Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Accomplished for us....

The 4th Sunday of Advent                                                                  Year A
Matthew 1:18-25

There are so many people in the Christmas story. 

The combined tea towels and pillow cases of several families would scarcely cover all the shepherds and angels needed to complete the cast of a Christmas Pageant.  Nor is it all nineteenth century invention either, like so many of our Christmas traditions.  There are, in fact, a lot of characters in the stories from Luke's and Matthew's Gospels.  Some of them are mere bystanders, only incidental to the main action.  Others play a central role, enabling (or perhaps even trying to impede) the main action of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

When Tony Jordan, a writer of popular British television, was tasked with writing the screenplay for the BBC's take on the Nativity in 2010 he struggled with the tradition which dressed all these extra characters in "big square beards with sackcloth wrapped around them".  Early television and movie renditions of the Nativity story merely fitted them in where there was space - like we might arrange a set of crib figures, shepherds and Wise Men on a too-small coffee table.

Looking for "the story within the story" he struggled with the characters of "the others" for weeks. 

Late one night, bleary-eyed and with an overflowing ashtray, he came to the realization that the other characters, major and minor roles, were important *exactly because* the son of God came for them - "for you" says one of the angels to a shepherd on a hillside in Jordan's screenplay - this all happened for you.  

And so, as we do every year, we take our place in the tableau.  We read somebody else's words and recount deeds and events which took place during this or that Census in the eastern end of the Roman Empire a long time ago.  We may play the role of one of the major or minor characters in the story, or read the words of the Prophet Isaiah or St John the Evangelist from the lectern, but that's not who we are.  We live here and now, caught up in the lives and relationships we know so well. 

We are us.  All these things took place and were accomplished for us and for others like us.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Rejoice in the Lord always....

The 3rd Sunday of Advent
Year A
Philippians 4:4-6                                                                                        

"Rejoice in The Lord always.  
Again, I say, rejoice."

This Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday and the candle in the Advent wreath will be pink instead of the usual purple.  So why?

Advent and Lent are easily mixed up.  In both seasons there are serious reflections about the path humanity is taken and the need to return to the straight and narrow.  Lent (in the period leading up to Easter) is more strictly a penitential season where Advent (leading up to Christmas) the emphasis is placed more on expectation and anticipation rather than sorrow and regret. 

Instead of ruminating about our shortcomings we are asked pointedly about our hopes.

The traditional Introit sung at the beginning of the service of Holy Communion in churches across the ages took as its text the words of St Paul in Philippians 4:4

Gaudete in Domino semper:  iterum dico, Gaudete

Rejoice in The Lord always:  Again, I say rejoice!    

The future is an unknown terrain.  It contains all the necessary transformations which might spell trouble for us -  loss, change and uncertainty.  But it contains everything which could be the making of us as well.  How we look at the future is important and Paul in Philippians 4:4-6 prescribes rejoicing as the proper stance.  Rejoice!  Rejoice that God is in that future, and that love is there as well - community, friendship and new projects.

This Sunday we are saying goodbye to three of our key parishioners - David, Kathy and Sara - all of whom have been important members of our parish and our community of friends.  We feel and will continue to feel their loss.  They, themselves, have no certain knowledge of what awaits them but we have more than enough reason to suspect that in their future too, God will be there and love as well - community, friendship and new projects.

The same congregation which will witness the departure of these old friends with our blessings will include families who are only now beginning to find their way among us as a Christian family.  We still confuse their children's names after many weeks.  The shoes that David, Kathy and Sara leave behind them will, in time, be amply filled by others. 

The candle is pink because the future which is dawning is good. 

Rejoice!  God will take care of us. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing

The 2nd Sunday of Advent
Year A                                                                                        
Romans 15:4-13

Paul tells his readers in this week's reading from the Epistle to the Romans that a backward glance into Israel's scriptures should give them reason to hope for the future.  If they keep their eyes open to what is presently happening around them in a church which is bringing together elements of society which had previously been at enmity into one fellowship in Christ, they should again have reason to hope for what is to come.

So to where the risk lies:  to the unseen future.  Paul launches into a blessing at the end of the passage.

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."

Belief here is not mere credulity.  Not all whims and hungers will magically be provided for.  You've never promised your own children that.  When you usher your grown children into the world, with some assurance that things will be well, you are not telling them that nothing will ever go wrong.  You are telling them, hopefully, that they now know enough to find their way through.  And that the ideals they have gleaned from the communities of their childhood are valuable.  Most importantly, they are portable.  They can be exercised in new circumstances and within new communities long after grandparents, parents, parish priests and teachers have gone to their reward.  The past and the present prepare us for the future.

So, too, with Paul's description of hope.   Those who desire to be numbered among the servants of the living God find that they can harvest from the past and the present exactly what is needed to take the next step in a new direction.  God, through the power of his Holy Spirit, walks along with his Creation and within the human family he is drawing to himself.  All of the "fear nots" of the Gospels are here - that whole history of faith which stretches back to Abraham.

We are a part of that history.  What he has done in the past, he will do again.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

At unity with itself?

The First Sunday of Advent
Year A
Psalm 22

"Jerusalem is built as a city 
that is at unity with itself"

If you've ever been to Jerusalem you know that the countryside is divided with high walls.  Unity?  How accurate is that today?  Was it accurate during the 20th century, maybe, or during the days of the Ottoman Empire?  How about the Crusades or the dying days of the Roman Empire?  How about the time of Jesus?  Go back even further:  Add the Persians to the mix or the Babylonians. 

You might hold out for some shred of glory and unity in the days of David or Solomon, but I suspect that even a cursory reading of the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings moves more in the direction of Jerusalem being a place of intrigue, energy and turmoil.  Civic and religious unity in the Holy City?  Possibly not.

I can attest to the fact, though, that the city is alive this day with pilgrims.  From all countries in the world men and women meander through the groups of soldiers in east Jerusalem on their way to places which stand, for them, as symbols of wholeness, unity and transformation.  What do they see that the news media doesn't?

We are perhaps looking for the wrong thing.  The reality of the world always appears to contrast with what God promised to Abraham and with what the prophets saw in their visions.  What Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat and what John the Baptist foretold is not negated by the humanity of Jesus and the rejection of his message by many.  With such a vision of unity in the heads of faithful people, schools and hospitals are built, sinners are forgiven, strangers are welcomed, the poor are provisioned and nations are evangelized.  These are as incontrovertible a series of facts as any disasters on the front page of the newspaper.

We are in the business - you and I, John the Baptist, Mary and King David - of seeing "into things" and not merely describing what has hit us on the head.  Keep your eyes open.  Act on the vision!

Friday, 22 November 2013

God provides for his people

American Thanksgiving
Year C
Psalm 46 
Luke 23:33-43

Combining a service for American Thanksgiving with readings for Christ the King is no easy task. Our little chapel in Royat will be decorated with the fruits of the earth - gourds and pumpkins - all the rich brown and green things which speak of the good earth and the integrity of the natural order. Present as well will be the non-perishable food items we’ve brought along to church and which our children will bring up during the Offertory - canned goods and packaged foods - which will be later taken down to the Banque Alimentaire and distributed to those in need according to the Banque’s normal practices. These gifts around the altar are representative of the fact that we ourselves are sufficiently nourished and employed so as to be able to provide a feast for others.

Not only is the earth good but we are strong and capable ourselves. We should be thankful for both of these things and may give thanks “...with hearts and hands and voices.” But would we still be thankful if all of this were to change? Enter the readings for this Sunday which speak of something quite different as a cause for thanksgiving - something stemming less from the natural order of things and completely unlinked to the natural faculties of youngish adults to care for themselves and their communities. Amidst the struggles and clashes of great nations, in Psalm 46, there is a subtle river which nourishes the city of God - neither human strength nor clement and trustworthy weather but a unique and God-given source of strength, inspiration and nourishment. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Christ is presented as our King in his weakness. He speaks kingly promises from the cross to the penitent thief next to him. He knows (and now we know) what the world at that time did not yet know - that in the economy of God the weak are sometimes very strong and the poor very rich.

God gives strength and life - he gives it in the dependable world - where we are capable and the earth is productive. He gives it as well in the chaotic world as - the world in which our strength fails us and we feel ourselves to have been denied a share. In all things, and in all circumstances, God provides for his people.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Living with your ideals

The 26th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Isaiah 65:17-25 

“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox...”

It’s hard to live up to ideals. We idealize the past and we make plans for an ideal future. In both cases do we not make the real world (and, in particular, the present world) look like abject failure? Reality cannot possibly stand up to the glorious past because we are no longer young or innocent or filled with endless potential. The ideal future, where things work out like a well-oiled machine, rarely comes to pass either. It depends on so many factors that we can’t control. We “make do” in the real world and not the ideal world - on earth rather than in heaven.

Two possible ways of avoiding disappointment present themselves. One is to not take reality seriously. The other would be to deep-six those ideals completely and to refuse to believe in anything beyond what we can see and demonstrate and repeat. The first leaves us optimistic and naive and unable to take seriously the reality of our own lives and the lives of others. It might feel good in the short term but eventually our friends will sit us down and give us the home truths which we have refused to bring on board. The second - the abandonment of any ideals - may be even worse. It might feel good to find ourselves freed from any reliance on a magical and unreal world and to need only to live up to what we know about ourselves and about those around us. We rightly perceive, however, that we are fitted for something bigger than what we have in hand and that those who made a difference in the world around them and in the lives of others were, in fact, people who transcended cold hard reality with belief and faith and the perception of good things beyond it.

God’s people live with tension. Abraham is told to look at the stars above him and the grains of sand beneath his feet and to believe that his descendants would be that numerous. The followers of Jesus are enjoined to discern the presence of the Kingdom within, among and around them - coexisting with a real world into which the Kingdom can truly break. It is not a bad thing to be stretched like that and to feel the discontinuity between what we believe and what we see. Let that be your reality! Hope until it hurts!

Friday, 8 November 2013

A prophet on a work site

The 25th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C                                                                                  
Haggai 1:15b-2:9

A project manager?  Of course!  A couple of good hammer-and-nail men?  Even better!  But why would you need a prophet on a building site?  Maybe so God can be heard saying something to the people like the following:

“The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.  The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.”  

This line from the prophet Haggai, beloved of stewardship preachers across the ages, comes from the mouth of one of the Minor Prophets.  Along with his contemporary Zechariah and the prophet Malachi (who lived a generation afterwards) Haggai prophesied to the nation following the return of the Jews from Babylon and during the period of their rebuilding and reestablishment in the land of their fathers.  

This week’s reading from Haggai is significantly enriched by reading the events recorded in Ezra chapters 3-6 but particularly from chapter 4 on.  After having received permission and encouragement from the Persian King Darius himself for the rebuilding of the Temple, and having seen the emergence of capable leaders, Zerubbabel and Jeshua, it was the people themselves who began to lose heart and to listen to those voices within and around them which suggested that failure was inevitable.  

Momentum was lost and doubts abounded.

Enter the preacher - the prophet:  What Haggai does here is to remind the people that the resources they need to complete their work and to fulfill their destiny as God's people in the land never really were locked up in the hand of their adversaries after all.  Nor were these cut off from reaching their destination because of the logic of the balance sheet.  The needed resources - in this case silver and gold - were given into the earth by God and God can release them for his purposes.  

Let the adversaries think they control them, then.  God will shake those nations up.  Let the balance sheet say what it will.  The chief weapon in God's hand is his word and the retelling of his mighty acts in the past.  The proper response to God's promise, spoken through the prophet, is courage.  

The project will move forward when the hearts of men and women are turned.


Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A nasty man

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C                                                                          
Luke 19:1-10

People who have been bullied over the years may become bullies and abusers themselves.  The Gospel writer tells us that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector”.  Luke is here describing a nasty man in nasty employment.  “Tax farming” was standard practice in Jesus’ time and the job of collecting taxes was outsourced to men who were thugs or who at least had thugs in their retinue.   Of course they added a percentage for themselves.  They were opportunists and bullies in the pay of oppressive powers (the Romans in Judea or the Herodians in the Galilee).  

It might come as no surprise then, given my opening statement, that St Luke further describes Zacchaeus as being “short in stature” - “a wee little man” as the children’s song goes.  One could editorialize the whole episode and see a lifetime’s worth of  payback against his own community - the slow working out of a well-developed grudge.  He remains an outsider but now a powerful and dangerous outsider.  

The story hinges around Jesus’ shouted command to Zaccheus up a Sycamore tree, where he listens to the sermon from a safe but privileged vantage point.  “Zacchaeus!”, Jesus shouts.  “Come down!”.  The community’s (and perhaps the reader’s) expectation is that Jesus will now confront and damn the unloveable traitor and exploiter of the people.  Charismatic leaders do that with bullies - they confront them.  Win or lose they will not leave them unchallenged.  

Jumping to the end of the story, one finds the onlookers robbed of a bloody confrontation and a satisfying denouement.  Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus are a form of confrontation but one which leaves the hated man unbloodied.  There has been no fatal blow.   The “righteous” expectations of the community are unsatisfied.  

What does it mean to be confronted by love, convicted by kindness, bowled over by opportunity or bashed over the head by a second chance?    Any other response on Jesus’ part would merely have confirmed Zacchaeus in his distance from God.  Jesus appears to be interested in change more than he is in damnation.  This interest in the “lot of sinners” is the tax collector’s only hope.   It is the only hope of the gathered onlookers in this story.   It is also the only hope of the contemporary readers of my imperfect retelling of this story.  Our interest in the perfect justice of God might be ideological or even theological.  Our interest in his blessed mercy is intensely personal.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.

The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Year C                                                                            
Joel 2:23-32

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh!”

So God speaks through the prophet Joel to communities which have struggled to force a harvest from their fields with little rain. So he speaks to people who have barely been able to retain a sense of vision and purpose in times which are hard - both politically and spiritually. It will all come to pass. The times will be good again.

This time of restoration, with fields bearing the full weight of heavy heads of grains, with sons and daughters fit for prophecy and with old men (and presumably old women) seeing into the depth of things with wisdom and insight has always, in the Christian tradition, been seen in light of the gift of God’s spirit on the day of Pentecost.

First of all the gift is given - it is not confected through human effort and cunning plans. It arrives in God’s good time.

Secondly - the gift is poured upon ordinary human flesh: Ordinary humans - with the rustic abilities common to their humanity - find that their ordinary speech now wins over nations and convinces individuals. Hospitality - rather than being the simple ability to set a table and provide a roof - becomes a spiritual gift.

The Church has always had a table set in its midst.

Our sons and daughters and our old people: Note how those of us who consider themselves at the apex of their abilities as wage earners, parents, movers and shakers are here reminded that God spreads his talents far and wide and that we must look to the edges of our family - to youth and to elderly people to see what God is doing next.

The reading from Joel is both thrilling and humbling - a reasonable foretaste of the Advent season where we will marvel at how God uses whom he wills to bring about the transformation of the created order.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Pray for the city in which you live

The 21st Sunday after Pentecost
Year C                                                Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Interesting, isn't it, that God (through the prophet Jeremiah) does not say to the exiles in Babylon that they have been merely hard-done-by and captured by an evil King. He tells them that he, God, is the one who has sent them into exile there. These would have been bitter words for them to hear. They might have wanted more sympathy.

Last week we heard the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 137) from the same epoch asking "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" This week the question is answered.

God says: You will take your sojourn in Babylon seriously. It's where you live now. Your health depends on the health of the city and your prosperity on its prosperity. Allow your family life to be touched by the community you live in and extend your own hand upon your surroundings as well. Let genuine relationship flourish.

Above all pray for the city in which you live and lift up its life to God.

France is not Babylon. America, Canada and Great Britain are not the promised land. One should hesitate to make too direct a comparison between our world and the Biblical world we happen to be reading about. Nonetheless we ought to examine which reflections herein might apply to us:

1) While there are accidents of history (work or family necessities) which move us hither and thither we are involved, as people of God, with a Creator, Redeemer and Inspirer who has always uprooted and replanted his people. He does it for their good and he does it for the good of the world he sends them into. It should not surprise you that you are here with a purpose.

2) The world in which we feel like aliens or visitors is a beautiful world. God wants something for it and you are a partner in that work. You - and not someone else. Here - and nowhere else.

3) Even the symbols which God, through his prophet, recommends - the building of houses, planting of gardens and the contracting of marriages - may mean something for us. What is the visible sign we do, or could, exhibit which shows that we want to belong to the society in which we are presently living?

At the very least let us be curious about this and consider it.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Faith like a mustard seed.

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Luke 17:5-10

A mustard seed is pretty small and it's remarkable how any seed contains all the information and the dynamic ability to become a plant of any size.

"This" becomes "that".  Our babies soon tower above us.  The little problem left long enough soon overwhelms.  And (or but) isn't it amazing what good things stem from humble beginnings: from chance meetings, from individual acts of courage and from that strange combination of curiosity, derring-do and inner assurance we know as "faith"?

Jesus credits faith, even smatterings of faith, with the ability to move mountains.  It is important to note that faith - when Jesus talks about it - has an object.  The small faith that matters is not cheery optimism or faith in one's self - something destined to disappoint.  Faith here is faith in God - faith in God to fulfill his promises and to complete what he has begun in us and in the world.

It's what we have as the chief implement in the Church's hand when we found communities and presume to reach out to others.  Looking with a critical eye at our resources they are, in fact, pretty slim.  We believe, however, that God has an even greater investment in the Mission of the Church than any of us and so by believing that we will be equipped we work as partners with God and not owners of the process.  We take our forward steps based on that subtle and frequently neglected knowledge.

It is the chief implement in the hand of the individual as well.  Looking critically at our own personalities, we who "are neither happy nor good" might well wonder how we will ever get from where we are to where we need to be.  Were it not for the fact that there is one around us, and within us and above us who has a greater investment in our progress as people, in our journey towards love and in the cultivation of our courage than we do - than our parents did we might well despair.

We are not alone, though, in either journey.  Faith in God - even faltering faith - will have its answer and it's reward.

Friday, 13 September 2013

What faith can look like.

The 18th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Luke 16:1-13

This parable stumps rather a lot of people. Jesus seems to be praising a manager who plays fast and loose with his employer's money. I believe it makes the most sense when the character of the Dishonest Steward is set alongside the characters introduced in last Sunday's lectionary reading: a shepherd who has lost a sheep and must search for it. A homemaker of modest means loses a valuable coin and must spend her day looking for it because she is a poor. A king, who has committed himself to waging war, is outnumbered and outgunned by an opposing army and must sit down with his foreign minister and figure out what peace negotiations might look like. I can put this character of the Dishonest Steward shoulder to shoulder with these three individuals and make the greatest sense of this difficult story while squinting only a little bit.

Jesus seems to be plumbing the depths of human behavior in individuals facing threats. In a world where a thing of value risks being forever lost, the human organism works with great energy to face the threat. The shepherd combs the valleys, the woman sweeps out her house, the king sits down to settle his dispute and the Dishonest Steward fiddles the books. Faith's analogue, then, would be this rising up of the organism in the face of disaster - girded for action, thinking quickly on his or her feet and unwilling to take no for an answer. Jesus poses questions to his followers: Are you willing to follow me? Will you forsake family for me? Will you drink the cup which I drink? Will you leave the confines of your religious subset? Will you endure the scorn of your friends for doing so? If you are serious you will not allow the opportunity of following to pass.

What does the faith of followers look like? Well, he says, you find it in a plethora of ordinary human dynamics. Take this woman, for example - this shepherd, this King or this steward. See how ordinary people clutch this valuable thing like it was their last and only hope. Such a valuable thing is God's Kingdom. Such a clutching is the faith of the Church.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Who is the stray?

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Luke 15:1-10

Over the years I have lost any number of clerical collars, Bic lighters, pens and pocket knives.  Some of them have gone overboard (the lighters falling from shirt pockets and the knives knocked out of my hand while cutting lines) but some of these have just disappeared into the ether.  They're all in unknown places because I never really bothered to look for them or, frankly, didn't care if they were lost because I could always get another one along the way.   

They were lost, or remained lost, because I just didn't care.

The Pharisees in this Sunday's Gospel reading had made their peace with the fact that a segment of the population was lost - outside the circle of righteousness.  And they grew steadily more disappointed with Jesus.   Unlike them, he didn't seem interested in consolidating the gains of Judaism in the lives of people who believed they were already on the road to righteousness. Rather than associate with the seriously religious, Jesus demonstrated a penchant for gathering around himself a community of people he referred to as the lost sheep of the house of Israel: the marginally religious, tax collectors and low lifes.  To make matters worse, Jesus seemed reasonably comfortable in the presence of such folk. The Pharisees grumbled about this in the hearing of Jesus' disciples.

Jesus then tells a story about two individuals who would not be satisfied until they had restored a lost element - the one missing coin out of ten and the one missing sheep out of a hundred - individuals for whom that missing portion was a painful reality.  They would search for the one even if that meant leaving to the side, for a while, the sheep who had not strayed.  The lost are like this he said: they are valuable and worth the energy of a search.  And God is like this: he will not make peace with the loss of his creatures.  What sort of Shepherd would?

That's all I wanted to say.  Among the list of "things I wish I'd said but didn't" has to be a line from Sarah Dylan Breuer's lectionary blog:

"If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?"

Saturday, 7 September 2013

What do you want?

The 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C                                                                                   
Luke 14:25-33

The word “decide”, coming to us from Old French (and beyond that from Latin), means to cut something (caedare) off (de) - hence, decaedere. It means to fall on one side of an ambiguity by turning away from the other option. There’s that poem by Robert Frost you read in school about the diverging paths in a forest. If you are a truly decisive person, you will have any number of roads behind you which were not taken and travelled.

It depends what you want. As a salesman, in this week’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems not to want to make a sale at all costs. He reminds us, his hearers, that we can have what we want. If we want him, however, and to be a member of the Kingdom which he is ushering in, there will be a cost to that decision. Jesus does not cajole them (or us) with false promises. He doesn’t anesthetize them (or us) with respect to the risks and the costs. He wants us to decide.

Some of us spend rather a long time in those woods looking at the two paths and even attempting to place a foot on each without doing ourselves an injury. We will need to say our “yes” and our “no” to something if we ever hope to get anywhere. We need to come to terms with the fact that decisions are costly.

Being husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, members of a local church and members of God’s Kingdom requires of you a positive affirmation of the life that goes along with that. You might have been surprised at what these roles required - but you suspected all along that there would be a cost.

All your pursuits - your jobs, your family roles, your engagement with the world and your fellowship in this parish church - require, as a first step, not an immediate application of work and energy but, rather, the answer to that nagging question about what you want. Disfunctions may stem less from our lack of native ability than they do from a lack of positive desire. Do you want any of these things enough to walk out of the woods and follow the path?

Jesus puts it plainly: It’s up to you. What do you want?

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Too simple by half

The 7th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
2 Kings 5:1-14

Naaman, the Syrian general, had travelled a long way to Elisha’s door only to be greeted by a servant and told that Elisha’s prescription for his leprosy was to go down and wash in the Jordan River.   Maybe the servant needed to point the way for Naaman:  That way - down the hill.  

The Jordan, after all, is not the biggest of rivers.

Clearly Naaman had expected something a more personal.  Elisha’s bedside manner didn’t quite suit him.  He raged about being an important man from a big country which had better rivers than this silly trickle of brown water in Israel.  What sort of way was this to treat a significant foreign visitor?  Et-cetera.  Et-cetera.

Naaman had to be convinced, ultimately, to take the simple steps which were being suggested.  Had Elisha come rushing out of his house chanting liturgical formulae and invoking the Almighty in dramatic fashion and had he set for Naaman some great and difficult quest, the general would have complied with little fuss.  Why not even more so when the prophet gives him a simple command?  After all - it’s just essential information.  Forget the trappings.

The things that face us are not always simple.   It would be a misuse of this Sunday’s Old Testament reading to suggest that there is a simple remedy to all that ails us.  On the other hand our capacity to avoid simple remedies is really quite startling.  We can sit staring at the problem for a very long time while it grows arms and legs.  We’ll work on the problem eventually but first - a cup of coffee.  We’ll decide whether we like the messenger first, the servant, the counsellor, the parish priest.  We’ll get a second opinion while the blatantly obvious stares us in the face.

The problem isn’t that we haven’t figured things out.  We’re often times too clever for that.  We don’t want to be brought down a notch.  We’re simply not prepared to make a start and put one foot in front of the other and head down the slope or to put our toe in the water when we arrive at the river bank.  

It’s human nature.  Hence the remembering of this story in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Hence this Sunday’s sermon.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Jesus crossed the lake for me.

The 5th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Luke 8:26-39

The headlong rush of a herd of demon-possessed pigs down a hillside into the water attracts the attention of the village elders in a small community on the southeast corner of the Sea of Galilee.  They ask Jesus to leave their community - to get back into his boat and return to his side of the lake.  It's all too much. 
Our story began with an encounter between Jesus and a highly disturbed man who ran up to challenge him the moment Jesus got out of the boat.  From there the account got noisy - with shouts of defiance from the demons, the bit with the pigs and then some sort of argument with the local townsmen. 

If we had listened last week we might have seen a similar "shape" to the Gospel reading.  In last week's story an unhappy woman enters the room and conflict (or at least unsettling questions - depending on the version of the story) result.  Then, Jesus turned to Simon the Pharisee and said:  "Simon, do you see this woman...?" and ends with words of forgiveness directed to the woman.

In this week's story, once the pigs are gone and the noise dies down, both Mark and Luke refocus the attention of the reader upon the young man now sitting at Jesus' feet with his clothes back on and "in his right mind".  
"Do you see this woman?" asked Jesus last week. 
“Do you see this man?” Mark and Luke seem to be asking this week. 

What was reported by the city fathers, no doubt, was a story of social disorder and the loss of valuable livestock at the hands of a troublesome prophet from across the lake who had no business in this community.  What is explicitly reported, however, by the young man - now clothed and in his right mind - is that through the ministry of the man Jesus, God had visited an individual in his misfortune. 
Jesus crossed the lake for me.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

It will all come pouring out

Luke 7:36 - 8:3
(cf. Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8)

This Sunday's Gospel takes three slightly different forms in Matthew and Mark and Luke and a completely alternate retelling in John's Gospel:

A woman of ill-repute breaks into a dinner party made up of worthy people. She anoints Jesus with costly and fragrant ointment and weeps. The onlookers are aghast that Jesus should allow someone so sullied to have physical contact with him or (in Mark and Matthew's version) that expensive ointment has been so extravagantly wasted.

Is it only my imagination or do notorious sinners secretly save things up: money in numbered accounts or bodies buried somewhere? They accumulate people - confederates to keep their secrets and friendly policemen to turn a blind eye. They keep a pot of expensive perfume at home to make their world smell better. They save up alibis or excuses which they rehearse. They must even convince themselves. They collect a series of routes home which bypass the people who know them and could denounce them. In the long run the lies they tell to hide their misdeeds become complicated and interlocking and hard to maintain.

Even those who may not consider themselves particularly notorious sinners will recognize this accumulated burden which they bear around in secret upon their shoulders. It may all become too much - as it did for this woman who, one day, decides to end the pretense. She hears the buzz in the market that Jesus is in her neighborhood and will be eating with Simon the Pharisee at his house. She knows the place and that Jesus is a perceptive prophet. There she will be known and exposed. She will come clean.

It will all come pouring out.

When we love, testify or confess we spread our riches about. We empty our account. And rather than leaving us bereft, the perfume fills the room. Until this point the road has always carried us away from community, away from friendship and away from confident commerce with strangers. Jesus’ very presence can coax us from the tree where we've been hiding, up from the beggar’s corner that has been our lot in life - into community, into friendship and into forgiveness.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The grief of widows.

The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Luke 7:11-17

The household and the affairs of a poor widow need pretty much to be dragged into the history books.  Poor widows rarely figure amongst the "great and the good" - that collection of soldiers, legislators, kings, presidents, scholars and business moguls - who historians prefer to write about.  Poor widows tend to anonymity.  They and their poorly-fed children pass from the scene largely unnoticed.

Not, though, in the two stories we will read this Sunday:  In these two stories God's grace pays a visit to the economic and political hinterland.  Health and restoration take place in humble surroundings.  We are reminded - we small and finite people - that our unremarkable lives are the sort of "earthen vessels" well suited to contain God's Spirit and that where we live is an appropriate stopping place for Jesus.

The faithful across the centuries have laid before God their lives and the lives of their children - their jobs, their moods and their marriages not only because God in his omnipresence and omniscience "has his eye on the sparrow" (and therefore us as well) but because God took human life, human flesh, human speech and human community as the appropriate vehicle for the salvation of the world.  Our lives matter - the human flesh which aches and the hopes which are dashed are all part of that physical and affective world which God in the Incarnation "inhabits". The small is infinitely larger than we might admit and there is no place or human person so small and mean as to be forgotten or overlooked. 

We may, as well, emulate such grace in our relations with each other - in our care of the quiet and the poor and the suffering in our own communities - and be channels of that same careful and comprehensive love.