Sunday, 19 August 2018 flesh is true blood is true drink...

The 13th Sunday
after Pentecost
Proper 15- Year B
John 6:51-58

Our organist Julia Billet started it all off on the second Sunday of my holidays when she read (and reflected upon) the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the Gospel of John.  By the time next Sunday’s service is over we will have covered precisely 69 verses of the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel over five Sundays (with a few verses here and there left out.)

1.      John 6:1-21
2.     John 6:24-35
3.     John 6:35, 41-51
4.    John 6:51-58
5.     John 6:56-69

It’s a relatively small section of scripture to cover five Sundays, don’t you think?  Mr and Mrs Lectionary down at head office clearly see this as something important.  We might want to pay attention.

Looked at from a height, the story at the beginning of John 6 starts out with a crowd and, at the end of the chapter, it ends with a smaller group.  It begins with something everybody can agree with – an enormous feed, free food – to which everybody available makes sure they can attend.  It ends, in next week’s Gospel reading, with only the twelve disciples and even they have something on their mind they need to talk about. A lot of their fellows have voted with their feet.  Jesus has spoken frankly, he has used hard terms for the very first time that the crowds can’t seem to get their heads around. 

These would seem to be the subtitles of what Jesus has said in the various bits across the month.

This is a feast – you are invited.
This is more than a feast – are you interested in more than a feast?
Everyday bread will spoil and get stale.  The bread which I give gives life. 
My gift is more than bread.  It is the bread which came down from heaven.
The Bread which I gives is my flesh for the life of the world.
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man you will have no life within you.

At the end of the story even the disciples are looking a bit despondent.  Jesus will ask them, in next week's reading, if they intend to abandon him too.  “To whom would we go?” Peter will respond.  No, they have come to believe in him.  They do not abandon.  Even when the crowds begin to drift away they stay put.

The general moves to the particular and gains its weight in real life.  It’s in the particular where you say “Oh right!  That’s what it means and that’s what it costs.  The goods are on the other side of that door.”  It’s where you hear the challenge of belief and not merely the promise.  You know the pattern:  

Wouldn’t it be good to have children?  
Wouldn’t it be great if we were married?  
Wouldn’t a challenging job be rewarding?  
Wouldn’t it be cool to live in France?  

You have, many of you hearing or reading this, come to live the reality of these things which once upon a time were imprecise and unreal but which are now the tangible reality in which you both rejoice and weep and where you simply are.

In the Galilean springtime, on all of those hillsides early in the Gospel story, Jesus preached the love of God.  On the cross of Calvary he showed what that love meant.  

On those hillsides he required only that we listened.  In the discourse we have been reading now, to the crowds, to the larger community of disciples and to the Twelve he tells us that he wants us to unite with him.  The language is that of a meal where, in language of tremendous intimacy that jars with the taboos of his hearers, he tells us that he himself is the gift, the Lamb, and our very nourishment.  

He doesn't want to be our guest speaker.  He asks to be our life.  He wants to know what we will say to that.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Silencing the critic...

The 8th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10 - Year B
Mark 6:14-29

Mark's Gospel shows us a picture of Herod Antipas as a man divided between his sin and his salvation. 

As brutal and arbitrary as any ancient ruler Herod, nonetheless, cultivates a residual place in his heart for the preaching of John the Baptist - his consistent and fiery critic - whom he has imprisoned in the dungeon.

When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed;
and yet he liked to listen to him.

One thing leads to another – in a series of unhappy accidents - and Herod finds himself forced, because of his passions and the public vows he has made, to have John beheaded in his prison on short notice and to present the prophet's head to his stepdaughter –  known to us, traditionally, as Salome.  The prophet John is finally silenced. The message he preached, however, has only begun to make itself known.

A painting by Peter Paul Rubens called "Herod's Feast" hangs in the National Galleries in Edinburgh. It's a ghastly rendering of the very moment when the head of John the Baptist is brought on a platter to Herod's table.  According to one of the guides I spoke to, back in the day, it is a particular favourite of Edinburgh schoolboys brought on outings with their classes to the National Galleries.

In the painting, the assembled guests look down the table to where Herod is seated as host. He is the focus of the viewer’s attention and not the severed head.  On Herod's face is written the anguish of a man who is sorry that he has silenced his opposition - the small channel of grace he had hidden away in the basement. 

Our enemies, you see, are not always our enemies. Sometimes they are the only people able to speak the truth to us.

There are moments when we would do almost anything to be rid of the trouble we sense within us - the unrequited longing, the dissatisfaction and inner turmoil - or the critics around us.   Cut the head off, we might mutter - put it out of our consciousness, forever.  Please doctor, Father, counsellor, best friend – won’t you do something to silence this voice of doubt or insecurity?  Make it shut up!  Tell me I'm imagining it all.  Give me a prescription.  Wave your hand over me and intone some ancient words!  

This would be the good and efficient thing to do.  It would make sense.  Unless, of course, things were seriously amiss in our souls and in our households. That nagging voice might be the best thing in us and not the worst - a healthy and discomfiting voice which we would silence at our peril.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

She only touched the hem of his garment.....

The Sixth Sunday 
after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 8
Mark 5:21-43

A small story, wedged into the midst of the larger narrative of Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter, tells the tale of some nameless woman - ill and at her wit’s end - who pushes through the crowd to touch the edge of Jesus’ robe with the certainty that this is all that will be required of her.  She will never be asked to come to the lectern and testify, nor will she be give a box of church envelopes or asked to join the ACW.   Just this and nothing more.

George Frederick Root wrote a hymn about her in the late 19th century which appeared in the Sankey Hymnal in 1897.  It’s one of the hymns of my youth which I still sing in the car when I’m stopped at a red light.

She only touched the hem of His garment
  As to His side she stole,
Amid the crowd that gathered around Him;
  And straightway she was whole. 

    Oh, touch the hem of His garment!
      And thou, too, shalt be free!
    His saving power this very hour
        Shall give new life to thee!

The earliest version of Root’s hymn had different words –  more rugged and arguably more self-assured.   The first line was:

In faith, she touched the hem of his garment

And the chorus went like this:

I’ve touched the hem of His garment,
And now I, too, am free;
His healing pow’r this very hour
Gives life and health to me

Good news for her, then, that saintly lady.   Well done, her.  Good news for whoever sings the song.  Good for them.  Great faith meets with great results.  That's what it says on the package.  We are ordinary people, though.  We in the back pews review the faces of great men and women of faith portrayed in their stained-glass windows and are left cold by the story of yet another spiritual athlete – very much unlike ourselves – who receives his or her due for that tremendous leap of faith which always eludes us.  The saints do things we cannot do.  They’re saints. 

Ira Sankey clearly agreed.    His collection of hymns and sacred songs  - Sacred Songs and Solos:  1200 Hymns - contains a large persuasive offering to that crowd of people hunkered down in the last two pews of the meeting hall.  They have not yet put their hands up.  They have not signed their cards.  They have not yet walked up to the front of the church for prayers or initiated the conversation which would see them home.  They have, in fact, been coddling the impossibility of the task and rolling it around in their minds.  

That somebody else might have done great things will not help.  
That somebody else is claiming the victory will be no great boon to them. 

Sankey is collecting his tunes for the man, the woman, the boy or the girl in the pew who would discern within themselves what first preliminary step they might take.  Thank you, George Root, for a wonderful hymn but needs it wants a tweak or two.  The modified version, which appears ten years later, accomplishes two things:  

First of all it returns the hymn to the story itself in the Gospels.  The woman takes a very small step (she only touched the hem of his garment…) - a step conditioned as much by desperation as anything she might have conceived of as faith.  It is Jesus, in fact, who, turning in the crowd, sees her there and declares that this small step is, in fact, faith.  It is faith in its seed as a preliminary act and proves, as saving faith, to be faith in its flower.  It is sufficient.  

For those of you reading this blog post this afternoon, the question remains open.  I pose it in the spirit of St Mark the Evangelist and in the spirit of George Frederick Root, the composer of hymns, and of Ira Sankey, the curator of that great opus of 19th century hymnody (some of which remains entirely singable in the 21st):    What small act remains to you - born as much of desperation as of faith - which would constitute your small step of faith, and make what has seemed impossible to you both real and present?

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The earth produces of itself.....

The 4th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6
Mark 4:26-34
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
This is the thing we might find hard to believe when our back is to the wall.  

Surely the watched pot boils a bit faster, does it not?  We ask the question a half-dozen times to make sure it’s been understood because, after all, there is no shortage of idiots in the world.  We hover over our children as if each inch of their forward progress were dependent upon our total concentration.  With little to worry about we would worry nonetheless.  True, though we might meet people who should fret more than they do.  But not you who are reading this.  No, not you.  And not me, either.  Likely not.  We could do with letting the words of this parable flood over us.

Take note please:  In this short saying of Jesus, found only in Mark's Gospel, we are not being asked to trust in the ability of the seed to sprout itself and to grow up big and tall.  We are being asked to trust in the ground to produce a harvest.  I think this makes a difference. 

The mystery of the Kingdom of God is that God's Kingdom is within us, around us and among us

and that it works.
Jesus goes to enormous lengths, in the guise of innumerable parables and analogies, to tell us that God’s Kingdom is taking shape around us. 

It is here, it is there. 

It is the treasure hidden in the field, the valuable pearl nestled amongst lesser gems, the yeast in the dough and the smallest seed planted in the garden.  See how the country people and the villagers flood to the hillside to hear the Kingdom spoken of.  Look at the lame man carrying his pallet away on his very own pegs in triumph.  See the harlot, the Quisling and the outcast restored to community because the words of peace and invitation have been spoken.

It doesn’t depend on you.  So relax.  The Kingdom is not your handiwork.  You are not its chief engineer.  
But relax and watch.  What remains at play is not the reality of the Kingdom but your own very self as a participant.  Will you have the eyes intent on seeing the whole thing play out?  And the ears to hear about it? 
Do you want to be a part of the process?

Monday, 21 May 2018

Nicodemus the Car Thief

Trinity Sunday
Year B
John 3:1-17

You see a car advertised. 

It appears to be the very one you want.  The right size, the right model.  Mileage looks good.   The right price.  You fire off an email or leave a voicemail – AND you get a message back within the hour.  Yes, you can see the car but no, you can’t drop by to see it.   I will come to you.  Tonight.

What gives?  Why the wait?  Why night-time?   You're right to be suspicious.   A darkened street corner in some public space, really?  You rightly wonder that maybe this person is trying to sell you something which doesn’t belong to him.

You know what belongs to you – your moveable and immoveable goods.  You’d call these your property.  You might have a list of these things stapled to your insurance policy. 

Secondly there are those things which you don’t own but which are nonetheless “your baby” – processes at work which you got rolling, an article you’ve written, an idea, a recipe, a piece of music, even, which you created that you consider yours.  

Lastly there are those things which you’ve been given to care for and to manage – the family fortune, the company secrets, the charter of the Association you belong to.  Whether any of these things belongs to you or not, you still have some sense of ownership over them.

In the third chapter of John's Gospel, Nicodemus the Pharisee pays a late-night visit to Jesus.  He’d know better than to say that he was an owner of Israel’s religious tradition.  But there’s no question that he comes to Jesus this night as a gatekeeper of Israel’s religion - one of its chief stewards – one of its guarantors - one of its border guards, if you like.  Israel’s religion is his baby.  As a religious expert and arbiter Nicodemus could be said to “get” the whole concept of God and to be one of the “go to” people for questions of law-keeping and belonging.  

Tonight Nicodemus believes he’s in a position to sell something.  He comes to Jesus expressing a genuine interest.  The night-time meeting, on the other hand, suggests a guarded caution about what Jesus is doing.  We think you’re one of us, he tells Jesus.  God must clearly be on your side given what’s happening around you in your ministry. 

One of us – one of us. 

Nicodemus presumes to stand in Jesus’ presence as somebody who believes he can include or exclude this itinerant rabbi from the mainstream. He’s offering Jesus a franchise.  And this is where Jesus stops him in his tracks. 

You see this is the deal with God – God gives to whom he wants.   He chooses unlikely partners, he gives to people who don’t deserve it, he decides to start somewhere and points his finger at Abraham wandering with his family at some crossroads on a middle eastern trade route and he says – this one - I think I’ll start here with this one – with this random - and Abraham gets what he needs because he says “Okay – start with me then”  

It’s on your curriculum, all of this, Nicodemus – I’m not telling you something you don’t know.  God gives freely and wants the world to have what he wants to give and here you are telling me that you can cut me in on your deal?  That you can let me have a bit of what you have? 

Ask yourself what anybody’s “property” consists of, at the end of the day.  Your name may be on the title deed but you’re only one of a series of people who has lived at 246 Elm Road across the span of a century.  You’re here and then you’re not.  And notwithstanding intellectual property laws, can anybody really be the proprietor of an idea?  Our conceptions of ownership don’t survive a steady gaze.  Not when we are just dust in the wind.

God crosses the centuries.  Nicodemus must know that.  The spirit of God moves here and there.  God speaks to whom he wishes.  Our drawing of circles around ourselves and our communities, our dividing up of religious resources and our “proprietary” attitude towards the story of God prevents us from being willing participants in the process ourselves and hold others back from being included.   No, Nicodemus, you don't get God - you may not draw a circle around him.  He's not your possession or something which you claim in the name of your tribe or the nation or your collection of right thinking friends.  We are not proprietors of God's Spirit although, on a good day, we might end up being followers of that same Spirit.

We don’t “get God”.  If anything, God gets us.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Things in a bag

The Fifth Sunday 
of Easter
Year B

I have three things here in a paper bag.  Let me pull them out and name them:  jack-knife, envelope, rose petal.  I lay them on the edge of the pulpit - three individual things which, a moment ago, were all together.   They were part of a set.  We’ll call that set 

I can pinpoint, in terms of time and place, the beginning of my mild obsession with the relationship between things: I’m in southeast Alaska in the late summer of 1982.  I am looking at a river.  The shutter of my mind opens and captures the water of Ketchikan creek flowing swiftly downstream to the sea.  The dimly visible shapes of large Chinook salmon can be seen swimming upstream slowly and with determination.  Somewhere in the trees over to one side, a raven croaks loudly from a high perch.  An animated couple ambles upstream along the trail on the other side of the creek, meeting a single person walking briskly into town with his head down.  A fox crosses my path up ahead.  A few fallen leaves tumble in the strong breeze at an angle across the gravel bar.  I am struck by it – the whole thing – no one part of it but the whole together, creating within me a colour or a flavour, a picture, an impression, even a story.  Forty years on I still remember it.  I can tell you about it this morning.

Unrelated things are gathered in to a set.  For a moment, completely one and in relation to one another. 

In our first reading this morning, Philip the deacon travels south because he’s been told to go by the Holy Spirit.   He catches up with a diplomat from the court of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, on his way home, who is seated in his chariot reading the copy of the Book of Isaiah that came into his possession in Jerusalem – a work produced by a people not his own – a voice, centuries old, speaking to him for the very first time.  He is moved by the words but perplexed by the book.  Philip is invited up into the chariot to explain.  They approach a stream - water tumbling over stones, creating rapids and eddies.  The Ethiopian diplomat says “See, here is water!  What is to prevent my being baptised?”  

This handful of things and persons are gathered together in a bag.  God’s will is worked out not by the visible and substantial individual things but by the invisible and insubstantial relationship between them – providing from the mix itself novelty, opportunity and occasion.

Much of the Acts of the Apostles relates the experience of people tumbling through the invisible but undeniable tumult of the Spirit's fresh progress in the world.  Freed from fear and filled with the power of the Spirit, they are thrown together and set upon the road.  The saints emerge from that mixed bag. Communities of faith are cobbled together in peculiar circumstances.   The waters of baptism erode the borders between classes and languages.  The fire of God’s spirit defies conservative and self-preserving tendencies.  Love covers its multitude of faults.  Forgiveness releases people from isolation and loneliness.  What could prevent such a thing from happening?  If you stood in its way you might get knocked over.

Teased apart into their strands, these things mean little.  Seen whole from within as a participant, however, they begin to make eminent sense.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

A ghost does not have flesh and bones...

The Third Sunday of Easter

Year B
Luke 24:36b-48

"Touch me and see; 
for a ghost does not have flesh 
and bones as you see that I have".

Might the story have been easier to grasp if Jesus had appeared to his disciples as a disembodied spirit rather than somebody with wounds and an appetite?  

It’s less of a leap, perhaps, to imagine a ghostly person which is somehow the real person.   The ghostly bit lives inside one’s body for a spell before escaping into the atmosphere or groaning diaphanously in hallways and then disappearing again, floating off to be somewhere better (or somewhere worse).  A default position.  It might be what some of us think will happen to us when we die.   Even the Old Testament has a famous ghost story where Saul and the Witch of Endor conspire to conjure up the ghost of the prophet Samuel from the depths.  Ghosts are not unknown in the traditions of Israel.

But no - the Evangelists present Christ as being bodily present in the midst his disciples.  It’s not an easy circle for them to square.  On one hand, in John’s Gospel, Christ bears his wounds and shows them to Thomas and the other disciples.  In Luke, he manipulates bread and wine on a table and elsewhere he asks his disciples if they have something to eat and, when given a piece of broiled fish, he digs in.  On the other hand, doesn’t he appear once in a locked room?  On another occasion, is he not taken suddenly from their sight? 

He is the same.   But he is different. 

The reaction of his disciples is understandably mixed: “ their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”.

Of what import this bodily life in the economy of eternity?   We both give and receive in our world - in time and space - through the medium of our bodies, our emotions and our voices.  We drink in colour and kindness, smells and textures with these bodies of ours, these brains, these minds and imaginations.  Will we enjoy the warm pong of a smelly Labrador retriever in heaven?  Will we be finished with the combination of fresh rosemary and lamb chops or those gorgeous cream tarts you can buy warm from bakeries in Portugal?  Will any of these sensual experiences be a thing anymore?  

The earliest record (earlier than the completed Gospels by decades) are the words of Saint Paul in 1st Corinthians 15 about both Christ’s resurrection and our own.  With respect to the General Resurrection (of which Christ’s resurrection is “the first fruits”) he addresses the very question which these Gospel accounts pose: 

But someone will ask, "How are the dead raised?
With what kind of body do they come?"

The details are beyond any human wisdom, but Paul’s response suggests that what we sow into the ground (that which undergoes death) is both like and unlike what God will one day remake for an eternal purpose.  What is sown in death is a seed – more precisely a “naked seed” of what will ultimately become the full glory of the plant.  It retains its lineage with the bodily life and the recognized identity of people living in their present world and it is not for nothing that the final chapter of 1st Corinthians caps an Epistle which has ethics and community life as one of its major themes - what the Christian does with his or her body in this life – how that body is expressed faithfully in marriage, how it is presented in equal fellowship with the bodies belonging to those of different classes, races, languages and backgrounds.  None of these things is wasted – neither our senses nor our ethics.   All of them are important.  

We are now the seed, at least, of what we will become.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

So what?

The 2nd Sunday of Easter
Year B
John 20:19-31

Congregations are oftentimes quite small around the world on Low Sunday.  Will we buck the trend at Christ Church?  Let’s see.

Life carries on.  Two disciples trudge along to Emmaus speaking in hushed voices about what the women’s message about the empty tomb could possible mean.  They are organizing their mental response, repairing their mental walls and wondering what the “new normal” is.  In the Gospel reading this Sunday, Thomas sorts out the tumble of things in his head in such a way that he “will believe” A, B and C and “will not believe” X, Y and Z.  Some disciples are planning a return to Bethsaida or Capernaum in the Galilee to get their nets, weights and floats out of hock and to recuperate earlier careers.  Even those who were open to the women’s proclamation that something remarkable had occurred in and around the tomb of Christ might ask the seemingly irreligious and outrageous question which positively insists on being asked here: 

So what?

Did someone win the lottery or have a patent approved for their invention?  Good fortune landed on them.   Well done, them.  You jot them off a message of congratulations and that would be the end of it.  You ask a mutual friend whether she’d heard how Arthur had landed on his feet.  Good for Arthur, your friend says.  It means absolutely nothing to the two of you who’ve never won anything more than a replacement lottery ticket and have had your best ideas thoroughly ignored at work. 

Making practical sense of the resurrection is not a topic for Easter Sunday – that’s reserved for proclamation, invitation and positively basking in the mysterious symbols of new life and new beginnings.   It is a topic, however, for all the Sundays prior to Pentecost so you aren’t going to avoid the issue.  A post-Easter-Sunday sermon attempts to make sense of the resurrection of Christ in some way other than “Good for Jesus”.  We use Jesus’ own words to do this.  His words to his disciples indicate a new beginning for them.  Both his death and resurrection are Pro Nobisfor us and for Creation itself and must be understood in relation to the things of earth:  Money, career, beauty and justice – our attitudes towards friends and enemies and towards our own varied estimates of our strength or weakness, life and death. 

It is the lens through which life is focused for you who are strong and you who are weak, who have gained much in this life or have lost a great deal, who would apply your strength to the best of things or who want to navigate the weakness within and around yourselves.  It means something – this sharing with Christ in his victory over sin and death.  Life takes on new meaning in the light of Easter.  There remains much time in your three-score-years-and-ten for this to be worked out for you as it was worked out for the disciples in conversation with their Lord in the days after Easter Sunday.  

We begin (again) on Sunday.  If you are not elsewhere – I look forward to seeing you.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

“Is risen” or “has risen”?

Easter Sunday
Year B
Mark 16:1-8

Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was 
crucified: he is risen; he is not here

I got a query this week from a young person in Scotland who sent me a picture of this flyer, which came through the mail slot from his local parish church, along with the following:

…a wee question: just saw this in the post and I’m wondering if this is correct. I have heard it before written this way, but [his girlfriend] thinks since risen is past perfect should it not be "has"? I don’t have an answer for her. Any help?

Well, one answer would be that the English language used to construct verbs of movement and emergence by using the auxiliary “to be” in the way that French still does:  

Nous sommes venu,
elle est parti,
je suis devenu.

You can find examples of this in the King James Version of the Bible:

I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ:
when he is come, he will tell us all things (John 3:25)

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,
and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass,
or a tinkling cymbal (1 Cor 13:1)

Archaisms endure in religious language.   We love 'em.  But it’s more than that.

One of the soldiers, say from Matthew's gospel, who’d been tasked with guarding the sealed tomb might have reported to his superiors about the Easter Sunday events that “Unfortunately, Sergeant, he’s no longer there.  He has risen.   It happened yesterday.  It's in my report”.

That same soldier years later in Asia Minor, having been the object of Christian preaching himself, is in church on an Easter Sunday morning.  He grasps his neighbour’s hand and utters the traditional Easter greeting: “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”.  His friend would respond (as will you this Sunday) “The Lord is risen, indeed.  Alleluia!”.  This has nothing to do with old-fashioned language.

The power which animates this life amidst what seems like surrounding disorder and decay is the power of the Risen One.  He is contemporaneously present (in the midst of his people, in the midst of Creation itself, in the Sacrament of the altar and in Christian preaching) as the Risen One – who “is” and not only “was” gloriously alive.   

Men and women of faith look, not to the historic victory of a hero against terrible odds, but to the contemporary presence of One whose victory is also their victory.  From that living presence flows the courage to proclaim the Gospel, to make justice in the Auvergne and around the world and to treat aging and weakness – even death itself - as no impediment to hope.  Such faith animates the ordinary life of the believer.  Death has been conquered in Christ.   My death and yours are conquered in him.

Of whom we say, in our prayers and Collects, that he “ … lives and reigns…..”

Friday, 23 March 2018

This is our story......

Passion/Palm Sunday
Year B
Mark 11:1-11
Mark 14:1-15:47

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday brings together two separate Gospel readings which seem like opposite sides of a coin. 

Before the service, and outside the Chapel, our little community gathers to bless the palm crosses and to hear the story of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem:  the donkey, the waving palms and the jubilant crowds.

Hosanna in the Highest Heaven!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Later in the service, the regular Gospel reading of the day, long and dark, begins when an unnamed woman (in Mark’s version) breaks open an alabaster box of perfume and anoints Jesus.  The anointing at Bethany, for three of the four Gospels, is the opening salvo of the Passion Narrative – a story in which God’s will for the world is worked out in the flesh and blood of sacrifice.  The joyful crowds are replaced by scornful onlookers and Jesus remains largely silent throughout.

The preacher is oftentimes enjoined to preach quite lightly on this Sunday and throughout Holy Week.  What would the preacher have to add, after all?   Let the story do its work!  Let the crowds follow along!

In the earlier Palm Sunday story, the congregation follows physically as they make their way up and down church aisles or, in our case in Clermont, around the little chapel in Royat.  In the later Passion Narrative, they follow again (this time, imaginatively) the remaining disciples, the soldiers, the weeping women of the city and the mother of our Lord as they wind their way through the streets of Jerusalem on their way to Calvary.  What is there to do but to watch and to be there together as this story moves to its conclusion? 

In his betrayal, Judas might have said that he has done what he must.  In his denial, Simon Peter has done what came most naturally to him in a moment of fear and panic.  The crowds appear to have been manipulated.  The disciples are helpless.  Even though Pilate is sitting in the judgement seat, even he appears not to be in control.  The story takes on a form of its own – we will have time to discuss and interpret it – we must first merely take our place in line and follow it as participants.

We are there, after all.  As failed disciples or as members of a pitiless mob or as bureaucrats and functionaries who take the path of least resistance.  We are there. This is our story.  We are there, more importantly though, as the ones for whom Jesus undertook this lonely pilgrimage.  We are the ones whom God loves – the ones he has elected to save despite themselves.   It's our story that way as well.

Any realism which touches on our sin and insufficiency must be underpinned by the larger point of the story:  God decided not to leave us in our sins.  

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Putting the faith of Abraham to the test.

The Second Sunday 
in Lent
Year B
Romans 4:13-25

Do things happen the way that they must? Must things be the way they are? We are used to seeking out necessary causes for things.  What are the necessary causes of bad things?  How might we ferret out and neutralize those necessary causes to prevent bad things from happening?  What are the necessary causes of good things?  How can we recreate those to make sure that more good things happen? 

Give us some control, at least. 

We would avoid magical explanations.   Believing in magic risks bringing us back to a world of leeches, gnomes and fairies.  We had centuries of that.  We’ve had a belly full, in fact.

Faith remains the opposite of certainty for many of the people we know.  We know people who are stuck and can’t move forward.  We may feel that way ourselves.  Faith is a hard case to argue to poor people or unfortunate people or excluded people or condemned people who would like nothing more than a certain path forward or, at least, a damned good reason to put up with the way the chips have fallen. 

It’s what Saint Paul does, though.  He says that the best thing – the only thing – we have in hand is this diaphanous, invisible thing called faith and that it holds the key to what our lives will look like.  Faith in God has gotten people up from where they’ve fallen, it has brought them to where they have no necessary right to be.  It builds community where there should be enmity between factions.  It removes condemnation.  It sets us among the saints.  It's a thing.

Paul begins with a bit of history.  "Abraham", he says, "is the father of us all".  It might not be clear to every modern reader the extent to which these are fighting words.  There are some who were listening to St Paul, or reading the letters which he wrote, who would have said:

I am part of the family of Abraham because of my name, my lineage and my childhood religion.  This man or woman sitting next to me here on the park bench, however, is not of the family, because this person is a Greek or a barbarian.  I am a Jew.   I am necessarily one of Abraham’s children.  I am a son or daughter of Abraham because I must be.  I was born to it.

Paul throws a wrench into this implied necessity:  things are not the way they must be - they are the way they could be when men and women believe that God will do what he says he will do.  

We are all children of Abraham when we do what Abraham did which was:

·        to hear what God promised,
·        to take stock of his own inability to perform that promise on God’s behalf, and
·        to believe that God would, himself, accomplish what he promised.

We are being asked to believe  - to believe that we can be a part of God’s family and can find a place in his Kingdom in spite of who we know ourselves, in our weakness, our exclusion and our sinfulness, to be.  And there is abundant evidence in the family of faith that the barriers begin to drop, not when the conditions become optimal again, but that life regains its fluidity 

because God has promised 
and the human person has taken the risk of believing again.

Believe it?  Put it to the test.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

When words fail...

The Last Sunday After 
the Epiphany
Year B
Mark 9:2-9

If you were to speak about a gorgeous sunset on the Pacific coast of Canada what would you say?  Once you realize that you have fallen in love, how ever would you put that into words? 

On the other hand, what do people do when something terrible happens?  Don’t they oftentimes stand there completely stunned and mute?  They might say, afterwards, “I was at a loss for words” or “words failed me”.

Despite being the second book of the New Testament, the Gospel of Mark was the earliest of our complete written Gospels.  It is an exercise in “explanatory language” designed to be read by Christians rather than “persuasive language” meant to be read by unbelievers (that was the job of people on the ground; of preachers, catechists, evangelists and deacons).  It was an exercise in using Greek words to describe what people had first seen, heard and felt - up close and personal – of making things explicable to a new generation.

Mark’s style is terse.  His sentences are short.  One thing follows another. This happened.  Immediately the other thing happened.  Which led, straightaway, to that other event.   In the middle of Mark’s Gospel, however, amid stories lending themselves to a written record of events, we find the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the slopes of Mount Tabor.  It has been described as a piece of John’s Gospel transplanted into the midst of Mark.  The veil is pulled to one side for an instant.  Glory is revealed.  An ordinary hillside becomes a doorway to heaven - open and mysterious.   It is not for nothing that generations of painters have treated it as their subject for the episode evokes a visual tableau.  Even the words are the slaves of the visual picture which arises in the heads of the reader.  Christ is there at the center.  See him set amid other figures from the Biblical narrative.  The movement was like this.  The light changed like that.  If you think, says Mark, that words will sum it up, dear reader, just look at poor Peter for whom words failed utterly.  In response to his insecurity Peter began to babble – desperately trying to fill in the insecurity of the visual moment with mere words. 

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and
one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

What struck you about Notre Dame Cathedral or the Grand Canyon or a piece of art or for that matter the opening of Brahms’ First Symphony (auditory, and not visual, but which has no words).  What on earth would you need to say to explain your feelings when you watch your little granddaughter?  You’d just point.  Isn’t it obvious? 

Do these things not remind you that the chain of time in which you live – the ordinary things of earth made of flesh and stone and light point to something beyond the ordinary and that to be there in that Presence shining through the ordinary is perfectly sufficient, thank you very much.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Who is the hero?

The Second Sunday 
after Epiphany
Year B
1 Samuel 3:1-20

I’ll start off like many other clergy around the world are doing this morning by shaking off the last remnants of our post-Christmas indolence, port wine and chocolate and remind you what the appointed readings tend to focus on in these Sundays after Epiphany: 

The presence of God – word or light – extends out into the cosmos.

The foreign Magi visit the Christ child – through them God’s gift is extended to the nations.

God “speaks” the day and the night into existence – and all the fish, and the “creeping things”, and the animals – wild and domestic - and, ultimately, even our human forerunners.  What was once formless-and-void takes on direction and diversity at God’s behest.

And today:  God speaks to the boy Samuel and reinstates the voice of prophecy in the land.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls Philip – Philip goes and tells Nathanael – the knowledge of Jesus’ mission is furthered and extended through human activity and interaction.

Ripples, then -  ripples of both voice and light extend out from the speaking source, from the shining source, into the surrounding silence and darkness – sometimes directly from God and sometimes with human agency of one sort or another:  servants, prophets and disciples.  You and me.

And that, Charlie Brown, is what Epiphany is about.  That’s what the word Epiphany means – to shine forth.

Now - speaking of human agents – maybe you have a hankering to be one of the heroes of the Epiphany season.  You might fancy yourself a Samuel or a Philip in your generation – and why not?

Why shouldn’t the young people in our little choir this morning imagine that what they sing and play and even compose could have an earth-shaking effect on how men and women understand the mystery and beauty of God’s love for the world?  Bach did it.  Hildegaard of Bingen did it.  Are you chopped liver?  Why not you? 

Or why shouldn’t the clergy in our little churches believe that God could use the words they speak, the liturgy they celebrate and the pastoral care they exercise to nurture and mediate-into-life communities of faith which would stand out in their generation and serve as a launch pad for revivals of the sort that we have seen at pivotal moments in the Church’s history?  Other priests and ministers in other generations have been a part of such movements.  John Wesley was just a bloke.  John Henry Newman was pink inside.  Why not us?  Why not now? 

Why not you in your place of work, doing what you do, making what you make, writing what you write, leading in the way you lead?   Why couldn't you make the sudden left turn necessary to change the vector of your organization in such a way that people are nourished, enlightened or changed?

You who are raising children – or grandchildren – you’d like to raise them to be truth tellers, light shiners, doers of justice, openers of doors, inventers of new ways for people to live.  And why not?  St Augustine had a mother.  Why shouldn’t you have grand hopes for the young souls over whom you still have some sway?

What makes any of this impossible?

All well and good.  We could be God’s Samuels and Philips in our own generation – or assist in the formation of such people.  Everyone loves heroes.  The world needs heroes.  Bring on the heroes or those who forge them.

But – as you might already suspect – I am about to throw a spanner in the works.  It’s what we do sometimes – cheeky clergy - and today I find it necessary to nuance my enthusiasm a little bit with recourse to our Old Testament lesson from 1st Samuel.

Who is the hero?  Well – the first candidate who sidles up for the honour – the one who first catches our eye -  is that very fellow who will give his name to the book of the Bible - the wee boy Samuel, himself, lying on his bed and hearing a voice calling out his name.  Back home in Clermont-Ferrand our Senior Warden this morning is arranging colouring sheets for our very active children which will, doubtless, show Samuel sitting on the edge of the bed with a quizzical look upon his face because he’s just heard his name called.  Samuel gets up and wanders next door to where old Eli is sleeping. 

Eli is a tragic figure, really – educated and formed to know which way is up and which way is down he has, nonetheless, let things slip rather badly.  The sanctuary he presides over is corrupt – his sons are in cahoots with the parish treasurer to not only rob Peter to pay Paul but it appears they are paying themselves rather handsomely as well.  Samuel asks why Eli called him and Eli says that he never called him and that he must be dreaming.  He tells Samuel to go back to bed. 

God calls a second time and Samuel gets up again.  Eli – what do you want?, he asks.  Stupid boy, says Eli, let me sleep.  Go back to bed.

God calls a third time, and Samuel approaches Eli again but this time it’s Eli who has an epiphany. 

If you’re a cartoonist and one of your characters has an epiphany you usually draw this as a lightbulb appearing above that character’s head.  
Eli’s formation as a priest kicks in. 
Eli suddenly thinks a thought. 
Eli is struck by a possibility. 

Go back to bed, he tells Samuel, and the next time you hear the voice, I want you to say “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening”.

Now, I want you to understand clearly that there is nobody in this story with as much to lose as old Eli would lose if God were to start speaking to his people again after a long silence, or who would find himself as quickly displaced as he would if God were to begin to inhabit his sanctuary after a long absence.

Let that sink in.  Eli is bad and Eli is vulnerable. 

Were he to act in his own self-interest he would provide the young Samuel with earplugs.  He would put a pillow over the boy's face and lean on it.  He wouldn't do the very thing he ends up doing which is to act as a midwife for the truth to come out. 

God’s truth about the love of God for the world, God’s truth about the future of Israel’s gift to the world is, first of all, a word of challenge to Eli’s job, fortunes, family and his performance as priest, caretaker and human being.  

And here I believe I may have answered my earlier “why not” questions about me and about you with some accuracy. 

Why will our music not change the world?  Why will our priestly ministry not cause others to turn a corner?  Why will your work not have the footprint it could have and why will our children and grandchildren not thrive as heroes in their generation?  Part of the answer is that we have one eye on the task and another on other commitments – our comfort, our safety, our habits, our pension and our position.  We have an interest, at some level, in things staying the same.  We are not willing to pay the price. 

Our own self-interest may even interfere with our selfless love of our children.  That is a bitter pill, isn’t it?  Against our better judgement we raise them the way we were raised.  You see it all the time. 

Truth-speaking and light-bearing and life-giving will cost us – first of all – they cost us a great deal and we are all a bit like Eli.  We get up in the morning and see the compromised person standing before us in the full-length mirror and we say “We can get by”.  For another day, or until the end of the week or until our retirement.  We can avoid the wrath of others, we can avoid risk and we can avoid facing up to the full measure of who we have become. 

As my grandfather used to say: “It may be an ugly dog but it’s my dog”.

But hold on a minute. 

Let me remove the spanner from the works and show you what a real hero looks like:   Samuel enters the chamber of Eli a final time.  Eli asks him: “So?  What did he say?”  

The young Samuel prevaricates a little.  He tries to sugar coat things.  Eli presses him: “Spare me nothing.  Tell me exactly what he said!”

And Samuel tells him.  He tells him the whole story.  He leaves no words out.  Eli sighs and leans back against the pillow.  This is what the old man says:

“It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” 

Anyone who reads the story will understand completely that Eli is a bad man but, I’m sorry, it seems to this reader that Eli’s words are more akin to Our Lady’s response to the angel Gabriel,

“Be it unto me, according to your word” (Luke 1:38)

than they are to Ahab’s dreadful cry,

"Have you found meO my enemy?" (1 Kings 21:20)

In spite of himself, his sons and his personal history, Eli has proven himself a hero – perhaps “the” hero of this morning’s Bible readings.  In spite of what our children were colouring on Sunday, the witness of Eli's words will be more helpful to us, here and now, than will sketching out the progress of the young boy Samuel.  

Samuel is precisely that - a boy.  He is a blank slate and none of us here this morning is that person.  To “locate ourselves in the story”, as we should always try to do, would be to ask ourselves the degree to which we are able, in courage and acquiescence, to cease being a block to truth and light by allowing that truth and light to land squarely on us first.  

Our contribution to the life of the Kingdom, to the health of the Church, to the future of our art, to civic society, to the lives of our children and grandchildren depends on just that.  It what folks do.  It’s a thing which can be done.  Much depends on it.

God bless you.  
You have everything to lose.  
You have everything to gain.   

The saints have shown us how to do it.  Even sinful old Eli mustered up the courage.  People do it all the time.