Moments when we need to dive into hope

A Meditation from Frances on next Sunday’s Readings (32nd):-

Just recently I noted with relief the evacuation of the remaining White Helmets and their families from Syria by, of all unlikely people, the Israeli forces! The White Helmets are the men who risk their lives to rescue the victims of Assad’s bombings. What remains however in my mind are the photos of those young men who have been killed in the course of this work. I recall pictures of slight young men with embarrassed, self-deprecating smiles, people who never sought fame but simply found themselves in the right spot at the right time, and whose decision to stay and give their lives for others was quite simply motivated by character; what they were and the conviction and integrity which required them to stay and help their fellow human beings, come what may. Our Readings this week are all about such moments of decision, times when to be true to oneself, people could do no other than follow their conviction even to death.

Such was the woman in our Gospel passage, (Mark 12:38-44) the woman noticed by Jesus at the Temple, and whose story follows very closely on last week’s Reading. Jesus,, as we saw was in the holy city for Passover and the last week of his life. It was a time of final confrontation, of burning of one’s boats, and he notices a woman who epitomises his own situation. We have to remember that this was a time when there was no Social Security, no regular help for the very poor, although beggars abounded. My guess is that this lady had quite simply come to the end of the road. Devoid of family, friends,, and any financial help she turns to the only help she can, to God in the Temple, and makes the final offering of her two remaining copper coins. She knows she is going to starve to death and, at this crunch moment, just gives herself to God, to the only one she trusts will be merciful – in death. We notice that Jesus does not intervene to save her, she gets no last minute reprieve and he has already passed unfavourable judgement on the rich and their way of life. They could easily have helped her, but did not. He observes how they also give large donations to the Temple, gifts befitting their rank and status, and which were observed by the public; and he noted that, just like us, they gave from their surplus wealth. In effect, it cost them nothing but gained them a great deal from the respect they got from society.

Our poor widow is an alter-Christus. Finally, in extremis, she has flung all her hope on God, just as Jesus will do a couple of days later, trusting in the Father, in whom everything in him insisted that their relationship was true; and Jesus, true to his instincts, went ahead, trusting he was right. He had belief, but no certainty that God would vindicate him by resurrection. Like the widow, he just followed his conviction of a merciful redeemer. There will be moments in every life when we too have to make that dive into hope. It may be before vital surgery, or the question of a relationship; it may be in the moment of our martyrdom. There is that in human beings which, fired by grace, gives us the ability to make such amazing leaps of faith, life changing moments.

In the Letter to the Hebrews (9:24-28) the author, who spends a lot of time comparing the Jewish temple high priests unfavourably to Jesus, discusses what differentiates them from Jesus.  Clearly he was writing principally for Jewish-Christians in Rome who were under pressure to forsake Christ and return to full practice of Judaism. His point here is that the Temple they served was a man-made construction, whose entire purpose lay in the continual repetition of rites of animal sacrifice in a never ending cycle of sin and atonement, which by their very nature could never achieve their aim of making sinful human beings whole in their relationship with God. But the self-offering of Christ on the cross, he points out, was a unique event requiring no sequel of repetition; since Jesus has taken-on the sin of the entire world by the willing sacrifice of his own person. Jesus, unlike the Temple priests who operated in the temple, entered ‘heaven itself’, and, face to face with divinity as beloved Son gives the Father the only satisfactory offering, the one which makes him and through him us, wholly one with God. We have to think of two great leaps of faith here: that of Jesus who believed he was the Father’s ultimate gift to the world, and made that one and all important act of self-sacrifice; and of the recipients of the Letter, those, (like us) who are asked to make that leap of faith into the absurd, casting aside all that they had previously learnt of God through Judaism, and to launch out into the deep, following Jesus the missionary/healer/messiah, whose understanding of the God-human relationship was so radically different.

Our Reading from 1 Kings (17:10-16) helps us on that difficult journey by way of the story of Elijah and the pagan woman of Sidon. We note that the woman was not a Jew, but a pagan, so that the story stretches out to embrace foreigners – a leap into the unknown, someone despised by Jews. Clearly there was a famine, and people were dying, and the prophet himself was desperate; also he was in hiding, hunted by the king who had turned to paganism and was after his blood. My guess is that the woman herself was at the end of her tether, rather like the widow of the Gospel. Her gods had clearly failed her and she and her son were about to eat their last meal and die. Was the appearance of Elijah something of a shot in the dark, a last hope? Somehow he persuaded her to make that ‘leap of faith’, the one which paid off in her case, and did so for Elijah too; and out of this most unlikely of alliances came a great story of hope and trust that the God of Israel will not fail. Indeed, he has not through the long and difficult times in which he offers salvation to his people, to those who make that great leap out into the dark. I pray we too may follow in their footsteps.

 

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Jesus prays for us eternally

The great commandment to love God that we heard in our 1st Reading today (Deut 6:2-6) and in our Gospel (Mark 12:28-34) must make us happy to belong to a people, the Christian people, who base our lives on love. But if we think about it, I expect it also makes us sad that we do not live up to our Christian calling. I try to love God with all my heart and mind and soul, but I fear that love of other things often creeps into my thoughts and prayers.  Jesus also says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48) But this is perhaps even more difficult, isn’t it? For trying to love people I do not like, who behave in horrible ways, is an immense challenge for all of us.

The question then is how can we ever become one with God who is perfect, how can we ever be drawn after death into heaven, if we fall so far short of the love God shows us? St Paul was certain that there was only one answer. He had begun life as a Pharisee, and the Pharisees believed that we could follow a series of rules and regulations that would make us perfect. But then Paul met Jesus, and became aware how far short he was from the glory of God. In his Letter to the Romans (7:24-25) he puts it like this, “Wretched man that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?”; and another Christian, the writer of the Book of Revelation, (Rev 5:4) weeps bitterly that “No-one is worthy.” But then he is answered from heaven, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” ; and the Lamb of course is Jesus. He is the one who was slain, and so St Paul can say “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This is the heart of our Christian faith, that we cannot get to God alone, by our own efforts; but that we can get to God if we put our trust in Jesus and in his sacrificial love. But what does that mean? Do I just have to have a nice feeling of trust in my head, and that’s enough? Well yes it’s a start, but No it is not enough, for the Bible makes it clear that to be one with Jesus, we need to be linked to him in and through one another. Jesus doesn’t say “Just think about me and you will be OK”, he says “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:20) and then just before he dies he gives his friends one special way of gathering in his name, when he has that Last Supper with them and says, as he give them the bread, “This is my body.. Do this in memory of me.” St Paul, in his Letter to the Corinthians, (11:25-27) says very firmly that this is what Christians must do, because “When you eat this bread ….. you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

So putting our trust in Jesus doesn’t just mean trusting in him by ourselves. We are linked to him, and thus to God, by belonging, by being members of his family, of his holy people. Now our 2nd Reading today (Hebrews 7:23-28) puts this in a rather different way, because in the Old Testament one of the main ways you belonged was by visiting the Temple in Jerusalem and asking the priests there to link you to God through their prayers and the sacrifices you offered through them. The problem with this, as the writer points out, is that priests aren’t perfect. They are humans like us. The answer is that God provides the one true priest – Jesus – who can lead us to heaven. So the writer says “It follows.., that his power to save is utterly certain, since he is living for ever to pray for all who come to God through him.”

We need to remember then how wonderful it is that Jesus is praying for us, for all of us, and that when we gather together to pray and to receive him in the bread that is his body, the priest who says the words of the prayers is not the one who is praying for us; for the one who is actually praying for us is Jesus, present with us. And Jesus is the Lamb who was slain, he is the one who has died for us, and he is the one who is alive for ever so that through him and with him and in him, we are drawn into the love of God which is eternal life with him for ever.  

Of course that doesn’t mean we can sit back and be horrid people. God needs and accepts our imperfect efforts to be good and loving, and uses them in the process of purifying us; but if we think these efforts alone get us to God then we’re in great danger. Why? Because we’re beginning to take pride in ourselves as good and holy Christians rather than accepting our limitations and putting our trust entirely in God and his grace.  Yes, we must try to love God and our neighbour with all our heart and soul and mind, but above all we must trust God to purify us, a process we call purgatory. It is God in and through Jesus who transforms our weak efforts to love into the perfect love by which we become one with him for ever. 

 

Jesus gifts himself to us and for ever

A Meditation from Frances on next Sunday’s Readings (31st):-

We are getting very close to the end of the Liturgical Year of Mark, and our Readings reflect this in quite a stark and dramatic manner. We are being pushed to consider precisely what our faith is all about. (Mark 12:28-34) Our Gospel Reading places us with Jesus in the last week of his earthly life. He is in Jerusalem for his Passion and death and we have witnessed his ‘triumphal entry’ into the city; his attack on the temple and his confrontation with the Sadducees over marriage in heaven; and we have witnessed his devastating attack on the scribes, chief priests and Pharisees, the parable of the vineyard. Clearly there is no turning back, the die is cast. It is our moment of choice too.

In his encounter with one of the scribes, Jesus explores the nature of the Commandments, their ranking and significance and the requirement that we love God totally: ‘heart, soul, mind and strength’; and Jesus interpolates with the injunction that we follow exactly the same pattern in our relationship with others too. It’s about the totality of God, isn’t it? We should not read this passage as a collection of depressing ‘ought’s’, at which we shall inevitably fail, but rather Jesus’ invitation that we be godlike – which was always what he had on offer right from the beginning of his ministry, and what he would sacrifice his life to achieve for us. This is precisely why understanding the context in which Mark has placed all these encounters is so critical. Jesus did not die to make you and me just a bit nicer, he gave his life to make us divine, totally one with Father, Son and Spirit, sharers in the Trinity. The significant thing is that at the end of the encounter this scribe is in complete agreement with Jesus, recognising that a life lived out in this manner far supersedes the making of temple sacrifices. Jesus and this man are entirely on the same wavelength, suggesting that there were those in mainstream Judaism who knew and approved of Jesus and his mission, and among those who ultimately took up the faith in Jerusalem.

You see, Jesus was not a rogue element in Judaism, but someone, something there right from its earliest days. We see this in our Reading from Deuteronomy (6:2-6), compiled in the late 7th century BCE, and including even older material; and deriving from a time when there was no conception of eternal life with God, resurrection or anything beyond this material world. Since this was the case, early Judaism was indeed very materialistic; all its focus in its relationship with God was concerned with law obedience which would bring divine favours, literally the giving of the Promised Land, ‘A land where milk and honey flow.’ The great tragedy for Judaism would be its blind focus on its earliest gift and discovery of God, and its unwillingness to grow, to take that journey to its ultimate destination in Jesus and our divinity; but the revelation of God to his chosen was always about this, about the fullness of God to us and in us which is what all our Readings this week are about.

The Letter to the Hebrews, (7:23-28) written clearly by a follower of Paul after the latter’s execution, and who wrote either during or after the failed Jewish Revolt 66-70 CE to Jewish-Christians in Rome who were under some pressure from the Roman authorities compares and contrasts the Temple high priesthood with that of Jesus. The fact that he speaks of the former priests in the past tense indicates that the Jerusalem Temple had already been destroyed in 70 CE by Titus and his troops, as the city fell and was sacked. The high priests had stayed and fought to the end in this brutal civil war and revolt against Rome. Clearly under pressure, as Christians had been under Nero, and highly suspect as Jewish Christians, some of this synagogue/house church considered returning to full Judaism and claiming the ancient privileges of Jews, notwithstanding the suspicions of them because of the Revolt.

Our writer considered it his life’s work to convince them to remain within the Church, and he does this by appealing to the absolute difference between the Jewish high priesthood and that of Jesus.  Death, as he so starkly phrased it, put an end to the lives of those former priests. He might even have pointed to their fate in the revolt, or certainly to the fact that they had continually to be replaced due to their mortality. He might even have alluded to their well known corruption, and certainly to their limited role through the Temple animal sacrificial system. All those details would have been there in the background. By way of definite contrast, he points to the unique, eternal priesthood of Jesu Christ, who is eternally alive and continually making intercession for us, so unlike the Temple priests who only did so for a fee.

Sadly our Jerusalem Bible translation clouds our comprehension of the passage: ‘To suit us the ideal high priest would have to be….” makes it all look like a matter of our choice! But when we follow the Greek, things become much clearer: ‘For it was fitting’, or as some have it: ‘Indeed, such is our high priest’, and the writer goes on to elucidate the qualities of Jesus:  ‘Holy, innocent, uncontaminated, beyond the influence of sinners, and raised above the heavens; one who would not need to offer sacrifices every day, as the other high priests do for their own sins and then for those of the people, because he has done this once and for all by offering himself.’

It is the finality, the highlighting of the utter difference between the old high priesthood and that of Jesus which is so stunning. They dealt with things, signs and symbols. He gave himself, and having given his entire being for our salvation, we can be absolutely sure that he has the power to achieve what he promised. Judaism was always subject to the weakness of its officials. Jesus, because he is the fullness of God incarnate, simply gifts himself to us and that forever.

 

 

On shouting in prayer and praise

Some people might find the idea of shouting in prayer a bit odd, but prayer is any way in which we communicate with God; and since we see two different people do that by shouting in today’s Readings, we need to look at what that’s all about. In our First Reading, Jeremiah (31:7-9) encourages us to shout when we want to praise God; whilst in our Gospel (Mark 10:46-52) we hear the blind man shouting to Jesus for help, and his shouts were heard. So two ways of shouting are worth using when we pray, in which one is a shout of praise and the other a shout for help.

When we shout in praise to God, we most often do it through song. “Sing to the Lord a new song; play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.” is just one example from the great Hymns that Jesus knew by heart and would have sung with others. We call these Hymns, the Psalms, and that was from Psalm 33, but there are many many other examples encouraging us to sing and to shout. Most shouts to God in praise are best expressed in song, not least because we can do it altogether. Singing out in a loud voice to God is a vital part of being human. We should of course sometimes sing quietly, even almost under our breath, for singing of any kind offers to God a different part of our brain from speaking. That’s why we find it much easier to remember the words of songs, as we sing them, than words that are only spoken. We must always remember that these great shouts of praise to God are as much part of prayer as our quiet times. St Paul says that prayer will sometimes be “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26) and we must pray in silence like that too; but we must have a balance, and shouts and songs of praise are equally important. As Jeremiah says “Proclaim. Praise. Shout.”

The second use of shouting in prayer is what we heard the blind man doing in the Gospel. He shouts for help, and note that he shouts even louder when the people tell him to be quiet. But remember that God knows our hearts and our needs even before we ask him, so we do not shout to God to make him hear us. Prayer is not about us trying to get God to open up to us, for he is always with us : he knows our hearts and our minds. Prayer is actually the way we open ourselves more and more to God, so that when we are sad or desperate or in pain, our shout, our cry to God for help, is the way we really share with God our deepest troubles, and our need for him, so that he can enter with his love in an even deeper way to bring us comfort and support. Here again we may shout out loud, or with silent sighs too deep for words. Both are ways in which we open up more and more to God in prayer.

There is however one other way that we can shout in prayer that might surprise you, and that is shouting AT God. There are times when things go so wrong for us that in our desperation, we want to really shout not just TO God but AT God, almost blaming him for the problem, even though we know it’s not really his fault.  In one great example of this from the Bible, Isaiah cries out (64:1) “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” ; and that’s certainly the way we can sometimes feel when we are really low. Now some people would say that shouting at God like this is wrong, but I would argue that God is big enough and loving enough to cope with us when we cry for help even like this; for we’re not meant simply to show our polite side to God, as some people think, as if prayer was like addressing some powerful person who we do not want to offend. Prayer does not have to be polite.

 If Jesus from the cross can shout out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”, then we can too. Here again, he is using words from another of the Psalms, (22) which just shows how often these great Hymns can express some of our deepest feelings. I think that people get confused here because they know it is wrong to curse God, and think that shouting at God is the same. But as we can see from that shout of Jesus, it’s actually very different. Jesus doesn’t shout against God. That would be impossible for him; but he does share in as forceful way as possible the pain and agony that he is going through as he dies that horrible death; and we are thus given permission to do something similar when things are really tough for us.

As Christians we are meant to share everything with God, our greatest joys and our greatest sorrows, and all the other more ordinary things in between. Sharing our whole life with God is what prayer is, and that’s why we need to do it regularly both alone and with others; for in doing so we are not just letting God’s love and grace flow more fully into us, but also through us to others.

 

Christians seek the treasures of heaven

As Christians, we know only too well that outward goodness is not enough, not least because it can become an occasion for pride or even arrogance. We know that the important thing about life is to be open to God. What matters is that we humbly follow Jesus, aiming to be good and kind yes, but knowing that when we fail, he still loves us; and knowing too that a surface goodness is not enough.

We see this view of life expressed today, not only in our Gospel, (Mark 10:17-30) where the rich young man tells Jesus how he good he has been, and yet he senses there is something else; and then is told that this “something else” is to give up relying on his money, and as you know he finds that a step too far.  In our 2nd Reading (Hebrews 4:12-13) we’re told that God knows “Our secret emotions and thoughts”, so clearly no surface goodness will work here. And in our Old Testament Reading (Wisdom 7:7-11) we also get the same message : that we must love God (Here described as “Wisdom”) more than gold or silver or even health and beauty.

I’ve mentioned in my earlier Homilies on the Old Testament how it’s actually a series of writings composed over many centuries and this Wisdom passage comes right at the end of this process. These writings portray a people gradually discovering a God who is not like the pagan gods. Pagan gods act like selfish humans, often doing bad things if it suits them; and to start with the Bible often does portray God like that. Pagan gods are also meant to reward their faithful followers with health and prosperity, and this view of God can also often be found in the Old Testament. But alongside these wrong views of God is a gradual realisation that if there is one true God then that God must be entirely different.  If you didn’t get what you wanted from one pagan god, then you might chuck him or her and try a different one; but if you wanted to follow the one true God, then you had to accept that that life will include service and sacrifice.

The Jewish people learnt this the hard way, when their happy life was shattered about 500 years before Christ when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took away into exile all the significant people. They did get back to Jerusalem eventually, but out of their suffering two strands of thinking emerge. One is that things will be all right in the end, that even if they suffer, one day their children or their grandchildren will receive the happy prosperous life they are asking God for, when enemies will be swept away and peace and justice will prevail. The other strand believes that the good things that come from God are happiness and peace in the heart, not outward riches and health; and that the fullness of that happiness and peace will only come to us when we are one with God after we have died.

It is, of course, that second strand of thinking that Jesus teaches and acts out in a life and a death of suffering and service. That is why he was so often in conflict with many of the leading Jews at the time. They believed that eventually God would reward the people, drive out their enemies and bring them earthly riches. In stark contrast, the prosperity Jesus promises his followers is the riches of heaven not of earth. The houses that he promises them are the “many rooms” in God’s house in heaven. Notice that even Jesus’ disciples haven’t got the message. Jesus has to use one of his extreme exaggerations to get over his point. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 

This is why we always have to read the Old Testament through the mind of Jesus and the way he interprets it, or else we can get a very weird idea of what Christianity is. We are called to follow Jesus, however hard that way may be. How sad that the rich young man couldn’t face it. He’s like so many people in prosperous Europe who have lapsed from the faith. Meanwhile, the poor of other parts of the world continue to follow Jesus and be faithful members of his church; and that’s partly because they just can’t afford the distractions, the alternative and exciting other possibilities, that our prosperity offers us. Here at Mass we reject those other possibilities, because we have decided to follow Jesus. That’s why we’re here.

Our perspectives on what is human will be made immeasurably richer

Thoughts from Frances on next Sunday’s Readings :-  St Mark’s stark Gospel makes painfully clear just how often people came to Jesus because they wanted something from him. This is very apparent in the distinction Mark makes between those Jesus seeks out and heals or helps, and those who somehow or other think they have a claim on him, or rights in relationship with him. This is particularly well illustrated by the three passion predictions made by Jesus in this Gospel, and the reactions of his closest disciples, who ignore what he has said and instead resort to earthly and materialistic ways of thinking. We see this in the way Peter dismisses the first prediction – ‘This cannot happen to you’, and with the second where they are arguing about who is the greatest; and we will see it in the final and third as they lay claim to the top positions in the kingdom. Our man in our Gospel today is one more of the same. (Mark 10:17-30). The Hellenised society of 1st century Palestine, much like the rest of the Greco-Roman world, consistently moved and thought in a world of social advancement and success. Those respected by the world were those who had fought their way up to the top and were honoured members in this ‘honour society’, one in which status and the power and privileges it brought were esteemed above all else.

The man in question has indeed led a good life and had rigorously fulfilled all the demands of the Jewish law. He lived therefore in anticipation that he would be amply rewarded in ‘eternal life’; that very material existence Jews looked for as they anticipated the coming of the kingdom and the overthrow of Roman power and occupation, and invested all their hopes in their understanding that the kingdom meant Jewish world domination. In short, he expected the kingdom to be ‘more of the present that he enjoyed, only more so.’ Clearly ‘eternal life’ for him, and indeed for the disciples, was not what Jesus envisaged at all. What he worked and looked for was our being fully taken up into God’s life, the life he knew as the divine Son, and believed that his mission on earth would incorporate every believer into – life lived as God lives and loves and gives of himself. There are, it seems, things far above the worth of wealth, power and status in this life, and as Jesus so pointedly made clear, the fullness of this relationship with God the Father can only be achieved through renunciation of all worldly status as we follow him in our self-emptying, and the total gift of self in the service of others.

Hebrews (4:12-13), was written some years after Paul’s death, between the 70’s-80’s CE, to a still Jewish dependent congregation of Christians in Rome. The author’s purpose was to keep this Jewish-Christian group firm in its belief in Christ in a period when things may well have been quite difficult. Christians had deliberately separated themselves from the Jewish rebels and played no part in the revolt, so that the gap between the two groups was increasingly noticeable, and Christians could no longer claim the protection and privilege Jews enjoyed in relation to the pagan empire. Some in this community of Christians clearly did want to return to mainstream Judaism which still, despite the horrors of the failed Jewish Revolt, retained some protection against Roman insistence on worship of the gods, and clearly there was quite a lot of infighting and friction within this community.

The whole of the Letter is focussed on proving the superiority of Christ over the Jewish law and its claims. Our tiny snippet speaks of the ‘Word of God’, as ‘Alive and active’, capable of precision and incisiveness, like a surgeon’s scalpel or, even more powerfully, a power capable of penetrating between soul and spirit. Perhaps our writer is thinking, like St John, of God’s ‘Word’ as the power of Jesus himself, God from God, the being who can and does enter the very heart of every believer. Certainly he writes of a power capable of intimately knowing every person’s most secret thoughts. This was, as with so much of Jesus’ own teaching about his relationship with the Father, designed to get believers radically to rethink what their/our relationship with God is all about. If we/they still think in old ways about ticking enough boxes by our own good behaviour so as to ‘earn’ eternal life, then we are clearly on the wrong track. Jesus’ relation to the Father was not about this at all,; but rather that of a total entry into the life of God himself, and this is our invitation too. The project, says the writer of Hebrews, is of an entirely different order; and we need to hang onto that in any age.

Clearly in the decades before the birth of Christ in the 1st century CE, there were writers and thinkers whose understanding of the God-human relationship was developing and shifting away from the conventional ways of understanding that relationship. After all, Jesus didn’t simply spring up anew with no relationship to the Jewish world from which he came, rather, he and some others of deep devotion to God, like the Wisdom writers, realised that sticking to the time honoured band-wagon of power and wealth as the supreme sign of divine blessing was to aim considerably below par. After all, their fellow thinkers for generations, like the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and even Job and many others had recognised that very good and holy men and women often got persecuted and had a very bad time of things. Questions of why the just and good suffer went back to the dawn of religious writing, as we see with the very early exploration of this in the story of what we call The Fall. No, our relationship with God is about something far more important than who is successful and who is not, nor is it simply about this material life. All this culminated in what we call the Incarnation, God the Son becoming human and taking us, rich and poor alike, into God’s life, where our perspectives on what it is to be human and divine will be immeasurably richer than we can ever imagine.

With God we are never alone

It’s easy to think that today’s Readings are all about marriage, but actually they are much more about our relationship with God and with the world he has created for us. The clue comes first from the Old Testament Reading (Genesis 2:18-24) when the story tells of God saying that “It is not good that man should be alone.” Now before I go any further let’s just remind ourselves that these ancient stories from the Old Testament are not to be taken literally. Indeed if you try to do this with the first two Chapters of the Bible you will have difficulty, because they are actually two different stories written by different people hundreds of year apart.

Genesis Chapter 1 has the familiar story of God creating the world in 6 days. Here man is created last. It conveys the truth that there is order in a world and a universe created by God, but the details are not meant to be taken literally. Chapter 2, which we heard part of today, has a totally different story in which man is created first, and then all the plants and animals. Here God is described as “The Lord God” to show that in the original Hebrew a different word is used for God from the one used in Chapter 1.

So when in our Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) Jesus refers back to Genesis Chapter 2, he’s using this story to attack the idea that women can be treated as objects that can be discarded with a “writ of dismissal”. He points instead to a very different relationship between a husband and wife, the one intended by God, in which man recognises woman as his equal. “Here at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” But be careful here, for once again the story that woman is created from the rib of man is not meant to be taken literally. It is just a story created to convey the truth that man and woman are equal.

It’s worth noting the rest of the story too, because in it God creates all the animals and birds and gets us to name them. Now when we name things it is a sign that we care about them. The more carefully we name them, the more we show that we care. That is an oak, but that is an ash. That is a ladybird but that is a bee, and so on. So this is a message about caring for the natural world rather than exploiting it; and see how that fits in with the creation of a woman. Here too there is meant to be care rather than exploitation – a very modern theme that many men are still failing to live up to in their relationship with women.

Jesus takes us one step further though. Here in a world where men often treated children as items that could be discarded until they were old enough to be useful, Jesus takes a tiny child and tells them that it is to these little children, these insignificant objects, that “the kingdom of God belongs.” How easily we humans turn towards oppression and exploitation rather than care and concern. How often has “religion” been used to oppress people rather than affirm them. This is what the religious authorities were doing in the time of Jesus, and why they couldn’t cope with the challenge he threw out at them with this kind of teaching. No wonder they eventually crucified him.

So the message today is that we’ve been given one another within a beautiful world so that caring for that world and for one another, we should not be alone. But God knows how easily we humans spoil what was originally intended for us, how easily we pollute the things around us in one way or another. That’s surely who God chooses not just to give us the world and one another, but to come close to us by becoming the human Jesus, who promises to be with us until the end of the world.

Yes, we can find God present with us in the beauty of the natural world, in the oak or the ash, in the ladybird or the bee. Indeed, we’re told by the scientists that being out in that natural world actually helps to heal us if we are ill or depressed. We can find God too in one another, for Jesus says  that where two or three are gathered in his name he is present in a special way. But there is a being alone that all of us must face alone. It is the moment when we walk alone into death. Then we must always remember that there too Jesus will be present for us, for he is not just God, but he is also the Way to God. He has entered death, so that he can be with us even there. As the Psalm says, (Psalm 23/22) “Even as we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, we can fear no evil, for he is with us.”

 Genesis tells us that God does not want us to be alone, and our 2nd Reading (Hebrews 2:9-11) says of Jesus that “By God’s grace he had to experience death for all mankind… to bring.. us… into glory.

So Jesus walks with us even through death, and we need never be alone.