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. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The pain and the promise of believing again.

The Second Sunday of Easter
Year A
John 20:19-31

Our local paper in Victoria B.C. had a daily feature on the puzzles page where you looked at two complex cartoons and were challenged to discover at least five differences between them.  It took a bit of time but you soon discovered that the chair in one picture was closer to the wall than in the other or that the frame of a painting was slightly different in the second version. 

The school friend you bump into twenty years on – older, heavier, greyer - is no longer the same young person you drank beer with at the Student Union building even though he’s the same man.   Once he opens his mouth and regales you with stories from the old days, however, there’s no question.  It’s him.

Thomas might have said that he would believe Jesus had been raised from death (and that the other disciples had not suffered a group hallucination) if he could only hear him preach, or see him perform a miracle or watch him confront the Pharisees once again.  But no, he chose to make the task nearly impossible by saying that he would insist on seeing wounds on the body of the living Christ that were incompatible with life. 

Jesus shows himself convincingly to Thomas despite this harsh burden of proof.  He then chides him:  Thomas’ unbelief appears to be wilful unbelief.   Its purpose is not to establish a proper scale of credibility but, rather, to protect the wounded self (Thomas’ self) from being wounded anew. 

It is no easy matter to allow hope to return when hopes have been dashed.  It is exceptionally difficult to hope for love when love has been withdrawn in living memory.  You don’t see the horizon when you’re concentrating only one putting one foot in front of the other.

Jesus’ promise of new life conflicts with our vows.  The opportunity of living hopefully again rubs up against our survival strategies.  For what seem like very good and even noble reasons we vow to “make do” with very little hope and to live a life which is tailored to making it through the year or even just to the end of the month.  The substantial hopes of the wounded disciple become nostalgic matters set in the past as is evident from the words of one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped…..” or shelved away awaiting a seemingly impossible outcome: “I will not believe unless….”.

The Gospel readings in the Sundays of Easter centre around the appearance of Jesus to his disciples following the Resurrection and his invitation to them to enter the abundant life which that resurrection has now made possible.  I hope you will give some thought to those disciples – daring to risk once again and weighing, in their two hands, both the pain and the promise of decision.  Consider what vows you have made – often in response to very real conflict and disappointment – which keep you from hoping, from loving and ultimately from living life to the fullest.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

What have you witnessed?

Easter Sunday
Year A
John 20:1-18                                                                      

What have you witnessed?  

It's the sort of question a police officer or a judge might someday require you to answer - that you describe, audibly or in writing, the details of what you have seen or heard at a particular time and place.  Memories play tricks and entropy takes its toll even on recall. 

Sometimes it takes the collected memories of a series of witnesses before the real story can be reconstructed or the reliable core of the story can be established.

Know this, though:  a small number of disillusioned and failed followers of an itinerant prophet from Nazareth were transformed, in a very short time, into agents of hope. They transformed their world and went on to refashion ours.  Resurrection not only "was" something - with reference to God's raising of Christ on the third day - but it "meant" something.   We know its reality not only in the collecting of testimonies from the four Evangelists but by the history of what followed.  

When you throw a stone into the centre of a pond the ripples travel out to the edges. Truth is spoken to the powerful by humble people who, seemingly, have no fear.  The great persecutor of the early church becomes one of its chief apostles and advocates.  The boundaries which separate the wealthy from the poor, the Jew from the Gentile,
fade away.  God has not only raised Christ from the dead, he has raised us as well.  This power over death and meaninglessness is extended to the lives which we lead.

The ripples of Easter do not stop with the list of events that occurred on the third day surrounding the man Jesus.  The power of Easter is what folks across the ages since have seen as the agent of transformation in their current world.  The power of Easter is something you would rejoice in seeing at work in your lives.  It would be something you would mourn the absence of, should that be the case.

What the disciples saw, and heard and touched with their own hands will be the subject at hand this Sunday.  But that is only the beginning.  The Sunday readings between now and the day of Pentecost move into what this unique event means for his followers.  Christ in his resurrection is "the first fruits" of a harvest to come.  "Christ is risen....and therefore.....". 

What has happened now to you (and what will happen in the future) is part of the story.

The invitation to live abundantly has been extended to us as well.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

You and Pontius Pilate - where and when you live.

Passion Sunday
(with the Liturgy of the Palms)
Year A
Matthew 27:11-54

The church of the first two or three hundred years often added names and fanciful stories to nameless characters in the Gospels.  One of the subjects of later expansion is Pilate’s wife (nameless in Matthew’s Gospel) who sends word to her husband during the trial to have nothing to do with the man Jesus since she has had a troubling dream about him.  In due course the Church assigned her a name:  Claudia Procula.  In the eastern Orthodox tradition, she is revered as a saint.  The Ethiopian church inherited a legend that Pilate himself eventually became a Christian and reveres both Pilate and Procula as saints on the 25th of June.

It’s all quite unlikely – unproveable at best.  But you might wonder why Pontius Pilate gets the air time that he does in church.  He appears in the middle of the Apostle’s Creed and also the Nicene Creed which we recite together as a community at Mass every Sunday.  Why?  What is there about this middle to upper range Roman bureaucrat to grant him star billing on Sunday along with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?

It has nothing to do with the fiction of his later discipleship.  History pretty much swallows Pontius Pilate.  If anything, his name figures in the Creeds expressly to combat the human tendency to live in a world of legends and make-believe where Procurators become Apologists as a matter of course.  Heading in the opposite direction the Creeds attempt to do what the Gospels do and anchor the story of salvation in a world of place and time, bricks and mortar and all the prominent personalities of the world in which they occurred.  This really happened.  It happened here during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate.  It happened with these people present.  It wasn’t storyland or “once upon a time”.  You can put a mark on the calendar or a pin in the map.   

It’s as if the Fathers of the Church were saying that the “x axis” of God’s activity across time intersected with “y axis” of a moment in history and that all this is terribly important for us.  Is there some pastoral purpose for zeroing in on time and place and personality in the Creeds? 

Well, where do you live and in what times?  Donald Trump is the President and Britain is on the edge of Brexit.  Italy is awash with refugees, the blossoms in the Auvergne are in full bloom and the snow is beginning to melt in Montreal.  You can smell the coal fires in your Scottish village.  You are married to the spouse you are married to.  These are your children.  Count them.  Your job or your primary endeavour is what it is, for the moment, and is not another thing.  In such a world, and in none other, God asks you to discern the movement of his Spirit and to be faithful.  None of these particulars can or should be avoided.  They form the bowl into which you have been poured.  

Deal with it.  Rejoice in the opportunities it provides.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Do you believe this?

The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Year A

Ezekiel 37:1-14
John 11:1-45

There’s no record of Jesus healing everybody in Galilee and in Judea.  He reached out his hands here and there, to this or that person.  He was known more as a teacher than a wonder worker and the healings which he performed were all wrapped up with his proclamation of the Kingdom of God.   Those of you who are connected to God through Jesus, by the faith in which you’ve grown up or the faith you put on at a memorable moment in your life, might well ask yourself why he has not unleashed his healing power in your direction or in the direction of somebody you love. 

Nobody underscores this problem better than the Apostle John when he writes

1.      though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,
2.     after having heard that Lazarus was ill,
3.     he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”

The numberings are mine:  I wanted to lay these words out in the form of a “charge sheet” – which is what John seems to be doing in this single sentence.  Lazarus’ sister Martha puts it in different and even more poignant terms:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”

I won’t try to answer the question of suffering in the world or of mal-occurrence in the lives of the saints in 500 words.  I will, though, point you to the words of the spirit of God and those of Jesus in our readings this Sunday from Ezekiel and from John’s Gospel.  We can find therein, I believe, an arrow which points us in the right direction to begin the longer discussion.

The spirit of the Lord in Ezekiel and Jesus himself in John’s Gospel each pose a question to the human interlocutor which provides an opportunity for faithful response. 

“Son of Man, can these bones live?”  (Ezekiel 37:3)
“… everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you
believe this? (John 11:26)

In the middle of these things which land on us, on those we love, on our nations and our little gatherings, will we in the long run come to faith?  Will what faith we have, remain?  At the funeral services honouring and celebrating the lives of those we love, will the readings we choose to hear be the Easter readings?  Will we commit ourselves to him amid both gain and loss?  

As hard as it may be to endure the fruits of our own littleness, the abrogation of our three-score-years-and-ten, the weakness of our bodies, the ravages of violence or illness the question still remains posed to us and not to God. 

Do you believe this?