Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Decide now how you will live then....

First Sunday of Advent
Year C
Luke 21:25-36

A quick web search on “movies with apocalyptic themes” will net you hundreds of films from the late fifties to the present day.  Recurring story lines include War, Disease, Monsters (including everybody’s favorites - the Zombies), Economic Collapse, Supernatural Agents, The Collapsing Sun, Impact Events, Aliens, Ecological Disasters and Technological Misadventure.  As special effect capabilities increased over the years we were treated to an ever more convincing array of crashing waves, deep freezes, explosions and the obligatory monster wave crashing down the main street of a major American city tipping cars this way and that.  

It’s when we look to the minor plots of these movies that the motivation for such films appears.  Love is kindled or rediscovered.  A beleaguered group of survivors creates something akin to community in the safety of isolated surroundings.  The vulnerable are protected and the innocence of children is valued and promoted.  Some shred of goodness persists.

What is it, in us, which will survives when the structures of society are swept away by trouble, fire, flood or famine?  What part of genuine humanity will remain standing on the last day?

Jesus, in the reading from Luke’s Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent, tells us that we will be swamped by events around us.  While he does not elaborate, he paints a charged picture of the future as a place which will contain tumultuous changes and fearful events.  It's a real and eventful world - full of risks and sharp bits - and we are not promised absolutely safety from it.  But the message is not one designed to provoke despair or apathy.  Rather than curling in on ourselves we are commanded to be alert and, on at least two occasions, to "stand" in hope.  In such a world cynicism and despair are not inevitable.  We don't need to be beaten.  There is an enduring treasure worth keeping - something good worth waiting for and hunkering down to preserve.  

Those of you who have seen trouble or endured it yourselves will know that it is a great revealer of human secrets and capabilities.  

Decide now how you will live then.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Flowers in the field

American Thanksgiving
Year B
Matthew 6:25-33

We could be reasonably proud of our possessions and achievements if we credited ourselves completely for what we have.  “Look at what I earned!  See what I’ve done! See how I’ve provided for my family”

Our forebears in the U.S or Canada might well have been the first to break the bald prairie with a plough in another century.  We’re sprung from the same stock as them.   Born, ourselves, in humble or disadvantaged circumstances, we found the necessary strength to escape those circumstances and carve out a life for ourselves.  We’ve been organized.  We’ve saved our pennies.

Thankfulness, though, implies at least some degree of understanding that all we have does not belong to us.  It cannot be credited completely to our own account.   We were not born in a vacuum.  We have what we do by virtue our placement in a community of people.  We owe them that recognition.  Or, there have been fortuitous accidents in the course of our lives.  We were in the right place at the right time.  We were born in a particular society and not in another time and place.

Thankfulness may not be the most natural of states. 

In our Gospel reading this Sunday Jesus actively enjoins his followers – and us - to think differently about ourselves.  We are to put aside crushing anxiety and self reliance – not merely as a new type of spiritual discipline but because not to do so would tell us something about ourselves which is not true. 

We are, in fact, not alone in our struggles.  A second look at our achievements we show us that – like the birds of the air and the flowers of the fields - we are cared for in ways we are slow to recognize.  This dawning truth  would leaves us with a debt to our Creator and a debt both to the earth which produces our bread and to the community which surrounds us - were we to take the time to look.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

How long shall it be?

The 25th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 28
Daniel 12:1-13                                                   
Do you know the difference between flotsam and jetsam?  One floats away from the shore or from a ship because of rising tides or the action of waves.  The other is thrown away deliberately.  The difference, in nautical law, is that you may have the right to keep what has been thrown away while you may not if something has merely floated in your direction by accident.
Quite a number of things “come our way”.  It’s like we’re standing in a river - we grow up, we grow old, our children grow up.  Our jobs change because of markets - or political instability.  There are times of peace and war.  In one of the prophet Daniel’s visions a man standing on the river bank calls out to a figure upstream - a priestly figure dressed in white linen - and says “How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?”  As is frequently the case, the answer is enigmatic.  It can be taken any number of ways.
In the vision, though, the prophet is told one thing quite clearly - in fact he’s told it twice:  “Go your way Daniel”.  
The tantalizing promises of the prophetic and apocalyptic portions of the Old Testament are like the parables of Jesus about flowers and sparrows.  The hearer is asked to embrace the uncertain flow of life and fortune as the place where God is and to recognize that faith in God - on the part of both individuals and communities - is a realistic and necessary foundation for living. 
You do not control the flow of the river.  You may not decide what floats into your grasp.   The basic uncertainty of life, in spite of our best efforts, is a mystery to be lived and not a problem to be solved.  

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Invisible Society

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 27
Mark 12:38-44

I'm writing to you from a small community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv - in the Elah Valley where, according to tradition, David fought Goliath and knocked him down with his slingshot.  I am conscious of having spent the last ten days here in Israel walking with ghosts - of Prophets, Kings and Patriarchs, of Crusaders and Apostles, of Mameluke and Ottoman Turks, of concentration camp survivors and displaced Arab villagers - Kibbutzniks, soldiers and refugees - as well as the enormous crowd of pilgrims of various faith traditions for whom this land is of particular importance.  

They're all here with their competing claims, their tumbled stones and their broken crockery.  

Remembering can be exhausting.

The official record (from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament as well as the historical records of nations past and present) contains the stories of the great and the good.  If we paid attention in Sunday School and in our first year university survey courses in history we might rattle off their names: Saul and Ahab, David and King Josiah, Tiglath-Pileser, Suleiman the Magnificent, Salladin, General Allenby, Golda Meir. 

Few, if any, of the folks reading the "Weekly Bob" this week will find themselves numbered amongst such personages.  We will more likely resemble the poor widow placing her mite - her small bronze coin - into the offering plate as recorded in this week's Gospel reading.  We are the "overlooked" when it comes to historical records.  We are, however, the warp and woof of our societies and of our families.  We press the wine and cultivate our several olive orchards.  We lived in these stones houses. When we grew old our counsel was sought after.  

Society, like all good things - love, community, sacrifice, loyalty, friendship and faithfulness - is mostly invisible.  It never shows up in the historical record. Without it, however, there simply is no history.  Looking forward to being back in the saddle.  We'll see you on Sunday.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Tell him what you need...

The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 25
Mark 10:46-52  

A recurring character, in stories concerning Jesus and in the parables which Jesus told, is the man or woman who will not shut up - even when they’ve been told to.  

In the Gospel parables we meet such characters as the widow who hammered on the judge’s door until he delivered justice to her (Luke 18:1-8), or the traveller who arrived at midnight asking for bread to feed a traveling friend and would not be turned away until the door was opened (Luke 11:5-8).  

In stories concerning Jesus there is the Canaanite woman looking for healing for her daughter who shouted out even though she’d been told to stop disturbing the master (Matthew 15:21-28) and, in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, blind Bartimeus who, when he heard that Jesus was walking by made a complete spectacle of himself in spite of the disciples’ protests until Jesus walked over to him and healed him.

Politeness and goodness is something we oftentimes conflate with the idea of silence when we are educating others - particularly children.  With respect to ourselves, do we perhaps worry that we might appear dependent or lose face in the community if we express our needs openly and passionately?  

And yet Jesus seems to find that this very importunity - this same honest expression of need is something akin to faith - some part of faith - an example of faith on the part of those who come to him openly and honestly and even loudly.

Tell someone, then, what you need.  Go ahead.  Tell God what you need.  

Not all silence is golden.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A wilderness and not a wasteland.

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 23
Mark 10:17-31

I have not travelled extensively in the U.S.  One of my memorable trips there was to visit cousins in New Mexico - Albuquerque mostly - with a couple of side trips to Santa Fe, Roswell (of course!) and chunks of the Chihuahuan desert.  I confess that the first few days were spent wondering, frankly, what the point of the place was.   The usual indicators of beauty were, for me, lush vegetation and abundant water.  There was none of that there. I suffered from a delay of several days before desert colours started to jump out and desert creatures began to be noticed.   The spirit of the place, its beauty and its order, only made their impression once I had divested myself of my expectations and prejudices.  

The painted mountains of the Bosque del Apache took some time to sink in.  Flecks of life and colour drew attention to themselves because they were not swamped by the monochrome green of a west coast rain forest.  They maintained their tenacious hold not only on the desert floor but also on the consciousness of this observer who had learned to look out for them only when he had left something else behind.

More sharp and unequivocal words from Jesus in this week’s Gospel reading:  We must divest ourselves of those things which obstruct and prevent our entry into the Kingdom of God.  We are asked to divest ourselves of what stands “instead of” God’s Kingdom.  This will include the things we have built for ourselves and earned for ourselves and padded ourselves with.  

When we have ceased to rely on the well-worn path and left behind the familiar things we will find that we have entered a landscape not of our own making.  It is no wasteland.  It contains people, challenges and adventures.  We are not alone there.

We have brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.  We have work to do.

Friday, 21 September 2012

A capable wife, who can find?

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 20
Proverbs 31:10-31

Certain readings in the Bible provoke strong reactions because they are at such variance with the way we would normally speak or write about people. I suspect that those who put together the Revised Common Lectionary are wont to avoid the more problematic readings on a Sunday morning.  

I am particularly happy that the first reading this Sunday - Proverbs 31:10-31 - is just such a chewy and “in your face” point of departure for a sermon.  The reading opens with a question:

“A capable wife, who can find?”  NRSV
“Who can find a virtuous woman?”  KJV
“A wife of noble character, who can find?” NIV
““How hard it is to find a capable wife!”  Good News

and immediately proceeds to describe the daily routine of a female dynamo running her household and its cottage industry in a way which gives glory to her husband, evokes praise from her children and merits the admiration of her community.  

That there might be - somewhere in the mind of God - an ideal role for a “wife”, having equal applicability in any generation, might well rub us the wrong way.  We’ve fallen short of traditional ideals before.  Ideal roles often prove to be a cause of suffering for those of us who are more “real” than “ideal”.   Ideals are not always useful because they do not take into account the particular world in which we live.  Herein, perhaps, is our problem with the “perfect wife” of Proverbs 31.  

And yet I am still taken with Proverbs 31 as a song which lauds the merits of one who expresses great “agency” within the particular world in which she lives.  There is almost nothing said about her husband - very little about her children - nothing about her looks or her youth.  The concentration in the passage is on her engagement with the world which surrounds her - her care, her wisdom and her resourcefulness.

There is much to be uncovered in this passage which speaks forcefully to those of us who are not wives or even women - about our immersion in the mainstream of life and in our particular corner of life and our role as a major player in human communities.  It too valuable a reading to dismiss because of its misuse by previous generations.

I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Who do you say that I am?

The 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 19

Mark 8:27-38

In the old days, when anybody asked what a particular thing "meant to me" the hairs on my neck would rise up.  I sometimes felt manhandled back in college by people who insisted that I examine the subjective experience of things rather than their objective status or existence. 

Surely what things "meant to me" was less important than what they actually were.  No? 

Well, perhaps not.  It's taken thirty years of arguing or seeing people argue about the obvious things in front of them to admit that, no, the universe is not full of rocky little atoms wanting somebody clever to correctly identify them.

The subjective experience of anything is important.  Pablo Neruda can indeed write a poem entitled "Ode to My Suit" and find, in his threadbare daily garment, a universe of meaning which would pass over the head of his tailor or his dry-cleaner.

In the reading at hand, from Mark's Gospel, Jesus is concerned to ask what his disciples think of him who they believe him to be.   A variety of opinions are being bruited about in the marketplace - that he was the reincarnation of some historic prophet or, perhaps, John the Baptist brought back from the dead.  No, says Jesus, sod the competing opinions, I want to know who you say that I am.

This would appear to be something more than a mid-term exam.  Nor is he asking how the disciples are feeling.

We are prompted, like them,  to declare what we know and believe.  Ignorance and the darkness are, too often, safe and comfortable states and places in which to hide.  If there is any connection at all between faith and "saving knowledge", it is that such knowledge involves allegiance.  We step forward and reach out to the person known or believed in. 

Jesus being God's Messiah means something to me.  We do not merely acknowledge that as a fact, but must follow that knowledge and wed ourselves to it - even if the path that knowledge leads us along includes a Cross -

Jesus' Cross or ours.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

From the other side of the tracks.

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 18
Mark 7:24-37

Works of art depicting the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman generally show the beginning of the story. The woman is outside the crowd of Jesus and his disciples trying desperately to work herself in to the centre.  Other pictures show Jesus with his back turned to a woman who is on her knees in an attitude of supplication.  It doesn’t seem fair.  It doesn’t seem like Jesus to do such a thing.

It is certainly one of the “harder readings” of the New Testament.   It would appear that Jesus initially rejects any contact with the woman because she is the wrong religion and the wrong nation.  She is from the other side of the tracks. 

That it works out in the end and that the woman’s daughter is eventually healed doesn’t completely erase the sting.  It rankles.  It leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths.

Clergy should probably be obliged to preach on at least a half dozen of these “hard readings” of the New Testament each year – for no other reason that many of us feel exactly like this woman – that we are trying to work our way into the crowd and have encountered resistance.  We’ve been members of churches where it would appear that there are others at the “centre” who belong more than we do.  We have tried to establish a relationship with God and we worry that there is something about us – some besetting sin or malfunction – which excludes us.  We doubt too much, we’ve had too many bad things happen to us, we’re just “wrong”.

I make no promises about reducing this hard reading to something easy and matter-of-fact.  There’s enough of “us” though, in the character of this woman struggling to obtain a hearing from Jesus that it’s a story which cannot and must not be avoided. 

I look forward to seeing you this Sunday

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Arise my love....

The 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 17
Song of Songs 2:10

The Song of Songs contains words which seem, at first glance, to belong more properly to a romance novel or a love song:  Joy on the part of the Beloved at the presence of the Lover - deep longing and anguish at his absence.

"My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;"

In fairness, there has always been a hesitation both within official Judaism and Christianity to make much of the intimacy which these words convey. Such readings were usually relegated to "alternate" status in sundry lectionaries and were accompanied with warnings about the (merely) "symbolic" nature of the language they contain.

It goes without saying that we are frightened of our feelings.   We may think they represent the least ordered part of our personality.  In Church on a Sunday morning we would like to appear ordered.  Our sermons become fairly cerebral. Our worship services kept well under control.   It was left, then, to the mystics - to people like St John of the Cross and St Theresa of Avila - to state that God was a lover and that the human soul was the beloved.   The well-known dramas of will and coyness, of excessive, rapturous presence set as a counterpoint to feelings of abandonment were a fruitful way of describing the relationship between God and the human soul.  

The torrid romance story is not completely dead as an interpretative tool.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Lord, to whom can we go?

The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 16
John 6:56-69

At the end of some controversial teachings the crowds around Jesus suddenly began to thin out - to the point that he approached his own twelve disciples and asked them whether they, too, were thinking of withdrawing from him.  Their words to him were these:

“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.”

We all have differing degrees of attachment to people and organizations.  

Some of us are die-hard members of a political party, or keep in contact with school chums across decades and continents.  Others find such attachments hard to understand.  Their voting patterns change with some regularity and they could see no reason whatsoever to attend their 20 year reunion of their graduating class.  

There are, however, core attachments which we feel the need, in most cases, to maintain tenaciously.  In the raising of our children or in the bond which develops with our spouse we understand, hopefully, that the path will both rise and fall and that something will eventually be required of us "in spite" of how we might feel at a particular moment.  The prize is "beyond" and will only be appropriated by struggling through the difficult bits.

In the absence of such tenacity, children are left without the wisdom and protection of long-suffering parents.  They will need flexibility and understanding.  They will need to safety of knowing that while they might stray there will be people there willing either to welcome them back or to adapt alongside them.  In the absence of strong bonds there can be little real communication within a marriage or even personal individual growth for a husband and wife.  The strong decision to be together affords freedom to married people - freedom in which they can be themselves without fear of immediate rejection.

As members of the Universal Church we have, nonetheless, a particular relationship with the local body of our congregation.  The measure, even of a mixed congregation like ours is that, while we were together, we developed that ability to see through our differences, to work together with people unlike ourselves towards a common goal, to speak honestly about the things which divide or offend us rather than merely withdrawing.  

We are his body.  As such we owe to each other a debt of togetherness, forgiveness and tenacity.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

True food and true drink

The 12th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 15
John 6:51-58

Words of love and friendship will sometimes offend because they are simply too intimate.  The hearer takes a step back in order to protect himself or herself.  Such words violate the bubble we surround ourselves with - that eighteen inches of real or metaphorical space which keep us separate from those we don't love and, sometimes, even those we do love.

Words of truth will sometimes offend because they cut too close to the bone.  We surround ourselves with a cushion of polite untruths which keep us from staring at the stark reality of things as they are and such words threaten to expose us.

Jesus words in this week's Gospel reading about his own person - literally his body and his blood - being "true food and true drink" caused no end of consternation among Jesus' enemies and even those who counted themselves his followers.  As becomes clear from next week's Gospel reading these memorable words were memorable because this was the day the crowd began to thin.  Part of the crowd found themselves deeply offended by the intimacy of the words about Jesus body and blood being food and drink.  

There is more to this than can reasonably be discussed here or even in the sermons over the next two Sundays.  It must be stated, however, that: 

1) the way we know ourselves and each other is very much in the sometimes all-too-real domain of flesh and blood.

2) the things which draw us toward God or drive us away from him are often associated with our natural hungers, our feelings, our reactions to kindness shown to us or withdrawn from us at various parts of our life.  Our spiritual sentiments are wrapped up with our feelings which, in turn are never far from our bodies.  

"God the idea" is comfortably distant.  

"God in Christ" speaks to us of his presence among us as food and drink.

He identifies the need within us for such sustenance and in speaking of our great need makes us, somehow, uncomfortable.  It's a hurdle which needs to be leaped:  our discomfort at recognizing and speaking about what we need, and of saying that we are hungry for what our normal evening meal will never be able to provide.

Monday, 30 July 2012


The 10th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 13
John 6:24-35

It's fair to say that our tastes change over the years:  Witness any picture of your father or uncle at some point in the 1970s.  Where did those plaids and tartans come from?  We wouldn't be seen dead in them today and cannot imagine what aesthetic need such disasterous garments filled.
In like manner, the things we "hunger for" change as well.  With a little luck (or more properly, Grace) we begin to yearn for things which feed the soul as well as the body.  Our needs become tailored and modified.  We find ourselves responsible for a family and not merely ourselves.  We begin to occupy a position of trust within a company or a community and the needs of our own proper persons must take second place to the enterprise or the community we serve.  It is all on the trajectory of reasonable maturity.  We grasp less and give more.

But not always. We don't all mature at the same rate. 

Some people believe they were cheated (they might say) out of the things they needed when they were small.   They live into their dotage taking the lion's share of what is on offer for themselves and being miserly in their giving back to others around them.  
"A shame about so-and-so" we might say.  "He's got a hunger gnawing inside of him which just won't go away."

Even those of us - who haven't particularly made a name for ourselves by being grasping and self-gratifying - still arrive at a point where we begin to question the ends to which we have been working.  

It is not an uncommon passage for a man or woman to arrive at in their forties or fifties where they begin to wonder if they've been working for the wrong things, striving to make it to some "point" which now no longer seems to satisfy.  

It may be bread - our crust - that we're working for but it's not the True Bread.   It's a garment that may need to be hung up in a back closet somewhere - something that had its day and needs to be replaced.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Yoost da dinks!

The 9th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 12     
John 6:1-21                                                                         
My parents knew an old Dutch carpenter who, when you asked him if he could provide you with a particular wood screw, clamp or word-working tool, would generally say that he had "Yoost da dinks" (Just the Thing).

There are things which we all need: food, drink, safety and security or a roof over our heads. We hunger without them. Our lives become complicated because we don't have them. All things being equal we may eventually get them. We then promptly forget about these good things until the next time we find ourselves in need.

The fact that we often take the things we have for granted, or that we are largely unmoved by the fact that other people in the world don't have them, might indicate that we understand "things" but not what these things "mean".

Jesus feeds a hungry crowd with bread and fish that are fantastically multiplied in his hands.

The technical problem which the disciples encounter in having allowed such a large crowd to follow them into the wilderness without any logistical support is solved but this is not the issue. Crowds begin to grow in the future because of the possibility that they will a) see a miracle and b) be on the receiving end of a magical picnic lunch. Jesus later chides the crowds because this is not the point.

Food in the wilderness "means" that the ordinary things of life in God's hands become nourishment for the world. A small basket of bread and fish providing a banquet for so many "means" that our ordinary talents (such as they are today) and our life situation (such as it is in 2012) is sufficient raw material for a rich spiritual engagement as a member of God's Kingdom.

We don't need to be different people than we are. It's not necessary that we live in a different place with a different family or with a different set of gifts and attributes.

Where we are, and what we have in our baskets right now, is sufficient. It is, in fact, "Yoost da dinks".

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Something new and better

The 8th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 11
Ephesians 2:11-22

The congregations Paul visited and wrote to were often quite mixed gatherings:  Those with a background in Judaism were thrown together with people from gentile backgrounds.  Wealthy (or at least comfortable) citizens in the congregation counted themselves fellow members with servants and slaves.  Foreigners mingled with locals.  The leadership of women was acknowledged to a degree which made non-Christian onlookers uncomfortable. 

In such a mix there is a tendency to quietly wonder who makes up the "core" of the church and who is "outside". Some of the controversies lurking behind the New Testament letters stem from just such an attempt on the part of one group to establish themselves as the earlier or better members of Christ's flock.

Paul's words to the Ephesians remind us that our backgrounds, our national identities, our personalities and our individual attributes are merely the raw material from which God creates something new and better.  As individuals we not as important as what we will become when we are gathered together with people from the other side of the railway tracks. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The critic is silenced at last

7th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B – Proper 10
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 - who he has imprisoned in the dungeon. One thing leads to another and Herod is forced, because of his passions and the public vows he has made, to behead John in his prison 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 plate to Herod's table.  It is, I might add, a particular favourite of Edinburgh schoolboys brought on outings with their classes to the Galleries.

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

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.

And this would be a good and efficient thing to do unless, of course, things were seriously amiss in our households and in our souls. That nagging voice would the be the best thing about us and not the worst - a voice which we would silence at our peril.