Monday, 22 July 2019

Saul and succession

Last week there was a special Panorama programme on Brexit - I forget the title but essentially it told the story of three years of negotiations so perhaps it may have been “How did we get into this mess?” It is good sometimes to take a step back and review the whole picture away from the detail.

The lectionary we have been following from the first Book of Samuel is richly textured and tonight we reach the point where David and Jonathan realise that now a decision has to be made. How did they get there?

 Saul had been chosen as king by Samuel but when Saul does not obey God’s commands to kill the oxen, sheep men women and children of the defeated Amalekites Samuel explains that the kingship will pass to another. God commanded Samuel to go to Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons king. This is unknown to Saul but we of course know that it is David who is anointed to be the future king of Israel. Saul meantime is suffering from intense changes of mood which are of concern to his servants and retainers. They suggest he could be soothed by a harpist. Incidentally only this week a team from the University of Pennsylvania published the results of an experiment to show that music can dinish anxiety and lower blood pressure just as well as drugs. “Find a man to play to me “ he commands and David is duly found and brought to court. Whenever the spirit from God troubled Saul David took the harp and played, then Saul grew calm and recovered and the evil spirit left him.

Bur Saul remains anxious, he is aware that he has been rejected by Yahweh and he has to watch as David grows in stature and prowess and popularity. David slays Goliath and wins many battles against the Philistines - in the victory parades the women sing:

“Saul has killed his thousands
And David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was very angry, for this saying displeased him - they have ascribed to David tens of thousands but to me they have ascribed (only) thousands. And Saul eyed david from that day on! Eventually Saul is in such a rage that he decided to arrange for David to be killed. Warned by his friend and Saul’s son Jonathan, David escapes to be with Samuel for a while. Jonathan would like David to return to court and this is the substance of the present conversation. It is almost the last the friends will have - they agree a signal which will tell David whether Saul’s anger has or has not abated - it has not and David will be forced to flee not the wilderness once more.

As we have discovered in recent weeks succession is difficult, love of power and jealousy have not been diminished by the passage of the millennia - the human condition is the thing we Christians work to change.


God continues to surprise me

The Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance to his tent by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day.

What a beautiful image is conjured by this story which captures the fragrance of a far off time. It has the same feel as that lovely line earlier in Genesis of The Lord was walking in the garden in the cool of the day evoking something deep and timeless, peaceful and yet expectant. This is the narrator alerting us to the importance of what we are about to hear. Abraham knows nothing He looked up and saw three men standing near him. Perhaps he thought he had dozed off in the heat and not noticed their approach which might explain his hurry: when he saw then he ran from the tent entrance to meet them. He welcomes the visitors, persuading them to stay by offering what travelers will most appreciate, a little water to wash their feet and a rest in the shade of a tree. He goes on to offer a morsel of bread.

Here his hospitality is so much more than a slice of pitta - he asks Sarah to knead three measures of choice flour into cakes, he selects a calf tender and good all at full speed so a lavish feast is energetically prepared and like a good host he waits discreetly by the tree while the three visitors enjoy it.

Paul was later to write in his letter to the Hebrews “ “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

This idea was in time to form the basis of the construction of the monasteries - the Abbot always slept in a cell near the main gate which in turn was near the kitchen and the guest chamber so that if someone came to knock on the door they were welcomed by none other than the abbot himself and the hospitality was immediately nearby. Ideally the abbot would be alerted to the approach of a visitor so he could go to meet them.

Unexpected visitors can indeed be surprising. Our farmhouse in Bedfordshire is at the end of a driveway that often people mistake for a road to a house that they are looking for. So when I was sitting in the heat of the afternoon in the front of the house one day and a car appeared I was not surprised except that the car instead of turning round stopped on the drive with its three women, each of a different generation and spent time looking at the house. I ran across the little green in front of the kitchen window to find out what they wanted - the car began to back down the drive but waving I persuaded them to stop intending to direct them to where they were really going.  Now they were not angels but it turned out the eldest had lived in the house when she was a girl and so I set about making a pot of tea and looking for biscuits while they looked around enjoying the old parts and marvelling at the new ones.

The thing is that it was very unusual for me to be in the front of the house at all - there is much more garden at the back. The likelihood was that they would have driven up the drive reversed and I should have been unaware of their visit.

But - you see God always puts you where you are meant to be. The question is why was Abraham just then sitting in the doorway of his tent in the heat of the day? There is much for a wandering man to do, calves and sheep to look after seed to grind and so on. So many times have I been surprised - I have set off to go somewhere and then maybe changed my mind and on the spur of the moment decided to visit a different place to walk the dog or to buy some supper and then there is a meeting with someone, with whom there is an important conversation (maybe they need to borrow a telephone charger) or perhaps at the last moment I have decided not to go out and there is a visitor in need.

In Abraham’s case we can see from the way that the story is told that God put him there. My question is why am I still surprised after so many events like this - why do I not expect God to put me in the right place at the right time  - why is it not a matter of course for us?

Well he is the  God of Surprises and this aspect reinforces our wonder and our worship and allows us to walk in the same awe as Abraham as he hears “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”


The Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance to his tent by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day.


Monday, 8 July 2019

You reap as you sow

Galatians 6:1-16

What a plum cake of a passage we have just heard from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There are lots of fruit to pick out :

Bear one another’s burdens
Restore (forgive) in the spirit of gentleness
For all must carry their own loads
Share in all good things
You reap whatever you sow
Let us not grow weary in doing what is right

Now having got you all here early thought i had better choose only one of these to talk about otherwise you will be home later than usual. So I thought to ponder on “You reap whatever you sow.” This was a favourite of my maternal grandmother, but then Nana had many little sayings and not a few superstitions (about magpies, stirring tea and lumps of coal and so on) She invariably used this one as an admonition - Look out don’t do that or say that = you’ll reap as you sow. Maybe she had in m knd the Old English edition that says “He that sows thistles shall reap prickles” or even the Biblical quotation from Hosea: “For they that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” Certainly for me reaping and sowing had bad connotations for some time.

Paul though is speaking in the positive : Old English again: “He that sows good seed shall reap good corn.” How unfashionable that way of thinking has become.

Donald Trump for example. Well he would always seem to be sowing bad seed. His campaign for the presidency was uncivil, his trade wars, the latest with Europe where he wants to put tariffs on whiskey and cheese are aggressive, his relations with Iran …. How can he expect to form any future long term dialogue with a nation that he often threatens to obliterate? It has become almost unthinkable in our modern adversarial culture to begin any negotiation by being generous. Why I wonder did we not three years ago at the beginning of the Brexit discussion say that we would grant EU residents in the UK the right to stay? We were going to end up there anyway. Instead we put it in the pot for discussion causing distress to individuals and losing in my opinion respect and global reputation.

People are surprised when you sow good seed and they do not know quite what to make of it. One late evening a week or so ago in tee shirt and shorts I was in a food shop where there was a lady trying to work out where to obtain a telephone charger because she had left her one at home and was now here on holiday incommunicado. Tempted though I was to discuss the merits of that I butted in : “I can lend you one of mine” I said.  There followed a discussion as to whether she could trust this strange man who had made this proposal - her need for a charger overcame her reluctance and along she came to collect it. Having been told in the meantime that I was the rector the second thing she said to me was : “I suppose it is your job to be kind to people!”

So you see the thought that someone might simply make an unsolicited offer of help needed questioning - firstly it was met with suspicion - “what is this strangers motive for this, what is in it for him? And secondly it was thought to be my job perhaps like a policeman or a nurse “ Ah, now I understand he is being paid to do this. “

Paul says that if you sow in the flesh you will reap corruption, but if you sow in the spirit you will reap eternal life from the spirit. Paul is talking long term and this makes all the difference. It is easy to win a one off bargain but if you want to establish a substantive and lasting relationship you have to sow and cultivate quite different seeds: you must sow not thistles but good quality corn.

And what could be more long term than the promise of eternal life?