Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost Sermon 2009

Pentecost 2009
St. Peter’s Eastern Hill
Robert Whalley

Acts 2: 1-11
Galatians 5:16-25
John 15:26-27; 16:12-15

According to authorities, the easiest way to trap a monkey is to take a coconut, punch a smallish hole in it, empty it, tie it to the ground and fill it with a few pieces of good food. I am not sure what qualifies as good monkey food, maybe straw, and I am inclined to go for pizza and chocolate, but am prepared to see that as pure projection. Anyway, when the monkey comes exploring, he sees the food inside the coconut and puts his hand in. He finds he can’t grab hold of the food and get his hand out at the same time. And he won’t let go. Supposedly a monkey will try to hold onto the food even when the people with the nets come ‘round, even when he’s going to get trapped, lose everything, he’ll still try to hold on.

This story scares me a bit, because there is something in me that often wants to hold on, to an old idea, to an old idol, to an old plan or an old pain. But what is more important than saying yes to life and to God in the present moment? What are we trying to hold onto? Is there an old idea of failure or success? Is there a worn out list somewhere of people we tried to impress when we were younger? Is it an old idea of our religion, of how to act it out and live it out? What are we holding on to that holds us back, that can trap us, trip us up, keep us from turning around to say yes to the present reality of celebrating life and love right now, when that’s what might matter most?

Now most days I believe the kingdom of heaven, the realm of the spirit, the way of Jesus, the reign of God, is not a place to be tight-fisted. It is also not easy to get hold of, not easily condensed into a book or a creed, not a winning ticket, not even just a place to rest. Don’t get me wrong, none these things are bad or wrong; we need benchmarks and rest-stops, records, starting points, places where we can turn around and begin to live again. They are all valuable, but they are not the way, and there is even a danger that they can turn into detours, get us out of the way. There is such a deeply human tendency to think that checking out the cookbook is like eating the meal, or looking at the map is like moving into the territory.

But the way of Jesus is a way to live and move and have our being: it’s more of a walking tour where you start right here! Because in life in Christ there is so much “here” right here! Here in a way you walk, inhale, exhale, accept, receive and give over every minute. Every time that you take it in, turn it over, put it out, love your neighbor as yourself, heaven happens here and now. A way that is forever new and renewed in the making and giving and taking the gift of the moment. Again, nothing you can get your head or hand around, less like a bank account or a lesson plan, more like a flower or a fresh breeze, or love: Jesus sings a song of the intimacy of God breathed by the spirit in every moment of creation. That’s the gift, that’s the way the way works in each of us as well as in all of us together. We can’t lay hold of it easy, but that’s the way.

That’s why I think we have four Gospels which don’t quite fit together, to show us how wide the way is, because the truth of it isn’t tailored to suit us all the time. I’ve said this before, but I figure the evangelists have four family albums, four sets of snaps from different sides of the family tree, with different vantage points, different focus, pointing towards a different purpose with different results. So when you look at all the records together you find important stuff that doesn’t add up and won’t fit in your outline. You can’t use it easily for as a morality to suit your own mentality. And that’s good!

For you get something far better; a kind of moving picture that emerges by living with the Bible, looking into it and through it, like a kids flip book, that you can use as a kind of moving-picture of faith in motion. So you learn the way of Jesus by watching him move, you learn by moving with his rhythm, following his lead, walking his walk, learning to dance, to partner with him: both companions in the intricacies and rhythms of your own life and times as well as that of all the disparate and communities where he loves to be found: the communities where you are bound to find love. And that can be good news.

Because if God’s openhanded way and truth is the way to follow; then the self-directed documentary of who we want to be and where we ought to go, all the plots, hopes, fears, memories and desire, or follies and forecasts that we hold on to, we can let all that go! For then we can be held in the free-gift of God’s true love, right here, right now. In a way willing to be filled with "God-shaped events," instances of creativity, redemption, blessed mercy and surprise; when the world ignites with Pentecostal connection, compassion, wisdom, justice, love.

But there is something is us that wants to fight that, keep our hand in, get what we want. That relates to what Paul is talking about in the Epistle to the Galatians with his nasty little list: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing” are all attempts to grip power, passion, come to control, to make the world our way. But listen to the other list: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” All openhanded ways to be companions, neighbors, lovers, freely giving without the need for control or power. A bright dance, a procession from the heart of creation, from the deepest heart of love in the fragile centre of the human journey.

We see those instances shining brightly in the life of Jesus, a moving pattern of the will and the love of God, and learn to breathe that spirit here, in the middle of our lives. We come here to learn to walk that way, walk in that hope.

And that takes us to John’s Gospel. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Perhaps what this spirit declares in the Book of Acts, where each person hears it anew in the tongue of their tribe or family; is that the biggest of those “deeds of power,” is that the tender power of love will win, will live forever. But for most of us these are only “hints and guesses.” We will only know this fully in walking the way and see it clearly at the end, finally, in the light of heaven, under the kind eyes of the saints and through the grace of an empty cross, under the wide sky of eternity where we will eat the bread of heaven. We are here on the way to ease into that truth.

So don’t let your hand be caught in holding on to what you wanted in life, instead let yourself come home to Christ in the midst of the world of living and dying, in the hope of heaven. Deitrich Bonhoffer writes, “Christ bids you come and die,” and that is not easy, but it can be very good. Die to the fiction of a controlling life so that you can live for the truth of abounding and outpouring love. Stop grasping at dried straws. Give up a lonely living death, and begin to lose yourself in the hope of Christ’s dying-rising life. Live to breathe, move, dance with all the wild, incomparable, highly unlikely, quickly passing by, possibilities, in a stewardship, partnership, friendship, kinship with God in Christ, in communion with everybody else, a dance that will breathe us, neighbors to the last, and, lay us to rest, take us along, raise us up and bring us home.

Welcome to Pentecost!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Friday, May 01, 2009

Sermon, Trinity College Theological School, St, Philip and St. James

A bit of a preface. Three bits of homiletic advice you didn’t ask for: first, always preach on the Gospel. Second, always write a new sermon for every occasion, and even if a ten year old sermon from another seminary in another country starts to surface like a very appropriate gift for the base coat, don’t use it! And third, if you do, don’t tell anyone.

Two Quotes to start: first, the poet e.e. cummings, in a play called HIM.

"I feel only one thing, I have only one conviction ...
I am an Artist, I am a Human,  I am a Failure
and always I am repeating a simple and dark and little formula...
always myself mutters and remutters ... I breathe and I whisper:
"An Artist, a Human, a Failure, must proceed."

Then, in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

So I want to talk about art, humanity, Jesus, discipleship, failure, and thanksgiving as an aid to walk the way, tell the truth and live life fully.

Jesus is certainly the ultimate artist, if you look at the work and the words of the man in the gospels you see a tapestry that combines radical obedience and complete freedom. Jesus paints with all his pallet, uses all the words, makes paintings and poems in languages we never thought of before, using every color and combination, text and context, sight and sound, melody and mood to make a point. In all his teachings and actions he artfully lights up the glory of a human being fully alive and in love with creation and God.

He is fully human and, in that, somewhat of a failure too. Look at his life and ministry. He has family difficulties, and certainly a less than perfect track record on choosing disciples and friends. Often misunderstood, he clashes with the religious and political establishment of his time. He would not have done well in most seminaries or ordination processes in most dioceses. There are moments in his ministry when he must feel he is in the middle of a maelstrom of fear, anger and frustration. When he gets to the top of the mountain he is alone, feels forsaken, and cries out to God as the curtain slowly falls. And that is the model for us here. For he moves in faith all the way through failure into something else that we can’t quite get a handle on. Something else that just might be handling us.

Now I always hoped that having faith would make the road of life easier, that my life as a Christian would make me healthier, more able to follow the pilgrim way with flexibility and grace,; sort of a spiritual Pilate’s class, and in the long run I think it does. But there are tough times in the process, especially in seminary as well as in professional ministry, where life is not easy, where breakdowns, occur as well as breakthroughs. At least if we do it right. And that hurts.

Because, for most of us, answering a call, coming to seminary meant taking ourselves more seriously than ever before. To say, "I believe that God is asking me to serve in a new and professional way," stretches us out, feels a bit surrealistic, can be hard to share. So even if it is right, it is never easy. Personally I wish that the call to the spiritual life had certain technological adaptations: like Call Waiting and Call Forwarding. Maybe a preview application, so that when you got a call, you could see if you wanted to open it now you now or after lunch: maybe years after lunch!

But you take the call, getting encouraged, for the most part,  from friends and family, cohorts and compatriots, and as you follow the new life of service to God you find yourself stretched beyond capacity. In my experience of ministry and church, this seems sometimes inevitable! I am sorry, but you’re likely to crash and burn somewhere in the process. It goes with the territory. If you haven’t been hurt yet, you will be.
If you haven’t had a vestry or a commission or council or congregant or a friend or an ecclesiastical enemy betray you; if you haven’t been stymied by the demands of a syllabus or a final paper or a partner, hang around, there’s always tomorrow, everybody has a good Friday someday.

This is not to say that it is always for the best, Thomas Merton says, just because it’s a cross, it doesn’t mean it’s a cross for you now! And the church can be dysfunctional at times, even sadistic, we don’t do power real well. So don’t take all the crucifixions that come, but do take the ones that come seriously for it seems to be part of the package:

Ministry is an uphill ride. And the question is how do we take it, where do we go with it?  Ephesians says, “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." And it may take a bit of a miracle to understand that sometimes. For the old words mean different things on the different sides of the cross. The justice we find is made perfect in mercy  the prudence we practice comes in letting go of who we think we are and what we believe we will do. The strength comes when all our life is given wholly to God as an offering. The way and the truth and the life happen in the midst of detours and falsehoods and dead-ends, and in the cacaphony of major contradictions.

That is why you’re here. It is part of the package.  Why you are painting with more colors, using wider words, stretching for life that stretches you beyond ease, so that God can take more place in your life and your ministry. So that God can speak bigger words through you and so God can grow more gracefully in the lives of other people. We are here to become a new language, Christ being the model for the keynote address as well as the corner-stone; And it hurts, for this language is built on the history that we bring to God and the history that God brings to us - and by gut-wrenching grace they may be the same - which leads to making us painfully part of the alphabet of glory, leading us to be love letters from God posted in peculiar places. Because God says something specific and unique in the lives of each of us.
And I think that this depends upon our failure at some specific point. So that God can succeed in some new way we could never envision. That is where Christ’s baptism, teaching, healing, crucifixion meets ours and changes it into resurrection and eternal priesthood.

People in Alcoholics Anonymous say the easiest way to make God laugh is to explain your plans, and over the years I think this chapel has probably made God rock! So today, right now, please, surrender the ideas of both success and failure. Give them all up, then take up the care and ministration of God which comes as a gift, take it all up and make Thanksgiving!

Listen: we join in the Eucharistic banquet because we are the Eucharistic banquet! The feast of shared love we recollect today is built by God’s grace in the broken flesh and spilled blood of our own incomplete lives and unfinished journeys. All washed clean in the font of Christ’s love. And it is up to us to finally learn that the way to pass the test and get past the temptations and the pain is to simply ascent to be lost in the heart of the journey. This is tough news for those of us who are trying to make a judgment call about what it means and where we are going, but know this: God is hidden, waiting to be discovered, in both the pain and the glory, in the good times and bad, failure and fullness; waiting to be discovered as the way and the truth and the life, right here and right now in the middle of it all.