Sunday, February 16, 2014

Epiphany 6A The perils and promises of a great potential.

I wonder how many of you remember the Peanuts comic strip with Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Pigpen and Snoopy? In one of my favourite’s, Charlie Brown, a very good boy with a wonderfully guilty conscience, is looking deeply worried, and the caption reads: “There is nothing heavier than a great potential!”

There’s been a great potential these last few weeks with Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew. It is the main teaching document in this book, Starting with the  beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor,” it goes on to talk about aspirations, and ethics and grace and sin and principals and practice and prayer. It is such an astonishing document. And I thought that it would be wonderful to do a three, four, even five part sermon on all this, bringing it together, a worthy task which is totally beyond me. 

Because I forgot something that often happens; when I looked at the Gospel again, it had gotten bigger! And what I thought I understood, the tentative answer, series of answers, simply led on to larger questions, a surplus of meanings, crises of opportunities, dangerous blessings. That’s the living truth of the Gospel of Jesus, God meeting us in the midst of human being, can comes so close, get so big, ask so much, can lead us to look at our life in the world in so many new ways, where we feel like we are lost, and finally, like Jacob, say, “Lord you were here (found me here) and I did not know it”. So, like Jacob, we rock together some sort of memorable meaning, wrestle it for a blessing, try to make some sense of it, and limp on in a world that seems both bigger and finer than what we had found before. 

For “There’s nothing heavier than a big potential”.

Let me tell you a story. In 1977, when I was 31, while on a long retreat with the Anglican Benedictine monastic Order of the Holy Cross in Santa Barbara, California, I had an experience of God believing in me. It changed the equation a bit and my life a lot. I had spent a lot of energy believing in God: said the right prayers, read the right books, went to church most Sundays, worked in the youth group, read lessons, filled out the forms, saw the movie, got the t-shirt. I thought I had bought the whole package. But I found I the time on that mountain monastery above Santa Barbara that it was more about God believing in me, enabling God to live in me, embodying, emboldening me to find my lostness in God, be found in God, to be the body of Christ, to be the good news of God in the world. and that Good News wasn’t real easy to take. 

For “There’s nothing heavier than a big potential”. 

Today’s Gospel packs some heavy punches. Don’t be angry, don’t look with lust, don’t swear by anything outside or inside of yourself, And  “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” and what’s that about?

There is a group called the Jesus Seminar, and one interesting thing they put out is this. If the Gospels have some lines by Jesus that are mysterious, demanding, not easily understood, even offensive, than it is highly likely that Jesus said exactly that. So what is Jesus saying here, where do we stand with this, how can we respond in our lives. 

Let me take another detour here. 

Four and a half years after the time in Santa Barbara I ended up studying at a seminary in Berkeley, California, and decided I needed to have a new spiritual director. A Jesuit who was a brilliant teacher agreed to meet me for an hour monthly to sit  with the questions and confusions and comforts and callings that  were a part of my life with God,  and he asked me if I had a particular question to start. “Where does God stop?”

He said that God didn’t stop: and that made me want to stop for a good while. 

For “There’s nothing heavier than a big potential.” 

And I had been thinking that I’d work on my life with God, all my spirituality, and that would affect the rest of my life in a good way. That this work would flow onto other aspects of my life with friends, money, power, sex; the other realities of my whole life. But if “God didn’t stop”; where did that leave “me”?

The 12th century mystic Meister Eckart wrote that we should be so poor, as in blessed are the poor, that we should have no room reserved for God, giving God the whole thing. And it seemed to me that this might be inconvenient.  Back in my lost youth I was planning to have a good place for God, maybe build a chapel next to the the guest house, “Come by sometime, any weekend, I’ve just the place for you”. And God is saying “Here I come! Here, now, always!” Wait.

Maybe the good news is that God wants to come to live with us in the very middle of our lives, with all the mess of money, sex, power, anger, found there; God is willing to live there? 

So there’s indeed nothing heavier than a big potential. 

One more detour: 

One thing that always amazes me in the Bible is the summary of the law where Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. But there’s a problem there: for if we “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all our mind,” what is left over in order to “love our neighbour as yourself? Didn’t we give it all away on part one, where do we get the love to do part two? Do you see the problem here?

It doesn’t make sense unless it’s all one love, unless we are to let the love we give to God (that God gives to us) be the same love we offer to everyone; even the love in which we encounter and honour ourselves, as gifts to God, as gifts from God. If this is true: then there is just one love, one light, one life.

In a lovely book, Pilgrims Inn” by Elizabeth Goudge, which I read for the first time when I was about 16, a woman walking in the woods  has a realisation of the connectedness of life and the compassion Grace can awaken:
“Quite suddenly you felt like your life was not an isolated thing, but one that existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, “We don’t need each other”

We need each other for we are all one body, the body of Christ.  

And in that larger truth we see Jesus’ ferocious words on plucking out the offensive eye, cutting off the over-reaching hand, finds a different context, makes a different sense. For if we think we are separate, if we try to be our own body, our own little centre of the universe, if we are bound by our own flesh, than we need to do some rigourous remodelling, cut stuff off, add things on, get back to renovating the chapel and the guest house. 

But if we are called to be the body of Christ. to offer ourselves as a reasonable living and holy sacrifice, heart, soul, mind; than we can’t cut ourselves up, we can’t cut ourselves off, we are all already one body, gifted in love as the body of Christ. And everything can look difference from here. 

In the end, there is nothing lovelier than a great potential! 

St Augustine wrote: “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” We are here to receive a gift. God is in love with us,believes in us, and wants to live with us, in us, through us, in the middle of our lives. And this is the Good news in Christ. 


Monday, February 10, 2014

Epiphany 5A "And what is the point?"

I realised recently, with bit of a shock, that it’s been almost 25 years  since I graduated from my seminary, The Church Divinity school of Pacific in Berkeley California, in 1989.  That last semester I was training as a chaplain in a psychiatric ward in a nearby state hospital but managed to find time to take part in the annual CDSP follies. I wrote the Senior Song (actually adding lyrics to Bob Hope’s theme song, “Thanks for the memories”) and I wrote and performed my own comedy monologue where I said, that while working on the psych ward, I suddenly heard the voice of God calling me to a special ministry. 
“Oh Lord,” I said, “I am not worthy.” and God said, “Yes, but that’s not the point.” But what exactly is the point? 
The reading translation of Isaiah might point us there:
“The fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
That’s not really easy to deal with, that kind of call. And it might be easier and very tempting to say, “Lord, I am not worthy”. But it really isn’t the point.
We have all fallen short of the glory of God: what else is new? We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have not done those things which we ought to have done and there is not a lot of health in us. But, really, could we not turn aside, turn around, move into some new place with a new word, maybe a very small word, of holiness and healing and hope in our daily life and ministry?
So maybe the deeper truth is, “Lord I am not worthy, and I like it that way, Lord, I may be called to do great things, large or small; but I’d rather not, so thanks but I am really not worthy, and the whole idea is — let’s face it — inconvenient.”

In my 1989 comedy routine I said that God had specially called me to return to the seminary and tell the people to construct a stained glass window, something like a flatscreen TV, to stand behind the altar. It would be a picture of Jesus, but looking different according to the seasons of the year: first a bump in Mary's belly, then a baby and a youth from Christmas through Epiphany. Following that, we’d see Him faced with temptations, trials, betrayals; turning towards Jerusalem as Lent moves to Good Friday, and maybe the window would go dark after that day: finally breaking into a sunrise that changes everything. Then all those Sunday's post-Easter windows with the risen Jesus getting us ready for the coming of the Spirit, ready to learn the language of grace, to be a new language of gift and grace in the season of Pentecost. That might be the point too.

For St Paul says by God’s grace in Christ we bear a secret wisdom, the mind of Christ; and the Gospels tell us we are at heart, by grace, a gift, a light, a city on a hill, the salt of the earth. So, with that hope, how can we not loose our grip on what we cannot do? How can we not open our hands and our hearts to take up the task of being a window into God as well as being God's window to the world?
Here are three easy actions to open up: to simply stop, look, listen: that might lead to three not-too-small graces: sanctity, sunrise, and silence.

The world we live in runs so fast, and to simply stop, to make an empty place, to let a new answer come to you that could be  larger than any question you can quickly put together, is to recall the deep grace of the world God creates, redeems and sanctifies in every moment of time.

So stop, then look. Look for more than you might immediately see, look for that hope which is in, with and under everything that is; look to see the sunrise of Christ in the middle of the world God loves. Look for the hidden lights of repentance, reconciliation, renewal in the dim places, look to see Jesus’ light-filled life shine over the darkest death denial the world can muster: and look, watch closely for resurrection right there!  

Stop and look and then listen. Listen deep for the song, the music, the inner alleluia of all that is worthy to be praised. Look for God's word of love in a world which is noisy with so many slogans, so much propaganda, anger, fear, diversion, division and death. Listen for that holy love song calling to live in you, in all of us, in the heart of all God’s creation. Listen for that love singing everywhere God makes and mends and meets us in every moment of time. 

At the end of the '89 comedy routine I said that God told me that one day we would each see our own face on the man on the cross in our brand-new stained-glass seminary chapel. And I said, “God, that's too much!” I said, “I know you are, Thou art, if you like, God and all, and I'm just a chaplain, but I really think you need help!” And God said, “Yes I do!” 

It got a good laugh then and people recognised there was good humour and a bit of a bite, a point to it. There still is, it’s still true, God still does. 

In one  of CS Lewis's Narnia books, a young horse meets this Aslan, the Christ figure who is the “Son of Emperor Oversea”. At first she thinks about running away because he seems so large. But then she looks on the lion with love and runs to him saying, “Oh sir, I’d rather be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”

St Augustine wrote: “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” We are all sinners,  generally unready and often unwilling raw materials for sainthood. Yet we’re called here to stretch out with all the contradictions between our limited will and God’s unlimited grace. At least to start; stop, look and listen, at least, here and now, to begin to share the mind, to be the body, to take up the ministry of christ, 

Jesus says, “I am willing to be eaten by you. I am willing to nurture you in that place between what you know yourself to be, with all that you have done and left undone, and who you, by grace, are called to do. I am willing to be with you there, that you may be one with me.”

And what will we say to that? 

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Feast of the Presentation, Final Draft...

"Perfect through sufferings" isn't really a great line to start a sermon with, especially in weather as hot as this, but the writer of the letter to the Hebrews seems to think it's an important point; that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the moving picture of how God loves us and where God meets us, and why we might want to follow God, for the love of it, into a very large life that is larger than death. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews thinks it is a very important point that Jesus meets us and makes us perfect in the very midst of our sufferings.
This isn't a really easy one liner but it can be very good news. That God is born for us, with us, in us, in the very centre of our daily lives: in the surprising beginnings, the daunting endings, the messed up middles, in hot dry summers and gray wet winters and all our innumerable springing forth and autumnal diminution, where we all fall down. In all these places, God, in the life and death and life of Jesus Christ meets us in the middle of our sufferings, of our mystery, to call us home, to live life large.

A few weeks ago I talked about how, many years ago, one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard said that in Epiphany we are called to carry this baby Jesus, this newborn hope coming into the middle of our lives, and we’re called to hold him close to outrĂ© hearts and take him into the very middle of the world we live in. and that isn’t easy. 

And I wonder if Mary, carrying the baby Jesus into the middle of the Temple at Jerusalem, might have wanted to have held her child close, turned ‘round and run all the way home. Maybe she had, as mothers do, a sense of what was waiting for Jesus, that the this majestic temple could finally turn into a den of duplicity, demands, even death, for her young son. 

No wonder Mary might want to turn tail and head home, holding this newborn baby — who seemed like a window to a more holy hope and a larger life than she had ever seen before. So you can see why such a young woman might not want to enter that great building with its hints of suffering and sin alongside the promises of salvation. 

When we are young, and are first holding on to new love, new life, it might not feel like good news to hear that perfection comes on the other side of suffering. That's not the way a young person sees the world. But it is a hope that an old man, an old woman, can hold on to, can witness.

The young woman Mary, and Joseph, the husband of her heart, carrying their newborn joy, enter the ancient Temple and meet Simeon and Anna. What a picture! Can you see the old man and woman in the evening of their life, see them seeing the young girl and her husband just beginning, and hear Anna and Simeon give the ancient prophetic blessing of a sunrise that will change the world forever.

Simeon speaks first; "Now I may depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people. To be a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel." Then blessing them and turning to Mary, Simeon says, "This child is destined for the falling and rising of many… And a sword will pierce your own soul too." And then the prophet Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, praises God and “speaks about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”.

So they go home, "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

The Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, says there is one more commandment written somewhere that states, "must be present to win." I have three more things to say: Jesus, Mary and Joseph present themselves at the Temple, are present in this moment of threatening gift, and see it as a present from God. 

And they stay in the middle of it all; in all the tension, the sanctity and the suffering, both the hope and pain promised in the words of Anna and Simeon, because that is the costly gift of the present moment. That is the only place where, at that time, they can say yes to God, and hear God say yes to them. And that is God's present to them and their present to God; presented in the middle of our lives. 

So too, at this Feast of the Presentation, at this beginning of a hot February, we come together once more to try to get our heads, our lives, our loves around the way God loves us and where God meets us and why we might want to follow Christ, maybe even to be made "perfect through sufferings". We come together “with all we have been, with all that we are” to offer our hopes, our hurts, our hearts, to the God who is willing to meet us in all these places, to make them his own, as he makes us his own. 

Tonight we are also midway between Christmas and Ash Wednesday, between new light and approaching shadow (and the hint of resurrection – maybe – a farther bit off). and we are called to take the newborn hope we carry like Mary and Joseph,  as well as the ancient wisdom witnessed by elders like  Anna and Simeon, into the deep heart of the present moment, into the middle of life and death, and loss and gain, ending and beginning. And Christ is here too; presenting us with a moment of choice and grace, being present in us as we turn to see what love will ask us to do. What this costly present, love, will ask us to be, will call us to live.