Friday, March 20, 2015

Paul Klee, Sinbad the Sailor

Coffee Spoons

Is there a biological predisposition, a genetic marker, for loving coffee houses? I remember walking down Columbus Avenue with my father in the middle nineteen-fifties when North Beach was the centre of San Francisco’s beatnik culture. We walked past the Co-Existence Bagel Shop and I caught a scent of espresso and saw people with beards sipping from small cups, reading big books, gesticulating with closely held opinions, and a voice deep in my soul spoke up in my nine year old self and said, “I’ll have what they're having!”

It was the start of a downward spiral, though it stayed quiet for years,  only resurfacing when I was a student in Eugene, Oregon in 1969, with an evening visit a coffee house which had all of the above plus live folk music. I returned the next day with a slim volume of James Joyce plus my journal and it was the beginning of the end.

For most of the decades since then I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. In most of those years I knew exactly where to go to sit, drink and read and write: to fill numerous journals with innumerable outlines, epiphanies, confessions,  poetry, prose, plans for the future, laments for years past.

I will admit I spent too much time as a student. As one of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury characters said of his life as a sophomore, “They were three of the happiest years of my life,” and I understand that completely.  But a large part of that was the proximity to Coffee Houses. In the nineteen seventies at the University of California at Davis the Student Union had both a dining commons and a co-operative coffee house. I had a the habit of a regular table. After extensive peer pressure, to say nothing of strident urgings from the teaching faculty and University administration, I graduated in the late seventies but soon reemerged in a Master’s program at the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium one block north of the UC Berkeley campus. It was there my using escalated. It was just too easy with a cafe on every street, even on the sidewalk, walking one block in almost any direction brought easy access to latte’s, mocha, short cups of espresso. You could get an omelette, Italian pastries, even gelato. And it wasn’t just the drink and food. They had books and magazines piled in the corners, rotating art exhibits, windows to look out and the world going by. it was a glorious time, and at the Olde Egg Shop and Apple Press, a name that evoke some moisture in the eyes of old Berkeley alums, they gave free refills! I felt like I had arrived in my final spiritual home.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Melbourne Lane

Old Man Me: starting to explain why I am now “Post-Chaplinesque.”

On Thursday evening, May 22, I will begin a talk on Thomas Merton at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne called “Old Man Merton” with the story of an ambitious musician who always felt depressed whenever he remembered that, “When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for ten years!” And when Thomas Merton got to be my age he had been dead for almost fifteen years! We don't know who he would have been or what he would have done, so when it comes using him as a model of ageing well, we have only our own projections to deal with and those projects are known to have pitfalls.

But in one of my favourite poems, Merton writes,“The pathway dies, the journey has begun.” So if Thomas Merton is no longer on the living map his spirit can still  enliven the unknown territory we must come to inhabit. For the life of Thomas Merton in the 21st Century is a story we must write within our own lives: the unfinished story of Old Man Merton must turn into the life of Old Man Me.

This is apt.  As of today I have thirteen months and one day until I turn seventy. I am now a retired gentle-person, senior citizen, a man of a certain age. How do I dance with disease, diminution, and death, and with days that are also  open, if I really look, to almost anything? There can be time for visions and revisions, time to write, take naps, serve my neighbour, love God and respond to love as if I had all the time in the world.

It’s still a rich and wide choice. Tennis may be off the list but from here I can take on a daily practice of writing, meditation and all sorts of ministry, while generally sharing the burdens and glories of the journey with others. I can stretch every morning, do centering prayer twice a day, tai chi at noon, tea at three and weekly mass at seven in the evening: visit the poor, sick and lonely, comfort my people — but then the question is both with what and how? Where is the particular Good News to share at this point in time in this specific cultural and geographical place, and what does a whole life look like here and now?  What would Thomas Merton say or do?

Because I deeply despair of the church in its present shape in the Australian bush, and I’m still surprised by what I find here. It is neither the church not the culture that formed me and my ministry. Because for most of my past parish life in Northern California and central Melbourne I was part of somewhat post-modern gathered congregations where people showed up because they really wanted to. These were enclaves located in a larger cultural and intellectual environment where being a Christian was seen as socially suspect, if not only dated and dowdy, and people often outed themselves with a shy smile, “I know it’s surprising, but I get quite a lot out of church.”

That was the world where I lived and prayed, learned and taught, worked and grew, where the old and established cultural cachet and accretions of being a Christian had fallen out of the nest. The congregations I knew had turned another corner; where the old attendees had died or dispersed and most of the new people came from somewhere else than the established pattern; from marriages that failed, careers that weren’t as expected, vocations re-visioned and visions renewed. They were like returnees from long trips overseas when the itinerary took then further than the expected destination. People at Grace Cathedral on San Francisco’s Nob Hill and at St Peter’s Eastern Hill in Melbourne showed up on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights because they had deep and personal experiences of God or love or loss; an encounter that set them on a search with their time in church a necessary part of a particular and crucial pilgrimage.

It made for different type of congregations; people on their own way, not there because a great grandmother had given a window or an uncle baptised before the war, not there because of a lingering expectation that the family would always attend in due season and on important occasions. In these post-Christendom communities the traditional expectations have echoed like old background music then faded away to leave a new silence open to be filled with other voices and choices by a newly re-focussed community of prayer, celebration and discernment.

But now I have retired in country Victoria, Australia, where the remnant of the institutional church still carries much traditional cultural weight, albeit with an ever smaller circle attending services. It is still a place where a number of parishioners come with inherited convictions of family tradition and lengthy associations, known and acknowledged in the larger existing communities for good or ill. This tradition can offer a rich web of associations, to be sure, but it is one that is quickly running out of steam and what worries me is that I can see no shared vision of community, no newly packaged kerygma, to take its place. And that leaves me wondering where to go and what to do.

For the life I live, the faith and ministry I practice as a Christian, as well as a priest of the Anglican Church, will happen here. And at this point I am not sure what direction this self-offering will take, who and how I should serve as I worship God. So I am in a time of personal and professional discernment, but this is nothing new: my whole life and ministry has followed wandering ways into pilgrimage; often with a destination in sight, sometimes intuitively going after a slight hunch or the hint of a vision, occasionally turning around when dumb or graceful luck opened a door or excluded an option. With that history I am not ultimately uncomfortable with ambiguous beginnings or endings either. I actually have more trouble with the middle.

In any case, after my post-retirement summer vacation, I want to take time to consider and share the current questions and answers, initial ideas and tentative explorations on my  own future work (as well as those of others), on some possible new missions and revised ministries that might make a difference for the church that waits to happen. This also means looking at the ministry I’ve done in the past, as a chaplain and occasional teacher in higher education, with a short stint in aged care, as well as several years as the chaplain to a diocesan Bishop. This has been work I loved and I give thanks for as I lay it down, but that pathway has died and a new journey begun. So that is also what it means to be “Post-Chaplinesque.”  I hope you’ll be with me on the journey.

Walking over the Ovens River

Old signposts that can signal future actions

In my retirement reality I am looking around for guideposts and guardrails, principles that can guide as  I look at where I am going from here. I wrote this for our diocesan synod several years ago and it still serves me as a template of where the institution might go, what it can look like, although I am not sure how and where it might fit in my own future ministry. I note it here as a reminder.

In 1977 I went to visit a monastery in Santa Barbara California because my life was at a crisis: as a student, as a worker, as a man trying to figure out what my place was in the world; what I had to get and what I had to give.  I had no answers and I wasn’t even sure how to ask the questions. And something happened to me. If you’re interested, I can talk to you about it another time, but the end result was, I found the God I believed in believed in me more. And that made all the difference. 

After that it was time to return to my life, my work, my studies, my wildly open future. As I was preparing to leave the monastery that morning I  saw the oldest monk  walking outside the chapel: a monk for 70+ years, Bishop Campbell had retired as a bishop from Africa,  was around 92  at that time and still going strong.  I went up to him and I thanked him for his presence during my time there, then said, "and now I’m going back to my life.” He looked at me steadily for a moment, then he said, “Yes, another beginning!” And I’ve always remembered that. A great one liner.

I've also been very fond of another one liner from a Rhodes scholar who went in a different direction. Kris Kristofferson, in the song, “Me and Bobby McGee”, said, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” and there’s a real wisdom there. 

Now we’re in a funny place as a church. We were a cultural necessity for so long, part of the official definition of the good life, had some real glory years, and now they seem to be gone. There may be some sadness that so many things that seemed to be eternal have come to an end; but as a 92-year-old monk said to me some 36 years ago, it is another beginning.

I am no longer a young man, Bishop Campbell is long gone, even the monastery burned to the ground a few years ago and a smaller number of monks have renewed the ministry in an disused convent closer to the center of Santa Barbara. And we are no longer part of the official definition of the good life, we're hardly fashionable anymore. But we have good memories as we look for another beginning where the old answers might not fit, and the new questions are just coming into focus.

And there is a tremendous freedom in the beginning again, in looking around and wondering what the gospel will look like in the 21st century, as long as we keep fast to the graceful hope that God believes in us more than we believe in ourselves; that God holds our church in love; then by God’s grace we have nothing left to lose and a new beginning to gain.

So where do we go from here? My personal hunch is that we have lost the battle of Sunday morning. 40 or 50 years ago, the market was closed, the playing field silent,  and sleeping in or taking brunch was not such a popular option. That world has changed and there are new and noisy gods on the horizon; with the mall or the web, the media and big business, sex and popularity and money are so often the new meaningful icons. 

And while most people have left religion behind, some others stick to a strident fundamentalism, a conservative evangelical fervour that often strikes me as a defense mechanism against the possibility that God is calling us to something new, something larger than vision of the church we found such comfort in so many years ago. That gives me hope too. I think it must’ve been like that when the Christian community left its Jewish parentage and went among the nations; it must’ve been like that when Christians started to speak out for pacifism, against slavery, for women’s rights, even now against multinationals and ecological outrage. Perhaps another beginning for God’s people is growing in the heart of the church. And where do we go from here?

I think the best thing is to start small. A few years ago we started a four-year program with the bishop's certificate and over 40 people have now enrolled. But I think that most people are not ready or able to make that kind of time commitment. So in my ministry for the diocese I’m building 4 week templates, weekend templates, one day templates, even online classes that can happen any time for anyone, anywhere. 

We’re meeting people where they are and when they can join us  by offering options for Tuesday nights or Thursday nights, Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon: short sequences that can awaken curiosity and hope, seed community and commitment, so that we can  remind people that we stand offering a tradition that carries the greatest hope of justice, mercy, community, that the world has ever seen. 

But this is not easy and there is a danger that we are so caught by our history that we could almost lose hope, we’ve already lost so much, but “We are the body of Christ” and God believes in us so much more than we believe in ourselves, so carrying this hope can be such good news, this freedom of nothing left to lose gives us everything to gain as a gift from God.

So we’re starting small from here. If you are a small congregation, 3 to 12 people meeting every week or once or twice a month, I ask you to consider  having a one-day program once or twice a year. We can do it as part of the Sunday service and try to nurture your existing membership and maybe bring in a few new people. If you’re a medium sized congregation, think about having a few four-week series on Bible study, on meditation, on faith and films,  on making your own rule of life: come talk to me about who you are and what you like and we can try to make a program that fits for you; and if I can’t do it, I can help you find somebody who can.  

if you’re a larger congregation this offer stands too, but I would also ask you to look at your own membership, clergy and laity, and think about, what talents or community you might share from within your congregations, amongst your sisters and brothers in the diocese, what gifts you might have to give. 

This can be a very rich moment to be in the church, a lovely time to think on these things, and while there is much that may be ending, it may well be that we are privileged to witness a new beginning, an opportunity that comes to us with a great freedom and an equal responsibility. But I am convinced that we are under an obligation, under the gift of grace, to recall who we are, what we carry, why that matters, for God believes in us, and that shall always be our heritage, our heart, and our hope.

Rob Whalley + 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On the Baptism of Jesus. Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta

It’s good to be here today and it’s been awhile. Since the end of October I’ve been taking a kind of sabbatical marking the start of official retirement: time to listen, to rest and renew, to consider and reconsider where life might be going from here on. So I’ve slept late and napped often, I’ve read old books that used to mean a lot and explored new authors I’ve recently heard about. I’ve taken room to be surprised and refreshed, and what I’ve found so far — with at least seven more weeks to go — is that nothing really changes!

I’m ending up in a place very much like where I started when I was baptised in Northern California in late 1967 at the age of 21, so many years ago, and, it’s somehow still brand new! In those days I didn’t know what I was getting into, and I still don’t. But I take that as good news, for the journey of faith takes us on to new ways, by new paths, to become new people and that means we don’t know where we’re going until we get there, and sometimes not even then!

Baptism is odd: you might not even remember your own baptism, but every time you come to church, receive communion, say your prayers, bless yourself, ask God to remember you, you can renew your baptism. It is one of those doors that is always open, inviting us to come into larger life. We might have made it a fairly tame occurrence, but at heart it is a wild gift. 

It has to do with turning around, beginning again, seeking a new life with new eyes as a new person born by grace after all that has gone before is dead and gone  — and we forget that. In the liturgies for baptism used in the first few centuries of the church the Baptism was generally full immersion and when the Bishop or Priest or Deacon put you under the water they kept you down for awhile, so that when you rose up, and took that breath of fresh air  you knew if was fresh and very new! “For” as Paul writes, “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation,” and we can forget that. 

Years ago, the poet, Whystan Auden wrote a Christmas Oratorio called “For the Time Being” and I’d like to use the last three stanzas to highlight three ways I believe we are called to live as newly baptised persons, no matter where we are on our journey with Jesus.  Auden starts like this: 

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

The Land of Unlikeness can sound like a very scary destination unless we keep remembering that God is always bigger than we think.  In my early twenties I remember an English Benedictine named Dom Aelred Graham quoting a Zen Buddhist Patriarch and telling me I didn’t need to keep such a tight rein on my faith and to cherish my opinions quite so tightly.  “Can you just trust,” he said, “that God is taking you on a journey and that you can trust God? - You don’t need to control the road or even always know where it is going, can’t you just follow?” 

I took a breath then, and said yes, and that enabled me to loosen my ego, my grip, in some ways, just a little, and allowed God to be God anew and let me be new in some ways as well. Then ten years later while visiting a monastery chapel on a quiet evening I had the gift of a wider sense of how God loved me. I used a fictional monk to tell the truth I discovered on that pilgrimage. That monk said:

Allow the possibility that God is not only loveable, but that he is likeable, and since he is, so are you, St. Paul says that we are hidden in Christ, and the reverse is true as well. Christ is hidden with us; the wedding feast, the last supper, crucifixion, resurrection and pentecost are all hidden in our lives as well. We are the life of God acted out in time and space, the grace of God happening outside eternity, God dancing God's dance in perfect time, the epiphanies of God in process of happening, the eyes of God in the process of seeing. 

Just let God be God and watch what happens! “You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.”

So Auden goes on to write:

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

And that reminds me of what a friend told me a very holy woman, famous spiritual adviser and writer, said to him in the early 1980s. “If you want to know where God is,” she said, “go where the tension is!”

And it was in the late 1980s I started to believe that the Eucharist and Baptism  are patterns and living parables like so many other sacramental moments in life where God says, “Where do you find me here?” It might easy to find holiness and hope in the times when God says Yes, but it can turn into a different  and difficult and sometimes more valuable journey when life says No. For I am convinced (and most days I believe) that it is in the Kingdom of Anxiety, or Fear, or Depression — in the moments where hope falls short and life falters — where God can best lead us beyond everything we know into a deeper embrace of that eternal love which will renew us. Some thirty years ago after a youth group meeting I remember talking to a suicidal teenager who felt like he had hit a wall. I said, “Please don’t give up, God has larger living answers to things you’ve never even questioned yet; just hang on, and let life get bigger!” Just honour anxiety or fear, desperation or depression as doors open to a new creation, to a hitherto unknown great City, a wider world of wonders, than you would ever have expected. 

And finally  Auden finishes:

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

In the Fourth Century Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, "The Son of God became man so that we might become God… He became what we are, so that He might make us what He is.” And that’s where it all gets tied together.

Baptism washes us up, makes us fully human as Jesus is fully human, so we can live as he did, as honest and fragile flesh and blood in the ephemeral shadowed journey between life and death; in good times and bad, with all the broken endings and tentative beginnings, in all the moments that hope like heaven and all the times that hurt like hell; in tears and in glory, walking all the way with Jesus: that’s exactly where our lives and God’s love meet here and now and always.

So, over 47 years ago I was baptised and that’s what I’ve learned on the way: that Baptism and Eucharist and our very own God-given lives are gifts we are given for the journey, as well as the place where we start. 

May you always know that God is with you on the way. 


Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Feast of Christ the King 2014

As of the end of October I became newly retired and it’s a very interesting place to be; sort of like adolescence but with less energy and no pimples: but still with all these new beginnings, open spaces and times, possibilities for action and reflection, discipline and dedication, ending and beginning!

It feels a lot like coming to an intersection on a long road and realising there are options ahead, maybe a roundabout with numerous exits beckoning or you can even circle back and end up where you started so many years ago. 

So I have been reviewing previous roundabouts, crossroads that came before: coming to the diocese five years ago, moving to Australia eight years before that, even the time when I started studying theology in Berkeley in the early 1980s: times when everything was suddenly new, amazing, questionable and wonderful all at the same time. 

And so I am wondering what to do, where to go from here; which is a deeply theological/spiritual question. So this summer I am starting to write down a short overview of what I believe.

I’ve done that before. In the early 80s my spiritual director told me to write a one page single-spaced summary review of my faith once a month. This can be a great thing to do when you are living, studying and working in a seminary, but it’s a salutary exercise for anyone anytime, even at the onset of retirement, even on the Feast of Christ the King with the start of the new church year coming, because it can tell you what deserves to be in the centre, where you need to go, what turns to avoid, as well as when to head for home. 

So maybe it’s a good thing today for all of us to consider; “What do I believe about God, and good and evil, life and death, love and forgiveness, justice and joy? What do they matter to me here and now?” If you take some time to think about this between now and Christmas Eve I guarantee that it will change your life.

And that’s our task today, looking through the lens of Scripture, through three thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition and reflection, with recourse to reason, and breathing as deep as we can in the wisdom of the spirit. What does it mean to say that Jesus is Lord, Ruler, God's Word about life, that Christ is our true King? 

Well, if this Jesus is King, then we can rejoice, because what the prophet Ezekiel was looking for, writing about twenty-five hundred years ago has come to be known: that the creator of heaven and earth, that the one who made it all, has, in Christ, come into the middle of the world as presence and witness and healing gift. And that is exactly what Ezekiel was looking forward to when he spoke God’s word to a people without hope, a band of forced refugees sent to exile far from home, when all their history and heart had been ripped away, and they were trying to sing the Lord’s song in a very foreign land. He wrote of this great hope in God:

As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep… I will seek out my sheep… from all the places to which they have been scattered… and I will…  says the Lord God… seek the lost…  bring back the strayed…  bind up the injured… strengthen the weak…[and] I will feed them with justice.

Now we have some things in common with Ezekiel’s people today. The institution of the church is in a kind of exile from where we once were, and many who recall glory days in the last century — with full buildings, consistent growth, large choirs, youth groups, and a sense that we would always endure, survive and thrive, — can look around at the remnant here now and wonder what went wrong, and it can be easy to lose hope and not hear what Ezekiel is saying to all those who are in exile. We are called to be patient, to not lose heart, to feel encouraged because our hope, if Christ is King, is that the shepherd who comes from the deep heart of the whole creation continues to meet the world in the very middle of the journey, rounding any roundabout, crossing any crossroad, meeting and mending, healing and bringing back all sheep lost and found far from home in their  wanderings through the various valleys of the shadow of death, by paths of righteousness, goodness and mercy all the way back to where they should be. For our hope, if Christ is King, can be that large.

Then the question comes of how we get there from here, how we hold on to that belief, which takes us to good St Paul, who in this reading from Colossians, calls us all to a graceful transformation of the heart, in faith that the spirit of Jesus, God’s Messiah, comes to dwell with anyone who can prayerfully allow that Jesus is Lord, and Paul’s prayer of faith is that: 

…God… may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him… [that] with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you… the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints,…the immeasurable greatness of his power for us… in Christ…[and] the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

So, by grace and with faith, you end up breathing something, someone in the middle, who incorporates and embodies the central point of it all which, if this is true, is compassion, love, empathy, a will to connect and a hope to heal, a heart which witnesses wholeness and happiness in the very centre of everything and anyone.

And Matthew's Gospel today speaks to that central  point; that if Christ is king, then his love, his life lives in everyone, and that love longs to be found especially in the lives of those in need; so the deepest economy of the kingdom of heaven is that our response to our neighbour in need is the same as our response to the God of Glory.  For Jesus says:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’…‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  [and, going on, if] you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ “

Just as the Beatles said so may years ago; “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” if Christ is King, is this is true, then we have a ruler who is a shepherd, a sovereign willing to serve, with every effort and each breath, willing to share the kingdom with each and everyone of us, if we too will join to share what we are and what we have as well. Then it turns out that the face of the shepherd, the love of God and the deep breath shared with the friends and followers of Christ are all woven out of the dearest threads of love. And the only question is: do we believe this, are we willing, in any real way, to take this in, carry it along, breathe this out in the various rhythms of each and all of our days?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Last Sermon at St John's Village Nursing Home Service, three hours until retirement!

Two quotes: from Psalm 139, “and at the end, I am still in your presence.” and from John’s Gospel where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” What might these words mean for us today?

With the words, “I am,” every good Jew as well as everyone who’s read or listened to the Scripture goes back to Moses leaving the road and taking off his shoes to see and listen to this burning bush, which tells him to announce that “I am” sent me, that he is sent forth to live and give his life in light of that light, that voice calling out, “I am,” which is being and becoming and never burned out and alway beginning and always here and now. 

So when Jesus’ friends hear, so when they (and we) see Jesus, their hope and ours is that we are seeing that word made flesh, that hope in the heart of human being from the beginning: God for us, with us, in us: the way, the truth, the life. 

The earliest Christians, before the term “Christian” was used, were called Followers of the Way.  So what is that way that we can follow today. I think it is to take on the yoke of discipline, desire and hope that Jesus models in his life, that God will meet us on the way here, right here and now, that God’s love looks to be found in every place we see, every moment of time, even and especially here and now; that that is the truth. 

The “truth” is a funny thing, one thinks of the vow to tell, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” But, in fact, the truth is often, if not always, bigger than we know, more than we can say, can really get our mind around; not like a vow and more like a lighted city seen off in the distance, glimpsing occasionally and partially with great hope; a wide reality where love lives that is larger than we can realise. 

So even if we cannot tell that full truth we sometimes see it both up ahead and here and now, we can still will to walk in that direction. Because this is the way of life we share with Jesus: to look to all things, all places, people, predicaments, with the question, “What is this to love?”  

And that leads us to a larger life; in all its fullness, with hope and disappointment, gain and loss, joy and sorrow, life and death and something more too, all wrapped up in walking the way, leaning into the truth, living the life we are given while looking for Grace in the present moment, the present trial, the present truth. 

An ongoing Way where God’s truth, God’s love, God’s life, meets ours in being and becoming, in healing and hopes,  in triumphs and trials, in life and death and that unforeseeable rising into new life that Jesus meets and lives through and aims to share with us in the gift of God’s spirit in our lives; God’s breath breathing us through every moment, here and now and always, calling us to follow Christ as the way and the truth and the life that grows us into greater life with God. 

“O Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You mark out my journeys and my resting place and are acquainted with all my ways.
In the name of Christ, Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pentecost 20C - The last sermon at St Paul's, Glenrowan

The problem with “last sermons” is they can get very top-heavy, and the trouble with last sermons before retirement is that they can topple over. But I want to say both farewell and fare forward in light of our final time together as your interim and in response to today’s Gospel too; so that might take some time.

When I was in seminary in Berkeley in the 1980s I wrote a paper outlining something called “The Merton Centre,” which would offer courses, gatherings, resources for people who didn’t find their needs or desires met by existing religious structures. The four sides of the structure were: formation, education, celebration and transformation. This template led me in the work I did in chaplaincy and education in California in the 1990s and then found a new form as “The Merton Centre at St Peter’s Eastern Hill” in Melbourne from 2002 to 2009. It changed a bit when I moved to Wangaratta, but certainly influenced various diocesan offerings, chiefly under the name of “St Columb’s Fair,” in the last five years. Now that I am retiring I think that it might be time to let The Merton Centre come forth again, because in my experience it outlines good ways to learn, to lean into, to live out the great summary of the Gospel we hear today from Matthew:

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

So, based on my old model, here are four ways to get there from here:

Formation means that the first fact, the place where we start, is that God loves us; exactly as we are, here and now, always and everywhere. God makes us, meets us and mends us, all the time, all out of love. And that love lives before we were born, after we die, in every instance of our lives.  But even if it seems simple, it isn’t easy. William Blake writes, “We are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love.” and so that we might learn to look at everyone in that light, even sometimes looking in the mirror, and this can be problematic:

As Thomas Merton writes:

 For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. 
    Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. 
    With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like [and]…   Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny….

And this means looking at where we are not, who we are not, why we are not: for  while God creates time and space and innumerable paths to freedom and perfection, we tend to take the most expeditious shortcuts, and there has to be a commitment to take the long way home, in order to find by Grace, as Zen puts it, “the face we had before we were born”.

Some books that speak to this for me are by Rowan Williams, Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation and Gerald May’s, The Awakened Heart; along with A Path with Heart by the Buddhist Jack Kornfield as well as mystical poetry by people like Rumi, TS Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins

Now Education: I often say that, “No one would go to the gym one hour a week and expect to get stronger, but I still do!” But we also can come to church that way, and we need to allow more take time to stretch, discern, learn, listen to where we are and where God calls us to be. For here we have the most expansive history and tradition of aesthetics, ethics, poetry, politics, wisdom, cosmology, compassion, beauty the world has ever known, and we don’t take time explore it, to get lost and found in it, glory in it.

We need to allow time and space to listen and come to know the tradition. Some options I’d recommend today are using the Daily Office, either in your prayer book on online (I use the C of E app on my iPad), to schedule a weekly hour or two with the Sunday Gospel on and look at current authors like Diarmaid MacCulloch, Diana Butler Bass, Karen Armstrong, Brian McLaren, and again, Rowan Williams.

Celebration means Liturgy and that is the work of the people together, of the polis, the ecclesia, those on the way together; and I always go back to a quote by Tennessee Williams: “In a world where so many are alone, it would be an unforgivable sin to be lonely by yourself“ In many ways the church is where we learn to be deeply ourselves while most deeply together. It is the place where, as Philip Larkin writes, “… all our compulsions are robed as destinies” and that is our call as community! For the church offers sacramental moments: “Patterns of countless ways God uses material things to reach out to creation,” and then we can see it is all part of the mix: birth, puberty, sex and relationship; both vocation and vacation, with room for sin, illness and death. In eating, bathing, cooking, cleaning, making love, poetry, justice, community, silence. Looking for God everywhere can enlarge the universe and Celebration and liturgy are where we practice to be a new people, a new being, the new creation that St Paul talks about.

I haven’t read much on liturgy lately but always loved Charles Price and Louis Wiel’s book, Liturgy for Living.“The Wisdom of Confucius” and “Confucius, the Secular as Sacred” by Herbert Fingarette also fit here.Also the work of Thomas Moore, author of The Life of a Soul, who puts it this way, “My life work is an attempt to ground the pure, visionary spirit in the imperfect, intoxicating sensuousness of worldly life.” His books are worth looking at too.

And, finally, Transformation: There’s a great line in Annie Hall where Woody Allen turns to Diane Keaton and says, “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies.  I think what we’ve got on our hands is a dead shark.” Our relationship with God in community has to move forward, because it is, in the end, the act of changing the world. But listen to what Mother Teresa said fits here: “Don't look for big things, just do small things with great love.” Continuing formation, education, celebration all lead to transformation, where we learn to live the life, to walk the talk of the Good News of God with us, Jesus Christ.

As Merton writes:

And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech,and it is beyond concept.  Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear [sisters and] brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are."—

We are the body of Christ,
His Spirit is with us.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Landowners and the Kingdom of Heaven

What is the kingdom of heaven like?

A couple of years ago I was driving out to Tamanick for the eight o'clock mass at St George’s and I realised that the light had a kind of special quality: with shades I hadn't seen before, mysterious shadows and a bit of an edge to my vision which was both mysterious and disturbing. I wondered if I might be having a mystical experience. But I made an appointment to see my optometrist who said that it was time to get my cataracts removed.

Fast-forward a few weeks for surgery for the right eye and a month after that for the left and I began to see the world in a new way. I have heard women say they noticed the dust everywhere around their house; I’m not that good, but I saw the edges of things more clearly: the corner window, the shape of the cats ear, the distinct outline of one noisy cockie’s wingspan rising in flight into a blue sky: everything looked pretty wonderful and newly refreshed

So sometimes we need to have our vision checked to make sure we’re seeing things as well and as accurately as possible; sometimes there can be a filter or a flaw that keeps us from perceiving what is either in front of us or some ways away: and often  checking out our lenses, the way we view things, helps us see old things in new ways, and  overlooked possibilities might emerge and get suddenly clear and maybe even wonderful.

So what is the kingdom of heaven like?

I want to talk about the Gospel lesson for this morning; but I think that insights about the landowner and how he pays his workers can be seen more clearly when we take some time to focus on the background of the story, what Matthew refers to as “the kingdom of heaven,” and I think it’s important for us to question our vision here, check out how clearly we’re seeing  the big picture of larger life that stands in the very center of this story.

Because in the last 500 or so years, we (meaning people coming from a European culture) have changed the way we’ve look at life, and the way we tend to see things now have up changed both how and what we see. Two quotes fit here:  one well-known enlightenment thinker said, “Man is the measure” and another wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Together those two ways of seeing, thinking, measuring, change everything, maybe for good and bad; they can be an accurate lens, but they might also be a bit of a cataract: maybe opening up our sight, maybe closing down our larger vision too.

Because for most of our time on the planet,  humankind shared their hopeful stories of their journeys using poetry rather than prose, using mystery rather than history, using a heartfelt hope rather than heads filled with facts. But for the last 500 or so years we’ve tried so hard to think it out, get it straight in our minds, get its measure and know its numbers and that’s made a change.

Now I am not saying that modern scientific thinking is bad! All this scientific knowledge, technical data, dictionary facts and figures, has given us a lot of  information and no small amount of wisdom; It is just that it is not the whole story!

Because the older story shared on the journey, round the campfire, at the altar; this poetry and music and myth and metaphor can call us to go beyond ourselves, enter into mystery, follow a truth that finds a faithful way home by a way that passes understanding.

So we have to understand anew the background of the Kingdom of God, and then we can come to see the old  parable, the story in the foreground, and what it has to tell us, in a brand new way.

So what is the kingdom of heaven like?

What if we look at the landowner and the way he chooses to pay his workers like we never seen it before! How strange a place where people who came in at the last hour of the day are paid as much as those who were on-site in the morning! It doesn’t make sense in terms of the modern ideas of human  resources and relations, it wouldn’t be in touch with union or government policies and protocols, and I think any Board of Directors would look askance on this in terms of budgetary planning. But if you hold that Christ-shaped hope of heaven in the centre of your heart, this story can be an insight to a whole new way of life.

So what is the kingdom of heaven like?

Listen to a better preacher than I, St John Chrystostom’s Easter sermon from around 400AD. For this is really all about Easter!

Are there any who are devout lovers of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Are there any weary with fasting? Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. 
And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay. 

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows. He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor. The deed He honors and the intention He commends. 

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

 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 today for the Table is richly laden!

 Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. 

Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. 
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

And, by God, the kingdom of heaven is just like that! 

In the name of Christ. Amen