Thursday, 27 September 2018

A homily for candidates and electors in any selection process

Luke 9:7-9
Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead,  by some that Eli′jah had appeared, and by others that one of the old prophets had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

So it begins.  A weekend of seeing each other in the flesh and of hearing the clicking mineral sounds of minds being made up and the churning liquid sounds of minds being changed. 

Deborah Kerr, Julie Andrews and others might have said or, rather, sung:

“Getting to know you.  Getting to know all about you”

which might suggest that, somewhere out there, is a reservoir of facts - information, additional items and increments - which further answers to pointed questions will provide.  Under this logic, the more our delegates and parish members pump the candidates for answers to their questions, and their views on the issues delegates feel are important, the more they’ll know them.  Is that how it works?

Surely, though, there’s a difference between

“knowing that….” or
“knowing how…”

and the type of knowing we claim when we say that we “know” a person.

There could be a problem with the English language which doesn’t differentiate between

Savoir and ConnaƮtre or
Wissen and Kennen

the way other languages do.  To the English language you might need to specify the nuance that coming to know a person has a dialectical element to it.

Our anticipation
must meet with
its contradiction

so that
a new thing emerges

which is not directly the fruit of what we first believed.

I was visiting friends in Albuquerque New Mexico years ago.  I was alone in the apartment one morning  Their phone rang and, and as a guest, I let it ring.  It switched to the answering machine and what I heard next on the speaker was a political robo-call of some sort relating to the State elections which were taking place at the time.

Candidate A was rubbishing his opponent, candidate B

who, it appears, wanted to raise taxes (and was happy to let terrorists teach kindergarten) but who, most importantly, had “flip flopped” on Proposition 6 (whatever that was).  I remember thinking, at the time, that changing one’s mind was clearly considered to be a sign of weakness in a candidate for a State election. 

Why should that be? 

Perhaps candidate B had gotten the interns doing a little research and now knew more about it.  Perhaps Candidate B was tough enough to stand up to her own constituency association and her donors because, after researching the matter thoroughly, she had come to the opinion that Proposition 6 was an utter dog and needed to be opposed. 

Let’s hear it for flip floppers! 

Let’s hear it for men and women who are not so tied to first impressions, or the search for a candidate whose opinions are completely congruent with their own, that they cease to be open to sensing the candidate with whom they could build a healthy and life-giving relationship.

Facts and additional increments of information might not do that.  Reserve may not be helpful.  Expressions of personality in question-and-answer sessions, in informal conversations over coffee might well fit the bill better.

We could quite realistically, as candidates, as electors and as non-voting persons involved in the transition process in our Convocation, pray earnestly for a hearty process of loss and gain this weekend.  We should be happy with a dynamic process this weekend in which our delegates and visitors arrive at the Town Hall meetings in Paris, Munich and Rome, with their minds made up and end up needing to admit, either sheepishly or with immense pride, that they have changed their minds.

I was pleased to see today's eucharistic lectionary reading from Luke's Gospel at the beginning of a series of town hall meetings.  Herod is eager to meet Jesus and to compare his person with his reputation.  With friendlier intentions, but no less curiosity, our delegates are eager to meet you.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Come Away My Beloved!

The Fifteenth Sunday
after Pentecost
Proper 17 – Year B
Song of Solomon 2:8-13

The voice of my beloved! 
Look, he comes, leaping upon 
the mountains, bounding over 
the hills…..
My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, 
and come away;”

You’ve seen the movie.  You read the novel.  The woman debarks from the airplane, dragging her defective cabin baggage through the endless expanse of an airport on her way to domestic arrivals.  As she’s passing Gate A5 she notices the man sitting in the waiting lounge with his laptop open.  He’s a little older now but he’s still the same man she knew in another life.  His gaze shifts to the left and for an instant they lock eyes.  In a trice the lost years tumble back into being, the music of another decade, the landscape of other places, the smell of cologne, the scraps of long-forgotten words spoken between people.  Their respiration and heart rates increase.  He forgets he has a laptop open in front of him.  She forgets her suitcase is broken.  And then……

Nah.  You’ll need to wait for a future instalment of the Weekly Bob to find out how it comes out in the wash.  But if I told you, wearing my clerical collar and looking at you over the top of my specs, that what I’m working on here is an allegory of God and Israel or Christ and his Church you’d express incredulity or even disappointment. 

This is all a piece about human affections, please Father.  It’s got a pronounced sexual element to it as well, don’t you think?  We know you well enough to know you weren’t raised in a glass beaker jar.

No, you’re right, I wasn’t.  I don’t, however, think that the Song of Solomon is some early version of Nine Loves Has Nurse Susan which made its way into the Hebrew Scriptures and thence into the Christian Bible by accident or oversight.  The Rabbis made sense of it as telling the story of God and humanity.  Rabbi Akiva, in the first century of our era, is on record criticizing those who sing these verses in taverns.   The Song of Solomon forms the heart of the mystical writings of St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila.  A good love story?  A religious allegory?  One or t’other?  Both/and?

The imprecations of Rabbi Akiva fell on deaf ears.  In the first century tavern, between choruses of “Arise My Love, and Come Away” revellers also told stories of cunning and importunity:  

I knew a man who walked through a field and spied a hidden treasure.  Quick as a flash he sold everything and bought it. 

What about that old widow who couldn’t get a judgement in court?  Sure, she showed up on a Friday night and banged on the judge’s door with a rock until the poor man came down in his housecoat and slippers and rewrote the judgement for her on his doorstep just to be rid of the old bat.

What do you think, says Jesus, telling the sort of story of longing and outrage one might hear in a tavern.  

The Kingdom is like a man who…. 
It is like a woman who…..

You could tell the story of God's approach to humanity with recourse to well-worn religious ideas and high principles.  When you boil it down, though, the rabbis, Jesus himself as well as the later Christian mystics preferred to take human longing, desire and hunger as their launchpad.  These stories of longing are infinitely more comprehensible.  They reveal what we have at hand and what we are missing.

I desire to see his face.  
I want to be held in his arms.  
I want to find the treasure.  
I am aggrieved and want the crushing sense of injustice within me to depart.  

It is a rawness which I know as hunger, as fatigue with chronic poverty, as a desire to be reconciled to my circumstances, as desire for my beloved.  

I can feel it.  It’s right here.  
It causes not only my mind but even my flesh to stir.  

One glimpse of the object of my desire resets life’s clock to zero. 

Sunday, 26 August 2018

We have come to believe and know.....

The Fourteenth Sunday
after Pentecost
Proper 16 - Year B
John 6:56-69

… Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Do you remember “One Way - Jesus” T shirts?   Did you ever own one?  I might have, back in the day.

If not, I owned other equally enthusiastic proclamations of my new found Christian faith.  I certainly had friends who wore those T shirts emblazoned with a hand with a single finger pointing to the sky and the words “One Way” and “Jesus” written around it.   

We were converts on a narrow road.  It said more about us, though, than it did about Jesus.

The 1970’s were an interesting decade of spiritual enterprise on the west coast of North America – incense sticks, patchouli oil, LSD, Maharishis and blacklight posters.  The West Coast was full of hippies, even long after hippiedom had begun to wane elsewhere.  Some hippies became Jesus People.  Some Jesus People fell away from the Christian tradition completely. Some of them moved into rigorous Baptist or Pentecostal churches.  Some of those Jesus People gravitated to traditional churches in time and developed a love of historic liturgy and a more nuanced approach to the outside world.  There are now bishops in the Anglican tradition who, if persuaded, might dig around in their boxes of old photos and find one of some long-haired teenager, or young adult, sitting around with his chums on a Vancouver or Seattle park bench in 1974 and wearing a “one way - Jesus” T shirt.

One way.  One thing to do.  One road in or out.  One tool in the toolbox.  One answer to any question.  

You’d do your level best to avoid being in a situation like that.  If one of your adult children were to phone you and say “Dad, I’m in a situation where there appears to be only one thing I can do” you’d later grumble (out loud or to yourself) that this was clearly a result of bad planning.  In a perfect world we keep our options open: right or left, basic or enhanced, paper or plastic, manual or automatic.  We sit back.  We choose.

If the religious offering is one of ideas, then yes.  You pick and choose.  You bash ideas around.  The Gospel is proclaimed in a marketplace, cheek to jowl with other ideas about divinity and morality.  Christian preaching can, and has been over the years, threatening and manipulative – this must be both resisted and repented of.  We deny men and women the integrity of choosing.  Christian "belonging" has often, at the same time, been a matter of following in the footsteps of clan or family.  No choice is ever made.

The treasure in the Gospel message is not the path taken by men and women and their proud ownership of that bit of trail but what God has offered which is, in fact, God and his Kingdom.  The leading edge of what God is doing is the offering of a person, who is, in real terms, God’s own self.  Our Gospel reading this afternoon ends with the smallest subset of Jesus’ hearers – his own twelve disciples - who have not drifted away when the words of Jesus became difficult.

The person of Jesus – their road.  
The Body and Blood of Christ – their nourishment.  
His death and resurrection – their future.  

There is much here to question and much to be troubled about but they remain persuaded.  Their certainty is not that of a newcomer and their presence beside him is no family tradition. Jesus can see the struggle on their faces and so he asks them a question which points to the ever-open exit door.  

“Do you also wish to go away?”
 he asks.  And yet they remain.

“We have come to believe” they say.  

There is no easy answer.  The disciples have struggled and that struggle has been answered positively by experience. 

You men and women here this afternoon deserve the very same space.  Use it well.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

A Funeral Homily

Isaiah 25:6-9

When I was eleven or twelve years old my father took me back to his home town in the province of Saskatchewan for his school reunion –for the reunion, in fact, of maybe a decade’s worth of graduates from the very small school in the very small town.  On the average, only three or four young people graduated during any one year and, so, ten year’s graduates amounted to a community of only thirty or so individuals.  Many of the graduates arrived with their children.  There, with the townspeople in one place, were many generations – multiple decades of joy and grief, or ease and hardship gathered into one place.  The small town was in a mood to celebrate.  The old parish priest was brought from his nursing home in a wheelchair with a blanket over his knees.  The older men who once had played baseball for the town’s team in the past were pitted against the current softball team.  My dad pitched, as I remember.  The women of the community cooked and baked.  Tables were set out and blankets laid out upon the field of mown barley where the festivities were to take place.  It was a unique and special gathering which crossed the boundaries of time and generations.
In our reading this afternoon Isaiah the prophet has a vision.  In this vision there is a hillside and upon that hillside are laid tables covered with the richest of fare.  Savoury meats and good wine, bread and olives.  We know it to be a vision because upon this hillside are gathered generations which, in the ordinary way of counting, could not possible be gathered together – the living and the dead, those of past ages and those of the present day.   This is what God shows Isaiah:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
  a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
  And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
 Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.

We are subject to time in its ebb and flow.  It brings us in and it takes us out.  

Why are we here?  We gather today at the funeral service of someone we have known and loved – someone we have cared for.  We do so for several reasons:  We express, first of all, our grief at the loss of somebody important and significant.  Their place cannot be taken by another.  It is a time to weep and remember.  We gather, secondly to show our support for close family members – to support them in the significance of their loss which is much more than ours.  But we gather, as well, because we too are mortal men and women and will, one day, be “gathered around” by our family and friends as they come to see us off.  

Every person’s funeral is a reminder and a prompt. Remember that funeral sermons are for the living and not for those who have died.  They might well inspire hope as we recognize all that we cannot control, like the length or our days or the shape which fortune will take for us in the end.  All of us place ourselves in the hands of the One who leads us beyond what we control.  Time is in his hands.  He loves the creatures he has made.  A funeral may, however, also remind us that we are the living who will go from this place and that much remains in our own hands and within our own power:  the conversation, the phone call or the letter which would patch a rift between people who have fallen out.  What remains in our control is also the very old vow we made to live life to its fullest and to risk ourselves by engaging meaningfully with the world we live in. 

You might leave this chapel with a sense of discomfort - discomfort about how far along the road you are and what remains for you to do and to be.  I’m sorry about that but maybe there is something you have not done, have not said, have not ventured and have not been.  That discomfort might only tangentially have anything to do with the full and eventful life of the friend, the mother and the grandmother whose memory we honour this day.   It has much to do with you.  That discomfort could prove to be your best friend.   Were it to lead to action there would be no better testament to the life of an elderly woman, well-lived, that her friends and family were spurred to action upon reflecting on what the passing of an earthly life might mean to them.

Sunday, 19 August 2018 flesh is true blood is true drink...

The 13th Sunday
after Pentecost
Proper 15- Year B
John 6:51-58

Our organist Julia Billet started it all off on the second Sunday of my holidays when she read (and reflected upon) the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the Gospel of John.  By the time next Sunday’s service is over we will have covered precisely 69 verses of the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel over five Sundays (with a few verses here and there left out.)

1.      John 6:1-21
2.     John 6:24-35
3.     John 6:35, 41-51
4.    John 6:51-58
5.     John 6:56-69

It’s a relatively small section of scripture to cover five Sundays, don’t you think?  Mr and Mrs Lectionary down at head office clearly see this as something important.  We might want to pay attention.

Looked at from a height, the story at the beginning of John 6 starts out with a crowd and, at the end of the chapter, it ends with a smaller group.  It begins with something everybody can agree with – an enormous feed, free food – to which everybody available makes sure they can attend.  It ends, in next week’s Gospel reading, with only the twelve disciples and even they have something on their mind they need to talk about. A lot of their fellows have voted with their feet.  Jesus has spoken frankly, he has used hard terms for the very first time that the crowds can’t seem to get their heads around. 

These would seem to be the subtitles of what Jesus has said in the various bits across the month.

This is a feast – you are invited.
This is more than a feast – are you interested in more than a feast?
Everyday bread will spoil and get stale.  The bread which I give gives life. 
My gift is more than bread.  It is the bread which came down from heaven.
The Bread which I gives is my flesh for the life of the world.
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man you will have no life within you.

At the end of the story even the disciples are looking a bit despondent.  Jesus will ask them, in next week's reading, if they intend to abandon him too.  “To whom would we go?” Peter will respond.  No, they have come to believe in him.  They do not abandon.  Even when the crowds begin to drift away they stay put.

The general moves to the particular and gains its weight in real life.  It’s in the particular where you say “Oh right!  That’s what it means and that’s what it costs.  The goods are on the other side of that door.”  It’s where you hear the challenge of belief and not merely the promise.  You know the pattern:  

Wouldn’t it be good to have children?  
Wouldn’t it be great if we were married?  
Wouldn’t a challenging job be rewarding?  
Wouldn’t it be cool to live in France?  

You have, many of you hearing or reading this, come to live the reality of these things which once upon a time were imprecise and unreal but which are now the tangible reality in which you both rejoice and weep and where you simply are.

In the Galilean springtime, on all of those hillsides early in the Gospel story, Jesus preached the love of God.  On the cross of Calvary he showed what that love meant.  

On those hillsides he required only that we listened.  In the discourse we have been reading now, to the crowds, to the larger community of disciples and to the Twelve he tells us that he wants us to unite with him.  The language is that of a meal where, in language of tremendous intimacy that jars with the taboos of his hearers, he tells us that he himself is the gift, the Lamb, and our very nourishment.  

He doesn't want to be our guest speaker.  He asks to be our life.  He wants to know what we will say to that.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Silencing the critic...

The 8th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10 - Year B
Mark 6:14-29

Mark's Gospel shows us a picture of Herod Antipas as a man divided between his sin and his salvation. 

As brutal and arbitrary as any ancient ruler Herod, nonetheless, cultivates a residual place in his heart for the preaching of John the Baptist - his consistent and fiery critic - whom he has imprisoned in the dungeon.

When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed;
and yet he liked to listen to him.

One thing leads to another – in a series of unhappy accidents - and Herod finds himself forced, because of his passions and the public vows he has made, to have John beheaded in his prison on short notice and to present the prophet's head to his stepdaughter –  known to us, traditionally, as Salome.  The prophet John is finally silenced. The message he preached, however, has only begun to make itself known.

A painting by Peter Paul Rubens called "Herod's Feast" hangs in the National Galleries in Edinburgh. It's a ghastly rendering of the very moment when the head of John the Baptist is brought on a platter to Herod's table.  According to one of the guides I spoke to, back in the day, it is a particular favourite of Edinburgh schoolboys brought on outings with their classes to the National Galleries.

In the painting, the assembled guests look down the table to where Herod is seated as host. He is the focus of the viewer’s attention and not the severed head.  On Herod's face is written the anguish of a man who is sorry that he has silenced his opposition - the small channel of grace he had hidden away in the basement. 

Our enemies, you see, are not always our enemies. Sometimes they are the only people able to speak the truth to us.

There are moments when we would do almost anything to be rid of the trouble we sense within us - the unrequited longing, the dissatisfaction and inner turmoil - or the critics around us.   Cut the head off, we might mutter - put it out of our consciousness, forever.  Please doctor, Father, counsellor, best friend – won’t you do something to silence this voice of doubt or insecurity?  Make it shut up!  Tell me I'm imagining it all.  Give me a prescription.  Wave your hand over me and intone some ancient words!  

This would be the good and efficient thing to do.  It would make sense.  Unless, of course, things were seriously amiss in our souls and in our households. That nagging voice might be the best thing in us and not the worst - a healthy and discomfiting voice which we would silence at our peril.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

She only touched the hem of his garment.....

The Sixth Sunday 
after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 8
Mark 5:21-43

A small story, wedged into the midst of the larger narrative of Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter, tells the tale of some nameless woman - ill and at her wit’s end - who pushes through the crowd to touch the edge of Jesus’ robe with the certainty that this is all that will be required of her.  She will never be asked to come to the lectern and testify, nor will she be give a box of church envelopes or asked to join the ACW.   Just this and nothing more.

George Frederick Root wrote a hymn about her in the late 19th century which appeared in the Sankey Hymnal in 1897.  It’s one of the hymns of my youth which I still sing in the car when I’m stopped at a red light.

She only touched the hem of His garment
  As to His side she stole,
Amid the crowd that gathered around Him;
  And straightway she was whole. 

    Oh, touch the hem of His garment!
      And thou, too, shalt be free!
    His saving power this very hour
        Shall give new life to thee!

The earliest version of Root’s hymn had different words –  more rugged and arguably more self-assured.   The first line was:

In faith, she touched the hem of his garment

And the chorus went like this:

I’ve touched the hem of His garment,
And now I, too, am free;
His healing pow’r this very hour
Gives life and health to me

Good news for her, then, that saintly lady.   Well done, her.  Good news for whoever sings the song.  Good for them.  Great faith meets with great results.  That's what it says on the package.  We are ordinary people, though.  We in the back pews review the faces of great men and women of faith portrayed in their stained-glass windows and are left cold by the story of yet another spiritual athlete – very much unlike ourselves – who receives his or her due for that tremendous leap of faith which always eludes us.  The saints do things we cannot do.  They’re saints. 

Ira Sankey clearly agreed.    His collection of hymns and sacred songs  - Sacred Songs and Solos:  1200 Hymns - contains a large persuasive offering to that crowd of people hunkered down in the last two pews of the meeting hall.  They have not yet put their hands up.  They have not signed their cards.  They have not yet walked up to the front of the church for prayers or initiated the conversation which would see them home.  They have, in fact, been coddling the impossibility of the task and rolling it around in their minds.  

That somebody else might have done great things will not help.  
That somebody else is claiming the victory will be no great boon to them. 

Sankey is collecting his tunes for the man, the woman, the boy or the girl in the pew who would discern within themselves what first preliminary step they might take.  Thank you, George Root, for a wonderful hymn but it needs a tweak or two.  The modified version, which appears ten years later, accomplishes two things:  

First of all it returns the hymn to the story itself in the Gospels.  The woman takes a very small step (she only touched the hem of his garment…) - a step conditioned as much by desperation as anything she might have conceived of as faith.  It is Jesus, in fact, who, turning in the crowd, sees her there and declares that this small step is, in fact, faith.  It is faith in its seed as a preliminary act and proves, as saving faith, to be faith in its flower.  It is sufficient.  

For those of you reading this blog post this afternoon, the question remains open.  I pose it in the spirit of St Mark the Evangelist and in the spirit of George Frederick Root, the composer of hymns, and of Ira Sankey, the curator of that great opus of 19th century hymnody (some of which remains entirely singable in the 21st):    What small act remains to you - born as much of desperation as of faith - which would constitute your small step of faith, and make what has seemed impossible to you both real and present?