Thursday, February 11, 2010

A cloudy day in Castel Gandolfo

The Universal Pope

There was a Montreal eccentric in the seventies and eighties who claimed that he was the Universal Pope. In fact, he had two personae based on the two costumes his aged mother had made for him.

The first was that of an admiral of some sort - a white uniform which might have passed for the get-up of a hotel bellhop were it not for the military peaked cap and the chest full of medals. He was a regular fixture at hockey games at the old Montreal Forum in this uniform - strolling around as "the admiral". Everybody knew him and largely ignored him.

The other uniform was rather better-made and considerably more splendid: A purple cassock with stripes and tassels, a colourful cape and a red skull cap. In this uniform he would wander around in front of the Anglican Cathedral (and other religious establishments as well) and tell the tourists out front that he was the Universal Pope. Once in a while they'd take his picture and have their pictures taken with him.

He would show up at Synod Eucharists and other events, milling around at the front of the cathedral. Al, the Cathedral's verger, would inevitably lose patience with him and show him off the property where he'd wander about on the sidewalk just outside of Al's grasp. A game of "cat and mouse" would then ensue, for an hour or so, between the Universal Pope and Al the verger. Al tended to be "mercurial" and could be hot tempered. It was best not to mess with him.

When the Synod of the Diocese of Montreal elected the Dean of the Cathedral, Andrew Hutchison, to be its new bishop after the retirement of Reginald Hollis, the enthronement was a very grand affair with television cameras in the choir loft, the mayor and other city officials in the front pews and ecclesiastical dignitaries of various sorts in procession. The usual flurry of activity took place with clergy, both greater and lesser, being assigned to their various place in the procession. When the first notes of the Processional Hymn began the procession began snaking in the back door of the cathedral.

No one knows exactly at which point the Universal Pope found his place in the procession but he was in the middle of it, for a short time, bestowing blessings upon those to his left and his right. He never made it farther than about ten paces inside the cathedral, though, because at this point Al the verger waded in and hauled him out bodily.

The most memorable moment of the day was actually not the ejection of the Universal Pope from the procession. It was the rather alarmed look on the faces of the two visiting officials from an "Eastern" church in their full robes and box-like headgear who were clearly trying to figure out what the prelate, ahead of them in procession, had done wrong so that they could avoid a similar fate.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Off on the world's shortest retreat on Lake Albano just outside of Rome. Leaving on Monday and will be back on Wednesday. It's not so much 'retreating' as it is 'nipping outside for a mo'.

A Sermon
Sunday February 7th 2010
Epiphany 5 Year C
Luke 5:1-11

I'm of the generation which learned its measurements in inches, feet and yards.

I know what an acre is. The Rectory here in Penicuik sits on about a third of an acre of land. If you added together the car park and the property the church is sitting on, you’d have about an acre without having to steal much of Nigel Johnston’s back garden to make up the difference.

I have seen a bushel basket. I know how big that is although, frankly, I’m a bit stymied when it comes to what a “peck” might be. I don't know how long a chain is, or a league. That's too ancient. On the other hand, I have no visual reckoning of what a hectare looks like – that's too modern - but I believe it to be some sort of metric acre.

Stewart and Hannah are probably more inclined to think in centimetres and metres.

I am descended from people who’d have known all the ancient measurements. They farmed sections and half-sections of land and could have told a new neighbour how many men they’d need to have around at harvest time to reap the fields and stook the grain on such a piece of Canadian prairie.

When I was a child in school we were told that there was a room somewhere on Parliament Hill in Ottawa where the government kept a lump of lead which weighed exactly a pound. They also had a steel bar measuring exactly a foot and vessels which could contain precisely one pint or one quart or one Imperial gallon.

We imagined an old commissionaire with a funny moustache guarding a small locked room. If you thought that Mr Lee down at the corner store had cheated you on a pound of green beans you could always fly to Ottawa and ask the commissionaire to get up and shuffle around for his keys and let you compare the bag of green beans with the standard pound kept in the room. Just the though of it kept everybody honest.

Our measurements have to be standard and regular and common property. I’m not going to buy cloth from you if your idea of a square yard isn’t the same as mine.

Time we measure in seconds and minutes and hours - days weeks months and years. If you've hit the age when you begin to become nostalgic you might ask yourself: “where was I five years ago? 2005, of course, wasn't it? Where was I in 2000? Or 1995?"

You go back in five-year increments through the eighties or seventies. A bit slimmer you were then, with more hair, married to that one and not this one. But when you change direction and go back up through the list you'll notice that it’s not a satisfactory way of measuring time at all. Measuring your life in regular increments is quite daft, really, and not terribly useful because the events of any life happen in lumps, not in regular steps.

You didn’t have a crisis or a change or a transformation every year or every five just because the clock or the calendar turned over. No, every year is not the same. There is no standard year or decade guarded by a commissionaire in a little room in Ottawa. No such thing exists. Some years, days months and moments are special times - they weigh more and contain more things. They are significant. Some times are lighter and click by with a dull regularity.

In the Greek language there is a word for time which passes in regular increments - the word is "Chronos" and it's a useful word for mapping out the regular time - time without content - time-always-the-same – standard days, weeks, months and years.

The other word is Kairos and it is better translated by the English word "season". A season has particular obligations attached to it and requires that the farmer, the student, the disciple or the traveller be aware not only of its proportions but its requirements. It contains the promise of abundance if taken seriously and approached at the right angle or the threat of tragedy if it is misunderstood or disobeyed.

An ancient tapestry outlines the seasons in terms of agricultural activity in medieval Britain: There’s the farmer in the first panel sowing seeds in the spring. There he is reaping in the fall. There he is slaughtering his hogs in November. We do different things at different times.

At the end of whatever sermon he was preaching to the crowds in the fifth chapter of Luke, Jesus, in the boat with his new disciples, tells Simon Peter to put out a little farther on the lake and to let down his nets.

“Lord”, says Simon, “we’ve done that regularly on the hour and half-hour all night. We've been letting them down. No one can say we haven’t kept to schedule. Each time we brought them up empty. Time and time again. But because you say so, I’ll do it again.”

You know the story. He did it again. And this time they enclosed such a shoal of fish that his partners in the fishing syndicate needed to bring their up boats close and take up the surplus.

It's a story we tend to universalize. Some of us, you see, have made perseverence into a religion and would take almost carnal delight in any story which showed the hero performing a difficult task "just one more time" and thereby reaping a reward. We would bear such a story aloft like a flag and would bore our children and grandchildren to tears with such a story. You might invoke me - or blame me. In fact, that's not what I'm saying at all. But this is not a story which merely praises perseverance.

Everyone has a list of things they've been hammering away at with little success to their enormous and never-ending frustration - things that they've been trying to do for a long time - things which don't happened just because they want them to happen. They've even written to their MP. No joy there either.

And in fact there's not an iota of proof that the one more time will be any more successful than the first ninety-nine. Maybe the frustrating thing you've been trying to achieve for twenty years is the wrong thing to do.

You've been banging your head against a brick wall. Now you've got a bruise on your forehead and bits of brick in your hair. Maybe the thing was ill-advised or wrong-headed. Maybe you should take your wife out to a movie, come home and have a stiff drink in front of the fire. And tomorrow - try doing something else.

There’s another related tendency which folks try out on this passage which is to say that the moment is different because Jesus is in the boat. This is both true and not true. Yes, Peter lets the nets down one more time because it’s Jesus telling him to do it. Don’t we sometimes, though, make Jesus an addendum to what we were doing anyway? We go back to the same old list but this time we imagine Jesus alongside us - Sancho Panza to our Don Quixote- and we carry on tilting at the same old windmills – the same things on our list - but this time saying that we’re doing it in Jesus' name. We invoke the power of Jesus to get ahead in life or make some other provision for our safety and security.

One wishes, again, that somebody had the chutspah to ask us why you think Jesus wants the same things we’ve always wanted. Curious coincidence, no, that Jesus might want exactly what suits us? How does that work?

No, the secret here is to ask what sort of season it is that these people in the boat with Jesus are occupying at this moment in Luke’s story. Forget what they are receiving – what exactly are they participating in?

At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has just disappointed an entire congregation in Nazareth – a congregation in which his family were seated looking decidedly uncomfortable as he preached an inflammatory sermon and then horrified as the congregation rose up in rebellion to drag Jesus from the body of the Kirk. He has moved to Capernaum as an exile from his family home and, frankly, Peter’s desire for a full boat and the desire of the other soon-to-be apostles to pay their debts and invest in new equipment is clearly not the point. By the end the day they will have left all these things – nets, boats and families – and will have become followers. Given that this is Luke's version of the same story which John places at the end of his Gospel, we can safely say that, as far as Luke is concerned, this is the last full boat of fish Peter will ever see.

The point is the Kingdom and its extension. Peter, James and John are being invited out of the boat and into the company of the apostles. It’s not one more fishing day with some added success because Jesus is present.

It’s the end of fishing and the end of regular time with its identical moments, its standard lengths and weights. It’s a new season – a new and irregular measurement of time and space. It’s the beginning of a new life.