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.