Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter 2017

If there were ever a phrase that set my teeth on edge, it happens when I am asked if I “have a personal relationship with Jesus.” I’m never sure exactly what the questioner means but it puts me in mind of snapshots of couples who wear matching t-shirts, or go to the movies together, hug tightly and often and a bit too smugly, who are too self-consciously cute.

But a year or two ago I was walking down oven Street by the chemist across from Safeway when I saw this older Italian woman walking towards me. I remember her as dignified, a few years older than I am, carrying herself well but still with the feeling of having had a fairly busy day behind her. And she was walking with what I took to be a grandson or a great-grandson who was involved with some amazing game known only to himself. Every step was an adventure! Raising his knees and taking a breath and setting his foot down and raising his other leg up higher and looking like he was on the edge of winning some great prize known only to him. I can’t remember if he was intent on touching or avoiding the cracks on the sidewalk, but it was very involved and very important. And his grandmother, having had a busy day, watched him with a kind of weary graceful love as they passed me by. And I smiled because I had seen something quite simple and very human and amazingly beautiful on the sidewalk on Ovens Street that was completely unexpected. And at that moment I met the eyes of a woman who had been following the grandmother and grandchild and we had seen the same thing from a different angle. And our eyes met and we smiled together — and we had what I would call a personal relationship!

In that sense a personal relationship with Jesus makes sense to me. A sense that we’re in this together, that I’ll meet you here in the middle! but it doesn’t have to be hand in hand or arm in arm for a photo shoot. sometimes it can be a surprise! I remember, at nineteen, the first time I was touched by seeing people kneeling to pray, shocked, touched that people would openly acknowledge their incompleteness, their unfinished lives: what were they seeing, what could they trust to take that step to their knees and then go on: and i wanted what they were leaning into, could I please have what they are having?

Relationships grow in a common concern, what we share in common, what pictures come that move our hearts together: and in any relationship it grows over time if we’re lucky. I joined the church because of a need for social acceptance and relief for a long loneliness, but I grew into the church, and it into me, into this amorphous relationship because of singing good hymns and joining the choir, meeting young people and getting involved with the youth group, hearing about a book and going to a bible study one Lent. And the church, the message and momentum, the people gathered there and the good news too grew into me and changed me;

The scripture and tradition changed me. I remember hearing the Beatitudes and realising that the poor, lonely and lost were loved and that meant me too, with all my hidden sadness, that I was incorporated into this body of love; I remember realising that loving the neighbour meant not only that everybody was, by God’s grace, deeply loveable, and so was I! I remember being a little inconvenienced by the idea that not only was I not the piece of dirt in the middle of the universe, but that the middle of the universe was self-giving, life living love, lovely light that shines in the darkness which can never quite understand it, but love that is there before the beginning, which aims to meet us in the middle and means to mend this free-wheeling, which sometimes seems to be out of control, universe until it meets the end, which it aims to be love, and something more.

Some days I believe this a lot, other days I can only hope. But over time the community, the tradition, the stories told, the people gathered, accumulated into a series of God-shaped events which keeps calling me and somehow keeps moving us all together. I’ve talked here about how the Jesus stories in the Gospels function like a flip book, moving to show how Jesus moves, leading us like a dance lesson to move the same way. We come here to see the body of Christ, so that we can be the body of Christ, in the middle of the songs and stories, the miracles and misunderstandings, all the edges of anger and violence and virtue and love and hate clashing and even hanging around together to witness the senseless death of a good person in a world where so much goes wrong for no good reason, and something more.

In the last few months I watched a good friend die: enter into that mystery with some gravity and grace and an awareness of the unfinished nature of the journey that comes in the middle of human being; I saw him on the edge of the mystery, with just hints of that lovely light, that hidden love in which we are all called. But enough to watch with hope, to continue on the journey.

Jesus is there, in the long journey, in the letting go, in the hidden light in the love that lasts; and Jesus is here too, in our Sunday gatherings, in communion and coffee and tea and treats and trials and all the business of learning to live together in love day by day in El Dorado and Wangaratta. In the middle of a world where so much goes wrong and still love lives moment by moment in the midst of all our fragility and faith and something more to which we ripen, rise, are called to follow along this pilgrim way.

Just lean deeply into how love lives, the surprise, the little boy lost in the great game that goes on, step by step, love in the middle, life beyond life, holiness in the heart of here and now: for we are the body of Christ.

Amen

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Well then, well now: Samaritian strangers and the stranger within...


There was a short day almost thirty years ago where I thought, except for some trouble with my car, that I pretty much had it all together, and then I found I was wrong and that turned out to be a real relief!

It was mid-day and I was waiting on the empty subway platform in San Fransisco on the way to a meeting to discuss my work as a youth minister and my possible professional future. And then this black guy, African American came up alongside of me on the platform and I could see that he wasn’t walking too steady and his clothes looked a little rough and he might have smelled, though from work or dirty clothes or booze I don’t remember. And he said, “Where do I get the train to Oakland?” and he was right next to me.

So I looked towards the track to our right and said, “I think you’ll find it over there.” And he raised his voice a bit and said, “I don’t want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.” And I looked down and said, “It’s right over there.” And he said, “Look at me!” And I took a breath and looked up at him – and I saw a man who was probably a bit older than I, and tired, probably harder working than I had ever been, who had a few scars and some real serious dignity that he had likely had to fight for over the years.  And I felt sorry, both for him and, more surprisingly, for me, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. And I looked at him and said, “the train for Oakland will be on this platform. And he looked at me for a minute and then said, “Thank you,” and walked away.

And I saw something about me that I hadn’t seen before: how narrow I was, how snobbish, self-serving and insulated by my own concerns from a world that was big and unpredictable and unsafe and full – maybe – of messengers of God that I might have overlooked in my narrowness of vision. I saw that day that I didn’t see much, about myself and about Gods’ world at all.

Today’s Gospel reminds me of that encounter. It starts with a wide-angle shot where nobody seems to see anybody in any detail. Jesus asks the woman at the well for some water and she’s amazed that he doesn’t seem to see she is Samaritan – someone that a good Jew would avoid, keep away from, not share water, utensils, let alone conversation, And she tells him this, then they start talking for real. The pictures become close-ups.

Jesus says something very direct. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

So maybe the Samaritan woman sees that there is someone, something out of the ordinary here; worth the chance of a direct encounter and she looks at him, and says,  “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water…are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well? She asks him questions concerned with practicality, history, culture and custom

Then Jesus comes back with one of those memorable one-liners that make the Gospel of John such a majestic document. ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

And if they weren’t looking at each other face to face before, now there’s nothing else in the world but these two looking at each other. And she says, ‘Sir, give me this water.” and a quick and very direct dialogue follows: one, two three.

“Go, call your husband, and come back.”
“I have no husband.”
“Right… you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

Now pull back and pause for four quick questions: what would you do you if you saw the saviour? What would do you do if the savour  saw you? What do you do when the one who is the ultimate word of God’s love and knowledge and compassion and concern is face to face with you  and telling you the story of your life?

The man on the subway platform in San Francisco forced me to look at him, and in that moment I saw parts of myself that I had never seen before. But I also realised that when we were looking at each other, when he forced me to meet him face to face, that he forgave me. It took me a little longer to come to terms with the depth of my racism and classism and the shallowness of my egoism: all that took awhile and in some way it is still working its way out. But that was my problem, not his. He had already forgiven me. It was both all over and all new at that moment.

So can you imagine what it would feel like for that woman? All the mistakes made, the wrong roads taken, the commandments broken and defenses and denials made up to protect the little girl who got lost on the wrong way a long time before: most of us know something about that path. Then to have Jesus look on you and know you, and love you and forgive you: all over and all new at that moment. Think of the deep breath you might take at that moment.

Three more questions. What if we looked at all our own history with the deep love and forgiveness of God that we see in Jesus Christ? What if we could see our way clear to forgive and love ourselves that much? What if we could forgive and love each other too?

Amen.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Loving Lent!

25 years ago this week while I was in my second year as a Resident Minister at the University of San Francisco I tried to write some poems for the students I lived and worked with — and one in particular that responds to todays Gospel reading. Now be kind… I was only in my forties and I was writing so that the sense of the season might speak to people in their late teens and early twenties.

The Gospel for today starts ...

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

And here's the first of my Advice for Three Tests in the Wilderness:

Part One
So you’re hungry in any desert
And somebody comes ‘round hawking junk food;
Spiritual tim-tams, high calorie cola, ice cream.
I scream Wait for the wheat, wine and water,
Contemplate complex carbohydrates, nourishment is coming,
Living Bread is on the way.”

Here’s a question: Do you ever yearn for the perfect diet? When I was young in California there was a liquid diet called Metrical, three cold cans a day and the fat fired off. Since then we've have Jenny Craig and  Lite and Easy and all sorts and conditions of ways to waste excess weight away — and I am one of a number of friends who have lost and gained many pounds that way.

But Jesus just says no to the magic of food, and yes to a larger issue of of how we share and consume in community. For food means company, not just company for dinner, but many, different people in a common cause. For what we eat and drink has been touched, gathered, lifted up by workers in the fields, harvesters, processors, moved by ship, truck and train to market with many hands holding, refining the food from the land; bringing it all together. All this before it comes to the table to be broken and shared.

And Christ opens his arms, his full life saying, “This is my body, this is my blood!” Jesus says I am willing to be known in this Eucharist, and I tell you I will be here, but prepare to meet me in the entire world, because in my love I have taken up with the body and blood of all humankind and all creation. This bread and wine are means of my love to you, but I mean to love you everywhere, in everything, in everyone!

Here’s the second temptation from Matthew’s Gospel:

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

And the second stage of my poem from 1992:

You have achieved a sensible diet
When some dude advocates practising spiritual bungee-jumping
without the rope, leaping freely into the possibilities of God.
Avoid this test. You didn’t design the course,
Appropriate pop quizzes will arrive in time, and
The final exam must be lived through to be believed.

Now a personal confession: I used to think it would be really nice to get out of here alive, sometimes I still do, But Jesus doesn't, and that always stops me, makes me want to work it out differently; and here I quote from Walden by Henry Thoreau:

“Let us settle ourselves and work and wedge our feet downwards it through the mud and slush of opinion and prejudice and tradition delusion and appearance… Through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, to we come to a bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality say, this is, and no mistake; and then began.”

And to quote a sermon I wrote in the early nineties.

“The cross is reality, with no mistake, about the limitations and the struggle the death that come with being human. It is a sign of finitude and flesh and blood and it is also a picture of what happens to a human being when that one cries out too loudly over the inept inequities of a corrupt society and the transactions of a dishonest people. It has many shades and forms and we can see it on our TV screens every day.

“But just as the cross is the deepest truth about who we are, so it is the deepest truth about who and how God is and how and where God will meet us. And the good news is that we see the cross with a double view. It is both a dead end and an opening door, which work together to change not less than everything. For Jesus has died on the cross, and if we take up our cross, if we move to meet our endings, our limits, he will be with us in our dying. And Jesus Christ is alive, raised from the dead, and when we go beyond what we know of our limits, into the greater realm of unknowing, the farther reaches of our unfinished journey, we will meet him and he will bring us to his final freedom where, as St. Paul writes, ‘what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.’”

Here’s the third Gospel temptation:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

And the third level of my poem:

He is willing to negotiate. Can set you  up with a franchise;
Oh, powerbroker, Glory-monger, Spiritual Stretch limousine driver!
To reply, just say No. He’s faking it, The guy is small change.
While the all-powerful is making ready to give you
No less than everything as a gift.

Let me finish with a hopeful question: Isn’t it interesting that we see death as the end when it’s actually in the middle? You see Good Friday and Easter are really a coming attractions for the greater glory of living a life that is larger than any death we can see from here. Remember it might take forty days to live through Lent and get to the dead end, but then we need fifty days and a whole new season post resurrection to rise to the occasion of living as a Pentecost people, learning to live and move and have our being day to day on this horizon of eternity. And how do we do serve that larger reality to which we are called? Very simply, I think, and only day by day by day.

We’re working with this in the Lenten series starting tonight at 7:30 in Purbrick Hall (to which, by the way, all of you are most cordially invited) We're spending the next five weeks pondering five marks of love that prepare us for living and loving this larger life: Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure. and how they has to do with diet and death and doing right day by day by day in light of this great and costly promise to which we are called. Again, I hope you can come tonight.

My San Francisco poem ends like this:

Take comfort,
Be Fed,
Continue on the way.

But Matthew sees a wider vision, he writes: “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Others sources even add “wild animals” as well.

In any case, it’s not a chance you’d want to miss. Have a wonderful Lent!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Post-heroic spirituality on the way home....

The poet Ann Hillman writes this:

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for

clear-cut answers

to a softer, more permeable aliveness

which is every moment

at the brink of death;

for something new is being born in us

if we but let it.

We stand at a new doorway,

awaiting that which comes…

daring to be human creatures,

vulnerable to the beauty of existence.

Learning to love.

Fifty years ago a Buddhist teacher in the US was asked for a two word definition of his religion; he said, “Things Change.” This is true in my own understanding of Christianity. In the last few months I’ve done  some reflection and writing on how we make a rule of life for ourselves as well as how we might work with others in sharing, a “spiritual inventory” or formal confession based on such a rule of life. And it’s taken me back some twenty-something years when I taught a couple of classes using three particular definitions for spirituality, god and religion: it made me realise how much things change.

Spirituality, I said then, was what happens when the air gets fresh, when you’re surprised, refreshed, renewed. For the students I worked with it could be seeing a loved one, picking up a child, cooking, walking, swimming, loving.

A god was anything that offers a blessing and asks for a sacrifice. I told people to find it looking at their check books and calendars. I remember one wonderful woman telling me that her god was with her partner and child and the mortgage they sacrificed and saved for together.

And all this led to a definition of religion, which is how we line up what matters: we can even see it in our bodies: Head - what we think is important; Heart - what is pulling at our feelings; Gut - where our strongest convictions wait, and Groin - down there in what Monty Python called the naughty parts with our deepest passion and desires. All put together mapping out our lives and waiting to be lined up for the battle.

I might have used those categories myself almost fifty years ago when I joined the church. My search for spirituality came because I was a shy and scared kid craving community and connection, needing friends and a focus and a faith that I was seen and valued and maybe even loved. So I followed the God of the Anglican Church (The Episcopal Church in the USA), and the hope I saw in these communities of Jesus: the traditions, the scriptures, that I found in the hearts of several parishes and finally seminaries all helping my understanding of what it meant to be alive, be accepted, to loved and loving, and this continues. But over the years it’s changed a lot for me, and I bet for you too…

Because the Good News at 21 evolved and changed some in my thirties, and more in my  forties and fifties and even lately in my sixties and seventies because God keeps growing - growing both bigger and growing closer. Like the19th century hymn puts it,

“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

So even getting older, it seems we must still upward and onward and this isn’t always easy, epecially when we come to the Sermon on the Mount, a part of Matthew’s Gospel that offers different answers on winning and losing and what matters in the end. Because Matthew’s lesson has at least two sides, two points of view, you might  call them the high way or the low road; and they’re both true. The high way is that, as several saints in the early church said, “God becomes human so that humankind might become God.” The low road is that, “In Jesus God has come to be lost in humanity so that all might be found in Christ.” The first is termed our upward call, the second God’s divine condescension, and I believe the Good News is that winners and losers all make it home at the end because Jesus' life leaves room for everybody!

If we look carefully at the Gospel for today, even taking it backwards; some of it makes easy sense: you are blessed if you are persecuted, hurt and harmed  for righteousness sake. Too easy! My first spiritual director told me the big question was how uncomfortable are you willing to be for the new kingdom of heaven — even though I’d now balance that with this quote from J. D. Salinger’s, “The mark of the immature… [person is that… [they] want… to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature… [person] is that… [they] want… to live humbly for one.” All that sacrifice can sometimes get us into big trouble.

Even the second category, meaning the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart, people all participating in God-shaped events, that makes some sense — their lives follow their loves, what they work for pays off. But the last category of blessed, the one that Matthew puts first, just listen to that group again: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for a righteousness which they don’t see. This is different, they are blessed for what they haven’t got, for the prize they didn’t win, the road they never found, even for what they don’t see; in the place where only the loss remains: and that’s enough.

I wish I had known that when I was younger, that it might be less important whether we won or lost, that the desires for spiritual depth, the glimpses of the glories of God, the religious dreams carried all those years ago would turn out to be less crucial as time went on. I didn’t know that at 21 or 35, but by 50 I understood more about a certain humility and grace that comes from surviving and accepting folly and failure, what T. S. Eliot meant when he wrote, “Life is what we make of the mess we make of things.” I learned that, just as the fool who persists in folly becomes wise, so that time often makes winners lose and losers win and we all get home at the last by the grace of God. In the end all those heroics of a younger life get tempered by the trials of time and for all of us who know what it is to fall short, deal with defeat and deferred dreams, with ideas and aims gone astray and diets that never went as planned; for all that the beatitudes of Matthew’s Mountaintop sermon give us very good news.

So if there are two questions: who wins and loses? There are three answers; we all fall short, we all get there, and Jesus blesses everyone at the end,  winners or losers or whatever, even now.

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for

clear-cut answers

to a softer, more permeable aliveness

which is every moment

at the brink of death;

for something new is being born in us

if we but let it.

We stand at a new doorway,

awaiting that which comes…

daring to be human creatures,

vulnerable to the beauty of existence.

Learning to love.

Epiphany 4A
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Wangaratta


Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Movable Feast ..

Please not that I am in the process of moving some of my writings and reflection onto a new site which will carry the mantle of The Merton Centre. The hope is that by the end of February I will be launching the first of a series of online and in person classes -- this one on Thomas Merton and the Buddhist Christian Conversation.

Please follow this link to the new site in the making which is very much a work in progress. https://sites.google.com/themertoncentre.org/home/home

I can be reached at robwhalley@themertoncentre.org