Thursday, 21 December 2017

Pointing to Jesus - Giving way to God

The 3rd and 4th Sundays in Advent
Year B
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Luke 1:26-38

The fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve.  And like December birthdays it so easily gets lost in the mix, and so I’d like to combine the two Sundays, the 3rd Sunday of Advent last week and the 4th upcoming.   In particular I’d like you to hold the two principal characters of the Gospels (from John and Luke, respectively) from these two Sundays in your mind:  St John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of our Lord - significant characters – both of them remembered, preached about, enshrined in stained glass in churches around the world, but whose significance is not so much based on what they do as on what they allow.  Their bodies and their beings are not so much hammers and javelins as they are doors and passageways.  I probably need to explain.

Many of you wonder how much significance you have in the world around you.  It’s clear you have some ambition at work.  It’s clear from the contribution you would like to make to your church or the associations you belong to.  You want to say your bit.  It’s even evident from your family life.  Ask your children whether mum or dad still wants to hold some of the reins. 

It’s a thing – personal power.  You know it and the people around you know it.  Alfred Adler parted company with Sigmund Freud over Freud’s belief that sex was as much a fulcrum for the motivation of human beings.  Adler looked at it differently – no, he said, it is the quest for significance which motivates us.

Some of you have been beaten down in that.  You have the look of loss about you – what Adler meant when he coined the phrase “the inferiority complex”.  Some of you project an air of humility but behind all that you have a plan.   Other folks can hear the wheels turning.

Who are you then?  You might be on the younger end of life:  The sort of person who is battling in your salad days for a place on the ladder at work, for recognition among your social circle, for a listening ear in your family who haven’t cottoned on to the fact that you’re your own person now.  You’re somebody who would like to nail that funding, write that great Canadian novel, throw off the watching eye of the matriarchs and patriarchs – create your own footprint. 

Or flip it around:  Perhaps your bus pass is not far down the road:  You worry that you will be superseded by people who are younger and stronger than you and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  The children are grown, your spouse is already answering questions with that Mmmm yes tone of voice indicating that he or she has not fully listened to you.   You may simply be trying simply to hold on to the gains you have made.

If someone were to say to you – younger or older - that the key to life is learning to step aside and that great power is involved in giving way in the days of your strength you might find that a hard argument to accept – quite counterintuitive, really.

The record of John is this:  that when he was questioned by the envoys of the Scribes and Pharisees about himself, at what must have seemed like the height of his career, with his preaching attracting not only people from the suburbs of Jerusalem out to his desert pulpit but residents of Jerusalem itself in considerable numbers – when he was questioned sharply about who he was he declared openly and clearly that he was not the expected Messiah.  Asked further whether he was some heavenly adjutant like Isaiah or Elijah returned from the dead he answered plainly:  I am not the Christ, nor am I Isaiah or Elijah.  I am just a voice and the one I announce is somebody other than me.  This success I take off and lay to the side.  I announce another.  Jump ahead a couple of chapters and he puts it even more succinctly:

"He must increase and I must decrease."

Mary hears the news from the angel Gabriel that her youth is being asked of God as a gift.  On the cusp of her adult life, God asks her for what must be the substance of her near future.  She will be overshadowed by the Most High  She must risk the marriage which is about to begin – her status in her community – the stability of the ordinary family life she had every right to and for which her community, her upbringing and even her own piety had prepared for her.  Her imagined future happiness, says the angel, must now include a sword which will pierce her soul also. 

Biblical writers - describing conversations between God and a human agent be it Moses, or a prophet or such like – often leave out the silences.  God proposes and the human responds.  What gets missed in the narrative is that moment of silence which we must read in to the text – that necessary interlude, brief or not – where both Yes and No are possible answers.  Mary’s response to the angel, when it occurs, is her considered promise to be useful in the birth of something wonderful which is beyond herself. 

"I am the handmaid of the Lord.  
Be it unto me according to his word."

You were obliged in school to run at least one relay race.  You ran your portion of the track and then handed on the baton.  You’ve doubtless walked around graveyards filled with people who had their day.  It’s no mystery that we eventually give way in our generation.   If you are the sixth president of your Kiwanis club it is no Greek tragedy that there will be a seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth president.    Giving way is the most normal thing in the world in the long run and unless you are Chaucer or King Tut the memory of you will cease in all the land.

As you approach the end of the civic year and think about the new one looming up perhaps you feel a certain dis-ease.  Of what are you resolved as the new year begins?  What did you accomplish in the last?  Do you resolve to be more of a hammer this year?  Would you chuck your javelin a little further along the track this year, conquer a little more territory, build up your walls a little stronger – dominate the resources around you a little more effectively, do that thing, write those words, settle that challenge?

Take stock, won't you, of what has the greatest value.  The angels gathering around the birth, unlike Gabriel, have no names.  The names we attribute to the Wise Men are mere legend.  Nobody knows who the shepherds were.  They gathered to witness the arrival of what they could not give themselves, what no end of human ability will ever supply and what you, at your best, will never be.  Resolve at least, this Christmas, to place your trust in what you do not have yourself – to point, as John did to what shows itself to be stronger, better and more beautiful than you.   Allow yourself, as Mary did, to be a channel for something you can never own yourself.  Allow wonder to replace confidence.  Truth and beauty are given to us from elswhere.  Unwrap then, with this newfound attitude of wonder, the gift 

Which has been prepared for you.  
And for the people you love.  
And for people you have never even met.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Showing up for good news and bad.

The Second Sunday of Advent
Year B
Mark 1:1-8

Mark’s Gospel says that that John “appears” in the wilderness.  What an odd verb in English.  It’s like he pops up out of the sand. 

In any case - he’s there, anyway, ahead of the action, like a “roadie” setting up the microphones before the concert.  Or somebody laying the table for a meal before the guests arrive.  

Mark is the earliest Gospel - the Gospel which Luke and Matthew had in their hands when they wrote their own and, as an introduction to Jesus and his public ministry, it is awfully abrupt.   Where are the shepherds?   Where’s King Herod or the hasty flight to Egypt?    No, just a man - in the desert - setting the stage.  John doesn’t even get the first word in after the title phrase - that job is given to the prophet Isaiah.

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

In fact it’s a mix of Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” with something which Malachi said about a “messenger” or maybe even something taken from the Book of Exodus about an “angel” leading the way.  If you follow these source readings back, you will find the recurring theme of things not being allowed to continue as they were.  In the Book of Exodus, God says the Terror and Pestilence will precede his leading angel.  Isaiah has the revolutionary idea that the mountains will tumble, and valleys be lifted up.  Malachi promises not only the cleanliness following the liberal use of a “fullers soap” but the purity which only a refiner’s hot fire will be able to deliver.  The process of change is not going to be easy.  The world will be scrubbed, burnt and turned on its backside.  John says more or less the same thing in his preaching:  

"The axe is laid to the root of the tree."

A day of reckoning is at hand.

When the registered letter was delivered to you by the postie, she had a smile on her face.   You passed the time of day over the fence but you knew (and she knew) that good news never arrives by registered mail.  

A little man from the Prefecture showed up with a measuring tape to check that your doors were the regulation height. 

The inspector from Weights and Measures had a measure of volume to see if you were selling full litres of gasoline for the announced price.  

Someone demanded to see your underwear drawer.  

"We’ll need a character reference from your last love interest", said the person with the clipboard.   

"A performance evaluation has been scheduled for you at work next week.  We thought you should know."  

You get my drift.  It’s that sort of day.  You remember that it was late afternoon when you got the news. The sun was shining.  You can even remember what you were wearing when word came to you.

Not everyone is broken hearted, mind.  Someone, somewhere, is rejoicing.  Remember that John’s words to the Pharisees:

“You brood of vipers!”

is only one end of the spectrum of readings this Sunday.  The earlier reading is from Isaiah 40:

“Comfort ye, my people!”

Like the folks who’ve been bumping their heads on your low doors, like the customers at your gas station who’ve suspected for years that you’ve been giving short measure but you’re the only gas station in the village.  Your spouse has complained bitterly that your ties and your jack-knife don’t belong with your underwear.   And that last love interest of yours?  She thinks you’re a jerk and wouldn't mind at all if the day finally came when you were called for it. 

What about that performance evaluation, anyway?  Maybe it’s just the ticket.  Your co-workers think you get away with blue murder.  They know how bad it is for morale on the floor.  Bad news for you is good news for them.   

But why is it not good news for you too?  

It would be – there are people who love you who believe it could be -  if you’d agree to let the knife carve away what is rotten and hurtful, wasteful and frivolous.  If you’d look beyond your own interests

It is a terribly difficult thing to do but we shouldn’t be dramatic.   People do it all the time.   Choices become clear when light increases and they also become possible. 

You could always run away, 
you could hide, 
or resist 
or pretend 
or just not show up

and so avoid being laid bare by this amalgam of good news and bad but people are, in the main, pretty courageous.   They both tolerate, and sometimes even dig up from within, honest reappraisals of themselves.  Like I said – people do it all the time.

I jotted these words down earlier in the week.  Maybe I get them wrong.  John is not performing the opening act for some process of self-improvement for moderns.  That would be twisting this reading out of its context and I don’t want to do that.  He is, in fact, announcing a dramatic turn in history where God approaches his people and where an unexpected cast of characters open themselves to that approach.  They show up - in droves.  The usual suspects and the unusual.  They permit themselves to be laid bare.  They express acts of repentance and demonstrate their faith.  They are not only witnesses but they become participants as Creation is reformed restated and reinstated in its beauty.

Who will be in attendance?  
Who will show up?  
Who is not allowed to come? 

Subsequent chapters of Mark’s Gospel have Jesus preaching and telling parables.  In village squares, on hillsides, in private homes - to individuals - to groups.  He’s fishing.  

For you?  
For more deserving people than you?  

He’s casting his net into the lake.  He’s chucking out his lure into the sea.  He’s throwing out the option to come out and be present and be part of God’s Kingdom.  And nobody – no matter how compromised – is excluded from the invitation. 

You could be there.  

At long last, it could be good news for you.  If you are hungry enough to be part of that movement in human history, you will be there.  In spite of yourself and in spite of your experience the last time you tried.   You could be so struck by the prospect of life that all your excuses for being a no-show could wither away.

When the scrubbing is done and when the fire has done its work in you, you won’t be missing much.   You will have gained everything.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

You shall not murder.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22 - Year A
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

The Ten Commandments appear in the first reading on Sunday and this week our eye is, of course, drawn to the sixth of them, namely:  You shall not murder.  We'd resent it if our pastor treated the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week as something which wasn’t noteworthy.  And so, for our part this Sunday, we will publicly remember those who were lost and rejoice in the strength and courage of those who demonstrated the good attributes of humanity amid terrible circumstances.

There’s something else which vicars do at times like this, though.  You might even find it grating.  The fellow up there at the front of the church dressed like a Christmas decoration could pause in the middle of his sermon and say something along the lines of:

“We’re all a little bit like murderers, aren’t we?”

Oh Father!   Why do you clergy do that? you ask.  Is this something you learned  at seminary - to generalize everything? We are not bitter and twisted individuals who pour out rage, fanaticism or illness on others in dramatic ways.  

On the face of it, yes, you are not that person.  It ought to be possible for a member of Christ Church Clermont-Ferrand to finish his three-score-years-and-ten without having transgressed any of the Ten Commandments and, certainly, not to be guilty of culpable homicide.  

We’re the good guys.  

Give some thought, however, to what Jesus says to those who believe the bad guys to be over there and the good guys here with us on the right side of the fence.  In the verses (Matthew 5:21-30) which follow the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses those who believe that they have passed and will pass their years without ever being guilty of – and here he chooses two quite dramatic commandments: adultery and murder.  

Jesus sharpens the commandment on adultery to include lustful thoughts

He sharpens the commandment on murder to include anger.  

Of murder he says:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. ’But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ (meaning - you are empty or worthless!) is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Notorious violence is when, with sharpened motives and powerful means, the content of sinful and ordinary human hearts crosses the threshold from thought into act.  Whatever it is which generates the headlines and deprives families of their loved ones, issues from the very same stuff that has made our home life painful, our relationships strained, our children bullied at school, our workplaces a nightmare and those who differ from us isolated and uncared for.   

This is stuff we know inside of ourselves.  

Jesus makes sinners of all of us.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A penny a day

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20 - Year A
Matthew 20:1-16

Try this one on for size: A landowner hires workers at nine in the morning. They are told to expect payment of one silver penny – a denarius – for their day’s work. Additional workers are hired at three in the afternoon. Still others are hired towards the end of the day to reap the last corner of the field before the sun goes down. With the field finally harvested, they all line up in front of the paymaster – some of them dog-tired and dusty with blistered fingers, and some of them barely having broken out in a sweat. Each receives the same silver penny in his pay envelope. “It’s not fair”, say some of them. The response from the boss is the following: It’s my money – may I not spend it in the manner I want? The agreement was as follows: work/penny. I have adequately fulfilled my promise. Quit your griping.

Don’t try to develop pay scales for a company based on this parable, please. At the same time, give a thought to the good things which can be said about adequacy. Adequacy is under-rated. I’d have liked to have said at the end of my life that I had achieved something excellent and to have been rewarded somehow for that. Now – two thirds of the way through the slog – I’m beginning to say that I quite desperately hope to have been an adequate husband, father, Christian, priest, pastor, preacher, writer. Unless we are Chaucer or King Tut, we’re going to be forgotten a hundred years after our demise, aren’t we? And so, other matters – matters pertaining to basic adequacy – become more important. Will I die in some state of grace? Will I have loved and been loved?  Will I still be in conversation with my children? Am I reconciled with my heavenly Father and in communion with the fellowship of his saints? 

If the priest, who visits me at my bedside, asks me the question “Have you had enough?” – he or she may not be asking me whether I’m fed up with the chemo or ready to make my departure. The priest may be asking me whether I’ve "had enough" - whether I have received the adequate things of this world – the promised silver penny - things which people less educated than me, born in more straitened conditions than I have ever had to endure, with shorter lives and fewer resources than me, have nonetheless managed to acquire: a sense of peace, a thankful heart, a place in human community and an assurance of God’s love and favour.

As you might have guessed, the background of this parable is very specific. Jesus asks whether the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the Law, are any better off than those lapsed Jews who, late in life, have come back into God’s graces through the ministry of Jesus. It may well even look forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant promises of God at a point which is late in time. The answer which Jesus gives to this question, however, is what I have explained without making recourse to the particular background of the parable.  It's this:

There is one task. There is one reward.

If you are bothered by the hints of mortality here, and the possibility that you won’t amount to all you imagine, or that the time is somehow short - then I am sorry. Strive to excel in whatever your calling is—fill your boots! 

Remember, though, that "all flesh is grass". 

We will not neglect the tasks of faith and love—faith, which unites men and women to God through Christ and love, which lifts others up into his light. These tasks are your required and achievable labour and the simple coin received at the end of the day, your only and greatest reward.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Losing sight of Jethro's sheep: Moses in Midian

The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17 - Year A
Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was doing his best to lose the Egyptian accent that people had remarked on when he first landed in Midian (Exodus 2:18-19).

It was an accent worth losing.  First, it was a lie: he wasn’t Egyptian.  He’d been a Hebrew child raised like a dirty secret in the heart of the Egyptian court.  Second, it provided a clue to his past misdeeds.  The child became a man back in Egypt.  His identity crisis sharpened and caused him to snap.  He’d killed an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave and thus became a fugitive from Egyptian justice. 

But Moses dodged the murder charge.   He walked the width of the desert and crossed the border into Midian.  He married the daughter of a prominent local family and began to work on his pension.   

Did he have nightmares?  Did the ghosts of Egypt haunt his sleep?  There’s no evidence of this.  This Sunday’s reading show Moses following the flocks as he would have done seasonally - a perfectly ordinary Midianite shepherd on a perfectly regular day with only the barest trace of an accent.  Everything is on track.

The recipe for what Moses needed to do next is exactly what every new parolee needs to do upon his release from prison.  He needs to keep his eyes forward and to follow the path and to seize the opportunity at hand.  When you’re given a fresh start and limited time, you stick to the straight and narrow.  It’s the same at the tail-end of the world’s worst divorce or a personal bankruptcy or a war or a natural disaster.   One foot goes in front of the other.   Direct those fat sheep to market down the straight path. That’s all.  Nothing else.

But that's not how our story ends, is it?  Moses’ eyes stray.  The commissioning of Moses and the whole story of the Exodus doesn’t begin with God’s words from the burning bush.  It begins a few lines earlier when Moses, still comfortably at the tail end of Jethro’s flocks and with everything to gain by staying the course, says to himself:

"I must turn aside and look at this great sight, 
and see why the bush is not burned up."

Curiosity may kill the cat and displease the parole officer but it also ushers in new epochs in history.  From one cover of your Bible to the other, and throughout the history of the Church, God upsets the settled and recommended paths of prophets, patriarchs, disciples and saints.  Before they were ever useful to God and to his Kingdom by being resolute and unshakable, they proved their worth because they were quite the opposite - capable of being distracted from their day jobs and unstuck from all their several necessary trajectories.  

God could depend on them to shift their gaze from their desks and direct it out the window.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Stay tuned! God is faithful.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16 - Year A
Exodus 1:8-2:10

Now a new king arose over Egypt, 
who did not know Joseph....

How quickly we forget.  Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, human beings carry around nearly all the information necessary to be a member of their species in their stories and not in their genes.  Activities which we perform by reflex or at the bidding of our hormones are precious few.   Instead, our children go to school.  They learn at their parents’ or grandparents’ knee.  They read from books.  Stories may be supple or rigid.  Stories can evolve and merge with the stories of neighbours.  They can be transformed in the retelling.  Rigid stories tend to be fragile.  National myths can be destructive.  And yet, civilizations can and do collapse when the cultural contents of the human story are forgotten.  Skip a generation and you will take a step way back into time.

The scenario described at the beginning of the stories concerns the new Egyptian king who, by malevolence or ignorance, “forgets” the role which God, Joseph and the Hebrews had played in the preservation of Egypt during the years of famine.  By intention or accident, the story of Egypt has a chapter ripped from its book.   Fellow citizens – artisans and laborers – established residents of great Egyptian cities became, in a moment, a despised minority.  We don’t need to look much beyond the 20th and 21st centuries to find analogs for this process within living memory. 

For the readers of the Book of Exodus, be they Christian or Jewish, there can be no question as to the outcome.  The descendants of Abraham living in Egypt have a purpose and a destiny that will not be cut off.   They are part of a larger and more important narrative than the one by which Pharaoh hopes to purify his kingdom.  At issue, here again, is the overarching question:

How will God remain faithful to his promises to Abraham
to bless his descendants and, through them, the entire world?

There is no other question in Exodus.   Frankly, there is no other question in the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles.  We remain glued to the page because the risks are many and, as is the case throughout the Old and New Testaments, human agents are used to propel the Promise through the ages.  Patriarchs, prophets and saints need to say “yes” and we don’t know if they will.  The promise may even need to be placed within a little basket of reeds daubed with pitch and bitumen and set out into the reedy edges of a great river.  And yes – it all must matter to you, who are praying for your little churches and saying “yes” to your part in the story, who pray that your children remain part of the same narrative, who wonder how God’s people will ever find their voice in a world grown suddenly more unstable and chaotic.  

Stay tuned!  Hold on to the handrails!  You are part of this story.  It's never been one for the faint-hearted.  

Saturday, 12 August 2017

It's not over until......

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14 - Year A
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

A book called The Joseph Cycle was written by Simon Sim in 2004 and used Joseph’s dream (Genesis 41:25-30), as recounted to Pharaoh, as the basis for a theory about markets waxing and waning in seven-year increments.  People buy Sim’s book because they want to make money.   Spoiler alert:  If you want to make money, then it’s off to Amazon with you.  Buy Simon Sim’s book. You’re not going to make any money reading this. 

For a student of the Scriptures, the Joseph Cycle is a series of stories from the Book of Genesis about Joseph.  That it is referred to as a Cycle and not merely a Story means that the whole narrative has bits to it, ups and downs, highs and lows.  It doesn’t begin and end in a single chapter or reach its conclusion in a single episode.

Your bicycle has wheels.  When you run your finger along the end of them you come back to your starting point.  Joseph stands blessed amongst his brothers at the beginning of the story (Genesis 37) in this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, and he will stand blessed in the midst of those same brothers at the end of the story (Genesis 45).  Between these two points many events have taken place – many of them points of utter collapse and desolation.  If Joseph prayed to God to be protected by him -

·        So that his brothers might not throw him in to a pit and tell his father Jacob that he had been savaged by a wild beast and killed;
·        So that he might not be sold to a band of wandering Midianites;
·        So that he might not be resold as a slave by them to the Ishmaelites;
·        That he might be protected from the wandering eye of his master Potiphar’s wife, and;
·        So that he would not be cast into prison.

- the answer from God would have appeared to him as an unequivocal “No”.   Let that sink in for a moment. 

Do you have a sense of your own vocation, and of the fact that God loves you and that nothing transpires outside of his will and care?    Joseph did.  God gave him dreams.  He knows that God has a use for him and yet, when he prays to God for what seems like the most basic matters of freedom from peril, even these are denied.

Herein is the difference between a cycle and a simple story.  You need to wait until the end.  You will not see the sense of things until the circle is complete.   The episodes by which you judge yourself, by which you judge God’s faithfulness – this or that failure or success, this or that child’s misadventure or your failure in relationships or ventures – no matter how it feels in the moment – needs to be seen in the light of the story which God is telling over decades.  Be faithful enough to actively wait it out – patient enough (with yourself and with God) to see things to their yet-unknown conclusion.

Friday, 14 July 2017

What do you intend to do about it?

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10 – Year A
Matthew 13:1-9,  18-23               

The old archdeacon I was apprenticed to in the early 80’s was critical of sermons preached by students and young clergy.   Too few of them, he complained, ended with a clear task that men and women could get up from their pew and immediately do afterwards.  Folks, he said, needed to hear an instruction – some practical ending to what would otherwise be an overlong and rambling sermon.  Get up.  Do this.

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is preaching from a boat a short distance from shore.  He tells a story which we all know well, about the sower who went out to sow his seed in the field.  Some of it landed on stony ground and withered away, some landed amongst thorns and the young plants were smothered by the weeds and some seed landed on good ground where it eventually grew and bore an enormous harvest. 

Pay attention, says Jesus.  And that, really, is the only command.

Sunday school or Lunch Bunch teachers amongst you may correct me but the children’s lesson on this generally has an implied command in it: “So go and be good ground”.  If you read carefully though, especially the intervening part between the parable and explanation which the lectionary left out of our Sunday reading (Matthew 13:10-17), Jesus doesn’t seem to insist that people change the sort of ground they are.   He wants to find good ground.  He wants to find those who will listen and accept and seems willing to leave to one side those who will not.  It seems harsh but there is, in fact, no Get up or Do this anywhere in the parable.  

It is perfectly okay for you to be bothered by this.  You wouldn’t be the first.

It’s precisely this anger that the congregation in Nazareth feels when they hear from Jesus that God has always presented his promise to whomever was willing to accept it and run with it, even if they prove not to be you who are sitting here in the synagogue at Nazareth – even if you end up being left on the side-lines (Lk 4:25-27).  

It’s what the Pharisees and the religious leadership, with steadily rising anger, heard him saying as well – that the publicans and the harlots were getting into the Kingdom before them (Matt 21:31), and that God could raise up children of Abraham from these stones if he wanted to (Matt 3:9).  

It’s what Nicodemus heard Jesus saying about the wind of the Spirit “blow(ing) where it will” (John 3:8).

The Church remembered the parable of the Sower—this parable-without-a-command.  The reason it’s there in Matthew, Mark and Luke is that the Church is here being given an instruction to go forth and present the Gospel to those who will listen.  It points the Church out beyond those for whom the promise of salvation is one of a number of lifestyle options, or a bit of family or national inheritance, to those for whom it will become very life and very hope. 

The anger of the Nazareth synagogue, at the stark reminder that Good News is for those who will receive it, leads them to strike out against Jesus.   That same starkness, on the other hand, which Nicodemus perceives about the very same content, leads him to show his hand and enquire of Jesus - desperately even - in the dead of night. 

So yes – in the long run I suppose we have some choice to make about what we will do with the starkness of the parable and its sometimes frightening content.   

If this parable of Jesus angers you – 
if it frightens you – 
then you have indeed heard it.

Now what exactly do you intend to do about it?

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Becoming Myriads: The Sunday Sermon

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9 – Year A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

I’m quite taken by the family’s blessing of Rebekah from the Genesis reading – the reading which Sheryl read to us this morning.

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads

A young person stands at the threshold of a life which is rich and open.  There’s something appealing here – I would like my life to be that rich and that open.  I regret the parts of it which may over time have become stunted or locked up.  Lucky Rebekah.  She was young and she must have been in the right place at the right time.

There’s a moment in the first reading when Rebekah slips down the side of her camel, veils herself and prepares to meet the man she will spend her life with.  In our story, this is the happy result.  Go back a bit though.  It follows from an earlier moment after the servant explained how God had led him to Rebekah at the well when her family turns to the young woman and asks – so what do you think?  Will you go with this man?  I refer to these as “moments” by the way because they are powerful little self-contained units which communicate their contents well.  I can imagine the film scene.  I can imagine the painting which some Flemish artist might have painted.  If Caireen were up here telling you the story she would no doubt tell it with all the different voices – including the camel’s voice.

When we gather again in greater numbers at the beginning of September, someone will ask you at coffee time:  So how was your holiday with your family?  

 It had its moments – might be the reply. 

Ah, you say, let me pour myself a coffee and you can tell me about it

We are not expecting to hear about a holiday that had its minutes, are we?  We don’t care that it lasted exactly one or two or three weeks, we are expecting to hear about a holiday which had its moments – we are more concerned about its contents – either good or bad – eventful – joyful – painful. 

We use the word moment and the word minute quite interchangeably.  Take a minute to think before you answer we say to people who are about to take an exam or testify in a court case.  We could have said take a moment to think because we never meant that they should count to sixty.    The first use of the word had nothing to do with time at all – it described a unit of force.  Archimedes used the term to describe the action of levers of various lengths upon their fulcrums.  We might use the word “torque” in its place.  That alternate current meaning of the word moment should have something to do with forces of various kinds – the force necessary to overcome inertia, electrical energy or somesuch.   And even if you’re not an engineer we still use the word Momentum and the adjective Momentous which give us some sense of the difference between a minute and a moment.

And because I’m old and boring I’m going to further illustrate by relating to you a minute of my childhood.

I am ten years old and walking to school.  I walk down the path from our house and turn right on Transit Road.  I carry on to the first stop sign where I intend to turn left.  If I’m walking at my normal rate it takes me just more than a minute to reach that stop sign.    

Let me tell you about a moment from my childhood.

I am ten years old and going to school in Victoria B.C. from my house which is 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean.   I walk out the front door and down the path to the street into fog as thick as pea soup.  The foghorn on Trial Island – just off shore - is sounding its deep two-note blast.  Somebody on our street is burning oak leaves and the air is rich with the smell.  It’s also low tide and mingled in with the smell of the burning leaves is the smell of the seaweed rotting on the beach. The short trip to the first stop sign takes a little longer than a minute because I keep stopping to listen to the sounds and smell the air.  That’s a moment.   You could write a poem about it, it has a shape, it has substance.  Three unrelated worlds weave together into a fabric.  The burning leaves and the smelly beach have nothing to do with the fog or with each other, the foghorn has nothing to do with a small boy’s trip to school but the reason small boys are so often late for school and don’t get the gold star on the chart is that they stop to look at stuff along the way – at the way worlds which are them and worlds which are not them weave together at their intersection into a moment.

Being small one tends to be hit by moments – they happen to you – small people and adults who retain their sense of wonder even in their riper years – are struck by their moments.  They have little authorship over them.  They are lucky to have them. 

Let’s nail this down.  Are you one of those who would like to be fruitful and are not – to be myriads and are not – who would love to rediscover the openness, the beauty and the complexity of life and are not there today.   Doesn’t it seem a little bit cruel simply to say you should stand around until you are struck by something.    That’s no gift.  It would be a bit like saying that on behalf of the Anglican tradition we sincerely hope your lucky number comes up. 

I am compelled tell you another story.

There is a bit of family tradition handed down, from somebody on my mother’s side, that when my great grandfather was studying for the Presbyterian ministry at Queen’s College in Kingston Ontario at the end of the 19th Century, one of the College’s previous graduates wrote back to his friends that the work he was doing in China (on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion) was proving impossible without a wife and could somebody please help him out.  The story has it that a small group paid a visit to the missionary and deaconess’ training home in Toronto and enquired of the young women enrolled there whether any amongst them felt the vocation to marry a missionary in the field. 

I cannot imagine the story without a bit of embarrassed silence.  There must, surely, have been a bit of a pause - an awkward moment.   

As it happened, the query was met with agreement by one young woman in Toronto.  Yes, she felt so inclined.  Letters presumably were exchanged and the young woman packed her trunks and sailed to China at the beginning of a hazardous decade for foreigners (and especially missionaries) living in that country.  One man’s history weaves into the history of one woman – not as an accident or a happy exception or blind luck - but as the fruit of risks taken by the one who asks and the one who answers.

In our first reading this Sunday, Abraham’s servant is given the task of finding a wife for Isaac from amongst his kinsfolk in Mesopotamia.  The servant prays to God for direction, establishes the criteria by which he will know God is so directing him and is subsequently led to the young woman Rebekah who is drawing water at the local well.  Later, when the servant has spoken with her family, they turn to the girl. 

“Will you go with this man?” they ask.   “I will” she says. 

The young woman’s agreement leads to the family’s blessing

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 

The faith of Abraham’s bonded servant intersects with a young woman’s freedom to say “yes” or “no” and the story culminates in blessing.   Our story weaves together those things which simply are or which “must be” (either by God’s command or by Abraham’s will) with what “could or could not be” due to family politics and individual choice.  Energy – you see - goes into the equation from two sides.  

The question is asked.  The answer is “yes”.  The door to a world opens. 

I hope you’ll give some thought to where you are right now.  Maybe I’m preaching to the choir but you may have some sadness at the thought that you will never see an open door in front of you, or a new horizon, or be better and bigger than you are now.  Is any of this remotely important to you?  Does it hit a nerve with anyone?  Are you disappointed that you may never see the moment when you slip down the side of your camel into blessing or get from where you are now to that fruitful and hopeful place? 

Our key story this morning concerns much more than lucky cards or lucky stars.  Her moment is as much about the word “yes” issuing from Rebekah’s lips as it was about Abraham’s servant having discerned that she was the one.   Our engagement allows and even creates moments.  The weaving together of worlds happens because we want it and because we do it.  By our affirmation, by way of our curiosity and because of our willingness - by the word “yes” which we utter.  Few of us stand on ground so sloped in the right downward direction that entry and discovery are something that we merely fall into by the power of gravity or the weight of events.  Nor are our decisions ever so distilled in pure forms, apart from the ordinary particularity of our lives and families, that the choice is merely obvious. 

Secret gardens, hidden doors, the way in and the way out of labyrinths, pearls of great price discovered amongst lesser gems, all the treasures ever found in fields by nameless characters in Jesus’ parables, and - yes - the very thing which you – men and women, boys and girls - want or need - these are to be found by seekers.  

Will you go with this man?  Will you engage with this community?  There is something you can do.  You’ll do it if you want it enough.  It requires engagement and risk - undertaking tasks which extend beyond your pay-grade and beyond the bounds of what is proven to be safe. For that matter, even beyond the bounds of what is generally considered polite conversation. 

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Becoming Myriads: The Quick Guide

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9 – Year A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

The answer to the question is “yes”.  The door to a new world opens.  

Where are you right now?  How will you get from where you are to a more fruitful and hopeful place? Will it happen by accident?  Do you need to do something?

Is this remotely important to you?

There is a bit of family tradition handed down, from somebody on my mother’s side, that when my great grandfather was studying for the Presbyterian ministry at Queen’s College in Kingston Ontario at the end of the 19th Century, one of the College’s previous graduates wrote back to his friends that the work he was doing in China (on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion) was proving impossible without a wife and could somebody please help him out.  The story has it that a small group paid a visit to the missionary and deaconess’ training home in Toronto and enquired of the young women enrolled there whether any amongst them felt the vocation to marry a missionary in the field. 

I cannot imagine the story without a bit of embarrassed silence in the room.  There must, surely, have been an awkward pause.    

As it happened, the query was met with agreement by one young woman in Toronto.  Yes, she felt so inclined.  Letters were exchanged and the young woman packed her trunks and sailed to China at the beginning of a hazardous decade for foreigners (and especially missionaries) living in that country.  One man’s history weaves into the history of one woman - the fruit of risks taken by the one who asks and the one who answers.

In our first reading this Sunday, Abraham’s servant is given the task of finding a wife for Isaac from amongst his kinsfolk in Mesopotamia.  The servant prays to God for direction, establishes the criteria by which he will know God is so directing him and is subsequently led to the young woman Rebekah who is drawing water at the local well.  Later, when the servant has spoken with her family they turn to the girl. 

“Will you go with this man?” they ask.   “I will” she says. 

The young woman’s agreement leads to the family’s blessing

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 

The faith of Abraham’s bonded servant intersects with a young woman’s freedom to say “yes” or “no” and the story culminates in blessing.   Our story weaves together those things which “must be” (either by God’s command or by patriarchal fiat) with what “could or could not be” due to family politics and individual choice.  Energy goes into the equation from two sides.   

Rarely do we stand on ground which is gently sloped in a downward direction for ease of entry and discovery.  Nor are our options so distilled in pure forms, unmixed with the particularity of our lives and families, that the choice becomes obvious.  Secret gardens, hidden doors, the way in and the way out of labyrinths, pearls of great price discovered amongst lesser gems, all the treasures found in fields, and - yes - the very thing the present reader wants or needs - these are to be found by seekers.   

They are the fruit of engagement and risk.   They require undertakings which extend beyond our pay-grade and beyond the bounds of what is considered safe or, for that matter, even polite.  

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Terror of Isaac

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8 - Year A
Genesis 22:1-14

I am not alone in being defeated by this story in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  It’s a circle not easily squared.  It’s all made worse by the art with which the story teller in this section of Genesis relates the events.  There is tension and suspense – a long walk up Mount Moriah, a child’s innocent question about the absence of a sacrificial animal and all the detail of Abraham’s preparation of an altar and the disposition of fire and a knife.    Abraham, who once readily argued with God for the lives of any innocents who might have lived in doomed Sodom and Gomorrah, is here silent and compliant in response to God’s strange command.  He goes forth with his boy to Mount Moriah in the face of a seeming absurdity.  Am I professionally bound, as a priest,  to make this work for you?

The easy answers are those I was told in Sunday School: that God asks difficult things of those who profess faith in him and, after all, doesn’t God intervene at the very last minute to make the story right?  Colour a picture, children.  Use bright colours.  The slightly more technical answer that I was told in seminary was that this story served to express God’s    historic displeasure at the cults of child sacrifice which were not unknown in Abraham’s time and abolished them by providing a ram in the stead of the child.  None of these calms the dismay provoked by this story.  I would feel like a dangerous fanatic if I tried to make it all work out for you this Sunday.  I might seriously worry about those of you you who thought you could square this circle easily –and that you felt it was somehow all so “matter of fact”.  The rabbis struggled with this story for centuries.  Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire book about it.  It’s not a simple story.

The rabbis of old had a “midrash” on this section of Genesis (a midrash is a traditional or legendary expansion of the central text) in which Abraham returned from Mt Moriah down one side of the slope and Isaac came down by another route and that they did not speak again.  I am further reminded of the oath which Isaac’s son Jacob later swore in Genesis 31:42 – an oath which he swore in the name of “the God of Abraham and the Terror of Isaac”.

In the sermon last Sunday, I related a curious coincidence in the similarity between this week’s story of the Binding of Isaac and last Sunday’s story about Hagar and Ishmael.  In both accounts:

·        Abraham rises early in the morning.
·        A son undertakes a long journey with a parent at God’s command.
·        The child is set aside by the parent to await a certain death.
·        God speaks and intervenes
·        The likely outcome is reversed and the child is spared.

The New Testament writers remember the shape of this story which we treat, with no little cause, as incomprehensible.  The Gospel writers let it ring out in the words of Jesus—that he “must” go to Jerusalem notwithstanding the indignant protests of his disciples that he remains safely with them.  For his part, St Paul lets the Romans and the Jewish leadership off the hook for the crucifixion.  Paul intimates that it is God who handed Christ over.  Even in the final apocalyptic vision (Revelation 5:6) which makes up our New Testament there is, at the centre of the heavenly throne, this slain sacrificial lamb which God has provided. 

The story of the Binding of Isaac appears to us here in Genesis almost in the form of “building materials” which we cannot yet conceive as being part of a finished edifice or dwelling.  They are shocking in their rawness. Until we have struggled with them and have seen them fitted into some larger structure they must remain for us highly troubling and deeply unsatisfying.