Friday, November 02, 2012

All Saints' Day, 2012 Cathedral School Chapel Service, Wangaratta

A poet named Wendell Berry has two lines from a poem called "Manifesto" that I'll start with today. First, he says, “every day do something that won’t compute.”  Now that’s not easy most days: I like my computer, I love my  iPhone, I love my iPad even more. And a computer helps us to do so much, to go so far; it can be such amtool for exploring and entertainment, it opens so many interesting options! 

 But Wendell Berry says that there are days to turn off the computer and do things that don’t make sense to a machine. And he gives a simple two word commandment at the center of his manifesto which I would like to talk about today: he says, “Practice resurrection.”

That’s not an easy one to get our heads around. There’s a story of some people lost driving on back roads in the country, I’m not sure where – could be not far from here – and they see a guy along the side of the road. They stop to ask driving directions;  they asked to get to a particular place – let’s say Mansfield – and the guy looks around looks up and looks down, looks away and looks at them and says, “I don’t know if you can get there from here.”

A lot of us are not sure how to get there, how to practice resurrection, or even talk about resurrection from here, from this Computer-world; but Christianity, this tradition that is several thousand years old, like other wisdom and justice traditions, special and rare ways to see and be in the world, says that resurrection does happen, that there is a life beyond the life we see here, and that you can get there from here. It just takes time.

The Greeks thousands of years ago had two words for time. First was Chronos, and we get two words chronological and chronometer from that; it has to do with history and clocks, for that kind of time. It has to do with things like: World War II ended in 1945, the test will be held next Wednesday,  the examination will take one hour. That’s time that takes time, time you can prepare for, put on your calendar on your iPhone.

But there is another word for time Kairos;  and that has to do with right time: time to eat lunch, time to hit the ball, time to watch the sunset, to kiss somebody, Time as gift and opportunity in the moment that only comes once and needs to be  seen, touched, moved into, quickly. Time as right…now.

 I was up in Darwin in early August and there is a beach not far from town where there’s a farmers market on Friday night and at dusk when the son gets close to the water at the end of the day people walk out on the beach and they stand or sit on the sand and look quietly is the sun begins to set in the light changes color and slowly you can see the sun falling below the horizon maybe down to a half circle and a quarter and then a sliver and then just a bare hint of light as the sun sets. And when that happens people do three things: first they go AWW!, then they say goodbye and wave, and then they applaud they clap their hands, and that is a moment of Kairos.

 The Old Testament lesson today says that God will destroy death at the top of the mountain and in the Gospel for this morning Jesus brings his friend Lazarus  out of the tomb, back to life. And that really doesn’t compute!

But the reason these stories are told, the reason this community and communities like this gather in this place and in places like this, and have for thousands upon thousands of years; is because there are truths, there are times, there are realities, that do not compute; moments when you wake up and see the gift in the middle of the world that you might have overlooked before, and you see that  life can be very big and amazingly wonderful in a way that’s not easily understood because it’s not very easy to get there from here. 

When I was at the farmers market that evening  in Darwin at the park next to the water I was more interested in buying something: a new shirt or a gift for a friend or maybe something to eat: I didn’t expect that silent wonderful moment watching the sunset with a crowd of people I didn’t know, yet had so much in common with; the shared silence, the sound of sympathy, the gentle applause. Sunsets like that don’t compute, nor does sympathy, and even simple love is hard for a computer to get its head around.

But we come here today to keep our eyes open and our sympathy fresh to remember how big and gentle and wonderful, how big a gift this life is. how full of opportunities that are full of grace and growth. They can happen all through the day, they can come as a surprise at sunset, and even at sunrise.

 The prophet Isaiah says that death will be destroyed at the top of a mountain. Jesus calls his friend Lazarus to come back from death. And the  Christian tradition holds on to the hope that Jesus, killed on the top of another hill, is resurrected, rises from the dead, and that the reality that Jesus is alive means that all the dead will live in him, that love lives here and now as a gift (Chairs) shared with everyone, right here in the center of the whole creation.

This does not easily compute. But these gatherings, this place, this tradition of wisdom and caring, all serve to point to a gift that is bigger than we know, yet has to do with us. That God is love, that love lives, that we can face the sadness and death of any sunset (the times when love looks lost, when we lose people and things we love, knowing that the sun will rise, that Jesus lives, that Jesus will come carrying all that love with him., and that love lives here today. 

But it is not easy to get our heads around this; it takes time to grow into it, it takes time (chronos), prayer, discipline, to let it ripen in us, and surprise us with the larger reality of love (that chairs of right now). And that is why we need to practice resurrection.

In the name of Christ. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pentecost 18B, Hard Sayings and Tentative Responses.

Some weeks you open the Gospel for Sunday and you think, Oh Boy, or Oh Dear, or, in the case of this Sunday, you just think, Oh… 

So I need to tell you that I prayed  about the Gospel for this week, a lot; I also did a good amount of research and read a number of commentaries on and elsewhere; and I finally came to the conclusion no one really knows for sure what this part of Mark is about!  So even in the Gospel of Mark, the “simplest” of the Four Gospels, some pretty complex stuff is going on.

It starts when John tells Jesus that he and the  other disciples  have tried to stop someone they didn’t know from casting out demons in his name.” But Jesus  tells then not to do that, and gives them three reasons. So let’s look at those three remarks before we look at the rest of today’s Gospel.

First, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Do you remember some writing by Marshall McLuhan in the late 1960s on the general topic, “The Medium is the Message”? McLuhan said that the medium we used (face-to-face speech or telegraph or radio or television – this was all before the Internet) determined how the message would be heard,  seen, understood, received; and it makes sense. We all know that sometimes a face-to-face meeting is better than a phone call, that sometimes a movie is better than a book for telling the  full-color truth of a long story, that the vehicle you use determines what kind of content you can carry; but it is also true that the message can transform the media. 

So maybe what Jesus is saying here, is that when you tell somebody about him, when you carry a Jesus story, even when you’re still working out what it means  for you; the story you carry has its way with you, changes you, makes you grow, gives you grace.

Two other things follow here: 

First; writers in the Orthodox Churches say that when you say the name of Jesus (even if you don’t believe it), God’s  presence, God’s person, God’s Spirit comes into your presence, your person, your spirit. So when we - or anyone - calls out, God answers!  

Then; when John Wesley was a new Anglican clergyman he decided he didn’t have a lot of faith and, as you might guess, found that his preaching was suffering a bit until a more experienced minister gave him this advice: “Preach faith until you have it, and then you will have faith.” And it worked! A modern six line slogan says something similar: “fake it till you make it.” 

It seems to me that Jesus opens a way for this unknown healer, and for us too, where his way opens us up as we begin to share it, to work it out, to live it out in our common conversations. So that’s why “no one who does a work of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me,” makes some sense: his Word ends up working in us; as we become the medium of his message.

For, even if our motives might be mixed, God takes us more seriously, more hopefully and lovingly than we take ourselves; and I think Jesus is saying to his disciples that they should do the same.

OK, Now, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  what might this mean here? 

If anyone who does a good deed in Jesus’s name will come to carry his spirit, then maybe the deepest truth might be that Jesus face is the face of the the spirit deep in the heart of everything, that Jesus’ will will be done, Jesus’ love will prevail, Jesus will win everywhere because Jesus is Lord of all.

Maybe the meaning and ministry of Jesus, in wrestling with evil, in risking death, in rising from the dead, is to show that a new creation, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven has come, and even when his life looks like it’ going to be a dead  end, it holds a lively hope, for not only does Jesus save, but Jesus wins!

On to Three: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”  Why is he saying this here?  

During our diocesan clergy retreat last week, we heard about an early church father who changed his name to Christophorus, literally, Christ bearer. It points to a truth: just as the Virgin Mary opens the door to Christ joining humanity by saying Yes to God, so we say Yes to carrying Christ into the midst of the human family in all our lives and actions. 

And this comes in both the giving and the receiving; it isn’t just all about us! Anyone who receives a cup of water receives the reward, just as one who  gives the gift, who ministers in the name of Christ each becomes the medium by meeting the message.

So maybe when we look and live with eyes of faith, we might find God in Christ reconciling the world to himself not less than everywhere?

But we can just say No. We can stop the miracle from happening, we can keep the water from being given or received, we can stop  God’s good grace from having its way in the world. And then Jesus says it would be better for us if a great millstone were hung around our necks and we were thrown into the sea.”

And what I am wondering is this; is Jesus making the disciples, all of us, aware that our very own religious practices and prejudices can sometimes keep us from living life large enough and loving the world wide enough so that God’s reign can come into the whole cosmos and into everyone’s lives. 

Is Jesus saying, don’t judge the messenger? Is Jesus saying, listen for my word to be heard everywhere? Is Jesus saying, I am sowing a seed in the whole creation, and this grace can grow in  anyone, so stop judging, and be prepared to be surprise? And that might be why the last part of the gospel is so rude and so radical and why we need so much to hear it!

Jesus says: ”If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye 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.”

Losing a hand or a foot  or an eye all disqualify you from the Temple worship of the time; make you a cripple, unclean, unable to worship God according to all the rules and requirements, all the precepts and principles of the time. 

So maybe what Jesus is saying here is: don’t let your religious life keep you from finding God’s love and sharing it within the world. 

For it seems that doesn’t matter much to Jesus at all! Because Jesus will lose more than one hand or one foot or one eye; he will give his whole life to love, will die an unclean death at the edge of the city; and in doing so will gather the lost and the outsiders, all of us who hear the hope in the heart of his teaching, who come limping and running  as fast as we can, doing the best we can, with all our garbled speaking out words and living out lives we are almost beginning to believe.

It is not an easy way. In the end Jesus goes  through every kind of hell for us, “where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched,” in order to bring us back to life; a life larger than death. 

And it will never be easy, because this God in Christ is almost beyond belief, can only be learned and loved and lived into day after day after day until our unfinished existence is finally made whole by his complete love. 

But here, I believe we are invited, as one English theologian puts it, to exchange “our living death for his dying life.” That takes time and comes at a price, but Jesus has come to us in the middle of our human journey, has shown us the way home, and set us free. And therefore we can take heart, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

In the name of Christ, Amen

Monday, September 24, 2012

For St Matthew's Church, Broadford

St Matthew’s Patronal Feast, 23 September 2012
 We don’t know a lot about St. Matthew outside of the reading from today’s Gospel. He is called Levi, son of Alpheus, in the accounts of Mark and Luke, but pretty much all we know about him is that he had been a tax collector in Capernaum,  probably working as a sort of independent contractor authorized by the Roman ruler, in this case Herod Antipas, to collect funds for the  government in power. Jews who were successful at this could become quite rich, but they also would be hated, seen as collaborators in the pay of occupying outside forces, considered greedy profiteers and treated as outcasts  by the rest of the Jewish population of the land.

So as Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

So Jesus calls him, and Matthew responds to that  call: Jesus invites  him to dinner, and that surprising dinner invitation gets Jesus into trouble with the good religious folk. It’s understandable; how could he ask Matthew to share a meal?  In the name of all that is considered decent, How could the tax gatherer be a table companion, a follower, any kind of friend of Jesus? would we want people like that around? He might be looking good to Jesus, but the man must be a hypocrite!

Have you heard the one-liner, “I don’t go to church because there’s so many hypocrites there.”  The best response for that might be: “Yes, and there is always room for one more;  In fact there’s room for all of us!” 

So nobody really want Matthew to stay around, but he does. Matthew follows Jesus all the way. He is one of the witnesses of the Resurrection and the Ascension, even one of the four evangelists accorded the honor of being names as one of the authors of our Gospels. How do you follow that? Later Church fathers such as Ireneaus and Clement say that Matthew preaches the Gospel in Hebrew around Judea for some fifteen years before going off to evangelize in farther countries and finally dying as a martyr. He follows him to the end. 

So as Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

And I wonder, when they saw each other that first time; who looked first? Who reached out first to this almost impossible possibility, that a man who had done such bad things could have a good heart, a good hope? Did Matthew look for this even knowing how difficult this new life would be? Or, when he first saw Jesus, did he have some new new hope born in him.

Robert Browning writes that, “a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?” And Matthew might have seen, the Kingdom of Heaven come so close that day.

So Jesus said to him, “Follow me.’” And Matthew gets up and follows him, follows him into a celebratory meal with a ragtag band of undisciplined disciples, comes to be seen with him; carefully watched by the larger community of good religious folk and government officials who are both concerned and coming to dislike all these assembled friends of Jesus. Watched by those who are coming to wonder what they might stand for, and  how they might be stopped. 

And for Matthew, as for any of us, it probably always wasn’t a lot of fun to stay on the way with Jesus; to leave the old way behind, to be willing to be faithful, to be renewed, to take on that discipline, that discipleship, to be changed into someone new.  

Because it is never easy or pleasant to stand in the breach between where we are and where we think we should be; in that little hollow that appears when we see the difference between the dark facts and the bright hope, where there is always a little shadow that can keep us from going on.. 

As T.S. Eliot puts it:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow...
But that crossroad is right where Matthew moves in faith! And that’s where I think we’re called to follow him; because when we hit that crossroad,(where the light of Christ comes into our lives, where the shadows come into view), that’s where we can clearly see our darkness, and that’s good! In the light of Jesus' selflessness, we see, with greater clarity than ever before, our own selfishness; in the light of his outpouring love and his endless self giving, we see our careful self protection, our mixed motives, our holding on for dear life to those things that keep us secure, but at such an awful cost. 

It could not be easy. Matthew had worked hard to make a profit as a tax gatherer, find some security in a dangerous world with such grinding poverty all around: is he ready to give all that life away? We can see that; but can we see what hope helped him to cast his self-made security away, to open his heart to the chance that following this Jesus would lead him to a new way,  to walk faithfully in the possibility that, “we are called to exchange our living death for Christ’s dying life?”

Maybe some people would say that is what it means to be born again. But I think for Matthew, and for most of us, being born again is not a “one time fits all” proposition: instead it is a following along, a daily taking up and giving away, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,”  now after now after now, day after day after day.

So Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And Jesus says to us, “Follow me.”

As the letter to the Ephesians says, “There is one call,” and we are baptised into Christ’s dying and rising only once, but the baptismal journey continues in this community gathered, in this Eucharist, in this unlikely shared meal. On this and every Sunday morning, we proclaim and participate in Christ’s sacrifice and salvation, death and resurrection,once again. On every Sunday, we come to be called and recalled, welcomed to the great feast, the open celebration; again and again and again. On Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. The calling, the baptism, the community in conversation and conversion, the long journey home, continues. 

But we’re not there yet. And if Matthew has good room for questioning, so do we. For here we stand, two thousand years later, right with him as hopeful hypocrites, undisciplined disciples, in a hope and in a tradition resounding with the greatest wisdom, the greatest justice, the greatest prophecy, the greatest poetry, the greatest ethics, the greatest hope the world has ever known. Here we stand in a community that has made mercy and compassion part of the world for the last 2000 years. 

And sometimes we think we’re getting older, and we’re getting smaller, and we wonder, what in God’s name is going on with this truth we hold, with this hope we had such hope in. Where is our good news going in this noisy world?

But Matthew followed Jesus then and Matthew has good news for us now: all we have to do is follow him. 

Two thousand years ago, Jesus called a Tax collector named Matthew to come to dinner, to turn around and see his life in a new way; see where he came from, where he was going, and the great company of which he was a part. And Matthew turned and found the glory of God: in the midst of his shadows, in the moonlight of a garden, in the surprising sunrise on Sunday morning, on a way that took him beyond all he had known, and more than he had hoped for, and finally brought him home at the last. And we are here today to celebrate his life and ministry and to share in his joyful calling.

Blessed Matthew; Tax Gatherer, Disciple, Apostle, Evangelist, Martyr and Saint; In this church called by your name and as people sharing your calling; We give thanks for you and we pray with you to the Lord our God. 


Monday, September 17, 2012

Pentecost 16B Balancing Faith and Works

Todays lessons remind us that for the last 2000 years we’ve been part of an ongoing, sometimes quite noisy and occasionally rather rude conversation about what Jesus and our tradition really mean when we talk about the ways that faith is related to works. 

It’s a conversation found throughout the Bible: in today’s Gospel lesson Peter talks of faith, but is not yet willing or able to go where faith will take him. You can say that he’s willing to talk the talk without walking the walk: Peter hasn’t worked that part out yet. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus says that those who get to heaven are not necessarily those who call him Lord, but those who do the will of his father;  clothing the naked, visiting the lonely, feeding the hungry, finding the lost and those in need, doing faithful works. 

But we need to remember it’s not just all about works. In another part of scripture, Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee praying out loud, touting up his good deeds, justifying himself nicely; but, according to Jesus, still not doing as well as a tax collector who’s towards the back of the room asking God to have mercy upon him; for the second is a sinner whose faithful call for mercy is heard, honored by God. So maybe there’s some kind of balancing act between faith and works.  

For St. Paul, on one hand, would say that it is all in having faith that God loves you, that God is reaching out a hand and  all we have to do is accept that love and we’re home free, for we are justified by faith. But St. James sees another side in todays Epistle, writing that your faith has to be evident in good work. So how do we balance these two viewpoints, how do we work out our faith? 

I want to talk about that balancing with a kind of mind map with four corners and two words in each corner (four words I've used in other places to define how a spiritual life might work, and four other words that Marcus Borg uses to define “faith”); and see if these eight words can open up some new ideas and insights  on how faith and work can balance out in our corporate lives and our common ministry.

One word Borg uses for faith is “Fiducia,” related to fiduciary, a place we can trust. He uses a wonderful image here, saying we must learn to trust in God in order to live in God just like a young child must trust in the water before they learn to swim: you have to relax into the possibility that the water, that God, will carry you.  

This relates to what I call “Formation” - taking the chance that we are formed in the image of God;  and that God’s heart, God’s hand, moves to create and recreate, redeem; encourage and sanctify us in all that we are and all that we do. that our dream of God is God’s dream for us: In formation we come to believe, in the heart of our hearts and deep down in the heart of everything, that the God of the Universe, the God we see in Christ, doesn’t build junk. 

Borg’s second word for faith is “Accensus,” related to what we assent to: how we formulate and figure out our faith; and my second word is “Education.” We learn who we are in our formation and then we have to work, to study, to find out where we come from, who we’re with, where we’re going,  and why there’s all this traveling; and that takes time and effort. 

I joke that no one would go to the gym for an hour and a half a week and expect to get fit (although I do just that!); but, in the same way no one would go to church for an hour and a half a week and expect to know much about the deepest wisdom, ethical, prophetic, political, poetic, compassionate, tradition that Western civilization has ever produced. Just like my infrequent visits to the YMCA won’t pay off until I crank up the discipline, so our understanding of God’s wisdom, God’s truth, God’s desire for us and our world,  remains immature until we find an ongoing educational path to see and search the deep wisdom of the tradition in which we stand.

Now remember the old one-liner that says, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach,!” My ministry in this system is mainly teaching, so I guess that lets you know where I might be. But I do find that, as I learn in order to teach, I get more and more excited about who we are and what we can do together. The more I realize I’m part of the company that offers such good news, works for mercy and justice, carries healing and compassion, brings the captives home, and has for over 2000 years, the more I find the faith to share it.

Both Accensus and education build our faith; and with all the new technologies --from audiotapes to DVDs, from photocopying to email and the internet -- there are so many riches of the Christian tradition freely available, so many resources to inform and enlighten our faith. 

The third word I use in my four cornered model is “Celebration.” In Jesus Christ, God comes to keep us company, and that’s good news, especially in times when life turns corners, takes us on a new road, when we get lonely and need company, for, to quote one playwright:

In a world  in a world where so many are alone it would be an unforgivable sin to be lonely by yourself 

This church, every church, stands as a sign that no one is alone. Jesus sees the lonely crowds and is moved by compassion: we, as his people, do the same.  The word for our worship ceremony today, We come together today to celebrate the Eucharist, that is how and where pray, that is what we do. But we come together to celebrate when a baby is born, when a couple marries, when life comes to an end: we set the space and fix the meals and tell the stories and gather the community in tragedy and triumph, in good times and bad, we honor the dignity of every human person, and we celebrate the gift of God in keeping faith, in celebrating and sharing that good news to all humankind.

The word Borg uses for this kind of faith is “Fidelitas,” like a faithful relationship with a partner, with family and friends, with strangers who need us -- and maybe everybody needs what we have to celebrate. I never forget one church’s slogan: “God is love, we deliver!”

Borg’s fourth and final word for faith is “Visio,’ related to Vision. How do we see, envision a way to live into this new possibility over time? I know this, that it comes as a gift, is taken up in hope and love, and leads us to a faith that works and changes.

So the fourth word I use is “transformation.”  When we realize how deeply God forms and calls us, when our ongoing education open us to see what a large company of faith wisdom and practice accompanies us, when we understand more and more how we are called to participate in, and celebrate God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done; then we come to realize in doing our daily deeds and sharing our daily bread, that we’re slowly but surely changing the world.

This takes time and work and company and God’s good Grace; but we have more than enough!  One theologian says that our whole Christian life is “a marinade rather than a glaze; we are being transformed by being soaked in the gospel!” But over time, and by letting God’s love, God’s home ground, God’s faith, soak into our hearts and lives, we come to see the world the way God sees it, soaked in Christ’s Gospel, as we come to participate in God’s love for the world, God’s dream for creation. 

So, Formation and Fiducio,  Education and Assensus,  Celebration and Fidelitas,  Transformation and Visio.  all big concepts, all big words (and keep remembering those who can do, and those who can’t teach). But I do believe that this is the heart of our tradition, at the heart of our tradition is the heart of God’s love for the world, and this can give us great hope..

We are turning a funny corner in the church. Our ages are up, our numbers are down, we’re not sure what the future will hold. But we’ve turned these corners in past, God will not leave the world comfortless. For over two thousand years the church has been constantly resurrected beyond our expectations and this time is no different.

But it is a time when we might be called to take up our ministry in a new  way,  in a new world. To do a careful preparation for harvest we might not live to see. For that is how faith works.


Sunday, September 09, 2012

What if God were one of us? Pentecost 15B, St Luke's Yea

Let me start with a story this morning (and I have this sneaking fear that I've told this in this congregation several years ago, but bear with me).

 In 1986 I was  going from San Francisco to my seminary in Berkeley to report to my field education professor on some work I was doing.  I felt really proud with the work, satisfied with what it said about my ability to minister, my compassion  as well as competence. After so many years of getting it wrong, taking detours, goofing off, I was finally getting together. 

So I was waiting in the San Francisco BART station at Civic Center; which is right at the edge of a fairly “iffy” neighborhood. There weren't too many people on the platform  that stood between two train train tracks and I noticed an older black man walking slowly towards me. I turned slightly and looked into the distance, but he came right up to me. 

“Which side do I go to for the train for Oakland?”

“I think you'll find it over there” I said, glancing to the right.

He raised his voice a bit, “I don't want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.”

I looked down. “The train for Oakland's on the right.” I said.

His voice was low and steady. “Look at me.”

I took a slow breath and raised my head. He was a man a bit older than I was; in working clothes and with strong eyes;  I have a sense that he might've had some scars but I don't really remember. When I will never forget is that he had  a sense of dignity I hadn't expected, an authority I would never have looked for. I looked at him face-to-face and said, “the train for Oakland comes on this side,” and pointed with my right arm to the tracks on the right.

He held my eyes for a second longer, and then said, “Thank you,” and i turned to watch him as he walked away.

And I saw something big about how little I saw, how little I looked for, how pitifully small I was: I was nowhere near to any kind of real confidence, compassion, completeness, either in my ministry or in my whole life. And he had broken me open so that I could see that. I was surprised to be so immediately thankful for the gift he had given me. 

A few years later, in the mid- 1990s, Joan Osborn had a hit that touches this in some ways. She sang: 

What if God was one of us…
just a stranger on the bus
trying to make his way home

So let’s keep all that as background music as we look at today’s Gospel.

So far in Mark, up to the section we just heard, Jesus has been having a hard time of it; but it’s been even tougher for his fans and followers. He’s pushing some boundaries, taking it lightly with traditional purity laws and cherished sacred customs. People are getting worried: his family fears for his health while some others think he thinks he's simply lost it! 

Yes, he tells compelling and enlightening stories, he heals people, he exorcises demons, Mark reports he even lords it over nature; but he’s making people uneasy. Yes, when he presides over a gathering in a field, a few fishes and loaves turn into a major feast, and that’s great; but he also plucks the grain in the field during the Sabbath, which is forbidden, he eats with sinners and tax collectors, even worse, and he even forgives sins, a task that belongs to God and the ordained temple priesthood. He’s doing  dangerous things! 

And Jesus is saying over and over that the kingdom of God has come into the world, right here and now, and that God’s kingdom is something beyond custom, beyond etiquette, beyond the commonly accepted traditions and patterns we share with family and friends. And, as you might guess, that is not easy for most people to take: they are saying, there have to be some rules to follow, some customs to uphold, things to hold together!

So when he heads out of Gennesaret  and into Tyre (which is not an neighborhood you'd want to visit late at night), He might be a bit tired from working with all the good and wholesome religious people, and just want to get away to rest and recuperate in the middle of nowhere. But I would bet there were still a few of those good and proper people around, just watching Jesus, when that foreign mother, that outsider, came in to make her very improper request. 

We need to focus there, to see how surprising, how shocking it is for a Syro-Phoenician woman, with no man to speak for her, speaking up, daring to ask for something from a Jew. It is almost unspeakable; but here is this outsider making an outlandish claim: “Please heal my daughter!” 

To use an old saying, “the silence must have been deafening!” And those religious people listening must have been reassured when her courageous prayer from the heart receives an appropriately heartless response from Jesus: “Let the children be fed first," he says, "for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” The good religious folks listening must have felt relief that some cultural customs were finally being upheld; that Jesus wasn’t going to go too far! 

But for that single mother, who must've had incredible courage, love, dedication, to reach out to speak to this stranger: that response must have almost knocked her off her feet.

Yet she still stands there, and she still says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.”

I imagine it got even quieter then! What did people do and,more importantly, what did Jesus think? Here he has been talking about a widening understanding and participation in the open heart, the open hand of God; and suddenly there is a call for mercy that breaks all the stereotypical boundaries, coming from one of the last places any good Israelite would ever want to look. 

Out of love for a lost daughter, this outlsider challenges the inside of Jesus’ heart saying, “Please be open to find, to call for God's good work, saving action, all-encompassing embrace, in people you are still willing to overlook. Be willing to look at me and see the glory of God opening, please look at me and see  redemptive action ready to take place, please look at me and feel the wind of the Spirit calling you to be reconciled to your lost sister. Please look at me and announce God's mercy, God's action, God's kingdom. Please, here and now, heal my daughter!”

Just a few chapters before in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been shocked by  “good” peoples unbelief: but here he is astonished at  the power of a “bad” woman’s  faith in him. And Jesus changes his mind. He turns to look at the outsider in a new way and, even though his response is not especially gracious, ““For saying that,” he says, “you may go—the demon has left your daughter,” and the Samaritan woman's daughter is healed.

And people started talking then, and they would talk more, and their eventual and considered response would be deadly. 

Then Jesus heads back home, to more respectable regions, and on the way he is presented with yet one more broken person who needs healing; a deaf man with a speech impediment.  So he takes him aside, put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touches his tongue and looking up to heaven, sighs and says to him, “Be opened.” “And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” 

And that ends the account of today’s  Gospel: two fairly big miracles; the broken daughter of a woman marginalized by gender, ethnicity and geography is made whole, and a man unable to hear and speak can now do both clearly. But I think there is a third miracle hidden in there as well.  

Jesus had said “Be opened” to the crippled man; but the foreign woman told Jesus, “Be open” - and he heard her! Maybe this is not such a shocker; the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “Jesus was tested in every way as we are, yet did not sin.“ So maybe the Samaritan woman help him pass that test, maybe she opens him up to a largess of a God he could never find in that inner circle: and maybe the surprise of it stayed with him for a long time. Like the man on the subway stays with me after all those years.

So the question I live with lately, that I offer to you today, is this: “What if God’s word of mercy and compassion and justice is announced outside of our institutional norms? What if God’s kingdom comes from someone we would rather overlook? What if God in Christ is willing and ready to be found as:

a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home.

How can we come to live with that, even love that? How can we respond to that Good News, how can we make our hearts and our ministries big enough to bring that person to this community, to this table, so that we can learn and learn to love together, how can we make room to share in this hope?

In the name of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

On the Martyrs of New Guinea

The word for today is “Theodicy.” and the question it poses is this: “Why does God allow good people to suffer, and why does God, so often, seem to let evil win the day?”

The question of theodicy comes fresh with the heartbreaking news this week of five Australian soldiers murdered in Afghanistan; it come in the moments when you sob for the young mother who dies too soon with a malignant cancer; or are touched in the ongoing sadness as an old friend lingers too long in the tightening grip of Alzheimer's. The question of theodicy wonders: “if God creates a good world, then why does this evil exist, why does evil seem to win so often?”

The question of theodicy comes when we see people, working to live with all their hearts, all their purpose and passion, sharing their hope, their life, their faith in all they believe to be good and true and beautiful; who end up suffering, dying for their witness, their beliefs, losing it all in the end. And the question of theodicy comes most poignantly today, when remember and honor those Christians martyred in New Guinea in September 1942.

Martyrs have always been part of the world, of the church.  Some would say it starts with the massacre of the Holy Innocents by Herod in the Gospel of Matthew;  others would say, after the crucifixion, when Stephen, the first deacon, is murdered in Jerusalem sharing his belief in the crucified and resurrected Christ. Paul, witnessing this death, will be converted to a new life in the church and will end up beheaded as a martyr in Rome. Peter will be crucified upside down, after telling his murderers he was not worthy to die on the same kind of cross as his master. In the end, ten of the twelve apostles will be martyred, killed for their beliefs, in those very early years. In the second century Tertullian writes that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

So others will follow: Justin, Perpetua and her companions, Ignatius of Antioch, Thecla, St Alban, St. Sebastian; the list goes on through the centuries. Sometimes kings and emperors do the dirty work, other times the church makes her own martyrs: we think of Thomas a Becket, Thomas Campion and Thomas More, of Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer.  

It happens all over the world. There have been martyrs of Uganda, of India, of the Spanish Civil War; martyrs like Maximillian Kolbe and Edith Stein in Auschwitz; Dietrich Bonhoeffer murdered in Germany at the same time; even the Roman Catholic Trappists martyred in North Africa in 1996, the Anglican Melanesian brothers martyred in the Solomon Islands in 2003, and that’s still a very small beginning in a very long list. 

But, at least for me, for many years, they all seemed so far from my life, perhaps because I could look away from these painful sacrifices. But then I came to Australia in 2001 and spent most of a decade at St. Peter's Eastern Hill, working in chaplaincy and university ministry as part of the ministry team, spending many Sunday mornings sitting in the sanctuary facing the three stained glass windows that Napier Wailer designed in1946 and dedicated to the New Guinea Martyrs who had died 4 years before that.

Looking at the windows and seeing the teachers, the nurses, the workers and priests, all murdered by the invading Japanese in early September 1942 - now 70 years ago - knowing in that congregation there were people who knew the people who had died, who still held pain in their hearts and still wondering why this great tragedy had taken place: there the martyrs blood, the growing seeds, the living stories, were closer than I had known. I could no longer look away, for the witness of the martyrs calls us to see.

This Diocese and this Cathedral are closely related to these events as well. Archbishop Sir Philip Strong, the Bishop of New Guinea during the war, retired to this Cathedral Close, would be remembered by some here today as a worshiping member of this community, was buried from this place.

In an 1981 sermon, he talked about those martyred in PNG: remembering when he suggested to one that she move to a safer  inland station, she asked to stay, saying, “what will the children do if I go?” He remembered another missionary, who, when asked what she would do if the Japanese came, replied, “We are in God's hands, ready to suffer… if he so wills:” just two of many stories concerning those ten martyrs. 

As Bishop Phillip said, “I felt humbled indeed after their deaths to realize I had seen in them the true martyr spirit of selfless devotion and I felt indeed that immediately they had passed through the transient sufferings, terrible though they may have been… [To a] glory [that] must've been unspeakable.” 

For the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. 

So, with such witnesses in our institutional memory and in our very midst, what can we say? How can we respond to such a costly witness of good over evil, even when evil appears to win, when we are so small, our faith so fragile, our witness so weak? How can we even begin? Perhaps we can only wait with empty hands for a good word, a comforting grace, to begin to renew us. For, as TS Eliot writes, “The only thing we can hope to acquire is humility, humility is endless.’ And as for being small, Sr Joan Chittister writes this:

“Small is not nothing and empty is not bereft. To be small is to need, to depend on the other. Smallness bonds us to the rest of the human race and frees us from the arrogant isolation that kills both the body and the soul. To be empty is to be available inside to attend to something other than the self. We become full of the blessings of life.

The witness of these saints and martyrs, their loving lives in the face of death, can enable our witness and help us to find the grace to accept ourselves as we are, help us to move forward as we can; to witness, to take pains, to act out and witness God’s love in the larger world, according to our ability, according to our call. Again, as Chittister writes: 

“Then, emptied out by the awareness of our own smallness, we may have the heart to identify with those whose emptiness, whose poverty of spirit and paucity of life is involuntary. Then, we may be able to become full human beings ourselves, full of compassion and full of consciousness.” 

For we stand on common ground with these martyrs in the light of the great hope we have been given, as witnessing members of the community that journeys together in the belief that Jesus Christ is true; that what he said, and where he walked, and what he, did all point to a reality that is almost good beyond belief. 

We spend our lives living up to this truth: that the God who creates the whole universe is willing to be found in the midst of the very fragility of human being, in the life of Jesus; and in the work and witness, the suffering and resurrection of our lives and in those we love as well; willing to be known in the intimacy of the Holy Spirit; in the beating of our hearts, in the rhythm of our breath, and the seasons of our growing and waning and rising, where we witness as they did, as we can.

So we gather here this morning, sharing with them in the hope of an unspeakable glory, in the light of a faith that, in the end, all wounds are healed, all hearts made whole, and all hopes will finally come home. We stand with them and witness that God's will will be done, in the faith that love will finally win at the last.

Dear and Holy Martyrs of New Guinea:

Margery Brenchley
John Duffill
Leslie Gariadi
May Hayman
Henry Holland
Lilla Lashmar
Henry Matthews
Mavis Parkinson
Vivian Redlich
Lucian Tapedi

And all you who stand near God in that eternal light;
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Diving into Dangerous Truths - Pentecost 13B

In the summer of 1959, when I was 13 years old, I practiced diving almost religiously at the L-shaped pool at the back of the small tennis club three blocks from where my parents lived in Sacramento, California. It was a great summer! Looking back, all that practice, that discipline, may have had to do with making sense, making peace, with the body that was growing too fast, in ways that surprised me; trying to master and make peace with that growing mystery. Part of it also might have been learning to be a teenaged pack animal – most of my friends at the tennis club that summer were doing the same thing. But at any rate, alongside of some tennis, a good part of my days were spent practicing a swan dive, a jackknife, and a cannonball (which I was quite proud of). I decided against trying a cutaway dive when a friend's attempt ended up with knocking out four front teeth on the diving board. Instead I worked to master, in increasing order of difficulty; the half gainer, the backflip, and the full forward somersault.

Learning the half gainer wasn't too hard after I reconciled myself to the fact that I would often land painfully flat on my back, leaving a large red mark, until I got to the point where my feet finally hit the water first. I used my height to make the backflip work; flailing in a way that, if not elegant, was effective in turning me over in the middle of the air and generally completing a full backwards somersault. But the forward somersault was a different matter. I couldn't just jump forward and let the momentum of the dive carry me over: instead, I had to jump and rise as if I were going into a jackknife, then tuck my arms and head into a ball and propel myself quickly enough so that I could turn over in time to meet the water fingers first. It was not easy at all.

And I kept coming back to this memory, this teenage liturgy from over 50 years ago, when I was reading and rereading John's Gospel for this morning. What is Jesus trying to tell us in this reading? What is the center, what was the destination, why is it such a difficult teaching, how do we dive into the living water here?

But John's Gospel constantly points to this hard-to-grasp possibility, that Jesus points to as an actuality, that the very word of God - there from the beginning, creating, ordering, redeeming the universe  - has come to dwell with us, literally pitching his tent with us, in the middle of human being. And that we are called to incorporate him into our being by partaking of him, by eating his very flesh and blood.

This teaching was not easy at all for his disciples, or for any Jews of the time. Cannibalism was forbidden, and for someone to be touched by human blood was to be defiled, and here was Jesus calling his friends and followers to, literally, drink his blood, to gnaw on his very flesh.

These tough teachings are typical of John’s Gospel. In many ways this conversations resonates with an earlier one with Nicodemus in Chapter three; “Unless a man be born again he cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven” When Nicodemus protests at physical impossibility, Jesus points to a spiritual reality where the "wind blows where it blows" and where the spirit comes where it will, where God's will will be done. And that confounds Nicodemus, “how can these things happen?.” And I think it confounds us as well.

So while we’re chewing on this improbable possibility, no less than Nicodemus wondering about being born again, Jesus goes on beyond us. “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that were spoken to you are spirit and life.”

But what if learning to take in the substance and spirit of Jesus's life, the body and blood of his teaching, is a little like the way I learned to tuck my body into a very small place in order to turnover : this momentary conversion, so that I could move quickly in the middle of the air and complete that difficult dive; ending up as I would with a regular jackknife, but with this wonderful revolution in the middle.

There was a song popular in the middle 1950s that began, “Pretend you're happy when you are blue, it isn’t very hard to do, and you will find happiness without an end whenever you pretend.”

Sacraments are not like this: the water of baptism, the rings at a wedding, laying on of hands at confirmation or ordination, the oils of healing or unction, the very bread and wine we gather ‘round today, have nothing of pretense or magic about them. But they are actions which open us to be aware of the reality of life and death and resurrection in Christ's world. They are occasions, times when we move carefully and take heed, where we take in the possibility that all life is holy because God is here and he has pitched his tent in our very midst and has come to be our friend.

In the late 1960s, some 10 years after my disciplined diving summer, I was baptized in the Episcopal Church, the American Anglicans. The poet Philip Larkin says we come to church to “take ourselves more seriously” and there was a bit of that. But there was also a great hope opening in me, responding to a half heard, half hoped-for call, that the universe might mean more, might be leading me in love, in a way that I could not quite believe, but could almost reach out and touch, and wanted to dive into; and three passes of water on my forehead began that journey

Jesus says we must be born again of water and the Spirit. Jesus says we must incorporate his body and blood into our lives, Jesus says we are called to be his friends: and that is what we are here for; to act that out here, so that we can live that out everywhere.

Going back to the diving board: what I learned there was something about discipline and dedication, a willingness to learn, a growing sense of commitment to seeing it through, to moving towards the right action, so that I could  take a jump, turn around in time and come home at the last. In that way the forward somersault was a kind of sacramental preparation for the waters of life.

It is a bit of a dangerous opportunity,like those sacramental moments: the refreshing water, the bread and wine, the hands on the head, the rings shared, the blessings given, the journey begun. And we can be forgiven for sometimes forgetting that these moments of refreshment and renewal all point outward to remind us of our larger life, our deeper ministry in the world.

But what we do here moves us in that direction, towards that revolution, for Christ has said he will be here, in his self-giving, in sharing his body and blood, substance and spirit, in imparting his purpose and passion, that we may be members of his body,; a body of belief, of action, of compassion, people brought together by the spirit in love to be love: to be a city on a Hill, to be the salt of the earth, to be the light of the world.  Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Jesus want to know...

Here’s a question to start: Have you ever been to a gathering, a meeting, a party on your way to somewhere else and met someone who decided they really wanted to know you and you think, “this is going to take longer than I expected.”?
Perhaps Jesus is like this, particularly in John’s Gospel: here is a picture of the word of God, who has been here from the beginning pitching his tent  in the middle of our living room, somewhere between the TV, the couch, the door to the kitchen. It can be difficult.
But in each of the Gospels he tends to be demanding: it is no accident that the two words that occur most in the gospel of Mark are “immediately” and “astonished”: because things change when Jesus is around! Luke stretches us out by making inconvenient and important connections with people we might rather overlook; and Matthew weaves the story of this irregular Messiah, Saviour, God-with-us, using images and stories which seem as old as the creation.
And Jesus shows up in John’s Gospel and says, “I am the bread of life,” and sometimes we can be forgiven for thinking that actually we might  be satisfied by a drink, some dip, and maybe peanuts before we go on somewhere else, to the rest of our life; But this Jesus is still saying something like he is the center of everything. And how do we get around that?
Here’s a little one-liner; “No matter where you are, it is not always easy being here.” But we live in a culture that is increasingly well designed to make us want to be somewhere else, someone else, and fairly quickly at that.
Ann Wilson Sheaf writes that we are addicted to the 3 ifs: “what if”, “as if”, and “if only”: They’re a seductive trio that make almost everything a threat, or a promise or a vague possibility: but while we stand paralyzed at these wide crossroads Jesus comes and says: “You are light, a city, salt. Whose silence are you? Whose hopes are you? Who are you?" And Jesus comes to say that he is bread for the world, living water, wine for the banquet, a celebration that culminates in the present moment and lasts forever. 
And we face him in Scripture, through the tradition, in our churches, at our gatherings, in the friend and the stranger, in the surprising emergencies and opportunities of our lives, the places were we pause and pass on, where he surprises and threatens and renews us. And it isn't easy to get our heads around what a relationship with Jesus looks like, especially with the Gospel of John where he calls us to come and see, to look at him and ourselves like we've never seen anything before; as if this meeting might be more real than we ever could have asked or imagined.
Most of us are not used to meeting people like this, in this world where those three ‘if”s: “what if”, “as if”, “if only”, live. He can be a threat here, where that living death burns up in the face of his dying life, his vivid reality, his real hope
Some years ago I was the senior chaplain at RMIT University in Melbourne, and I will never forget a young student, single mother, daughter of immigrants, dealing with deep depression, sitting in my office and saying, “I go to the mall, and I look on the web, and I don't see anyone who looks like me, and I don't know what is wrong with me.”
What was wrong was her answer needed to be larger than question she was asking; what was wrong was that the mall and web couldn't allow the conversation that needed to take place so that she could remember, be reminded, be renewed, in who she was and where she came from and why all the traveling. 
But when Jesus meets us in the middle of our lives and tells us who he is and asks us who we are, then suddenly the whole world becomes present in a new way and we realize we have to become brand new people. And to get there from here we have to have faith in Jesus, we have to have a new choreography of belief and action; we have to learn to live and move and have our being in this new possibility of relationship and reality
Marcus Borg, in a book called “The Heart of Christianity,” breaks the word “faith” into four dimensions, images and actions which can build a body of belief, understanding and practice. He uses four Latin words to define what biblical, theological, critical, real faith, in Jesus might mean for us today.
The first is, “Accensus,” what we assent to: not just signing on the dotted line, but the formulations of faith, that delineate our desires and dedications, our values and priorities, our dilemma and our diagnosis. Anyone here remember the 4 spiritual laws? Four simple questions, four easy answers, sign on the dotted line and your place in heaven is assured. Maybe add the Nicene Creed or the 39 articles; they both can be valuable - though neither is a particularly good party piece. Better possibilities might be the Lord's Prayer, the Beatitudes, the places where Jesus assures us we will meet him in the hungry, the lonely, the lame and the lost: or these wonderful one-liners in the Gospel of John where he calls us to participate in the presence, in the dance, of the spirit as we join him in returning to the Father. So, not just sign on that dotted line, but live into that long journey!
The second word for faith is “Fiducia” related to fiduciary, a place where we can find trust. About twenty five years ago I was teaching a class on meditation at our Cathedral in San Francisco and suddenly remembered sitting on my grandfather's lap as a young boy, resting back on his ample belly and feeling safe and held. The image of God as a fat old man doesn't work for everyone, (though the farther I go, the more I like it) but finding the place where we can sit and trust being, where we can just let being be, is incredibly valuable  -- although it is not easy, because it can remind us of our noisy allegiances to those 3 ifs as well as the call of the Mall and the web. But the truth is that a meditative practice, a dedication to simple silence, can show so much noise in your life
A few nights ago I was having a meditative moment in my hotel room after walking out to that very interesting “Art Gallery and Museum of the Northern Territory.”  I was simply using a phrase and following my breathing to find the silence under everything, when I heard a very small sound and surprised myself by thinking that there was almost no likelihood that the son of Sweetheart, that very large crocodile, had found its way to the adjoining bathroom. To learn to lean into God's dependable silence is to come to know how noisy, how crazy, our lives can be if we’re not careful.
The third word Borg uses for faith is “Fidelitas” as a faithful relationship -- with a partner, friend, with a stranger at the party, with the very glory of God. For, in John's Gospel, Jesus calls us to a conversation, a dancing with God  with all the distinctive disabilities and detritus and desires of our lives while making room for absolutely everything and everyone in that dance. It makes the world very big and extremely intimate.
But This relates to today’s other lessons; the relentless egoism of King David taking another man's life, another man's wife, and not seeing a world that is larger than his own needs or ambitions. Relates to the vision in the letter of the Ephesians: the ecology of the faithful family or village, the community of faith, where gifts are shared, where compassion and companionship are held in common.
The fourth phrase is “Visio’ related to Vision. Finally Borg asks us how we see, envision, move to live out into this new possibility in these four dimensions of faith, with the given texts and contexts of our times, learning to lean deep into the dependability of God and the mystery of the present moment, committing to this lively wrestling with God in the context of each and all of our relationships; stepping into this in each and every moment of our lives in God's great dance right in the middle of humankind
That is what this liturgy is about, to turn us around to see today anew: that Christ is here, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. These four dimensions of life that come to us right here in the middle of our lives: the chance for a conversation with the God who has pitched his tent in the middle of all these gathering opportunities, beginning now and lasting forever.
Assensus, Fiducia, Fidelitas, Visio. “Life, Death, Resurrection, Return!” "Quick, now, here, now, aways", Jesus comes to the middle of our lives and asks us who we are. And we turn around like people newly born and say to him, you are the bread of life!