Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Rev'd Robert Warren.                                                                       Romans 4:13-25
Lent 2 - Year B

Paul begins the 4th chapter of Romans by asking "What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?"  The answer, it appears, is rather a lot - all of Romans 4, in fact, and the entire 3rd chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians.  God who addressed Abraham back in Genesis 12-17 is one who, still today, "gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist."  These words, says Paul, were written for us as well and not only to illustrate something which happened long ago.  They bear on the current life of Christians in Rome, in Croix de Neyrat and Chamalières.  They tell us how to be faithful in this church of ours - in this skin of mine.  

A brutally literal translation of Romans 4:18 would say, of Abraham, that he

against hope
in hope

which, while ugly English, at least has the benefit of emphasizing the two different ropes which we hold on to.  One is our own self-sufficiency.  It is admittedly quite a frayed thing.  Our character is flawed and sinful.  Our neurons are no longer fit for purpose.  We are too old.  We are young and stupid. The opportunity has fled elsewhere.  The judgement is against us. Our pipeline is vetoed.  That rope - whatever it was - will not support our weight.  We only delude ourselves by hoping that its fragmentary fibers will do what, we know full well, they will not do.  Part of the process is to let that fact sink in - definitively.  That first rope is hopeless.  It will not hold us up. 

So why not switch ropes?  God never showed Abraham a mirror in order to encourage him that, if he eats all his veg, he might locate a bit of life left in that old frame of his - one more lap around the track, if you like. God pointed Abraham beyond himself - to the innumerable stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beach.  "So shall your descendants be", says God.  I will make it so.  And "Abraham believed God".  The second rope.

Many young clergy imagine that their job is to tell people to keep their chins up and that things are probably not that bad.  "Hoping against hope" (NRSV!) is too often understood as an exercise in optimism - redeeming that one useless rope in the face of all evidence.   Instead of the power of God made accessible to those who believe we ape the motivational speakers and embark on some project about the power of positive thinking. 

And that's not it - not it at all.  It's a whole 'nuther rope.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                                      Mark 1:9-15
Lent 1 - Year B

One man's desert is another man's paradise.  Is it a testimony to human ingenuity that the "empty real estate" of the Negev, or the deserts of the American west are turned into the sort of places where Iceberg Lettuce can be successfully grown?  Look what we've done: We've made the desert bloom!  You might risk war with your neighbors in the Middle East over the ownership of the water resources necessary to do this.  The subterranean aquifers deep beneath your country might be at risk of running down sooner rather  than later but, yes, it can be done if you believe that all deserts are empty and unproductive places without evidence of green things growing in tidy rows.

Deserts are irrigated, then.  Wetlands are drained.   Only as an afterthought do we realize that what we regarded as useless, empty and even hostile environments were filled with life and hosted complex and interdependent systems of creaturely existence.  Such places set the minds of poets, monks and scientists aflame.  They represented that part of the world which was not completely under the control of commerce and agriculture and was, therefore the source of much novelty, mystery and possibility.  It is no longer taken for granted that we can transform a desert or wetlands into a profitable piece of ground.  In most places of the world we now require permission and our business plan will meet with resistance.

That Jesus spends time in a wilderness at the beginning of his ministry is no accident.  Israel has always come to its senses in the desert - in a place where the din of human conversation is silenced and where the usual comforts are set aside.  The desert is a place where humans are sheltered by whatever structures God had made and not by the labour of their own masons and carpenters.  It is a place where food is found and not grown.  It is a place where priorities are reassessed and new decisions are made.  Do you have such a place around you?  Do you have such a place within you?  At the end of your lives, or even now, you might well identify a stretch of time when things were taken from you - some traumatic episode in your life when change was forced upon you by a tweak in your circumstances. 

At the time it was no fun at all.  You would have welcomed a friendly enterprise with bulldozers or drilling equipment.  Let us fill in those low bits for you, let us drill a well so that we can provide your habitual comforts for you.  In retrospect, however, you profited from that season of want and absence.  It made you the person you became.  On the other side of that desert experience you would not have traded it for anything.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Rev’d Robert Warren                                                                                                Mark 9:2-9
Last Sunday after Epiphany - Year B

The Gospel of Mark was written down to be read by Christians.  It was no quick guide to Jesus for the enquirer or the sceptic.  That introduction to Jesus in the life of the reader had already happened.  He or she had, at some earlier time, been grasped by the power of the Holy Spirit through the evangelizing efforts of the Christian community and had been reborn through Christian baptism and nourished by the worship life of the Church.  The Christian reader is the observer of Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry.  When the crowds in Mark’s Gospel - in Jerusalem or the Galilee - are confused about who Jesus is, the reader of the Gospel is watching them work that confusion out:  Who will believe and who will not?   Who will follow him gladly and who will not?  

In the middle of Mark’s Gospel you’ll find the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the slopes of Mount Tabor.  What the voice from heaven had proclaimed in the beginning of the Gospel at his baptism (Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased - 1:11) and what the Roman centurion would later deduce from the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion towards the end of the Gospel (Truly this man was the Son of God - 15:39) is here not only told to Peter, James and John on that hillside but is shown to them as well.  The veil is folded back for a moment.  Christ is revealed in a blast of light and surrounded by figures from Israel’s past - Moses and Elijah - representing the Law and the Prophets.  Here is no add-on to Israel’s religion.  Jesus is at the centre of God’s revelation to humankind.  

Our Christian readers in the first century (or the twenty-first) turn from the Gospel account and look around at the lives they lead in the world as it is.  They might believe they have much to fear.  Their community is small and their future uncertain.  The world seems lukewarm to the truth of the Gospel.  Some of their own family members remain untouched and unreached.   Within the household of faith itself there are hearts not fully warm to the promises of God.   The Christian reader of the Transfiguration story knows, however, that the revelation of Christ to men and women is something granted.  It is a gift for which men and women should be more thankful than anxious.  Nothing is completely in our hands.  The disciples present at the Transfiguration - Peter James and John - can only babble.  Such is the extent of their contribution in this story.  They cannot yet understand the depth of Jesus’ person as it will be revealed.  God will work through us, around us and even in spite of us.  Christ stands revealed in glory as the Lord of heaven and earth.  His glory will be revealed to the ends of the earth.  He will be proclaimed and his purposes accomplished.   

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                                    Isaiah 40:21-31
Epiphany 5 - Year B

Have you been waiting long?

I might ask this question if I already knew the answer - that we had agreed to meet at ten o'clock and now I've come running, out of breath, to the appointed street corner at 10:20.  You are sheltering from the rain under an awning.  You look bored to tears.  You're shifting your weight from one foot to the other.  Have you been waiting long?  Yes.  Precisely 20 minutes.  What have you been doing in the interim?  Nothing.  I've been waiting.
The reading from Isaiah this week says that "...they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.  They shall mount up with wings like eagles".   This might mean that the eventual arrival of the Lord on the scene will have been worth the wait, the rain, the inactivity and the long frustration. It could mean, however, that "waiting" is a more active pursuit than merely standing under an awning in the rain, puffing away at a sodden cigarette and staring down the street.

The verb in Hebrew has both a literal and a figurative meaning.  "Waiting" here means, literally, to braid together a cord out of various strands or to weave something together.  Figuratively, it means to strive after insight, to discern something solid amidst the confusing things of the world, to seek out the open door after one has been closed in your face.  It is quite active and expansive - not passive and exclusive at all.  

The reading appears towards  the end of the 40th chapter which is a grand description of everything that God is doing in the world and with his people and it has already contained one word specifically critical of those who stand around grumbling that God has not come up with the the timely goods they were expecting.  They complain that "my way is hid from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God".  Their inclination is to stand in the rain wondering why their number has not come up. To whom the Lord gives a pointed reminder that he is at work in the world.  He is raising up the valleys and causing the mountain heights to tumble and causing life to appear in the wilderness.  He is building community and giving second chances to sinners.  

You were waiting, perhaps, for something particular.  You will do nothing until that very ship comes in or that particular letter comes tumbling through the mail slot.  But you are not waiting - not in the sense that this Sunday's reading would prescribe:  That sort of waiting would require that your eyes were wide open and not focussed narrowly on what you thought you were entitled to.  God is at work in the world.  Find your place in that work.  Discern what has an enduring value.  Be part of what God is about in the world.  It will be for you both strength and wisdom.  God will surpass your expectations.