Thursday, November 06, 2014

Matthew 25:1-13  

"...those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut."  

A number of Jesus stories concern things which go wrong at weddings.  Guests don’t show up when invited.  Folks show up badly dressed and are unceremoniously tossed out of the banquet hall.  The drinks run out.  In this Sunday’s reading a group of attendant young women was given the job of welcoming the bridegroom back to his house with his new bride through a gauntlet of lighted lamps.  He was late back from the bride's family home where the marriage contract had been signed.  The girls had all fallen asleep and, when they were roused, half of them were unable to fulfill their appointed task because they had forgotten the fuel for their lamps.  Take a seasoned clergyman out for supper someday.   Ask him about strange things which occur at weddings.  You’ll be entertained.    

This Sunday’s parable leaves us none the wiser about wedding services in the ancient world.   The point is elsewhere.  Chapter 24 and 25 of Matthew’s gospel are all about events and reckonings which may take us by surprise.   They shouldn’t, though, because we ought to have been expecting them.   It looked like a nice morning but by this afternoon the gale was howling and our roof blew off.  We thought it was just an ordinary day but then the telephone rang.   Everything changed immediately.  All the jobs we were putting off were suddenly required of us - now - this instant.  Come to my office with the promised presentation prepared.   Show us your accounts and how they balance. Line up your children and have them recite the Nicene Creed.  Feed the dozen people who have just now landed on your doorstep.  You did, after all, say “Drop by any time”.    

Readiness is a virtue in the apocalyptic world of Matthew 24 and 25.  Would you prefer to live in a world where the faith of individuals and communities is an option?  Are you only aware of vague promises about, some day, changing your hardness of heart towards the people around you?  Have you taken a gamble that, eventually, you will try and figure out what the nature of your attachment to Jesus is?    

Do understand that this same Jesus, in a story framed by Matthew the Apostle, is putting the wind up you and calling into question the time you imagine you have.    How you live now tells the story of who you are now.  These things are all crucially important.  Don’t let the clock tick on.  Don't let the door shut.   

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Exodus 33:12-23 

It's been a tough trek.  Stress, anger and uncertainty have been the order of the day.  Exhausted, Moses checks in with God.  Is it alright? ask Moses.  Are we still your people?  Even with the incident with the golden calf and the nonstop discord on the people's part?  Will you continue to lead us God? Moses receives affirmative answers to all these questions.  The whole reading is a bit curious.  It even appears that God is tired of being angry.  Moses proceeds, at this point, to ask a question of his own - one which is important to him alone and seems almost irrelevant to his role as the leader of this sorry band of Hebrews in the Sinai desert:   

I want to see you God.  "Show me your glory"  
The earlier conversation with God is something with which we are all familiar: We lay before God our faults, we lay before him our needs, we struggle to review our situation in such a way (or to change our situation in such a manner) that we can be assured that things are alright.  We have some hope for the future.  We restore a balance.  That is frequently enough.  Moses goes further, though.  "Show me your glory" he asks.

Is this relevant?   

Yes - the knowledge of God is relevant, the enjoyment of God's presence is relevant.  It may be the most relevant thing.  The Presbyterian/Reformed catechism states that "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." Our relationships have a way of becoming identified with the responsibilities attached to them.  To the man or woman we love, and whose presence we enjoy, we are also husband and wife and bear certain duties and obligations.  The children we delight in also need shoes and transport.  They grumble in the back seat and argue with their sisters.  We rejoice in Christian worship and the presence of our brothers and sisters in the Church but somebody on the vestry needs to tackle the knotty problem of scheduling events and ironing out the finances of the parish.  

We might find ourselves, as Moses does in this reading, relatively exhausted by duty and desiring the mere presence of the one we love.  That, I think, would be a sign of health.  God grants Moses his desire.  He places Moses in a cleft in the rock and passes by.  Moses gets the glimpse of God's glory that he needs.  

We need that cleft in the rock.  Where will you find yours? It may need to be consciously searched out.  If you look for it you will find it.  It is a place where we are simply who we are in the presence of the one we love - that man or woman, those children - that first love.  We begin by declaring our hunger for it and reminding ourselves that our chief delight is the presence of the one we love.  While such love will always contain the structures of duty and obligation we have a right to feel the heat of the fire and to thrill in the sound of the voice.  It is completely proper to desire such things. 
Moses does well to ask.  There's more to life than a slog through the wilderness.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Matthew 22:1-14  

Many are called but few are chosen:  Hard to sort out the good news from the bad here.  On the one hand the net is cast wide and the message of invitation is sent abroad widely and comprehensively.  On the other hand there’s a narrow gate and a small and winding path which not everybody takes - to their peril, according to this Sunday’s parable.

Sermons on the passage from Matthew's Gospel which we will be reading have caused more than one sleepless night across the centuries.  Am I one of the few?  Am I on the right path?  In the words of the Tom Paxton song (sung best, of course, by Johnny Cash):  
And I can’t help wonderin’ where I’m bound, where I’m bound I can’t help wonderin’ where I’m bound.  
People are always a surprise--those who seem weak demonstrate great strength in the end and those who appeared most apt and capable give up and cave in.  I have no meter to measure anybody around me in terms of their final destination and how the Master of the Feast sorts us out at the end.  As the song says in its opening line:  “It’s a long and dusty road”.   There is hope in every instant.  

What I am most aware of is that we are all being sorted out right now - in the process of living the lives we do and keeping our eyes on the prize in the midst of a world filled with both the best and the worst of charms and inclinations.  Something is being looked for in us - the turning of one out of a crowd of ten healed persons who returns with thankfulness to the healer, the young men who leave their father’s business to follow the Rabbi, the one hand in the crowd which is raised, the one who says “Me, Lord, that’s me.  I’m the one who wants it, I’m the one who’ll stray off the main road and who’ll stick to the narrow path”.    

I would suggest that teachers and priests, coaches, trainers and mentors all have their eyes open for that one moment when a man or woman breaks from the crowd because what pushes them from the inside becomes stronger than what holds them back or returns them unchanged yet again to the common lump.  

If you’ve been “...wonderin’ where you’re bound” then you know and have felt the question which Jesus poses as he sorts us out in the midst of this life.  It doesn’t bear repeating here.  You may even know what you need to do.     

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Proper 22 - Year A
Pentecost 18 
Matthew 21:33-46 

This Sunday’s parable is one of the “hard teachings” within the Gospels.  I’ve seen it used aggressively in congregations where established historic congregations fail to take stock of the changing face of the neighborhood or where older traditional leadership in congregations have failed to reach out to the younger families looking for ministry and welcome in their local church.  It’s often used badly by young clergy.  They practice “ferocious” in the full length mirror at the Rectory as they rehearse the final lines in their sermon.  Like any edged implement it needs to be taken carefully off the shelf.  It has its purpose primarily to heal and improve - not to cut and bash.    

The setting is that of a middle eastern vineyard which forms part of the estate of a non-resident owner.  He has hired it out to tenants whose job it is to till the soil, trim the vines, and effect a reliable harvest.  The master is here a circumlocution for God.  The vineyard is Israel - a chosen nation filled with the promise of bearing the message of God’s desire to reconcile the whole world to himself. 
The vineyard is fruitful and God is at work there.  Vines grow even in the poor and rocky soil - grapes are produced which would be a source of blessing for the surrounding community.  In the parable, though, the controversy centers around this fact: The vineyard is both the master’s vineyard with a particular purpose within the master’s mind and also the place where the tenant farmers live - where they raise their children and put their nameplate on the door.    
It is mine - says the Master.   
It is ours - say the tenants.  
I will not be preaching this Sunday.  I’m off the hook.    A wise preacher would encourage his or her congregation to fulfill their task of cultivating this vineyard aggressively with an eye to the richest possible harvest but to develop, above all, some genuine excitement about sharing the fruits widely.  Such preachers would encourage wistfulness and realism about keeping a light touch upon our possession of the work in the Kingdom.  Ripe grapes or heavy-headed grain late in the season - they are there to be given away, to enrich others, to feed communities and to be something beyond the bounds of our natural communities.  The vineyard may be a source of blessing to us and to our families.  It does not end with us.  If we force the issue, God will find a way around us.   

Friday, September 26, 2014

Proper 21 - Pentecost 16
Year A
 Matthew 21:28-32

In Sunday's Gospel reading Jesus explains that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are getting into heaven before the Pharisees and the Scribes because they have seen the light and changed their ways.

I was staying with former parishioners from Montreal in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They were out and I was reading a book.  A  campaign robocall came in on the telephone and was picked up by the answering machine.  An election of some sort was going on.  The candidate's recorded message was clear about the shortcomings of his opponent.  There were the usual over-the-top assaults on character but I particularly remember that opposing Candidate X had also offended by "flip-flopping" on Proposition Ten or Twelve or something.  I have no idea what the issue was but it was clear that flip-flopping, in itself, was a very bad thing.

Flip-flop.  Verb.  Je flip-flop, vous flip-floppez, il faut que nous flip-floppions.  Once upon a time, Candidate X had an opinion.  Now he has another.  He is not the man he was before.  I, on the other hand, have not changed my mind. Vote for me.

What has candidate X done?  Has he read a few more books on the subject?  His bright young intern has brought along the latest research on the topic to the morning meeting.  Candidate X has talked to his constituents and realized the economic and political consequences of Proposition Ten.  His changing opinions have even strained his relations with members of his own party.  A good Democrat or a good Republican would be the sort to believe in something like Proposition Ten.  Candidate X, though, has changed his mind.  He now believes Proposition Ten to be a complete dog.  It should be opposed.  

Bring on the flip-flopper, I say.  There's someone I can trust.  Where did we get this belief in the immutability of opinion or in the goodness of people behaving like Newtonian solids traveling through space in never-ending straight lines?  Biographers are forever trying to present consistent pictures of their subjects.  The greatness of the man and woman was somehow present in embryo from the earliest years.  In the words of Dylan Thomas

The oak is felled in the acorn
and the hawk in the egg kills the wren.

You have the right to change your mind.  Jesus is asking men and women to change their minds.  Evidence of such would be that you no longer do quite so well as the men and women you were before.  Your opponents will have a heyday.  Your wineskin no longer fits.  Those who love you will worry.  Your children may regard you with uncertainty.  But it is no weakness on your part.  It may be your greatest strength and the source of your (and others') liberation.

Why have you not changed your mind?  Are you simply not listening?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Proper 20 - Year A
Pentecost 16                                                                                         Exodus 16:2-15 

The Old Testament readings from the Book of Exodus have been quite fruitful these last three weeks.  This week’s reading is no exception.  The topic is the anxiety which the Israelites feel in the midst of their wanderings through the desert after a dramatic escape from Egypt. Moses and Aaron are feeling the full weight of the individual and familial angst. The task of leadership becomes difficult as hitherto forbidden questions begin to be asked: Was the life we led as slaves back in Egypt really that bad?  Was there not bread back home - occasionally even meat in the pot?  We might die out here in the desert.  It could all go so wrong.  

We might recognize an undercurrent of anxiety in our community here in Clermont-Ferrand.  Topic headings might well include:   

- The distance from family members - both young and old - who must face life transitions far away and without us.  
- The loss, in some cases, not only of an income but frequently the vocational world of one spouse who must retool and mourn the loss or suspension of one of the things upon which his or her self-worth was based.  
- Places which were strange, foreign or incomprehensible were once seen on television or in National Geographic.  Now they are all around us.  Our children’s education is in a different mode, perhaps even in a different language.  We don’t understand how the bureaucracy works or even, for that matter, how the shops are set out.  How are we going to find what we want to eat? 

And so there are a few (slightly stretched) analogies between the way some of our lives feel and those of the people of Israel in the desert.  What the heck are we doing here, anyway?  Do we know if it’s even going to work out?    

In Sunday's passage from Exodus the challenge is addressed by Moses and Aaron.  Recourse is made to faith in what God promises: The people will eat both bread and meat because God can provide even in out-of-the-way places.  The second point is a challenge: The people will need to change their diet.  Quails and Manna is the plat du jour.    

God is faithful.  We will have enough.  God provides, but the people must learn to delight in the food which he gives. 

Friday, September 05, 2014

Ezekiel 33:7-11   

There was a choice of Old Testament readings this Sunday and the Rector’s eye fell upon Ezekiel 33 as somehow being “just the ticket”.  Oh, here we go:  wickedness, sin and death.  Clergy are a jolly lot, aren’t they? As the 10:30 AM services at the Royat chapel kick off again for the year might we suspect that a new era of fiery preaching (in a tasteful Episcopalian mode bien sur ) is about to begin?  
Know this, first of all: The passage relates to a growing self-awareness on the part of the people that all is not well with them.  The preaching of the prophet in troubled times has hit a nerve.  They say “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?”

They have come to believe there is no remedy for what ails them.  

God’s question to them - through the words of the prophet Ezekiel - is this:  Why should you die in your sins?  It is not necessary.  It is not the pleasure of God that men and women should find no remedy.  

So it usually goes with the people of Israel in their lower moments.  Life is Egypt as slaves,  life under the occupation of foreign oppressors, life lived with a corrupted religious life or under the leadership of violent and corrupt Kings - it’s just the way it is.  It’s their lot in life.  They’ve made their beds somewhere along the way and now need to lie in them.  Bring on, then, successive and eternal chapters of the same damned thing.

And the question - “why” - well, it’s a child’s question, isn’t it?  Our kids ask it from the back seat of the car with the innocence of believing that one can always redraw a picture if it’s no good.  
Still, it’s a tantalizing question.  The question that God asks the people through the prophet Ezekiel might even nag us.  What is it that ties us down to weakness, failure, sin and unhappiness?  Do we not know of a better way?

“Why’ does it need to be the way it is?    

Friday, August 29, 2014

Lent 3
Exodus 3:1-15                      
Matthew 16:21-28  

Moses got distracted.

It might have been recommendable to keep to the path. With a comfortable marriage and a looming
inheritance all Moses needed to do, to ensure a comfortable future for himself, was to put one foot in front of the other.   He could have meandered into late middle age and a respectable dotage.  
A bush suddenly leaps into flame on a distant horizon and the twinkling catches Moses' eye.  He utters the fatal words:

"I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt".  

Significantly, I believe, God waits until he sees Moses turn aside from following his father-in-law's sheep.  When he sees him do this, God speaks to him, and the story of the Exodus begins.
We have all taken our eye off the ball at some time.  We might reproach ourselves for a misspent youth or a series of bad decisions as young adults.  When we were small and we looked out the window we had a blackboard brush thrown at us by a teacher.  Somebody might have insisted that we pare down our social, cultural or sports activities in order to concentrate on the three subjects most likely to give us the greatest purchase on a stable future.  

When the local minister joined the school for weekly Assembly there might have been a truly remarkable agreement between him and the Head Teacher or school Principal that regular habits of work and stable progress towards a goal were "just the ticket".  Funny how that works.

We will talk this Sunday about risk and uncertainty.  Both the first reading from Exodus and the Gospel reading from Matthew's Gospel throw a wrench into the idea of the stable life gained by increments being the be-all and end-all.  There are things worth wrenching your life apart for. Moses heads off to talk to God.  He loses the life he has built for himself in Midian.  Jesus declares his intention to leave the Galilee and to undergo great suffering in Jerusalem.  The reaction of his disciples is conservative and predictable: Heavens no - stay safe and consolidate what we have begun here.  His words to them extend beyond them to us:  

"...whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it"

I look forward to speaking with you about this on Sunday.  We'll see you there.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Proper 13 - Year A - Genesis 32:22-31

Proper 13 - Year A
Jacob at the river Jabbok
(Genesis 32:22-31)

What was Jacob thinking - standing thigh-deep in the river Jabbok - ushering his flocks, his wives, his maidservants and his eleven children across to the other side because he fears what will become of him when his much-offended brother Esau catches sight of the returning troupe? 

“You first”, he says, to his family

This is Jacob sneaking back from exile - never the gentleman and always reluctant to face his demons honestly.  Perhaps the sight of these little nieces and nephews will soften the heart of Esau once he sees them in the flesh.  And so the family crosses the Jabbok as a potential sacrifice to Jacob’s misadventures.  Our “hero” remains on the safe side of the river.

He’s a tough nut, is Jacob.  God must need to squint to see the Patriarch in him.   Now - at possibly the lowest point in his story - God decides to show Jacob a mirror.  A man (God?  An angel?) wrestles him until the dawn.  The stranger begins to lose the battle but then defeats Jacob with an underhanded move.   At daybreak the man tries to break the clutch and to depart.  Jacob cries out to the ghostly figure in his grasp: 

“I will not let you go until you bless me”

God in the form of a man appears to lose but then wins and becomes the source of blessing for the one who grasps him in hope-against-hope.  You know the story.  You’ve heard it preached in different guises.  The identification with Christ is not lost on the Christian reader.

What about our similarity to Jacob, then?  How much desperate behavior - our raging, our crying, our violation of other people’s space and boundaries, our historic immaturity and our dishonesty in work and play is based on our need to be loved and treasured and our belief that we have not been so blessed? What is the central part of this story - the pivot around which it turns - if it is not the pleading of Jacob to the one who has defeated him.  

I have nowhere else to go.  I have no one else to turn to.  See through my sin and weakness.  Bless me, Lord!

If not God, then nobody.  If not his blessing, then nothing at all.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Genesis 28:10-19a  

Visions belong to spiritual athletes, no?  Don’t they properly belong to hermits and cloistered religious, vocational mystics and prayer warriors?  Do not these men and women deserve visions because they have succeeded in putting away from themselves the sort of grinding wheels which distract the rest of us?

This Sunday’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Genesis contains just such a vision:    A ladder reaches up into heaven and on it the angels of God move up and down.  Jacob was one of the Old Testament heroes.  It all fits - this saintly man off in a desert.  Unlike us, at least.  Better than us, probably.  The stories leading up to, and following, this vision, however, reveal just what a fractured man Jacob was.  He was a thief and a fraud and a coward.  He is like the comic-book brother-in-law who plays fast and loose with his business, even family business, and who you can just about tolerate over turkey and green bean casserole at Thanksgiving.  

His story in the Book of Genesis will, moreover, do nothing but get worse for a while.  Jacob is, however, part of the story of God’s love to his family and to the world which will ultimately share the faith of Abraham’s children and grandchildren.  Unbidden and certainly undeserved, God grants him the grace of reminding him what part he plays in the restoration of the world.  

You may share no DNA with Jacob’s family and yet he is one of your ancestors in the faith.    Read on.  God wins over Jacob.  The earlier vision comes to bear fruit at the end.
What are the wheels that are grinding for you right now?   If your thoughts on Sunday morning were audible whispers what would we all hear?  How much family business?  How much business business?  What about grudges or complaints about what you lack?  What renders you insecure? What made you angry this morning?  

The life of our worshipping community, the Sunday morning panoply of words, prayers, sermons and songs, the ringing of bells and the elevation of bread and wine in ancient formularies - the midweek fellowship between us - these are moments and occasions of grace.  Do not reject those moments when you are seized by some fleeting glimpse of wholeness and beauty and unimagined possibilities.  Though the wheel continues to grind - be tender, even with yourself.  The vision has a purpose.  God can win you over.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Genesis 22:1-14  

The reading from Genesis 22 - the Akedah or “Binding of Isaac” - is a deeply disturbing piece of Scripture.   The powers-that-be down at Lectionary Central have even graciously provided your Rector with an alternative - should he so desire.  It’s from the Book of Jeremiah and I was tempted to use it since, otherwise, that would make two weeks in a row of heart-rending Patriarchal family politics with potential victims (Hagar - Ishmael - Isaac) seemingly put in harm’s way by God and then rescued in the nick of time.  

The emphasis in our story this Sunday is that God intervenes once again to preserve life. This is true.  
That he first colluded in the expulsion of Hagar and her son Ishmael from Abraham’s camp and that he initially commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah is, however, highly problematic.  Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire essay on the Binding of Isaac (Fear and Trembling) in which he retold the story four different times in order to try and unwind the conundrum with only limited success.

Another point of emphasis is that what we have received in this life is all a gift.  It all belongs to God. It can be given back.  This also is true.

But what of the godly origins of the love which should tie us unequivocally to our children, to our communities and to the vulnerable within them?  Is our ethics and our capacity for loyalty something of merely human origins which God would dispense with in the name of religion - as a quotable example of faith?

I must, of course, refuse to spare you from struggling with this text.  Jesus points back to the Abraham story.  So does St Paul.  It contains motifs of faith, obedience and sacrifice which are the building blocks of the Christian faith and cannot simply be expunged in favour of something more uplifting.  Explaining it neatly away would be a lie.  
I didn’t want to be the sort of clergyman who turns hard readings into pabulum.  And so - between now and Sunday - I will struggle to make sense of a difficult text.  

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Pentecost 3 - Year A
Proper 7
Genesis 21:8-21 

Among the hymns of my childhood was the one where:

God sees the little sparrow fall, It meets his tender view; If God so loves the little birds,I know he loves me too.  
As a boy I filed this one in the envelope marked "God is very big and can do all sorts of things at the same time" because, while it seemed very good of God to take care of the sparrows of Winnipeg, it was certainly not the BIG STORY which God seemed most concerned about which was obviously the family of Abraham and his descendants - the whole biblical epic which culminated in the ministry of Jesus and then beyond to the evangelization of the world, foreign missions, etc, etc.  
Sparrows were, at best, a sideline.

You remember the story of Hagar, the Egyptian servant of Abraham's wife Sarah?  She was given to Abraham as a surrogate when Sarah was unable to conceive a child.  She was given to him so that the BIG STORY would continue in spite of Sarah's barrenness.  And then Sarah, miraculously, becomes
pregnant herself and so Hagar and Ishmael, her son by Abraham, are cast out of the camp.  The scene in Sunday's reading is poignant: alone and without support, food or water, Hagar lays her boy beneath a tree and retires to a distance so that she will not need to witness the boy’s death.  She lifts up her voice and weeps.  And God hears her.  He points her to the immediate satisfaction of her needs - a well of water - and to a future which had not existed prior to his intervention.

You've been there.  So have I.  

Our particular desperate corners - our crises, our illnesses, our family problems - do not appear to be part of the BIG STORY.  God has more than one script, however and when things appear to be lost, the game to be over and our goose well and truly cooked, we may be heartened by the fact that the testimonies of countless thousands across the history of the Christian faith begin at precisely there - at that moment of imminent or certain loss.  We cry out to the only one who can save us.  Grace is shown to what is small and cast away.  The sparrow.  The marginalized servant woman.  You.  Me

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Acts 2:1-21 

How do we change the world?  Or do we ever change it?  Maybe the world is a big stony thing which just "is" the way it is.  We adapt to it.  We wiggle around it.  At our worst moments we don a pair of rose colored spectacles and delude ourselves about it.

The Day of Pentecost was a world changing moment for the early Church.  The manifestations of the Spirit's movement - an audible sound of rushing wind and something like tongues of fire which appeared on the heads of each of the praying disciples - were matched by a change within them as they were suddenly equipped to minister within a world which had not, outwardly speaking, changed at all.   Yet threat had now turned immediately to opportunity.  The tendency to keep to themselves and protect the centre was now transformed.  They turned to the world around them - a field ready for the harvest.

The world may be the way it is but the people who live in it can change.  

They can come to themselves.  They can undergo transformation.  They can repent and be restored.  They can renew their commitments.  They can have epiphanies.  

It is the experience of the Universal Church across the centuries that men and women who have been touched by an experience of God do transform the world around them.  Much of what we now take for granted, in terms of structures of care within our societies, began with the spiritual changes which took place in individuals and communities whom God had touched and changed.  The stone dropped into the pond made ripples.  The wind moved the branches.  There was an effect.  It is my pastoral experience as a priest of the Church that the stony and immovable world is a very different place when people develop a sense of purpose and develop a capacity to reach out to it in love.  

The lives of those Pentecost disciples were rarely easy in the years which followed the events recounted in the Book of Acts.  

The world, however, has never been the same.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Acts 1: 6-14 

Have you ever been nagged?    Has somebody ever asked you more than once to do the very same thing?

The disciples ask Jesus the same question over and over again.  Two disciples on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:21) had mentioned to their mysterious co-traveler how they “had hoped” Jesus would be the one to “redeem Israel”.  Here in Acts, gathered together with their Saviour, somebody broaches the subject one last time:  “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel”?  Behind the question are, of course, the aspirations of a people who have been long oppressed by foreign powers and are warm to the recurrent myth of a political Messiah - a mighty figure like King David - who would put the foreigners out and restore a purified religion to Israel.  

Jesus response here in Acts is both a no and a yes.  As is so often the case, they have misunderstood the import of Jesus’ work on earth.  Their question is narrow and worldly.  Israel is a means, after all, and not an end.  Will Israel regain political sovereignty or achieve preeminence over its enemies?  That is not the point.  The power that is promised to the disciples is bigger and better than that.  It is altogether different.

It is not, however, a “no”.  In the relatively short term, Jesus will redeem Israel’s task and restore, to a remnant, the heart of Israel’s vocation which is to spread the knowledge of God throughout the world.  By defeating the Romans?  No, in fact, a comprehensive network of Roman roads will be used to spread the Gospel through the words of the witnesses to Christ’s resurrection to the ends of the known world.  The Greek language with which the Romans still communicate with vast swaths of their empire will be the means by which the stories of God’s love are extended throughout that world.  The friendship of God will be preached to the ends of the earth.  It will all work out magnificently.
Much of what we badger God about in our prayers has to do with the restoration of what we think we’ve lost.  Might God not prompt us to look beyond a narrow path of unmet needs and recurrent short-term hopes.

It is a bigger and much broader road which the saints have walked.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

John 14:15-21  

With reference to the wind, the poet Christina Rossetti wrote:  

Who has seen the wind?  
Neither you nor I.  
But when the trees bow down their              
heads   The wind is passing by.  

The invisibility of wind - the ordinary insubstantiality of air - is contrasted to its ability to affect and change the environment.  It bends trees, shapes landscape and casts the water up into waves.  Jesus used the image once to good effect with Nicodemus.  The wind has its own origins.   It rises unbidden.   It changes direction.  It blows where it will.  The frustration of Nicodemus is palpable in the face of this metaphor.  He might well have preferred to be told who God is rather than what he is like.  Nothing is given to him which he can control and file away in the way he wants to.  In this week's Gospel reading, Jesus says to his disciples that he
"...will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever." 
He ushers in yet another metaphor - that of the Advocate.  Here again, we are promised something yet still effectively denied the ability to define things with enough precision to control what will happen.  On this Sunday, when we gather as adults and young people at Christ Church to hear the promises of Christ to his people, we might well seek out a word which is clear about what the future will look like for us and for the ones we love best.  What are we getting into?  What will become of us?  What will become of our young people?  What Jesus tells us, instead, is that his people will not be alone.  God will be present to them in his Spirit.  He will intervene for them.  He will give them the words to speak when they need them.  He will stand between them and the consequence of human sin.  He is on their side.

Like the disciples gathered with Jesus at this point, God's people stand together at the beginning of a life of faith.  You are embarking on an adventure.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

John 14:1-14

There is a bumper sticker I saw once that said  “The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it”

There are no fewer than 98 instances of the verb “to believe” in John’s Gospel.  There are  invitations, as in this Sunday’s Gospel, to begin to believe.   There are as well, descriptions of individuals and crowds who had, in fact, come to believe over the course of the Gospel.  Where the bumper sticker seems to be describing someone who is the way he is and will remain so forever, belief in the New Testament describes a more dynamic process.  People come to believe because of Jesus.   They change their beliefs about God because of Jesus.   They are forever changed because of something Jesus has said or done.   Something has welled up within them in response. 

It’s a word we use in common language in a number of ways:  “believing that” something is the case is a very different thing than “believing about” or “believing in”.   We tend to be a bit promiscuous about the things we “believe in” - ideas mostly - which we inherited or have come to believe in as a way of making sense of the world and identifying ourselves within it.  Free Enterprise or Universal Health Care or the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God - things that are “believed in” tend to sprout capital letters with time.  It is perhaps natural that belief in God or belief in Jesus might be things we file away in the same envelope.  Are these not beliefs which define our families or perhaps, even, our national communities?  From these beliefs “in” something, certain actions and attitudes will proceed which are consistent with such beliefs.  We would like to be consistent in our beliefs.  That may be why we stick bumper stickers on our cars - just in case something new and unclassifiable comes into the room and we forget and change our minds.

And there’s the rub.  Belief in the Gospel leads to departures and changes - not the endless reinforcement of old slogans and the adages we learned at our grandparents’ knees. 

Are we flexible enough?  Are we open enough to believe?

Friday, May 02, 2014

Luke 24:13-35

Luke describes events on the road to Emmaus, near Jerusalem, where Jesus broke bread in the midst of two disciples and opened their minds by his exposition of the Scriptures. The downcast disciples were heartened by the encounter and went on their way much improved. A clergy-person might feel tempted to own this scripture passage.

Word and Sacrament? In the space of an hour or so? It's about us, innit?

Don't we strive to be this sort of "point on the journey" for our parishioners? Wouldn't it be great if, on next year's Annual Parochial Return, I was able to report that most our our membership had gone from "Wandering Uncertainty and Deep Perplexity" (line 6) to "Blessed Assurance, Expectation and Commitment to Living the Resurrection Life" (line 8)? Alas, I do not think Saint Luke is plotting out the shape of a perfect church service or a parish's program year. Yet there is an important point to glean herein.

Jesus is inordinately interested in what the disciples are already talking about. He asks them about it.: "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" He is more interested in them than we are, oftentimes, in our own people. Where did we develop the bad habit of treating the visitor, the new member or the "passer-through" as a bank slate - a tabula rasa, if you will - upon which we impose the indisputable goodness of the creeds, the Mass, John 3:16, the happy life of our parish, bells, hymns, incense or the compelling brown eyes of the Rector?

A shining light of revelation which dismisses human concerns, hopes, griefs, joys, errors and aspirations and takes them off the table with one sweep of the arm is a truly limited affair in the Bible. You don't find much of that. Most of the encounters God has with people are genuine conversations. We already know that the years of struggle or inner turmoil which precede our own healthy forward steps are not negated when we do, in fact, step forward. They are a part of the process. We may be better off afterwards but we are still the struggling person God met when he or she was still struggling.

He reasoned with us over time. He met us on the road. This is evidence of love and it made the next part possible. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

John 20:1-18                                                                          

What have you witnessed?  

It's the sort of question a police officer or a judge might someday require of you - that you describe, audibly or in writing, the details of what you have seen or heard at a particular time and place.  Memories play tricks and entropy takes its toll even on recall.  Sometimes it takes the collected memories of a series of witnesses before the real story can be reconstructed or the reliable core of the story can be established.

Know this, though:  a small number of disillusioned and failed followers of an itinerant prophet from Nazareth were transformed, in a very short time, into agents of hope.  They transformed their world and went on to refashion ours.  Resurrection not only "was" something - with reference to God's raising of Christ on the third day - but it "meant" something.   We know its reality not only in the collecting of testimonies from the four Evangelists but by the history of what followed.  

When you throw a stone into the centre of a pond the ripples travel out to the edges.  Truth is spoken to the powerful by humble people who, seemingly, have no fear.  The great persecutor of the early church becomes one of its chief apostles and advocates.  The boundaries which separate the wealthy from the poor, the Jew from the Gentile, fade away.  God has not only raised Christ from the dead, he has raised us as well.  This power over death and meaninglessness is extended to the lives which we lead.

What the disciples saw, and heard and touched with their own hands will be the subject at hand this Sunday.  That is only the beginning.  The Sunday readings between now and the day of Pentecost move into what this unique event means for his followers.  Christ in his resurrection is "the first fruits" of a harvest to come.  "Christ is risen....and so.....".  What has happened now to you (and what will happen in the future) is part of the story.

The invitation to live abundantly has been extended to us as well.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Matthew 26:14-27:66

This Sunday we will distribute the reading of the Passion Narrative of St Matthew's Gospel amongst various readers.  It's not because we can find no one energetic enough to do the whole thing him/herself.   Nor is it the Rector's latest collectivist plot to distribute work and privileges across the widest possible community of people.  It is simply a very old tradition that the historical participants in the Passion of our Lord were people like us and that we should reflect our own involvement in the story - even our own implication in the events surrounding the betrayal, the denial and the crucifixion of Christ.

Odd?  A bit of a downer? It has been one of the darker sides of Christian history that we wonder aloud whose fault it was that Christ was betrayed, denied, rejected and crucified.  We divide up characters into friends and enemies - distribute white hats and black hats.  It was the Romans, it was the High Priest, it was the Jews, it was Judas.  Those whose misfortune it has been, across the years, to be at odds with an ascendent Church, a Christian prince or at odds with whichever faction of the Church was doing the choosing found themselves cast in the role of those deserving punishment from below and from above.

It has provoked, historically, violence by Protestants against Catholics, by Catholics against Protestants, by Christian rulers and ordinary Christian townsmen against Jews, by Crusaders against Muslims - the list goes on....  Who today would we cast into the role of Christ's enemy?

The Gospel writers are at pains to express to us how Jesus was essentially alone at the time of his crucifixion.  His mother and St John are present but the rest of his coterie are soldiers and thieves.  The Galilean Springtime is over.  The happy crowds which accompanied him through the gates of Jerusalem have scattered.  Judas has betrayed him, Peter has denied him.  The other disciples are laying low.  The Gospel writers, in the power of the Holy Spirit, look across the ages at us to let us know that it is human nature which conspired against God's work and effected these events.  The story continues to be the story of what God has himself done on behalf of a guilty humanity.  It is not the story of a few who were discovered, in the end, to be virtuous.

And so we take our parts.  We are that disciple who betrayed his master and snuck out into the night.  We are that disciple who denied his Saviour, not once but three times.  We are the crowds who were there one moment and then nowhere to be seen when the fancy struck them.  We are that mid-level Roman bureaucrat who cynically put expediency above right.  It is not them.

There is no them.
It is us.
We are Pilate, Judas and Peter.
We are the crowds.
This Sunday we take our parts.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

John 11:1-45      

There is a pious legend that Lazarus, after Jesus raised him from the tomb where he'd lain for four days, never smiled again during the thirty years he remained alive on the earth.  It had something to do, apparently, with the imprisoned souls he'd seen in Hades while he was there.

The story of Lazarus' rescue from the grave is the final of a list of seven "Signs" which Jesus accomplished in the course of his earthly ministry as John relates it in his Gospel.  From the changing of water into wine in the second chapter to the raising of Lazarus in the eleventh, the Gospel is doing the opposite of what we used to do in Primary School when we were small.  Our activity was called Show and Tell.  We would bring some physical object into the class and then tax our vocabulary and narrative skills by telling the other boys and girls what the thing was.  John, in the Prologue, which we are possibly most familiar with from services of Midnight Mass or the end of Nine Lessons and Carols, tells us, right at the beginning, that Jesus is Word, light, power and love.  

We have the telling first.  

What follows in the Gospel are the signs - the showing that this is indeed so.

We carry the narrative of salvation with us.  These are words and stories which we know, if not by heart, then in the back of our minds.  Occasionally when reading or referring to a particularly well known Scripture in church on Sunday I see your lips move.  I know you know them.   In these seven signs, but even more so in the evidence of the testimonies of men and women across the ages, God takes these words and makes them flesh.  Water becomes wine, the sick are made whole, the outcast is welcomed in and the impossible task is accomplished.  

Sunday, March 30, 2014

1st Samuel 16:1-13     

Seven sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite are each paraded before the prophet Samuel and no, it appears that none of them is quite right.  God himself had told the prophet to anoint, as King, the one that he would point out from among Jesse's sons.  The passage from 1st Samuel relates an ongoing interior conversation between God and Samuel as the boys each walk by:  

"No, not that one - and not that one.  Still no joy - this isn't him either."  

Jesse is unaware of Samuel's deeper purpose.  He simply presents seven of his eight sons to a visiting prophet - a great man - who has paid them the honor of a visit.    Jesse brings out the cream of his crop: strong boys - articulate and presentable.  David, the eighth son, could reasonably be kept out of sight in a supporting role.  After all, somebody needs to cover the chores and duties of his older brothers. It is this forgotten eighth son who Samuel eventually calls for.

As a group, all three readings for this Sunday take discernment as their theme - either the choice in discerning a forward path or the wisdom in discerning why things work out the way they do.  It's Lent: We'd do well to ask ourselves why we make the decisions we do and set the priorities we live by.  How do we make decisions for ourselves and for others?  How do we listen to God?  Do we, in fact, have that many options about how to conduct our lives?  

We would be challenged, by this first reading from the Old Testament, to ask ourselves what we do not put on the table when we chart a forward path.  What do we discount because of prejudice?  What do we forget or neglect to mention because of shame?  Our friends and our enemies are both curious about the things we avoid in conversations.  Employers will always ask specifically about items we gloss over on our CV.  Try as we might to avoid the subject, our parents will always identify the one bit of homework which hasn't been done.  That's what's important.  That's what piques their interest.
The Old and New Testament are shot through with stories of God doing great things by using, as his starting point, what has been forgotten, neglected, overlooked, avoided, scorned or fibbed about.  The raw material for your next step may already be on your person.  You shouldn't be surprised to find it in your back pocket..

Thursday, March 20, 2014

John 4:5-42 

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is an unusual conversation.  
Jesus is, first of all, not on his home turf.  Traveling from Judea in the South to Galilee in the North he could easily have skirted Samaria - as pious travelers frequently did if they were concerned about coming into contact with something or someone which would render them unclean.  Jesus takes the short route and ends up in a Samaritan town called Sychar at high noon.  

He is out of place - a solitary Jew in a Samaritan village with his disciples gone off on an errand.  A woman shows up at noon to draw water at the local well.  The woman in the story is also out of place. This is an unusual time for her to be doing this sort of thing.  Her contemporaries had all been by the well the cool of the morning.  It might indicate someone who was disorganized in her household habits or, as is mostly likely the case, somebody who was sincerely hoping not to bump into anyone she knew.  Women talked when they were together at the well.  The woman in our story has a chaotic life story.  Other women  at the well might have talked about her.

Jesus doesn't care that she is a Samaritan.  He doesn't even seem completely perplexed by her complicated personal history.  He asks her for a drink of water.  She rambles on - nervous and bemused at being spoken to by a stranger.  She's even prepared to enter into an ecumenical discussion about the differing practices and holy places of the Jews and the Samaritans.  Jesus dismisses these bluffs and platitudes as religious nonsense.   He proceeds to tell her exactly who she is and who he is and what might ensue should she ever come to her right mind and ask him for the gift of life - summed up in his words about Living Water.

So many of the transforming moments in both the Old and New Testaments occur when the comfortable safety of stable and respectable life is either lost or set aside.  The character in a biblical story about transformation is more than likely to be a wanderer, a prisoner, an expatriate, a social outcast or a solitary seeker.  

You might not seek such a life for yourself.  If it is thrust upon you, however, take heart.

Unaccustomed times and places are putty in God's hands.  

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A Liberal Application of Ashes

Are they for everyone - this plate of dirty ashes on my desk?  Some of us don't need to be reminded that life is short and human nature flawed.  I'm seeing, right now, the faces of those I know to be struggling with the deathward stance their lives have taken.  They are beset by acute or chronic illness or are enduring the death of a primary relationship.  They have found themselves sidelined in their employment or vocation.  They are caught up in their own or somebody else's deep moral flaw.  They find themselves burdened by the emotional weight of jobs in which, frankly, they've seen too much.  What more could their parish priest possibly add as he advances upon them this evening at the beginning of an Ash Wednesday service with a black and dripping thumb:  

Roger, you are dust.  To dust you shall return.  Thank you, Father, I knew that.

If the gesture were an assault upon stupidity or shallowness then this would only apply to a narrow slice of humanity who could, I suppose, be especially invited to a service confected just for them - in the ascendent at work, regulars at the gym, perfect children and a perfect house, devoid of questions, doubts or depth.  A liberal application of ashes accompanied by words reminding them of the shortness and uncertainty of human life might, I imagine, provide a theological vessel into which future experiences of failure and contingency could be poured.  But only once these things had happened and once they could be believed.

No, I would submit that these ashes are for everyone - even for the majority of us who are reasonably well but who have been around the block.  They represent something other than the Church's presumption that people aren't aware how life's building blocks are pretty basic stuff - oil and carbon scraped off at the end with a little fluff and lemon juice.  Instead of being bad news about the lives we lead, though, they point us to the value of those lives by providing a frame.

The artist painting a picture of the Puy de Dome or the Pentland Hills or the Mostar Bridge does not have the liberty of including in his painting everything to the infinite right or left, to the utter east or west.  The painting has a frame which defines what the subject most definitely is and ensures that it is not some other thing.  Without its frame life is, at best, undefined.  We are dished out a certain amount.  In the bottom of the bowl is our meat and veg.  Our portion, generous or slender, is not infinite.

It is my experience of people, in the wake of a funeral, that they feel disturbed.   The immediate loss is in the process of being digested and understood.  But beyond any feelings of sympathy or empathy for the family of the deceased and beyond even the loss of somebody loved and valued, there is a nagging recognition of life's ticking clock.  Have the requisite colours been added to my painting - here in this 56th year of life?  What about the broken relationships which have never been mended?  What about the phone conversation not initiated or the letter unwritten?  What about the vow to straighten up?  What about the youthful promise to be courageous?  What about the midlife determination to recover that courage?  Having thrown our handful of earth into the grave we brush the dust from our hand as we walk back to the car.   We return from the Ash Wednesday service and wipe the smudge off our forehead with a soapy washcloth.  

We are the living.   We are the mostly healthy.  We have years left to us and, while there is still time, we have the means to value better what we have within our frame and within our bowl.  A sharp message about life's meagre span grants us the gift of a lifetime.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Matthew 4:12-23  

 The broken down houses in the village of Bethsaida at the north end of the Sea of Galilee highlights the loneliness of the place.  It's been abandoned for centuries - this town of Andrew and Peter and James and John.  Everyone has gone.  One of the lonely houses here has been identified as the House of Zebedee the fisherman - marginally bigger and perhaps more prosperous than the neighboring buildings.  In fact, one of the loneliest characters in the New Testament must certainly be "old Zebedee" himself in this week's reading from Matthew's Gospel.    

 Zebedee began his day in a boat by the Sea of Galilee with his two sons James and John.   He finished it alone after the two boys stepped out over the gunwales onto the beach and became followers of Jesus.  They formed part of a coterie of men and women following Jesus who proved a disruption to their extended families, who broke out of their niches in village hierarchies, who disappointed their parents and who ceased to function within their guilds and syndicates.  As such they wasted an education and abandoned whatever promotions they had received to this point.  Nothing was ever the same again.  Not for them.  Not for their families.

 They might have been called quitters or splitters or leavers.  Someone out there, no doubt, considered them an utter waste of space.

 Now old Zebedee has no one to fish with.   That's a shame.  It's not by accident that the reader feels the poignant loneliness.   He could not possibly have been made to understand that his sons had left something good for something better.  His boys were simply up and gone.

     These opening chapters of the Gospel are about exciting times - Jesus is calling together his band of followers.  We are here reminded that we can start again in the midst of life - that the call of Christ comes to those who already have a history - that there are none of us nailed into place.

But every "turning to" is a "turning away" and every "yes" is a "no".  How many doors have you shut in your lifetime?  And do you regret these departures?  In your cleaving to Jesus, in your excitement about his words and your recognition of the compelling part of his character which seemed to call you out directly, were you at all conscious that you were leaving something behind?

 Did you hear the door click?