Sunday, February 16, 2014

Epiphany 6A The perils and promises of a great potential.

I wonder how many of you remember the Peanuts comic strip with Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Pigpen and Snoopy? In one of my favourite’s, Charlie Brown, a very good boy with a wonderfully guilty conscience, is looking deeply worried, and the caption reads: “There is nothing heavier than a great potential!”

There’s been a great potential these last few weeks with Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew. It is the main teaching document in this book, Starting with the  beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor,” it goes on to talk about aspirations, and ethics and grace and sin and principals and practice and prayer. It is such an astonishing document. And I thought that it would be wonderful to do a three, four, even five part sermon on all this, bringing it together, a worthy task which is totally beyond me. 

Because I forgot something that often happens; when I looked at the Gospel again, it had gotten bigger! And what I thought I understood, the tentative answer, series of answers, simply led on to larger questions, a surplus of meanings, crises of opportunities, dangerous blessings. That’s the living truth of the Gospel of Jesus, God meeting us in the midst of human being, can comes so close, get so big, ask so much, can lead us to look at our life in the world in so many new ways, where we feel like we are lost, and finally, like Jacob, say, “Lord you were here (found me here) and I did not know it”. So, like Jacob, we rock together some sort of memorable meaning, wrestle it for a blessing, try to make some sense of it, and limp on in a world that seems both bigger and finer than what we had found before. 

For “There’s nothing heavier than a big potential”.

Let me tell you a story. In 1977, when I was 31, while on a long retreat with the Anglican Benedictine monastic Order of the Holy Cross in Santa Barbara, California, I had an experience of God believing in me. It changed the equation a bit and my life a lot. I had spent a lot of energy believing in God: said the right prayers, read the right books, went to church most Sundays, worked in the youth group, read lessons, filled out the forms, saw the movie, got the t-shirt. I thought I had bought the whole package. But I found I the time on that mountain monastery above Santa Barbara that it was more about God believing in me, enabling God to live in me, embodying, emboldening me to find my lostness in God, be found in God, to be the body of Christ, to be the good news of God in the world. and that Good News wasn’t real easy to take. 

For “There’s nothing heavier than a big potential”. 

Today’s Gospel packs some heavy punches. Don’t be angry, don’t look with lust, don’t swear by anything outside or inside of yourself, And  “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” and what’s that about?

There is a group called the Jesus Seminar, and one interesting thing they put out is this. If the Gospels have some lines by Jesus that are mysterious, demanding, not easily understood, even offensive, than it is highly likely that Jesus said exactly that. So what is Jesus saying here, where do we stand with this, how can we respond in our lives. 

Let me take another detour here. 

Four and a half years after the time in Santa Barbara I ended up studying at a seminary in Berkeley, California, and decided I needed to have a new spiritual director. A Jesuit who was a brilliant teacher agreed to meet me for an hour monthly to sit  with the questions and confusions and comforts and callings that  were a part of my life with God,  and he asked me if I had a particular question to start. “Where does God stop?”

He said that God didn’t stop: and that made me want to stop for a good while. 

For “There’s nothing heavier than a big potential.” 

And I had been thinking that I’d work on my life with God, all my spirituality, and that would affect the rest of my life in a good way. That this work would flow onto other aspects of my life with friends, money, power, sex; the other realities of my whole life. But if “God didn’t stop”; where did that leave “me”?

The 12th century mystic Meister Eckart wrote that we should be so poor, as in blessed are the poor, that we should have no room reserved for God, giving God the whole thing. And it seemed to me that this might be inconvenient.  Back in my lost youth I was planning to have a good place for God, maybe build a chapel next to the the guest house, “Come by sometime, any weekend, I’ve just the place for you”. And God is saying “Here I come! Here, now, always!” Wait.

Maybe the good news is that God wants to come to live with us in the very middle of our lives, with all the mess of money, sex, power, anger, found there; God is willing to live there? 

So there’s indeed nothing heavier than a big potential. 

One more detour: 

One thing that always amazes me in the Bible is the summary of the law where Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. But there’s a problem there: for if we “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all our mind,” what is left over in order to “love our neighbour as yourself? Didn’t we give it all away on part one, where do we get the love to do part two? Do you see the problem here?

It doesn’t make sense unless it’s all one love, unless we are to let the love we give to God (that God gives to us) be the same love we offer to everyone; even the love in which we encounter and honour ourselves, as gifts to God, as gifts from God. If this is true: then there is just one love, one light, one life.

In a lovely book, Pilgrims Inn” by Elizabeth Goudge, which I read for the first time when I was about 16, a woman walking in the woods  has a realisation of the connectedness of life and the compassion Grace can awaken:
“Quite suddenly you felt like your life was not an isolated thing, but one that existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, “We don’t need each other”

We need each other for we are all one body, the body of Christ.  

And in that larger truth we see Jesus’ ferocious words on plucking out the offensive eye, cutting off the over-reaching hand, finds a different context, makes a different sense. For if we think we are separate, if we try to be our own body, our own little centre of the universe, if we are bound by our own flesh, than we need to do some rigourous remodelling, cut stuff off, add things on, get back to renovating the chapel and the guest house. 

But if we are called to be the body of Christ. to offer ourselves as a reasonable living and holy sacrifice, heart, soul, mind; than we can’t cut ourselves up, we can’t cut ourselves off, we are all already one body, gifted in love as the body of Christ. And everything can look difference from here. 

In the end, there is nothing lovelier than a great potential! 

St Augustine wrote: “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” We are here to receive a gift. God is in love with us,believes in us, and wants to live with us, in us, through us, in the middle of our lives. And this is the Good news in Christ. 


Monday, February 10, 2014

Epiphany 5A "And what is the point?"

I realised recently, with bit of a shock, that it’s been almost 25 years  since I graduated from my seminary, The Church Divinity school of Pacific in Berkeley California, in 1989.  That last semester I was training as a chaplain in a psychiatric ward in a nearby state hospital but managed to find time to take part in the annual CDSP follies. I wrote the Senior Song (actually adding lyrics to Bob Hope’s theme song, “Thanks for the memories”) and I wrote and performed my own comedy monologue where I said, that while working on the psych ward, I suddenly heard the voice of God calling me to a special ministry. 
“Oh Lord,” I said, “I am not worthy.” and God said, “Yes, but that’s not the point.” But what exactly is the point? 
The reading translation of Isaiah might point us there:
“The fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
That’s not really easy to deal with, that kind of call. And it might be easier and very tempting to say, “Lord, I am not worthy”. But it really isn’t the point.
We have all fallen short of the glory of God: what else is new? We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have not done those things which we ought to have done and there is not a lot of health in us. But, really, could we not turn aside, turn around, move into some new place with a new word, maybe a very small word, of holiness and healing and hope in our daily life and ministry?
So maybe the deeper truth is, “Lord I am not worthy, and I like it that way, Lord, I may be called to do great things, large or small; but I’d rather not, so thanks but I am really not worthy, and the whole idea is — let’s face it — inconvenient.”

In my 1989 comedy routine I said that God had specially called me to return to the seminary and tell the people to construct a stained glass window, something like a flatscreen TV, to stand behind the altar. It would be a picture of Jesus, but looking different according to the seasons of the year: first a bump in Mary's belly, then a baby and a youth from Christmas through Epiphany. Following that, we’d see Him faced with temptations, trials, betrayals; turning towards Jerusalem as Lent moves to Good Friday, and maybe the window would go dark after that day: finally breaking into a sunrise that changes everything. Then all those Sunday's post-Easter windows with the risen Jesus getting us ready for the coming of the Spirit, ready to learn the language of grace, to be a new language of gift and grace in the season of Pentecost. That might be the point too.

For St Paul says by God’s grace in Christ we bear a secret wisdom, the mind of Christ; and the Gospels tell us we are at heart, by grace, a gift, a light, a city on a hill, the salt of the earth. So, with that hope, how can we not loose our grip on what we cannot do? How can we not open our hands and our hearts to take up the task of being a window into God as well as being God's window to the world?
Here are three easy actions to open up: to simply stop, look, listen: that might lead to three not-too-small graces: sanctity, sunrise, and silence.

The world we live in runs so fast, and to simply stop, to make an empty place, to let a new answer come to you that could be  larger than any question you can quickly put together, is to recall the deep grace of the world God creates, redeems and sanctifies in every moment of time.

So stop, then look. Look for more than you might immediately see, look for that hope which is in, with and under everything that is; look to see the sunrise of Christ in the middle of the world God loves. Look for the hidden lights of repentance, reconciliation, renewal in the dim places, look to see Jesus’ light-filled life shine over the darkest death denial the world can muster: and look, watch closely for resurrection right there!  

Stop and look and then listen. Listen deep for the song, the music, the inner alleluia of all that is worthy to be praised. Look for God's word of love in a world which is noisy with so many slogans, so much propaganda, anger, fear, diversion, division and death. Listen for that holy love song calling to live in you, in all of us, in the heart of all God’s creation. Listen for that love singing everywhere God makes and mends and meets us in every moment of time. 

At the end of the '89 comedy routine I said that God told me that one day we would each see our own face on the man on the cross in our brand-new stained-glass seminary chapel. And I said, “God, that's too much!” I said, “I know you are, Thou art, if you like, God and all, and I'm just a chaplain, but I really think you need help!” And God said, “Yes I do!” 

It got a good laugh then and people recognised there was good humour and a bit of a bite, a point to it. There still is, it’s still true, God still does. 

In one  of CS Lewis's Narnia books, a young horse meets this Aslan, the Christ figure who is the “Son of Emperor Oversea”. At first she thinks about running away because he seems so large. But then she looks on the lion with love and runs to him saying, “Oh sir, I’d rather be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”

St Augustine wrote: “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” We are all sinners,  generally unready and often unwilling raw materials for sainthood. Yet we’re called here to stretch out with all the contradictions between our limited will and God’s unlimited grace. At least to start; stop, look and listen, at least, here and now, to begin to share the mind, to be the body, to take up the ministry of christ, 

Jesus says, “I am willing to be eaten by you. I am willing to nurture you in that place between what you know yourself to be, with all that you have done and left undone, and who you, by grace, are called to do. I am willing to be with you there, that you may be one with me.”

And what will we say to that? 

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Feast of the Presentation, Final Draft...

"Perfect through sufferings" isn't really a great line to start a sermon with, especially in weather as hot as this, but the writer of the letter to the Hebrews seems to think it's an important point; that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the moving picture of how God loves us and where God meets us, and why we might want to follow God, for the love of it, into a very large life that is larger than death. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews thinks it is a very important point that Jesus meets us and makes us perfect in the very midst of our sufferings.
This isn't a really easy one liner but it can be very good news. That God is born for us, with us, in us, in the very centre of our daily lives: in the surprising beginnings, the daunting endings, the messed up middles, in hot dry summers and gray wet winters and all our innumerable springing forth and autumnal diminution, where we all fall down. In all these places, God, in the life and death and life of Jesus Christ meets us in the middle of our sufferings, of our mystery, to call us home, to live life large.

A few weeks ago I talked about how, many years ago, one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard said that in Epiphany we are called to carry this baby Jesus, this newborn hope coming into the middle of our lives, and we’re called to hold him close to outrĂ© hearts and take him into the very middle of the world we live in. and that isn’t easy. 

And I wonder if Mary, carrying the baby Jesus into the middle of the Temple at Jerusalem, might have wanted to have held her child close, turned ‘round and run all the way home. Maybe she had, as mothers do, a sense of what was waiting for Jesus, that the this majestic temple could finally turn into a den of duplicity, demands, even death, for her young son. 

No wonder Mary might want to turn tail and head home, holding this newborn baby — who seemed like a window to a more holy hope and a larger life than she had ever seen before. So you can see why such a young woman might not want to enter that great building with its hints of suffering and sin alongside the promises of salvation. 

When we are young, and are first holding on to new love, new life, it might not feel like good news to hear that perfection comes on the other side of suffering. That's not the way a young person sees the world. But it is a hope that an old man, an old woman, can hold on to, can witness.

The young woman Mary, and Joseph, the husband of her heart, carrying their newborn joy, enter the ancient Temple and meet Simeon and Anna. What a picture! Can you see the old man and woman in the evening of their life, see them seeing the young girl and her husband just beginning, and hear Anna and Simeon give the ancient prophetic blessing of a sunrise that will change the world forever.

Simeon speaks first; "Now I may depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people. To be a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel." Then blessing them and turning to Mary, Simeon says, "This child is destined for the falling and rising of many… And a sword will pierce your own soul too." And then the prophet Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, praises God and “speaks about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”.

So they go home, "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

The Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, says there is one more commandment written somewhere that states, "must be present to win." I have three more things to say: Jesus, Mary and Joseph present themselves at the Temple, are present in this moment of threatening gift, and see it as a present from God. 

And they stay in the middle of it all; in all the tension, the sanctity and the suffering, both the hope and pain promised in the words of Anna and Simeon, because that is the costly gift of the present moment. That is the only place where, at that time, they can say yes to God, and hear God say yes to them. And that is God's present to them and their present to God; presented in the middle of our lives. 

So too, at this Feast of the Presentation, at this beginning of a hot February, we come together once more to try to get our heads, our lives, our loves around the way God loves us and where God meets us and why we might want to follow Christ, maybe even to be made "perfect through sufferings". We come together “with all we have been, with all that we are” to offer our hopes, our hurts, our hearts, to the God who is willing to meet us in all these places, to make them his own, as he makes us his own. 

Tonight we are also midway between Christmas and Ash Wednesday, between new light and approaching shadow (and the hint of resurrection – maybe – a farther bit off). and we are called to take the newborn hope we carry like Mary and Joseph,  as well as the ancient wisdom witnessed by elders like  Anna and Simeon, into the deep heart of the present moment, into the middle of life and death, and loss and gain, ending and beginning. And Christ is here too; presenting us with a moment of choice and grace, being present in us as we turn to see what love will ask us to do. What this costly present, love, will ask us to be, will call us to live. 


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sermon for Christmas Eve (Greta) and Christmas Day (Moyhu and Whitfield) 2014

We’re here to celebrate Christmas, the time when we visit family and friends, celebrate love and life together, sometimes sing songs, and usually open gifts that are often given with great love, and that’s all good. So today I want to talk about receiving and giving gifts.

One thing that always surprises me is all the different ways that people open their gifts! For example, as a girl, my cousin Barbara used to be very careful with wrapping paper; opening gifts slowly, then folding and putting away the paper for possible re-use, even saving the box it came in for future use. I, on the other hand, quickly ripped off the paper, throwing it away to some empty corner of the room, and following that  with the box the gift came in. The only exception to this rule happened when I was around fourteen and I bought a small gift for my older brother Tom, which I wrapped and put in a small box, wrapped inside another larger box, inside one more carefully wrapped very large box. I put this under the tree and successfully kept from laughing out loud during the whole, quite extended, time my brother took to unwrap the three packages and got to the gift which in the end, he actually liked a lot. 

Years later, on her second or third Christmas celebration, I gave his first daughter, my oldest niece Lisa, a very large reproduction of a nineteenth century, brightly coloured English, High Victorian, stuffed rabbit. I thought it was great and she didn’t like it at all, and quickly and firmly pushed it away. But she dearly loved playing in the big cardboard box that it came in. 

So how do we deal with the biggest gift we get, the Christmas gift that God gives us? How do we make sure that we unwrap it carefully, not getting too caught up with the wrappings or throwing it away unthinkingly, how do we make sure we don’t just end up playing in the box. Ff this gift is given in great love, how do we receive it properly?

I think that some hints of ways to open it are contained in the summary of the Law where Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  [Matthew 22:37-40]

For living those lines out has to do with sharing the life that God gives us as mindfully, heartily and prayerfully as we can, and that takes us where we need to go. For if God is the maker of the meaning, the melody and the wonder of it all, if all this is a gift, then loving and living our whole life is the best  way of opening the gift; of making our whole lives a unique opening, a personal and present introduction to love. Because that is what the gift is. 

I’ve always liked the advice of the poet, Robert Frost, who said to “take the light things seriously and the serious things lightly.” So we can look at something that might seem relatively unimportant, like how we handle our introductions to people, and let that be a template to how we come to live in the Kingdom of God in light of this Christmas gift. Here are three ways we can understand this.

When I was a kid I remember my mother prompting me to use peoples name when i was introduced.This showed good manners and was a way to remember their names, to be polite, to start to honour, appreciate, be mindful. Now I tend to forget names. But I do remember stories people tell, their sadness, delight, travels,  the troubles they’ve seen and shared, and maybe that’s going even farther in the mindful direction too.

There are two quotes that have to do with the heart. Plato wrote, remember that "everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And to remember this, is to appreciate the struggles we all share, is to start to heartily honour what it means to be human, for as one great Hollywood movie put it, "You'll never be a first-class human being… until you've learned to have some regard for human frailty.” and that’s adding some strength from the heart to what it means to be together in the human journey.

But there can be more than that: I remember an organist and choir director, almost 50 years ago,  telling me that she always prayed for people when she first met them. That’s not only a sharing of mind and heart but adds hope and strength, compassion and care; that gets to be soul-sized! — and when we do that, in an initial introduction or afterwards, in any interaction; we’re opening, enacting, introducing Godly loving actions, and truly loving our neighbour, God’s neighbour, with all our mind and heart and soul.

And I am convinced that can finally take us almost all the way home, for when we are free to love our neighbours in these three dimensions, head, heart, soul; then we can finally figure out how we are to truly love ourselves, for, by the grace of God, there is only one love. But that isn't all.

Now, you know those tv ads where they're selling amazing appliances, super potato peelers and the like, and they always say, "And there's still more than this!"? 

Well, there's more here too, at least three more dimensions to the big Christmas present. For, first, if Jesus is a a kind of a moving picture of how God loves and deals with living life and death and loving neighbour and stranger with all heart, mind, soul, then the more we, read, research, reflect, listen to and live out his life (as presented in the Four Gospels, the New Testament, and reflected through the thoughts, prayers, traditions of the gathered worshipping community of the church), the more we can clearly see the scope, the breadth of His life, full of God’s love, forgiveness, patience and the full freedom to which we are called.

But there’s even more than that. For when, in the ancient rite of Holy Communion -- this Eucharist, we come to incorporate his passion and purpose, his life and death into ours; and just as intimately as we are nurtured by him, we aim to embody his freely given life, and to enflesh the holy freedom of love he offers us. 

This dimension is less of a thought process and more of a dance: we take up this gift to give it away and we take in this life to live it out. It isnt easy to get our minds around this, for we live in such a “heads up” culture, but to share Jesus’ life in this way can lead us to a complete and holy participation, sharing, head, heart and soul, in God’s own self-giving love. 

And there’s even more than that! Finally,as St Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he (she) is a new creation.” And that adds a whole other side to what we do here. We first work to incorporate Christ’s life and love into our lives, and to live that love out in our lives; but then Jesus, God in Christ, invites us live in that love, abide in the heart of it, spend our days within the universal heart of love; by  becoming a new being in the living grace of God.

And that is what this two thousand year old story, God’s gift of Christmas, is all about. And then finally the question is: how can we possibly begin to respond? Well, Christina Rosetti gave a simple answer to this in 1872 when she wrote...

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

May this Christmas season overflow with gift for you. Amen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Pregnant virgins and being born in Jesus,

Saturday, the Eve of Advent 4, 21 December 2013

In today's Gospel the just man Joseph prepares to send his future wife Mary away because she is pregnant and it's not by him. I think we can all understand the difficulty of his situation pretty well. And  St. Matthew thinks this is important because he places this story in the second half of the first chapter, at the very start of his Gospel. It doesn't have to be like this. For example, when the Gospel of Luke tells this story, it starts out with an angel telling Mary about  this miraculous and forthcoming birth, It seems simpler for her: first, Mary says, “How can this be?” Then she simply says, “Yes.” But it is a little more difficult for Joseph.

Matthew’s Gospel goes on to say it is only when an angel comes to him in a dream and tells him, “Do not fear to take Mary for your wife because she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.” then he decides to do so. So just as Mary's tentative response followed by a sure answer is one way to respond to faith, to the possibility of participating in God’s life and love working in us and through us; so the story of Joseph's doubt, the surprising dream, and his subsequent decision to take this new birth on faith, points to another way of being in a conversation with God.

Maybe all life is, at its most basic, a conversation with God that enables us to grow in and into love. Sometimes we can simply say yes, and other times — as in any relationship — we need further dialogue, we need to present our doubts, we need to sleep on it, we need to be awakened by a dream  or an insight that carries a message that makes the world bigger than we ever might have known. And the important thing to remember is that God has room for all these conversations with us to take place. The incarnation of Jesus means that God is willing to meet us where we are. If we are willing to do the same. 

Mary and Joseph will take this holy new life of God with them and bear it into being, father it forth, in everyday life; give him tools, teach him tasks, give him their very flesh and blood, as God’s child, God’s word, God’s human fave of love joins us in the very midst of the human family. And in these actions they are a model for us on this last Advent Sunday before Christmas.

Maybe every Advent, maybe every moment, God sends us a message, God asks us this question: "May my word of creativity, reconciliation, and renewal may be borne in each of our lives as it is born in the life of  Mary, for this good news of incarnation, God becoming flesh, means that God is willing to come into the very middle of each of our lives. God is always willing to meet us that intimately, to love us that much, so that he would be, as St. Augustine says, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Almost 20 years ago in California I preached to a small group of deacons in the Anglican diocese there, and several people in the gathering laughed when I said that, when Christmas comes, we are all a bunch of pregnant virgins. It may seem shocking thing to say, but I stand by it. Jesus Christ is willing to be born in us, if we are willing to be born in him. God's love can come into the middle of our lives and make us new, give us new lives; though sometimes this can start in very small ways. But every little baby is a reminder of a very big promise, that Jesus wills to be with us and for us as we follow God in faith, grow in holiness and hope, and live in the light of God's love for us in our love for God, our neighbour and ourselves. 

Almost one thousand years ago St Simeon, the new theologian, wrote this; and it’s still true:

We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisiably 
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightening.
Do my words seem blasphemous? - Then 
Open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him
We wake up inside Christ’s body. 

where our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it, 
is realized in joy as Him, 
and he makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in his light
we awaken as the Beloved 
in every last part of our body.
Symeon the New Theologian  (949-1022)

translated by Stephen Mitchell 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Advent Sunday Sermon, Final Draft...

Today at noon we will baptise three young people: Liam, 9, Hally, 7, and Marshall, 5, and I’ve been wondering what to say to them about what they are doing, the ceremony they’re part of, the gifts that it offers, the new community they’re joining. 
How can I say something they might understand and remember, as well as speak to the people  who are gathering to celebrate the gift this family wishes to share, people who might not know the ways of the church, who might see this as a colourful and archaic ritual. Like the psalmist  says, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? And here’s what I decided to say:
What we’re doing today is telling a story, about one person, about every person, and about the whole universe. 

The one person was a man named Jesus: he lived a long way from here about two thousand years ago, and when he grew up he told some stories and taught some lessons and healed some people and shared food and hope and love in a world where there wasn’t much of that around. He seemed to live like there was more than enough, and that the liveliest thing that he, or anybody, could do was to keep sharing food and hope and love, and not worry about it too much. He lived like that was the easiest, truest, most joyful way to live and to love life for each person, for every person, for the whole universe.

And even when the people who were worried about many things told him he better be careful, he went on sharing food, hope, love like it couldn’t end. So some other people decided to kill him, partly because when people start giving like that, the world gets bigger, and gifts like food and hope and love can start people  doing new things, going in different ways, and that can be dangerous for people who want the world to be the same as it ever was. 

So they killed him, tried to wipe him away from life, from everyone’s memory, so that nothing would remain, and it didn’t work. Because of the simple truth, the deepest fact, that this kind of love lasts. It wasn’t long before a few people said they had seen him alive, others said that he had somehow gotten past death. some said he was still sharing like before, now even more, and it was as if his very breath was breathing everywhere, was willing to show up in everyone, and a few people, then more, then millions, tried to breathe life the way he did in sharing food and hope and love. 

It’s changed the world for the last few thousand years, sometimes it’s been like a great big party, sometimes like a really bad committee meeting, but there are still a bunch of people who are trying, as best they can, to share food, hope and love. 

So even though this Jesus is not around like he was two thousand years ago, he’s still here, in stories told, gatherings held, food, hope and loved shared, really in every moment and every breath in the heart of everyone — he still breathes this love of live, this life of love, for each of us and for more than everyone. Because he was, he is, a gift to remind us of what we deep down are: born of love, born to hope, born to share food; food for thought, for nourishment, for inspiration, to be part of a body bringing healing and hope to the whole creation. 

Because that’s what we were created to be; and we forget that, get lost in other stories, worry about many things, forget who we are, where we come from, what we’re to do: which is mystery and meaning and justice and joy and shared food and wine and life that is so much bigger than all our understanding and any kind of death that it is almost beyond belief. 

But it is in telling the stories, sharing the journey, the hope and healing, the bread and wine, the new and renewing loving life that Jesus said is in the heart of everything, that we experience what life and God is, even now.

So we come together to put these three people on that path, Liam, Hally, and Marshall, in that party, towards that purpose, this morning, and to pray that they may keep this kind of hope and love in their lives from here on out. This will be the first time they are washed and wiped and renewed and refreshed in their new community, and, as with any kind of love, we hope it will not be the last. 

So that’s what i am telling them. It’s true, though not the whole truth, but i hope it’s true enough to welcome them to the party and give them a taste for travelling together on this journey, but, if you've been around the church for awhile, for some days, when God’s Advent comes, it’s often not easy.  

For when seasons change it can be difficult, December, Advent, (to say nothing of Christmas), moving into summer, the last few weeks of the year as well can all be demanding, and finally, next Friday evening and Sunday morning and afternoon this congregation and the diocese will farewell Fr Michael, (and Kerryn, Nicholas, and Angela) after a decade serving as the Dean of this Cathedral, and as beloved members and ministers of this community. So many endings and beginnings, so many places where life turns a corner and a new journey emerges, so many moments when life asks a question, and the lessons for today  asks formidable questions of an open future that can feel like death and birth, ending and beginning, to take us to larger answers in order to start again.

Isaiah sees a future that opens room for delight: a vision of ecological wholeness and holiness, a place of prayer, justice, wisdom, compassion, a kingdom of peace to which the nations stream 

But the Gospel leads us to a demanding future where, instead of reconciliation, there may be separation, instead of a field seeded or a meal prepared, one will be taken and one will be left, and there is no way to prepare, but none the less, the lesson says, be ready. 

And finally good old Paul gives us hope for the present: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” 

Even nearer now.  And how can we, as the baptised body of Christ, be present to this wide open future? How can we prepare for this beginning, this Advent, this coming Christmas, the new year, once again. 

Dom Gregory Dix, in his classic book, The Shape of the Liturgy, says that the Eucharist we share has four parts: take, bless, break and share. Since the Eucharist is also a pattern of the countless ways in which God reaches out in love to embrace the whole creation, we take Eucharist here to allow that fourfold pattern to permeate our whole lives. 

So take your questions, the old memories, the new pain, the unknown future, the wanting faith, and present them all to God as an offering, lift up your life and let God bless it, share it with family and friends, and let their light and love lift it up too with thanksgiving as an offering. Then, knowing yourself to be surrounded by such a company of family and friends and with all the company of heaven, break apart the gift God gives you, look to it with faith, and let it be a message of hope and meaning for yourself and others

For I am convinced that every moment of life contains seeds of heaven, gifts of God, of hope, love and light, and that we are called to share these moments where life asks living questions and offers new answers in the midst of our lives, where we are called to celebrate  these new beginnings, to share food and hope and love, to make Eucharist as the gathered body of Christ.  

What a gift that life can be this big, what a gift that love can come so close. May the blessings of this advent season be upon each of us, and may Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon us all. Amen. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Christ the King 2013

Years ago, a professor at my seminary told me that one of the main troubles with the church is that people start out to learn to be Godly and end up being sort of Lordly instead. Like the difference between religiosity and spirituality, and the difference between good shepherd-servants and bad ruler-kings as well. 

Lordliness might be "putting on" religion like a role or robe to wear: as a face or mask for meeting the world: maybe it’s like “Church-ianity" rather than Christ-ianity but the most radical difference between Lordly and Godly can be seen most clearly in the breech between word and deed. But the fact is that most of us talk a better game than we live, so we need to be understanding and forgiving when we see that in others, because we all fall into that kind of hypocrisy at one time or another, and there is nothing new about it.

Because there is the same disparity in Jerusalem in the sixth century BC, in our first lesson, when the people on their way to exile are asking Jeremiah "what went wrong?" Jeremiah answers that the shepherds who were called to protect and gather have destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture! And he prophesies both a small threat and a big promise. To the false shepherds, those Lordly people, he says that God, “will attend to you for your evil doings.” But to the people of God they were called to protect, Jeremiah prophesies that God, “will gather the remnant, bring them back to their fold, and will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing... “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

And that’s both very big and very good news: not only a new vision of shepherd, but a new vision of kingdom; not only a new way of being religious in the world, but a whole new world. 

So time passes, life goes on, and there are exiles and wars and new attempts to build the peaceable kingdom that don’t do all that well.  

And then this shepherd-king Jesus shows up and brings it together. First he does the deep work of mercy: he strengthens the weak, heals the sick and the lame, brings back the lost and those who have strayed. He searches them out and calls them home with infinite mercy in his voice; even calls them by name. 

But he goes further than this. He pours out himself for them as living water for the thirsty and hungry, the poor and those with no home, wanderers and beggars of God. He becomes sustenance, bread and wine for them. He not only acts out but he serves to flesh out, pour out, an understanding of how God loves us and feeds us, of who we are, and of how we are to be to one another.

For he is not only a servant and a shepherd, but a king and more than a king. He is what one Baptist preacher called “the place where God hugs humanity to himself”. You can say that Jesus is the absolute antithesis of Lordly; and instead the full picture of Godly: not only a real king but a true servant, not only a true servant but a full picture of what it means to be a human being alive with the glory of God. 

And in the end who he is -  as God and human, as a shepherd and a king -  says everything about who we are: our meaning and our ministry in the place where God meets humanity; in this kingdom that is coming even here and now.

Maybe that’s why we need four Gospels, because it’s so complex.  We can look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John like four family photo albums with their collections of snaps on the life and ministry of Jesus. There are different pictures and various kinds of focus in each gospel, for each one has unique concerns, but in all there is a consistency of caring, of charity, that brings God's love home.

And when you really look at the pictures over time, then a strange thing happens; you start to see the paradox of what our Epistle for today calls the "fullness of God" dwelling in human form. It might even look like a double exposure! 

For here is our King Jesus, the good shepherd, the rule of God's love, as a human being; feeling hunger, thirsting, crying, having family problems, organisational difficulties, clashing with the prevailing political and religious establishment, and finally becoming one with homeless sinners, those who cry and cry out, one with people who have no voice and no name. And being put to death by the state as a false king, Jesus becomes one with those who are written off as officially expendable.

And I believe this Royal gift, this shepherd ministry, the light of this life lived out in love is a way to insure that we are safe from being caught in the trap of Lordliness, but rather drawn into the deep embrace of Godliness, into our ministry in the reconciling ministry of Christ.

It isn’t easy. C. S. Lewis writes, in The Lion. The Witch and The Wardrobe,  when the lion Aslan, the Son of Emperor Over-Sea, comes to save the people of Narnia from the curse of a cold winter, comes to bring them a new spring, one character asks in a rather Lordly tone: "This lion, is he safe?" and the response comes immediately; "of course he's not safe, but he's good!"

Jesus is like that. He shows us that there is no place where we might be safe from the surprise of God. No place where the love and largess of God might not be found, no place where this ruler might be ruled out. For in the life of Jesus, God is hugging all of humanity to himself, calling out our names, bringing all stray sheep to be found in the heart of his love. And this is our salvation and our hope and our destiny and our ministry and the reason why mere Lordliness will never be enough. 

For we are a people finally called by God to be both completely human and fully holy, and that - I think - finally means that each of us is called to take up the risk to be prophetic shepherds and servant rulers: not safe, but good; not Lordly, but Godly.

As Bishop Athanasius said in the late third century, in Jesus, God becomes one with humanity so humanity can become one with God. 

In Christ, the inconceivable wholeness of God has come to be seen in the holiness of humanity, that God’s flock may be fed, God’s kingdom come, and God’s will will be done: and we are called, all of us, to join Jesus in that wonderful work. 

It is almost the season of Advent, our shepherd king, our friend and saviour, our Lord and God draws near. Come, let us adore him. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pentecost 26C - Un-preparing for life, death and love in Luke

So we’re almost to the end of Pentecost. Next Sunday is the Sunday of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the season; and the Sunday after that is Advent Sunday — when we start a new liturgical year, and I’m really ready for that. Because two weeks after Advent will make one whole year since I had my shoulder replacement surgery and I can then officially stop saying, “Did I tell you about my operation?”  But I’ve still got four weeks to go!

I just didn’t know it would take so long or take so much. The surgery was easier than expected but the recovery has been more difficult. And that surprised me. When I had gallbladder surgery when I was around thirty it was much easier. Even 16 years ago, when I had a deep excision on my thigh to remove a melanoma I was off to England a few weeks after the operation, but this has taken the better part of a year for recovery.

Actually, it’s taken all of the last liturgical year, which has made it a kind of rich experience. Because I believe that we live through the liturgical year every year, sometimes every day: that the journey from Advent and Christmas, through the bright spots of Epiphany and the drylands of Lent, the mysteries of Holy week, the surprises of Eastertide and Ascension and the ripening spiritual awareness we are called to live with in the season of Pentecost - that what we see out there in the liturgical calendar of the church, is also found in here, in the seasons on our individual lives and journeys in Christ. 

So last December I got through Advent and Christmas, with a vague feeling that the present I received wasn’t quite what I had been expecting, but still might prove valuable. I had no chronic pain in my shoulder for the first time in several years, but I needed a sling, I couldn’t move it very much, and dealing with the post surgery hangover was making me feel used, abused, confused, and more than a little depressed too.

But the season of Lent was extra-rich this last year. I felt pretty stretched out, but  the season stretches us out too as it always does between promise and peril, between life and death, between beginning again and a growing awareness that it might not end in a way we would like. I finished my official sick leave not long before Holy Week, and remember wearing a cassock, praying while laying prone in front of the high altar of the Cathedral during the Good Friday liturgy (which I couldn’t have done before the surgery) and thinking, “I always forget it is this big, this mysterious, and this intimate.”  

And then it all opens up in Eastertide, with big confusing questions like, “How do we deal with this possibility of resurrection? What does it mean that Jesus is alive? And if Jesus’s death and resurrection meet my life and death, how do I live right here and now?” It took the early disciples, apostles, some time to get their heads around this, and we are no different. 

Eastertide asks big questions, and it gives us an even bigger answer when it drops us into Pentecost.  So big, in fact, that it takes us almost 6 months of the season of Pentecost to begin to get our heads around it. For then the question is this: “If God’s very Spirit is in our heads, our hearts, our lives; then how do we live out our whole lives in a way that is true to that truth?”

And that’s where we meet the Gospel for this Sunday even if it doesn’t sound like good news at the start. 

Today’s Gospel according to Luke says the future’s going to be bad  and then it is going to get worse, But the toughest line (and maybe the brightest) in today’s reading is towards the end when Jesus says, don’t “prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom…” And then ends up with this great one-liner, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

And that’s a real stretch; but, looking back, it seems all through Pentecost the Gospel of  Luke has been stretching us in two directions: 

Sometimes we’ve heard some real raw requirements, demanding endurance  and tough choices: hate your life, put nothing between you and God’s kingdom, count the cost, take the risk, begin the battle and give up all your possessions; realise you are unhelpful disciples, miserable sinners, unprofitable slaves. Here, Luke’s gospel is about great effort: following God, following the commandments, loving, working, aspiring to make heaven on earth now: even if we are wicked and unprofitable. 

But other times the stories are about an unspeakable and unearned grace: the father of a prodigal son rushing towards reconciliation and celebration, a shepherd successfully searching for a lost sheep, the eagerness of a woman finally finding a misplaced coin. and always leading to a celebration at the end, for  the word has been spoken and the world has been saved, angels rejoice, the love of the Father and the word of Christ, the spirit of grace and truth, has entered deep into the human family, for God has taken saving action and the word we see in Jesus is love

So maybe Luke is saying; some days it will be good and others bad; some days you’ll want to lift up your head and shout “it’s gonna be a great day”; other days you want to hang down your head like Tom Dooley and just get ready to die… and it’s really not that important.

Could it be that Luke is saying that love and life and death and resurrection is really that large, can contain these contradictions? Could it be that God and Jesus Christ and the Spirit are saying, I’ll meet you where ever you are, in the very middle of your whole life: whether you are hopeful or hopeless; In either end of anywhere? And that’s just not something we can prepare for, or fear either. We can just breathe and listen and endure, for God’s grace is that big, that mysterious and that intimate. 

In 1997 I was lucky.  After a battery of tests and a deep excision, I got the good news; that the melanoma had been contained, removed, and the prognosis was very good; but before (you might guess) there had been a few weeks of wonder and worry and “what if?” and I remember one day especially when after drinking a nuclear milkshake I was laying down on a cold steel bed while a machine flew low over my body with metallic music and the two lab technicians, recent immigrants, spoke to each other softly in vietnamese, and I felt like I understood nothing. 

Except that it was as if the air got very fresh in that little white room - maybe not just for me - and we were all breathing this good air, listening to the sweetest song and it was saying, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you.” Singing to me, and maybe the lab techs and the whole world too, and I couldn’t tell you if Jesus was there, but he was here, and we were all giving our bodies, our blood and all our lives in learning about living and giving and forgiving and all that comes with the difficult and sometimes graceful business of dealing with life and death and loss and some kind of deep graceful love that sings out sometimes right in the middle of everywhere. 

I couldn’t have prepared for that: I could simply be surprised by the way it can be so big, so mysterious and so intimate, and that’s the way it comes sometimes, so you just listen and try to endure and let yourself be surprised. 

In two weeks we go to Advent. and the lessons will get even stranger, stretching us out again with the end of everything, and then the almost inconceivable hope held in the promise of the birth of a baby, newborn love, in the last place you’d ever think to look. Just when you thought it was over, it all begins again. Welcome to your life with Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Feast of All Saints', Ecumenical Praise Service, Wangaratta Jazz Festival 2013

All Saints’ 2013

Forty something years ago, when I was at University in California, I was told to read an essay titled, “How is jazz like skyscrapers?” My topic for this morning is wider and more melodious: How is jazz like Jesus? or, if you like, How is Jesus like jazz? Here are some easy notes to start with.

Some would say jazz can be joyful but demanding; it can give you strength and comfort, and surprise you too, but sometimes stretches you out more than you might expect or even like. And so does Jesus. 

At the start, jazz works, makes sense, gives light and life, for people in pain, for the lowest of the low, which is deep-down everybody. Jazz joins us together in an upwelling and an uprising; a revolution where those cast down get lifted up and people left behind rise to take pride and find their place in a new parade of love and justice and joy. And so does Jesus.

In the tight spots of modern life, Jazz is a riff for freedom and joy beyond power, improv for a peace sounding beyond easy understanding. Jazz sees, enlightens, even focuses on a world often overlooked; carrying memories not fully remembered and never forgotten: ancient villages, kidnapped journeys on leaky ships to unknown lands — trips no one would take were there a choice. Jazz clamours where people slave in dark places and city slums with a sky-light song singing out fierce freedom and jubilation and peace and power for those who need it the most. And so does Jesus.

Jazz makes room to listen and play with an abrupt and audacious hope, telling us to take on the tune in some new order, beyond the old chaos,  towards an inconceivable cosmos that lies right on the near side of now. Jazz calls us to take our place in the chorus, pick up our instrument, give our breath and talent to a loud loving noise, to the Lord of life, to our neighbour, and everyone at home and away, as well as the stranger who needs us. And so does Jesus.

He would play good jazz: it’s in the tradition. The reading from Saint Luke’s Gospel beats out a consistent rhythm of the overlooked being lifted up, top dogs being knocked down, and maybe everybody at home-base free at the last. Early on in that Gospel the Virgin Mary takes a solo about scattering the proud, filling up the hungry and sending the rich away empty; then Simeon beats out a refrain of falling and rising, lights up with revelation and glory;  and Anna finally sings a rift on praise and redemption before John the Baptist takes a turn jamming for right life and action, turning the world around with a new song where the crooked shall be made straight, the rough made smooth and all flesh see the wholeness of God's joy, and so does jazz.

Then Jesus takes centre-stage, singing that love song that  comes in the moments when you feel like you’re going to die right now, and you’re going to live forever, gathering his small group big-band sound to sit right there in the deep-down middle of life and taking that simple strong tune into a whole new neighbourhood; meeting dirty death with deep inspiring uprising and and renewal in the last places you’d ever dare look for light in the darkness. And so does jazz.

And Jesus still sings, sometimes sweet enough to break your heart, with all the healing and health and wholeness you could ever hope for; shaking it up and turning it all upside down and making it so there just might be room for everybody to wake up and see any Sunday morning like now where we’re looking at winning and losing and life and love and poetry and the possibility even of God for the very first time, and so does jazz. 

Then Jesus comes to the end of his solo: singing, Blessed are you if you’re poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, defamed; then you better leap for joy; because something better’s coming on to the earth, something that breathes deep and daring love and is going to last! But woe if you’re rich where there is so much poverty and full when so many live empty, for in the end you’ll mourn and weep, because all you thought you bought ends up going free and while you were worried that your brother needed a keeper, he only wanted a brother and you wouldn't want to ever lose that chance. And then He looks at you and says, "Do you want to come and join the band?" 

And well might you think, “How can anyone play that song, get the grace-notes, give it that light touch, see past all the shadows to take that risk that it all comes ‘round right. Where in God’s name do you get the gift to sing this great and glorious life, how do you get hold of that real good jazz?"

And Jesus says, "Love those who hate you, bless those who curse you… Do to others as you'd have them do to you. Act like a man who might die tonight and who’s going to live forever." And he turns it all over to you. 

And you know that music like that doesn’t last long, and it just might live forever. Sometimes It may mean a dirge where you can cry for all the world, and other times it may bring the blues to a birth you can’t see from here, it may pitch you in a tomb and deal you to death, where the only way home happens with a lullaby that’s larger than any love or life you ever knew, and leaves you wider awake than you ever were before. 

And that’s why we’re here this morning at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival, why the music plays, the voices sing out, why we lean into Jesus in a place where the song leads us on, new rhythms make a new home, and even that old demon death learns to love a new life, in an almost unbelievable coincidence of opposites coming together and waking us up to a foreign land right  in the middle of everywhere, where, by grace, everyone may be home free. For that’s what Jesus is about, and so, by God, is jazz.