Sunday 27 June 2021

Discerning sacrificial discipleship


A portion of 2 Corinthians 8 set for services this morning, and I’m uncomfortable with what almost looks like Paul's manipulation across the wider section of this letter. 

He isn’t sure those to whom he is writing are really on top of the project in hand.  And his emissary has reported back that they aren’t that chuffed with his leadership, so getting them back on track will be tricky.  So he claims to admit that his last tough missive might have been ill judged, albeit somehow necessary.

He also lards in things like ‘I am not telling you what to do – but you’ll know to do the right thing’, ‘I’ve told people round here that you are on top of things – it would be so embarrassing if this turns out to be wrong’, ‘I’m not putting pressure on you to be more generous than you want to be – just remember that you owe everything to the generosity of Christ’.

My discomfort, to be clear, is that I recognise myself and the wider church of which I am part in this.  The echo of unintentionally hectoring clergy armed with calls to sacrificial discipleship sound around me and sound like me.  

‘Here is scripture, let us see how it applies to our life.’  A good call, requiring careful discernment.  ‘Here is a challenge in our life, let us see what insights scripture might have to be bring.’  An equally good call, one requiring even more diligent discernment.  But ‘I’m sure I know the answer, and this bit of scripture backs it up and explains why you should agree with me’, not so much so. 

So I was reflecting with people this morning about how I might preach stewardship as a call to overflowing generosity to family, neighbours and those in need (and, yes, the church), not as something motivated by the need to balance the books of our institutions.  The national misuse of the ‘first to the Lord’ text (from just a few verses earlier than those set for today) still at the front of my mind all these years later.

Or safeguarding as seeking to shape places where people will flourish (including, yes, rigorous attention to necessary awareness and procedures), not as something motivated by the need to match diocesan criteria.  The three-yearly renewal of my safeguarding training over the last few weeks was saying as much.

And, the rub for me this week as our Parochial Church Councils are able to meet for the first time in ages and we have to begin to tackle our sharply reduced post-pandemic viability, how can we see what God wants ahead of us, not how can we see that God wants us to adopt the schemes I think are the necessary next steps.

The pictures come from exhibitions in windows in central Bradford during Refugee Week.   

Friday 18 June 2021

Placing trust?

Let me think what I’m not seeing said about the Chesham & Amersham by-election.

The non-Conservative vote simply didn’t surge.  There were relatively few former Conservative voters who chose to vote Liberal Democrat this time.

It was turn out which skewed the figures again: 76.8% at the 2019 General Election (a typical level for this constituency in the recent past) but just 52.2% at this by-election – a drop of about 17 500 people. 

Taking this into account, one notices that the Labour and Liberal Democrat share of registered electors was actually very stable (30.1% in 2019, 30.4% in 2021), albeit with a very striking strategic shift in which lots of Labour voters must have backed the ‘most likely to beat the Tories’ Liberal Democrat candidate.

And, if that is so, one notices that about a quarter of those who voted Conservative last time (that is the 17 500 missing voters – a strikingly high abstention rate), stayed at home this time; they knew that there was no risk of a Conservative Government being brought down.  They might have been miffed by the sorts of things which commentators are mentioning (in the last few days both lockdown extension and the revelation that the Prime Ministers knows his Health Secretary is hopeless, in the longer term planning worries about HS2 in the past and wider local development in the future), but this simply didn’t make them vote Liberal Democrat.  

At least, not in any numbers – some previously Conservative voters will have voted Liberal Democrat (by-election protests of this sort were once standard), in which case the maths says an approximately equal number of previous Labour voters would have stayed at home (which was a significant factor in Hartlepool).

Meanwhile, I’ve been dwelling through the middle of June on a reflection for St Barnabas’ Day.  This crucial figure sought out the previous persecutor Paul to minister in the new church in Antioch and later fell out with him spectacularly about recruiting the previous deserter Mark to minister across the new churches in Asia Minor.  If on a Sunday at the moment we read from 2 Corinthians (written by Paul) and Mark (just possibly written by this Mark), we are still reading what Barnabas’ two risky recruits went on to produce.

The picture is from a window in St Michael's, Haworth taken for use on Sunday when we will dwell on David’s lyre playing to sooth the mental disturbance of King Saul.

Thursday 10 June 2021

You must be mad

“You would have thought that people would be happy, that they were glad to be able to begin to get out, that there would be good will,” she said from behind the cashier’s desk at the petrol station.  It was her response to someone who was clearly a Vicar innocently asking how emerging from lockdown was going for the surprisingly deserted business.

“You would have thought they’d remember clapping for carers, becoming aware of how much they depend on those who keep basic things running, but they don’t.  I know what’ll happen.  It will be crowded in here later and then there will be a glitch – with the till, with someone’s credit card – and the queue will get long and unpleasant.  I had someone the other day push to the front, slap down some cash, shout a number and walk out.”

“Yes,” said the hotel manager I shared the story with, “they were really considerate for the first day or two, but many of them are now simply have their heads down to get what they want without much awareness of anyone else.”

So a slightly different light was shone across last Sundays’ Gospel (Mark 3.20-35) as I began to read it and prepare for the Sunday coming up.  The crowd, Jesus’ family and the religious scholars all seem to be making things difficult.

Jesus’ ministry explodes into Mark’s Gospel.  Thirty-five verses in, he has already taught, defeated the powers of evil, healed, and been pursued when he tried to escape somewhere quiet.  Things do not let up (there is fear of being crushed at one point) and now, two chapters further in, he has just established a group of twelve co-leaders of some sort perhaps to make things more manageable.

You would have thought people would be happy.  There was an opportunity to step away from everything which had restricted life.  New radical ways are being explored and demonstrated.  Not quite.

The crowd, it says, became so pressing that Jesus and his co-leaders were not able to eat.  I think of the long shifts key workers have had to endure without even time for a meal break, one nurse emerging early on to find the supermarket stripped.  Perhaps there are touches of a motivation to get the food on offer (John 6.26) or see Jesus as a performer (Luke 23.8).

Jesus’ family have been told he is not sane and have come to restrain him.  I think of worried partners and children whose initial admiration and support gave way to real concern which reaches the point of saying “you need to stop doing this now for your own health”.  I notice that it doesn’t say they thought he was mad or attempted to restrain him, only that they had been told so and had come to do what they might have thought was the appropriate things.

And the religious scholars roll up to say he is possessed and fundamentally mistaken.  We don’t know how mainstream they were, of course, so this may be a bit like the anti-vax movement weighing in, or flunkies of Presidents in denial.

In any other year, I would have been tempted to dwell on what Jesus taught.  About the scale of God’s real family.  About how misattributing God’s activity being about the only thing to put us finally outside the pale.

But this year, I simply wonder whether any stunning but challenging new possibilities (from Jesus’ radical new way to emerging from lockdown) will ever plain-sail its way across human nature, so we are likely to have a bruising time if new possibilities open up around us.