Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sermon Outline
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 - who he has imprisoned in the dungeon. One thing leads to another and Herod is forced, because of his passions and the public vows he has made, to behead John in his prison 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 plate to Herod's table.

 It is, I might add, a particular favourite of Edinburgh schoolboys brought on outings with their classes to the Galleries.

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

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.

And this would be a good and efficient thing to do unless, of course, things were seriously amiss in our households and in our souls. That nagging voice would the be the best thing about us and not the worst - a voice which we would silence at our peril.

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Monday, July 09, 2012

Pause For Thought
BBC Radio 2
June, 2012

It’s a religious platitude that we bring nothing into this world and carry nothing with us out of it at the end. As anyone knows, however, who has moved house we seem to do our level best to compensate for this state of affairs by accumulating an incredible weight of stuff during the middle bits between our arrival and our departure.

Where does it come from?

There are presents given to us by people who obviously don’t know us very well: Books we have no interest in or executive toys which we are too busy to play with.

Then there are the outdated things. Our interests were different, once upon a time, and we collect things associated with a particular hobby and pursuit. And then we moved on and lost interest but all the trinkets, the tools are still there in a box marked “Miscellaneous – Very”. Outdated too are the ill fitting clothes which we once looked good in before the outward development of the belly out front and the backside out back. We’d be embarrassed to try and shoehorn our way into these old clothes.

In both cases these things no longer match our shape or our interests. They are no longer part of who we have become.

Moving house – like many forms of spiritual discipline – is a stripping back of the illusion of who we – or other people – thought we were. We get rid of what is not us – and so we get closer to the truth – the truth of what we have genuinely become.

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Pause for Thought
BBC Radio 2
June, 2012

I have construction going on next door.

It’s never much fun for the neighbours - the incessant clatter and the work vehicles blocking the road.

I live up at the end of a quiet street. The quiet was always something very attractive about this posting. All that ended when they started gutting and rebuilding the house next door. We’re told that they couldn’t get planning permission to raze the place to the ground. The Council insisted that something of the old remain. I imagine the construction costs are just as large. They didn’t rip the house down and build again. It will be a new house based on an old frame.

Many of us are given the option to reinvent ourselves a couple of times in adult life. Following a major life change, a divorce or a bereavement – or because we arrive at a point of life where we recognize that we could change tack completely.

The children have moved out. The dog has died. And so we take up the challenge.

How do you rebuild yourself when you have the option? You may want to keep a few things

When you remove the mouldering wallboard and strip off the roof, rip out the mixed hedge, knock down some of the interior partitions and make larger more functional rooms – is it the same house just because the exterior walls are standing.

We are all something old and new – there are a few fundamental principles which we want to retain – a few basic ideas about the universe – about family – about love, faith and generosity which we will continue to anchor ourselves in. Our house is not something so much like a house of cards that one change will cause the whole thing to tumble down.

The dreadful wallpaper, however, is optional – as is the layout of our small rooms which were never adequate to house all the people we love or to host the experiences which we value.

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Pause for Thought
BBC Radio 2
June, 2012

It’s my baby!

Not, of course, that it’s an actual baby complete with pram and rattle.

It might be our job we’re talking about or the book we’re writing. It might be our role as chairman of some local committee or our involvement with some activity or group of people that we’ve committed ourselves to for a period of time. There’s nothing there, mind,which excludes the child we’ve raised, fretted over, chided and bored to death with our stories. It’s just that the metaphor is moveable. It can be widely applied.

As is the case with all things or people we are important to, we sometimes forget that we are not indispensable. If we suggest to ourselves and others that without us they could do nothing – that we are their beginning, middle and end – but this, more often than not – provides an occasion for us to be dropped gently on our backsides.

We announce that we are moving on and find ourselves surprised how quickly our former colleagues and our employers put the ad in the papers advertising the position and call a meeting where they discuss our attributes and our shortcomings. They make an honest assessment of the past few years and decide that not only do they want to do as well when we are ultimately replaced. They would like to do better. It is no longer our baby.

And what about our real honest-to-goodness babies? Even they – it would seem – need to develop apart from us. Too soon they begin receiving sustenance from sources other than us – start keeping their cards close to their chests. They discover mentors who are not their parents and ways of life which are not in keeping with what we want for them.

All good work takes on its own life – and a building block of wisdom, it would seem, is that we are participants in the Cosmos and not the authors of it. The people and the areas of work we love have their own life – they always have – and we would be happier keeping a light grip on it.

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