Sunday, 19 August 2018

...my flesh is true food...my 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 needs it wants 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?






Thursday, 14 June 2018

The earth produces of itself.....

The 4th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6
Mark 4:26-34
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
This is the thing we might find hard to believe when our back is to the wall.  

Surely the watched pot boils a bit faster, does it not?  We ask the question a half-dozen times to make sure it’s been understood because, after all, there is no shortage of idiots in the world.  We hover over our children as if each inch of their forward progress were dependent upon our total concentration.  With little to worry about we would worry nonetheless.  True, though we might meet people who should fret more than they do.  But not you who are reading this.  No, not you.  And not me, either.  Likely not.  We could do with letting the words of this parable flood over us.

Take note please:  In this short saying of Jesus, found only in Mark's Gospel, we are not being asked to trust in the ability of the seed to sprout itself and to grow up big and tall.  We are being asked to trust in the ground to produce a harvest.  I think this makes a difference. 

The mystery of the Kingdom of God is that God's Kingdom is within us, around us and among us

and that it works.
   
Jesus goes to enormous lengths, in the guise of innumerable parables and analogies, to tell us that God’s Kingdom is taking shape around us. 

It is here, it is there. 

It is the treasure hidden in the field, the valuable pearl nestled amongst lesser gems, the yeast in the dough and the smallest seed planted in the garden.  See how the country people and the villagers flood to the hillside to hear the Kingdom spoken of.  Look at the lame man carrying his pallet away on his very own pegs in triumph.  See the harlot, the Quisling and the outcast restored to community because the words of peace and invitation have been spoken.

It doesn’t depend on you.  So relax.  The Kingdom is not your handiwork.  You are not its chief engineer.  
But relax and watch.  What remains at play is not the reality of the Kingdom but your own very self as a participant.  Will you have the eyes intent on seeing the whole thing play out?  And the ears to hear about it? 
Do you want to be a part of the process?





Monday, 21 May 2018

Nicodemus the Car Thief



Trinity Sunday
Year B
John 3:1-17


You see a car advertised. 

It appears to be the very one you want.  The right size, the right model.  Mileage looks good.   The right price.  You fire off an email or leave a voicemail – AND you get a message back within the hour.  Yes, you can see the car but no, you can’t drop by to see it.   I will come to you.  Tonight.

What gives?  Why the wait?  Why night-time?   You're right to be suspicious.   A darkened street corner in some public space, really?  You rightly wonder that maybe this person is trying to sell you something which doesn’t belong to him.

You know what belongs to you – your moveable and immoveable goods.  You’d call these your property.  You might have a list of these things stapled to your insurance policy. 

Secondly there are those things which you don’t own but which are nonetheless “your baby” – processes at work which you got rolling, an article you’ve written, an idea, a recipe, a piece of music, even, which you created that you consider yours.  

Lastly there are those things which you’ve been given to care for and to manage – the family fortune, the company secrets, the charter of the Association you belong to.  Whether any of these things belongs to you or not, you still have some sense of ownership over them.

In the third chapter of John's Gospel, Nicodemus the Pharisee pays a late-night visit to Jesus.  He’d know better than to say that he was an owner of Israel’s religious tradition.  But there’s no question that he comes to Jesus this night as a gatekeeper of Israel’s religion - one of its chief stewards – one of its guarantors - one of its border guards, if you like.  Israel’s religion is his baby.  As a religious expert and arbiter Nicodemus could be said to “get” the whole concept of God and to be one of the “go to” people for questions of law-keeping and belonging.  

Tonight Nicodemus believes he’s in a position to sell something.  He comes to Jesus expressing a genuine interest.  The night-time meeting, on the other hand, suggests a guarded caution about what Jesus is doing.  We think you’re one of us, he tells Jesus.  God must clearly be on your side given what’s happening around you in your ministry. 

One of us – one of us. 

Nicodemus presumes to stand in Jesus’ presence as somebody who believes he can include or exclude this itinerant rabbi from the mainstream. He’s offering Jesus a franchise.  And this is where Jesus stops him in his tracks. 

You see this is the deal with God – God gives to whom he wants.   He chooses unlikely partners, he gives to people who don’t deserve it, he decides to start somewhere and points his finger at Abraham wandering with his family at some crossroads on a middle eastern trade route and he says – this one - I think I’ll start here with this one – with this random - and Abraham gets what he needs because he says “Okay – start with me then”  

It’s on your curriculum, all of this, Nicodemus – I’m not telling you something you don’t know.  God gives freely and wants the world to have what he wants to give and here you are telling me that you can cut me in on your deal?  That you can let me have a bit of what you have? 

Ask yourself what anybody’s “property” consists of, at the end of the day.  Your name may be on the title deed but you’re only one of a series of people who has lived at 246 Elm Road across the span of a century.  You’re here and then you’re not.  And notwithstanding intellectual property laws, can anybody really be the proprietor of an idea?  Our conceptions of ownership don’t survive a steady gaze.  Not when we are just dust in the wind.

God crosses the centuries.  Nicodemus must know that.  The spirit of God moves here and there.  God speaks to whom he wishes.  Our drawing of circles around ourselves and our communities, our dividing up of religious resources and our “proprietary” attitude towards the story of God prevents us from being willing participants in the process ourselves and hold others back from being included.   No, Nicodemus, you don't get God - you may not draw a circle around him.  He's not your possession or something which you claim in the name of your tribe or the nation or your collection of right thinking friends.  We are not proprietors of God's Spirit although, on a good day, we might end up being followers of that same Spirit.

We don’t “get God”.  If anything, God gets us.


Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Things in a bag

The Fifth Sunday 
of Easter
Year B

I have three things here in a paper bag.  Let me pull them out and name them:  jack-knife, envelope, rose petal.  I lay them on the edge of the pulpit - three individual things which, a moment ago, were all together.   They were part of a set.  We’ll call that set 
things-in-a-bag”

I can pinpoint, in terms of time and place, the beginning of my mild obsession with the relationship between things: I’m in southeast Alaska in the late summer of 1982.  I am looking at a river.  The shutter of my mind opens and captures the water of Ketchikan creek flowing swiftly downstream to the sea.  The dimly visible shapes of large Chinook salmon can be seen swimming upstream slowly and with determination.  Somewhere in the trees over to one side, a raven croaks loudly from a high perch.  An animated couple ambles upstream along the trail on the other side of the creek, meeting a single person walking briskly into town with his head down.  A fox crosses my path up ahead.  A few fallen leaves tumble in the strong breeze at an angle across the gravel bar.  I am struck by it – the whole thing – no one part of it but the whole together, creating within me a colour or a flavour, a picture, an impression, even a story.  Forty years on I still remember it.  I can tell you about it this morning.

Unrelated things are gathered in to a set.  For a moment, completely one and in relation to one another. 

In our first reading this morning, Philip the deacon travels south because he’s been told to go by the Holy Spirit.   He catches up with a diplomat from the court of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, on his way home, who is seated in his chariot reading the copy of the Book of Isaiah that came into his possession in Jerusalem – a work produced by a people not his own – a voice, centuries old, speaking to him for the very first time.  He is moved by the words but perplexed by the book.  Philip is invited up into the chariot to explain.  They approach a stream - water tumbling over stones, creating rapids and eddies.  The Ethiopian diplomat says “See, here is water!  What is to prevent my being baptised?”  

This handful of things and persons are gathered together in a bag.  God’s will is worked out not by the visible and substantial individual things but by the invisible and insubstantial relationship between them – providing from the mix itself novelty, opportunity and occasion.

Much of the Acts of the Apostles relates the experience of people tumbling through the invisible but undeniable tumult of the Spirit's fresh progress in the world.  Freed from fear and filled with the power of the Spirit, they are thrown together and set upon the road.  The saints emerge from that mixed bag. Communities of faith are cobbled together in peculiar circumstances.   The waters of baptism erode the borders between classes and languages.  The fire of God’s spirit defies conservative and self-preserving tendencies.  Love covers its multitude of faults.  Forgiveness releases people from isolation and loneliness.  What could prevent such a thing from happening?  If you stood in its way you might get knocked over.

Teased apart into their strands, these things mean little.  Seen whole from within as a participant, however, they begin to make eminent sense.



Saturday, 14 April 2018

A ghost does not have flesh and bones...

The Third Sunday of Easter

Year B
Luke 24:36b-48


"Touch me and see; 
for a ghost does not have flesh 
and bones as you see that I have".

Might the story have been easier to grasp if Jesus had appeared to his disciples as a disembodied spirit rather than somebody with wounds and an appetite?  


It’s less of a leap, perhaps, to imagine a ghostly person which is somehow the real person.   The ghostly bit lives inside one’s body for a spell before escaping into the atmosphere or groaning diaphanously in hallways and then disappearing again, floating off to be somewhere better (or somewhere worse).  A default position.  It might be what some of us think will happen to us when we die.   Even the Old Testament has a famous ghost story where Saul and the Witch of Endor conspire to conjure up the ghost of the prophet Samuel from the depths.  Ghosts are not unknown in the traditions of Israel.


But no - the Evangelists present Christ as being bodily present in the midst his disciples.  It’s not an easy circle for them to square.  On one hand, in John’s Gospel, Christ bears his wounds and shows them to Thomas and the other disciples.  In Luke, he manipulates bread and wine on a table and elsewhere he asks his disciples if they have something to eat and, when given a piece of broiled fish, he digs in.  On the other hand, doesn’t he appear once in a locked room?  On another occasion, is he not taken suddenly from their sight? 


He is the same.   But he is different. 


The reaction of his disciples is understandably mixed: “...in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”.


Of what import this bodily life in the economy of eternity?   We both give and receive in our world - in time and space - through the medium of our bodies, our emotions and our voices.  We drink in colour and kindness, smells and textures with these bodies of ours, these brains, these minds and imaginations.  Will we enjoy the warm pong of a smelly Labrador retriever in heaven?  Will we be finished with the combination of fresh rosemary and lamb chops or those gorgeous cream tarts you can buy warm from bakeries in Portugal?  Will any of these sensual experiences be a thing anymore?  

The earliest record (earlier than the completed Gospels by decades) are the words of Saint Paul in 1st Corinthians 15 about both Christ’s resurrection and our own.  With respect to the General Resurrection (of which Christ’s resurrection is “the first fruits”) he addresses the very question which these Gospel accounts pose: 


But someone will ask, "How are the dead raised?
With what kind of body do they come?"



The details are beyond any human wisdom, but Paul’s response suggests that what we sow into the ground (that which undergoes death) is both like and unlike what God will one day remake for an eternal purpose.  What is sown in death is a seed – more precisely a “naked seed” of what will ultimately become the full glory of the plant.  It retains its lineage with the bodily life and the recognized identity of people living in their present world and it is not for nothing that the final chapter of 1st Corinthians caps an Epistle which has ethics and community life as one of its major themes - what the Christian does with his or her body in this life – how that body is expressed faithfully in marriage, how it is presented in equal fellowship with the bodies belonging to those of different classes, races, languages and backgrounds.  None of these things is wasted – neither our senses nor our ethics.   All of them are important.  

We are now the seed, at least, of what we will become.