Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dancing out and into the Gospel, a slightly recycled sermon

Back in the 1960s, when I was a lot younger, I remember Steve Martin, the comedian, saying that he was going to write a book one day just using verbs, because so many things just kept happening! That one-liner came back to me when I was reading the Gospel for today.

There so many actions, verbs, in there, the transactions of the kingdom of heaven; “finding, hiding, selling, buying, searching, throwing, catching, sitting, gathering, separating, weeping, gnashing, celebrating, bringing out a treasure that  is both old and new.
So with all this verbiage, you can see why Richard Holloway, the former Primate of the Scottish Episcopal church wrote that it might be helpful to distinguish between Orthodoxy – right formulas of belief – and Orthopraxy – right ways of living, living out our belief. Because belief – as in “I believe” – turns out to be a  verb as well. 
And I’ve always thought that it would be a good idea to have a sermon time where someone stood and, instead of talking, did something like Tai-Chi, so that we could see what a dedicated body can do. Not just talking the talk, but walking the walk, dancing the sermon so we could see it moving right in front of us: belief in action.
Then I realised that our liturgy is just that, a kind of moving picture; a choreography of belief. Visitors and newcomers notice it more than those of us who are regulars in the weekly routine: for they see how very odd it is. We sit, stand, sometimes kneel and bow, some of us cross ourselves this way and that, we pass and give and receive, move forward and back, finally returning to the same place, but changed, somehow, by the motions we go through. You can sometimes see newcomers looking around, thinking, “What in God’s name are they going to do next?”  But what we are acting out in this place is an exercise in orthopraxy; a kind of spiritual workout routine, that sets the style and pace for the rest of our lives in the rest of the world.
You see, a good corporate liturgy, with people really worshipping together, is a kind of icon in motion, a vehicle of altered consciousness, a shared work of art to help us see  all the detail, all the light that’s already there. Like a great photo that gives you a depth of seeing that you might have overlooked before, like one of those rare portrait that shows someone looking like they might get to be if they live life right, make the right choices, get good gifts. That’s what we’re about while we are in this place: to sharpen up our vision, our expectancy, and our action! We come here to get the world inside and the world outside in that kind of clear focus.
Because if you really look, you can learn to see our whole liturgy is nothing less than an an amazing dancing class. Here we learn how we are to move in the world with the God in whom we live and move and have our being. In the end, it is all about the verbs, the actions that we learn here, that we live out everywhere. 
So when we come to church on Sunday, we bring nothing less than our selves, our whole selves, souls and bodies, to this Eucharistic celebration. That means we each bring all our questions and concerns, issues and ideas, histories, hopes and fears, the best and worst of who and what we are, where we come from and where we are going. And when we get here we mix it up, move it out into this liturgy of confession and praise, mercy and glory, in listening and responding to the words in psalm and scripture, the words and music of the community of faith gathered throughout the world, throughout world history into this place on this day. 
It’s a two step motion. We present our sins, our concerns, our thanks-givings, all our self-offerings: and then we join with Jesus in his self-offering as his disciples and his friends in celebrating this eternal communion. We take all that we have and all that we are, and we give it all over, give it all up and receive it back as a gift to give to others, in the same way and at the same time as we take his body and blood, in order to remember that we are members of his body. To paraphrase St Augustine, “This is what we do: this is who we are.”
So thats where you see faith moving on, the point of the whole dance routine. We come to reach for Christ; and Christ comes to us and uses each of our individual and corporate, community, ministries to reach out to the world. We first come here to get a grip on him; and we stay to learn to hand him to the world and hand the world back to him. That’s where the dance is! 
For the hands which grasp the body and blood of Christ here, are the same hands — same bodies — that touch the world in daily life in the places where we make business, peace, war and love, where we touch the lives of friends and strangers, where we spend our days. The grace of this shared liturgy, this Eucharist, is that it is a vehicle enabling the love of God in Christ to reach into the particulars of all our daily liturgies so that we can come to move like Christ in all these places. 
For each one of us, as ministers of the Church, members of Christ’s body, is called to proceed –- and I’ll say dance — into the world which God loves, day after day, year after year, time after time: to take on all the tasks of stewardship in this wonderful world: to be present to family, friends and strangers, in tasks, hobbies, jobs and joys, present in the times of frustrations and puzzlements, present in agreements that must be honoured, in situations that must be met. All of these are places where we are called to act out, serve out, flesh out, live out the reconciling life of Jesus  - in serving love of every kind - in the ministry of acceptance, love, and forgiveness, in bringing out a treasure that is both old and new. 
May God give us the Spirit, the grace today and everyday, to take up and live out our lives and our ministries as gifts to be received and gifts to be given, and all in Christ’s name. Amen.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Pentecost 6A, Scripture answering our questions and questioning our answers..

I want to start with a question this week: What is the Gospel inside the Gospel for you? What are the particular verse of Scripture, the words of Jesus or the Hebrew scripture, the left or right side of the book, the  good news, that speak to you in your life, your journey right now? And be assured that they can change for us, for the core of the good news, that central proclamation, where we understand the goodness of the gospel, of God with us, can differ depending on the seasons of our journey, where we're coming from, where we're going, who we're with and how long we’ve been traveling.

When I started out my walk as a baptised member of the Church, almost a half-century ago, the line that spoke to, opened up, my heart was, "God is love." In a particularly trying time after that the words that gave me hope were, "You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.” While another time the phrase that carried me was, "Be still and know that I am God.” And one time, paradoxical as it might seem, I received a deep comfort, a place for healing and going on, in breathing the words, "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?"

So our journey to know God following the way of Jesus in the light of the Spirit can go through many seasons, and different facets of the Gospel can enlighten us in different times. This is because it's not a one word, one phrase, one size fits all and all times kind of app. Our Bible functions like a great library, a Biblios, where certain stories can come to kind, can encourage us in different times, giving us refreshment and strength according to our  varying and unique circumstances, and that’s nothing new.

The early historian Tatian, writing in the first part of the second century, said that the Gospel of Mark came to be written when John Mark, as an old man, remembered and gathered and wrote down the stories he remembered Saint Peter sharing with the disciples in their community, "as they had need” to hear them. So the gift of a particular Good Word speaking to us according to our unique circumstance has deep roots in our tradition.

There have been some tough stories this week with the plane crash in the Ukraine and the tragic casualties in the Holy Land. And I know several people and families who are going through tough times too. And the temptation in moments like this can be to ask God for a clear and lasting response to what appears to be a clearly evil occasion: to ask if good will speedily prevail, if the righteous will receive their reward soon, if we will see those who inflict pain find their just punishment. 

But perhaps the deeper question is this: in light of the large library of the scripture, biblios, is this: can we, should we,  make a quick and clear judgement about good or bad, right or wrong, us versus them, or should we, like the landowner in the parable we heard in today's Gospel, do what we can while we  wait until that final harvest gathering? 

For  Scripture shows us that Jesus shares other good words that might make problematic our tendency towards quick judgements:  lines like "love one another," “don’t resist evil,” "do not judge,” and “bless those who persecute you,” all can make us catch our breath. And Jesus does even more than speak out or write down these words, he lives his teaching out to the end; peacefully walking into injustice and intolerance, reaching out his arms in love in the midst of violence, allowing himself to be the victim of great pain, even to death. So it looks like living like Jesus,  sharing in that lasting love, that lack of judgment, can cause us pain some days. 

And then the question is this, where can we find some peace in  this trying journey, where can we hold on to Christ’s promise of ultimate Good News when he seems determined to take us on such a wild ride without quick and easy assurances?

Jesus did give the disciples a clearer explanation after he shared the parable of the weeds and the tares, and that helped them in some ways, though I think they still need to go on learning; but I tend to go back to a bumper sticker I saw in the 1970s which said, “Be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.”

For it has been the same with the community gathered together for the last 3000 years. From the story of the death of Abel to the deep tragedy of Job, to  the death of the Christ on the cross in the centre of our vision, in all these times, the church, Gods' body, stands for the costly truth of love, through the witness of martyrs to the troubles of the present day, and each of us as baptised members of God’s body still witness  tragedy and pain in our families and our neighbour-hoods as well as our newspapers and television screens. 

So there has been no conclusive answer to the question of why there is evil  all ‘round our lives,  other than the ongoing unfinished answer that God is love, that faith will find a way, that hope will bring us home, and maybe the others too. So,without a clear answer coming soon, can we let ourselves wait, to go on the way with enough humility to lean on God in this unfinished pilgrimage? 

 I have friends whose main statement of belief consists of these eight words, “There is a God and it’s not me!”  So maybe an unfinished hope can open a light at the end of the tunnel and show us the way to the bare belief that God is both before and beyond us, not just with us, but still not finished, but still working, still speaking, still letting love lean into our lives, and the lives of others. And this can allow us to hang on with the hope that reconciliation will come round further on and peace will finally prevail for each and all of us. It might not make it much easier here and now, but as a member of my family often used to say, “Nobody ever said it was always going to be easy.” For even here and now love offers us a strong and Godly hope to hold on for the time being: the faith that God’s word of love which was from the beginning, is willing to meet us here and now in the middle of everything, and, in the end will bring us to a home where Jesus will be all in all.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Pentecost 5, Seeds of Love and Lectio Divina

I want to talk about how we might read, respond to, pray with the scriptures; as in today’s lessons on in the Daily Office, because I think that, in the business of getting older, we can encounter the Bible, differently as we change, mature, go on living.

I remember hearing the parable of the sower and the seeds when I was in my twenties and it made me want to start rearranging my life: getting rid of the thorny places, clearing out the rocks, moving the path so as to find the good ground and ensure a rich harvest. I was going to try to do it all!

When I heard the parable in my thirties it was a bit different. Although I knew more about where the rocky places and the rich grounds, my strong points and weak points, were; I no longer believed that I had to make such drastic changes. As one California writer put it; “maturity happens when you begin to accept yourself, whether you want to or not!”  And even though there were certain places where I wasn't too good, there were other places where I wasn't too bad. Ask me to write a poem and I might do a great job. Ask me to total up a list of figures and prepare for a major fiscal disaster. But like St. Paul, “I am what I am by the grace of God,” and I can offer it all to God to do with as God wills. I can simply be the whole ground watching and waiting for the seed coming to bloom where God wills and giving thanks that this is so.

So now that I'm almost to my seventies I live with a different set of expectations, a different time schedule. The truth is this is as good as it gets from here on out, and there is a kind of grace in that, that this moment might be a special kind of present, something that has never been before and may never come again; precious in its uniqueness and distinction. And this gift of the present moment, the present that comes with every moment, can open a different way of reading the Bible.

It is called Lectio Divina, it comes from the ancient traditions of the church, was out of favour for the last few hundred years (when we were all so scientific) and is getting popular again. It has four parts. First, you read the lesson and second you meditate, let it linger in your mind and in your memory and in your heart. Third, after you have a sense of what part of the reading speaks to you as a particular gift from God, you share your prayer with God, and then finally in the Fourth part you rest with God in silent contemplation and renewal.

So that when I read the parable of the sower and the seeds this week I stopped when Jesus said, “A sower went out to sow.” And I remembered all the green growing times in my life: a hot summer morning in my parents backyard in Sacramento California when I could almost hear the grass grow; a late spring morning when I was a teenager and my father borrowed a rotary hoe to make a vegetable garden which provided him with a place for healing after a lengthy illness; one autumn in my twenties when I planted stock and snapdragons, forgot them over the winter and was surprised when they rose up in the spring blooming bright and smelling strong as the sun came back following a cold and rainy winter. 

And as my meditation blooms I recall the writings of Thomas Merton who wrote this in his book, “New Seeds of Contemplation.”

"Every moment and every event of every person's life on earth plants something in their soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of humankind…. in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love”

And in that freedom, that graceful spontaneous moment, I begin to pray that God use my good ground, whatever ground God wishes, so that, as Merton writes: 

“these seeds would take root in my liberty, and… His will would grow from my freedom, [so that] I would become the love that he is and my harvest would be his glory and my own glory.”

But that can also be difficult because I often meet that part of me which knows it takes some time to plant a seed, for graceful growth, for flower and bloom, and wants an easier, faster way.

My living room windows look east to an empty lawn the Cathedral shares with the College and sometimes I wake before dawn and light three candles, drink my coffee and read my iPad Bible while sitting in the dark and waiting for the sun to rise. It can be wonderful, ’though there are many times when I want to rush it, turn on the lights, get the day going! But when I sit quietly with God, as when you sit quietly with a friend, then sometimes the sun comes up before I know it and the empty field turns green with what seems like newborn grass giving God glory, and  It is the same with us: as Merton writes: 

The seeds that are planted in my liberty at every moment, by God's will, are the seeds of my own identity, my own reality, my own happiness, my own sanctity…. And I would grow together with thousands and millions of other freedoms into the gold of one huge field praising God, loaded with increase, loaded with wheat.”

It’s not always like that. In fact, it’s not usually like that. But often enough when I sit in silence, read scripture simply, meditate, pray, and recall who and whose I am;  God seems to give the growth, those seeds ripen, and I find myself refreshed, renewed, maybe even redeemed in a new way that does me good, and I commend it to you.


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Homily at a Requiem Eucharist at Holy Trinity, Whitfield

B….. R…. would be so happy you are here this afternoon. She loved this church, loved people gathering here for the Eucharist: especially at Easter when the place gets nearly full. She would be ecstatic today. In fact, I can safely say that she is! 

This church, any church, is a place set aside for touching those moments of hunger and hope, birth and marriage, transition and termination. Over the centuries we’ve gathered in places like this to remember, with mysterious, solemn and dedicated observances for all the events of life and death, with both duty and delight; to share the songs and the stories of “where we come from and where we’re going, and why all the travelling.”

And I must admit that lately we don’t do it awfully well. The church still speaks s though there’s nothing else happening on a Sunday morning. And we need to learn a new vocabulary that connects eternal concerns with the language of the present day. This is not news. Religions, like other communities of compassion and commitment, go in and out of style. And we’ll learn to rise again, speak simply and clearly about the places where love, forgiveness, renewal, and actions live, with fresher stories and newer songs to enable communities to envision, dedicate themselves to new and larger life. But I can say that was what B… found here, at Holy Trinity Church, Whitfield. 

It was about 4 years ago when I drove up here from Wangaratta and met her for the first time. She welcomed me out front, showed me where the needed things were, and left me to get ready for the service as she went to kneel in prayer, and I learned something about her then that I will never forget.

It’s not generally known, but sometimes you can almost smell prayer. I remember a small chapel in Rome, one Pentecost morning in Melbourne, an afternoon in Davis, California, after a choir festival, and preparing for the Mass at almost 11:00 on that first morning in Whitfield with B..… 

I don’t know what B…. had been like or what she had gone through in her times as a girl, a young lady, married woman, mother, neighbour, teacher, elder; but she knew what it was to take part in the Eucharist.

So today we’re celebrating Holy Communion, the Eucharist, a Mass of Thanksgiving for her life and her journey. And in this we take part in the actions of Jesus when he let his life go as a way to live out love. It is not a moment unique to Him: we all have times when we decide to walk on in charity when we know there’s hateful trouble up ahead: when bones might be broken, blood spilled. But sometimes loving  life calls for costly sacrifice that can be deadly serious, calls for serious symbolic action, and B…. knew that.

Jesus did four things: he took bread, blessed it, broke it, shared it; asking his friends, up to and including us, to share in this food and count themselves members of this outpouring, ongoing body of love, in participating in this very simple action of give and take and give. As St Augustine said some 1600 years ago: “Behold what you are. Become what you receive.”

And B…. did that. She took up her life, with whatever joy and delight, toil and trouble she was dealing with; Sunday by Sunday, month by month, year by year, and she let it to be blessed, allowed it to be opened to love’s breath, let it be broken open to see how faithful prayerful action might be given over, shared with family, friend, the community, the stranger.  She beheld who she was,  and she became what she received.  And that’s why we gather today to celebrate. 

Because she has gone on. And in what we call death she now knows larger life, with horizons that pass our understanding. But we are here, and we can rejoice that she now sees what we can only taste.

In the name of Christ. Amen

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Homily for a Memorial Service

A few weeks ago I had lunch with an old friend who said, “I don't know what I believe anymore, I don’t think I have much faith.” I chewed my pasta for awhile and I said, “I've read a lot about faith, talked too much about it, and I guess I can make my way though scripture and the creeds, and the church because I have this deeper sense that in and under and beyond all that I reckon and see there is this heartfelt hunch that the whole world, the whole deep cosmos, is woven with love. 

And I don't know fully where that comes from. I get a lot from my community; the scripture, tradition, people and places, hymns and hopes that , after all these years, sing in me; but there's more. For even in the times of deep tragedy when I cry against the unfairness; with so many lives in this world cut short by tsunamis or tyrants, or others peoples shortcuts and all the mysteries of car crashes or a fast-growing  cancer. Even with all that I still stand in awe with this recurrent hunch that the cosmos comes out of an unspeakably tender compassion. 

So maybe you're not ready for faith at this point, don't want a wrapped-up package that connects to ethics and aesthetics and Eros and all the other aspects of life that can come up for appraisal and renewal; maybe you’re not ready to make some paragraph of programmed belief that faith might form; but know that love still opens the heart and leaves room for hope. And that might  be enough for a good long while.

C.... talked to me the other day about when she and G.... and their kids were younger and didn't have a lot of money, didn't have a big house or take faraway vacations, but, along with the tough times,  they had great wonderful occasions, great joy! I think her exact words were, “We had so damn much fun!” And those moments, that memory of the weaving, can take anyone a good long way.  

In a sense this building is built from those times and insights, out of that wonder. The people shining in the windows, Whether saviour, saints or unnamed strangers, shared the road like a family, sitting near the fire and joining in whenever someone picks up a guitar and sings an old song about “where we came from, where we're going, and why all the traveling.” And I am convinced that with enough held moments like that, a systematic faith can be a help but may not matter much: if you have the memory of the small and great moments that fire hope and keep you on the way, then you're halfway  home, for you know that love like that does not end.

The family is glad that you are here. May you always be blessed by love. Amen.