8-15 Luke 17.11-19 (NRSV)
Lepers have become the symbol, par excellence, of those who must to be avoided. Over the summer I reached something of a milestone, watching as I did, late into the night, Ben Hur for the one thousandth time. If you don’t know it (where have you been?) part of the story concerns Judah Ben Hur’s mother and sister, who contract leprosy and are banished to the Valley of the Lepers, where they are kept apart from the rest of the community; even their food is lowered down on pallets. This doesn’t necessarily betoken or imply a lack of compassion so much as fear – fear of contagion, for to touch one who is so afflicted is a risky, even dangerous business. More than that, to touch a leper meant that you were ritually unclean. The conclusion of the tale is one of transformation – the most cursory of encounters with the crucified Christ, and his blood outpoured, cures the women of the dread and highly contagious ailment, but not before Judah himself had led them out of the imposed captivity of the Valley to which they had been condemned.
So it has been for lepers through the ages. Famously Francis of Assisi embraced a leper – a signal moment in his own understanding of what Christ-like love meant. Blessed Damien the Leper, in serving the colony at Molokai in Hawaii, where he arrived in 1873 (carrying little more than his Breviary) contracted leprosy himself some twelve years later. He wasn’t alone in this sacrifice – he was the third missionary of the Sacred Heart to contract the disease – but fear of infection led to him being ostracized by members of his own religious community, including his superior and his bishop.
It’s interesting to speculate the response of the priest to the presence of ten healed lepers, requesting a re-admittance to mainstream society as required in Leviticus 14. Only the priest could declare the leper clean, and therefore fit to belong within the mainstream of society. He would have to examine the lepers, find two living birds, some cedarwood and some crimson yarn. He would slaughter one of the birds…..actually, I’ll leave it to you to look up, but I have an image of the priest frantically looking over his shoulder at the Levitical Code to make sure he got it right, and that’s before we approach the vexed question of what he should be wearing. (It’s all a long way from First Year Formation and Ministry, where slaughter is kept to the minimum prescribed by Ministry Division.)
The priest wouldn’t be sure, because he wouldn’t have dealt with the situation that often. There was no cure for leprosy. A healed leper meant a miracle, and a miracle is something for those in authority to mistrust. Rather than focusing on the miracle, the priest might possibly have reflected on what happens when the rules in which you have come to trust have been broken by the very God who gave them. The law prescribes a course of action, a ritual, if you will – but in fact what matters is God’s action in healing through Jesus – something of itself which was profoundly threatening to the priest, and indeed to any who would think of themselves as the stewards of the tradition. When God works outside the tradition, we are challenged to think again.
Any society of humans creates lepers. That is, we create underclasses of people, people who we deem to be ‘unclean’ beyond the pail’ untouchable. There are any number of reasons, from poverty to lifestyle to crime and disorder. Migrant workers, living in a black economy in the Fens, or drowning in the waters of Morecambe Bay: Christian people whose tradition and practice is different from our own. Not for nothing did a former colleague of mine once say that the acid test of the church’s mission and ministry at this time would be its treatment and care of paedophiles. Of course we hate the sin, we hate it bitterly, but to Christ, no soul is not worth dying for.
So, who are your lepers? What are the prejudices to which we dare not admit, but which all of us carry and can affect our conduct and our treatment of people? We seem to live in a world where most, prejudices against others are roundly condemned – I say ‘most’ because it still seems acceptable to hold Stephen Fry as a national treasure, despite his prejudicial treatment of Christians, Christianity and people of faith generally. But let’s not be distracted. Who do we subconsciously condemn to a valley of lepers our own design? There are always those who we prefer, and therefore those we do not. Part of our formation as followers of Christ is about humble self-awareness, and a razor-sharp honesty before our loving, merciful and compassionate God, who knows us better than we know ourselves. to recognize such things within ourselves, and to release such people from the places of confinement which exist in our own minds. The challenge is that our preparations here are to fit us, however imperfectly, for a share and participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ – one who was asked for mercy, and whose response betokened not merely mercy, but healing, acceptance and liberation.
Vice Principal, St. Stephen’s House
Monday, October 4, 2010
This homily was given by Graham Lunn, a final year ordinand, at Evening Prayer on Monday 5th October 2010. The readings was Ecclus. 16:17-end and Mark 15:1-15;
It seems to me, in self-reflection and in observation of others, that a vocation to the sacred ministry often comes with two unfortunate character traits in tow: a restless activism, and a not insignificant amount of control-freakery. Both of these traits are in our day doubtless formed in us from an early age. We live in an era still defined, in the ‘sophisticated’ West at least, by a strident individualism which tells us that we are the masters of our own destiny; and we live in a country which has yet to escape a spirit of messianic Pelagianism – that British pull-your-socks-up mentality which where I come from leads to a phenomenon proudly referred to as the ‘Protestant work ethic’. I am sure, however, that they are as deeply ingrained in the character of what it is to be a fallen human being as much as in what it is to be here in the West now.
These traits of activism and desire to be in total control I’ve labeled as unfortunate, and I believe them to be particularly so when it comes to considering our continuing vocational journeys, as seminarians, as tutors, as priests. Throughout the process of consultation leading up to the experience of a Bishops’ Advisory Panel, and in training here and the search for a curacy, it has been a trial for me to realise at various points that I am certainly not the one in charge. I have to wait. I have to be patient. I must recognise that I am not the only actor in this process, that there are many others involved – and not least the Lord.
But even the Lord Himself knew a time when He seemed not to be the actor, the one in total control. The passage from Mark’s gospel we heard a moment ago ended with the phrase, “[Pilate] handed him over to be crucified”. W.H. Vanstone, in his book The Stature of Waiting, points out that up to this point, that of the narrative of the Lord’s Passion, Mark portrays Jesus as the actor in every situation. In fact, it is Jesus’ very activity which gives this gospel its breathless haste – he came, he went, he spoke, he called, he had compassion, he began to teach. But from this point on, this point of being “handed over”, Jesus suddenly becomes the one to whom things happen. His action throughout His itinerant ministry sits in stark contrast to His Passion, the events leading up to and including his death and resurrection.
What does it mean then for us to be conformed to this aspect of Lord’s Passion in our seminary context? Too much to consider fully, I’m sure, in one, two, three or as many years of residential training we might be afforded. But I wish to make two points.
Firstly, that we must take this opportunity to hone the skill of waiting, to reject the notion that we must be in control, and that we must constantly be doing in order for our ministry, both now and in the future, to be of value. This is all very well to say when already the new members of our fellowship will have discovered how busy life at St Stephen’s House can be. We are, however, blessed with time specifically set apart for conscious waiting, waiting upon God. We must heed the advice of the writer of Ecclesiasticus when he tells us not to ignore the purposes of God simply because they might be too great for us to comprehend. We must take this precious time while we have it, and learn from our life here the discipline of taking time to be attentive to the voice of the Lord in prayer.
It is also good to recall at the beginning of this year that indeed there are many actors in our vocational journeys, our Bishops, our DDOs, our prospective training incumbents, our families - the Lord. But we also have each other, and I believe that in our openness to each other in this place, and at this time, we can not only wait on God as individuals, but as a fellowship seeking His purpose for our common life. In this way too we can discover more insight into what it might be to be conformed to the Lord’s Passion, and to know more fully what it is to be “crucified with Christ” as His Body.