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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Being with, rather than for

Imagine the scene, it is one of the bigger, must go to events of the year at the Mansion House; maybe the annual speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. All the invitations have been sent but all the usual invitees make excuses and will not come. Instead, the Lord Mayor of London instructs his staff to bring to the banquet all those who are rough sleepers in London.

This scenario would seem to be a fairly close equivalent to the story of the Great Dinner which Jesus told, set as it was in his own day and culture (Luke 14. 15 -24). Imagine what the event would be like were that scenario to happen? Would, for example, the Chancellor have felt able to deliver his message of austerity if his audience had been made up of those at the sharp end of those policies and decisions?

Jesus' story, as with many of his parables and messages, reverses what we normally expect in real life. Essentially the great and the good exclude themselves from the Kingdom of God, while those we least expect to find there are welcomed with open arms; the last become first while the poor are blessed. 

This is actually the logical implication of Jesus' incarnation. In Jesus, God comes to be with human beings in the challenges and stresses of our human existence. Those who view themselves as fundamentally AOK - usually, the great and the good - don't see the need for someone alongside them in this way and therefore can reject Jesus, his invitation and welcome, just as occurred in Jesus' own day and time.

Those who do acknowledge their need to have God alongside them, however, find another strange reversal occurring. Rather than coming alongside to help, Jesus comes alongside to share and to learn. The incarnation is an affirmation of those in distress and difficulty. God, in Jesus, essentially says to us that we are valued and valuable. 

All too often we exercise our power and position by seeking to help others out of their predicament, as opposed to truly being with them in it and learning from their experience and perceptions. This is what Jesus wants us to realise and experience as a result of his stories and sayings.

Sam Wells, Vicar at St Martin-in-the-Fields, puts it like this, through Christ’s birth ‘God said unambiguously, “I am with. Behold, my dwelling is with you. My name is Emmanuel, God is with us.” … God … in becoming flesh in Jesus, has said there will never again be a for that’s not based on a fundamental, unalterable, everlasting, and utterly unswerving with.’ We celebrate this good news by: ‘being with people in poverty and distress even when there’s nothing we can do for them. By being with people in grief and sadness and loss even when there’s nothing to say. By being with and listening to and walking with those we find most difficult rather than trying to fob them off with a gift or a face-saving gesture. By being still with God in silent prayer rather than rushing in our anxiety to do yet more things for God. By taking an appraisal of all our relationships and asking ourselves, “Does my doing for arise out of a fundamental commitment to be with, or is my doing driven by my profound desire to avoid the discomfort, the challenge, the patience, the loss of control involved in being with?”’ (A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God)

If rough sleepers were to be invited to the Mansion House and the Chancellor were to genuinely spend time with them seeking to learn from them and their experiences, then very different Government policies would result. What those would be I could not predict, but that is the path onto which we are called both by Jesus' incarnation and this parable, where the King comes to be with those in distress.

At St Stephen Walbrook we have an example of this occurring in our own history through the founding of The Samaritans. Samaritans do not provide their callers with information and advice. Instead, they simply come alongside those callers and provide a listening ear. They describe what they do like this: 

‘When you talk to us, we will give you an opportunity to talk about any thoughts or feelings you have, whatever they may be. Sometimes people need to cry or show how angry they are at life, or go over their thoughts and feelings several times to make sense of them, and that’s fine. We're there for as long as you need us. We won’t make decisions for you, and we'll support the decisions you make. You are the expert on your own life. Our advice or opinions are not important. We won’t talk about ourselves, even if you ask us to. We’re there to give you time, space and support – you don’t need to ask how we are, or give us time in return. We don’t impose any personal attitudes or beliefs on you.

By setting up Samaritans in this way Chad Varah made Jesus' parable reality. The call on our lives as Christians is to do the same.


Björk - Prayer Of The Heart.

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