Sunday 23 October 2016

Pride & Humility

Have you heard the joke about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman?
An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman were confessing their secret vices to each other. 'I'm a terrible gambler,' said the Englishman.
'I'm a terrible drinker,' said the Scotsman.
'My vice is much less serious,' said the Irishman, 'I just like to tell tales about my friends.'

We’ve just heard Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, as told by Luke (18:9-14)
The story goes like this. A Pharisee and a tax-collector go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee in his prayer boasts of his piety, while the tax-collector humbles himself before God and pleads for mercy.

At this point I feel I have to defend Pharisees – they have had an unfairly bad press! In part because of this parable, the word Pharisee in modern English has come to mean a self-righteous or hypocritical person. But we also hear of upright Pharisees in the NT, people like Nicodemus, who helped to bury Jesus after the crucifixion, and Gamaliel who defended the Apostles in the Sanhedrin court – and some of the earliest Christians were Pharisees, among them St Paul.

The Pharisees were a small but influential Jewish sect. They separated themselves out from others in their attempt to be as holy as possible - the name Pharisee literally means ‘separated one’. They took their religion seriously. They revered the written word of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, our OT. They did their best to follow the minutiae of the Jewish law in their own lives in order to be justified before God – that is so that God could accept them as being good people. Pharisees in general deserved their popular reputation as good and upright - if perhaps a bit over punctilious and not much fun.

And what about tax-collectors? We must not confuse them with our friends and neighbours who work for the Revenue Commissioners in Nenagh! Tax-collectors in Jesus’s time worked for the Roman occupiers collecting taxes from their neighbours to pay for the colonial administration, for the army and for public works. Unpaid, they kept a proportion of what they collected for themselves in lieu of pay. Many were greedy, out to make a fortune for themselves by extorting from their neighbours, and they were tainted by their association with gentile Romans. They were detested and shunned as bad people, often with good reason. But not always: the apostle Matthew was a tax-collector before Jesus called him, and so was Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to see Jesus in Jericho and welcomed him gladly to his house.

We can see in Jesus’s parable these popular preconceptions about Pharisees and tax-collectors. The Pharisee attends the Temple to pray, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has to, and fasts more often than he has to. He more than meets the requirements laid on him by the law. He appears to be a charitable, kind and faithful man. But the tax-collector appears to be no better than he ought to be, a confessed sinner, no doubt quite as bad and despicable as any other tax-collector.

But then Jesus says, ‘I tell you, (the tax-collector) went down to his home justified rather than the (Pharisee)’. His punch-line must have been quite a shock to his audience – it is the opposite of what they would have been expecting! Jesus was an expert communicator – here he has reversed expectations in order to emphasise the point he is making – it’s a bit like that joke about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman.

The point, says Jesus, is this: ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’.
This is a parable about the sin of pride and its opposite, the virtue of humility. It has precious little to do with Pharisees or tax-collectors.

The Pharisee in his prayer shows he is puffed up with pride - he ‘trusted in (himself) that (he was) righteous and regarded others with contempt’ - as Luke describes the people Jesus was talking to. I hope some of them understood the point, but I fear many could not, because their pride blinded them.
In contrast, the tax-collector shows humility by acknowledging his misdeeds and seeking forgiveness.

Pride is an ambiguous emotion. I feel proud of many things: proud of my children and grandchildren, how they’ve turned out, how they’re are growing; proud of my community, and pride, sometimes, in my country. Are these prides sinful? I think not. But pride becomes toxic when it is focussed on self. Then it blinds me to the reality of my own human weakness and my dependence on the goodness of others and God’s loving kindness. It makes it hard to relate to God in prayer.

Humility is not a popular virtue in this age. Siren voices tell us self-esteem is all important and that what we desire is what we deserve, ‘because we are worth it’. We confuse humility with feelings of timidity, of self-disgust and being unimportant. But these feelings too are toxic - they blind me to the reality that I am a unique creature made in the image of God, as other people are too - that we are all equally loved, that we can be better than we are, and that when we behave badly we can receive healing forgiveness if we truly repent and change our ways.

True humility is clear-sighted. 
It enables us to see ourselves as we really are, good and bad, warts and all, so that we can receive the forgiveness God offers us. Because of this we can respond to God’s loving kindness in prayer and worship. And only then we are ready to play our part in making God’s kingdom a reality.

But humility is not easy. We cannot achieve it without help – pride, a desire to exalt our self, gets in the way. That help can only come from God - from Jesus who assures us he is always with us, and who calls us to repentance.

A good way to open ourselves to Jesus, to ask him to help us overcome pride in our self, is to echo the prayer of the tax-collector in the words of the Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Sunday 9 October 2016

Earthly and Heavenly Harvests

It was a privilege to be asked to preach at the Harvest Thanksgiving in St Burchin's, Bourney by the Rector, Rev Canon Jane Galbraith. The readings were for Harvest Year C: Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and John 6:25-35

It is a great pleasure for me to join you today for your Harvest Festival in this beautiful church.
It is also a privilege to be asked to speak to you, so I must begin by thanking Rev Jane for her invitation.  

Like all of us I’m sure, I’ve loved Harvest Festivals ever since I was a child! Let us just look around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty. The decorators have every right to be proud of their skillful arrangements, and those who have grown the produce have every right to be proud that the best of it should be displayed here in God’s house! We all enjoy the colours and the smells of the fruit and the vegetables and the flowers, the familiar harvest hymns, and the cheerful people.

Today I’m going to talk about two things: the earthly harvest, for which we are giving thanks today - and also a different, heavenly harvest. The two are deeply interconnected.

So first, the earthly harvest.
Are you feeling cheerful? I do hope so, because we have so much to give thanks for. And cheerfulness is a Christian virtue!

However, we must acknowledge that many people feel they have little to be cheerful about. Arable farmers have been struggling to harvest crops due to bad weather. Yields are down, and many, particularly in the West, face making a loss on the year’s work. Other farmers too are struggling: milk prices may be recovering, but only a little. And cattle prices have been hit by recent currency movements. Many in the wider community do not feel the benefit of economic recovery after years of austerity. Homelessness continues to rise in our cities. Our public services are in crisis after years of under-investment. And people fear the consequences of our neighbours’ vote for Brexit.

But it is surely right to look at the glass as half full, not half empty! Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our harvest:

We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, hay for horses and silage for cattle.

And there’s so much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there? There’s milk and honey, butter and cheese, beef and pork, lamb and chicken. There are fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips. There are pumpkins and marrows, peas and beans, cabbage and lettuce, and gardens full of flowers!

Many of us work with animals, and there are this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks – thank God for them!  And there’s also the fruit of our own bodies - our children and grandchildren born this year, and older ones growing apace as mine are - thank God for them too!

Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and our strength - and also for our intellects, our God-given cleverness. As every farmer knows, this bountiful harvest does not appear from heaven as if by magic: it takes intelligent planning and hard graft!

In this rich corner of the world today, no one will starve because of a poor harvest or recession, as our forefathers so often did. With our God-given cleverness we have invented ways to store food and to transport it, and economic and social systems to distribute it to where it is needed. And if we consume a little less, it will probably be good for our health; and perhaps the whole planet will benefit.

So let us be cheerful, and follow the good advice of Deuteronomy: ‘You shall set the first of the fruit of the ground down before the Lord your God … Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.’

Yet for all our cleverness, the earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Why has God not given us perpetually good harvests - and recession free economies? Perhaps to remind us that we are not masters of the universe: God is. God’s laws don’t change: Nature is as God has made it; and what we sow, we shall reap. We remain as we have always been, totally dependent on God’s continuing fatherly goodness.

In the passage from John’s Gospel that we’ve just heard, Jesus asks us to look beyond the earthly harvest, to a different heavenly harvest.
He tells the crowd: ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ ‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, he says. And finally he makes this great claim: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me shall never be thirsty. What is Jesus talking about?

This teaching is difficult. I find it so - but then so did many of those who heard his words, as John tells us in the next few verses. One way to look at it, which I find helpful, is this:

Just as God has made us clever, able to till and keep the world of which we are part, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls. Souls with the capacity we call conscience to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate - and to prefer good to evil, as he does. If we use our conscience to make the right choices, we reap a heavenly harvest of good, which nourishes us for eternal life. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us.

But we are not masters of our own souls, any more than we are masters of the universe: our souls are as God made them, with free will, vulnerable to temptation. So it’s hard to be good. We have to work at it, just as we do for the earthly harvest. It is hard work resisting temptation, putting what is right above our own desires. All too often we fail. We name that sin. And when we fail and sin, the evil we do poisons our soul, and that evil too is eternal. A bad deed done can never be undone!

What a mess it is! How can we possibly be as good as God wants us to be? As good as God has made us want to be in our best moments.

This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me: he promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest. All we require is the faith to come to him. As the bread of life, he strengthens our souls. He helps us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he sucks out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words he redeems us. The only cure for a bad deed is to repent and be forgiven!

It is in this sense that Jesus is the bread of life that nourishes us for eternal life.

What are the practical implications of this? Consider greed for example:
Greed is the cause of so many of the problems we face, I think, from global warming to the global crash; old-fashioned, sinful human greed. Greed to consume more than we need at the expense of our planet. Greed for profit at the expense of other men and women.

To overcome the problems we must be generous to others, not greedy for ourselves. We must be unselfish and learn to know when we have enough. This wonderful planet – our God-given Garden of Eden – would be enough and more than enough for all of us if only we could do so.

But we cannot do this by ourselves, because our innate tendency is to be selfish and greedy. We can only do it through the grace of Jesus Christ, the bread of life, who will help us transform our sinful greedy natures into generous ones. He will help us to be as generous as God wants us to be.

And think on this: human greed threatens our future.
Selfish over-consumption in the rich world not only pushes the poor into deeper poverty and violent responses, but it drives the climate change that is damaging our planet’s ecosystems on which all life depends. Without Jesus’s help to transform our greed into generosity, we stand to lose the earthly harvest too. The earthly harvest depends in a very real way on the heavenly harvest.

So to sum up:
Let us thank God our loving Father for this bountiful earthly harvest. God makes it possible, and we work hard for it, so it is right for us to celebrate it and enjoy it together.

But let us work just as hard for the heavenly harvest of goodness, to nourish our souls.

Let us also thank God for the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. We need his help to reap this heavenly harvest. If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things.

And let us pray that Jesus will transform our selfish natures into the generous natures on which both our earthly and heavenly harvest bounty depends, praying together a Christian Aid Harvest prayer:
The earth is fruitful - may we be generous.
The earth is fragile - may we be gentle.
The earth is fractured - may we be just.
Creating God, harvest in us joy and generosity
as we together share in thanks and giving.