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.