Saturday, November 11, 2017

Being Awake and Serving God - More on the Theology of Tennis

Jesus says, "Keep Awake!", but this section of scripture always seems a little threatening to me, like that bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming soon, look busy!” It rings a wrong number because, I think, the wakefulness Jesus’s looking for is not anxiety, but the alertness of a ready friend, someone prepared and ready to take the opportunity, like a seasoned dancer or a trained athlete. So I want to tell you about my theology of tennis as a model for good discipleship.

 It’s been almost twenty years since I was on a court, but I played tennis most of my life and, growing up, since I wasn’t raised in a church, the local tennis club served the purpose of a community with a shared purpose. It provided a place for both discipline and joy, a safe haven for me and my family to go to meet the world. I played a lot as a kid and in my early teens, but when I was in my mid-teens I decided I didn’t like practicing that much. And I needed to practice: I tried percentage shots that didn’t pay off, I had a tendency to lose focus and I got too tight when the score was against me. But I decided I didn’t like tennis that much.

But in my late twenties, one summer when I was leaving my job and preparing to return to University, a friend and I spent two or three evenings a week as well as most Saturday mornings working on our game. We even had private lessons back to back so that we could work on our weak areas together. By the end of the summer when I returned to Uni, my game was better, more consistent and disciplined — and I was surprised to realise that my whole life was better as well: better physically, mentally, even spiritually.

So a few years later when I was studying religion I wrote a paper on a theology of tennis called “Serving God,” subtitled “ways to serve, receive and return bright vehicles of meaning.”

And that’s what I remembered when I saw the Gospel for today, where Jesus calls the bridesmaids to be disciplined, alert and ready when he comes; prepared, ready for action, like intimate friends, like good athletes, to serve, receive, return, all the bright opportunities, that come in living in love with the possibility, the promise, the hope of God. That is why we’re here, to prepare ourselves for the great heavenly wedding banquet which just might, by the grace of God, start right here and now.

Like a good tennis lesson, our liturgy is a kind of practice session in stretching out and moving into, exercising, the actions and motions of belief. It’s a kind of dancing lessons! We can forget this, but visitors and newcomers always see how very odd it is. We sit, stand, kneel and bow, some of us cross ourselves this way and that, we pass and give and receive, we move forward and back. Finally we return to the same place, but changed, somehow, by the motions we go through. You can see newcomers looking around, thinking, “What in God’s name are they going to do next?”  But what we are doing is actually a rehearsal routine for the rest of our lives in the rest of the world.

For if you really look, you can see our whole liturgy, from Baptism on, really is a lot like a tennis lesson or a dancing class where we come to move in the world with the God in whom we live and move and have our being. In the end, it is all about the we way we prepare, wait, serve, respond, return: and those are the actions that we learn here.

We come to church on Sunday, bringing all our particular questions and concerns, issues and ideas, histories, hopes and fears, the best and worst of who and what we are, where we come from and where we are going. We take all that when we get here and we mix it up with this liturgy of confession and praise, mercy and glory, in listening and responding to the words in psalm and scripture, the articulation of the community of faith gathered through history into the present day. And this changes everything.

We present our sins, our concerns, our thanksgivings, all our self-offerings: and then join with Jesus in his self-offering as disciples and friends, becoming in this eternal communion. Taking all that we have and all that we are, and giving it all over, giving it all up to  receive his body and blood, to remember that we are members of his body. To paraphrase St Augustine, “This is what we do: this is who we are.”

That’s how faith moves in the heavenly courts, in one simple and elegant motion. We come to reach for Christ; and Christ comes to us and uses our ministry to reach out to the world. We come to get a grip on him; and we stay to learn to hand him to the world and hand the world back to him. All in one motion. For the hands which meet the body and blood of Christ here, are the same hands — same body — that touch the world in daily life in the places where we make business, peace, war and love, touch the lives of friends and strangers, spend our days. In one motion of outpouring love God in Christ reaches into the particulars of all our daily liturgies so that we come to move like Christ, like love, in all these places.

Every one of our ministries happen when we serve, receive, and return God’s love. Every one! It doesn’t matter whether it’s throwing a ball, cooking a meal, writing a paper, fixing a fixture, applying an appliance, telling a tale or doing a deed. We join in ministry, with Christ when we  lovingly to share the world we know well, sharing that clarity and light with  others, so that they know themselves to be part in that relationship, that action, that clarity and light as well. And it can happen everywhere! Some people heal with kindness, others love the stranger, others listen well. Some make justice, visit the sick, give to the poor, live cheerfully, tell the truth. Sometimes we can just barely show up, but we do what we can.

It happens anywhere we act out, serve out, flesh out, live out the reconciling life of Jesus in the ministry of acceptance, love, and forgiveness. For that is the liturgy, these are the places and the actions where we both find and serve the very God who loves and serves us. To paraphrase St Augustine one more time, “This is what we do: this is who we are.”

May the Spirit give us breath this morning to joyfully take up our lives and our ministries as God’s gifts to be received and God’s gifts to be given, and we pray all this in Christ’s name. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Nuevo Pentecostal Practices

We’re almost to the end of the season of Pentecost, just six weeks to Christ the  King and the beginning, the Advent, of a new church year. And today I want to talk about how we live through the church year in our own lives. In our lessons for today we have three moments that look like the seasons of Advent and Christmas, Epiphany and Lent and Eastertide and all that follows. The first one comes when Moses asks to see the glory of God and God responds saying, “I will show you the place I just passed,” and the second from the Epistle to the Thessalonians where Paul says, “We always give thanks to God and mention you in our prayers,” and the third comes when Jesus is asked if a disciple should follow God or Caesar.

Each of those moments can point to a particular season of grace in responding to the possibilities for growing in a life of love and prayer, ways of exercising your heart by opening up to God in three distinct places.

Later I’ll talk about some reasons why seeing God can be hazardous to your health, why God tells Moses, “No one shall see me and live…” but first I’ll show you the place where looking for the place where God has just passed by, cultivating an Advent — even an adventurous —appetite for the places where God might recently planted a promise, a seed, a new sight, can be very helpful for your spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health.

So here’s an exercise for you: start preparing to see where God might just have been. This might mean taking a breath and saying a prayer before you answer your telephone – give it one more ring to you allow the possibility that the person who’s calling you might – knowing or unknowingly – be carrying a message from God.  Taking a breath to pray at a stop light or stop sign, at any crossroad where you have to make a turn, when you open a door, or say hello to a friend or even see a stranger.
What would happen if, in each or all of these llcircumstances, you allowed the possibility that God had just acted: in that opening, with this person, for a special purpose that you don’t yet understand. Think of yourself as a detective investigating the possibility a world that might recently have changed because God had been there and then gone on. what if you followed that lead?

If you do, expect to be surprised with the residue of holiness, with a slight scent of surprising compassion and caring, with a quick backward glance from something that looks like love as it goes out the other door and around the corner. Watch for that mystery and allow the possibility that the world is alive with a living love that makes everything, meets everyone, and keeps mending the whole mess until it comes round right at the end. I guarantee you that if you give this time you will be amazed; because Advent always turns to Christmas!

The second exercise takes you to the light of Epiphany as well as the shadows, the heartbreak and break-through of Lent and Holy Week, some would say even Eastertide. Join with Paul in giving thanks to God and making prayers for all people – and this can be easy: just say, “Thank you” and “I’m sorry,” let’s say, twenty times each day. Say thank you for a morning stretch, a hot shower, a good cuppa, the voices and faces of friends and family you love, the surprise of bird song, some music on the radio, a smile from a stranger, a flower that just bloomed. Just say thanks for the blessings life bestows from beginning to end right here in the middle. Let your thanks-givings rise up like fireworks on the most beautiful night of the year. Just say thanks.

And say, “I’m sorry” too for all the right reasons. For other people in pain, for your own personal failures and foibles that cause trouble, for the burdens of the heart, mind, and body we all carry that weigh so heavy, pray for those who are doing the best that they can and still suffer, for those who live where there is war and famine, injustice and oppression. Join Paul and Jesus and the church to carry some of the pain in the world in your own heart and let it tear you apart just a little, just enough to let your tears fall for the world God loves, and then give those tears, the torn-apart places in thanksgiving to God as a faithful action for the redemption and renewal of the world.

For carrying both the hope of thanksgiving and an appreciation for human sorrow, human frailty, gives you both the light of Epiphany and leads you into the Lenten journey as well. Taking up this practice of bearing both the good and bad, the joy and sadness links you to the God who stretches out to this contradictory world with compassion in all its crossroad, witnessing in this work just how, as John’s Gospel puts it, “The light shines in darkness.”

There we join Jesus in the long road home, knowing it won’t be easy to carry that hopeful truth, to let love live in our live and the lives of others, but to commit to share that blessing, that way, as long as we can; to let love live.

Surprisingly enough, committing ourselves to these practices can mean letting go of some things: not making up our minds too often or too soon, allowing ourselves to meet  those times of trial in the strident demands of evil actors and actions which question our answer and ask for our allegiance.

For, going to the Gospel, if the question for Jesus is, “Do we pay money to the Emperor?,” maybe our question is close: “Do we offer tribute to the Empire?” First century Israel was occupied territory, under the rule and the sword of Roman rulers who demanded that Caesar be acknowledged as the Lord of the world. The question that was posed to Jesus then was a kind of card game with strong and strident powers and principalities holding the trump card, and variations of that game still stand now. Will power win over the hope of peace? Does money dominate mercy? Will avarice and injustice succeed in killing love? How can Christ’s peaceable kingdom come in this bloody world of war? It isn’t easy to open our heart, reach out our arms in times like that. It never was.

In the end, a modern Buddhist writes, there are two kinds of people; those who aren’t afraid to kill, and those who aren’t afraid to die. In todays Gospel  Jesus comes back with an answer  — give Caesar what is Caesar’s - that lightens the way and lets love live for a while. But the powers won’t let that be for long. So I honestly fear that the only way to know if love will live is to give our lives to love with a hopeful faith, to take the bet that that we live in a love that comes closer and goes farther than our understanding can easily reach. And that points us somewhere beyond Good Friday and Eastertide to the promised road to Pentecost and the spirit of Christ, of God’s word of love, that is, as Augustine says, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

So keep praying, in word and deed, to see where God just was, to see where God might want to be, to where God might call you to follow, to find the hope in the journey to larger life, to the heart of love; here, now and always.

In the name of Christ.

Amen.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Beyond Ice, from the Wangaratta Chronicle, 20 October 2017


We live in an addictive world: whether sex or sugar, fitness or food, money, nicotine, alcohol, ice or other drugs; it can be very easy to get hooked into habitual pattens of behaviour that start out offering appropriate rewards and end up with diminishing returns. But it is important to remember that these dead end options can open to life-changing opportunities to change, grow and thrive.

Many years ago a friend of mine went to a very wise person to ask where he could find happiness, wholeness, health. She told him to go to where the tension was hiding in his life. As the Chinese language translates the word “crisis” as “dangerous opportunity,” so anyone can find new strength in looking at the issues that surround addictive or habitual behaviour. They can be the raw fuel that opens our lives to new opportunities for mental, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth.

Both the crisis and the opportunity can happen to anyone, we’d all be surprised by the number of people who’ve found a lingering problem with habitual substances. To quote a clergyman I’ve known for a few decades:

You don’t think you really have a problem, you smoke weed, or you enjoy a drink or drug, or food feeds you, or sex, coffee, relationships, whatever. It isn’t a real big deal, it is a safe little corner for comfort and self-care really and you aren’t hurting anybody, except yourself maybe, much. But there have been a few folks making little remarks, and you notice that schedules and laundry and appointments and expectations get put off, and you really hate that fuzzy feeling some mornings and let’s face it, more and more afternoons, and what used to be a little safety valve has gotten bigger now, and it feels like something that you used to think was important might leak out, like your life, except that your life is now deeply  tied in with this most intimate refreshing little rite, ritual, relationship with a substance, and you wonder sometimes if you use it or it uses you. And you never expected to see yourself on this corner, really at a dead end, wondering where to go from here. 

What happened to him can happen to anyone. And what he found was that that dead end was also an open door to a new beginning!

So if you worry about the way you use substances or relationships, see it as a new opportunity! Explore your options by meeting with other people who can talk honestly and openly about their experience, both failure and success, and can share what its like to deal with old limits and find new freedom; check out options in substance and behaviour management; whether mindful using, harm-minimisation, abstinence. I’ll bet you’ll see lives changed, options opened, miracles happen.

It’s a dangerous opportunity for growth and change and it is a chance too good to miss!

Robert Whalley is a retired Anglican priest from California, where he worked for many years with people recovering from substance abuse. He can often be found around Holy Trinity Cathedral in Wangaratta.



Sunday, October 08, 2017

Pentecost 18A: Necessities and Intuitions...

In her book on The Wisdom Jesus the Anglican priest and writer Cynthia Bourgeault quotes a Texas preacher who says, in the end we’re all just supposed to be nice because “Jesus is Nice!”

There’s some truth there, but when we go back to first lesson and the Ten Commandments, the  thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking — or on to the Gospel with the vineyard workers running amuck, cooking the books, stiffing the stranger, abusing the help, fighting the family, and finally even killing the son who comes to right the wrong; we don’t find a lot of nice and easy models.

So this morning I want to center on Paul’s Epistle, and part of this comes from a series of recorded talks I’ve been listening to by the Franciscan Richard Rohr called, “Great themes of Paul: Life as Participation.” Fr Rohr says the Letter to the Philippians  was written by Paul of Tarsus from his confinement in a prison cell some ten years after he helped found the church in Philippi in around 51 AD. According to Rohr, the community at Philippi, one of the first  church communities in what is currently Greek Macedonia, would’ve been not much more than 40 people.

Now the original letter was written in Koine Greek but here’s an informal translation of the Greek by the contemporary American Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson — which you might want to compare with the printed version in the order of service:

You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book. The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant… I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ— I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it. I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.

Isn’t that an exciting translation? And I believe everyone here shares that kind of hunger to hear the voice of God, even though we know God’s word can break us to pieces, can crush our old lives, can call us to judgment; but Paul shows us it is worth the risk of losing this old life in order to come to  live in the new light of the resurrection. That’s what his epistle is talking about in a very particular and sometimes nerve-wracking way.

Because Paul is one of those people who answers any question or problem with two alternatives, puts everything into two categories: so you have law and commandments on one hand with grace and love on the other; the people of Israel on one hand with the body of Christ on the other; we can be observing the traditions and doing good works on one hand, or holding faithful hope in the new creation on the other hand. It’s like a juggling act! And I think the reason he spreads the vision so wide is to force us to choose what the most important point, the very crucial thing, might be. He focuses us to listen intently to what the voice of God, the word of Christ, carried by the breath of the spirit, might mean right here and now —to encourage us to decide how we can live out, follow that newborn truth into the larger realms of life, death, resurrection, and return; into that real world where Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.

For here Paul is encouraging us by saying he is letting his old life go — with all those deep credentials  — in order to walk with Jesus anew into these mysterious depths of the human condition, into death and what might live beyond death, to come to the resurrection enlightening all our old history with a newborn hope. So he farewells his old accounting, accruals, equities, credentials and credibility structures, to allow a life based on history and law and clan and custom to die and to become a new creation as his own naked and immediate response to the love of the God in whom we are called in the light of Jesus Christ. And I believe Paul would say that each of us is also here, to say Yes to the God who is in Christ and calling us here and now.

But that isn’t easy, nor should it be: for being awake and alive today is a life or death situation: a particular time for personal decision and dedication about what matters in the end as well as what we do here and now.

Maybe there are two sides to this:

As C. S. Lewis writes in The Great Divorce, there are two kinds of people, “Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done;’

As the German pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls you, he calls you to die;”

But maybe there is just one truth.

As Paul will write in a later letter to the church gathering in Rome, not long before his own martyrdom, “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

Can you hear and see the juggling, focusing on the centre of the situation, pointing to the call coming in the crisis of the present moment when we meet God’s presence in our lives and the necessity of making a choice here and now?

Where do we go when we are at the end of a rope, in the middle of a sentence, at the beginning of the rest of our lives? Maybe we can just take a breath, just like it was the first time, and give it all over, trusting the one  that Paul calls us to follow, this God in Christ who offers infinite faith, hope, love, patience, every day and here and now and always.
Maybe we can just trust Jesus to be a lot more than nice.

Like Eugene Peterson puts it:

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.

May it be so for all of us.

Amen

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Today’s sermon

It may be being 71 but I’ve been remembering lots of things lately; that I went to dancing classes in the  early spring of 1958 when I was 12 years old at the Crocker Dance Academy on 38th and Jay Street in Sacramento, California during my first semester in the 7th grade and there was a girl named Virginia Otwell attending from my school and there was at least one diagram of something called a box step painted on the floor of the main studio.

My understanding is the box step was invented and even patented, by a man named Arthur Murray, who, with his wife Katherine, founded a worldwide chain of Dance Studios, all with the box step, at least one, painted on the floor; so we may have had an unauthorised version. 

Now the box step consists of six moves,  left foot forward, right foot moving alongside, but not too close, then the left food joining together with right foot, the right foot moving backwards, the  left foot moving alongside, but at a distance, and then both feet finally together again. The diagram helped for awhile, but it also tended to box you in, make you think there was only one way to do this, which is not the whole truth about dancing, but is what you have to get beyond in learning to really move, and that I think tells us something about the tension between following the law as compared with following love.

Now it’s important to note the diagrams, the blueprints, the rules and laws and standards are  not wrong, for they, and the kind of knowledge they stand for, tell us how much, how many, where and when; gives line, outline, location and that’s very important. But other ways of knowing go deeper into questions of who and how and why; get you moving better, swivel your hips, so to speak, get your hands going, push your breath a bit. And that second way of moving into life differs from the legal and  diagrammatic knowledge as recipe and formula differs from bread and wine, as studying a road map from beginning a journey, as looking at a house plan from building and moving into a new home. And I think in the long run we need to leave those first steps behind and dance more freely with the deeper stories — the ones that stop us in our tracks and turn us around, gasping for new air and wide-eyed, looking at who and where we are as if we are seeing everything for the very first time.

That’s where we meet today’s story from Matthew’s gospel. Three acts: a slave owes his king lots of money;  king orders the slave and his belongings be sold for partial payment could be made; the slave pleads for patience, king feels compassion, and forgives the whole shebang. Second act: slave sees another slave who owes him less and demands payment; second slave pleads for mercy but is thrown in prison. Third act; Fellow slaves report this to king, who summons slave saying: "I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I did on you?" And hands him over to be tortured until he pays the entire debt. And Jesus summarises, “God will do the same to every one, If you do not forgive your brother or sister in your heart."

The truth is the gospel is full of nasty stories with tough endings and Jesus tells them to shake up our tendency to diagram, to destabilise our rigid accounting and conceptual structures. Because Jesus wants, I think, to break them open at precisely the right time to give us a new angle and insight on what is right in front of us and how we can start again. So the tough truth is that looking head-on at a bad ending can serve as a way to begin again. Quoting Ecclesiasticus: "Remember the end of your life, and cease from enmity, Remember destruction and death, and be true to the commandments."

So here’s another memory: in the mid eighties there were several TV shows about the effects of a nuclear holocaust: terrible pictures of the light and the wind and the fire that would follow dropping those big bombs. And even if we survived, it would be a silent world where bees, birds and the “dumb” animals had been blinded by that false light. So the spring following would have fewer colours, less song after that infernal grey blossom had fallen.

I was in seminary then and whenever I would hear the campus bells striking the hour I would stop what I was doing and look at the possibility that it all might end. To look around while the bells were ringing, and people, animals, plants and trees were moving and breathing together and think: "It could all be over, vanished, finished." And when the bells stopped ringing and the sounds of everyday came back I would look around and think; "There is a chance, we are not dead yet."

We need to forgive each other because we are not dead yet — and there is a chance in a  mysterious and graceful way, that we are newborn, like children, full of possibilities, full of innocence and promise, full of beginning. We have that choice.

The man in the story Jesus tells makes an error when he doesn't take the chance to renew himself and the world where he lives. Instead, he looks to get it for half-price, accepting the fact of mercy and forgiveness given him but not passing it on to others. And that’s what ends up cutting him in two!

For Jesus says that the measure you put out is the measure you receive. Like the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” like the Beatle’s White Album, “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” We are called to be coworkers in the harvest, spreading forgiveness and blessing based on how much we give and how much we give up. For, I think, in forgiving others we allow them the chance to be born anew: we assent and assist in the birth of God in this daily world; allowing the possibilities of the mystery and forgiveness and renewal of God's life to begin once again: in them, in us.

This is not to say that you need to check your mind at the gate. This does not mean you lose all your choices. You don't have to keep patting the dog who bites you, but you need to know what you can share with each other on the deepest level of it all, where we can all begin again.

And that’s why the truth of forgiveness does not fit on a diagram or a flowchart; because the real actions of life are both bigger and finer than that: we are born to move and to dance in the middle of a moving mystery that will always, by Gods grace, be beyond what we know. 

So in late March of 1958 I attended the Spring Dance at Kit Carson Junior High School and danced with Virginia Otwell. The decorated gymnasium was crowded and hot and the music was loud and there were no diagrams on the floor. I think I stepped on her feet several times and she may have even stepped on mine. But we got through it, making mistakes, making progress, forgiving each other,  dancing a  bit closer and faster, moving on. I don’t know whatever happened to her, haven’t thought of her for over fifty years, but I am glad to be dancing with you today. 


 Amen

Friday, September 15, 2017

Funeral Sermon for J. L.

One of the good things about being a retired priest is that you don’t have to go to church unless you really want to – so sometimes on Sunday I stay in bed with my iPad for devotional reading and meditation — and there is an app for that — and other times I go to church and am surprised how much I enjoy sitting back and watching, being fed, even though I’ve always  known Christianity can be a great spectator sport.

But on Wednesday mornings at 10 AM I sometimes show up at the Lady Chapel – off here to the side — for a weekday mass. It’s a small group, 6, 8, 12 or more people sometimes, sometimes music, sometimes not, often I am one of the younger people — except I kept seeing Jude there in the last few months. I had met her and C. here right after the Jazz Mass some eight years ago, remember her telling me how proud she was of C. singing in the choir, and now here we were on Wednesday mornings and I wondered why.

Let me tell you more by sharing another memory; in the late 1950s there was a US TV show called American Bandstand where the host would invite people to dance to a new song and then give it a score. Some would say, “the message was good but there’s no rhythm” or conversely, “I didn’t understand the words but I sure can dance to it!”

Now most people don’t think of the mass, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper or Holy  Communion, if you like, as one of Christianity’s greatest hits; and fewer would think of it as a participatory sport, or as any kind of a dance, but at heart it really is. It’s not the only one.

I once wrote a paper called “Serving God” on the theology of tennis. I said that playing the game was a pleasurable way of hoping and holding, opening to the deep holiness contained in every moment of time. It was, I wrote, “to serve, receive, and return bright vehicles of meaning” and I went on to say the only difference between tennis and theology is that in tennis love means nothing and in theology it means everything. And that is what the Eucharist is like.

You see, Jesus, this human of mercy and compassion and principal, is gathering his community together for what looks like the Last Supper and he gets hold of the bread and the wine and links them up to the actions of his life in four simple steps: take, bless, break, share. And we’ve been trying to dance to that ever since.

What I think it means is; Jesus takes up his whole life, his wants and needs, hopes and fears, plans and possibilities and blesses them with this ever enlarging understanding of light, love, charity, compassion, call it God if that works. He lets that hopeful possibility break down, breakthrough, break into the particulars of his situation whatever the end may be, and open it up, and he shares that life and death action with the community he cares about the best he can, even invites them (invites us) to participate in this as much as we like.

So if tennis means serve, receive, return: then Jesus means take, bless, break, share. Either one is a way to dance with love that you can do ‘round the altar, on the court,  at dinner, in bed: wherever and whenever life turns ‘round and the road looks new or the destination dubious, whether  you’re angry, scared, alert, whatever — it’s the perfect  dance for the middle of life and death.

And my hunch was J. was there, doing those steps well. I don’t know why or what lyrics or music, because nobody really knows anybody else’s story, but I had this strong sense that she was involved in some great and important steps in the dance. It wasn’t too much later that I heard she was sick and getting sicker and when  Fr Ken told me she was in intensive care I went to see her and she wasn’t in good shape and I talked and prayed with her and her family, and then came back a few days later and on the following day she died peacefully.

OK. One of the most amazing things about being a human being is that you get to share some very vulnerable moments; and I don’t think J. would mind if I told you that I am convinced she was doing those steps all the way up to the end, moving with Jesus in that four step rhythm of “take, bless, break, share.”

You can go a long way with those moves; taking up all your life and looking with love on where to go next, letting yourself be blessed by the hope of a reality that’s bigger than you know, willing yourself to be broken open to some new understanding of how to share love in the middle of all this difficult and wonderful existence.

And J. was there, her breath getting softer and closer to the end in every inhalation and exhalation, the receiving and relinquishing, the taking up and letting go, she was living with love and love was with her all that time. And that’s what I want you to know — what I saw in J’s dying. Love living, love never ending, she was already where no one ever gets lost from love. We see that so dimly from here, but now I believe she knows it, breathes it, sees it now face-to-face. She finished the dance, she found that great peace, may we share that vision.

Amen

Monday, August 21, 2017

Last Friday morning in Ubud.



I’m lying by the swimming pool in the bottom of a canyon in the middle of Bali. A flock of darks swallows arc in the moist warm air under high clouds like translucent paper waves while sounds of machinery and construction underway nearby are joined by humming insects vibrating and singing in the green trees, vines and flowers that are everywhere. 

Beautiful women dressed in brown, green and orange are working here, cleaning the pool and offering incense. I feel the warm moist air, see the swallows circling like unfinished poetry over the waterway in this particular canyon, and know again that all the world is a word pregnant with love. Yes, death too, disappointments, misunderstandings, masses and messes of mediocrity too, all that, but love unending breathing in the warm middle of it.

Thus says the retired American Australian Anglican priest (poet, puer, pedant, possible fill in the blank with whatever) lazing by the pool in Ubud on the way home from a winter vacation and pilgrimage wondering about getting a manicure. After all, he ponders, these are hands assigned by the community, ordained by the church, anointed by the bishop to outline and indicate the rumour of God incarnate in the world — the good news of a feast in the country beyond words, to quote that famous Sufi or was it Rilke? Should I, after much silent prayer and noisy conversation, both fasting and feasting, and even enough sleep, take better care of the cuticles?

Across the ravine someone takes a seat by a stone or wooden figure and places flowers on the edge of the embankment, waves incense, kneels,  appears to watch me for a moment and leaves. The swallows circle while my iPad helps me by suggesting familiar words as I finger pad my way into making sense of my reflections of the day. Birds join the chorus and maybe some percussive instruments I can’t identify provides the central note or counterpoint. I make an appointment for a manicure in 25 minutes.

The Eucharist is the third greatest joy of my life. To stand in the gathering community and point with words and gestures to the loving mystery which centres and surrounds us is a salutary joy that still surprises me mightily after these seven years. Last Christmas during the fifth mass I wanted to dance in the air like these swallows and somehow I did.

There is only the dance, the remembering, reaching, falling, rising risky rhythm of celebration, sacrifice, summary in the middle of it all — always inconclusive and completely open to misunderstanding as well as miracles: the parable of the present moment.

This is our body, the hang ups and contradictions, the inevitabilities and accidents, the ambitions and aversions as well as everything else we have and hold and allow to be blessed and broken and shared in a community of care. All mixed together in this matrix of obedience to some nearer and further dimension of largesse we can never understand. Maybe the richest experience of existence is to be stretched out on the paradox of this mysterious yearning, where sometimes dried seeds bloom into life. Who knows?

The wind comes up for a moment, the bands of swallows seem to disappear then reappear, the air comes cooler. It’s time to get these hands clean!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Getting fired up with Jesus!

To start with a prayer by the nineteenth century Irish Christian patriot and poet Thomas Ashe:

“Christ, look upon us in this city, And keep our sympathy and pity Fresh, and our faces heavenward; Lest we grow hard.”

In her provocative and prayerful writings on the Christian Scriptures and tradition, Cynthia Bourgeault, a contemporary North American Anglican priest, speaks of the Jesus she sees in the Gospels as an “ignition event”. The Lord of life lights life up, it gets hot, things burn when he shows up, and I think she’s right. Because to come to see and know the wisdom of this Christ is to be changed beyond expectation. In this Bourgeault shows a deep understanding of life and love in the early church. She often quotes the fourth century desert fathers where “Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: ‘Father, to the limit of my ability, I keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and to the limit of my ability, I work to cleanse my heart of thoughts, what more should I do?’ The elder rose up in reply, and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: ‘Why not be utterly changed into fire?’”

Scripture is full of people who have utterly changed, lit up beyond their own experience and expectation into new and larger lives. You see them everywhere in the Gospels! Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night asking how someone can be born again; the woman with an issue of blood reaching out to touch the hem of his robe with the hope of healing; Zacchaeus the tax collector getting above himself and asking Jesus to come to dinner, repenting and righting all his past wrongs as he makes ready for this great feast. And today’s Gospel with this women making such scandalous trouble because she’s worried for her daughter’s illness.

Each and everyone stretching beyond who they thought they were and what they thought they could do, racing forward in this amazing hope: fearfully and faithfully reaching out to finds their world changed beyond what they thought possible before they first saw Jesus. Now coming face to face with the Lord of new life who comes to enlighten all creation, face to face with the God who embodies our human hope, all with their hearts beating hard and breathing deep into that love which is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

But it’s no easy task. The Canaanite women in todays Gospel would know she was taking a risk, getting “above herself.” For any good observing Jew of that time and in that neighbourhood would view her as something less than human, and more like an animal. Everyone would simply agree that she was not important enough to bother any right-thinking rabbi of the time. Yet she speaks out, reaches out to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter, and things heat up more than a bit.

It’s hard for us to see the scandal of it now, but in its time it would be ringing out like an obscenity uttered in a holy place. It was taken for granted knowledge that a tainted foreign woman does not call on a good Hebrew Rabbi and, conversely, that no son of David should ever acknowledge a loud outsider, an unbeliever; that’s how pure belief gets dirty and reputations get ruined. Everyone would agree that you just don’t do this, but she does!

What was she thinking, what drew her there that day? I think she saw this man who lived love beyond the boundaries or tribe and gender and culture, she saw the common call that weaves the world together, she saw love walking towards her, calling her to a new community of compassion and wholeness, she saw Jesus and thought; “this is my body, this is my blood, this is my love, this is my life.” And so in that faith she calls out in love to life for the life of her daughter.

And even when Jesus comes back with the coldest response imaginable — calling her a dog — she meets him where he is and asks for more: “Even the dogs can take the food that falls from the children’s table.”

We need to note that Jesus’ answer is horribly rough and makes this story tough to tell. It’s a nasty speech with a stridency that disturbs our easy suppositions on the ways of God in the world. But look deeper at this in the light: turn up the temperature. The woman who should not be there and the man who should know better — looking at each other, as if for the first time, and finding a new connection of necessity and love that heals and opens new life to them then and still speaks to us now.

It’s important here to remember that Jesus does change his mind in scripture; mainly in Mark, some in Matthew and Luke, ‘though hardly every if at all in John. And I think that’s wonderful! For here is Jesus in the middle of the human story, taking the risk of full relationship with us in all the wondrous and mysterious surprises of our unfinished human life, meeting us on our terms so that we might take a chance of life alongside him. And here is Jesus surprised and turning to the Canaanite woman saying “Great is your faith; your daughter has been made whole.”

What did Jesus see? He must have looked at her anew, seen her as a shining surprise of love dancing with all the hope and fear of her life, gaping for God’s grace. He must have thought, “This is my body, this is my blood as well!” And so her daughter’s healing happens.

Unfortunately that’s not what always happens,  and what of the times when the child is not healed, the prayer not granted, when the answer sought comes back as No? Because for most of us, most of the time, the miracle doesn’t come. But — and I say this most tentatively — could it be that what happens is the greater miracle?

What if Jesus just joins us in our defeat and death? Could that be enough? For here is Jesus in the middle of the human story, taking the risk of full relationship with us in all the wondrous and mysterious surprises of our unfinished human life so that we might take a chance of life alongside him. What if we’re called to follow him, walk with him passed the miracle that didn’t happen and on to the hard, sad journey to Jerusalem.

What if the final miracle is the one that happens on the other side of defeat and death (and only then) when the final healing, this larger life is opened for everyone? What if love only wins then? Can we walk that far and faithfully, be open for ignition, conversion on the long road home? Can we be changed to live into this largest expectation of life?

We’re here to expand our expectation, our belief that this kind of surprise, this recognition, this ignition event in the long-term, can still happen. We’re here to reach out our unqualified hands, to make our uncensored demands, as we can and must, to take ourselves seriously enough to call God to turn around and bless our wounded and wondrous ways; and (even when the answer doesn’t come as we would like) still consent to follow Jesus through life and death and the journey beyond, so that, in the end, we may all go home again together to that peace that passes understanding.

And my prayer today is that we all may learn to take this risk together.

“Christ, look upon us in this city,
And keep our sympathy and pity
Fresh, and our faces heavenward; Lest we grow hard.”


Pentecost 8A - 2017
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Wangaratta

Saturday, June 24, 2017

12th Sunday Ordinary Time, June 25, St Michael's Church, Wangaratta

Here’s a confession: the most important recurring words from our gospel this morning: “have no fear, do not fear, do not be afraid” give me some real trouble. For when someone says to me, “Don’t be afraid!” my immediate response is, “Afraid of what?” There’s a paradox there; the remark designed to bring peace, tranquility, and security ends up having exactly the opposite effect on me. So when Jesus says, “Have no fear,” I find the result can end up being somewhat counter-productive.

An example: sixteen years ago this month I moved in with John Davis at the vicarage of St. Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne. I was sitting at his desk catching up on emails to friends in America when he stopped at the door and said, “Now, don’t be alarmed.” My immediate response, “Is it on me?” I had heard too much about Australian spiders and snakes and at that point I wouldn’t have discounted an invasions of birds of prey or rabid wombats into that office. So he asked me to get up come to the door of the room and then turn around to see a smallish huntsman slowing moving ‘round the top of the wall. “Don’t be alarmed?” I have an extremely high opinion of John Davis as a man, theologian, priest, even, in theory, a teacher of pastoral care, but that remark remains the absolute essential example of how not to comfort someone in a dicey or dire situation.

But maybe “Do not be afraid,” as hard as it its to take, is good and faithful advice. It just takes awhile to get there from here. Because so many of us in the church who come to believe, need to pray and study and strive to believe because we start out so full of fear and doubt. I joined the church some fifty years ago when I was twenty-one, but for a long time I wasn’t sure about a God of love, because -– deep down -– I wasn’t that sure if I were really that loveable. Maybe that’s been true for you too?

Facing fear and replacing it with faith has to take time, like the prodigal son returning to the loving father, we have to walk slowly, losing our way and taking time to open us to the surprising sight of this scandalous Creator-God rushing towards us with such magnanimous love, such a surfeit of faith, freely sharing with us the celebration of hope we dare not hold for ourselves. We are here because we hold this hope.

But  that’s not to say it isn’t tough, because life can be an uphill struggle, and nobody gets out alive. That accounts for the desire to look for a God of victory like the one sought by Jeremiah, “Praise the Lord for he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” to save us from the bad times, the day of danger.

But the real danger with that vigilance approach is to fall into a kind of chronic paranoia: always looking for what is safe and what’s unsafe,
who’s good or bad, how to avoid failure and attain success. To split everything into two sides can fail to save room for a forgiveness, and inclusion, to find a loving look that can move through the middle and leave room for a victory for everyone. The danger is, again, that we can get so lost in the ways and wiles of the law we forget our way to the God of love. That’s what Paul is talking about in the letter to the Romans. Looking too hard the law can end up killing the very life of love we’re called to lead.

But how can we come to see how love might live so large? Perhaps it might take an unparalleled and faithful pilgrimage, an almost unbelievable action by one of us, for any of us to see how love might lead us to live into a  loved-filled life that is beyond our  dualistic distinctions, a place beyond fear, a peace beyond our very understanding.

It isn’t easy. And I have another confession. I think it’s tougher for us in Australia. We’re so damnably hopeful, even terminally optimistic! Listen to  the language: “Too easy, no worries, she’ll be right.” But that’s wrong, Everybody lives hard and dies alone. And the question is, if it doesn’t alway go right, where is that love when it goes wrong?

Can we learn from the pessimists here? My grandmother had a mother who came from Wales, a land of gloomy Celts, and her father was born of parents who were - I’d say - Germanic-depressive. I loved her deeply but she tended to be - let’s say, “Sensitive.” Her favourite quote from the New Testament was the shortest verse: “Jesus wept” — short and to the point. I’ll admit I like it a lot too.

How’s this for an Anglican compromise: “Jesus wept - Fear not!”

Maybe that’s the answer of how love lives in the face of death: with tears but without fear. Maybe that’s the way all of us prodigal sons and daughters can get the courage to turn, with all our incomplete understanding, in order to hear the that unfinished love song that’s written into the original cast recording of this Gospel life.

For Jesus’ faithful journey shows us how love lives with hate, how life lives with death, how eternity can even make room for mercy in every minute of time. Even when mayhem and murder make an end to everything we hope will last. Jesus still walks into the tears, the hunger, the thirst, the fear, and still faithfully finds for us an almost unbelievable beginning where love lives forever in the last place you’d look. Even there, especially there; and if there, then everywhere. And he gets there by going through the middle of it all. There’s where the Good News comes; we need not be afraid, we have such a companion, such a redeemer on this shadowed way, into the light.

But it does take longer than we expect, and I think it only ripens in the daily context of relationship, community, kindness, care, tears, doubt and faith. That crisis of the huntsman in 2001 got better when John Davis explained to me that these large spiders did not carry guns or often kidnap two-legged victims and were in fact known to be docile unless you were a fly or mossie; they really were not too bad to have  around the house. But it took awhile; and now almost 20 years later I almost believe him.

So in the same way over time our relationship with Jesus changes our relationship with our enemy, our neighbour, and our very selves -– all may be seen in the same miraculous sunrise now, in light of the love that comes so close and go so far to create a new community with room for everyone, even them, even us.

It's a long road home, but fear not.
You’ll make it through alive, so fear not.
You’re in good company, do not fear.

In the name of Christ, Amen.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

From last night, the Feast of St John...


When I was a little boy early in the 1950s I used to love to do something, anything really, that would surprise and/or confuse my grandmother, who would then  respond by saying. "Stop it," and then calling me by the name of every other male member of the family until she got to my name as the youngest grandchild: “Herb, Tommy, Marvin, Bobby!” When I was lucky she’d even bring in my mother’s cousins “Wilfred, Harold, Clifford!” In any case it always ended in laughter. And whoever I was, I was a member of the family.

But this list got bigger as I got older. I remember being told I was like my father because I like to read, like my mother because I was funny, like my uncle Herb because I was intelligent and sometimes sarcastic, and like my aunt Mildred because I could have a temper. “What can I say?” I responded when I was around nine, “I’m like the whole 'fan damily.'” Which got a laugh even though it was pretty racy for 1955.

I thought of this today because we celebrate a major family feast tonight, remembering our ancestor, the apostle John who, the tradition tells us, wrote the fourth Gospel as well as the epistles that carry his name. St John, the beloved friend of Jesus, who followed the Lord to the cross,  to the empty tomb, to the resurrection, who some would remember we form writing the Revelation to John and others would emphasise had provided a home at Ephesus for the Virgin Mary until the end of her life on earth. Anyway he is worth celebrating.

Nowadays we tend look at our ancestors with 21st-century eyes and sometimes that does us a disservice. We want all the facts -- like we get from the newspapers or the Internet, but that keeps us from seeing the most important thing, choosing the best part: which is that they look like us, we look like them, we are members of the same family.

That means we’re like Martha, who worked hard to be helpful and hospitable and sometimes got caught in details,  like Mary who listened intently and let it be with her according to God’s word, like Peter, who listened too little and talked too much and eventually  and surprising grew up to be a good and godly man, like Paul who was born too late and could be incredibly argumentative and high maintenance yet came to see God’s sunrise and resurrection making the whole world new by the blinding, renewing, reminding grace he saw in the lightning love of Jesus. Even finally like John who knew the word of God, Jesus Christ, the love of God in the flesh, Jesus who came to pitch his tent in the middle of our human being, loving us deeply with the mighty love of God and the intimate breath of the spirit in a way that still passes all our human understanding

It’s sort of like what I told my grandmother in 1955, “we are members of the same blessed family” and they are members of us, there and then as well as here and now: joining us on the journey and accompanying us all the way so that we can to find the way back, calling us to be members of the clan, to enjoy the great family reunion, this great feast of love here and now. That’s what it means to be the church!

And they’re all here: apostles and martyrs and saints and strangers; ancestors and descendants, parents and sons and daughters and cousins, aunts and uncles and others we hardly remember and perhaps never knew. People we thought were lost all found, all gathering round, all rejoicing in God’s loving word of compassion, this Jesus who comes to be a sign and sacrament, the way, the truth, the life of who we are and who we will always be – the beloved of God.

As I get older my memory goes, and my memory for names was never very good, but I know who you are, and I know who I am, because I see the family resemblance –- see love lighting us up as it enlightened St John, so that as, St Augustine says, in the gathering actions of this Eucharist we behold what we see and become what we are: God’s self giving gift, the spirit of love, the body of Christ.

Amen

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter 2017

If there were ever a phrase that set my teeth on edge, it happens when I am asked if I “have a personal relationship with Jesus.” I’m never sure exactly what the questioner means but it puts me in mind of snapshots of couples who wear matching t-shirts, or go to the movies together, hug tightly and often and a bit too smugly, who are too self-consciously cute.

But a year or two ago I was walking down oven Street by the chemist across from Safeway when I saw this older Italian woman walking towards me. I remember her as dignified, a few years older than I am, carrying herself well but still with the feeling of having had a fairly busy day behind her. And she was walking with what I took to be a grandson or a great-grandson who was involved with some amazing game known only to himself. Every step was an adventure! Raising his knees and taking a breath and setting his foot down and raising his other leg up higher and looking like he was on the edge of winning some great prize known only to him. I can’t remember if he was intent on touching or avoiding the cracks on the sidewalk, but it was very involved and very important. And his grandmother, having had a busy day, watched him with a kind of weary graceful love as they passed me by. And I smiled because I had seen something quite simple and very human and amazingly beautiful on the sidewalk on Ovens Street that was completely unexpected. And at that moment I met the eyes of a woman who had been following the grandmother and grandchild and we had seen the same thing from a different angle. And our eyes met and we smiled together — and we had what I would call a personal relationship!

In that sense a personal relationship with Jesus makes sense to me. A sense that we’re in this together, that I’ll meet you here in the middle! but it doesn’t have to be hand in hand or arm in arm for a photo shoot. sometimes it can be a surprise! I remember, at nineteen, the first time I was touched by seeing people kneeling to pray, shocked, touched that people would openly acknowledge their incompleteness, their unfinished lives: what were they seeing, what could they trust to take that step to their knees and then go on: and i wanted what they were leaning into, could I please have what they are having?

Relationships grow in a common concern, what we share in common, what pictures come that move our hearts together: and in any relationship it grows over time if we’re lucky. I joined the church because of a need for social acceptance and relief for a long loneliness, but I grew into the church, and it into me, into this amorphous relationship because of singing good hymns and joining the choir, meeting young people and getting involved with the youth group, hearing about a book and going to a bible study one Lent. And the church, the message and momentum, the people gathered there and the good news too grew into me and changed me;

The scripture and tradition changed me. I remember hearing the Beatitudes and realising that the poor, lonely and lost were loved and that meant me too, with all my hidden sadness, that I was incorporated into this body of love; I remember realising that loving the neighbour meant not only that everybody was, by God’s grace, deeply loveable, and so was I! I remember being a little inconvenienced by the idea that not only was I not the piece of dirt in the middle of the universe, but that the middle of the universe was self-giving, life living love, lovely light that shines in the darkness which can never quite understand it, but love that is there before the beginning, which aims to meet us in the middle and means to mend this free-wheeling, which sometimes seems to be out of control, universe until it meets the end, which it aims to be love, and something more.

Some days I believe this a lot, other days I can only hope. But over time the community, the tradition, the stories told, the people gathered, accumulated into a series of God-shaped events which keeps calling me and somehow keeps moving us all together. I’ve talked here about how the Jesus stories in the Gospels function like a flip book, moving to show how Jesus moves, leading us like a dance lesson to move the same way. We come here to see the body of Christ, so that we can be the body of Christ, in the middle of the songs and stories, the miracles and misunderstandings, all the edges of anger and violence and virtue and love and hate clashing and even hanging around together to witness the senseless death of a good person in a world where so much goes wrong for no good reason, and something more.

In the last few months I watched a good friend die: enter into that mystery with some gravity and grace and an awareness of the unfinished nature of the journey that comes in the middle of human being; I saw him on the edge of the mystery, with just hints of that lovely light, that hidden love in which we are all called. But enough to watch with hope, to continue on the journey.

Jesus is there, in the long journey, in the letting go, in the hidden light in the love that lasts; and Jesus is here too, in our Sunday gatherings, in communion and coffee and tea and treats and trials and all the business of learning to live together in love day by day in El Dorado and Wangaratta. In the middle of a world where so much goes wrong and still love lives moment by moment in the midst of all our fragility and faith and something more to which we ripen, rise, are called to follow along this pilgrim way.

Just lean deeply into how love lives, the surprise, the little boy lost in the great game that goes on, step by step, love in the middle, life beyond life, holiness in the heart of here and now: for we are the body of Christ.

Amen

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Well then, well now: Samaritian strangers and the stranger within...


There was a short day almost thirty years ago where I thought, except for some trouble with my car, that I pretty much had it all together, and then I found I was wrong and that turned out to be a real relief!

It was mid-day and I was waiting on the empty subway platform in San Fransisco on the way to a meeting to discuss my work as a youth minister and my possible professional future. And then this black guy, African American came up alongside of me on the platform and I could see that he wasn’t walking too steady and his clothes looked a little rough and he might have smelled, though from work or dirty clothes or booze I don’t remember. And he said, “Where do I get the train to Oakland?” and he was right next to me.

So I looked towards the track to our right and said, “I think you’ll find it over there.” And he raised his voice a bit and said, “I don’t want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.” And I looked down and said, “It’s right over there.” And he said, “Look at me!” And I took a breath and looked up at him – and I saw a man who was probably a bit older than I, and tired, probably harder working than I had ever been, who had a few scars and some real serious dignity that he had likely had to fight for over the years.  And I felt sorry, both for him and, more surprisingly, for me, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. And I looked at him and said, “the train for Oakland will be on this platform. And he looked at me for a minute and then said, “Thank you,” and walked away.

And I saw something about me that I hadn’t seen before: how narrow I was, how snobbish, self-serving and insulated by my own concerns from a world that was big and unpredictable and unsafe and full – maybe – of messengers of God that I might have overlooked in my narrowness of vision. I saw that day that I didn’t see much, about myself and about Gods’ world at all.

Today’s Gospel reminds me of that encounter. It starts with a wide-angle shot where nobody seems to see anybody in any detail. Jesus asks the woman at the well for some water and she’s amazed that he doesn’t seem to see she is Samaritan – someone that a good Jew would avoid, keep away from, not share water, utensils, let alone conversation, And she tells him this, then they start talking for real. The pictures become close-ups.

Jesus says something very direct. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

So maybe the Samaritan woman sees that there is someone, something out of the ordinary here; worth the chance of a direct encounter and she looks at him, and says,  “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water…are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well? She asks him questions concerned with practicality, history, culture and custom

Then Jesus comes back with one of those memorable one-liners that make the Gospel of John such a majestic document. ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

And if they weren’t looking at each other face to face before, now there’s nothing else in the world but these two looking at each other. And she says, ‘Sir, give me this water.” and a quick and very direct dialogue follows: one, two three.

“Go, call your husband, and come back.”
“I have no husband.”
“Right… you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

Now pull back and pause for four quick questions: what would you do you if you saw the saviour? What would do you do if the savour  saw you? What do you do when the one who is the ultimate word of God’s love and knowledge and compassion and concern is face to face with you  and telling you the story of your life?

The man on the subway platform in San Francisco forced me to look at him, and in that moment I saw parts of myself that I had never seen before. But I also realised that when we were looking at each other, when he forced me to meet him face to face, that he forgave me. It took me a little longer to come to terms with the depth of my racism and classism and the shallowness of my egoism: all that took awhile and in some way it is still working its way out. But that was my problem, not his. He had already forgiven me. It was both all over and all new at that moment.

So can you imagine what it would feel like for that woman? All the mistakes made, the wrong roads taken, the commandments broken and defenses and denials made up to protect the little girl who got lost on the wrong way a long time before: most of us know something about that path. Then to have Jesus look on you and know you, and love you and forgive you: all over and all new at that moment. Think of the deep breath you might take at that moment.

Three more questions. What if we looked at all our own history with the deep love and forgiveness of God that we see in Jesus Christ? What if we could see our way clear to forgive and love ourselves that much? What if we could forgive and love each other too?

Amen.