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.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Loving Lent!

25 years ago this week while I was in my second year as a Resident Minister at the University of San Francisco I tried to write some poems for the students I lived and worked with — and one in particular that responds to todays Gospel reading. Now be kind… I was only in my forties and I was writing so that the sense of the season might speak to people in their late teens and early twenties.

The Gospel for today starts ...

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

And here's the first of my Advice for Three Tests in the Wilderness:

Part One
So you’re hungry in any desert
And somebody comes ‘round hawking junk food;
Spiritual tim-tams, high calorie cola, ice cream.
I scream Wait for the wheat, wine and water,
Contemplate complex carbohydrates, nourishment is coming,
Living Bread is on the way.”

Here’s a question: Do you ever yearn for the perfect diet? When I was young in California there was a liquid diet called Metrical, three cold cans a day and the fat fired off. Since then we've have Jenny Craig and  Lite and Easy and all sorts and conditions of ways to waste excess weight away — and I am one of a number of friends who have lost and gained many pounds that way.

But Jesus just says no to the magic of food, and yes to a larger issue of of how we share and consume in community. For food means company, not just company for dinner, but many, different people in a common cause. For what we eat and drink has been touched, gathered, lifted up by workers in the fields, harvesters, processors, moved by ship, truck and train to market with many hands holding, refining the food from the land; bringing it all together. All this before it comes to the table to be broken and shared.

And Christ opens his arms, his full life saying, “This is my body, this is my blood!” Jesus says I am willing to be known in this Eucharist, and I tell you I will be here, but prepare to meet me in the entire world, because in my love I have taken up with the body and blood of all humankind and all creation. This bread and wine are means of my love to you, but I mean to love you everywhere, in everything, in everyone!

Here’s the second temptation from Matthew’s Gospel:

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

And the second stage of my poem from 1992:

You have achieved a sensible diet
When some dude advocates practising spiritual bungee-jumping
without the rope, leaping freely into the possibilities of God.
Avoid this test. You didn’t design the course,
Appropriate pop quizzes will arrive in time, and
The final exam must be lived through to be believed.

Now a personal confession: I used to think it would be really nice to get out of here alive, sometimes I still do, But Jesus doesn't, and that always stops me, makes me want to work it out differently; and here I quote from Walden by Henry Thoreau:

“Let us settle ourselves and work and wedge our feet downwards it through the mud and slush of opinion and prejudice and tradition delusion and appearance… Through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, to we come to a bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality say, this is, and no mistake; and then began.”

And to quote a sermon I wrote in the early nineties.

“The cross is reality, with no mistake, about the limitations and the struggle the death that come with being human. It is a sign of finitude and flesh and blood and it is also a picture of what happens to a human being when that one cries out too loudly over the inept inequities of a corrupt society and the transactions of a dishonest people. It has many shades and forms and we can see it on our TV screens every day.

“But just as the cross is the deepest truth about who we are, so it is the deepest truth about who and how God is and how and where God will meet us. And the good news is that we see the cross with a double view. It is both a dead end and an opening door, which work together to change not less than everything. For Jesus has died on the cross, and if we take up our cross, if we move to meet our endings, our limits, he will be with us in our dying. And Jesus Christ is alive, raised from the dead, and when we go beyond what we know of our limits, into the greater realm of unknowing, the farther reaches of our unfinished journey, we will meet him and he will bring us to his final freedom where, as St. Paul writes, ‘what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.’”

Here’s the third Gospel temptation:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

And the third level of my poem:

He is willing to negotiate. Can set you  up with a franchise;
Oh, powerbroker, Glory-monger, Spiritual Stretch limousine driver!
To reply, just say No. He’s faking it, The guy is small change.
While the all-powerful is making ready to give you
No less than everything as a gift.

Let me finish with a hopeful question: Isn’t it interesting that we see death as the end when it’s actually in the middle? You see Good Friday and Easter are really a coming attractions for the greater glory of living a life that is larger than any death we can see from here. Remember it might take forty days to live through Lent and get to the dead end, but then we need fifty days and a whole new season post resurrection to rise to the occasion of living as a Pentecost people, learning to live and move and have our being day to day on this horizon of eternity. And how do we do serve that larger reality to which we are called? Very simply, I think, and only day by day by day.

We’re working with this in the Lenten series starting tonight at 7:30 in Purbrick Hall (to which, by the way, all of you are most cordially invited) We're spending the next five weeks pondering five marks of love that prepare us for living and loving this larger life: Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure. and how they has to do with diet and death and doing right day by day by day in light of this great and costly promise to which we are called. Again, I hope you can come tonight.

My San Francisco poem ends like this:

Take comfort,
Be Fed,
Continue on the way.

But Matthew sees a wider vision, he writes: “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Others sources even add “wild animals” as well.

In any case, it’s not a chance you’d want to miss. Have a wonderful Lent!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Post-heroic spirituality on the way home....

The poet Ann Hillman writes this:

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for

clear-cut answers

to a softer, more permeable aliveness

which is every moment

at the brink of death;

for something new is being born in us

if we but let it.

We stand at a new doorway,

awaiting that which comes…

daring to be human creatures,

vulnerable to the beauty of existence.

Learning to love.

Fifty years ago a Buddhist teacher in the US was asked for a two word definition of his religion; he said, “Things Change.” This is true in my own understanding of Christianity. In the last few months I’ve done  some reflection and writing on how we make a rule of life for ourselves as well as how we might work with others in sharing, a “spiritual inventory” or formal confession based on such a rule of life. And it’s taken me back some twenty-something years when I taught a couple of classes using three particular definitions for spirituality, god and religion: it made me realise how much things change.

Spirituality, I said then, was what happens when the air gets fresh, when you’re surprised, refreshed, renewed. For the students I worked with it could be seeing a loved one, picking up a child, cooking, walking, swimming, loving.

A god was anything that offers a blessing and asks for a sacrifice. I told people to find it looking at their check books and calendars. I remember one wonderful woman telling me that her god was with her partner and child and the mortgage they sacrificed and saved for together.

And all this led to a definition of religion, which is how we line up what matters: we can even see it in our bodies: Head - what we think is important; Heart - what is pulling at our feelings; Gut - where our strongest convictions wait, and Groin - down there in what Monty Python called the naughty parts with our deepest passion and desires. All put together mapping out our lives and waiting to be lined up for the battle.

I might have used those categories myself almost fifty years ago when I joined the church. My search for spirituality came because I was a shy and scared kid craving community and connection, needing friends and a focus and a faith that I was seen and valued and maybe even loved. So I followed the God of the Anglican Church (The Episcopal Church in the USA), and the hope I saw in these communities of Jesus: the traditions, the scriptures, that I found in the hearts of several parishes and finally seminaries all helping my understanding of what it meant to be alive, be accepted, to loved and loving, and this continues. But over the years it’s changed a lot for me, and I bet for you too…

Because the Good News at 21 evolved and changed some in my thirties, and more in my  forties and fifties and even lately in my sixties and seventies because God keeps growing - growing both bigger and growing closer. Like the19th century hymn puts it,

“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

So even getting older, it seems we must still upward and onward and this isn’t always easy, epecially when we come to the Sermon on the Mount, a part of Matthew’s Gospel that offers different answers on winning and losing and what matters in the end. Because Matthew’s lesson has at least two sides, two points of view, you might  call them the high way or the low road; and they’re both true. The high way is that, as several saints in the early church said, “God becomes human so that humankind might become God.” The low road is that, “In Jesus God has come to be lost in humanity so that all might be found in Christ.” The first is termed our upward call, the second God’s divine condescension, and I believe the Good News is that winners and losers all make it home at the end because Jesus' life leaves room for everybody!

If we look carefully at the Gospel for today, even taking it backwards; some of it makes easy sense: you are blessed if you are persecuted, hurt and harmed  for righteousness sake. Too easy! My first spiritual director told me the big question was how uncomfortable are you willing to be for the new kingdom of heaven — even though I’d now balance that with this quote from J. D. Salinger’s, “The mark of the immature… [person is that… [they] want… to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature… [person] is that… [they] want… to live humbly for one.” All that sacrifice can sometimes get us into big trouble.

Even the second category, meaning the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart, people all participating in God-shaped events, that makes some sense — their lives follow their loves, what they work for pays off. But the last category of blessed, the one that Matthew puts first, just listen to that group again: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for a righteousness which they don’t see. This is different, they are blessed for what they haven’t got, for the prize they didn’t win, the road they never found, even for what they don’t see; in the place where only the loss remains: and that’s enough.

I wish I had known that when I was younger, that it might be less important whether we won or lost, that the desires for spiritual depth, the glimpses of the glories of God, the religious dreams carried all those years ago would turn out to be less crucial as time went on. I didn’t know that at 21 or 35, but by 50 I understood more about a certain humility and grace that comes from surviving and accepting folly and failure, what T. S. Eliot meant when he wrote, “Life is what we make of the mess we make of things.” I learned that, just as the fool who persists in folly becomes wise, so that time often makes winners lose and losers win and we all get home at the last by the grace of God. In the end all those heroics of a younger life get tempered by the trials of time and for all of us who know what it is to fall short, deal with defeat and deferred dreams, with ideas and aims gone astray and diets that never went as planned; for all that the beatitudes of Matthew’s Mountaintop sermon give us very good news.

So if there are two questions: who wins and loses? There are three answers; we all fall short, we all get there, and Jesus blesses everyone at the end,  winners or losers or whatever, even now.

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for

clear-cut answers

to a softer, more permeable aliveness

which is every moment

at the brink of death;

for something new is being born in us

if we but let it.

We stand at a new doorway,

awaiting that which comes…

daring to be human creatures,

vulnerable to the beauty of existence.

Learning to love.

Epiphany 4A
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Wangaratta


Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Movable Feast ..

Please not that I am in the process of moving some of my writings and reflection onto a new site which will carry the mantle of The Merton Centre. The hope is that by the end of February I will be launching the first of a series of online and in person classes -- this one on Thomas Merton and the Buddhist Christian Conversation.

Please follow this link to the new site in the making which is very much a work in progress. https://sites.google.com/themertoncentre.org/home/home

I can be reached at robwhalley@themertoncentre.org

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Sermon 2016 - somewhat recycled but sincere

The story I just read from the Gospel of Luke is a very strange one, though it is probably a story you’ve heard many times before; maybe memory connects it to other services in church buildings, connects to old music and stained glass, or to family dinners, and times of joy or maybe frustration and dread; or maybe the story connects  certain movies, either biblical spectaculars or family disaster-comedy ending with reunions in snowy villages with happy resolutions, starring Bing Crosby or Macauley Culkin or a cartoon character, generally not in the same film, generally fiction.

But I would like to go back to that original story we just heard and walk through it in a way that emphasises its original strangeness: the shock of the encounter, the journey, the discovery, and the moment of choosing where we might go from here.

So just imagine that all this is taking place inside your head. You’ve been spending the day minding your thoughts, watching, shepherding your concerns, looking over the various responsibilities that make up your daily existence: the ways you spend your days; whether that has to do with your job or family; with parents, partners or children, people you see on the street or at the store; whether it has to do with demands or depression, with money or meaning, health or wholeness, power or poetry; love, life or death. So you’re sitting here or there with all those concerns wandering like sheep over the meadows and mountains of your mind (And I apologise if this sounds like a 1970s song).

Then something new very happens. You are surprised by an idea, a possibility, a message that comes from someplace you have never considered before. You see something new! Remember the word we translate as angel simply means “messenger;” so pretend that a messenger (maybe several, or even lots of them) arrives on the scene and you have this intuition, insight, that the conveyed message is coming from someplace that is both deeper, higher, larger, livelier than the world you usually inhabit, telling you something new: opening a possibility that there could be, that you could see, a new way of being, of living, becoming, in the world, and that you need to leave aside your taken for granted everyday concerns and attend to this new horizon of reality.

Now these messengers may have wings, they may be in space suits, they may be dressed in an unremarkable manner; but let that matter less than their message, which is moving you towards a new discovery of how to be in the world, of how to be who you are.

So you leave your flocks, the usual and habitual concerns, and let them take care of themselves for a little while, and you follow this promising message to an incongruous destination and find yourself witnessing something that is absolutely newborn.

No birth happens in a vacuum. This one has been nurtured and mothered in the midst of surprise and miracle, there is a husbanding hope and help alongside, and all the animals of every day life are there as well. This all makes sense to the way you see the world: odd, but not too unusual. Yet there is something completely newborn in the middle of it. Something you never thought you’d see.

Any baby is a surprise. When I was young they all seemed to to look like Winston Churchill. But even now they seem to bring a message from another place, they’re seem like they’re not quite with us yet. And this baby is like that, except more so.

So I am going to get theoretical here. An English theologian from the 1950s talked about something called “God-shaped events.” So assume for the moment that the word “God” might mean something concerning holiness, justice, compassion, connectedness, truth, love. And just allow that  sometimes we can see small packages containing those events or transactions carried by or acted out in the life of others, as well as in our own lives: maybe even more than sometimes. Actually I would be surprised if there were anyone in this room today who had not been amazed fairly recently, in the last few hours, earlier today, this week anyway, by some surprise of caring, a “God-shaped” event they have received from another person; an unexpected gift, a quality of presence, a reaching out in love. I’d say that’s close to the centre of being human.

But it is as if this baby, in this stable that seems surprisingly unstable, both carries and is carried by that deepest current of love. It is as if the child is both a wide window into and a window, a vista, in which a depth and height and breadth, of caring is face to face with you. If the earlier messengers spoke a word of hope and holiness, then this infant is both sonnet and symphony, is Technicolor and 3-D and special effects beyond belief, and in looking at this child you see yourself and the world you thought you lived in, anew.

And this is all happening inside your head. Except that your head seems to be open to something bigger than itself, bigger than what you usually think of as the world, and you have this strange perception, call it a hope, that this is bigger than you know, that the baby may be the truth of how we are related to the centre of everything, to the edge of everything, to everything and everyone we know. And it has to do with love, being born in love, traveling in love, making mistakes and failing miserably, and rising up again to begin again in the name of love.

So if that is the case, then this baby, this new beginning, isn’t just happening in your head. It’s happening in the world you live in day to day, in the world of history, institutions, expectations, culture, here and now as well as there and then. And you look around at this church and the people gathered, at the old books, the strange robes, the stained glass and see a tradition and community gathered in the hope that this life, this love, is at the heart of reality.

A wise man once said, “Look at everything, look at anything, until it surprises you, until it tells you something you don’t know.” I’d say this: look at the story: Luke, Joseph, Mary, Bethlehem, the shepherd and the angels, look carefully at the tradition, and the hope of this place, and the hope you carry in your own heart; and see if this perception, tradition, community gathered over time and space can offer you a way to deepen your daily experience of connectedness and compassion and caring for yourself and your neighbour and the stranger too.

Then go back to your daily concerns, shepherding them in your everyday fields, but remembering the Angels as well, the newborn truth, remember the possibility of compassion and connectedness, holiness and hope, that it all may be true.

In the name of Christ. Amen

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent 4A

Every season of the Christian year has its own questions and concerns, and the Advent questions are these: How does a word of God come among us? How is it conceived, raised up, given life? How does a message, a newborn relationship, a  newborn call to serve, to heal, to teach, to love, to live out God’s love, first take root in our minds, hearts, priorities and purpose? How does God’s life once again come to live in our lives?

A collection of answer to that question are seen and articulated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in the history of the church. For we are the body of Christ, the living and breathing record of the life and ministry of Jesus, of God’s word in flesh, over time, seen and lived out in history, geography and community. So the recorded lives of the saints, of the apostles, of the martyrs, of every parish and congregation all answer that question in some detail -- and the story of God's life is lived out in our human journey together.

But we can start with the scriptures. Because the wrestling with revelation and community  we see in the writing of Paul is a part of our history; and the same in the struggles in the life of Peter, where we see the disciple changed from saying too much and doing too little; where we see the life of God grow strong in the life of Peter and make him strong, turning him to a rock of faith, a witness and a martyr, sending him out to preach good news, to be good news -- like Jesus and Paul and you and I -- all called to be the body of Christ!

For the last two thousand years the church has been enlightened by the bright witness of saints and martyrs, agents of mercy and forgiveness, pilgrims of poetry and politics, exemplars of repentance and new life. They comes in different shapes and sizes, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, quite a variety. Some of us are saintly, most of us do the best we can with varied results, but simply trying , day after day, with varying degrees of success, “to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

We do what we can, keeping in mind that most of us are, if not rank sinners, than somewhat damaged goods, just like most of the apostles and disciples we follow. We all start out slowly just like them: less stained glass saints than sick people getting better, made more healthy by living day by day in the light and love of the life of God we see in the life, the ministry, the death and resurrection, the sacrifice and the salvation offered by this Jesus. In this Peter and Paul are a lot like us, as are Mary and Joseph. All of them offering more pictures of how faith can respond to God’s action in our daily lives.

For Mary it seems more clearcut, easier, maybe she is younger, more able to say yes, to be formed with God’s image within her, to be a vehicle for Gods action to be born out of her assent.  Sometimes the message comes and is seen clearly, and we just say yes! Even if it’s a surprise, if it takes us into new beginning, if it meets us at our most inexperienced, and we say yes, willing to be a vessel and vehicle of a new graceful message, and Mary has this experience.

But other times it comes slowly, over time, after deliberation, with some delays and at some cost, and Joseph is a model for this experience. Some traditions states that Joseph was older and -- let’s face it, when you’re older these experience, of a new life in faith, new duties, new directions, just take more time.

It couldn’t be easy for him. “The woman you are planing to marry is pregnant, and it is not your child!” But Joseph shows he’s compassionate right at the start, when he decides to end the relationship without publicity. He could responded with a more violent response which would have been in accord with scripture, but he is merciful, determined to put her away: simply to give her up: maybe he gives the whole matter over to God. And then he has a dream.

Maybe you’re like me; I’ve had a few dreams in my life that have been very helpful where a problem has been solved, a new option outlined. A few times when I’ve awakened with new insights, my mind changed by an insight that allowed a new possibility to be born. It's always a surprise!

So Joseph has a dream where he is told that the woman he planned to marry is pregnant with God’s child, Emmanuel: God with us. It is not as dramatic or as immediate as the experience that Mary has in Luke’s Gospel, and he doesn’t come up with a pretty speech in response. But Joseph wakes up resolved to do as the angel has commanded and he takes Mary as his wife and gives his life to protect, to father this new beginning as best he can, this new birth of God's into the world.

But I wonder if he always had some reservations, lingering doubts? This morning I want to hope so, for then he can be a model, a saint, for all of us who sometimes doubt. Because he still follows through, makes room and gives comfort for that miraculous birth, husbanding the life that allows God’s word to be made flesh and blood, born of Mary, “according to your word.” Joseph supports this, witnesses this, gives his life, the life he has to live and to offer, so that God’s word of hope and love and reconciliation might live in human flash, in human family.

Did Joseph live to see Jesus die?And was he there to see the resurrection light and life at the end of it all, that new beginning. We don’t know. He fades out of the Gospels when Jesus is a boy. Maybe like Moses he dies in sight of that promised land, and will be carried along in hope, like us, Maybe, like us, he gives his life to protect and honour and witness to a newborn life that he doesn’t fully understand, maybe all his days he would still look at this growing Jesus and wrestles with the inconceivable fact of him. Even as he came to love to child he raised as his own, even when he had held the child who would, by God’s grace, become a saviour, when he held the one who would carry him to a larger life. We just don’t know.

So then Joseph is a sign of faith for us. And so today we ask St Joseph to pray for each and all of us today, join us in all our doubts and hopes, as we come to carry this surprising child, prepare to try to care for this soon to be newborn hope. Just like him, not necessarily with all the answers, not with the great assurance that Mary had, but with a crafted and practised resolve that comes with a honed humility, to preserve and protect, to hold and watch and witness as we can, to offer support and strength, to husband that hope, to raise that new beginning, as another gift of God comes to be born in our lives this Christmastide.

Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Notes for the Advent Sermon...

This sermon has three parts: a short first part which is preceded by an introduction, then  a middle part, and finally a long part when the short part brought back for a rousing finale. There will probably not be a test following.

First, an introduction. I have been dealing with retirement for the last two years and find it to be tiring. I’ve always tended to be given to rumination and review far too frequently, have a fatal tendency to fill up time by thinking about things, and there’s been a lot to think about the last two years, even in the last two months.

To start with the world. I don’t mean to worry you, but I’m scared shiftless (according to my spellchecker) by what I see as the political list to the far right; to punitive, quasi-parental, punishing models of government by the rich and mighty and for the rich and mighty — and so much of this in the name of people who call themselves followers of Jesus, the same guy who said “Blessed are the poor” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” I’m afraid of what’s happening to my neighbourhood and to the other friends of Jesus. 

Plus there’s the church: I know enough church history to know that over the past 2000 years we’ve had some downward spirals, when we weren’t the best look in the neighbourhood, when we didn’t show the moral high ground, weren’t the flavour of the month, didn’t pack them into the pews. But something is different now; the world has changed so much in the last fifty years and the church has stayed so very much the same. So my question is how do you love the neighbour when the neighbourhood has moved so far away? 

In both the world and the church we need to ask more questions; we need to go back to older ideas and reevaluate them in light of what now might be most important, whether it be love or justice, compassion and community, neediness or neighbourliness. I think the big question is, what does God’s love look like here and now, and how can we deliver on that promised good news?

Then there’s getting older. I turned seventy last April and, though I’m told it has its advantages, it isn’t an awful lot of fun. I’m dealing with a couple of chronic health problems which seem determined to stay the course, I can’t eat or play as much as I used to without disastrous consequences, I need to exercise more and I want to less, and there is one other thing on the list, but I forget what it is. 

So there’s the preface and here’s the short answer followed by the long part: I’ll talk you through it and then we’ll do it together.

In our celebration of the Eucharist this morning there are four parts, take, bless, break, share. That’s what Jesus did, and we are here to learn to do likewise; with whatever elements of life are closest to us at any given moment – whether that be bread or wine, love and hate, hope and fear, beginnings and endings, politics or personalities, education or ecology, neighbourhood or nation. The task is to take whatever is around and let it be blessed by the possibilities of God (You can as easily say that we bless God with these possibilities – other side of the same coin, I think). So as the manual act at the altar is to raise the bread and wine, lifting them up to God’s level, as it were, we do the same with the stuff of our lives, lifting them high maybe so we can see them more clearly and see their God given possibilities and potentials, see more clearly where love might raise them up and how we might take part in these actions.

And it is in light of the possibility of love that we break them apart, seeing them like God might, like food and drink for famished people, new visions and vehicles for grace and grit, for God knows who or what or where or where; to file the vision that, like C. S. Lewis’ Aslan, God might be “on the move,” open and willing and determined to share love and life and light with all the work that entails.

So take, bless, break, share: that’s the short path, now the longer bit…

A monk I knew in California 35 years ago said the big question was this, “Are you in it for the long run or the short run?” He left his order not long thereafter and I here confess I’ve since looked in that direction myself more than a few times with some envy, but the question and its answer are still valid – Why and how do we stay in it for the long run? I think if the actions of the Eucharist offer us the the basic choreography, the box step  of belief, then it is in the shape of the seasons of the church year where we can see the way to make the long run home.

Advent means beginning to see the fact of Christ, to see the promise of God’s presence that each and every one of us holds and carries in our daily lives, in the life of the world, in every place in the planet. To be even more excessively cute I’ll say that each and every one of us has a particular and peculiar gift of God to give — a unique and special Christmas present that is wrapped in the midst of each of our individual lives which is calling to be given away, to be taken, blessed, broken and shared with an unready and increasingly ambivalent world.

And now it it gets more complex.  For that not only means that we need to regard ourselves with honour – being God bearers in the very style of the Virgin Mary, but we really need to look to others with some awe as well; because who knows what holy message what, what good word, what gospel, they might carry, what a company we might become! 

So Mary and the shepherds and the Magi accompany us, with our individual Christmas presents, into the light of the Epiphany, into the brights and strident lights of the common culture of consumerism and capitalism and chaos, “Where the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” That’s William Butler Yeats but T.S. Eliot even said it better, “In a world of fugitives the one going in the opposite direction will appear to be running away.” where “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness.” 
It isn’t always easy. There are repercussions from carrying message of unbounded love into gated communities, people will try to pin you down to simpler solutions. And remember in the centre of the gospel somewhere it says that Mary and the shepherds and the Magi and you and I are not going to get out of this alive. Yet they still call it Good Friday. Because there is something that is larger-than-life and that is the life and love of God that lives in each of us by grace.

The Easter acclamation is that Christ is risen from the grave and some days I find that difficult to believe, to live into; and if you find it easy then, I’ll have what you’re having with a twist!  But for me it often takes time to get there from here, and maybe that’s one of the reasons that the season of Eastertide is longer than then Lent.  Because eternal life is deeper than death and takes more time to dive into this new dimension of existence, where the old confusions and new clarities to all come together in what one medieval theologian called “a coincidence of opposites,” a different way of being, where a new creation requires a new kind of vocabulary, an articulated language of love that can last for the long run (even though it usually doesn’t).

Some lectionaries call the season of Pentecost “Ordinary Time” and this has to do with letting our lives be ordered in the light and by the gift of the spirit, becoming “Children of the Most High” amongst all the ordinary aspects of our daily tasks and times.  Then it is no coincidence that Pentecost is the longest season of the year and it is no surprise this morning that it finally deposits us once again in the season of Advent to begin again. 

For there is always room for a new vocabulary, a larger reality, a new birth. There is always the taking up of these actions so that God’s love may be born here and now in the task at hand. so today and always, take, bless, break, share what you have been given, all you have received, everything that is. And let Christ’s Advent come all of the way into our less than luminescent lives and our half-broken hearts.


For to us a child is coming.  Amen.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Parables, Lepers, Liturgies and Love.

There are three parts to the sermon today. First I want to look at Jesus’ use of parables throughout the gospels, especially today's, and how they connect with the sequence of actions we walk through in our Sunday liturgy, and finally how they can be a model with what we do in our personal and corporate lives, the varied ways we live and move and have our being as Christ’s body, the Church.

Someone once said that if you ask a question, the best answer, the richest response,  is one that asks you a larger question, and parables work like that. They can be wider openings to God’s truth. But it’s important to note that might not be at all what we want. Sometimes we’re simply looking to prove a point or to limit the territory, to delineate the in or out of it, what’s good or bad, to find the cleanest way through all this messy life.  But Jesus’ way quite often doesn’t seem to work like that. When we ask him questions  he seems to take pains to answer practical questions by opening the question wider, even so that the most impractical, the most impossible people, are welcomed into the discussion. Jesus likes to give us questions leading to a living truth, a truth that meets us on our way, where when we try to find a way, a formula, to handle truth, and find that truth and love and mercy are handling us instead! The parables answer us with the possibility that love is larger than we might think but these answers can grow us as we grapple with the chance that  God’s life with us is larger than we know….

Luke parables point us there. Look at the man who forgives his two unpleasant sons; the younger for recklessly wasting his heritage, the older for  carefully acting like a slave and sycophant, both failing to recognise that all this love was waiting in the richness of the father’s life. Another story is about  a lawyer asking who he has to deal as neighbour with, then finding out how a Samaritan, the last person you’d want around, could be a saving neighbour to him. Look at an unjust steward cutting shady deals and being commended for his cleverness by his boss, about a woman throwing a party and spending good money to celebrate finding a lost coin; about someone who had the audacity to leave ninety-nine sheep behind in order to search for the one who went missing.

These are not average people, nor is this a moderate, regular love, these stories witness to a compassion and mercy that go beyond our mete and measure: strange people in stranger stories determined - maybe even designed - but maybe that’s the point! Maybe they are told by Jesus to take us to a dangerous opportunities where we might see a new world beyond the horizon of the life we habitually live; a place where God creates anew out of some almost incomprehensible love; mysterious directional signals that show us where we need  to go, what we need to do to be a new people on a new journey illumined by love that is, itself, ever new.

Isn’t it strange that love has to work this hard to get our attention? But even after the resurrection it takes a few hundred years for the Church to offer the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: a parable like model of a three dimensional loving God working on three horizons at once. The stretches our mind to see the Holy One seen, known and praised  as the creator who fathers-forth the universe; as this redeemer, alongside this journeyman Jesus joining with us in every day of life and death; and as sustainer and breath-spirit, mending all moments of time, making all things new!

This model of the Trinity, just like all parables, aims to enact that awareness of love and life in more fronts than we can easily see or ken; beyond all our knowledge, in the very middle of our human journey, and closer to us than we are to ourselves; from the new beginning, in the muddled middle, to the very end and the very centre of our lives). Parables also allow us to see the graceful chance love lives together in the creative tension of emerging history  dancing in the midst of eternity as if there were all the time in the world. Parables give us room to wonder if all of this could be true.

So now let’s look at the Gospel for today (Luke 17:11-19) in light of our Sunday liturgy.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Could this story be a parable that connects with our Sunday liturgy as well as the way we walk in our faithful journey? I think it is possible by following a four part model written by Dom Gregory Dix in a book called, “The Shape of the Liturgy.”

Dix points to four actions: “Take, Bless, Break, Share".  Jesus does these four actions, with his own pilgrim life, and enacts them in the last supper; then the Church, Jesus’ ongoing family, follows to celebrate and continue this outpouring of love in our Eucharist: again, “Take, Bless, Break, Share" and finally we are called to live through these actions, these sacramental benchmarks, in our daily lives as well. If we see it in the gospels then maybe the ten lepers are our older brothers here, helping us learn these particular four steps to the dance of life. “Take, Bless, Break, Share.”

What happens in the Gospel when these ten lepers see Jesus? It must be  somewhere on the outside of town because lepers aren't able to go into town because of all those practical purity laws telling who can go where. But could it be when he sees them, then they see themselves for the first time? So often they’ve been overlooked, even by themselves, but now they see their great need and greater dignity reflected in his larger look of love. There they start to take their live, the God-given gift of it, seen by Jesus, breathed by the spirit, to take it seriously for the very first time. And there’s a little death and rebirth right there. A thousand years ago Symeon the New Theologian said the first thing the Holy Spirit, God’s light of love, does is show us our shadow and that takes both courage and humility, to make an ending and a beginning.

For when holy love looks at you from a human face and you see you’re taken seriously; when you’re seen in that compassionate and merciful glance, that you’re a leper who doesn’t fit in and have been ruled out by custom, religion and law, as officially expendable;  and when you still see, maybe for the first time, that love takes you seriously exactly as you are and calls you to grow then something happens…

But did you just feel the world get larger? Can you just face the light of love allowing you to take a bigger breath, do you reckon there are options opening before you —yes, the blessing of bigger questions, but bigger answers too —  when love looks at you with a blessing — and when the question it often asks is this; can you take that blessing and give it back?

We sometimes forget that our Hebrew heritage calls us to bless God: blessing God for having hearts, souls, minds, bodies, neighbourhoods, nations, being given a world together made of love, love making us new in every moment, larger in every instant; able to bless God for blessing us here and now, always and everywhere, as we are. Bless it all, even if we look to be lepers.

And in light of that love we are called to break apart the world to see what it might look like if God were looking at each and all of us right now with, compassion, encouragement and infinite love.We are called to break free of roles and rules and expectations or landowners and fathers and all sorts of sons, and bad stewards and busy householders and everybody else and break apart the kernel of our being to find the seed of new life in who we already are, where good news call and break through to this deep truth.

For in the lives of each of us God asks a particular and peculiar question and gives a holy and graceful answer. For as we are the body of Christ our very souls and bodies are called to be offered, broken open, shared beyond slick surfaces and shared in a world hungry for a holy food.

If this is true! If the love of God is closer to us than we are to ourselves calling us to share ourselves, to show ourselves, to God’s people as if God could love us as we are, then where can we go and what can we do?

For these are patterns of countless ways God uses material things and the “sacrament of the present moment” to reach out to us. So we take the bread and wine and all the common stuff of daily life like our very lives depended on it. We bless God and let ourselves and our world be blessed as members of that same multi-dimensional love. We break apart all expectations of playing it safe and societal norms and “what would the Romans do?” and look at our lives in the way the God of love might see it!  and we come to learn to share the God-given miracle  of our ongoing lives in this ever-newborn community of the body of Christ in all its many colours — as thanksgiving and doubt, as faith and question, as answer and calling.

It shouldn’t be such a surprise: we tell ourselves in every liturgy, “We are the body of Christ, his spirit is with us" and we are called to, as St Augustine wrote: “Behold what we are; become what we receive.” So as lepers and losers and lovers of the God who loves us so much more, let us come together to share in the scandalous truth that there is a new creation reaching out to everybody, and that is the heart of the Good News.

Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon on Luke 16: Law Books and Love Stories,

A couple of stories to start: some twenty years ago when I was in University chaplaincy in San Francisco I had a student tell me that he “didn’t believe all this religion stuff,” because he would never trust himself to a situation where (1) he “didn’t know all the facts,” and (2) he “didn’t keep control of the situation.” In turn I asked him how his love life and was not surprised to hear it was not real good. When he asked why I had  asked my question, I answered because religion is not like a rule book, rather, it’s a relationship!

According to an early church historian, Tatian, who died around 165, the first Gospel came about when Mark wrote down the stories he remembered Peter telling about Jesus to people as they had need to hear them. So do you see the original background picture, the context for the text here? It’s relationship; people sharing stories of healing and hope, of good news in hard times, of the expectation of love meeting them in particular moments carried in a particular context by particular voices -- that's how it lives and moves -- and then the audience expanding, the list of listeners widening, words written down, more voices telling these stories in different ways and to different people and places over the world all these twenty centuries and here we are!

So, yes, some early parts of the Bible might look like a law code, but the prevailing tone, the dominant melody throughout Scripture is one of courtship: for I am convinced that God calls us, not to a legal partnership, but to be incorporated in a loving relationship as a new being. As St. Augustine wrote in the late fourth century: “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” I take this to mean God is closer to us than our fears, our hopes, our very capacity for understanding. In another place Augustine says we should pray, to God, “Not as I think you are, but as you know yourself to be.” Do you see the faithful and intimate mysterious embrace there? So we need to keep it from being too practical, too businesslike; because it is an ongoing love story, and maybe a bit of a detective tale too, one that changes for us in the same way as it changes us.

As context and text evolve, so most Christian biblical scholars would agree that our understanding of the scripture itself has been shaped and changed over the years by a continuing conversation involving tradition, reason and experience. I’ve mentioned Tatian's remembrance of the original context of Mark already.  Then, in their work, Matthew and Luke stretch out to shape Marks saving message anew with re-visioning Jewish history and hope in Matthew, and widening an understanding of Hebrew and Greek philosophy and culture in Luke; in the Gospel of John too the theology of Jesus as the Word, the Logos, moves the understanding of the Messiah into a vocabulary that had been unknown in the earlier years.

To quote Jesus in the Revelation to John, “I make all things new!” And that renewing process can include our ongoing understanding of scripture, because the word ripens in us, the spirit breathes more deeply into the particularities of our lives and circumstances, tried and shared in communities of belief and practice, tested through history and tradition, refined by reason and experience, fired by faith over time.

And in the last few hundred years of critical scholarship and new methods of biblical and cultural exegesis we have come to know much more about first century social customs, economics, land use, law and politics in ways that shed new light on the original biblical texts. We even have access to cultural documents and biblical texts in the original Hebrew and Greek that are older than the ones they knew of in Augustine’s time (who, by the way, had no great skill in  reading biblical Hebrew or Greek — we actually know more than he did about the ancient languages).

So when speaking to our Gospel lesson about the unjust steward-manager  and his landlord for today, Barbara Rossing, a Professor of New Testament, gives needed background from current scholarship when she writes:

“Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law.” New Testament scholar William Herzog writes, "The hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.” And Rossing thinks, “The manipulative steward was probably extracting his own cut of the profits, on top of the 50% layer for the landlord, and the additional payment for Rome.”

So, for Rossing, when the steward reduced the payments, he may have been simply forgiving his own cut of the interest, or just  doing what the law of God in the Hebrew scripture commands, namely forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts. As another scholar writes, "To ingratiate himself with the debtors, he had them change the amount they owed on their bills to exactly the amount they borrowed." The rich landlord, likely knowing the Torah teaching against interest, might, suddenly realise he needed at least “to appear to be observing convenantal laws, and ends up commended his steward.” —  who had been mainly motivated by his fear that he might be losing his job and was not strong enough to dig and was ashamed to beg. And maybe there’s the end of this puzzling detective story.

It reminds me of T. S. Eliot's writing that the greatest treason is doing the right thing for the wrong reason but it leaves me with a question: how can God be in the centre of these transactions, how does the Gospel come here and change lives? I've preached on this text before and the question stays with me. My working answer for today, subject to revision, is this: would it be too simple to say, "When we act like we are in love, the grace of love lifts us up into new life?"

Like Luke’s earlier story of the prodigal son returning to the Father with a canned repentance speech and hoping to get accepted as a slave, the steward does better than he expects or perhaps deserves; does better than the law and instead abides in a surprising charity to be accepted as a member of a renewed community. Is that the good news? Who knows what can come our way when we do the right thing, even for the wrong reasons, and love lets us come home -- and that just might be the moral of this story.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says the truth will make you free, I would add that it just might kill you along the way, but, as the prodigal son, the steward and the landowner may all have found out, the traveling can turn you into a person you’ve never been before. Maybe that’s where the Good News is today — the surprise of the Gospel, refined by tradition, restored in community and renewing reason with an experience of peace that passes understanding, all finally freeing you to live a new way, to be a new creation of love.

Welcome to God’s love story!  In the name of Christ.