How to believe when everything seems to have gone wrong

If you were a visitor to England from a Tropical Rain forest at this time of the year, you might think that a lot of our trees are dead. Huge trees with bare branches and not a leaf in sight can be seen on every side. We all know that this is what happens in Winter in Temperate Zones, and that the trees are very much alive, even if they appear dead, and that I think is a message for us when we find our faith going through a dead period. I’m always sad when I hear of people going through a tough time and giving up on their faith. “I used to feel that God was with me.” they say “But now I feel nothing at all.”

The trees we hear of in our 1st Reading (Jer 17:5-8) and in our Psalm (Ps 1) show us the other side of this picture. Here the trees are in leaf, whilst everything else is dried up by the sun. Here again we can hear people saying to us “How can you believe in God, when there are so many awful things happening in the world?”  The answer of course, in each case, lies in the roots of the trees; roots that go deep into the ground, so that the tree can draw from deeper resources than what appears on the surface. How then do we humans develop the kind of roots that will take us through the storms that life throws at us: storms in our minds, or storms in the world around us?

Part of the answer must lie in our expectations. If we expect life always to be easy as Christians, then we haven’t paid much attention to all the warnings Jesus gives us. If we read the 16th Chapter of St John’s Gospel, we’ll find it all laid out for us. It begins with warnings. In Verse 1 that we may face death for being his followers, and in Verse 20 we are told ‘You will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” The Chapter ends by encouraging us to strengthen our belief and our trust in God, for Jesus says “Take courage, I have conquered the world.”

This is a very hard message to take isn’t it, especially for us softies living at ease with houses and cars and running water and all the other things that make modern life comfortable? We look at people displaced by war, and are often astonished to find that their faith, their trust in God, is much stronger than ours. They know they need God in a way that we can hardly imagine, for they, as Isaiah says, are “like a tree by the waterside that thrusts its roots to the stream.”

 Jesus says the same in our Gospel today (Luke 6:17.20-26) when he says “Blessed are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice when that day comes and dance for joy, for then your reward will be great in heaven.”

I must admit that I find that very difficult. My instinct is to avoid people who are nasty to me, or to try to find ways to make us all friends. Jesus is much more realistic, even if he exaggerates the situation in order to make the point more effectively.

St Paul does much the same in his letters as he writes of his own experiences.  I’m thinking particularly of his passage in 2 Corinthians Chapter 6:9-10 where he writes,  “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;  as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;  as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”  He is dealing with people who are full of themselves and their successes and are beginning to scorn those with less apparent blessings, less spiritual gifts.

 Like the trees in winter in England, we must never assume that things are going badly just because they appear dead on the surface, or that God has deserted us, just because we feel he has. All the way through Christian history great people of faith from St Paul to the present day have written on this, because it is a recurring problem for most Christians at some time or another in their lives. There is no easy answer as to how to manage the times when everything seems to have gone wrong for us. How can I trust in the Lord when I feel nothing? How can I put out roots deeper into God when I do not know where God is?

The only answer I can give is to allow the faith and the struggles of other people to support us. That is why it’s so important not just to go to Church, but to be the Church supporting one another on our Christian journey. You might be surprised how much you can help someone else by sharing with them how you struggle to believe, and yet somehow carry on. Be like a tree even if you do not feel like a tree, and as we spread our branches over one another, we will hopefully find a way through.  

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Putting into practice the eternal life God offers us

Meditation by Frances Flatman on next weekend’s Readings (6th Sunday)

This week’s Readings all seem to highlight great disparities in one way or another, be that obedience to God in the Old Testament, or Jesus’ contrast between the disadvantaged and the advantaged, or in Paul’s writing on the significance of his resurrection from the dead and what it implies. The Readings are full of sharp divides, contrasts and discordances, as though done deliberately to make the original hearers and ourselves uncomfortable and given to introspection, so as to see where we all lie on the great graphs our Readings draw, as we consider our lives in Christ.

We may think we know the ‘Beatitudes’ rather well, but Luke’s choice (6:17.20-26) is significantly different from those of Matthew, and in their position in the Gospels. Matthew gives a much more ‘religious’ gloss to his list which follows immediately on the temptations of Christ, and therefore seems to imply a more personal and introspective approach to the issues raised. Luke on the contrary plunges us into a social world of sharp discrepancies, as he places his Beatitudes significantly ‘on the plain’ and not up the exalted mountain, and moreover has preceded them by healings of lepers and paralytics, social outcasts, and the account of the call and banquet of the very wealthy Levi the tax collector – someone Theophilus could appreciate and understand – well, he could until Levi gave all his wealth away! Rather than extend his list as does Matthew, Luke gives a sharply contrasting threesome of the blessed (not Happy!) poor, hungry and weeping who stand in juxtaposition to the  three ‘woes’ on the rich, those whose stomachs are full and whose lives are filled at present with laughter.

One cannot imagine that Theophilus would have felt entirely comfortable at this point, and no doubt Luke did not intend him to be so! Indeed, he has plunged his hearers and the readers of his Gospel quite deliberately into a world of social dilemmas, one they met in abundance whenever they stepped out of their beautiful homes. It would have been a world Luke himself confronted daily as a doctor too, and clearly he intended these issues to be at the heart and centre of thought and action in the tiny Christian communities of the Eastern Mediterranean he knew so well. Cities, for they were the places where Christianity took off, were haunted by the fear of famine throughout the ancient world, and only the wealthy, who incidentally owned the productive grain-growing land and had huge granaries in which to store grain and sell it at a profit to the public, were shielded from acute shortage.

Theophilus has indeed been offered the enormous benefits of eternal life in Christ, as we see in our Reading from 1 Corinthians, (15:12.16-20) and now the Church, here in the guise of St Luke, requires that his patron,, and every subsequent recipient of his Gospel incarnate that LIFE in their attitudes to those of the Christian communities of which they were and are a part in real material action towards those less well situated than themselves. We might think this just a statement of the obvious, but the point is that it wasn’t in the ancient world. Great patrons in an honour society had their obligations to their clients, and their country or city, which required them to donate both food and public buildings and entertainment to the citizens; but the foreigners and non citizen body were left out in the cold. What we are witnessing is the start of a great Christian revolution, and its insistent high valuation of the entire humanity, and clearly we still have a very long way to go.

Quite clearly this had been a problem of very long duration, as we see in our Reading from Jeremiah (17:5-8). The prophet it would appear held very jaundiced views about the capacity of human beings on their own to respond well to the needs of others. Indeed, he compares them to a ‘wasteland’, a desolate landscape! Those familiar with Jeremiah’s hostile relationship with the king and his court, as they led the nation to disaster can see his point,; and clearly, as inspired prophet of Yahweh, Jeremiah, who of course stood as the lone and despised voice of God, understood that only when attentive to the call of the divine could human beings be alert to needs different from their own agendas. Today’s Readings therefore bring us face to face with age old questions, forcing us to think what redemption in Christ and the eternal life he gives are all about. No one buys their way into eternal life, but it is surely a mark of the redeemed that we can go out of ourselves to be godlike in this world, and in so doing we bring the risen Jesus ever closer to all those we touch, however slight that touch may be.

What it means to me to be a Priest

HOMILY for the 5th ORDINARY SUNDAY 2019

 Today, we priests in this Diocese, have been asked by the Archbishop to preach about our personal understanding of the priesthood. I must admit that if you’d told me as a teenager that I’d end up as a priest, I would have been astonished. I had discovered Jesus when I was about 13, and it had changed my life. Before that I thought that all the stuff about God and Jesus was a load of fairy tales; but then I met some intelligent Christians and discovered that Jesus was a real person who actually taught an amazing message about us and God, and then gave his life as the greatest example of sacrificial love ever. I was still a great doubter, but I went to Church because I knew Jesus would want me to, even though quite a few things said and done in Church were not things I really approved of, or understood.

I must explain at this point that I was a member of the Church of England, so that was the Church I was critical of, whilst if you’d asked me about the Catholic Church I would have come out with some classic English ignorance which implied that Catholics weren’t really Christians. At University however, my first and greatest friend was a very intelligent Catholic, and he changed my views a great deal, and made me a much firmer and more intelligent Christian, but no way was I going to become a Catholic. The problem I faced was that people kept saying that I’d make a great Vicar, which was an idea I resisted, because for me Vicars and Priests were just dull people who stood up at the front on Sunday and didn’t seem to have much connection with the Jesus I knew and loved.

I certainly wanted to serve Jesus in some way, maybe as a teacher or a social worker, but never as one of those clergymen – ugh! But gradually my view began to change, as I saw clergy hard at work on ordinary days of the week serving people in all sorts of difficult circumstances.  There was also a moment that I remember clearly, when prayer came alive for me. I had prayed, but somehow hadn’t realised that God was close by me and wanted me to speak to him directly. Discovering the reality of God’s presence was a very joyful moment.

In the midst of all this, I realised at some point that being a clergyman or a priest was not dull but was a work of sacrificial love; that I was called, however hard it might be, to share God’s love and my faith in that love with others; and once I knew that it was a challenge rather than a soft option, I was on my way. I responded to the call we heard today in our 1st Reading from Isaiah (6:1-8), a call we also heard Jesus make in our Gospel. (Luke 5:1-11) And so I became a Vicar, and remained one for 23 years.

 My journey towards the Catholic Church took a very long time and is too long to explain to you now. If you want to know the full story you can ready my book available from the publisher http://www.lulu.com/shop/martin-flatman/where-are-you-going/paperback/product-23728839.html

Which tells how in the end over 20 years ago, I became a Catholic priest. It was in many ways the same work I had done before, but now I was not agonising about the failings of the Church of England, but rejoicing to be a full member of the great Church founded by Jesus and the Apostles at the beginning, the Catholic Church. This doesn’t mean that I ever thought the Catholic Church was perfect. It can’t be, because it is made up of all us stupid and sometimes sinful humans; but I still think that it is closer to what Jesus intended than any other Christian body that I have examined.

For me then, being a priest is always a challenge, but a very worthwhile one. I’ve always found it very rewarding to walk alongside all sorts of people at crucial moments in their lives, be it birth or death or something in between. Although I’ve struggled with prayer, as we all do, the privilege of leading people in prayer at Mass, of really praying the Mass, of speaking and listening to God myself so as to help others do the same, is of fundamental importance to me. I love too the challenge of trying to explain the faith in ways that people can understand, trying hard not to use technical religious words that leave most people bewildered, and to think of examples from real life that keep people awake and listening, and maybe saying “Yes, that’s happened to me.”

That’s why, as a retired priest, even when I’m not actually preaching on a Sunday, I still send my Homily out on the Internet.  Yes, like Isaiah, I often say “What a wretched man I am, I am lost.” But when a Priest admits he is sometimes lost, it actually helps the people who are listening; because the Priest is not talking down to them but walking the way of faith alongside them. That is why all of us, not just Priests, despite our failings and struggles, can say to Jesus “Here I am. Send me.”

 

 

 

Meeting God and passing on his truth

A Meditation from Frances Flatman on the Readings for next Sunday – the 5th in Ordinary Time

Today’s Readings raise two significant issues that really stretch our attitudes and thinking as modern people: the issue of how God ‘speaks’ to us or rather meets us, and that of where true leadership lies within the Christian community. With the first, I suspect many don’t even consider that such a thing as communication with the divine ever happens; and with the second, like the people of Jesus’ and then Luke’s day, folk had rather rigid ideas about who precisely was or could be equipped to bring God’s truth to the people.

I imagine that the Governor of a Roman province such as Theophilus didn’t have much to do with fishermen. On the whole they were rough and undoubtedly evil smelling men who worked with their hands. Their level of culture would not have been great, and on the whole their incomes in no way remarkable, certainly above subsistence level, but of small scale in a backwater such as the Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee/Tiberias) region. If he even thought about them at all, as a provincial governor, it would have been in terms of raising taxes and that only very indirectly through his tax-farmers and their henchmen. Luke (5:1-11) presents his patron with quite a wake-up call, as we see Jesus first teaching this motley crowd about the salvation wrought by God, and then its actual acting out in the miraculously huge catch of fish. Of course, he should have realised that this was quite a theme in Luke, since he’d already met it in the infancy narrative of Jesus, and the adoration of the equally smelly shepherds at the manger! But after their angelic meeting and the visit to Bethlehem those men just disappeared. Here, to the contrary, we find that they are to be among the great apostles and evangelists, in Greek catching not dead fish but ‘living men’. It is the size of the catch which left everyone in no doubt at all about what was going on. It wasn’t just unusually large, it threatened to swamp two boats, a sign of eschatological abundance, the sign of the arrival of God’s kingdom and the totally new life it brought. Even the likes of Theophilus would have been impressed, even staggered, by this evidence of divine action in ordinary human life, and like Simon and his colleagues even frightened, forced to take note and act upon the evidence given.

For ancient men and women encounters with the divine, though looked for were also occasions of fear, and were at best carefully managed events taking place in pagan shrines and or the Temple, and especially for those specially selected, those able to afford to go on pilgrimage or important people. In our Reading from 1st Isaiah (6:1-8) dated to 742BCE – a period of political instability when the various small kingdoms of the Near East were at war with each other and the Assyrians would bring about the fall of Israel the northern kingdom, based in Samaria within twenty years – we find Isaiah, a prophet extremely hostile to the court in Jerusalem and its youthful and inexperienced king Ahaz. He appears to be in the Temple when his vision of God took place, and he himself was fearful and shocked, full of feelings of inadequacy when confronted with God’s call, but utterly convicted of the truth of his experience. Faithful to this divine invitation, he would be the bane of the court and its futile policies, which he would blame largely on the apostasy of the nation led by the King and his court. Isaiah would go on to be one of Israel’s major prophets and die a martyr.

Quite clearly Paul (1 Corinthians 15:1-11) was faced with similar problems. He had been converted from persecutor of Christians to devotee of Christ by his Damascus Road encounter with the risen Christ, and had converted people in Corinth from paganism around the late 40’s CE. The problem was that Corinth being Corinth, there were others who thought they could do a better job, Apollos clearly having a higher street-cred than Paul; and this was a place which thrived on phenomenon of the divine. I imagine that the straight-laced Jewish Paul did not always go down well in this city of exotic faiths, especially where others put a livelier gloss on the Christian message. Paul dealt with these controversies in the Christian community in Corinth by insisting that he had faithfully adhered to the ‘tradition’,  the truth about Jesus which he himself had received from the Church in Judaea and Antioch and faithfully passed on, and no other. ‘I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; and that he was raised to life on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared first to Chephas…’ Paul insists he is faithful to the original encounter with the risen Christ and his first followers, and that in and through the Church, of their witness the entire truth about Jesus was fixed and nowhere else. We too are heirs to this great story of divine redemption and needs must be faithful to their witness.

 

God’s plan for us is infinitely complex

We need to remember that the people in our Gospel today (Luke 4:21-30) are good people who have gathered to pray and want to do God’s will; but sadly their idea of what God’s will is for them and for Jesus, their local boy made good, is a very limited one. They wanted some inspiring words, and then a miraculous healing or two, and then they would have been happy; so when Jesus challenges their narrow view of how God might work in their lives, they become very angry. What makes it worse is that he reminds them of two stories they know well, of how the great prophets Elijah and Elisha worked miracles for foreigners, rather than for their own people. We can imagine their thinking. “How dare he talk to us like that. Jumped up little whipper-snapper!”

It always worries me when people talk about God having a Plan for each one of us, because sadly it implies something narrow and restrictive – a blueprint that we are supposed to conform to. It’s made worse in our modern world by that dangerous man Sigmund Freud who has got us thinking that somewhere inside me is the real me, and if only I can be the real me then I will be released from all the constraints that bother me and find happiness. Both ways of thinking can actually trap people, because they both assume that there is some perfect me, and if only I can find that then everything will be OK.

The people in Nazareth think like that. They cannot think outside the box. But modern humans can be equally blinkered, rejecting  that narrow view of what God wants, for an equally restricted view of what they think is right for them. In each case, they seemed to have forgotten the great truth that being fully human is not easy. As Shakespeare has Hamlet say “What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty.” That’s the glory of being human, but also the agonising challenge, that the possibilities for each one of us are infinite. When we hear in Genesis that we are made in God’s image, that doesn’t mean that God is like us, but that we are a little like God. God is an infinite power beyond our understanding, and being like God we have an infinity within us, which means that we can never fully understand ourselves.

In our 1st Reading (Jer 1:4-5.17-19) Jeremiah realises this truth, but it is a pity that the piece we have does not include is cry of agony “Ah Lord God”, For that expresses his realisation that what he must do with his life, what God wants of him, is not going to be an easy ride. There is no well-worked out plan for Jeremiah. Most of the time, just like Jesus, he is in conflict with his own people. He feels like a square peg in a round hole, telling them truths they do not want to hear. And there is no dramatic end to his story, only a realisation that his people did not listen and are now in exile in a foreign land, and must just put up with it, as he has to. So finally, after all the drama of his earlier prophecies, he is reduced to telling them to “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (Jer 29:5) 

 So the ways God wants for us can be challenging in all sorts of different ways, some far too exciting, even frightening, whilst others are rather too dull and boring. And this takes us on to the great passage of love that is our 2nd Reading, (1 Cor 12:31-13:13) for learning to love is learning to do God’s will wherever it takes us. As people say when they get married, “For better for worse, for richer for poorer.”  A life of love may well be full of joy and excitement at times, but it can also be a hard plod. Couples can move from the amazing joy of new birth to the dull round of sleepless nights, from the excitement of seeing their child succeed, to the sadness of supporting them in failure. “Love is always patient and kind” says St Paul but it also calls on us “to trust, to hope, to endure whatever comes.”

The message today then is never to think that we have sorted out our life, never to think there is some way forward where we will feel absolutely right. To be fully human means to love, and to love means to be open to infinite possibilities, some of which may well make us very happy, but others that will do quite the reverse. We can never know precisely who we are or what we should do because the possibilities are infinite, are endless. We may think we have our path sorted out, and then everything changes either in us, or in things or people around us, and we just have to buckle down and adapt to new circumstances, where to love may be to do something very different from what we imagined for ourselves. St Paul finishes his great passage on love by reminding us of this. “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face. The knowledge that I have now is imperfect; but then I shall know as fully as I am known.”

Crises can be moments of opportunity

Meditation by Frances on this coming Sunday’s Readings (4th Sunday) :-

When Luke (4:21-30) wrote his Gospel for Theophilus the influential convert from paganism to Christianity in those very early days, when the faith was going out to pagans and leaving behind its Jewish origins, he would have recalled two remarkably helpful memories of stories Jesus had told from the Hebrew Bible. Our Gospel continues directly on from last week’s account of Jesus’ first sermon at Nazareth. Everything appeared to be going frightfully well as Jesus read from 3rd Isaiah’s great message of a restored nation. But the problem was precisely this, that message fitted neatly into Israel’s vision of itself as God’s chosen, ultimately making good and seizing control after years of disaster and invasions. Jesus’ understanding of his role as Messiah and bringer of God’s Kingdom on earth did not follow expected paths or fit human demands, most particularly that of a new and militant nation. So Jesus immediately went on to remind his audience that God worked through his major prophets, and those usually hostile to the state and its policies, by way of referencing the careers of both Elijah, prophet of the eschaton (God’s full reign on earth) and Elisha who performed great miracles, NOT for Jews but for foreigners, and in the latter case for a hated Syrian Naaman, leader of an army against the Israelites. Such a message would have spoken volumes to the likes of Theophilus and his entourage and colleagues since, as a probable governor of a Roman province, he might well have been similarly circumstanced. We are dealing here with God who breaks the mould, who shatters all our expectations of the way things ‘should be’, and opens up entirely new opportunities and possibilities for us as belief in Jesus went out to the Gentiles.

We meet this theme once again in our Reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Christians. (1Cor 12:31-13:13) Paul had just explored the need for Christian solidarity by way of comparing their different abilities to the varying parts of a human body, pointing out how all together made a human being; and went on to require this of members of the Church for whom such corporate action and self perception was by no means understood or accepted. The flow of ideas in our passage is instructive of what he was up against, for Corinthian men were much impressed by the various philosophies of the day to be found in their city, as it transferred its ideas from Athens and its Academy. The city was positively bursting at the seams with different ‘mystery cults’ such as Mithras, Isis and Cybele. Indeed, Christianity was thought just one more, and educated men, erudite thinkers, would have attained a high status in this nouveau-riche setting. Amidst all this hurly-burly, Paul demanded total commitment to love, here agapè, solicitude for the other, as the heart and centre of faith and the life of every Christian. Corinthians knew heaps about eros – sexual love. It confronted them in almost every aspect of their daily lives, from street signs to brothels, to frescos and mosaics, but Paul’s insistence on the fundamental necessity of ‘agapè ‘ would have been startlingly new and puzzling to these converts, for this was a competitive city, much given to jealousies and vendettas and taking offence. He speaks of them not being those who ‘scored’ and gossiped against their fellows. He speaks of them not being conceited and boastful, in an honour society in which public giving such as donating baths, temples, pavements and colonnades, all duly commemorated for eternity (as we still find today on archaeological sites) guaranteed your place at the top, and in which ‘boasting’ was a pagan virtue since it recorded, from emperor down, your acts of generosity and commitment to your city and state. Christianity indeed imposed a new and heavy burden of transformation, as its notions of ‘love’ for others emulated the self-giving of Christ himself in Trinity for the life of every member of the redeemed. It was a lot to live up to.

That these were challenging views went way back, as we see in our Reading from Jeremiah. (1:4-5.17-19) Jeremiah reminds us that his life began in the reign of the good King Josiah, the religious reformer, under whose reign the Book of Deuteronomy came to light. A king indeed, who, faithful to his alliance with the Babylonians, lost his life at Meggido and was executed by the invading Egyptians. He was succeeded by his son, who frankly was ineffectual and easily led; so that his nation fell in 604BCE at Carchemish to the might of the Babylonians, who sacked Jerusalem and took the elite off into exile. Jeremiah’s work would be a great message of hope to this exiled group, insisting that this was an opportunity not a disaster for his nation, and indeed Israel would eventually see how its scholars in Babylon produced a Talmud, and contributed enormously to the faith of Israel. Crises, confrontations, it appears, can be moments of opportunity not just disaster, in which our faith is renewed and re-made, rather than just the outward terrors which we think them.

 

 

God encourages difference not conformity

In a couple of weeks time, our Archbishop has asked all us priests to share a homily on what led them to ordination; but I want to start today by telling you what put me off! The problem was that I saw all priests as dull proper people, who all dressed the same, looked the same, spoke the same; and I did NOT want to be like that, like some robot off a production line! I’m sure that many people think Christians are meant to be like that too : all the same, all conforming to the same set of expectations, all behaving in the same way.

You could read our 1st Reading today (Neh 8:2-10) and think that this is exactly what is being suggested in the idea that the people wept when they heard the law being read to them. But Ezra suddenly surprises them, because instead of telling them to go and behave like proper law-abiding people, he sends them off to have a party – “To drink the sweet wine.” It’s interesting that the law-abiding Pharisees, many years later, accuse Jesus and his disciples of a lack of holiness because they are always eating and drinking.

This is surely why St Paul tells us that we are meant to be different from one another in our 2nd Reading. (1 Cor 12 :12-30 though you might hear a shortened version at Mass) He tells us how we are called to be different parts of one body; and this means for example that the eye cannot say to the hand “I do not need you.” No, every part, even the least presentable parts, are needed.

This is a message that means a lot to me because as a boy I did not conform to what boys were meant to be like, especially in the 1950’s. I did not like football or rugby on muddy fields. My play was imaginative and gentle, which is why I found life so hard as a teenager in an all boys school, until I found some fellow pupils who also dared to be different. Photos of me in the 1960’s would have shown me with bright coloured flowing chiffon scarves round my neck, and long hair – not what you might expect of someone preparing to be a priest! Still today teenagers pretends to encourage difference, but I think are still desperate to be like one another, and to think they have to conform to certain ways. Woe betide people who do not fit these stereotypes, and thus feel they somehow do not fit their bodies.

So the Good News that Jesus announces in our Gospel, (Luke 1:1-4.4:14-21) with its talk of liberty to the captives, of setting the downtrodden free, must not be interpreted in a too literal sense. The captives might mean those actually imprisoned, but mostly those that Jesus set free were ordinary people who in some way were fixed in their minds into problems that enslaved them. I’m thinking particularly of the man at the Pool who thought the only way he could be cured was if someone helped him to be first into that Pool to bathe. He was trapped in a cycle of despair. But Jesus just says, “Stand up.. and walk.”, and sets him free. (John 5:8) John’s Gospel is full of people who have to learn to see in new ways.

So the message today is that we are like pieces in a jigsaw. There is no one shape that is the right shape. Each of us has our own distinctive way of being; but we are meant to discover our place in the jigsaw, how our unique way fits into the other pieces that also need to fit into us. This is quite a challenge, which is probably why humans in power, including church officials, sometimes adopt an oppressive regime where everyone has to be like everyone else – even dress the same way. Such societies can appear to work well, but of course they repress our human imagination and ingenuity. If human society is to thrive, we have to encourage difference, provided that difference in the end serves the common good, and not some personal power game.

I have just read a great biography of George Stephenson, the inventor of the modern railway engine. He was a poor illiterate boy from a mining village who dared to think outside the box, to imagine new ways of doing things. In the process he had to learn to read and write, and incredibly find the skill to be an engineer, believing that steam engines could travel along rails at at least 15 miles per hour! Society said it was impossible, but his imagination and skill changed the world. That is what God wants for every human being.