Wednesday, 21 June 2017

On being the wrong boy.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 7 – Year A
Genesis 21:8-21

God was with the boy, and he grew up…

Abraham sends his servant woman Hagar and the boy Ishmael (the child they have had together) out into the wilderness to fend for themselves.  There is precious little in the story which we can point to which will make it fair and palatable. You might make a case about God being economical with his finite favour which he ultimately extends only to Isaac.  Crack on!  It won’t satisfy any natural reading of the text.   This is a story about Sarah’s will to see the “other woman” and the “other son” - both of whom have a claim on Abraham’s affection - thrown out of the tent and left to their own devices in a hot and barren land.   There is the kind of family jealousy which we might identify in our own extended family or in our own experience of blended families.  Children are sometimes banished.   It happens. They fall out of favour.  They suffer the bad luck to have been born prior to the current marriage and the favoured second batch of children.  Go through your family photo albums.  Note any blank spaces.  Ask your aunty about it when she’s had a gin or two.

You could reproach Abraham for not being able to stand up to his wife and protect the fruit of his loins.  You might even wonder that God seems to play along with Sarah in her need to throw out her competitor.  The Old Testament stories are such a mish-mash of human drama and Salvation History.  We’d do well not to divide them up.  They are what they are.

God has good peripheral vision.  He hears Hagar’s weeping and the cries of the boy sheltering in the low vegetation. 

He hears the mother. 
He sees the boy. 
He abides with him as he grows up. 

God looks sideways.  There is grace beyond the bounds and this grace-which-leaps-over-borders will find itself being worked out in the ministry of Jesus.  He started with his own but he did not end there. His commission to the saints at the end of the gospels is to take the message – that grace -  to all nations.  It’s this sideways glance and overflowing grace which Saint Paul will take with him to Antioch and to a ministry which extends beyond the chosen sons and daughters and out to the Gentiles and, through those saints, to parts of the world which were unknown.

That was a long time ago.  There is current hope in this passage for you as well who may, for any number of reasons, be outside the well-lit room and the appointed path - who must look for hope beyond the ruins of your family lives and beyond your disappointing personal histories.   You might easily list off the reasons you don’t belong in Abraham’s tent. 

Cry out.   
Make your claim for God’s love in spite of being the “wrong boy”.  
It’s the way it should be.  
It’s the way it’s always been.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

That "getting up" feeling...

2nd Sunday 
after Pentecost
Proper 6  Year A

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Matthew 9:3-10:23

Paul begins the 4th chapter of Romans by asking "What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?" 

Paul thinks it's a good question. It took him the remainder of Romans 4 and most of Galatians 3 to address it.  Today we're starting small.  This Sunday at church we will begin to read the stories of the Patriarchs in the Book of Genesis and we begin right at the beginning - with Abraham - the lead actor in the first chapter of the history of salvation.

What we can say at the "get go" is that Abraham (or Abram as he was first known) “got up from a sitting position” when God's messengers approached.   It may not seem like much but it holds the key to what happens next.

Coupled with this Sunday’s Gospel reading about the Jesus sending out the twelve disciples on their first mission trip, our Sunday narrative begins to look like this:

Act one: 
God draws near to a Bedouin tent in the presence of three angels. Abram gets up from sitting at the mouth of his tent and goes out to greet them.

Act two: 
The twelve disciples are sent out by Jesus into the villages of the Galilee. They are to witness and minister to those who will welcome them gladly.

And you thought of the Bible as a book filled with God’s acts?  
Add up the human responses as well, why dont you – they’re there in droves. 

The divine initiative and the human response work in concert.  Two hands come together in prayer or applause.  Two paddles propel the canoe up the stream.  A word is spoken and there is an ear to hear that word - lips and feet and hands to put the word into action.  It takes two.   

God waits rather a lot, in the Bible, to see what the man, the woman or the young person will do.  He awaits some decision – some forward impulse which drives a person towards love, towards relationship and towards a new horizon.

We will not dwell on the negative. Jesus does not counsel the disciples to react with grief or anger (or even crippling self-criticism) in the face of villagers who spurn their ministry.  The disciples have their instructions – they are to continue to the next village and to find that “getting up feeling” in others who are not yet reached.

What do you read here which touches you?  What falls to you then - young and old - at your various crossroads?  It depends on who you are, I suppose.  Disciples of long service?   Enquirers standing at the edge of committed discipleship or, for that matter, lounging around in the shade?  Who are you in these readings?

And is there a word here that points to the possibility of your beginnings? Get up from your cushions!  Is there a word here which encourages you to continue in spite of misadventure?  Carry on to the next village!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Going beyond your reach

Trinity Sunday
Year A  
Genesis 1:1-2:4a                                                                                          Matthew 28;16-20
God saw everything that he had made, 
and indeed, it was very good.

Couldn’t we just….?   

It’s a phrase which has dogged me since the beginning of my ministry.  A service with different parts to it:  Couldn’t we just simplify it?

A meal with different components:  Couldn’t we just have soup and bread and then get on to the meeting afterwards a bit quicker or get the children home a bit earlier.  There’s homework, after all.

Couldn’t we just sing verses 1, 3 and 5?

Keep it simple.  Say the minimum.  Don’t wander.  Find a single point of agreement.   Arrive at a lowest common denominator or an agreed-upon consensus.  Contain the chaos.

I’m a fan of minimalist composers – sometimes.  Maybe you are too: Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman.  If you don’t know them you can google them - they’re worth a listen.  A skeletal structure – often repeating - with just a little flesh on it.  It’s refreshing.  It appeals to the part of me that likes to see things plainly.  It’s clear - like a well-executed line drawing.  But after a binge of minimalism you positively hunger for something glorious and romantic and colorful - a musical “full monty”. Richness and excess, colour and complexity – they all make sense and accord magnificently with the full range of what life has on offer – in nature, in the multiplicity of peoples and in the cascade of experience which human beings both suffer and enjoy.   Life is rich and complex.  Simplicity is often an escape.  Church is often the place we escape to.

In last year’s reading for Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus was made to understand that the history of God is fuller and richer than what he can fit into his tradition and between his ears.  Like Job, in the Old Testament, he was humbled with the idea that God is abroad – that the Spirit, like the wind, “blows where it will”.  God is not a single point of light to be apprehended and thereby learned, possessed and contained.  At the heart of the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy spirit – there is, above all, love and boundless energy beyond human comprehension and ability.

This year, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are gathered together on a hillside.  Jesus sends them out into a world which is beyond the reach of their language, bigger than them and beyond where they have ever travelled.  “Go”, he says, “…and make disciples of all nations”.  Like Nicodemus and Job of old, the disciples are told that God is already there – abroad as he has always been.  And in the midst of that rich and complex world – the political world, the conflicted and ambiguous world which they may not only speak to but which they must learn the language and contours of – Christ will be with them: And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Prepare your children then – prepare yourselves, in fact – to accept the broadness of God’s horizon and to widen your own.