Sunday, April 03, 2016

Easter1B, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Lately I’m wondering if I've become too fond of one-line slogans: like “Be patient, God’s not finished with me yet,” or “Everybody does their best, and everybody could do a little better.” But I like them: even those that are less optimistic like, “Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” which is less likely to show up in a sermon.

Now one of my favourites, heard almost thirty years ago and used too often by me  is “We are invited to exchange our living death for Christ’s dying life.” But this week I remembered another that’s touched me for almost fifty years. From the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel where the father of a boy who has convulsions asks Jesus to heal his son. Jesus says, “All things are possible to the one who believes,” (a pretty good one-liner in itself) and then immediately the father of the child cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” And it is that statement that brings forth the miracle the father seeks. “I believe, help my unbelief.” The more modern translation is, “I have faith, help me where faith falls short,” but either phrase meets us at the same place, where faith meets doubt, pointing to a kind of pilgrimage moment when Jesus calls us to move into a place where new possibilities arise in a world we cannot presently inhabit, where we are called to allow the barren ground of doubt to be a place where new faith can bloom.

For I believe we are called to embrace a faith that is not afraid to ask hard questions. I think that the first disciples changed to true apostles when they learned to leave room so that new answers, larger than the original question, could emerge over time; and I believe that apostle Thomas is a prime model for following that paradoxical place we hear about with, “I have faith, help me where faith falls short.”

Now Thomas makes his first speaking appearance  in chapter eleven of John when Jesus tells his crew they’re going to the dead Lazarus in Bethany. Thomas says, “Let us go with him that we might die with him." Likely he thought that Jewish religious prudence and Roman political rule would combine to make sure that Jesus and his message would be killed off quickly if he appeared in Bethany: and Thomas was ready to go that far with Jesus. But what he didn’t know was that Jesus would go farther than that.

Because when they get there, when Jesus calls, "Lazarus, come forth!" And when Lazarus three days dead breaks out of the tomb to embrace life anew, then something in Thomas dies. Because Thomas sees, maybe for the first time, that he may be called to believe, have faith, live in a larger life than he could ever  conceive before: that what he had thought he was about and who he thought he was with and where they were going is not large enough to follow this Jesus who calls the dead to new life. So  the life Thomas thought he was called to live has to die right there and it does. For Thomas goes on, keeps following Jesus, to Jerusalem, to the end of his life, But he’s called to even more than that!”
After Easter, in the Gospel we just heard, Jesus meets the apostles gathered behind their closed doors and breathes the Holy Spirit on them, Thomas is not there, and when the other disciples tell him he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Can you honestly blame him?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the cost of discipleship is that when Christ calls us, he calls us to die. My question is, "Are we allowed to pause on the way, every now and then, and mull that one over?"
If Jesus is now alive, if resurrection is real, if Christ’s new life is true and we are called to take part in it then this means new definitions of law and love and defeat and death for each and every one of us. Can you see where Thomas - and we - might want, maybe just for a moment, to hold back from this faith that calls us to stretch out to a future we cannot presently get our heads and hearts ‘round?

Listen: after any death, pain, betrayal, heartbreak or defeat, you make a kind of deal: with luck you let it go, you accept the fact, cut the losses and close the door. But if Jesus is back, then the door is opening even larger than it was with Lazarus. If He got through it, and comes here, showing the scars, bearing the wounds now of all those gunned down by whatever law or judgment did them to death, then the final victim has just walked into the room. If Jesus is alive, then all fallen hope, all lost belief, all dead ends might come to life too. And what can you do with that. How can you feel it, think it, take it in, live it out? This is more than the road to Emmaus: not only does your heart burn within you but it feels like it might break apart for the breath you have to take in order to take all this in. Then do you see that maybe it makes some sense that Thomas wants to take a break. Could he be saying, “My faith will just not stretch this far right now!” Could he be saying, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

So we fast forward a week with the disciples in the house, and Thomas there too: doors shut, and suddenly Jesus is there saying, “Peace be with you.” Then he turns to Thomas, who I imagine with his back against the wall and Jesus calls, “Thomas, come forth! Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”… believe in life this large. And the life of resurrection rises and Thomas lives there now and says, “My Lord and my God!” and Jesus replies, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” A free translation might be, “Thomas, I’ll take you as I find you and I’ll love you as you are. Just come and follow me!” And Thomas does just that.

I think the good news here is we get the same deal, the same call. With all our doubts and fears, Jesus honours our pace, sees that we’re doing the best we can, even as he calls us to do a little better too, to join him in larger life, where doubt and belief bloom into a new being, that's what Eastertide's about, where we are called to be newborn witnesses to these things, by the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him, as we move together towards Pentecost, because Christ is risen from the dead, Alleluia! 

NOTE - if you've come this far I would really love to know what you got from the sermon, so please comment!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter Sermon in the King Valley, Easter 2 at the Cathedral .

“…so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

And If this Good News is true, how do we respond to this two thousand year old tale with roots stretching back another thousand years. If it is true, how can we live it out today in our own lives. If Christ is alive then how can we rise up to live more like him today?

This morning I want to share a model of how we might continually respond to a God made, God met, God mended world with three somewhat fanciful images I’ve cherished and carried along for over twenty-five years to make sense, open my heart and keep me going on the Christian path at least most days. They are the images of a table, a journey and a breath of fresh air. Let me explain.
First, as human beings, we are builders, fabricators, mapmakers; that’s in our DNA. We build maps of the world with words and deeds and wood and stone and steel; and I believe a lot of us build a life-size map in the shape of a table in the very middle of our heads. It works like this for me: we each have - let’s say 12 - people seated around a table in the middle of our brains: they all think it’s a board of directors meeting, and they should be in charge, so it gets noisy. They’re making roles and rules and definitions for all the places and purposes in our lives: for models and mentors and friends and family, for success and failure, good and bad, right and wrong. They’re getting the signposts up, adding directional signals, deciding what goes with where and with whom. This isn’t bad: for in this we join the God who creates the universe from nothing, for we take the chaos on a new world and turn it into a cosmos, an ordered reality: that’s our turn in the naming game God shares with Adam in the first part of Genesis! Now that sounds simple, but it gets complex: and the temptation is to avoid the task by taking a shortcut, using other peoples ideas, maybe buying retail or downloading from online.

But the task, the responsibility of naming the world is what it means to be human, not just individuals, but families, countries, civilisations too. You find it throughout the Hebrew Scripture: tables furnished with psalms, songs and poetry, with laws and liturgy and love stories, war records, histories, mysteries, myths and memories made smooth by hundreds of years of retelling ‘round campfires  wherever we find ourselves: everybody builds tables!

So here’s a question to consider this Eastertide: what 12 people sit at the table in the middle of your head, what blessings do they offer, what curses do they convey, and who would you really like to live there? That’s image number one.

The second image is more dynamic; to be a human is to take an individual journey without a plan to survive. You reach a point in your journey where you see a turn in the road ahead and you don’t see how to get through: that’s the essential way of being human. Some of us love that sort of challenge and some us dread it, and it scares the daylight out of the table, which has worked hard to create order from disorder, to build a cosmos from chaos. So the table and the journey are at cross-purposes here —  the table fearing that it is incomplete  and the pilgrims rejoicing that the road is unfinished. You can see the tension between these two ways on both an individual and a corporate level: Jerusalem kills its prophets and Rome crucifies everyone who does not worship Caesar.

But they cant stop the flow of prophets and poets, people hungry for new life, exploring the wilderness, turning wandering into pilgrimage and pilgrimage into new homecoming. And one of the ways Jesus makes sense is as the pioneer and perfecter of this unfinished path. He follows the human journey and meets all the meanness and mercy and wonder and pain that comes with being flesh and blood,and  he shares it all with us!

Her’s a second question: name twelve journeys that have changed you beyond belief, opened you to a new way of being in a different world, shown you a new road forward. And how did the old table handle it?

So you can almost forecast trouble when Jesus travels into new definitions of friend and foe, insider and outsider, justice and mercy. Do you remember that great scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Indiana Jones has to walk across a blank space, a chasm, where the ground only shows up when you put your foot out in open air? Do you wonder why the table is scared to death of the journey?

Listen to this, for here's where the crux comes. Jack Kornfield, a modern Buddhist writer, says in the end there are just two kinds of people: those who aren’t afraid to kill and those who aren’t afraid to be killed. Most of us would avoid that sort of black and white thinking, but I fear it still may be close to what we see on Good Friday when Jesus Christ is murdered by the mob, which I fear may be most of us on a really bad day.

In his book called “The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger,” Sebastian Moore writes that when we see Jesus, this man of love and light, we see our all our shadows and our shortcuts, see where we have come close, taken part in evil. And in reaction to that unwelcome light we push him to the dark, pin him down to death, because we would rather kill him than where see we are already dying in our separation and sin.

But we realise, in the light of His love, that we are killing the best picture of what we look like, an icon of the life we are born to live; and so we move from being the crucifier to seeing ourselves crucified: from a living death — protecting our property, our table, the life we know — to a dying life, giving ourselves over to a future we cannot conceive. We let ourselves die so that a larger love may live. And by God’s grace resurrection happens.

We are here this morning because a handful of people, Mary, Joanna, Peter, later Paul, woke up to find that Jesus was not with their dead, had awakened to new and larger life, and was willing to share the journey with them. We’re here because people like Thomas, with all his questionable doubts, kept coming back. We’re here because a people keep telling their friends and compatriots, and this continues changing the world for almost two thousand years —  that love is bigger than hate,  life is bigger than death, God is bigger than the world we know — but how can we live that out? How can we get from there to here and now?

It is simple but not easy. The third image is simply a breath of fresh air: the art and practice of stopping to breathe, to pray, to begin again. When I ask people to name the table and the journeys it can get complex, but when I ask them to name twelve places where the air gets fresh I have to stand back because they want to share their lists. To awaken to the awareness we are breathed by the spirit that makes and meets and mends the world means we are built for a bigger life and a greater purpose than we know; that the rhythm of dying and rising, the very life of Jesus, is rich in our very blood. That Christ is risen from the dead and we are called to let him come to our table and feed us with the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation, so that we can exchange our stable tables for his faithful and mysterious journey, our living death for his dying life in every breath we take from here on.

And how do we get there from here?

One of the joys of being a retired priest, with no regular obligations, is that I have free time to meet with people who want to consider the table, the journey, the fresh air of the new life we are called to share with God. To discuss who’s noisy at the table, where the  journey calls us to change and grow, and ways where we can find the fresh air here and now.  It’s a place to build your own creed, your own map, your renewed roles and rules of life in Christ. I offer that to each of you as my own participation, my shared ministry, in this new life, this post-Easter mystery to which we are all called.

For Christ is risen from the grave. Alleluia!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday 2016

When I was in my mid-twenties, around forty-five years ago, my grandmother, who was in her early eighties, was close to dying. She had leukaemia for several years, going from chronic to acute, with a few remissions, and now it was coming closer.  I remember when my uncle, her eldest child, flew out from the East Coast, and I’ll never forget watching from the front window, when he — followed by my mother and my aunt - carried his mother in his arms from her home to the car to take her to the hospital for the last time.

I carry two things from that particular moment: first, something like the music of the Sanctus, a sense of bells and music sung by some great choir; “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” And then a surprising and joyful conviction came into my heart, right into the middle of the pain like sunlight in the centre of that dark day. “Thank God,” something in me said so deeply, “Thank God we matter this much.”

In the Gospel for today the crowds chorus moves from “Hosanna” and “Alleluia" to “We have no King but Caesar “ and “Crucify him!”  and we’re invited to watch and follow, to  participate as these actions are carried out in Jerusalem as if they were happening here and now.

Because in his journey through Jerusalem to Golgotha, to the cross and the grave and beyond, Jesus walks through all our fears and anger and anxiety, all  the trials and tragedies of our everyday lives, and carries us along like a son or a brother into the very crossroad where the heart of human tragedy meets the good news of God.  And that is I believe where we can find the very living heart of the Gospel.

An English theologian said that we are invited to exchange our living death for Jesus' dying life.  We are invited to stop holding on so tight to our fears and our hopes and our tensions and our ideas about the times we live in; and  cleave onto the living and breathing faith that Jesus will take us in his arms at those crucial moments and carry us through the middle of it all into a new beginning, the resurrection of the dead.

So the events of this Palm Sunday and of the coming week offer a pilgrimage, a walking tour, deep into the heart of the human condition: with sin and grace, violence and virtue, cowardice and courage, death and new beginnings. And, for each of us, that resonates with our own histories and hopes, stories we remember, times that stretch us and tear us apart, about people we miss and endings we fear. Holy week can be a difficult road to take, but Jesus knows his way and will follow it faithfully to the end.

But it may not be easy for us. We might find it difficult to hope that the holiest One will hear our  individual hopes and fears, we might not always think that the universe could be knit together so carefully. But here we are called to follow the faith that Christ can hold us close through these crises, take us through every turn, every tight corner of the human journey from birth to death and beyond to bring us home at the last.

So on this Holy Week we are called to wait, to watch and follow Jesus as closely as we can, in our uneasy witness. So stay close to your Bible and Prayer Book, stay close to your church and community, stay close to your feelings and your fears too - and watch and follow: because the heart of God, the God of love we see in Jesus Christ, calls us to join with Him to journey to Jerusalem to meet the fact of death, and carries us along to the hope of eternal life. And we must thank God that it matters this much.


Friday, March 04, 2016

On Ambivalence and the Prodigal Son, a Sermon for the Saturday night Eucharist.

Twelve years ago this very week, about an hour into an evening Bible study on the Gospel we just shared, something happened which I’ve never forgotten. We had prayed, read the story aloud, talked through the social background, the family expectations, with major themes and minor points: forgiveness is good, first and second sons should be honoured in their different roles, and father knows best even in this difficult episode. But we decided look at the more uncomfortable bits of the story.

Then we decided that the father was almost unbelievably forgiving; that the second son, coming home with a canned speech to get some support was lucky (even graced) to be fed, to say nothing of forgiven; that even though the first son had a case for being somewhat ticked off for not getting rewarded for his commitment and obedience, he was visibly hard-hearted and unforgiving; and that all the villagers must have been fascinated having a first row seat for this family drama.

But we also felt sort of short-changed at the end of the story because none of us saw a lasting happiness for the future of that family: you could see the brothers keeping a suspicious eye on each other and the father’s love at least stretched after the younger son’s packaged repentance and the elder’s outburst about rights. It was safe at least to say there wouldn’t be another spontaneous party in the near future. And yet mercy had been served, repentance seen, forgiveness happened; a celebration enacted even while the neighbours watching this family wash their dirty linen on the public footpath and wondered what would happen next.

It reminds me of the worldwide church right now. We’re having disclosures and discussions, arguments and outbursts, about inclusion and abuse, refugees and human rights, headship and heartfelt understandings about the ways where the church lives out our discernment of scripture, tradition, reason and community. People are not only talking about “What would Jesus do?”, but “What did Jesus (and Paul) mean in the first place?” It is a difficult time to be part of the institutional church and the vast majority of our former members, friends and neighbours have already voted with their feet. But I think the question we have to stay with is close to the ones in the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father: how are we to continue the story?

And I feel that we have, like the people in the Bible Study 12 years ago, to  ask, where do we go from here?. And I think Jesus offers an option that is not an easy out or a sacred shortcut, but it is also not the route we would like to choose ourselves. So I think I know where the Good News is here, and I need to tell you it is awfully close to the bad news.

Because it’s right in front of us in the actions of the Eucharist. In this feast of God’s way, truth and life, we are invited to nurture the daily fabric of our unfinished story - just like Jesus - by giving our lives over to a future we have mixed feelings about, accepting the betrayal by friends as well as the fear that the message shared has been lost, cast underfoot and scattered. Because while Jesus goes on, accepting the death sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, he invites us to take both our present doubts and our doubtful faith and join him on to a road that goes past that dead end to a new life larger than we can ask for or anticipate.

Now I find it hard to lean into this, but when I am honest I find I am still hungry for that bread of heaven, that cup of salvation, which both quenches my hunger and increases my appetite, both for holiness and for wholeness on the dry road we are called to share together in this journey through Jerusalem.

But it’s not the most convenient Good News and it isn’t meant to be; remember there is a repeating rhythm in the whole church year threading through light and darkness, triumph and tragedy. Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, highlight birth but follow with the shadows, the darkness, defeat and death that come from Ash Wednesday through Good Friday. And even when the Easter uprising assures us that God’s life is bigger than our fear of death, there is then the task to translate that hope into a new message in the pattern of Pentecost that we can both follow and can share with our friends, family, neighbours, and the stranger. That's actually where this dangerous opportunity occurs.

Thomas Merton writes that the paradox can only comes to promise when we realise we are totally incapable of meeting God — and that God is for us. running to meet us, calling us home for celebration, in all our incapacity.

The Good News comes in that crossroad of this fearful and faithful pilgrimage where our all our earthly hopes fall short so that we might witness something larger than the life we know: a new life where our hope, our faith, our capacity for love and forgiveness can come as a gift from God.

And this is not only our “personal relationship” with Jesus in the spirit, but our corporate way of understanding and speaking about who we are as the church. The world is watching for our fresh responses to both the wrongs we are guilty of and the rights we stand for.

It is time to tell our truth anew. While the world has turned in innumerable revolutions in the last 100 years we’ve often shared the Gospel in time-bound language and outworn concepts. Now we all, clergy and laity, newcomer and old-timer, believer and skeptic alike, need to ask God for new ways to articulate this eternally compassion love in the contemporary world where we are called to minister.

But I believe the answer will only come when we turn towards Jerusalem, when we gather both our hopes and hypocrisies, our questions and concerns, and carry these crosses into the place where our living death can be transformed by Jesus’ dying life: to that upper room where we can meet our fear, quench our appetites and renew our courage and commitment for taking on this high hope and wide horizon to which we are called. In the end that is our way, our truth, our life.


Monday, February 15, 2016

What are we doing with Silent Prayer and Thomas Merton on Tuesday Nights?

Someone smarter than I said that silence (prayer time and otherwise) is "simple but not easy." I want to make what we do on Tuesday evenings as easy as possible. We'll gather in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral at 7:00pm with a general introduction and a short overview to the evening then share a few small ideas on how to sit in silence together, and finally take twenty minutes to share that silence.

After that we'll take time - like forty minutes - to read and respond to some of Thomas Merton's written reflections on what a "spiritual life" can look like. We'll take a short break following and finally finish up with another twenty minute shared silence and a few prayers to wrap up the evening.

Everything is optional but recommended; hope you can be there!

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Silence at the Cathedral

On Thomas Merton, an early draft for an article in The Melbourne Anglican 2015

I never expected him to be a hero for me, but after almost fifty years and in so many ways I can easily say that reading the Trappist monk, writer and poet, Thomas Merton has changed my life for the better.

He does not start out looking like an advertisement for saintliness. Born in France during World War One to a New Zealand father and an American mother, his family were peripatetic artists with a tendency towards tragedy, moving to the suburbs of New York City, where a younger brother was born and where his mother died when he was six years old. After a time staying with his maternal grandparents his painter father took him on extended trips to Cape Cod and Bermuda, finally returning to France where he was enrolled in a French boarding school. In his early teens his father (who would die of a brain tumour when Merton was fourteen) moved him to board at a day school in London, followed by moving to a public school a few hours away. He attended Cambridge for a disastrous year at Clare College, after which his London godfather/guardian advised him to return to the US and continue his education there. All this was not a propitious start for any kind of religious figure, certainly not one who might be a saint for some.

At Columbia University he acquired a reputation as a gifted writer, aspiring poet and serious thinker who played loud jazz on any available piano. He loved Gandhi, T. S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, James Joyce, William Blake, modern art, and most Marx Brothers movies. A book by Aldous Huxley’s opened him to the idea “there such a thing as a supernatural order [which]… which could be reached most simply, most readily by prayer, faith, detachment, love.” At the same time a Hindu monk led him to read to Saint Augustine and Thomas a’Kempis. Along with the influence of several significant university teachers, this led him to be baptised in the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 21. With his customary boldness and enthusiasm several years later he joined the Trappists in their monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, taking vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and conversion of committing to a daily rule of frequent prayer, worship and manual labour in community.  Later he would write, “I wanted to give God everything... to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

Merton joined the monastery intending to spend his life as a simple monk. But found “there was this shadow… this writer who had followed me into the cloister…. He rides my shoulders … I cannot lose him.” As he goes on to write, “An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop. And he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck.” But Merton’s abbot encouraged him to write his autobiography, telling the story of how he found peace in the hills of Kentucky,  and The Seven Story Mountain became a world-wide bestseller. Although the work of a young man and recent convert, it is still a refreshing and engaging read. Merton’s enthusiasm might have got him in trouble on two continents, but it also opened him to seeing God’s glory in the most surprising places and his account of the journey is a consistently joyous and enjoyable one. His tone changes a few years later in his next spiritual journal, The Sign of Jonah, where he shares his daily theological reading and reflections as well as questions, triumphs and times when nothing makes sense. It is both a touching and an honest account of one man’s prayerful journey following Christ.

The journal that followed, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, adds a new dimension of love and acceptance when Merton is opened to a new understanding of God’s love for the world on a busy downtown street in Louisville following a dental appointment. He wrote:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….

Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion… though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race… And if only everybody could realise this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things.… My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

The more than forty books that follow - dealing with sanctity, spirituality and prayer, eastern and western mysticism, war and peace, economics and ethic, racism and materialism - are increasingly hallowed by his substantial studies in Christian Scripture and tradition, as well as a deep and disciplined life of prayer, and a graceful and growing sense of his own witness in God’s love for the world. He had reached a crucial junction in the journey. As Merton said to his young students in the monastery; “You have to know you have a heart before you can give it away.”

His writing after that was both grounded in silence and prayer as well as a more compassionate understanding of the world. As he wrote: “It is not difficult to sit in a quiet monastery and meditate on love, humility, mercy, inner silence, meditation and peace. But ‘no man is an island’… Therefore my meditation on love and peace must be realistically and intimately related to the fury of war, bloodshed, burning, destruction, killing that takes place on the other side of the earth.”

The French poet, Charles Peguy, writes that, "Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics." But for Merton it ends in something deeper than politics, born of the gift of knowing and loving himself as a part of a world found and reconciled in Christ.  By the mid 1960s Merton  found his way home in the world in a manner that would have never seemed possible in his earlier life. “To choose the world is to choose the work I am able to do, in collaboration with my brother [and sister] to make the world better, more free, more just, more liveable, more human.” His writing became more politically aware, even his poetry found nourishment from newspaper headlines.

By 1965, after twenty years in community, Merton moved to a small house not far from the monastery. Paradoxically this new hermitage meant he was free to be with people -- more than he had been for years: It was a new rhythm where days of silence and solitude were varied by joining old friends for picnics; and when official ecclesiastical visits outside the monastery might end up with listening to jazz in a Louisville nightclub.

By the late sixties Merton was also writing about  other world religions, particularly Zen Buddhism and Sufism, finding that this opened him to deeper understanding of the mystical tradition within Christianity. In late 1968, twenty-seven years after entering the monastery, he left on an Asian pilgrimage, meeting with Christian, Sufi, Buddhist and Hindu monks and practitioners, including the Dalai Lama. He found them  practicing a quality of life and relationship that seemed very close to what he had found in the monastery. As he had written years earlier, “We are all one silence, and a diversity of voices.”

It was to be an open-ended journey, but ended tragically  on December 10 1968. After giving a talk on “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives” at an inter-religious conference in Bangkok, Merton went to his room for a midday shower and fell against an ungrounded fan, which electrocuted him, killing him instantly. In a sad irony, his body was flown home alongside the bodies of young men who had just died in Vietnam, a war he had protested against for years. Perhaps this was his last act of solidarity within the world he had come to love so much. Mourners from all over the world came to his funeral at Gethsemane and one writer said a surprisingly large and wide variety of people looked like they had lost their very best friend.

I understand this completely when I consider Merton’s life, what I have learned from him over the years from his writings, his reflections, the gifts of a life of prophecy, penance and prayer shared with the larger world. He offered a disciplined mind, a discerning spirit, an open heart: and the gift of his witness has changed my world. Perhaps we all need to know we have a heart before we give it away, but Merton’s lifelong courageous witness means I can walk the way of Christian faith to seek and  share with less caution, and with more candour and honesty. I know I am not alone in this.

For me he is a prophet, one of those times in the history of the Church when the windows open and old ideas get blown away with a fresh spirit of renewed understandings and possibilities. So in all the diversity of his life and vocation as a monk, writer, poet and priest, Thomas Merton calls out as a rather delightfully inconsistent saint and prophet to the whole Church and to the wider world, calls out both for a wider and a  deeper understanding of the primary aims and attitudes of the religious life. With all the breadth of his early wanderings he found a home in the heart of Christianity and in his deep solitude he shared his pilgrim journey with the whole world. As a pioneer of interfaith conversation, his wide-open appreciation of how different spiritual traditions might breathe together continues to deepen our understanding of spirit, much as a trip to a foreign place will help us to know  - and love - our homeland anew.

As the Buddhist master Bankei writes, “the farther one enters into truth, the deeper it is.” Throughout his life Thomas Merton journeyed in search of the face of God. His prayerful considerations on the way still bear fruit, continuing to nurture and enlighten new readers and seekers in fresh  ways. Almost fifty years after his death, newly published journals, poetry, letters and essays continue to be released, enlarging our understanding of  Merton's vision of a world reconciled in Christ.  This twentieth century spiritual master makes a delightful companion on our faithful journey and I commend him to you.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Troubles in Paradise: Jesus of Montreal, Satan and the new community of the Gospel

In the 1980s there was a movie called "Jesus of MontrĂ©al.” which placed the life of the Lord in the middle of contemporary Canada, which is a pretty radical move in itself. But one of the great moments in the film comes when Jesus is tempted by Satan - here a kind of public relations-advertising genius: unctuous and smiling and smooth to the point of slimy with very big plans for the church — outlines of glory and vivid visions of how this brand of religion can be a resounding winner. But in the film, Jesus tells Satan he can, essentially, go to hell, and goes on to live out what the writer Frederick Buechner calls this “magnificent defeat.”

I thought of this when I heard the part in todays Gospel where James and John are making their bid for power positions in Jesus’ new community.  “Put us right next to you,” they say, “and success is assured.” They are so sure that they are right, that they know what to do, and they are so very wrong, so missing the point.

The disciples do that a lot. Peter – just a while ago – goes up to the top of the mountain to see Jesus with Moses and Elijah and then, quite logically, wants to start the first church building campaign. But God basically says, "shut up and listen” and Jesus  tells him they're going to Jerusalem to face a future that will feature everything that Peter’s ever feared. When Peter protests, Jesus tells him that God sees an entirely different kind of opportunity in the coming crisis and Peter better learn to look at this in a whole new way.

So maybe the truth is that Peter, James and John and some of the rest of us disciples are still somewhat deaf and blind to what God might want here, in this new style of leadership and community, with this new definition of success in ministry. At least that is where I am today.  For there is still something in me that stands with James and John and even envies the plans of the advertising man in the movie: I look at our church and I want to improve our corporate image and our community outreach in innovative ways. I want to do something successful so that world round us realises what an eternal treasure we have in these fragile  earthen vessels.

Because in the last hundred years or so we have come into a future that is like a foreign land, where we have to learn to sing the Lord's song in a new way, to meet a new people with this timeless message, this precious Gospel. And I feel sadness and some fear for the process of death and resurrection that the church must – I think  – undergo in this new Jerusalem. So even though Jesus seems to say we have everything we need in the cup we drink and the  baptism we’ve undergone and the ministry we share,  I am just not there sometimes.

Woody Allen once said that he wasn't afraid of his own death, he just didn't want to be there when it happened. I understand that completely, but I also know there is a bigger truth than death: I am just not sure how to get there sometimes. But maybe hope comes in the three things Jesus says are central to the life of the church in today’s Gospel: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.

Because St Paul rightly says that all of us who are baptised in Christ are baptised into his death, and at each and every Eucharist we celebrate our incorporation in the life of Jesus, the body of Christ, to become who we are, the bread of life and the cup of salvation – but there’s a cost in getting to this truth. For, as one English theologian says, we are “invited to exchange our living death for Christ's dying life,” to give away our closely-held plans and join with Jesus in the dying-rising rhythm of a life given in the hope that the resurrection shines in the darkest places in the earth. Nobody ever said it would be easy to get there from here, but I think that’s where Peter, John and James, Nicodemus and you and I have to be born again.

For as the Gospel goes on to say,

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.

And this is not easy.

St Augustine gave some good advice to Peter some 1600 years ago. Maybe it stands for the rest of us as well. He writes:

Come down, (from the mount) to labour in the earth; in the earth to serve, to be despised, and crucified in the earth. The Life came down, that He might be slain; the Bread came down, that He might hunger; the Way came down, that life might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that He might thirst; and do you refuse to labour?

Because Jesus bears forth, labours with, a new order of creation, a new language of relationship and membership and ministry that was never heard before in Jerusalem or Rome or London or New York or Melbourne: a language of love forged by a man who would be nothing but a servant and friend to all, a man convinced that this is the true, the basic, the only way to show the saving work of God, to simply give his life away — and we are called to live that same life.

But two thousand years have gone by and we have forgotten a lot and learned more, and the Spirit continues to blow us into new beginning, I always think of a bumper sticker I saw many years ago that said “Please be patient, God isn't finished with me yet,” and the question is still, “How do we get there from here?”

A recent translation of the fourteenth century “Book of Privy Counselling”  says:

“My dear friend in God,, go beyond your intellect’s endless and involved investigations and worship the Lord your God with your whole being. Offer God your very self in simple wholeness,  all that you are and just as you are…”

So maybe it does all goes back to Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry.

According to Fr Gregory Dix, the Eucharist has four parts: “take, bless, break and share,” as a pattern of countless ways in which God reaches out in love to embrace the whole creation. That fourfold model can enable us to pattern our whole ministry as the baptised body of Christ as well.

We simply take all our questions (along with the old memories, new pain, unknown futures, wanting faith, needy neighbours and our very own selves) and we present them all to God as a corporate offering. Then we  lift up our lives and  everyone else's and let God bless us all, sharing this ongoing journey with family and friends  and any passing stranger, and helping them lift their light and love up too. Then, by Grace something happens, and knowing ourselves to be surrounded by such a cloud of unlikely witnesses (including Peter, James and John and the rest of us), we find the faith to break apart and share, to minister, the gifts God gives, to look at what we have with hope, to aim to let it spill the seeds of love so that each moment of time might also be a newborn message of good news for ourselves and for many others

For most days I am convinced that every moment of life contains seeds of heaven, gifts of God, of new faith and hope and love; and that we are called to share, administer, in all the times where life asks living questions and offers loving answers in the midst of all these old crises; that we are called to make new beginnings, to share food and hope and love; to gather as the body of Christ to make Eucharist and ministry, to start the faithful journey beyond Jerusalem one more time. In the end what a gift it is that life can be this big, and that love can come so close.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pentecost 18B. Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta

Ten or twelve years ago I was drinking tea in the chaplaincy lounge with Sister Virginia, the Senior Chaplain at RMIT University, Melbourne, when a serious evangelical woman turned to her and said, “I just want to save this campus for Jesus.” Sr Virginia continued pouring tea and said, “Jesus can take care of himself.”  For an instant I wondered if she were being rude, and then I was struck by the depth of her faith, how large her Jesus was, how much he loved the world, and I wanted to live there too. But I admit there were two ways to take that statement.

I think there are two kinds of people: those who divide everything into two parts and those who don’t. I do. Sometimes I do because it helps me to see all the other options and choices, right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no. But I often find that God’s real world  seems to resist my tendency to find black and white answers by making me realise, again and again, that we live, by the Grace of God,  in a very colourful cosmos,  But today’s Gospel is still very easy to divide into two parts.

Part one comes when the disciples ask Jesus about someone else who is casting out demons in His name because he is not in their inside group, and it seems to me that the deeper question they’re asking is “Who can we keep out, disregard, or regard as a potential enemy?” And here their question is much like the lawyer in Luke’s Gospel who, wanting to know what he has to do to earn eternal life, asks: “Who is my neighbour?”

Just like the lawyer these disciples learn that a neighbour is anyone who does neighbouring acts, here in the name of Jesus, whether healing people, saving those lost on the road, or sharing a cool cup of water, is offering a  blessing, an opening for God’s grace, a birthday where the kingdom of Christ’s can be celebrated.

Jesus seems to be saying that He can be seen and He can be served, can be magnified and manifest, in people and places we might very well overlook as outsiders, in people and places who don’t look like us. because they just might still believe in and (more importantly) belong to the God we are trying to follow.

And this means I can relax our grip, stop the list-making, cease judging so stridently, because God can call out in those we might want to cast out! So Jesus seems to say, “Don’t judge others so rigidly.”

But then He goes on to say if we “go against’ or provide obstacles against these little ones. “it would be better… if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.[and it gets worse here!]  If your hand causes you to stumble (King James says ‘offends you’), cut it off; And if your foot offends, causes you to stumble, cut it off. And if your eye offends, causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.”

So Gentle Jesus meek and mild just went out the door and we seem to see an entirely different  voice and view: not a hopeful “yes” but a stern “no;” not a tender look at the stranger who might be a friend we haven’t met yet, but a suspicious and angry look in the mirror at the betrayer who might just hang out in our skin and bones and lives.  And are we’re back to the two piles, two ways of thinking: almost two versions of God? Today’s Gospel leaves me with that question.

An Anglican (Episcopal) priest in the US, Father David R. Henson, writing on the webpage Patheos, offers this interesting answer - and I quote at length:

It seems the disciples have clearly missed the point again, so Jesus offers them two exaggerated and hyperbolic scenarios for understanding what the life of faith is really all about…. Now, we understand we aren’t supposed to take these saying literally. They are obviously exaggerations, both the cup of cold water and the self-mutilation. …But I do think Jesus is saying something profoundly important about the way we understand faith.

Notice how ridiculously high the bar is when faith is centered in the avoidance of punishment and sin… You’ll have to cut off parts of your body, pluck out your eyes, and disfigure yourself. Essentially, Jesus is saying if you want a perfect life, the only way you will be able to do that is to incapacitate yourself completely, …Seeking perfection will cost you everything, in other words.

Now, notice on the other hand how ridiculously low the bar is when faith is centered in acts of generosity. One cup of cold water. That’s it. One cup is enough for an eternal reward… the way of perfection and punishment with its impossibly high standards or the way of generosity and reward with its comically low standards…. One cuts and divides, maims and kills. The other cleanses and revives, refreshes and gives life.

And I keep thinking about what I call the Silver Rule - it’s close to the Golden Rule but different: what if we just do unto ourselves as we would do - in our best moments - to others? What if if we stop judging, as Paul puts it, another persons servant?  What if we just stop judging ourselves, or even judging God?

My mother once told me that her best friend’s brother always told her that he “never went anywhere he couldn’t take Jesus.” I was in my early twenties and a new convert to Christianity, trying hard to combine the worst of Anglo-Catholic piety and the serious solemnity of an evangelical. But it was also the sixties and exciting things were happening and I wanted to explore life. But the Jesus I knew then was pretty stained glass, tended to say thee and thou and  would have crossed himself at tense moments in his life. And I wanted to follow Jesus, but I wanted to exlore!  So I remember praying, “God, I hate to leave you behind, but I’ll be back later”.. and I walked away from my understanding of God, sort of like the people who used to sow their wild oats on Saturday night and pray for crop failure on Sunday morning,  but I found to my surprise that out there beyond my judgements and fears was this same God, but bigger than I knew, waiting for me in the world which I had feared was outside Gods grace.

Jesus can take care of himself, but he can take care of you and me and the stranger too. I can relax into that when I realise that the eyes which offend me - sometimes my neighbours but so often my own eyes - are the eyes through which God sees me; when I recall that the mind which makes all these distinctions is still called, as Paul puts it, to share  the mind of Christ, and  when I remember that at every Eucharist we proclaim that we are the body of Christ. How can I be offended by that? How can I look at my neighbour or the stranger or myself with anything less than a growing and tolerant love? How can I not try to share and give myself and any neighbour my life to share with love as best I can?

In the name of Christ.

Friday, April 24, 2015

More on Post-Chaplinesque and Old Man Me....

What I am doing here?

Part of it is the messy existential stuff of a newly retired man, looking back to make summary statements what happened and what it meant, and finding to his surprise that looking at old and incomplete ideas lead on to new and inconclusive beginnings.

So, to start on a much smaller scale: clarifying the frequent use I make of Chaplain, Chaplinesque and Post-Chaplinesque.

I started using Chaplinesque as the name for my blog on an autumn afternoon in 2005 when I began ministering as a chaplain at La Trobe University, Melbourne and I noticed the sign outside our stairway: “Chaplin’s Office.” I took that sign as a sign when I began blogging about what my ministry looked like at that time and place. So much of it still stands true:

Chaplinesque. My spell-checker even recognises it as an anomaly, though it offers no alternative or definition. Googling brings: “reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, the English comedian who walked, danced, marauded through the world cinema from the 1900s to post WWII, the shabby tramp who made light of politics and pretension, aspirations and art.” 

So maybe that is close to my mode as a chaplain here in the northern region of Melbourne in the autumn of 2005: a clown as well as a cultural critic, someone who’s spent time being alternately amused and terrified by the depth of pretension and hollowness in the modern world, but aiming towards some greater clarity, integrity and freedom. 

I see myself as a teacher and minister of the parables: highlighting and exploring the biblical tales that Jesus tells to remind us who and whose we are; as well as helping others in their own moments of choice and chance when life – or God - drops a direct question in the midst of history, identity, or community and says, “So, where do you find me here?” 

I have worked well there because I have been there too: sustained struggles in my own history have taken time but it has often turned out that the raw material of my own life made me a better companion and minister for others going through the same or similar territory. I am convinced that God can use every experience in moving towards a new creation, and so can we!

So sometimes I think I work as a minister simply because it gives me such great pleasure: to talk and pray and play with people while offering them a safe place to consider their relationship and response to what God and life may be asking of them. It is a joy and delight as well as an awesome responsibility. 

In looking back I think the various definitions of Chaplin and Chaplain here constellate in the exercise of a ministry of support and presence aiming to help to represent new visions and revisions that come as we relate and respond to life in all its amazing array of choice and chance.

But the most personal definition of chaplain or minister comes before I ever joined a church. Because, for me, the place for family gathering and learning, for seasonal celebration and education, was the local tennis club. So the primary model I carry on ministry is the teaching professional tennis pro and the swim coach. I mean those men and women who give lessons, made room for meetings and meals, offered opportunities to work on basic strokes, footwork and follow-through with how we jumped into the pool and played the game was at the centre of it all. It was never stated but it turns out that my model of faithful intentional ministry and sacerdotal priesthood owes much to this framework.

This isn’t as far out as it might seem. Thomas Merton, when asked about the Mass at the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood, said it was a kind of ballet. If that worked for him then I feel much more at ease with my own image of a tennis club as a kind of sacramental and liturgical  space where we learn to “live and move and have our being”  in a graceful and intentional process of patterning that help us understand the “countless ways God uses material things to reach out to creation".

Now to return to about educational chaplaincy: with some years as a student, chaplain, staff member and occasional teacher in tertiary education, I have been both a product of and a participant in campus ministry. In the early years of the process several Anglican (Episcopal) chaplains, one Unitarian professor, and a Jesuit lecturer each modelled a model of continuing pilgrimage where heart, mind and wit could connect the deep wisdom of the church with daily life and contemporary issues:

The chaplains and teachers I knew in University and Seminary changed my life and my way of faith, how I followed Jesus, by offering a ministry of continuing reflective models in the daily context, the duties and delights, of their personal lives and professions. Their witness integrating theory and practice, exploring images and ideals and insights, opened me a to a friendly community of searchers and scholars, giving me my own options for visions and actions and plans in building my own life. They were also surprisingly countercultural in the mainstream of higher education in the United States.

For all these chaplaincies were embedded in large institutions with their own well-known signs and markers; for an academic calendar can offer as serious a liturgy as the church year for its people — providing seasons of planting and harvesting, casting seed and gathering seed together. Academe might not have a well-defined or celebrated sacramental system as the church defines it, but it does offer, at the best of times, a refined and systematic way, often derived from Christian tradition, of learning from and living into the crises and choices which life brings. These pregnant questions are the places where we learn to live our lives, and this is where we can also meet the ministry of parables that Jesus shared with his community of followers

A parable, as I understand it, tells a story, produces a narrative that asks the listener a question they must answer in a way consistent with all components of his or her life: a parable demands that we answer with all that we have and all that we are. In doing so it aims to break apart the often separate nature of how we see reality and open us to consider our lives as integral whole, as a vibrant experience shared with and reflective of the spectrum of the life we share within the widening circles of family, neighbour, friend, enemy, stranger and God. The chaplains I met in my long sojourn In education helped me respond to God and life more fully because of their ministry.

The other model for Chaplain I want to consider more about is one that Carl Dudley writes about in his classic, Making the Small Church Effective. For him, the “chaplaincy model” in ministry refers to a particular style of small “family” parish with an average Sunday attendance under fifty. Here the cleric presides at regular liturgical occasions and serves as personal chaplain to the gathered congregation as needed in the traditional road of baptism, confirmation (with the encouraging of a youth group), marriage, more baptisms, house blessings, hospital visits, home communions, and all the business of ageing and dying which lead  to the funeral service and final sendoff.

Now this parish model of chaplaincy is well-known, traditional, often a vital and valuable ministry, and much good can be seen in churches that live and work like this. But this kind of community can sometimes turn into places where local customs and received traditions become the primary focus to the detriment of the communities larger spiritual health: hence the tired but true joke about the Anglican tendency to offer unchanging veneration to relatively  unimportant things: “Change that light bulb?  My grandfather donated that lightbulb!”

In a world where present chaos and fast-changing futures shake the foundations of everyday life, a comfortable chaplaincy can do valuable work. The strength of customary liturgical services in their regular times and places offer both hope and peace: there is a very good reason that the Holy Spirit is called the comforter! But the breadth of Scripture and tradition tells us that earthquakes and fires can also signal the advent of the spirit as much as the still small voice, that those chaotic surprising times can also be avenues for spiritual grace and growth. And if this call to confront chaos while looking for grace is a true aspect of our pilgrimage as followers of Jesus, when the ministry of the church must balance between (and here I creatively misquote the letter of James), both “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

If we tend to look for God’s presence only on those occasions worn smooth by long custom and cherished tradition, then we can miss the very surprising places where Jesus often shows up. For it is in the times of tempest and trial, both in the Gospels as well as in the deepest traditions of the church gathering over the last two thousand years, where God can both call and challenge us to encounter a wild grace in a newborn world. Those can be the surprising places where the Holy Spirit blows away our old certainties with unexpected life and new beginnings.

This wide Christian way commits us to encounter the God of glory and grace in both cherished traditional practices as well as in newborn and unforeseen opportunities of ministry which the traditions of the cherished family church and chaplaincy can overlook. But it is these unsought for opportunities which often turn to be the very crossroad where we are offered the dangerous and ever new opportunity of connecting with the resurrected Jesus.

So even if a cherished ancestor bequeathed that special luminescence as a signpost of their own their spiritual journey, it turns out that light bulbs have changed in the last few years, to say nothing of the 140 years since Thomas Edison patented incandescent bulbs in the 1880s. And if we aim to share the light of Christ we might need to review current theories and practice of optics. This doesn’t mean we need to leave the past behind. I know one church, not far from where I live now, that cherishes the kerosene lamps hanging in the sanctuary, and makes sure they burn brightly for special occasions when family and friends of the original community gather to celebrate special occasions, even while the viability of that beloved building is under consideration by the larger parish of which it is now a part.

So one of the questions is this: if Jesus calls us to be a light to the world, how do we let our little light  shine today? Is the family style parish with its chaplaincy model of ordained ministry, does the model found on higher education call us, or should we all take up our racquets and convene on the court? Which model is the one we need to follow, or is there a better way?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Easter 2015

The selection from the gospel we just heard is from Mark, the earliest one. Later additions add more words and definitive conclusions but this first record has an abrupt quality which witness something of critical importance about the chaos that comes when we're confronted with the possibility that life is both bigger and better than we might have thought before. Mark makes us see how very strange this whole story is.

Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

We forget that. CS Lewis wrote we’ve sentimentalised Angels in so many Victorian pictures, made them look sweet and fuzzy like they're about to say “There, there”: where in most of their biblical appearances these messengers have to begin by saying, “Fear not”. And Mark’s witness opens up, shares the real terror and amazement you might feel when the walls of the world you’ve always lived in start falling down to show new larger horizons.

“Do not be alarmed.” You are looking for the man who has been murdered but he has been raised. He is not here, he is alive! For followers of Jesus who had just had their hearts broken, this just might break them again. Because you thought you had known a new hope, and you had seen that hope die.

Because you had seen this man one day early in his ministry and things had seemed to turn ‘round. He offered a way into the deepest mystery of life, past all the tired ways where we fail to meet life or each other and where we waste  time. Jesus seemed to come just in time, to speak a word, to be a way to get past all the dead ends in the world into something that was new -- both more holy, loving, open, and involved with flesh and blood and community and relationship. More life: new life.

But it all went wrong so fast and what you thought was the face of a new beginning turned into a tomb with a stone put ‘cross the way — and you witnessed it all: the betrayal by friends, the sham trial, the worst aspects of what we see on our televisions and computer screens every day, but showing up with such contrast, because this death-dealing happened to the liveliest person you had ever hoped to know.

The man shone with a clear hope that enabled you to see your life, path, ministry and meaning with open clarity and depth, an enlightening embrace extending out like a beam of light widening out to exclude nothing and nobody! Because this Jesus made it all new and it was like you saw the world through his bright eyes: all connected, cleaned up and clarified, everyone and everything somehow born again. But all that went dark and dead.

What do you do when hope dies? Where do you go when the ideals and ideas, the stuff, the breath, the face, that gave you joy, started your heart jumping, led you to live; when all that falls away, and you see the dead-on possibility that personal, social, corporate, religious, political, bureaucracy, mediocrity, evil, might just win after all?

After the speedy execution, the friends peeling off to their confused solitude, the rich man offering a resting place for the one who had seemed to be such a beginning. And now a few faithful women stand ready to honour the body that had held such promise, because there seems to be nowhere else to go from here.

And a little bit of peace comes, bitter and filled with resignation, starting to heal the hurt, starting to close the hole where such hope had filled your heart before. Because that’s what happens: after the pain, after the death throes, making peace, letting it go, cutting the losses and closing the door.

Women are much better than men about this wisdom, the strength that comes from mourning, the bittersweet acceptance of accepting defeat and death, but now these three women coming to the tomb to anoint their last hope are shocked and terrified to find that the door that had been so carefully closed has broken wide open.

“Do not be alarmed. He has been raised, he is not here.”  And if this is true, then who he was and what he did still stands, then hope lives, then we can live there, and then this dead end turns out to be a new beginning, where evil will not win and where we don’t have to be afraid of death — or life, for that matter — ever again. “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

It turns out better, we know that. They tell Peter and the disciples, Jesus shows up and talks to Mary in another Gospel, he makes many appearances to the others,  up to and including Paul, even up to the present day, and Easter follows Easter for almost two thousand years and we have decorated chocolate eggs and I for one intend to eat too much lunch with friends followed by a good long nap. And, by Gods grace, I will make room to be amazed and hold a kind of holy fear at the possibility of his open grave, this open grace, and I encourage you to do the same.

Because if this is true then we (no matter who we are and no matter where we are on the way) can  build our lives anew with the faith that Jesus’ way of life will live, that right prevails, that forgiveness is the way of heaven, that death is not defeat and love will win. This is the almost unbelievable good news, that Christ is risen from the dead, and we must lift up our amazement and cast our fears away and rejoice,

So, to paraphrase St John Chrystostom in a sermon written some 1600 years ago:

First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice! For the Table is richly laden! [Therefore] Feast royally… Partake, of the cup of faith and enjoy all the riches of God’s goodness!

Let no one grieve at their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one can mourn that they have fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free…. O death, where is thy sting?  O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and death is annihilated! Christ is Risen, and evil is cast down! Christ is Risen, and angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! [and God’s love will win]

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!