Saturday, 8 August 2020

More woven strands

Among the readings set for Sunday is that of Joseph being put down a (dry) well by his brothers.  They had intended to kill him, but one (Reuben) persuaded them on this course of action instead, although his hope of then rescuing Joseph was thwarted when he came and found the well empty, his brothers having pulled Joseph out and sold him into slavery.

I’ve found pictures of Joseph being thrust into the well and of Reuben’s mournful discovery that he is missing in a Fifteenth Century Biblia Pauperum.  Strangely to modern eyes, they illustrate Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb.  Reuben’s “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” is explicitly being seen as a prototype for Mary Magdalen’s “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him”.

It makes me notice that neither Joseph nor Jesus are merely found where they had been confined (or merely restored to their old live), but each is ‘sent ahead’ (one into Egypt, one into Galilee) where new stories are to unfold.

But I also thought of Jeremiah being thrust into a cistern (again a dry one, but muddy enough at the bottom for him to sink into it), which is another of the stories which we are not invited to read at a main Sunday service.

Some of those with influence had been sufficiently unimpressed by his vehement contradictions of the  Government’s repeated insistence that it is coping well with a breaking crisis that they are willing to do away with the gainsayer.  But a Cushite in royal service called Ebed-Melech (it seems he is a eunuch), confronts the King with the injustice being perpetrated in his name, so that Jeremiah is rescued. 

And it is Ebed-Melech who held my attention.  He might simply be an anonymous ‘servant of the King’ (which is what ‘ebed melech’ means), but he is rewarded by being spared the consequences of the disaster which does quickly befall the King, court and country, and is given great status in the Talmud. 

He struck me how relevant he is as a sort of potential ‘patron saint’ for everyone from whistle-blowers to Amnesty International.  And (in weeks in which we are reminded how easily black people’s role in our histories are forgotten, marginalised or disguised), it seemed important to notice that a Cushite would come from the Upper Nile valley region; the hero of the story may have been an Ethiopian or (in our terms) Sudanese slave.

Which also creates a further connection in my mind between Hebrew Scripture and early Christian scripture as an Ethiopian eunuch form a royal court makes an intriguing appearance in the Acts of the Apostles.

Monday, 13 July 2020

One strand of story for our time

There is a story, not widely retold, which seems almost familiar in a world in which an absolute monarch can make potentially disruptive members of the royal family disappear, in which dictators can achieve extra judicial executions abroad, in which the commercially powerful can normalise their own sexual exploitation of others, in which mafias can prolong blood feuds. 

A strong aggrieved minority group saw an opportunity to lynch the family of a defeated ruler who they said had once sought their genocide.  The new tyrant was happy to collude; he might have been keen both to win their public favour and to be able to eliminate potential rivals in the process.  Seven men were strung up.  Two were sons of the defeated ruler by one of his sex slaves; her potential use by others had been bid for as soon as he had fallen from power.  Five were grandsons of the defeated ruler, whose mother the new tyrant had once been promised as a wife but who had then married another man becoming the mother of the sons the new tyrant was now able to have slain.

The seven bodies were left exposed, destined to be slowly devoured as a spectacle.  But one of their endlessly exploited mothers set camp at the foot of the gallows and day after day drove off the wild animals which approached.  So the new ruler felt obliged to do one dignified thing.  He gathered the human remains, and also the remains of both the defeated ruler and his much loved son, and arranged their proper burial.

And the re-telling of this story centuries on was recast as one of non-violent resistance of the exploited and abused - risky dignity in the face of oppression, shaming the tyrant into treating the oppressed as human just this once .

Only a possible hint in the story, that human sacrifice might ensure a good harvest, seems strange to us – the new tyrant’s desperation at a prolonged famine had led him to consult with the potential victims of his predecessor’s supposed attempted genocide.  It was also actually a threshing floor which he would soon buy as a place on which to build an altar, the site for a future sacred shrine for his own regime, bringing a plague to an end by doing so.

The story is in 2 Samuel 21.  One of the options for an Old Testament reading at a principal Sunday service this time next year is to read over seven weeks some episodes of the regime of this new tyrant (King David) in 2 Samuel, but this story is never included (nor, more strangely, that of the first foundation on the site of the Jerusalem Temple).  It is also another of the passages skipped over altogether in the pattern of daily readings for Morning and Evening Prayer as well (although 2 Samuel 24’s account of David buying the threshing floor is read at one service each year).  So there is no particular reason why even the most diligent daily church attender should be aware of it. 

This is despite the way there have been periods when the story has been better known by Christians.  Their interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures was sometimes focused on any hint they could find of a story which paralleled that of Jesus.  So they noticed ‘we have no right to put anyone to death’ (2 Samuel 21.4 and John 18.31) and ‘he handed them over’ (2 Samuel 21.9 and John 19.16) and saw this as a deliberate foretaste of Jesus’ execution, also on a hill.  It is striking to me that the nineteenth century French engraving by Gustav Dore, which I found on WikiCommons to illustrate this post, shows the lynching to be by crucifixion, somehow reflecting Mary at the foot of Jesus’ cross.

A different picture of Rizpah driving off birds of prey popped up in a biblical art social media stream the other day, so she is certainly not totally over looked today.  It was what made me remember what was actually Allan Boesak (the South African Reformed Church minister, liberation theologian and anti-apartheid campaigner) reflecting on the story in a ‘Biblical Texts in Context of Occupation’ collection.  

So, once again, I see Rizpah is each mother, wife or daughter of the disappeared or assassinated or casually state-murdered standing out for the dignity of their sons’ lives which mattered and matter, taking what is sometimes the great risk of shaming the overwhelmingly powerful.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020


I find I have fragments jotted down any of which might have developed into a post on this blog.

Re-reading Judges 3

My periodic noticing of which passages of scripture get jumped over even in the otherwise apparent continuous reading through the Bible day by day at Matins and Evensong brought me (between celebrations of Joshua and Caleb and those of Deborah and Gideon) to wonder why the story of Ehud is one we do not read and which I hardly know– Judges 3 has him deceive the excessively fat King of Moab into a private conversation, his single left-handed plunging of a hidden weapon so deep that the King’s flesh closed in over it, and his calm locking of the chamber leaving the Moabite royal servants unaware of the assassination until Ehud was safely away and it dawned on the servants that the King couldn’t have been on the loo so long and so the door hadn’t been locked for his privacy.  I’m glad not to have to try to preach about it, although the advantage of being left-handed is an intriguing feature of the story.

Re-reading our historical context

It was suggested that 1871-1990 (the period between German unification and German reunification) might be viewed as a single western European ‘Hundred Year War’; the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 marking a shift from conflicts in which the place of what had been Napoleonic France had been the key dynamic to conflicts in which the emerging strong single German state was. 

One could step back and suggest also that the new century-long focus on the dynamic of having a strong single German state might have temporarily masked the importance of the dynamic of having a single strong Russian state – the one Hundred Year War in fact being bracketed by Russian loss of its Crimea ports (1856) and its annexation of the Crimea (2014), with what was in effect a Russian truce-line across western Europe between 1945 and 1990 holding the tension for one quarter of this time, and with what is emerging as the Russian undermining of the new Franco-German partnership (as we might understand the EU) as only the latest stage.

Re-reading our historical process

The whole point of history is that it is re-written.  The craft of the historian is precisely to re-assess, re-evaluate, re-search and then, yes, re-write.  In fact media reports of any historical discovery almost always tediously return to the cliché that ‘history is having to be rewritten’.  This is so basic, how could anyone think this is not the case?  Or think things like the history of African-European relations has been that the Africa has treated Europe as a free cashpoint rather than the other way around? 

Re-reading Luke 6

Which leaves a tiny piece of theological speculation which I have shared with some different clergy groups.  Perhaps the concept of ‘white privilege’ pulls into focus Luke’s quite different take on the Beatitudes (Luke 6.24-26 is not jumped over in our daily reading of scripture, but it is certainly read much less often than Matthew  5.1-11 in public worship): woe to you if  you are rich, well-fed, happily un-bereaved and spoken about highly; if I live in a context in which I can assume my good fortune to be the norm or even the result of my own qualities, I’m likely to fail to see what a dangerously self deluded place it is and what vulnerably different experiences imprison others.     

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Warm blossom time

For in the Romans there is an arrogance which no submission or good behaviour can escape.  Pillagers of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indisciminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea.  A rich enemy excites their cupidity; a poor one, their lust for power.  They are the only people on earth to whose covertness both riches and poverty are equally tempting.  To robbery, butchery and rape, they give the lying name of ‘government’; they create a desolation and call it peace.

I’ve been returning to a famous quotation in Tacitus’ life of his father-in-law Agricola.  We can make obvious inferences about Roman power from the little which is known about Pilate as Governor of Judea at the time of Christ, but it is all spelt out in the detailed account of Agricola as Governor of Britain forty years later.  And Tacitus imagines (rather than reports, I assume) how a particular British leader would have excoriated his conquerors and what was just being coined as Pax Romana.

Three things strike me re-reading this quotation in the time of Black Lives Matter.

The first is that a campaigner today chanting ‘No Justice, No Peace’ is saying roughly the same as ‘they create a desolation and call it peace’: it is not peace if there is no justice; it is not peace if all opposition has simply been crushed or swept aside.  Tactitus gives us the earliest account of what a native inhabitant of these islands would have thought, so the whole history of reflection in Britain is bookended by cries that the absence of conflict is not in itself real peace.

The second is that, quite unexpectedly now I notice it, Tacitus, a member of the Roman elite, exhibits a remarkable level of empathy and self awareness in giving this account.  Put in our terms, his privilege has not blinded him to the way that privilege crushes those who do not share it.

The third is how almost integral self-interest is to having absolute power (to being ‘top nation’).  One could almost plot onto this quotation things like our own past subjugation of Ireland, slave trading, and making war to enforce drug use on China; our exploitations which we lying told ourselves was good government.  One could almost plot onto it our immediate future’s helplessness to preserve any control of security of the internet, to retain our established levels of environmental and animal welfare, and to prioritise adapting to forestall the climate emergency; our capitulation to the desolating conditions on which we will be allowed to trade peacefully with those now powerful in our place.

I wove the first two of these three striking things into a sermon on Sunday, adding there a third which was the positive possibilities of what looks almost like the first experiment in what being sent out by Jesus should mean (Matthew 10.5-14): don’t rely on having resources to deploy; name and intend peace at every stage; announce God’s alternative way and approach as being within reach; act it out in reconciliation, in bringing new life, in casting out the destructive; don’t be downhearted by the failure of this robust just peace to take root, but dust yourselves down and try planting it again nearby.   

I’ll have to wonder why I sketched out a different third point for this blog post.  It may simply be that I’ve been trying to juggle with some over simplified historical perspective.  

Just as the Hundred Years War of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries was not a continuous conflict but rather a regular flaring up of a single theatre of conflict over more than a century, I wonder whether history will see the conflicts roughly beginning with German unification (1871) and ending with German reunification (1990) as a single ‘Hundred Year’s War’.  

Did Britain, whose Empire had been at its zenith in 1870s, find itself in the 1970s, in the last stages of that war, settle down to a new normal with both the disposal of the final remnants of that Empire and with taking a new part in the close economic and political alliance created by the main protagonists of that single continental conflict in which it had been caught up for those hundred years?  

And, does it now find itself a generation or more later, stepping out (without either Empire or close continental alliance) almost innocent of what being subject to the powerful self-interested misrepresenters of what political peace and freedom will mean?

Meanwhile, the picture is of newly discovered fireblight in our small orchard of fruit trees, widespread and incurable, so the trees will probably need to be taken out, and with much care.  Apparently fireblight doesn’t usually taken hold this far north because it requires sustained warm weather at blossom time, so our wonderful May was not quite the blessing it seemed.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Breath of God

The most arresting and transforming image from worship yesterday was the London church which pictured the crucifixion with the caption ‘I can’t breathe’.

It didn’t need spelling out. 

We’ve been taught that it is suffocation which ends the life of those being crucified; pain and exhaustion means tortured victims can no longer hold themselves in a position on the cross in which it is possible to breathe. 

We’d seen footage in the week of a black community activist’s death as he was arrested; his being knelt upon until the life was squeezed out of him; his final ‘I can’t breathe’ being taken up as the cry of riotous reaction. 

We instinctively make the link: lawful controlling authority’s tendency over the millennia to be almost casual in eliminating those it sees as possible sources of insurrection in the majority community around it; now here yet again as God’s story and our world’s story side-by-side.   

And we know that Covid19's deadly work is when it overwhelms lungs so that even invasive ventilation fails to deliver enough oxygen.

An image of the crucifixion with the caption ‘I can’t breathe’ startles because the crucifixion uncaptioned is such a familiar sight that normally it fails to provoke any real reaction in us at all.

And it is an image which unsettled yesterday because it wrong footed some of the standard worship at Pentecost; pious generalisation trotted out with a broad smile (about the breath of God – and about peace, joy, and forgiveness) can seem glib or superficial if simply spread about as if the Holy Spirit is like a pixie dust which will make everything alright.

We would have been reading of locked-down fear in John’s account of Easter Day:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Perhaps we are being freshly invited this year to pray - tentatively, painfully and realistically - that the gift of the Holy Spirit will do the hard work of properly arresting us and transforming us.  And those with forceful authority around us.  And those most vulnerable to having life squeezed out of them, even alongside their last gasps.    

We do so with a strange recognition that, at the centre of the reading, the newly risen Lord who is suddenly there speaking peace (and who is about to send them, breathe on them, and warn them that there are implications in their reactions to other people’s sin) appears to be recognised and authenticated precisely by his showing them the wounds of his killing. 

May be the whole movement of the passage suggests something strange but essential about the places where our fear will turn into joy.  It is the one who has had not been able to breathe who breathes Spirit on us.  It is the scarred one who sends us to discern where human sin still deeply scars ourselves and others. 

Resurrection possibilities can only ever be squeezed out of lifelessness.  The teachings have always been that it is from apparently dead seeds, often those sown in tears, that joy and peace and forgiveness have a chance of beginning to grow.   

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Ferns and prayers

In our desiccations, with those dried up,
we pray:
ever-creative God,
un-curl us. 

In our isolations, with those restricted,
we pray:
human-habited God,
fresh-green us.

In our mortifications, with those disprited,
we pray:
re-newing God,
new-season us.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Rooks and bees

A fresh nest on the statue of St Michael, high on the east front of St Michael's, Haworth, and the nest-building debris below it.

Our favourite bush at the Rector entrance, with the flowers which face the sun coming into bloom first, and one of its early visitors.