Monday, November 25, 2013

Christ the King 2013

Years ago, a professor at my seminary told me that one of the main troubles with the church is that people start out to learn to be Godly and end up being sort of Lordly instead. Like the difference between religiosity and spirituality, and the difference between good shepherd-servants and bad ruler-kings as well. 

Lordliness might be "putting on" religion like a role or robe to wear: as a face or mask for meeting the world: maybe it’s like “Church-ianity" rather than Christ-ianity but the most radical difference between Lordly and Godly can be seen most clearly in the breech between word and deed. But the fact is that most of us talk a better game than we live, so we need to be understanding and forgiving when we see that in others, because we all fall into that kind of hypocrisy at one time or another, and there is nothing new about it.

Because there is the same disparity in Jerusalem in the sixth century BC, in our first lesson, when the people on their way to exile are asking Jeremiah "what went wrong?" Jeremiah answers that the shepherds who were called to protect and gather have destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture! And he prophesies both a small threat and a big promise. To the false shepherds, those Lordly people, he says that God, “will attend to you for your evil doings.” But to the people of God they were called to protect, Jeremiah prophesies that God, “will gather the remnant, bring them back to their fold, and will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing... “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

And that’s both very big and very good news: not only a new vision of shepherd, but a new vision of kingdom; not only a new way of being religious in the world, but a whole new world. 

So time passes, life goes on, and there are exiles and wars and new attempts to build the peaceable kingdom that don’t do all that well.  

And then this shepherd-king Jesus shows up and brings it together. First he does the deep work of mercy: he strengthens the weak, heals the sick and the lame, brings back the lost and those who have strayed. He searches them out and calls them home with infinite mercy in his voice; even calls them by name. 

But he goes further than this. He pours out himself for them as living water for the thirsty and hungry, the poor and those with no home, wanderers and beggars of God. He becomes sustenance, bread and wine for them. He not only acts out but he serves to flesh out, pour out, an understanding of how God loves us and feeds us, of who we are, and of how we are to be to one another.

For he is not only a servant and a shepherd, but a king and more than a king. He is what one Baptist preacher called “the place where God hugs humanity to himself”. You can say that Jesus is the absolute antithesis of Lordly; and instead the full picture of Godly: not only a real king but a true servant, not only a true servant but a full picture of what it means to be a human being alive with the glory of God. 

And in the end who he is -  as God and human, as a shepherd and a king -  says everything about who we are: our meaning and our ministry in the place where God meets humanity; in this kingdom that is coming even here and now.

Maybe that’s why we need four Gospels, because it’s so complex.  We can look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John like four family photo albums with their collections of snaps on the life and ministry of Jesus. There are different pictures and various kinds of focus in each gospel, for each one has unique concerns, but in all there is a consistency of caring, of charity, that brings God's love home.

And when you really look at the pictures over time, then a strange thing happens; you start to see the paradox of what our Epistle for today calls the "fullness of God" dwelling in human form. It might even look like a double exposure! 

For here is our King Jesus, the good shepherd, the rule of God's love, as a human being; feeling hunger, thirsting, crying, having family problems, organisational difficulties, clashing with the prevailing political and religious establishment, and finally becoming one with homeless sinners, those who cry and cry out, one with people who have no voice and no name. And being put to death by the state as a false king, Jesus becomes one with those who are written off as officially expendable.

And I believe this Royal gift, this shepherd ministry, the light of this life lived out in love is a way to insure that we are safe from being caught in the trap of Lordliness, but rather drawn into the deep embrace of Godliness, into our ministry in the reconciling ministry of Christ.

It isn’t easy. C. S. Lewis writes, in The Lion. The Witch and The Wardrobe,  when the lion Aslan, the Son of Emperor Over-Sea, comes to save the people of Narnia from the curse of a cold winter, comes to bring them a new spring, one character asks in a rather Lordly tone: "This lion, is he safe?" and the response comes immediately; "of course he's not safe, but he's good!"

Jesus is like that. He shows us that there is no place where we might be safe from the surprise of God. No place where the love and largess of God might not be found, no place where this ruler might be ruled out. For in the life of Jesus, God is hugging all of humanity to himself, calling out our names, bringing all stray sheep to be found in the heart of his love. And this is our salvation and our hope and our destiny and our ministry and the reason why mere Lordliness will never be enough. 

For we are a people finally called by God to be both completely human and fully holy, and that - I think - finally means that each of us is called to take up the risk to be prophetic shepherds and servant rulers: not safe, but good; not Lordly, but Godly.

As Bishop Athanasius said in the late third century, in Jesus, God becomes one with humanity so humanity can become one with God. 

In Christ, the inconceivable wholeness of God has come to be seen in the holiness of humanity, that God’s flock may be fed, God’s kingdom come, and God’s will will be done: and we are called, all of us, to join Jesus in that wonderful work. 

It is almost the season of Advent, our shepherd king, our friend and saviour, our Lord and God draws near. Come, let us adore him. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pentecost 26C - Un-preparing for life, death and love in Luke

So we’re almost to the end of Pentecost. Next Sunday is the Sunday of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the season; and the Sunday after that is Advent Sunday — when we start a new liturgical year, and I’m really ready for that. Because two weeks after Advent will make one whole year since I had my shoulder replacement surgery and I can then officially stop saying, “Did I tell you about my operation?”  But I’ve still got four weeks to go!

I just didn’t know it would take so long or take so much. The surgery was easier than expected but the recovery has been more difficult. And that surprised me. When I had gallbladder surgery when I was around thirty it was much easier. Even 16 years ago, when I had a deep excision on my thigh to remove a melanoma I was off to England a few weeks after the operation, but this has taken the better part of a year for recovery.

Actually, it’s taken all of the last liturgical year, which has made it a kind of rich experience. Because I believe that we live through the liturgical year every year, sometimes every day: that the journey from Advent and Christmas, through the bright spots of Epiphany and the drylands of Lent, the mysteries of Holy week, the surprises of Eastertide and Ascension and the ripening spiritual awareness we are called to live with in the season of Pentecost - that what we see out there in the liturgical calendar of the church, is also found in here, in the seasons on our individual lives and journeys in Christ. 

So last December I got through Advent and Christmas, with a vague feeling that the present I received wasn’t quite what I had been expecting, but still might prove valuable. I had no chronic pain in my shoulder for the first time in several years, but I needed a sling, I couldn’t move it very much, and dealing with the post surgery hangover was making me feel used, abused, confused, and more than a little depressed too.

But the season of Lent was extra-rich this last year. I felt pretty stretched out, but  the season stretches us out too as it always does between promise and peril, between life and death, between beginning again and a growing awareness that it might not end in a way we would like. I finished my official sick leave not long before Holy Week, and remember wearing a cassock, praying while laying prone in front of the high altar of the Cathedral during the Good Friday liturgy (which I couldn’t have done before the surgery) and thinking, “I always forget it is this big, this mysterious, and this intimate.”  

And then it all opens up in Eastertide, with big confusing questions like, “How do we deal with this possibility of resurrection? What does it mean that Jesus is alive? And if Jesus’s death and resurrection meet my life and death, how do I live right here and now?” It took the early disciples, apostles, some time to get their heads around this, and we are no different. 

Eastertide asks big questions, and it gives us an even bigger answer when it drops us into Pentecost.  So big, in fact, that it takes us almost 6 months of the season of Pentecost to begin to get our heads around it. For then the question is this: “If God’s very Spirit is in our heads, our hearts, our lives; then how do we live out our whole lives in a way that is true to that truth?”

And that’s where we meet the Gospel for this Sunday even if it doesn’t sound like good news at the start. 

Today’s Gospel according to Luke says the future’s going to be bad  and then it is going to get worse, But the toughest line (and maybe the brightest) in today’s reading is towards the end when Jesus says, don’t “prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom…” And then ends up with this great one-liner, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

And that’s a real stretch; but, looking back, it seems all through Pentecost the Gospel of  Luke has been stretching us in two directions: 

Sometimes we’ve heard some real raw requirements, demanding endurance  and tough choices: hate your life, put nothing between you and God’s kingdom, count the cost, take the risk, begin the battle and give up all your possessions; realise you are unhelpful disciples, miserable sinners, unprofitable slaves. Here, Luke’s gospel is about great effort: following God, following the commandments, loving, working, aspiring to make heaven on earth now: even if we are wicked and unprofitable. 

But other times the stories are about an unspeakable and unearned grace: the father of a prodigal son rushing towards reconciliation and celebration, a shepherd successfully searching for a lost sheep, the eagerness of a woman finally finding a misplaced coin. and always leading to a celebration at the end, for  the word has been spoken and the world has been saved, angels rejoice, the love of the Father and the word of Christ, the spirit of grace and truth, has entered deep into the human family, for God has taken saving action and the word we see in Jesus is love

So maybe Luke is saying; some days it will be good and others bad; some days you’ll want to lift up your head and shout “it’s gonna be a great day”; other days you want to hang down your head like Tom Dooley and just get ready to die… and it’s really not that important.

Could it be that Luke is saying that love and life and death and resurrection is really that large, can contain these contradictions? Could it be that God and Jesus Christ and the Spirit are saying, I’ll meet you where ever you are, in the very middle of your whole life: whether you are hopeful or hopeless; In either end of anywhere? And that’s just not something we can prepare for, or fear either. We can just breathe and listen and endure, for God’s grace is that big, that mysterious and that intimate. 

In 1997 I was lucky.  After a battery of tests and a deep excision, I got the good news; that the melanoma had been contained, removed, and the prognosis was very good; but before (you might guess) there had been a few weeks of wonder and worry and “what if?” and I remember one day especially when after drinking a nuclear milkshake I was laying down on a cold steel bed while a machine flew low over my body with metallic music and the two lab technicians, recent immigrants, spoke to each other softly in vietnamese, and I felt like I understood nothing. 

Except that it was as if the air got very fresh in that little white room - maybe not just for me - and we were all breathing this good air, listening to the sweetest song and it was saying, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you.” Singing to me, and maybe the lab techs and the whole world too, and I couldn’t tell you if Jesus was there, but he was here, and we were all giving our bodies, our blood and all our lives in learning about living and giving and forgiving and all that comes with the difficult and sometimes graceful business of dealing with life and death and loss and some kind of deep graceful love that sings out sometimes right in the middle of everywhere. 

I couldn’t have prepared for that: I could simply be surprised by the way it can be so big, so mysterious and so intimate, and that’s the way it comes sometimes, so you just listen and try to endure and let yourself be surprised. 

In two weeks we go to Advent. and the lessons will get even stranger, stretching us out again with the end of everything, and then the almost inconceivable hope held in the promise of the birth of a baby, newborn love, in the last place you’d ever think to look. Just when you thought it was over, it all begins again. Welcome to your life with Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Feast of All Saints', Ecumenical Praise Service, Wangaratta Jazz Festival 2013

All Saints’ 2013

Forty something years ago, when I was at University in California, I was told to read an essay titled, “How is jazz like skyscrapers?” My topic for this morning is wider and more melodious: How is jazz like Jesus? or, if you like, How is Jesus like jazz? Here are some easy notes to start with.

Some would say jazz can be joyful but demanding; it can give you strength and comfort, and surprise you too, but sometimes stretches you out more than you might expect or even like. And so does Jesus. 

At the start, jazz works, makes sense, gives light and life, for people in pain, for the lowest of the low, which is deep-down everybody. Jazz joins us together in an upwelling and an uprising; a revolution where those cast down get lifted up and people left behind rise to take pride and find their place in a new parade of love and justice and joy. And so does Jesus.

In the tight spots of modern life, Jazz is a riff for freedom and joy beyond power, improv for a peace sounding beyond easy understanding. Jazz sees, enlightens, even focuses on a world often overlooked; carrying memories not fully remembered and never forgotten: ancient villages, kidnapped journeys on leaky ships to unknown lands — trips no one would take were there a choice. Jazz clamours where people slave in dark places and city slums with a sky-light song singing out fierce freedom and jubilation and peace and power for those who need it the most. And so does Jesus.

Jazz makes room to listen and play with an abrupt and audacious hope, telling us to take on the tune in some new order, beyond the old chaos,  towards an inconceivable cosmos that lies right on the near side of now. Jazz calls us to take our place in the chorus, pick up our instrument, give our breath and talent to a loud loving noise, to the Lord of life, to our neighbour, and everyone at home and away, as well as the stranger who needs us. And so does Jesus.

He would play good jazz: it’s in the tradition. The reading from Saint Luke’s Gospel beats out a consistent rhythm of the overlooked being lifted up, top dogs being knocked down, and maybe everybody at home-base free at the last. Early on in that Gospel the Virgin Mary takes a solo about scattering the proud, filling up the hungry and sending the rich away empty; then Simeon beats out a refrain of falling and rising, lights up with revelation and glory;  and Anna finally sings a rift on praise and redemption before John the Baptist takes a turn jamming for right life and action, turning the world around with a new song where the crooked shall be made straight, the rough made smooth and all flesh see the wholeness of God's joy, and so does jazz.

Then Jesus takes centre-stage, singing that love song that  comes in the moments when you feel like you’re going to die right now, and you’re going to live forever, gathering his small group big-band sound to sit right there in the deep-down middle of life and taking that simple strong tune into a whole new neighbourhood; meeting dirty death with deep inspiring uprising and and renewal in the last places you’d ever dare look for light in the darkness. And so does jazz.

And Jesus still sings, sometimes sweet enough to break your heart, with all the healing and health and wholeness you could ever hope for; shaking it up and turning it all upside down and making it so there just might be room for everybody to wake up and see any Sunday morning like now where we’re looking at winning and losing and life and love and poetry and the possibility even of God for the very first time, and so does jazz. 

Then Jesus comes to the end of his solo: singing, Blessed are you if you’re poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, defamed; then you better leap for joy; because something better’s coming on to the earth, something that breathes deep and daring love and is going to last! But woe if you’re rich where there is so much poverty and full when so many live empty, for in the end you’ll mourn and weep, because all you thought you bought ends up going free and while you were worried that your brother needed a keeper, he only wanted a brother and you wouldn't want to ever lose that chance. And then He looks at you and says, "Do you want to come and join the band?" 

And well might you think, “How can anyone play that song, get the grace-notes, give it that light touch, see past all the shadows to take that risk that it all comes ‘round right. Where in God’s name do you get the gift to sing this great and glorious life, how do you get hold of that real good jazz?"

And Jesus says, "Love those who hate you, bless those who curse you… Do to others as you'd have them do to you. Act like a man who might die tonight and who’s going to live forever." And he turns it all over to you. 

And you know that music like that doesn’t last long, and it just might live forever. Sometimes It may mean a dirge where you can cry for all the world, and other times it may bring the blues to a birth you can’t see from here, it may pitch you in a tomb and deal you to death, where the only way home happens with a lullaby that’s larger than any love or life you ever knew, and leaves you wider awake than you ever were before. 

And that’s why we’re here this morning at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival, why the music plays, the voices sing out, why we lean into Jesus in a place where the song leads us on, new rhythms make a new home, and even that old demon death learns to love a new life, in an almost unbelievable coincidence of opposites coming together and waking us up to a foreign land right  in the middle of everywhere, where, by grace, everyone may be home free. For that’s what Jesus is about, and so, by God, is jazz.