Friday, 22 February 2013

Lamb of God - Sacrifice & Hope, a Journey through Lent, Part III

SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT, 24th February Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Gospel: Luke 13:31-end Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidd'st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am, and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot, to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt; fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; sight, riches, healing of the mind, yea, all I need, in thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am, thou wilt receive; wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve, because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am, thy love unknown has broken every barrier down; now to be thine, yea, thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am, of that free love the breadth, length, depth, and height to prove, here for a season, then above: O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Charlotte Elliott, 1841 Jesus, you accept us as we are; may we in turn accept ourselves and one another, and be received together with all the citizens of your New Jerusalem, sheltered under the wings of your love, and your peace. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Monday, 25th February Gospel: Luke 6:36-38 Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven Reflection: Oh it all seems so simple! Don’t judge, don’t condemn, always forgive, and all shall be well. And yet how many of us have ever felt we came close to achieving this? Isn’t our first resort when something goes wrong, when others fail, or when we feel mistreated, to find someone to blame, to retaliate or punish, to bear a grudge? To let go of judging, condemning, blaming, requires grace on a heroic scale, the grace to sacrifice the selfish self. It looks impossible, but with God’s help, and Jesus showing us the way by his own example, grace takes our hand, and guides us along a better way. Almighty and everlasting God, our maker, and our judge, have mercy upon us, your children, teach us to count our own sins, and to let go of our neighbours’, so we shall be free from the bonds of sin, and know the serenity of your grace in our hearts, and in our life together. We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Tuesday, 26th February Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Reflection: Jesus’s teaching turns earthly values on their head. We have heard much of the sense of entitlement of those who strive for power and money in our society. Humble yourself, their story says, and you will never be exalted by anyone; no, what you need is ambition, networking, your eye on that slender chance of the glittering prize your upbringing has prepared you for. But that is not Jesus’s way. He is not interested in being exalted at all – his teaching constantly points away from himself to his heavenly Father. Here is both a challenge to us, when we are smug and self-satisfied (and what a meagre thing it is to be satisfied merely with oneself!), and a consolation to us, when we feel humbled by chance, circumstance, or our own errors of judgement. God made us for glory, not to be humbled, though we will not find glory by grasping at it but by taking up our cross, and following Jesus. God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear in our brothers and sisters your image and likeness, which can never be humbled, and help us to accord to all your children the dignity and respect that is the birthright of us all. Amen. Wednesday, 27th February, George Herbert Gospel: Matthew 20:17-28 Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’ Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning If I lack'd anything. 'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:' Love said, 'You shall be he.' 'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on Thee.' Love took my hand and smiling did reply, 'Who made the eyes but I?' 'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve.' 'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?' 'My dear, then I will serve.' 'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.' So I did sit and eat. Loving and gracious Father, you take our hands, and smile, and serve us at the banquet. For these, and all your blessings as we travel on the Way, thank you. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Thursday, 28th February Gospel:Luke 16:19-end Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” Reflection: Many of us fear isolation most of all. Whether through illness or age, through the loss of the senses, or fear itself, not being able to reach out to touch, to talk, to listen, and be heard, to participate, to belong, is a terrible thing. This is the power of the language here of “a great chasm”. When we walk away from God, we risk putting such distance between us and God, that no one can help us to bridge it. But the Easter story is that Jesus did bridge the chasm, he was the One who could cross the void, and carry us all on his shoulders to safety on the other side. Jesus, in the cross, you bridge life and death, heaven and earth, God and humankind; help us to use that cross as a bridge, your example to carry others over from lostness to blessedness. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Friday, 1st March, St David Gospel: Matthew 21:33-43 & 45-46 (v.44 omitted by some ancient authorities) Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. Reflection: One could be forgiven for hoping not to hear about “productivity” in the Bible, but, alas, God gives us his blessings freely, and he intends that they be used for the good of all, not hogged for the luxury of the few. When we find ourselves in a good place, we are not to put up gates to keep others out, but to throw them wide, and beckon others in. Yes, it won’t be our own private possession any longer, but it will be something far more valuable – a treasure shared. Father, purge us of selfishness and possessiveness and guide us in the way of generosity and sharing; let us not only be scandalised by want, in this world of plenty, but galvanised to do for others what you have done for us. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, who gave his own life that we might have life more abundant. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Saturday, 2nd March, Saint Chad & Ember Day Gospel: Luke 15:1-3 & 11-end Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”. Reflection They say you can judge people by the company you keep, and clearly when the Pharisees and scribes saw the people Jesus was hanging out with, teaching, answering questions, and sharing their hospitality, they thought he must be a pretty dodgy character himself. What would God think of the company we keep? And the company we don’t? From self-righteousness, from fear of those who are different, from thinking ourselves better than others, from caring what others think, from preferring image to reality, good Lord, deliver us. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace

Lamb of God - Sacrifice & Hope, a Journey through Lent, Part II

FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT, 17th February Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Gospel: Luke 4:1-13 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ Forty days and forty nights thou wast fasting in the wild; forty days and forty nights tempted, and yet undefiled. Should not we thy sorrow share and from worldly joys abstain, fasting with unceasing prayer, strong with thee to suffer pain? Then if Satan on us press, Jesus, Savior, hear our call! Victor in the wilderness, grant we may not faint or fall! So shall we have peace divine: holier gladness ours shall be; round us, too, shall angels shine, such as ministered to thee. Keep, O keep us, Savior dear, ever constant by thy side; that with thee we may appear at the eternal Eastertide. Words: George Hunt Smyttan (1822-1870) Lord Jesus, give us grace to follow you into our own wildernesses; to withstand the temptation to be less than the people our Father made us to be; to live not by bread alone, but in and through the divine love and grace that transfigures all things. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Monday, 18th February Gospel: Matthew 25:31-end Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Reflection: We are tribal people. We look after our families and friends first. This, as Austin Farrer taught, is not selfishness, but our “learner kit” – how will we ever get the idea of love if God doesn’t give us special people to love? But the challenge is to go further than this – to welcome the stranger, and love them too. Most of us have known occasions where there was a “guest of honour”, someone not perhaps part of the tribe, but welcomed in a special way. Jesus’s challenge to us is to care for everyone in that way, because in doing so, we are caring for him. Creator God, you made us all in your image and likeness, and your kingdom is empty until all your children share it; give us courage to make all humankind our family, so that in the fullness of time, we shall be drawn together into the life of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Tuesday, 19th, February Gospel: Matthew 6:7-15 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Reflection: Most of the time, the God revealed in the pages of Scripture makes the running – he shows us the way, and hopes we will have the wit to follow. Forgiveness, though, seems to be in a different category. Jesus teaches us that if we want to be forgiven – as surely we do – then we must set ourselves an example, by forgiving first. Forgiveness is not always an easy thing, and the gravest offences may take long years really to forgive, and maybe that is why Jesus offers us this incentive – forgive so that God will forgive you. Sometimes when we say the words, we may not at first mean them, but over time, the will to mean them can turn into the reality of true forgiveness, and then we have opened a door into the Kingdom of Heaven. Holy God, nourish forgiveness in our hearts we pray, that being forgiving, we may be forgiven, and loosed of the bonds of sin and resentment, enter into the joy of your service, which is perfect freedom; we ask this through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Wednesday, 20th February Gospel: Luke 11:29-32 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. Reflection: Jonah was sent to Nineveh, a city he didn’t want to go to, and commanded to preach repentance to a people he despised. He was furious when they repented, and God was pleased with them and changed his mind about the calamity he planned to send them. God’s sign to Jonah was to plant a tree for him, which shaded him from the sun, which cheered him up no end, and then for the tree to be destroyed by a worm, which made Jonah angry again. God points out that the tree wasn’t even his, but he cared about it, so why shouldn’t God care about the people of Nineveh? Sometimes our brothers and sisters around the world can seem a long way off, but God cares for them just the same, and Lent is a good time to think about whether we can spare something to help those whose need God has shown us. Father, give us open and generous hearts, to those who are near, and those who are far away; your love is infinite, we alone can limit it; let us be channels of your love, vessels of your grace, and transfigure your world, for the good of all your people. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Thursday, 21st February Gospel: Matthew 7:7-12 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Reflection: “God is in his heaven, and the Tsar is a long way off”. This old Russian saying was a pretty good excuse for doing nothing – “only the powerful can change things, and we are not powerful, so let’s just put up with it”. Jesus encourages us to sacrifice such fatalism and replace it instead with hope – to ask, to search, to knock, in the hope that good things lie only just beyond us, and will come within our reach if we can just trust in God’s goodness. Lord, protect us from the bad habit of pessimism; when we fall, help us up; when we get it wrong, show us the right way; fire up our hope, that we in turn may kindle hope in others, and discover together the goodness which is your will for us. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Friday, 22nd February, Ember Day Gospel: Matthew 5:20-26 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Reflection: The Ember days are appointed as times when we think and pray especially about those called to ministry. This does not mean only ordained ministry, but the ministry – service – that all of us have to offer to God, and to those amongst whom we live and work, from time to time. These words of Jesus remind us that unless we are reconciled to one another, we cannot be reconciled with God; that we must first offer our service to our brothers and sisters, and then to God. God isn’t snooty about second-hand things; if anything, the gift grows by being shared. Almighty and merciful God, you gave us eyes to see, and ears to hear; help us to know what we have done amiss; give us courage to admit it; and spare us time to put things right; for your love’s sake. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Saturday, 23rd February Gospel: Matthew 5:43-end You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Reflection: Do we think very often of having enemies? The word seems rather dramatic. And yet we probably all know someone who is very good at making enemies, someone who, when questioned about it says “well, it’s their problem, not mine”. Which, of course, is a lie. And Jesus makes it quite plain that having enemies – which is what they are before you seek to love them – is most decidedly your problem. We often say our own worst enemy is ourself. Imagine what it would be like to learn to love that enemy, too! God does. Jesus, let your words from the cross “forgive them, they know not what they do”, resound in our hearts towards those who have wronged us, or wish us ill; by the light of your presence, show us the way to put an end to the cycle of hatred, and vengeance, that we may be reconciled to one another in prayer and in love, and welcomed together to that Banquet prepared for all your children. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace

Lamb of God - Sacrifice & Hope, a Journey through Lent, Part I

LAMB OF GOD SACRIFICE & HOPE A JOURNEY THROUGH LENT Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us; Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon up; Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace. (from the service of Holy Communion, in every tradition) “A face as long of Lent” people used to say, referring to the dismal way in which Christianity has used the period of preparation for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Day, as a time of self-reproach, privation, and voluntary hardship – “a Penitential Season”. This takes us very far away from the use of these weeks in the very early church, which was not as a time to think about how awful we are, but a time of learning, of discarding some of our baggage – including the baggage of sin – and seeking to become closer to God. Most of all, it was a time for the whole congregation to support and encourage those who were to be baptised, confirmed, and received to Holy Communion for the first time, at Easter. For the old regulars, and the newcomers, that is a joyful and glorious thing, and we must not lose sight of it during this time. But it is equally true that the faith revealed to us in the story of Jesus in the Gospels makes us look at some hard things – Jesus’s teachings challenge us to look at ourselves, at our dealings with one another, and with God, in a spirit of humility, forgiveness, and respect. The story of the last days of Jesus’s earthly ministry is one of a journey to the cross, a journey to sacrifice, but made in hope. We know how the story ends on Easter Day, and that gives us hope too. But sacrifice and hope come in our lives in cycles and seasons; times of hardship to times of plenty; times of loss to times of joy. And back again. Always we have before us the Incarnate God, Jesus, carrying his Cross, determined not to give way to the forces of evil and despair, determined that the love of God will rise again, as we shall rise again, from our hard times, and on the Last Day. That is our Lenten hope. In what follows, there are offerings of an excerpt from the Gospel reading of the day, according to the Lectionary of the Church of England, with a reference to the full reading if you want to follow it up. Then there are prayers from various sources, and of various kinds, a reflection, and a concluding prayer. Each day’s offering ends with “Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace”. Rather than repeat them, the words are offered here: “Kyrie” – the name comes the Greek word for “Lord”, the beginning of the prayer, which is one of the first, and most ancient the Churches have been using for centuries, which asks us to look with love and compassion on us: Lord have mercy Christ have mercy Lord have mercy “The Lord’s Prayer” – so-called because when Jesus’s disciples asked him how to pray, this was his answer. You can find it in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, in slightly different forms, but the substance is the same: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, at is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; And lead not not into temptation, but deliver us from evil; For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, For ever and ever, Amen. “The Grace” – a form of words taken from St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (13:13), which has been used in public and private prayer ever since, and is a sort of blessing for those praying together, and for those for whom they have prayed: The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore, amen. Shrove Tuesday, 12th February In jollier cultures than our own, today is known as Mardi Gras, or Terca-Feira Gorda – “Fat Tuesday”. This was because, as Lent was a time of fasting, and long faces, we should make merry and eat up everything nice that might be forbidden to us during Lent (and go off before Easter!). Hence our own “Pancake Day”, which admittedly sounds a little less fun, although it can be a great laugh. But the English had to do things differently. “To shrive” means to seek confession and absolution, and to “be shriven” was to march boldly forward with sins absolved. So, Lent was not a time to dwell on sin – that had been dealt with – it was a time to come closer to God, assured of his forgiveness, and seeking a deeper understanding of God, of ourselves, and of our neighbours, not repenting all the things we’ve done wrong, but girding ourselves for all the things we might yet do right, “all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in” (Book of Common Prayer, thanksgiving after Communion). ASH WEDNESDAY, 13th February Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Gospel: John 8:1-11, The Woman Caught in Adultery ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ Reflection This story was so typical of Jesus that no one knew where to put it, but it wasn’t to be lost, and it landed in John’s Gospel, although it didn’t belong there. Jesus challenges us with direct questions – not to the woman, but to the crowd of would-be stoners. How swift we are to condemn others, how slow to realise our own vices! And notice, we are told that it is the eldest who slope off first, full of years and sin. But let us take heart – Jesus’s message is for them to – “go your way, and from now on do not sin again”. Father, teach me not to condemn, not for fear of the condemnation of others, but of judgement of myself. Give me grace to rise from the dust, forgiven, and forgiving, and to embody in my own person the Good News of your love. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Thursday, 14th February, St Valentine Gospel: Luke 9:22-25 ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’ Reflection Taking up a cross daily sounds a heavy burden, when Jesus said “for my yoke is easy, and by burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). As Christian people we have to think about what our burdens are, and why we are carrying them. But it is good also to think about the rewards we receive from hard work – not least in the love of family and friends. We bear those we love, sometimes, like crosses. We’d never say so to them, and in return they give us more than we could measure. Jesus, you took upon yourself a heavy burden for others; grant us grace to do the same, and when others do likewise for us, to thank them, and you, for your love. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Friday, 15th February Gospel: Matthew 9:14-15 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. Reflection: We are not used to the idea of Christianity telling us to make the best of the good times, but there is a minor theme in the Gospels that does precisely this. Jesus spent time alone, fasting, and in private prayer, but he also went to dinners, and parties and weddings. Yes, there are dark times, but we must not let them extinguish the good, because it is in our enjoyment of the good things of life together, that we replenish the well of our souls with joy, the better to be able to cope when times are hard. Father, give us grateful hearts for all the good things of this life, for the love of family and friends, for cheerful diversions of our leisure times, for the beauty and wonder of the glorious world you have made; and may we be agents of your joy, for all those who have lost sight of it. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace Saturday, 16th February Gospel: Luke 5:27-32 Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ Reflection: Often the church can look like an asylum for insiders, rather than a refuge for those in need, and all too often those of us who become insiders can make it hard for others to come in. We know the rules, the manners, the habits, the times and seasons, and the stranger can feel most unwelcome. But it does not need to be that way. We have all known what it is to be the welcomed stranger, and to welcome strangers ourselves, and Jesus teaches us that to welcome the stranger or the outcast, is to welcome him, and when we do, at church, in our homes, in our daily lives, the Kingdom of Heaven has come very near. God of healing and pardon, teach us not to count ourselves amongst the righteous, whose names are known to you alone, but to approach you with friends and strangers alike, in penitence and faith, seeking you, the physician of our souls. Amen. Kyries, Lord’s Prayer, Grace

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Talking About Ourselves

A Homily for Holy Communion

on Ash Wednesday 13st of February, 2013, 7.30 p.m.

for the Parish Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas Littlemore, Oxford Gospel: Luke 18:9-14:

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

“Poor little, interesting, me!”. That was how Alan Jones, the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, summed up the motto of the Western world in the 20th century: fascinated by ourselves, endlessly talkative, and with more than just a shard of self-pity. I rather think Jesus would have recognised us at once. He clearly observed it in his own time, as our Gospel reading tonight shows us: two very different people, each talking about themselves. We might wonder that they were saying their prayers in the Temple out loud, but the ancient historians tell us that even to read silently was remarkable, and to read without moving your lips was almost unheard-of. So, our ancient forebears may very well have heard one another’s prayers, and indeed, prayed, intending for their own to be heard. Here we have two opposite characters. The Pharisee, a pillar of the community, eminently respectable, law-abiding, Temple-going, the sort of person you might, or might not, have wanted to have as a neighbour. That is entirely a matter for you. The other is a tax-collector. These days it is entirely respectable to work for HMRC, even if it may not endear you to your friends - you are after all only doing a job, only obeying orders, there’s nothing personal in it. But a tax-collector in Jesus’s time was operating a franchise, providing a contracted-out service for the Roman authorities, and having turned over as much money as they wanted, he could turn over those around him for as much money as he could get away with. In ancient Palestine it was not a respectable trade, because to personal greed it added the treachery of fleecing your own people to pay the occupying power. This is a far cry from “Oh, good news, Heather’s passed the Civil Service exam”.

So these two very different people come to the Temple to talk to God about themselves. The Pharisee comes in a spirit of gratitude. He lists all the terrible things he might be, but isn’t, and thanks God for this. And he reminds God of all the good things he does, just in case God hasn’t noticed. “Interesting me”, indeed. The tax-collector knows he’s on a stickier wicket. His only prayer is “God be merciful to me, a sinner”. (You may notice in this the origin of The Jesus Prayer, beloved of our Orthodox brothers and sisters.) “Mercy” is not an easy word for modern ears to hear. We tend to think of mercy as the sort of thing shown to us by an enemy with a sword at our neck – something that it is an option, but not one the enemy need actually bother with, so we are very relieved and pitifully grateful if he does. But that’s not really what mercy means in our Biblical books, and increasingly we have been encouraged to think of it as something more like “loving-kindness”. That changes the picture rather radically. You don’t need to ask loving-kindness of someone who has a sword at your throat, because if there’s any kindness in them at all, they won’t be threatening to stab you. And nor does God threaten to stab us. Sometimes we lose sight of God’s loving-kindness, and these two characters, chatting away in the Temple, show us how. The tax-collector rightly identifies sin as the obstacle that obscures the view, and equally rightly, he confesses his guilt in the sure and certain hope that God forgives, and he will see God’s loving-kindness again. But the Pharisee too shows us an obstacle – which is thinking that there is no obstacle, because we have built a wall of our own righteousness around us. Self-righteousness. And if we are self-righteous, we have no need of God and his love. Jesus tells us that of the two obstacles, this one, the wall of self-righteousness, is far the harder to remove. How can we know God’s love, if we have no need of it? And that is why the tax-collector, who knew his need of God’s love, and put himself above no one else, went to his home justified. As we embark on the adventure of Lent, let us take to heart our need of God’s loving-kindness, and whether by self-denial, taking up a cross, by sacrificial giving, by prayer, let us show forth God’s love in our own love, and be God’s love in the world. And when we talk about ourselves to God, let’s at least try to tell the truth. Amen.

Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford February 2013