Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Praying for new and better words.

The Feast of Pentecost
Year A
Acts 2:1-21

Frances Wheeler Davis was a schoolteacher from Winnipeg, Manitoba.  She was also a poet.  Robert Fleming, originally from Prince Albert Saskatchewan, was a church organist at various churches in Ontario and Quebec.  They put their skills together in the late sixties and came up with a hymn called “Let there be light” which appears today in only a small selection of hymn books.  Here is the fifth verse:

Your kingdom come,
your Spirit turn to language,
your people speak together,
your Spirit never fade.

The entire hymn is a plea to God on the part of Christian people for light, for healing speech and for understanding between alienated peoples but it’s always the fifth verse which hits me: “your Spirit turn to language”.

The giving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is several things simultaneously.  It is the confirmation of Jesus’ promise to empower his church and it is the equipping of the church with the tools of ministry.  It is the action of God upon human flesh, wills and futures. It is the way in which God will continue to visit, renew and grace human communities with his enduring presence.  I’m stuck this week, however, on the power of language to break down barriers between people and the way that language gives to us the gift of the wider world. 

The early disciples were provincial people – they spent their early lives living on a tiny piece of real estate in the eastern Mediterranean. They ended those lives, in many cases, as apostles and missionaries to the entire known world.  This happened because they were sent out.  This happened because they were equipped to minister beyond their cultural communities – to appropriate, even, the language and culture of others to communicate a universal promise of love to an entire world. 

Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it
that we hear, each of us in his own native language?

With language we reach out to others.  By language we come to understand the world around us.  Have you witnessed an older child or an adult overcome a reading or writing deficiency with a little help from a teacher or a therapist?   Because of problems in cognition or a neglect of education that child experiences loneliness and isolation.  When the threshold is finally crossed, however, and the words on the page begin to live then the young adult may take up the tools by which communities are built, love letters are written and covenants entered.   

It is through language (conversation, confession, promises) and not through lonely thought, that dysfunction in our families and communities must be approached.  It is by willingly entering into the language of others (listening, learning and understanding) that rifts are healed and the worlds of other peoples become a place of rejoicing and not a cause for fear.

These then are words – use them.  Use the words you already have.  Pray that the gift of the Spirit, which is the inheritance of all the baptized, turns to language.  Pray for new words, if you must, and a spirit to use them boldly.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Believing again. Believing for the very first time.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Year A
John 14:14-14

… I tell you, the one who believes in me  will also do the works that I do…

You’ve seen the bumper sticker:   “The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it”.

There are no fewer than 98 instances of the verb “to believe” in John’s Gospel. There are invitations, as in this Sunday’s Gospel, for men and women to begin to believe again or to believe something for the very first time.  There are also descriptions of individuals and crowds who had come to believe over the course of the Gospel.   Fast change or slow change -  but change nonetheless.  When you see belief, you expect to see change.

The bumper sticker describes somebody who is the way he is and will remain so forever: An oak tree planted in tough clay.  Belief in the New Testament describes a process which is much more dynamic. People are forever changed because of something Jesus has said or done. Something (faith) wells up within them in response and they are no longer who they used to be.  They’ve been pulled up by the roots.

It’s a word we use in common language in several ways: We “believe that” something is the case:  up is up and down is down.  It’s a very different thing than “believing about” orbelieving in”.

We’re rather promiscuous even about the things we “believe in” - ideas mostly, which we inherited or which we have adopted as a way of making sense of the world and identifying ourselves within it and finding our place.  We proudly and self-consciously nail ourselves down to a way of thinking and believe that we’ve done well.

Free Enterprise or Universal Health Care or the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God - things that are “believed in” tend to sprout capital letters with time. And, so, it is perhaps natural that belief in God or belief in Jesus might be things we file in the same envelope. Are these not beliefs which define our families or perhaps, even, our national communities? We try our damnedest be consistent in our beliefs. If one of our elected officials changes his or her mind about Proposition 10 then we accuse them of flip flopping.  We’re not curious enough about why they came around to a new position.

And that’s why we stick bumper stickers on our cars - just in case something new and attractive comes into the room and we forget and change our minds. 

But here’s the rub: Believing” in the Gospel leads to departures and changes - not the endless reinforcement of slogans and adages and childhood beliefs we learned at our grandparents’ knees.  Old time religion was a problem for Jesus.  Old time religion killed and imprisoned most of the saints across the centuries.  Old time religion often gets in the way of grace, truth and beauty in our own day.

Are we open enough to really believe?  Or are our roots getting in the way of our growth?  

Friday, 5 May 2017

The activity of shepherds and sheep.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Year A                                                                           
Psalm 23

The Lord is the one shepherding; I lack nothing.

I’m at a meeting this weekend in Milan.  Our Lay Reader, Alison is preaching at Christ Church and our new Archdeacon, Walter Baer, will be standing behind the altar – all of which allows me here to wander through the readings with scant thought as to how an eventual sermon might turn out. 

I can afford to go off-topic or split a few hairs.  I’ll be back on form next week.

Two of the the three readings and the Psalm for this Sunday are “pastoral” in nature:  I mean this literally – they are “pastoral” - they all make some mention the person of the shepherd and the nature of his activity. 

The Lord is my shepherd.

You might be able to recite this with the book closed if you’re of a certain generation.   You’d be upset if you thought that you needed to say it differently or that the way you’re saying it is a mistranslation so, relax – you’re saying it right.  But – when you read it this Sunday in church (at least in an Episcopal church) you might take a peek at the Latin inscription in the Book of Common Prayer just above Psalm 23 on page 612 and muse over the words which you probably can’t immediately translate but could if you gave it some thought:

Dominus regit me

Either by intuition, or with the help of some residual school Latin, you’d note that the second word is a verb and not a noun.  The Lord shepherds me.  The Latin Vulgate was translated from the Greek Bible.  If you go to an earlier Greek version you find that it has a verb as well.  The Lord shepherd (or rules) me.

Both – the Latin and Greek - depend on a Hebrew antecedent and we should note that the Hebrew word is, in fact, a verb but it’s a verbal noun or a participle – a verb which behaves like a noun.  “The Lord is the one shepherding” or “the Lord is the one who shepherds”.

What’s missing from all three is that sense where one thing (the Lord) is another thing (a shepherd) and that metaphorical thing belongs to me.  The way we’ve learned it lends itself a bit to bumper stickers:

God is my commanding officer
The Lord is my shepherd
My love is a red, red rose.
My other car is a Maserati.

Shepherding and “being shepherded”, however, are verbs – action which is ongoing and continual.  It is a well-known fact of country life that sheep wander.  They need to be sought out by the shepherd.  They need to agree to follow.  That a relationship can be established between this noun (me) and that noun (the shepherd) is not the point. 

You might be a registered member of his flock with your paperwork in order.  You may also be stuck rather tightly in the crevasse you’ve wandered into and that trapped knee is beginning to ache.  

Let the activity of being shepherded – the finding and the following - recommence!