Thursday, December 19, 2013

Matthew 1:18-25    
There are so many people in the Christmas story.  

The combined tea towels and pillow cases of several families would scarcely cover all the shepherds and angels needed to complete the cast of a Christmas Pageant.  Nor is it all nineteenth century invention either, like so many of our Christmas traditions.  There are, in fact, a lot of characters in the stories from Luke's and Matthew's Gospels.  Some of them are mere bystanders, only incidental to the main action.  Others play a central role, enabling (or perhaps even trying to impede) the main action of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

When Tony Jordan, a writer of popular British television, was tasked with writing the screenplay for the BBC's take on the Nativity in 2010 he struggled with the tradition which dressed all these extra characters in "big square beards with sackcloth wrapped around them".  Early television and movie renditions of the Nativity story merely fitted them in where there was space - like we might arrange a set of crib figures, shepherds and Wise Men on a too-small coffee table.

Looking for "the story within the story" he struggled with the characters of "the others" for weeks.  
Late one night, bleary-eyed and with an overflowing ashtray, he came to the realization that the other characters, major and minor roles, were important *exactly because* the son of God came for them - "for you" says one of the angels to a shepherd on a hillside in Jordan's screenplay - this all happened for you.    

And so, as we do every year, we take our place in the tableau.  We read somebody else's words and recount deeds and events which took place during this or that Census in the eastern end of the Roman Empire a long time ago.  We may play the role of one of the major or minor characters in the story, or read the words of the Prophet Isaiah or St John the Evangelist from the lectern, but that's not who we are.  We live here and now, caught up in the lives and relationships we know so well.  

We are us.  All these things took place and were accomplished for us and for others like us.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Philippians 4:4-6                                                                                        

Rejoice in The Lord always.  Again, I say, rejoice.  

This Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday and the candle in the Advent wreath will be pink instead of the usual purple.  So why?

Advent and Lent are easily mixed up.  In both seasons there are serious reflections about the path humanity is taken and the need to return to the straight and narrow.  Lent (in the period leading up to Easter) is more strictly a penitential season where Advent (leading up to Christmas) the emphasis is placed more on expectation and anticipation rather than sorrow and regret.  
Instead of ruminating about our shortcomings we are asked pointedly about our hopes.  
The traditional Introit sung at the beginning of the service of Holy Communion in churches across the ages took as its text the words of St Paul in Philippians 4:4

Gaudete in Domino semper:  iterum dico, Gaudete  

Rejoice in The Lord always:  Again, I say rejoice!    
The future is an unknown terrain.  It contains all the necessary transformations which might spell trouble for us -  loss, change and uncertainty.  But it contains everything which could be the making of us as well.  How we look at the future is important and Paul in Philippians 4:4-6 prescribes rejoicing as the proper stance.  Rejoice!  Rejoice that God is in that future, and that love is there as well - community, friendship and new projects.

This Sunday we are saying goodbye to three of our key parishioners - David, Kathy and Sara - all of whom have been important members of our parish and our community of friends.  We feel and will continue to feel their loss.  They, themselves, have no certain knowledge of what awaits them but we have more than enough reason to suspect that in their future too, God will be there and love as well - community, friendship and new projects.

The same congregation which will witness the departure of these old friends with our blessings will include families who are only now beginning to find their way among us as a Christian family.  We still confuse their children's names after many weeks.  The shoes that David, Kathy and Sara leave behind them will, in time, be amply filled by others.  

The candle is pink because the future which is dawning is good.  
Rejoice!  God will take care of us.    

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Romans 15:4-13

Paul tells his readers in this week's reading from the Epistle to the Romans that a backward glance into Israel's scriptures should give them reason to hope for the future.  If they keep their eyes open to what is presently happening around them in a church which is bringing together elements of society which had previously been at enmity into one fellowship in Christ, they should again have reason to hope for what is to come.

So to where the risk lies:  to the unseen future.  Paul launches into a blessing at the end of the passage.

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."

Belief here is not mere credulity.  Not all whims and hungers will magically be provided for.  You've never promised your own children that.  When you usher your grown children into the world, with some assurance that things will be well, you are not telling them that nothing will ever go wrong.  You are telling them, hopefully, that they now know enough to find their way through.  And that the ideals they have gleaned from the communities of their childhood are valuable.  Most importantly, they are portable.  They can be exercised in new circumstances and within new communities long after grandparents, parents, parish priests and teachers have gone to their reward.  The past and the present prepare us for the future.

So, too, with Paul's description of hope, but with an added dimension.   Yes, those who desire to be numbered among the servants of the living God can harvest from the past and the present exactly what is needed to take the next step in a new direction.  But God, through the power of his Holy Spirit, also walks along with his Creation and moves within the human family he is drawing to himself.

All of the "fear nots" of the Gospels are here present - that whole history of faith which stretches back to Abraham.  We are a part of that history.  What he has done in the past, he will do again.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Psalm 122  

"Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself"  

If you've ever been to Jerusalem you know that the countryside is divided with high walls.  Unity?  How accurate is that today?  Was it accurate during the 20th century, maybe, or during the days of the Ottoman Empire?  How about the Crusades or the dying days of the Roman Empire?  How about the time of Jesus?  Go back even further:  Add the Persians to the mix or the Babylonians.  

You might hold out for some shred of glory and unity in the days of David or Solomon, but I suspect that even a cursory reading of the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings moves more in the direction of Jerusalem being a place of intrigue, energy and turmoil.  Civic and religious unity in the Holy City?  Possibly not.

I can attest to the fact, though, that the city is alive this day with pilgrims.  From all countries in the world men and women meander through the groups of soldiers in east Jerusalem on their way to places which stand, for them, as symbols of wholeness, unity and transformation.  What do they see that the news media doesn't?

We are perhaps looking for the wrong thing. The reality of the world always appears to contrast with the reconciliation God promised to Abraham and with what the prophets saw in their visions. What Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat and what John the Baptist foretold is not negated by the humanity of Jesus and the initial rejection of his message by many. With such a vision of unity (with God and between people) in the heads of faithful people, schools and hospitals are built, sinners are forgiven, strangers are welcomed, the poor are provisioned and nations are evangelized. These are as incontrovertible a series of facts as any disaster on the front page of the newspaper.

We are in the business - you and I, John the Baptist, Mary and King David - of seeing "into things" and not merely describing what has hit us on the head.

Keep your eyes open.  Act on the vision!

Friday, November 08, 2013

Proper 27 - Year C
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 

A project manager?  Of course!  A couple of good hammer-and-nail men?  Even better!  But why would you need a prophet on a building site?  Maybe so God can be heard saying something to the people like the following:

“The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.  The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.”  

This line from the prophet Haggai, beloved of stewardship preachers across the ages, comes from the mouth of one of the Minor Prophets.  Along with his contemporary Zechariah and the prophet Malachi (who lived a generation afterwards) Haggai prophesied to the nation following the return of the Jews from Babylon and during the period of their rebuilding and reestablishment in the land of their fathers.  This week’s reading from Haggai is significantly enriched by reading the events recorded in Ezra chapters 3-6 but particularly from chapter 4 on.  After having received permission and encouragement from the Persian King Darius himself for the rebuilding of the Temple, and having seen the emergence of capable leaders, Zerubbabel and Jeshua, it was the people themselves who began to lose heart and to listen to those voices within and around them which suggested that failure was inevitable.  

Momentum was lost and doubts abounded.

Enter the preacher - the prophet:  What Haggai does here is to remind the people that the resources they need to complete their work and to fulfill their destiny as God's people in the land never really were locked up in the hand of their adversaries after all.  Nor were these cut off from reaching their destination because of the logic of the balance sheet.  The needed resources - in this case silver and gold - were given into the earth by God and God can release them for his purposes.  

Let the adversaries think they control them, then.  God will shake those nations up.  Let the balance sheet say what it will.  The chief weapon in God's hand is his word and the retelling of his mighty acts in the past.  The proper response to God's promise, spoken through the prophet, is courage.  

The project will move forward when the hearts of men and women are turned.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sermon notes on Luke 19:1-10

Proper 26 - Year C
Luke 19:1-10

People who have been bullied over the years may become bullies and abusers themselves.  The Gospel writer tells us that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector”.  Luke is here describing a nasty man in nasty employment.  “Tax farming” was standard practice in Jesus’ time and the job of collecting taxes was outsourced to men who were thugs or who at least had thugs in their retinue.   Of course they added a percentage for themselves.  They were opportunists and bullies in the pay of oppressive powers (the Romans in Judea or the Herodians in the Galilee).  

It might come as no surprise then, given my opening statement, that St Luke further describes Zacchaeus as being “short in stature” - “a wee little man” as the children’s song goes.  One could editorialize the whole episode and see a lifetime’s worth of  payback against his own community - the slow working out of a well-developed grudge.  He remains an outsider but now a powerful and dangerous outsider.  

The story hinges around Jesus’ shouted command to Zaccheus up a Sycamore tree, where he listens to the sermon from a safe but privileged vantage point.  “Zacchaeus!”, Jesus shouts.  “Come down!”.  The community’s (and perhaps the reader’s) expectation is that Jesus will now confront and damn the unloveable traitor and exploiter of the people.  Charismatic leaders do that with bullies - they confront them.  Win or lose they will not leave them unchallenged.  

Jumping to the end of the story, one finds the onlookers robbed of a bloody confrontation and a satisfying denouement.  Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus are a form of confrontation but one which leaves the hated man unbloodied.  There has been no fatal blow.   The “righteous” expectations of the community are unsatisfied.  

What does it mean to be confronted by love, convicted by kindness, bowled over by opportunity or bashed over the head by a second chance?    Any other response on Jesus’ part would merely have confirmed Zacchaeus in his distance from God.  Jesus appears to be interested in change more than he is in damnation.  This interest in the “lot of sinners” is the tax collector’s only hope.   It is the only hope of the gathered onlookers in this story.   It is also the only hope of the contemporary readers of my imperfect retelling of this story.  Our interest in the perfect justice of God might be ideological or even theological.  Our interest in his blessed mercy is intensely personal.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sermon notes on Joel 2:23-32

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh!”

So God speaks through the prophet Joel to communities which have struggled to force a harvest from their fields with little rain. So he speaks to people who have barely been able to retain a sense of vision and purpose in times which are hard - both politically and spiritually. It will all come to pass. The times will be good again.

This time of restoration, with fields bearing the full weight of heavy heads of grains, with sons and daughters fit for prophecy and with old men (and presumably old women) seeing into the depth of things with wisdom and insight has always, in the Christian tradition, been seen in light of the gift of God’s spirit on the day of Pentecost.

First of all the gift is given - it is not confected through human effort and cunning plans. It arrives in God’s good time.

Secondly - the gift is poured upon ordinary human flesh: Ordinary humans - with the rustic abilities common to their humanity - find that their ordinary speech now wins over nations and convinces individuals. Hospitality - rather than being the simple ability to set a table and provide a roof - becomes a spiritual gift.

The Church has always had a table set in its midst.

Our sons and daughters and our old people: Note how those of us who consider themselves at the apex of their abilities as wage earners, parents, movers and shakers are here reminded that God spreads his talents far and wide and that we must look to the edges of our family - to youth and to elderly people to see what God is doing next.

The reading from Joel is both thrilling and humbling - a reasonable foretaste of the Advent season where we will marvel at how God uses whom he wills to bring about the transformation of the created order.

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sermon notes on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7. For expats everywhere

Interesting, isn't it, that God (through the prophet Jeremiah) does not say to the exiles in Babylon that they have been merely hard-done-by and captured by an evil King. He tells them that he, God, is the one who has sent them into exile there. These would have been bitter words for them to hear. They might have wanted more sympathy.

Last week we heard the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 137) from the same epoch asking "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" This week the question is answered.

God says: You will take your sojourn in Babylon seriously. It's where you live now. Your health depends on the health of the city and your prosperity on its prosperity. Allow your family life to be touched by the community you live in and extend your own hand upon your surroundings as well. Let genuine relationship flourish.

Above all pray for the city in which you live and lift up its life to God.

France is not Babylon. America, Canada and Great Britain are not the promised land. One should hesitate to make too direct a comparison between our world and the Biblical world we happen to be reading about. Nonetheless we ought to examine which reflections herein might apply to us:

1) While there are accidents of history (work or family necessities) which move us hither and thither we are involved, as people of God, with a Creator, Redeemer and Inspirer who has always uprooted and replanted his people. He does it for their good and he does it for the good of the world he sends them into. It should not surprise you that you are here with a purpose.

2) The world in which we feel like aliens or visitors is a beautiful world. God wants something for it and you are a partner in that work. You - and not someone else. Here - and nowhere else.

3) Even the symbols which God, through his prophet, recommends - the building of houses, planting of gardens and the contracting of marriages - may mean something for us. What is the visible sign we do, or could, exhibit which shows that we want to belong to the society in which we are presently living?

At the very least let us be curious about this and consider it.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Proper 20 - Year C
Luke 16:1-13

This parable stumps rather a lot of people. Jesus seems to be praising a manager who plays fast and loose with his employer's money. I believe it makes the most sense when the character of the Dishonest Steward is set alongside the characters introduced in last Sunday's lectionary reading:

- A shepherd has lost a sheep and must search for it.

- A homemaker of modest means loses a valuable coin and must spend her day looking for it because she is poor.

- A king, who has committed himself to waging war, is outnumbered and outgunned by an opposing army and must sit down with his foreign minister and figure out what peace negotiations might look like.

I can put this character of the Dishonest Steward shoulder to shoulder with these three individuals and make the greatest sense of this difficult story while squinting only a little bit.

Jesus seems to be plumbing the depths of human behavior in individuals facing threats. In a world where a thing of value risks being forever lost, the human organism rebounds with great energy to face the threat. The shepherd combs the valleys, the woman sweeps out her house, the king sits down to settle his dispute and the Dishonest Steward fiddles the books. Faith's analogue, then, would be this rising up of the organism in the face of disaster - girded for action, thinking quickly on his or her feet and unwilling to take no for an answer.

Jesus poses questions to his followers: Are you willing to follow me? Will you forsake family for me? Will you drink the cup which I drink? Will you leave the confines of your religious subset? Will you endure the scorn of your friends for doing so? If you are serious you will not allow the opportunity of following to pass.

What, then, would the faith of such followers look like? Well, Jesus says, you'll find it in a plethora of ordinary human dynamics. Take this woman, for example - this shepherd, this King or even this steward. See how ordinary people clutch this valuable thing like it was their last and only hope.

Such a valuable thing is God's Kingdom. Such a clutching is the faith of the Church.


An older sermon on the same text (and with some of the same conclusions) can be found here.

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Saturday, September 07, 2013

Proper 18 - Year C
Pentecost 16
Luke 14:25-33

The word “decide”, coming to us from Old French and beyond that from Latin, means to cut something (caedare) off (de) - hence, decaedere. It means to fall on one side of an ambiguity by turning away from the other option. There’s that poem by Robert Frost you read in school about the diverging paths in a forest. If you are a truly decisive person, you will have any number of roads behind you which were not taken and travelled.

See original imageIt depends what you want. As a salesman, in this week’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems not to want to make a sale at all costs. He reminds us, his hearers, that we can have what we want. If we want him, however, and to be a member of the Kingdom which he is ushering in, there will be a cost to that decision. Jesus does not cajole them (or us) with false promises. He doesn’t anesthetize them (or us) with respect to the risks and the costs. He wants us to decide.

Some of us spend rather a long time in those woods looking at the two paths and even attempting to place a foot on each without doing ourselves an injury. We will need to say our “yes” and our “no” to something if we ever hope to get anywhere. We need to come to terms with the fact that decisions are costly.

Being husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, members of a local church and members of God’s Kingdom requires of you a positive affirmation of the life that goes along with that. You might have been surprised at what these roles required - but you suspected all along that there would be a cost.

All your pursuits - your jobs, your family roles, your engagement with the world and your fellowship in this parish church - require, as a first step, not an immediate application of work and energy but, rather, the answer to that nagging question about what you want. Disfunctions may stem less from our lack of native ability than they do from a lack of positive desire. Do you want any of these things enough to walk out of the woods and follow the path?

Jesus puts it plainly: It’s up to you. What do you want?

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Proper 6 - Year C
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 7:36-8:3
(cf. Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8)

This Sunday's Gospel takes three slightly different forms in Matthew and Mark and Luke and a completely alternate retelling in John's Gospel:

Image result for mary magdalene anointing jesusA woman of ill-repute breaks into a dinner party made up of worthy people. She anoints Jesus with costly and fragrant ointment and weeps. The onlookers are aghast that Jesus should allow someone so sullied to have physical contact with him or (in Mark and Matthew's version) that expensive ointment has been so extravagantly wasted.

Is it only my imagination or do notorious sinners secretly save things up: money in numbered accounts or bodies buried somewhere?  It seems to me that they accumulate people.   They gather confederates to keep their secrets and friendly policemen to turn a blind eye. They keep a pot of expensive perfume at home to make their world smell better. They save up alibis or excuses which they rehearse. They must even convince themselves. They collect a series of routes home which bypass the people who know them and could denounce them. In the long run the lies they tell to hide their misdeeds become complicated and interlocking and hard to maintain.

Even those who may not consider themselves particularly notorious sinners will recognize this accumulated burden which they bear around in secret upon their shoulders. It may all become too much - as it did for this woman who, one day, decides to end the pretense. She hears the buzz in the market that Jesus is in her neighborhood and will be eating with Simon the Pharisee at his house. She knows the place and that Jesus is a perceptive prophet. There she will be known and exposed. She will come clean.

 It will all come pouring out.

When we love, testify or confess we spread our riches about. We empty our account. And rather than leaving us bereft, the perfume fills the room. Until this point the road has always carried us away from community, away from friendship and away from confident commerce with strangers. Jesus’ very presence can coax us from the tree where we've been hiding, up from the beggar’s corner that has been our lot in life - into community, into friendship and into forgiveness.

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Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Second Sunday of Easter - Year C
John 20:19-31

God takes his time with us.

He converses rather a long time with Abraham about his plans for his family.  He reasons with Moses, he endures the complaints and the expressions of uncertainty from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.

And so it should come as no surprise, when Thomas sets the challenge that he will not believe until he himself sees the marks of the nails in Jesus' hands and the wound in his side, that Jesus should condescend to appear to the doubtful disciple to clear the matter up.

God desires faith from his people.  Given that all the best things in life are invisible - love, purpose, community - we will not avoid having to, at various points in our life, throw our efforts and our actions behind things we cannot see or quantify. Them's the breaks! 

In order to live lovingly or courageously we need to take a leap of faith.  Otherwise we'd never marry or have children or aspire beyond a small enclosure of assured results.  It would be poverty.

But it hurts a bit - the uncertainty.  We can foresee the possibility of abject failure. 

While God desires such faith from us - in particular our faith in the one he has sent to be a bridge between himself and his creatures - the faith he requires of us is not blind.  We will, I believe, look back upon our years and recognize those moments when God drew near to us in our weakness and made such belief possible and reasonable.  We were not left simply to figure it all out for ourselves.

Doubt is not the absence of faith.  Faith comes in response to hearing the Gospel proclaimed and it is the fruit of a long conversation in which God stirs the pot - filled as it is with the fears and doubts which are proper to human beings.  Faith is the response which issues when the doubts have been discussed and disclosed.

As it was with Abraham.  As it was with Moses and the prophets. As it was with Thomas.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sermon Notes
John 2:1-11

When the wine ran out at the Wedding at Cana, Mary turned to Jesus and told him about it.  

Folks are a bit divided on whether Our Lady was among the angels at this point in the story.  Was she, knowing who her son was, simply letting him know that he would need to intervene in this unfortunate turn of events - or was she was doing what we all have a tendency to do when an over-planned event reveals a fatal glitch.  We comment out of one side of our mouth to the person sitting next to us:

"They missed that detail, didn't they?"  

The technical term is schadenfreude.  Its not a pretty thought. Come to think of it, it's not even a very pretty word.

Its all quite accurate, though.  The emperor truly has no clothes, the diva does have a busted zip at the back of her dress, and the preacher did, in fact, forget his notes.  All these aspired to great things while being, essentially, quite ordinary and fallible.  The Scots have a particularly memorable phrase which sums up such a state of affairs:

"Fur coat and nae knickers"

But do try to be both humble and bold.  It is no credit to the Gospel that we fail to reach beyond our abilities.  

We will continue to ask, undeserving as we are, for our Lord to involve himself in our lives' projects, which are the best we can produce given who we are - overreaching and too big for our boots.   As a congregation here at Christ Church, Clermont-Ferrand, our services will contain moments of confession where we acknowledge our brokenness and the fragmentary nature of our faith and ability.   They will also, however, contain reflections on stories such as this week's Gospel reading which point us to the person of Jesus, who touches and transforms the very matter which fails us and who declares himself, in his actions at the Wedding at Cana, to be the master not only of thoughts and reflections but also of the very ordinary resources we require for life and ministry, health and wholeness - for provision for ourselves and for the world we serve.