Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The unfolding story of God in small spaces

The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke 7:11-17                   

Two sons are clutched from death and restored to their mothers.  In much of the Christian world these readings will be heard on Sunday by contemporary mothers sitting in church pews who would cut off their right arms in order to see their sons thrive, prevail, succeed, recover or even to continue to live.   We owe these contemporary women a debt of thought:  In no way is it assured that the good things in our Sunday readings which took place for those boys and their mothers will happen to them, who have muttered endless prayers to God and Jesus about their sons.  

They are good boys who don’t deserve the things which have landed on them from outside.   Nor should their sons be defined by (or blamed for) every impulse welling up within them and causing them and others grief.  These women know the habits and all the warm human smells of their boys.  They have picked up cast-off garments and even clutched them for a moment – counting themselves lucky to be in contact with an aimless bit of the lad which he has thrown aside.  Some administrative marvel out there will have done the maths and pointed out the unfairness of Elijah landing in the house of one poor widow with an ailing son in a land filled with sickness and deprivation (cf. Luke 4:25-26?).   What about any hypothetical funeral procession held earlier in the day in Capernaum – a procession which Jesus and his disciples did not happen to encounter?  What about that mother?

At coffee time the preacher sees the woman coming over to speak - her lips already pursing with the anticipatory “Wh” of the word “Why” or perhaps more correctly “Why not….”

What makes the preacher’s knees weak at this point as the distance between them narrows?  Who has been let down, and by whom?  Is an apology in order?  On whose behalf would one apologize?  On God’s behalf?  In the sermon which has just been preached the unfolding story of God touched down twice in small spaces in Israel.  A rivulet nourishes the modest patch of land which it waters.  The voice is heard as far as a voice might carry through the air.  Elijah will lodge in the small northern hut where he’s been commanded by God to take refuge.  The itinerary of the Son of man will connect with a limited number of folk in the villages of the Galilee.  If you must apologize, then do so on your own behalf who are part of a body which is worldwide and universal and which, in many places, still has the ear of legislators.  Do so on behalf of the church which has lost touch with the Acts of the Apostles and with the Great Commission and will not take current account of the miracles and acts of love of her saints over the centuries. 

We will not unravel the mystery of innocent suffering in a few words.  Nor, however, can we excuse our default position which would seem to be that there exists a great Wheel of Fortune which crushes as it will unless Jesus or Elijah declares a holiday by his very presence. 

There’s nothing we can do.  
The coin will land head or tails.
The market will have its way.
It has always been thus.   

We do not accept that the baton has been handed to us to work for the healing of small spaces.   The evangelical logic of Jesus and Elijah taking the unfolding story of God into small spaces is that it is the desire of God to heal and to restore, to forgive and to build up and that the Church as Christ's body will do the same.  Would that same logic not propel men and women to take their place in the ongoing work of health care (including mental health care), of education, in the forming of just societies and the reform of criminal justice - ultimately in the relief and restoration of sons and daughters who are at risk?

And, while I'm on the subject, have we even been to this woman's house?

Friday, 27 May 2016

The faith of an expat: Jesus and the centurion

The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Luke 7:1-10

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, 
and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, 
"I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."


The Galilee wasn’t physically occupied by the Romans until A.D. 44.  It wasn’t until Herod Antipas fell from grace with the Romans and got himself exiled with his wife to Lyon just down the road from us in Clermont-Ferrand, that the Roman army finally set up camp north of the border.  At the time of our story, then, there was no Roman army in the Galilee.  They were in the south – in Judea.  So what was a Roman centurion doing in Capernaum?  Well Herod, as a Roman client ruler, yearned for a Roman style soldiery of his own and no doubt needed a Roman centurion to help him achieve that.  The centurion in our story was, plausibly, on loan from the Roman army as a military advisor.  This suggests not only that he was far from home.   He was also outside of his familiar patterns and environment - only tangentially still working for the Company.  A man, well-suited for a particular life, had shelved it and found (almost accidentally) amongst God’s historic people, the Jews – in their community structures, their worship, their Sabbath and their ethics and above all in their ancient story of God encountering his people - something which appealed to him and which he wanted to be part of. 

Who are you when you are not at home?  Are you half the man or woman you would be in your habitual surroundings?  Does travelling light far from home mean for you your essential toolbox is elsewhere - at home - under lock and key?  This centurion’s disassociation from his well-worn paths, on the other hand, had given him a measure of holy freedom.  You can still see the lower floor of the synagogue he built for the Jews of Capernaum.  It’s underneath the ruins of the somewhat grander sixth-century synagogue, made of white marble, which took its place.    It was made of the same sort of black basalt as our cathedral here in Clermont is built from or, for that matter, our own little chapel in Royat.

And what has our centurion learned in these new surroundings and among these new associates?  According to Jesus, anyway, this man's understanding is substantial.  His words of faith are fresh and matter-of-fact.  When Jesus receives his request to have his beloved servant healed and offers to come to the centurion’s house the man replies that there is no need:  All Jesus needs to do is say the word and it will be done.  

"I’m a man under authority", he says.  I know how these things take place.  The Lieutenant-Colonel speaks to the Adjutant who then speaks to the junior officers who then speak to me and the other NCO’s.  We speak to the men.  If we encounter resistance, it’s not for nothing that the symbol of my centurion’s office is a stout stick of vine wood which can be applied to a soldier’s back.  The job gets done. 

Here, says Jesus, do we find a man of faith such as may not even be found in most of Israel.  As evidence that he has understood he has come up with an analogy from his own world which tells me he has understood.  Here is a man who would understand that God loves the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and will give them the good things that they require because it's in the Standing Orders.  Here is one who, when told not to worry, will not worry, because matters must be in hand.  He has understood.  

The half dozen dislocations which occur in our own lives are not given the credit they are due. We might see them as a step down from the ordered trajectory we should expect in a perfect world.   In fact, each one is an opportunity -  to provoke our faith and to claim a space wherein we offer our unique gift to the world around us.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

How much can you bear?

Trinity Sunday
Year C 
John 16:12-15

“I still have many things to say to you,
but you cannot bear them now.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he
will guide you into all the truth.....”

The three leaf clover, the Fleur-de-Lys and the other visual representations of the Trinity of God are traditionally used to show the faithful who (or more usually, what) the Holy Trinity is.  In practice the diagrams and patterns declare something unmoving and eternal.  Jesus' words, in the small snippet of his farewell discourse chosen for this Sunday’s Gospel reading, tell quite a different story and describe what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit actually do.  Jesus says there is a wellspring of love and information in the Trinity of God. 

The Father has given all to the Son 
The Spirit takes what belongs to the Son 
and declares it to us on the world’s behalf.       
We might be forgiven for believing that the Spirit merely reinforces what is already in the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels.  Is the Holy Spirit a sort of active, living index which points the Church back to what she already knows but has perhaps forgotten or failed to apply?   Does the Holy Spirit have a Bible in its hand?  That was what I was always led to believe, anyway. 

Maybe we should expect to hear timeless truths in Church.  We have a Communion Service based on very old antecedents.   The Mass is the Mass is the Mass.  It warms our hearts to hear the Bible read sometimes in traditional translation.  We refer to our hymns sometimes as the Old One Hundredth, we even sing about being asking to be told “…the old, old story” but Jesus promises his disciples here that the Holy Spirit will shepherd them into novel territory.  Frankly, I can see little in the passage to indicate that the content of what the Spirit will proclaim will limit itself slavishly to what is already there in the parables, the controversies, the public discourses of Jesus or the private teaching between the Master and his disciples.  The disciples had heard all of that and had profited from the private teaching during his ministry and in the days between Easter and Pentecost to clear up what they had not yet understood.  In our reading this Sunday at the end of a longer passage Jesus says explicitly that he has other things to tell them which, at that moment, they could not bear to hear.  “The Spirit of truth…will guide you”

We should at least be curious about what he meant.

There is enough material in the Acts of the Apostles to give us a hint of how the Jerusalem Church, Peter and the other Apostles along with the newcomers Paul and Barnabas and a small army of deacon/evangelists sent to the Samaritan and Greek cities were privileged to express in new and changing times and places not only what the Gospel said but what it meant as well.   In so doing they disagreed which each other – sometimes quite vociferously.  Following the Spirit of God into truths which a previous generation or even our younger self could not possibly bear courts a certain degree of risk. 

It sails very close to the wind.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The best things in life are invisible.

Pentecost Sunday
Year C                                                                                            
Acts 2:1-21

Ignatius of Antioch once said (Ignatius' Epistle to the Romans III:3) that:

"nothing visible is good" (οὐδὲν φαινόμενον καλόν) 

which I have no hesitation flipping on its back and taking Ignatius to mean that:

"the best things in life are invisible".

It is a lesson often learned too late:  We will not ultimately regret missing out on the houses, cars and the substantive preferments of this life.   We will, however, bitterly regret having been passed over by honour, verity, friendship, purpose, love and the myriad connections we have to the souls of other people and to the Kingdom of God in our midst.  It won't do to protest that people are quite visible, thank you very much, and while we're at it so are church buildings and halls.  Truth can be researched in universities; honour and verity in courts of law.  All of these have mailing addresses.  Our attachment to these visible things, however like all relationships, is an invisible connection.  They direct the orientation of our souls or they do not.

A group of people bitterly divided over a task can be said to be missing "Team Spirit".  A young person who has struggled with a series of exams or facing the end of a relationship can be said to be "Dispirited".  All the bits and pieces of success and forward progress are there but for want of a certain je ne sais quoi the group or the individual is pinned to in place..  The magic ingredient is missing from the recipe - the insubstantial substantial necessary to make the whole thing work.  In the absence of fundamental direction we may agonize about our forward progress.  The visible marks of success - our pay grade, our grade point average, our place on the ladder - seem a relentless upward or forward slog.

The invisible gift of the Spirit of God is as necessary as the animating spirit that has kept you and me walking around lo these many years.  Luke makes a point of using the related words for Spirit and rushing wind to show a clear connection between the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the very creation of the Human Being in the Garden.  Without the animating gift we are merely clay.  It's an extraordinary gift of God to us from the time of our conception yet it is something utterly ordinary to us now.  We no longer think about breathing.  There is grief and sorrow when the gift is removed.   Peter's sermon (which carries on beyond the reading chosen for this Sunday) puts the matter of this second gift of breath plainly.  Yes these events are extraordinary.  This invisible gift is, nonetheless, the ordinary equipment of the Christian.  If this gift been taken from you (or more properly feels taken from you) - by virtue of anger over personal reversals, bitter experience or the sin that has divided you from God and from your brothers and sisters then you will need to ask for it back.

Retreating into your visible achievements will not do. That's the sort of thing a person might do instead of living.              


Thursday, 5 May 2016

What does your faith cost the rest of the world?

The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Year C
Acts 16:16-34

…as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.

You’ve probably heard a sermon or two asking whether your Christian faith has ever cost you anything.  This Sunday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles opens the door to another question, though:  What has your faith cost the society around you? 

The Romans expressed everything from mild irritation to outright persecution of non-Roman religions.  They could not countenance the Jews with their Sabbath, for example.  To what end is it worth having a slave, an indentured servant or even a business partner of the “Hebrew Persuasion” who insisted on taking one perfectly good day out of the week and refusing to work on it?  A slave you could always beat but some would gladly endure a beating for the sake of their Sabbath.  And these Christians with their refusal to do their patriotic duty by sacrificing a pinch of incense to the Genius of Caesar on the small altars set up in front of public buildings!  Religious fanatics all of them and not to be trusted.  A drain upon public solidarity.  Roman society was, in the main, conservative, pragmatic and mercantile.  Nothing wrong with peace, order and good government and at the same time making a little dough in the ordered space that a well-managed society offered you.

Saint Paul cast out a “spirit of divination” from a little slave girl who was following him and his associates throughout the city of Philippi.  It’s what you would expect a follower of Jesus to do.  In this case, however, the little girl’s fortune telling was a source of considerable income to her owners.  Her healing cost them something and the enduring presence of Paul and his associates in Philippi and even more so later in Ephesus (chapter 19) promised to threaten the local economy by freeing men and women from their magical practices and their idols.  It undermined their loyalty.

Not many of you have a “spirit of divination” which might cause alarm and concern to your pastor or to the members of this parish.  But as men and women redeemed by Christ and called from the world into the family of God you have a competing loyalty which might, could, should or even must cause you to consider how you make and spend your money, how violently you climb the ladder of success, how you relate to your employer and your employee. 

Your school, your business and your political party need to be put on notice.  God has his claws in you.  You are no longer a company man.