Wednesday, 21 June 2017

On being the wrong boy.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 7 – Year A
Genesis 21:8-21

God was with the boy, and he grew up…

Abraham sends his servant woman Hagar and the boy Ishmael (the child they have had together) out into the wilderness to fend for themselves.  There is precious little in the story which we can point to which will make it fair and palatable. You might make a case about God being economical with his finite favour which he ultimately extends only to Isaac.  Crack on!  It won’t satisfy any natural reading of the text.   This is a story about Sarah’s will to see the “other woman” and the “other son” - both of whom have a claim on Abraham’s affection - thrown out of the tent and left to their own devices in a hot and barren land.   There is the kind of family jealousy which we might identify in our own extended family or in our own experience of blended families.  Children are sometimes banished.   It happens. They fall out of favour.  They suffer the bad luck to have been born prior to the current marriage and the favoured second batch of children.  Go through your family photo albums.  Note any blank spaces.  Ask your aunty about it when she’s had a gin or two.

You could reproach Abraham for not being able to stand up to his wife and protect the fruit of his loins.  You might even wonder that God seems to play along with Sarah in her need to throw out her competitor.  The Old Testament stories are such a mish-mash of human drama and Salvation History.  We’d do well not to divide them up.  They are what they are.

God has good peripheral vision.  He hears Hagar’s weeping and the cries of the boy sheltering in the low vegetation. 

He hears the mother. 
He sees the boy. 
He abides with him as he grows up. 

God looks sideways.  There is grace beyond the bounds and this grace-which-leaps-over-borders will find itself being worked out in the ministry of Jesus.  He started with his own but he did not end there. His commission to the saints at the end of the gospels is to take the message – that grace -  to all nations.  It’s this sideways glance and overflowing grace which Saint Paul will take with him to Antioch and to a ministry which extends beyond the chosen sons and daughters and out to the Gentiles and, through those saints, to parts of the world which were unknown.

That was a long time ago.  There is current hope in this passage for you as well who may, for any number of reasons, be outside the well-lit room and the appointed path - who must look for hope beyond the ruins of your family lives and beyond your disappointing personal histories.   You might easily list off the reasons you don’t belong in Abraham’s tent. 

Cry out.   
Make your claim for God’s love in spite of being the “wrong boy”.  
It’s the way it should be.  
It’s the way it’s always been.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

That "getting up" feeling...

2nd Sunday 
after Pentecost
Proper 6  Year A

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Matthew 9:3-10:23

Paul begins the 4th chapter of Romans by asking "What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?" 

Paul thinks it's a good question. It took him the remainder of Romans 4 and most of Galatians 3 to address it.  Today we're starting small.  This Sunday at church we will begin to read the stories of the Patriarchs in the Book of Genesis and we begin right at the beginning - with Abraham - the lead actor in the first chapter of the history of salvation.

What we can say at the "get go" is that Abraham (or Abram as he was first known) “got up from a sitting position” when God's messengers approached.   It may not seem like much but it holds the key to what happens next.

Coupled with this Sunday’s Gospel reading about the Jesus sending out the twelve disciples on their first mission trip, our Sunday narrative begins to look like this:

Act one: 
God draws near to a Bedouin tent in the presence of three angels. Abram gets up from sitting at the mouth of his tent and goes out to greet them.

Act two: 
The twelve disciples are sent out by Jesus into the villages of the Galilee. They are to witness and minister to those who will welcome them gladly.

And you thought of the Bible as a book filled with God’s acts?  
Add up the human responses as well, why dont you – they’re there in droves. 

The divine initiative and the human response work in concert.  Two hands come together in prayer or applause.  Two paddles propel the canoe up the stream.  A word is spoken and there is an ear to hear that word - lips and feet and hands to put the word into action.  It takes two.   

God waits rather a lot, in the Bible, to see what the man, the woman or the young person will do.  He awaits some decision – some forward impulse which drives a person towards love, towards relationship and towards a new horizon.

We will not dwell on the negative. Jesus does not counsel the disciples to react with grief or anger (or even crippling self-criticism) in the face of villagers who spurn their ministry.  The disciples have their instructions – they are to continue to the next village and to find that “getting up feeling” in others who are not yet reached.

What do you read here which touches you?  What falls to you then - young and old - at your various crossroads?  It depends on who you are, I suppose.  Disciples of long service?   Enquirers standing at the edge of committed discipleship or, for that matter, lounging around in the shade?  Who are you in these readings?

And is there a word here that points to the possibility of your beginnings? Get up from your cushions!  Is there a word here which encourages you to continue in spite of misadventure?  Carry on to the next village!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Going beyond your reach

Trinity Sunday
Year A  
Genesis 1:1-2:4a                                                                                          Matthew 28;16-20
God saw everything that he had made, 
and indeed, it was very good.

Couldn’t we just….?   

It’s a phrase which has dogged me since the beginning of my ministry.  A service with different parts to it:  Couldn’t we just simplify it?

A meal with different components:  Couldn’t we just have soup and bread and then get on to the meeting afterwards a bit quicker or get the children home a bit earlier.  There’s homework, after all.

Couldn’t we just sing verses 1, 3 and 5?

Keep it simple.  Say the minimum.  Don’t wander.  Find a single point of agreement.   Arrive at a lowest common denominator or an agreed-upon consensus.  Contain the chaos.

I’m a fan of minimalist composers – sometimes.  Maybe you are too: Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman.  If you don’t know them you can google them - they’re worth a listen.  A skeletal structure – often repeating - with just a little flesh on it.  It’s refreshing.  It appeals to the part of me that likes to see things plainly.  It’s clear - like a well-executed line drawing.  But after a binge of minimalism you positively hunger for something glorious and romantic and colorful - a musical “full monty”. Richness and excess, colour and complexity – they all make sense and accord magnificently with the full range of what life has on offer – in nature, in the multiplicity of peoples and in the cascade of experience which human beings both suffer and enjoy.   Life is rich and complex.  Simplicity is often an escape.  Church is often the place we escape to.

In last year’s reading for Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus was made to understand that the history of God is fuller and richer than what he can fit into his tradition and between his ears.  Like Job, in the Old Testament, he was humbled with the idea that God is abroad – that the Spirit, like the wind, “blows where it will”.  God is not a single point of light to be apprehended and thereby learned, possessed and contained.  At the heart of the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy spirit – there is, above all, love and boundless energy beyond human comprehension and ability.

This year, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are gathered together on a hillside.  Jesus sends them out into a world which is beyond the reach of their language, bigger than them and beyond where they have ever travelled.  “Go”, he says, “…and make disciples of all nations”.  Like Nicodemus and Job of old, the disciples are told that God is already there – abroad as he has always been.  And in the midst of that rich and complex world – the political world, the conflicted and ambiguous world which they may not only speak to but which they must learn the language and contours of – Christ will be with them: And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Prepare your children then – prepare yourselves, in fact – to accept the broadness of God’s horizon and to widen your own.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Praying for new and better words.

The Feast of Pentecost
Year A
Acts 2:1-21

Frances Wheeler Davis was a schoolteacher from Winnipeg, Manitoba.  She was also a poet.  Robert Fleming, originally from Prince Albert Saskatchewan, was a church organist at various churches in Ontario and Quebec.  They put their skills together in the late sixties and came up with a hymn called “Let there be light” which appears today in only a small selection of hymn books.  Here is the fifth verse:

Your kingdom come,
your Spirit turn to language,
your people speak together,
your Spirit never fade.

The entire hymn is a plea to God on the part of Christian people for light, for healing speech and for understanding between alienated peoples but it’s always the fifth verse which hits me: “your Spirit turn to language”.

The giving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is several things simultaneously.  It is the confirmation of Jesus’ promise to empower his church and it is the equipping of the church with the tools of ministry.  It is the action of God upon human flesh, wills and futures. It is the way in which God will continue to visit, renew and grace human communities with his enduring presence.  I’m stuck this week, however, on the power of language to break down barriers between people and the way that language gives to us the gift of the wider world. 

The early disciples were provincial people – they spent their early lives living on a tiny piece of real estate in the eastern Mediterranean. They ended those lives, in many cases, as apostles and missionaries to the entire known world.  This happened because they were sent out.  This happened because they were equipped to minister beyond their cultural communities – to appropriate, even, the language and culture of others to communicate a universal promise of love to an entire world. 

Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it
that we hear, each of us in his own native language?

With language we reach out to others.  By language we come to understand the world around us.  Have you witnessed an older child or an adult overcome a reading or writing deficiency with a little help from a teacher or a therapist?   Because of problems in cognition or a neglect of education that child experiences loneliness and isolation.  When the threshold is finally crossed, however, and the words on the page begin to live then the young adult may take up the tools by which communities are built, love letters are written and covenants entered.   

It is through language (conversation, confession, promises) and not through lonely thought, that dysfunction in our families and communities must be approached.  It is by willingly entering into the language of others (listening, learning and understanding) that rifts are healed and the worlds of other peoples become a place of rejoicing and not a cause for fear.

These then are words – use them.  Use the words you already have.  Pray that the gift of the Spirit, which is the inheritance of all the baptized, turns to language.  Pray for new words, if you must, and a spirit to use them boldly.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Believing again. Believing for the very first time.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Year A
John 14:14-14

… I tell you, the one who believes in me  will also do the works that I do…

You’ve seen the bumper sticker:   “The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it”.

There are no fewer than 98 instances of the verb “to believe” in John’s Gospel. There are invitations, as in this Sunday’s Gospel, for men and women to begin to believe again or to believe something for the very first time.  There are also descriptions of individuals and crowds who had come to believe over the course of the Gospel.   Fast change or slow change -  but change nonetheless.  When you see belief, you expect to see change.

The bumper sticker describes somebody who is the way he is and will remain so forever: An oak tree planted in tough clay.  Belief in the New Testament describes a process which is much more dynamic. People are forever changed because of something Jesus has said or done. Something (faith) wells up within them in response and they are no longer who they used to be.  They’ve been pulled up by the roots.

It’s a word we use in common language in several ways: We “believe that” something is the case:  up is up and down is down.  It’s a very different thing than “believing about” orbelieving in”.

We’re rather promiscuous even about the things we “believe in” - ideas mostly, which we inherited or which we have adopted as a way of making sense of the world and identifying ourselves within it and finding our place.  We proudly and self-consciously nail ourselves down to a way of thinking and believe that we’ve done well.

Free Enterprise or Universal Health Care or the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God - things that are “believed in” tend to sprout capital letters with time. And, so, it is perhaps natural that belief in God or belief in Jesus might be things we file in the same envelope. Are these not beliefs which define our families or perhaps, even, our national communities? We try our damnedest be consistent in our beliefs. If one of our elected officials changes his or her mind about Proposition 10 then we accuse them of flip flopping.  We’re not curious enough about why they came around to a new position.

And that’s why we stick bumper stickers on our cars - just in case something new and attractive comes into the room and we forget and change our minds. 

But here’s the rub: Believing” in the Gospel leads to departures and changes - not the endless reinforcement of slogans and adages and childhood beliefs we learned at our grandparents’ knees.  Old time religion was a problem for Jesus.  Old time religion killed and imprisoned most of the saints across the centuries.  Old time religion often gets in the way of grace, truth and beauty in our own day.

Are we open enough to really believe?  Or are our roots getting in the way of our growth?  

Friday, 5 May 2017

The activity of shepherds and sheep.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Year A                                                                           
Psalm 23

The Lord is the one shepherding; I lack nothing.

I’m at a meeting this weekend in Milan.  Our Lay Reader, Alison is preaching at Christ Church and our new Archdeacon, Walter Baer, will be standing behind the altar – all of which allows me here to wander through the readings with scant thought as to how an eventual sermon might turn out. 

I can afford to go off-topic or split a few hairs.  I’ll be back on form next week.

Two of the the three readings and the Psalm for this Sunday are “pastoral” in nature:  I mean this literally – they are “pastoral” - they all make some mention the person of the shepherd and the nature of his activity. 

The Lord is my shepherd.

You might be able to recite this with the book closed if you’re of a certain generation.   You’d be upset if you thought that you needed to say it differently or that the way you’re saying it is a mistranslation so, relax – you’re saying it right.  But – when you read it this Sunday in church (at least in an Episcopal church) you might take a peek at the Latin inscription in the Book of Common Prayer just above Psalm 23 on page 612 and muse over the words which you probably can’t immediately translate but could if you gave it some thought:

Dominus regit me

Either by intuition, or with the help of some residual school Latin, you’d note that the second word is a verb and not a noun.  The Lord shepherds me.  The Latin Vulgate was translated from the Greek Bible.  If you go to an earlier Greek version you find that it has a verb as well.  The Lord shepherd (or rules) me.

Both – the Latin and Greek - depend on a Hebrew antecedent and we should note that the Hebrew word is, in fact, a verb but it’s a verbal noun or a participle – a verb which behaves like a noun.  “The Lord is the one shepherding” or “the Lord is the one who shepherds”.

What’s missing from all three is that sense where one thing (the Lord) is another thing (a shepherd) and that metaphorical thing belongs to me.  The way we’ve learned it lends itself a bit to bumper stickers:

God is my commanding officer
The Lord is my shepherd
My love is a red, red rose.
My other car is a Maserati.

Shepherding and “being shepherded”, however, are verbs – action which is ongoing and continual.  It is a well-known fact of country life that sheep wander.  They need to be sought out by the shepherd.  They need to agree to follow.  That a relationship can be established between this noun (me) and that noun (the shepherd) is not the point. 

You might be a registered member of his flock with your paperwork in order.  You may also be stuck rather tightly in the crevasse you’ve wandered into and that trapped knee is beginning to ache.  

Let the activity of being shepherded – the finding and the following - recommence!


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The questions Jesus asks along the road.

The Third Sunday of Easter
Year A
Luke 24:13-35

Standing in a high place you lose details but you get the whole picture in one sweep. Let's get right down to it, shall we?
Jesus breaks bread in the presence of two disciples and opens their minds through an exposition of the Scriptures. The downcast disciples are heartened by the encounter and go on their way much refreshed.  

That’s it – the Road to Emmaus seen from a height. 

The vicar in me wants to own this passage.  It’s about us, isn’t it?  Announce it on Facebook.  Stick it on the website.   This is what we do every Sunday – word and sacrament in one stop.

Which is precisely the problem with looking at anything from a great height.  Up here, things become small enough to slip into your pocket.  Small enough to be useful –  or perhaps misused, appropriated and domesticated.

There’s a mystical element in this passage from Luke which ought to growl at you as you attempt to slip a leash on it:   What do the disciples end up knowing and how do they come to know it?  Jesus joins the two troubled disciples on the road but they do not recognize him.  He expounds the Old Testament to them in considerable detail but it is not until he makes the physical gestures of breaking bread with them that they suddenly realize who he is.  Once recognized he is immediately taken from them – he passes from their sight and they find themselves alone but overjoyed.  They seek out the company of other disciples who have encountered the risen Christ.  They share their experiences.  It is not an easy story to summarize.  Mystical experience is hard to speak about.  If you boil it down to a few points you suspect you’ve done something unworthy. 

A few details which your bird’s eye view missed:  It’s not by accident that everybody is walking during their conversation and not sitting in a pew.  And - it is central to the passage that Jesus asks the disciples what they are talking about amongst themselves and that their unveiling of their problem is a part of the solution. 

I repeat:  Jesus is inordinately interested in what the disciples are already talking about:  "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" he asks. 

He’s apparently more interested in them than we are, oftentimes, in our own people. Why do we treat visitors, new members or "passers-through" as shoppers with empty grocery carts to whom we offer the valuable goods of the Church -  the creeds, the Mass, John 3:16, the social life of our parish, bells, hymns, incense or even the minister’s personality?

Most of the New Testament encounters Jesus has with people are genuine conversations. When we do take a positive step forward, we discover that the previous tumult is not negated.  It’s part of the process and why Jesus, sometimes, asks questions.

The details are important.

He met us on the road.
He wanted to know what our struggles were.
He reasoned with us over time.

We were conscious of engagement and love – love which made the next part possible.