Tag Archives: judgement

Label Jars Not People

Labels are for Jars

A short note before my latest post below – as it seems a long time since I last posted anything. However, having just seen our church though a time of interregnum, I am looking forward to getting more chances to post regularly again. Here, on our return to Ordinary Time in the church a consideration of why we should only sport one label.

Based on Luke 8:26-39 and Galatians 3:23-29

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Designer labels, fashion labels, medical labels, religious labels, personality labels – labels we give ourselves and labels that are given to us. The government asks me to label myself every time I fill in an official form – am I male or female, am I white or black or of a different hue, do I smoke, do I drink, or would I prefer not to answer.

Then there are the socially constructed labels, of rich, poor, educated, uneducated, gay, straight, old, fit, fat, attractive, funny, boring, vegetarian or vegan.

However, each answer that I give creates algorithms that are designed to place me in various boxes in order to qualify me, tax me or sell me something – and you wonder why you get those adverts pop up for Slimming World or Saga holidays, or have you sorted a funeral plan out yet… that was only after I had my ‘big’ birthday the other day!

But what it all boils down to defining who we really are the only label that should be relevant is that we are children of God, and every person on earth carries that label

As we heard in Paul’s message to the Galatians; In God, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one. In baptism, we are all clothed in Christ. Only a couple of weeks ago, a member of our congregation, Sophie was baptised, clothed in Christ and welcomed into the family of God and she may carry many labels throughout her life: student, dancer, musician, graduate, scientist, fashion model, firefighter… the possibilities are endless. But the most important label she will have is child of God. And I pray that every person who looks upon her will see that above all else.

The trouble is, and I don’t just mean for Sophie, but for all of us, people rarely see just that. Take for example the sight that greeted Jesus and his disciples as they stepped off of the boat in the country of the Gerasenes. No official welcome, but a dishevelled, vocal creature who is obviously mad… rubber stamp, mental health issues.

On the one level, yes he is naked, screaming and obviously suffering from a disturbance of the mind, but had he chosen to live among the ‘unclean dead’ as the fundamentalists would have seen it or was he driven away from society to take refuge in a place whose claim to humanity was a tenuous as his own? Either way, his life is lonely and pitiful.

But, unlike those who have labelled themselves as righteous, keepers of the law and created a world of rules and laws and labels, into which only certain people can fit in, the demoniac is under no illusion and the irony is that only the ‘mad’ man recognises who Jesus is.

Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’
Luke 8:30

When Jesus asks him, what is your name, there is a sense of calm and relief amongst the noisy shouting and dreadful back story as narrated. The question treats the man like a human being for the first time in goodness knows how long. and although he can’t remember what those who once loved him used to call him, Jesus’ question marks a turning point in the story and the man’s life, as he restores the human image to the man, as he is to restore it to the whole of humankind.

No wonder the law keepers were fearful and trembling. The ‘mad’ man was desperate enough to welcome change, however drastic, but these ‘sane’ people are comfortable with their illusion of life and did not want it challenged.

In the Galatians passage, Paul tells us without Christ, we are all in the condition that the demon-possessed man was. We were chained up, naked, living in a world of illusion and artifice, but now we can be ‘clothed’ with Christ, at peace and made whole again.

Why though were the people of Galatia writing to Paul, what labels were they still wearing, which ones did they need to cut off and discard? Apparently, another branch of Jesus followers had come to town with a different message than Paul. The Galatia church was primarily Gentiles, non-Jews. Paul believed that all people were to be welcomed without conditions. Welcome Jesus into your heart and off you go. However, these new preachers believed that the only path to Jesus was through Judaism, which required circumcision and adherence to Jewish laws. Two very different messages. What were the people of Galatia to think?

Paul replied that the law was a prison, and Jesus was the key that set humanity free. The law was in place to keep people in line until they could experience that faith that sets us free, the law that is written on our hearts to tell us right from wrong. And if anyone knew about the law being a prison, it’s Paul. In the name of the law, he had led stonings; murdered the followers of Jesus, instilled fear and drove people underground. He hunted and killed the followers of Jesus for living out their lives as God had called them to do, to live authentically in their identity as children of God.

In his prior life as a Pharisee, Paul saw people simply by their legal status: legal or illegal. If you were illegal, you were put in prison, banished, killed. They did not have humanity or identity. There was no grey area, no grace, no compassion. Just judgement and conviction.

After his conversion, Paul understood the damage being done by this way of thinking. He understood the importance of baptism, that the label of child of God is the most important label and the only one that mattered.

Following the Jewish laws was not necessary, following Jesus was. But it is much more difficult. The appealing aspect of the Jewish faith for so many was that it provided clear ethical directives. Follow the 613 rules about everything. From worship to clothing, to what to do if your neighbour’s ox falls into a ditch on a Tuesday or someone wearing a polyester blouse, then it was off with her head! Check things off the list and see that you are living properly.

Paul uses the word paidagogos, translated as ‘disciplinarian’. A paidagogos was the household slave charged with keeping the children under control. He was to a certain extent an educator – we get our word pedagogy from it. But he was mainly a custodian – a jailer, if you like – who ensured the children behaved properly wherever they were. The law was therefore like a babysitter, a guardian designed to keep people in line under the threat of God, but also under the threat of the death squads like Paul had ran.

Living in Christ was different though. Jesus was by all accounts a good and faithful Jew, but he began questioning these laws that didn’t match what his heart was telling him. The law said no healing on the sabbath. So, he was supposed to let someone suffer until the law said he could end that suffering?

Jesus saw what was underneath the outward appearance and behaviour of the man living in the tombs because love sees people differently. How then do we see people? When we label someone as homeless, that may well be an accurate description of their state of residency, but the label of homelessness reduces the entirety of someone’s being to one adjective that seems to overrule all others. A homeless person could be an artist, a cancer survivor, compassionate, or a comedian, but the label of homeless is all that they are seen as. Most certainly they are no longer seen as a child of God.

The person serving in a restaurant or shop, who can’t get our order right might be labelled stupid or lazy, but what if they are tired from having been up all night studying, grieving a death or breakdown in a relationship, or struggling with their finances and having to do multiple jobs. Most certainly they are not a child of God, if we give them an angry, exasperated glare.

To so many, we add our own preconceptions and judgments when we apply a label to them. As Muhammad Ali, the boxer, once said. ‘There is only one true religion, and that is the religion of the heart. God never named it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Man gave the titles, and that’s what separates and divides us. My dream is to one day see a world that comes together to fight for one cause — the human cause…’

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus
Galatians 3:28

The human cause then is surely what the message of Jesus is all about? The human cause; ensuring that the hungry are fed and the lonely are visited and all people are able to live in peace and justice and love. Because the labels that we put on one another mean nothing compared to the label of child of God that surpasses all else. Love one another, do not pass judgement. Look at every person you meet first as a child of God, and then wonder if all those other labels really matter.

Amen

Labelling People

 

God’s Attitude Should Be Ours

 

Rainbow Through the Trees

Our attitudes to God and each other should be the same as his attitude to us. A sermon for Evensong based on Jeremiah 7:1-16 and Romans 9:14-26

May I speak and may you hear though the grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want us to reflect this evening on our attitude to God and our attitude to each other as Christians. How our differences can be a stumbling block not only to our relationship with God but also to those who see us a stumbling block to any sort of belief in God or the Christian Faith. By ‘us’ I am not necessarily referring to individual Christians here at St James’ church, but a more general broader identity, but it does us no harm to consider what our own attitudes might be in some of these situations.

First though, we have to go back to the pre-Christian ‘church’ where Jeremiah’s radical and hard hitting words proclaim God’s judgement on a nation that believed they were unassailable in their right to God’s protection and salvation. Their interpretation of the scriptures, the laws that protected their faith and their judgement of others was predestined and incontestable. However, they were in for a shock – there was no way that God was going to let them treat the temple in a mindless, shallow way by assuming that forgiveness was automatic simply by walking through the doors.

As Jeremiah stresses quite forcibly – ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ – a triple, Trinitarian reminder, that even though Christ was yet to live on earth, that here was Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here was the simple statement that if you want to be true believers then you have to stop abusing foreigners and the weakest members of society, the easy targets. Neither could you disregard the most basic of commandments nor cherry pick those that have more in common with your way of thinking or lifestyle. If you mistreat your holy places, turning them in to a ‘den of robbers’ – a sentiment echoed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel – then you should know that God will not protect them, they will be abandoned and eventually destroyed – there was and is no automatic security of God being with you… A self-righteous attitude will not save you.

The people’s disobedience of God’s commandments, brings what would appear be a harsh response and directive to Jeremiah, ‘do not pray for this people, do not raise a cry or prayer on their behalf, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.’

For the people in Rome, whom Paul was addressing, they were struggling with their identity, attempting to understand what the term ‘Israel’ meant in regard to being chosen people. Paul explains that God hasn’t broken his covenant to original people of Israel, as this was never intended to just apply to the race who shared Abraham’s blood group, but, as he states earlier in his letter as well, those who shared in his faith. Moreover, here was a God who would not be contained by people’s views and attitudes, here was a God who sprung surprises even on the most faithful, choosing Jacob over Esau, demonstrating his sovereign right to do so. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart to highlight his greater power

God does what he wants, as evidenced in the metaphor of the potter’s right to create from the same lump of clay whatever objects he chooses. He has a purpose for of his creations, and the fact that some are chosen and some are not is not the same as pre-destination, this is amazing grace.

God's Amazing Grace

The belief in the omnipotence of the one true God may lead to the conviction that God exerts control over every human action, but God is not only powerful but just.  It is not an injustice to be merciful, to apparently treat some people better than they deserve. To be chosen by God is a gracious gift, not an achievable reward. He can be trusted because he had done what he promised, calling people regardless of their faith; their gender, their sexuality.

We may question why, as Paul says, ‘Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’’. That conversation though is between God and us as individuals, others have no right to ask the same of a person.

There is an arrogant complacency within the Church of England that breaks my heart for it as an institution. An arrogance among Christians today who feed their own theologies into the media, which then labels divisive and exclusive views as representative of all Christians. It is not our job to decide who is unworthy and it certainly isn’t for us to link unworthiness to those who disagree with our theology based on limited fragments of scripture.

John Barton in his commentary, describes God as ‘an untamed deity, a wild thing not reducible to theological formulae.’

As Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”. ’ ‘And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, there they shall be called children of the living God.’

As Christians, representative of the one, true God we do well to make this our own attitude. Amen

 

V Is For Vulnerable

Detail from Gentle Spring by Frederick Sandys (1829-1904)

Detail from Gentle Spring by Frederick Sandys (1829-1904)

For someone who keeps a lot of their deepest emotions well hidden, I hesitate to write this. Yet, whilst I don’t believe it is my nature to be completely self-indulgent, I have a feeling that my experiences are not in any way unique, but that they may resonate with others and therefore be of some help.

It’s really hard when you’ve done your very best and it turns out that it’s not actually good enough. Some of which is down to your level of understanding and some of which is not having been given the proper blueprint and tools to complete the task in the first place.

When we set out to do something new we will have many things at our disposal. We will have some previous generic knowledge as to how we might approach the task; to which we will add new learning, from books or instructions and if possible from other people. We will take all of this and try to form it into a cohesive understanding of what we need to do and then attempt the task. Add into this a willingness and desire to do our very best and we open ourselves up to the vulnerability of being tested and tried and sometimes found wanting.

This is the most painful part of the whole process. It’s the tears at a drop of a hat time; when you feel vulnerable to any sense of judgement or act of kindness; when you want to withdraw even deeper into your shell….

Detail from Gentle Spring by Frederick Sandys (1829-1904)

Detail from Gentle Spring by Frederick Sandys (1829-1904)

… and it’s easy to stay there, and bemoan the situation, scrutinising your discomfort internally or if you’re lucky sharing it with your closest confidantes; and if this stage is the most painful, then the next stage is often the hardest.

It will come inevitably to a point though when you can no longer disguise what you’re feeling on the inside and then the dam will burst and you will find that all of your anxieties and fears are laid bare. In some ways your worst nightmare and in others a blessed relief.

For this is where the healing process can begin. Not some overnight miracle, but a gradual reflection on why what has happened has happened and how you can move forward from it. You will need to be honest with yourself and recognise what part your own desires and expectations have played in the situation; where things might have been done differently, both on yours and others parts.

You also have to be prepared to accept that the advice and encouragement you are being offered is genuine and that you are worthy to receive it; because we don’t always recognise ourselves when seen through the eyes of others, but they are so often the mirrors to our souls.

We can then be ready to move on. A little stronger, a little wiser

The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18)

Life itself is never easy, and our trials may be incomparable, even trivial, to those faced by others on a daily basis. Our greatest comfort though is knowing that if we can hold on to our faith then the bigger picture for us is already known by God, and that he will be beside us as we travel over the rough and the smooth paths to get there

So I would encourage you to be prepared to allow yourself to be vulnerable from time to time, to open yourself up emotionally and honestly; because in that way you may just find out where your strengths lay.

Detail from Gentle Spring by Frederick Sandys (1829-1904)

Detail from Gentle Spring by Frederick Sandys (1829-1904)

The pictures that accompany this blog are details from the painting Gentle Spring by Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), a Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painter; which hangs in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. It’s relevance is simply no more than that it is such a beautiful painting that draws my attention on each visit, and each time makes my heart soar.