Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                 Genesis 32:22-31
Jacob at the river Jabbok
Proper 13 - Year A

What was Jacob thinking - standing thigh-deep in the river Jabbok - ushering his flocks, his wives, his maidservants and his eleven children across to the other side because he was afraid of what would become of him when his much-offended brother Esau caught sight of the returning troupe? 

“You first”, he says to his family 

This is Jacob sneaking back from exile - never the gentleman and always reluctant to face his demons honestly.  Perhaps the sight of these little nieces and nephews will soften the heart of Esau once he sees them in the flesh.  

And so the family crosses the Jabbok as a potential sacrifice to Jacob’s misadventures.  Our “hero” remains on the safe side of the river.  He’s a tough nut, is Jacob.  God must need to squint to see the Patriarch in him.   

Now - at possibly the lowest point in his story - God decides to show Jacob a mirror.  A man (God?  An angel?) wrestles him until the dawn.  The stranger begins to lose the battle but then defeats Jacob with an underhanded move.   

At daybreak the man tries to break the clutch and to depart.  Jacob cries out to the ghostly figure in his grasp:  “I will not let you go until you bless me”.   

God in the form of a man appears to lose but then wins and becomes the source of blessing for the one who grasps him in hope-against-hope.  You know the story.  You’ve heard it preached in different guises.  The identification with Christ is not lost on the Christian reader.   

What about our similarity to Jacob, then?  How much desperate behavior - our raging, our crying, our violation of other people’s space and boundaries, our historic immaturity and our dishonesty in work and play is based on our need to be loved and treasured and our belief that we have not been so blessed? What is the central part of this story - the pivot around which it turns - if it is not the pleading of Jacob to the one who has defeated him? 

"I have nowhere else to go.  I have no one else to turn to.  See through my sin and weakness.  Bless me, Lord!"

 If not God, then nobody.  If not his blessing, then nothing at all.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Rev'd Robert Warren     
1 Kings 3:5-12                                             
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

A key word, in understanding this Sunday’s readings, is the word “recognition”. 

King Solomon recognizes that his chief need from God is wisdom rather than either riches or a “right of recourse” against his enemies.  In the passage from 1st Kings Solomon is blessed by God for having made a good choice.  In Matthew’s Gospel the character in the parable is able to recognize a pearl or a treasure of tremendous value.    He sells all he has in order to possess it.  The Kingdom of God is like a valuable pearl and one is blessed to be able to recognize it.

If, out of curiosity, you perform an internet search with the words “How do I recognize...” in the search string you will find that what pops up in the results is overwhelmingly negative:  How do I recognize a controlling relationship, how do I recognize fake Italian pottery, how do I recognize skin cancer, how do I recognize the symptoms of a stroke or a heart attack.  There are clearly evolutionary benefits, for beasts and humans, in being able to recognize somewhich which threatens our immediate security, our present advancement, our health or our possessions.  I recognize the lion creeping towards me.  I run away.   

Good things are sometimes just outside our zone of comfort, however, and we must recognize what is good enough to risk our stable course for.  Could Solomon have cashed in his chips and opted for riches or the death of the enemies on his borders?  Of course he could have.  Instead he looked beyond his immediate needs and prayed for wisdom to reign for a good long time.  Wisdom was the better choice.  The chief character in the parable might have looked to his present possessions as worthy of protection, held on to what he had and kept to the trodden path.  Instead he staked his future on what he did not yet have in the belief that it would prove immensely valuable in the long run.

Can we recognize a good thing - the Pearl of Great Price - worth taking a risk for?  Do we have the moral courage, the lateral thinking and the sense of curiosity necessary to take the leap?  Are our priorities in the right place?

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Rev’d Robert Warren                                         
Genesis 28:10-19a

Visions belong to spiritual athletes, no?  Don’t they properly belong to hermits and cloistered religious, vocational mystics and prayer warriors?  Do not these men and women deserve visions because they have succeeded in putting away from themselves the sort of grinding wheels which distract the rest of us?

This Sunday’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Genesis contains just such a vision:    A ladder reaches up into heaven and on it the angels of God move up and down.  Jacob was one of the Old Testament heroes.  It all fits - this saintly man off in a desert.  Unlike us, at least.  Better than us, probably.  The stories leading up to, and following, this vision, however, reveal just what a fractured man Jacob was.  He was a thief and a fraud and a coward.  He is like the comic-book brother-in-law who plays fast and loose with his business, even family business, and who you can just about tolerate over turkey and green bean casserole at Thanksgiving.  

His story in the Book of Genesis will, moreover, do nothing but get worse for a while.  Jacob is, however, part of the story of God’s love to his family and to the world which will ultimately share the faith of Abraham’s children and grandchildren.  Unbidden and certainly undeserved, God grants him the grace of reminding him what part he plays in the restoration of the world.  

You may share no DNA with Jacob’s family and yet he is one of your ancestors in the faith.    Read on.  God wins over Jacob.  The earlier vision comes to bear fruit at the end.

What are the wheels that are grinding for you right now?   If your thoughts on Sunday morning were audible whispers what would we all hear?  How much family business?  How much business business?  What about grudges or complaints about what you lack?  What renders you insecure?  What made you angry this morning? 

The life of our worshipping community, the Sunday morning panoply of words, prayers, sermons and songs, the ringing of bells and the elevation of bread and wine in ancient formularies - the midweek fellowship between us - these are moments and occasions of grace.  Do not reject those moments when you are seized by some fleeting glimpse of wholeness and beauty and unimagined possibilities.  Though the wheel continues to grind - be tender, even with yourself.  The vision has a purpose.  God can win you over.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Rev’d Robert Warren
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9

What is an “occasion”? It’s a great word not limited to:

“place” and

but describing the whole envelope (including, sometimes, “time”, “cause” or “opportunity”) in which things happen (or don’t). Things don’t only come to be because humans will them into existence. They happen because the time is right, because the season is ripe or because the right people happen to be present around Jack’s dinner table one evening. History unfolds because of happy accidents or the chance meeting of minds or the mysterious mingling of God’s grace and human personalities. We don’t always know why, in spite of our best intentions, things don’t work out the way we want them to. They fizzle - sometimes
absolutely. Sometimes we have to wait. Things happen in May which could not possibly have happened in February because the occasion was not right.

It’s all a great mystery and an awful lot of fun. It’s what makes the Bible a massive history of reversals and seemingly chance encounters where misfits become leaders, saints become sinners and where mountains and hills are laid low while the undeserving valleys are raised up.

Two readings today - the reading from Romans 8 and the Gospel reading from 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel - put paid to the idea that we, who are in our prime, can will something into existence because of our strength and our good looks. The same world is one place for those who set their minds on the “things of the flesh” and quite another for those who have encountered, and are inhabited by, the Spirit of God (Romans 8). The same potent seed
which falls on good ground and produces a crop will wither away and die when planted on thin soil or among weeds (Matthew 13). 

You might be frustrated, in the case of both readings, that there is no clear and unequivocal recipe for how to make all of this better - how to be good ground or how to gain a certainty that you have the Spirit of God. But then again - maybe that’s the capable man or woman in you - the doer the maker, the mover and shaker - who wants to know where the button is so you can push it and make life good and who still, after all this, wants to be in control.

For you, I hope that your understandable frustration will turn to hunger for what is not yours to give yourself. Hunger for what you had not imagined you needed; hunger for what you have not even conceived of and that you will have occasion to take your place at a table you have not set for yourself.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Rev’d Robert Warren
Matthew 11:16-30

I generalize when I get angry. From the depths of my armchair I fume about“...all politicians, bishops, vestry members, teenagers, parking attendants, church organists or telemarketers”.

“Get off my lawn, you lot”, I say.

Then I calm down: I think better of what I’ve just said. The individuality of people reasserts itself. Indeed, they’re all different - men, women, boys and girls. I was only cross with that one over there. It passed.

Jesus gets angry in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. He names a series of villages on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee as the focus of his wrath - Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum - which remain nailed-in-place and apathetic in the face of Jesus’ preaching and which refuse to repent . He talks negatively about “this generation” as if that were a meaningful phrase and an accurate way of describing what must have been a varied community.

Before we discount it, though, we might ask..... Is there such a thing as a village mentality? Do members of communities oftentimes exhibit behaviour, in concert with their fellow villagers, which is
unheroic, punitive, unimaginative, cold, uncharitable and suspicious. Yes - we’ve all seen it. Do generations exhibit similar attitudes? Do they forget the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents? Or take for granted the fertility of their fields and the civic peace of the land they’ve been born into? Do they tend to share, in common with those of their own age and experience, a series of obsessions, fears and attitudes? Well, yes, this is true on both counts. Of course they do! We think as a group and are influenced by each other. We look to the left and right to discern whether our actions are approved by our fellows before we move forward. Most of us, anyway.

In the passage, Jesus’ passionate anger passes. He turns his eyes toward heaven and thanks his Father for those who have, in fact, listened and allowed themselves to be gathered in to Jesus’ following. In every generation, you see, somebody turns from the crowd and walks away. The Gospel is preached in the village and somebody makes a decision. Yes, we see that hand! We hear that nonconforming voice which breaks ranks and seizes the uncommon opportunity. Nicodemus sneaks away to speak to Jesus in a quiet corner. The Ethiopian Eunuch asks to be baptized. St Francis is converted. One of you begins to listen to his better angel. From within the village, and out of any generation, a faithful community is cobbled together, voice by voice, determined to break the spell and walk in grace.