Monday, 21 May 2018

Nicodemus the Car Thief



Trinity Sunday
Year B
John 3:1-17


You see a car advertised. 

It appears to be the very one you want.  The right size, the right model.  Mileage looks good.   The right price.  You fire off an email or leave a voicemail – AND you get a message back within the hour.  Yes, you can see the car but no, you can’t drop by to see it.   I will come to you.  Tonight.

What gives?  Why the wait?  Why night-time?   You're right to be suspicious.   A darkened street corner in some public space, really?  You rightly wonder that maybe this person is trying to sell you something which doesn’t belong to him.

You know what belongs to you – your moveable and immoveable goods.  You’d call these your property.  You might have a list of these things stapled to your insurance policy. 

Secondly there are those things which you don’t own but which are nonetheless “your baby” – processes at work which you got rolling, an article you’ve written, an idea, a recipe, a piece of music, even, which you created that you consider yours.  

Lastly there are those things which you’ve been given to care for and to manage – the family fortune, the company secrets, the charter of the Association you belong to.  Whether any of these things belongs to you or not, you still have some sense of ownership over them.

In the third chapter of John's Gospel, Nicodemus the Pharisee pays a late-night visit to Jesus.  He’d know better than to say that he was an owner of Israel’s religious tradition.  But there’s no question that he comes to Jesus this night as a gatekeeper of Israel’s religion - one of its chief stewards – one of its guarantors - one of its border guards, if you like.  Israel’s religion is his baby.  As a religious expert and arbiter Nicodemus could be said to “get” the whole concept of God and to be one of the “go to” people for questions of law-keeping and belonging.  

Tonight Nicodemus believes he’s in a position to sell something.  He comes to Jesus expressing a genuine interest.  The night-time meeting, on the other hand, suggests a guarded caution about what Jesus is doing.  We think you’re one of us, he tells Jesus.  God must clearly be on your side given what’s happening around you in your ministry. 

One of us – one of us. 

Nicodemus presumes to stand in Jesus’ presence as somebody who believes he can include or exclude this itinerant rabbi from the mainstream. He’s offering Jesus a franchise.  And this is where Jesus stops him in his tracks. 

You see this is the deal with God – God gives to whom he wants.   He chooses unlikely partners, he gives to people who don’t deserve it, he decides to start somewhere and points his finger at Abraham wandering with his family at some crossroads on a middle eastern trade route and he says – this one - I think I’ll start here with this one – with this random - and Abraham gets what he needs because he says “Okay – start with me then”  

It’s on your curriculum, all of this, Nicodemus – I’m not telling you something you don’t know.  God gives freely and wants the world to have what he wants to give and here you are telling me that you can cut me in on your deal?  That you can let me have a bit of what you have? 

Ask yourself what anybody’s “property” consists of, at the end of the day.  Your name may be on the title deed but you’re only one of a series of people who has lived at 246 Elm Road across the span of a century.  You’re here and then you’re not.  And notwithstanding intellectual property laws, can anybody really be the proprietor of an idea?  Our conceptions of ownership don’t survive a steady gaze.  Not when we are just dust in the wind.

God crosses the centuries.  Nicodemus must know that.  The spirit of God moves here and there.  God speaks to whom he wishes.  Our drawing of circles around ourselves and our communities, our dividing up of religious resources and our “proprietary” attitude towards the story of God prevents us from being willing participants in the process ourselves and hold others back from being included.   No, Nicodemus, you don't get God - you may not draw a circle around him.  He's not your possession or something which you claim in the name of your tribe or the nation or your collection of right thinking friends.  We are not proprietors of God's Spirit although, on a good day, we might end up being followers of that same Spirit.

We don’t “get God”.  If anything, God gets us.


Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Things in a bag

The Fifth Sunday 
of Easter
Year B

I have three things here in a paper bag.  Let me pull them out and name them:  jack-knife, envelope, rose petal.  I lay them on the edge of the pulpit - three individual things which, a moment ago, were all together.   They were part of a set.  We’ll call that set 
things-in-a-bag”

I can pinpoint, in terms of time and place, the beginning of my mild obsession with the relationship between things: I’m in southeast Alaska in the late summer of 1982.  I am looking at a river.  The shutter of my mind opens and captures the water of Ketchikan creek flowing swiftly downstream to the sea.  The dimly visible shapes of large Chinook salmon can be seen swimming upstream slowly and with determination.  Somewhere in the trees over to one side, a raven croaks loudly from a high perch.  An animated couple ambles upstream along the trail on the other side of the creek, meeting a single person walking briskly into town with his head down.  A fox crosses my path up ahead.  A few fallen leaves tumble in the strong breeze at an angle across the gravel bar.  I am struck by it – the whole thing – no one part of it but the whole together, creating within me a colour or a flavour, a picture, an impression, even a story.  Forty years on I still remember it.  I can tell you about it this morning.

Unrelated things are gathered in to a set.  For a moment, completely one and in relation to one another. 

In our first reading this morning, Philip the deacon travels south because he’s been told to go by the Holy Spirit.   He catches up with a diplomat from the court of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, on his way home, who is seated in his chariot reading the copy of the Book of Isaiah that came into his possession in Jerusalem – a work produced by a people not his own – a voice, centuries old, speaking to him for the very first time.  He is moved by the words but perplexed by the book.  Philip is invited up into the chariot to explain.  They approach a stream - water tumbling over stones, creating rapids and eddies.  The Ethiopian diplomat says “See, here is water!  What is to prevent my being baptised?”  

This handful of things and persons are gathered together in a bag.  God’s will is worked out not by the visible and substantial individual things but by the invisible and insubstantial relationship between them – providing from the mix itself novelty, opportunity and occasion.

Much of the Acts of the Apostles relates the experience of people tumbling through the invisible but undeniable tumult of the Spirit's fresh progress in the world.  Freed from fear and filled with the power of the Spirit, they are thrown together and set upon the road.  The saints emerge from that mixed bag. Communities of faith are cobbled together in peculiar circumstances.   The waters of baptism erode the borders between classes and languages.  The fire of God’s spirit defies conservative and self-preserving tendencies.  Love covers its multitude of faults.  Forgiveness releases people from isolation and loneliness.  What could prevent such a thing from happening?  If you stood in its way you might get knocked over.

Teased apart into their strands, these things mean little.  Seen whole from within as a participant, however, they begin to make eminent sense.



Saturday, 14 April 2018

A ghost does not have flesh and bones...

The Third Sunday of Easter

Year B
Luke 24:36b-48


"Touch me and see; 
for a ghost does not have flesh 
and bones as you see that I have".

Might the story have been easier to grasp if Jesus had appeared to his disciples as a disembodied spirit rather than somebody with wounds and an appetite?  


It’s less of a leap, perhaps, to imagine a ghostly person which is somehow the real person.   The ghostly bit lives inside one’s body for a spell before escaping into the atmosphere or groaning diaphanously in hallways and then disappearing again, floating off to be somewhere better (or somewhere worse).  A default position.  It might be what some of us think will happen to us when we die.   Even the Old Testament has a famous ghost story where Saul and the Witch of Endor conspire to conjure up the ghost of the prophet Samuel from the depths.  Ghosts are not unknown in the traditions of Israel.


But no - the Evangelists present Christ as being bodily present in the midst his disciples.  It’s not an easy circle for them to square.  On one hand, in John’s Gospel, Christ bears his wounds and shows them to Thomas and the other disciples.  In Luke, he manipulates bread and wine on a table and elsewhere he asks his disciples if they have something to eat and, when given a piece of broiled fish, he digs in.  On the other hand, doesn’t he appear once in a locked room?  On another occasion, is he not taken suddenly from their sight? 


He is the same.   But he is different. 


The reaction of his disciples is understandably mixed: “...in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”.


Of what import this bodily life in the economy of eternity?   We both give and receive in our world - in time and space - through the medium of our bodies, our emotions and our voices.  We drink in colour and kindness, smells and textures with these bodies of ours, these brains, these minds and imaginations.  Will we enjoy the warm pong of a smelly Labrador retriever in heaven?  Will we be finished with the combination of fresh rosemary and lamb chops or those gorgeous cream tarts you can buy warm from bakeries in Portugal?  Will any of these sensual experiences be a thing anymore?  

The earliest record (earlier than the completed Gospels by decades) are the words of Saint Paul in 1st Corinthians 15 about both Christ’s resurrection and our own.  With respect to the General Resurrection (of which Christ’s resurrection is “the first fruits”) he addresses the very question which these Gospel accounts pose: 


But someone will ask, "How are the dead raised?
With what kind of body do they come?"



The details are beyond any human wisdom, but Paul’s response suggests that what we sow into the ground (that which undergoes death) is both like and unlike what God will one day remake for an eternal purpose.  What is sown in death is a seed – more precisely a “naked seed” of what will ultimately become the full glory of the plant.  It retains its lineage with the bodily life and the recognized identity of people living in their present world and it is not for nothing that the final chapter of 1st Corinthians caps an Epistle which has ethics and community life as one of its major themes - what the Christian does with his or her body in this life – how that body is expressed faithfully in marriage, how it is presented in equal fellowship with the bodies belonging to those of different classes, races, languages and backgrounds.  None of these things is wasted – neither our senses nor our ethics.   All of them are important.  

We are now the seed, at least, of what we will become.


Thursday, 5 April 2018

So what?


The 2nd Sunday of Easter
Year B
John 20:19-31

Congregations are oftentimes quite small around the world on Low Sunday.  Will we buck the trend at Christ Church?  Let’s see.

Life carries on.  Two disciples trudge along to Emmaus speaking in hushed voices about what the women’s message about the empty tomb could possible mean.  They are organizing their mental response, repairing their mental walls and wondering what the “new normal” is.  In the Gospel reading this Sunday, Thomas sorts out the tumble of things in his head in such a way that he “will believe” A, B and C and “will not believe” X, Y and Z.  Some disciples are planning a return to Bethsaida or Capernaum in the Galilee to get their nets, weights and floats out of hock and to recuperate earlier careers.  Even those who were open to the women’s proclamation that something remarkable had occurred in and around the tomb of Christ might ask the seemingly irreligious and outrageous question which positively insists on being asked here: 

So what?

Did someone win the lottery or have a patent approved for their invention?  Good fortune landed on them.   Well done, them.  You jot them off a message of congratulations and that would be the end of it.  You ask a mutual friend whether she’d heard how Arthur had landed on his feet.  Good for Arthur, your friend says.  It means absolutely nothing to the two of you who’ve never won anything more than a replacement lottery ticket and have had your best ideas thoroughly ignored at work. 

Making practical sense of the resurrection is not a topic for Easter Sunday – that’s reserved for proclamation, invitation and positively basking in the mysterious symbols of new life and new beginnings.   It is a topic, however, for all the Sundays prior to Pentecost so you aren’t going to avoid the issue.  A post-Easter-Sunday sermon attempts to make sense of the resurrection of Christ in some way other than “Good for Jesus”.  We use Jesus’ own words to do this.  His words to his disciples indicate a new beginning for them.  Both his death and resurrection are Pro Nobisfor us and for Creation itself and must be understood in relation to the things of earth:  Money, career, beauty and justice – our attitudes towards friends and enemies and towards our own varied estimates of our strength or weakness, life and death. 

It is the lens through which life is focused for you who are strong and you who are weak, who have gained much in this life or have lost a great deal, who would apply your strength to the best of things or who want to navigate the weakness within and around yourselves.  It means something – this sharing with Christ in his victory over sin and death.  Life takes on new meaning in the light of Easter.  There remains much time in your three-score-years-and-ten for this to be worked out for you as it was worked out for the disciples in conversation with their Lord in the days after Easter Sunday.  

We begin (again) on Sunday.  If you are not elsewhere – I look forward to seeing you.




Tuesday, 27 March 2018

“Is risen” or “has risen”?


Easter Sunday
Year B
Mark 16:1-8


Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was 
crucified: he is risen; he is not here

I got a query this week from a young person in Scotland who sent me a picture of this flyer, which came through the mail slot from his local parish church, along with the following:

…a wee question: just saw this in the post and I’m wondering if this is correct. I have heard it before written this way, but [his girlfriend] thinks since risen is past perfect should it not be "has"? I don’t have an answer for her. Any help?

Well, one answer would be that the English language used to construct verbs of movement and emergence by using the auxiliary “to be” in the way that French still does:  

Nous sommes venu,
elle est parti,
je suis devenu.

You can find examples of this in the King James Version of the Bible:

I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ:
when he is come, he will tell us all things (John 3:25)

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,
and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass,
or a tinkling cymbal (1 Cor 13:1)

Archaisms endure in religious language.   We love 'em.  But it’s more than that.

One of the soldiers, say from Matthew's gospel, who’d been tasked with guarding the sealed tomb might have reported to his superiors about the Easter Sunday events that “Unfortunately, Sergeant, he’s no longer there.  He has risen.   It happened yesterday.  It's in my report”.

That same soldier years later in Asia Minor, having been the object of Christian preaching himself, is in church on an Easter Sunday morning.  He grasps his neighbour’s hand and utters the traditional Easter greeting: “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”.  His friend would respond (as will you this Sunday) “The Lord is risen, indeed.  Alleluia!”.  This has nothing to do with old-fashioned language.

The power which animates this life amidst what seems like surrounding disorder and decay is the power of the Risen One.  He is contemporaneously present (in the midst of his people, in the midst of Creation itself, in the Sacrament of the altar and in Christian preaching) as the Risen One – who “is” and not only “was” gloriously alive.   

Men and women of faith look, not to the historic victory of a hero against terrible odds, but to the contemporary presence of One whose victory is also their victory.  From that living presence flows the courage to proclaim the Gospel, to make justice in the Auvergne and around the world and to treat aging and weakness – even death itself - as no impediment to hope.  Such faith animates the ordinary life of the believer.  Death has been conquered in Christ.   My death and yours are conquered in him.

Of whom we say, in our prayers and Collects, that he “ … lives and reigns…..”



Friday, 23 March 2018

This is our story......

Passion/Palm Sunday
Year B
Mark 11:1-11
Mark 14:1-15:47

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday brings together two separate Gospel readings which seem like opposite sides of a coin. 

Before the service, and outside the Chapel, our little community gathers to bless the palm crosses and to hear the story of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem:  the donkey, the waving palms and the jubilant crowds.

Hosanna in the Highest Heaven!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Later in the service, the regular Gospel reading of the day, long and dark, begins when an unnamed woman (in Mark’s version) breaks open an alabaster box of perfume and anoints Jesus.  The anointing at Bethany, for three of the four Gospels, is the opening salvo of the Passion Narrative – a story in which God’s will for the world is worked out in the flesh and blood of sacrifice.  The joyful crowds are replaced by scornful onlookers and Jesus remains largely silent throughout.

The preacher is oftentimes enjoined to preach quite lightly on this Sunday and throughout Holy Week.  What would the preacher have to add, after all?   Let the story do its work!  Let the crowds follow along!

In the earlier Palm Sunday story, the congregation follows physically as they make their way up and down church aisles or, in our case in Clermont, around the little chapel in Royat.  In the later Passion Narrative, they follow again (this time, imaginatively) the remaining disciples, the soldiers, the weeping women of the city and the mother of our Lord as they wind their way through the streets of Jerusalem on their way to Calvary.  What is there to do but to watch and to be there together as this story moves to its conclusion? 

In his betrayal, Judas might have said that he has done what he must.  In his denial, Simon Peter has done what came most naturally to him in a moment of fear and panic.  The crowds appear to have been manipulated.  The disciples are helpless.  Even though Pilate is sitting in the judgement seat, even he appears not to be in control.  The story takes on a form of its own – we will have time to discuss and interpret it – we must first merely take our place in line and follow it as participants.

We are there, after all.  As failed disciples or as members of a pitiless mob or as bureaucrats and functionaries who take the path of least resistance.  We are there. This is our story.  We are there, more importantly though, as the ones for whom Jesus undertook this lonely pilgrimage.  We are the ones whom God loves – the ones he has elected to save despite themselves.   It's our story that way as well.

Any realism which touches on our sin and insufficiency must be underpinned by the larger point of the story:  God decided not to leave us in our sins.  


Thursday, 22 February 2018

Putting the faith of Abraham to the test.


The Second Sunday 
in Lent
Year B
Romans 4:13-25

Do things happen the way that they must? Must things be the way they are? We are used to seeking out necessary causes for things.  What are the necessary causes of bad things?  How might we ferret out and neutralize those necessary causes to prevent bad things from happening?  What are the necessary causes of good things?  How can we recreate those to make sure that more good things happen? 

Give us some control, at least. 

We would avoid magical explanations.   Believing in magic risks bringing us back to a world of leeches, gnomes and fairies.  We had centuries of that.  We’ve had a belly full, in fact.

Faith remains the opposite of certainty for many of the people we know.  We know people who are stuck and can’t move forward.  We may feel that way ourselves.  Faith is a hard case to argue to poor people or unfortunate people or excluded people or condemned people who would like nothing more than a certain path forward or, at least, a damned good reason to put up with the way the chips have fallen. 

It’s what Saint Paul does, though.  He says that the best thing – the only thing – we have in hand is this diaphanous, invisible thing called faith and that it holds the key to what our lives will look like.  Faith in God has gotten people up from where they’ve fallen, it has brought them to where they have no necessary right to be.  It builds community where there should be enmity between factions.  It removes condemnation.  It sets us among the saints.  It's a thing.

Paul begins with a bit of history.  "Abraham", he says, "is the father of us all".  It might not be clear to every modern reader the extent to which these are fighting words.  There are some who were listening to St Paul, or reading the letters which he wrote, who would have said:

I am part of the family of Abraham because of my name, my lineage and my childhood religion.  This man or woman sitting next to me here on the park bench, however, is not of the family, because this person is a Greek or a barbarian.  I am a Jew.   I am necessarily one of Abraham’s children.  I am a son or daughter of Abraham because I must be.  I was born to it.

Paul throws a wrench into this implied necessity:  things are not the way they must be - they are the way they could be when men and women believe that God will do what he says he will do.  

We are all children of Abraham when we do what Abraham did which was:

·        to hear what God promised,
·        to take stock of his own inability to perform that promise on God’s behalf, and
·        to believe that God would, himself, accomplish what he promised.

We are being asked to believe  - to believe that we can be a part of God’s family and can find a place in his Kingdom in spite of who we know ourselves, in our weakness, our exclusion and our sinfulness, to be.  And there is abundant evidence in the family of faith that the barriers begin to drop, not when the conditions become optimal again, but that life regains its fluidity 

because God has promised 
and the human person has taken the risk of believing again.

Believe it?  Put it to the test.