Friday, 8 November 2013

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                                    Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Proper 27 - Year C 

A project manager?  Of course!  A couple of good hammer-and-nail men?  Even better!  But why would you need a prophet on a building site?  Maybe so God can be heard saying something to the people like the following:

“The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.  The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.”  

This line from the prophet Haggai, beloved of stewardship preachers across the ages, comes from the mouth of one of the Minor Prophets.  Along with his contemporary Zechariah and the prophet Malachi (who lived a generation afterwards) Haggai prophesied to the nation following the return of the Jews from Babylon and during the period of their rebuilding and reestablishment in the land of their fathers.  

This week’s reading from Haggai is significantly enriched by reading the events recorded in Ezra chapters 3-6 but particularly from chapter 4 on.  After having received permission and encouragement from the Persian King Darius himself for the rebuilding of the Temple, and having seen the emergence of capable leaders, Zerubbabel and Jeshua, it was the people themselves who began to lose heart and to listen to those voices within and around them which suggested that failure was inevitable.  

Momentum was lost and doubts abounded.

Enter the preacher - the prophet:  What Haggai does here is to remind the people that the resources they need to complete their work and to fulfill their destiny as God's people in the land never really were locked up in the hand of their adversaries after all.  Nor were these cut off from reaching their destination because of the logic of the balance sheet.  The needed resources - in this case silver and gold - were given into the earth by God and God can release them for his purposes.  

Let the adversaries think they control them, then.  God will shake those nations up.  Let the balance sheet say what it will.  The chief weapon in God's hand is his word and the retelling of his mighty acts in the past.  The proper response to God's promise, spoken through the prophet, is courage.  

The project will move forward when the hearts of men and women are turned.


Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                           Luke 19:1-10
People who have been bullied over the years may become bullies and abusers themselves.  The Gospel writer tells us that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector”.  Luke is here describing a nasty man in nasty employment.  “Tax farming” was standard practice in Jesus’ time and the job of collecting taxes was outsourced to men who were thugs or who at least had thugs in their retinue.   Of course they added a percentage for themselves.  They were opportunists and bullies in the pay of oppressive powers (the Romans in Judea or the Herodians in the Galilee).  

It might come as no surprise then, given my opening statement, that St Luke further describes Zacchaeus as being “short in stature” - “a wee little man” as the children’s song goes.  One could editorialize the whole episode and see a lifetime’s worth of  payback against his own community - the slow working out of a well-developed grudge.  He remains an outsider but now a powerful and dangerous outsider.  

The story hinges around Jesus’ shouted command to Zaccheus up a Sycamore tree, where he listens to the sermon from a safe but privileged vantage point.  “Zacchaeus!”, Jesus shouts.  “Come down!”.  The community’s (and perhaps the reader’s) expectation is that Jesus will now confront and damn the unloveable traitor and exploiter of the people.  Charismatic leaders do that with bullies - they confront them.  Win or lose they will not leave them unchallenged.  

Jumping to the end of the story, one finds the onlookers robbed of a bloody confrontation and a satisfying denouement.  Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus are a form of confrontation but one which leaves the hated man unbloodied.  There has been no fatal blow.   The “righteous” expectations of the community are unsatisfied.  

What does it mean to be confronted by love, convicted by kindness, bowled over by opportunity or bashed over the head by a second chance?    Any other response on Jesus’ part would merely have confirmed Zacchaeus in his distance from God.  Jesus appears to be interested in change more than he is in damnation.  This interest in the “lot of sinners” is the tax collector’s only hope.   It is the only hope of the gathered onlookers in this story.   It is also the only hope of the contemporary readers of my imperfect retelling of this story.  Our interest in the perfect justice of God might be ideological or even theological.  Our interest in his blessed mercy is intensely personal.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                             Joel 2:23-32

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh!”

So God speaks through the prophet Joel to communities which have struggled to force a harvest from their fields with little rain. So he speaks to people who have barely been able to retain a sense of vision and purpose in times which are hard - both politically and spiritually. It will all come to pass. The times will be good again.

This time of restoration, with fields bearing the full weight of heavy heads of grains, with sons and daughters fit for prophecy and with old men (and presumably old women) seeing into the depth of things with wisdom and insight has always, in the Christian tradition, been seen in light of the gift of God’s spirit on the day of Pentecost.

First of all the gift is given - it is not confected through human effort and cunning plans. It arrives in God’s good time.

Secondly - the gift is poured upon ordinary human flesh: Ordinary humans - with the rustic abilities common to their humanity - find that their ordinary speech now wins over nations and convinces individuals. Hospitality - rather than being the simple ability to set a table and provide a roof - becomes a spiritual gift.

The Church has always had a table set in its midst.

Our sons and daughters and our old people: Note how those of us who consider themselves at the apex of their abilities as wage earners, parents, movers and shakers are here reminded that God spreads his talents far and wide and that we must look to the edges of our family - to youth and to elderly people to see what God is doing next.

The reading from Joel is both thrilling and humbling - a reasonable foretaste of the Advent season where we will marvel at how God uses whom he wills to bring about the transformation of the created order.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                               Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Interesting, isn't it, that God (through the prophet Jeremiah) does not say to the exiles in Babylon that they have been merely hard-done-by and captured by an evil King. He tells them that he, God, is the one who has sent them into exile there. These would have been bitter words for them to hear. They might have wanted more sympathy.

Last week we heard the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 137) from the same epoch asking "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" This week the question is answered.

God says: You will take your sojourn in Babylon seriously. It's where you live now. Your health depends on the health of the city and your prosperity on its prosperity. Allow your family life to be touched by the community you live in and extend your own hand upon your surroundings as well. Let genuine relationship flourish.

Above all pray for the city in which you live and lift up its life to God.

France is not Babylon. America, Canada and Great Britain are not the promised land. One should hesitate to make too direct a comparison between our world and the Biblical world we happen to be reading about. Nonetheless we ought to examine which reflections herein might apply to us:

1) While there are accidents of history (work or family necessities) which move us hither and thither we are involved, as people of God, with a Creator, Redeemer and Inspirer who has always uprooted and replanted his people. He does it for their good and he does it for the good of the world he sends them into. It should not surprise you that you are here with a purpose.

2) The world in which we feel like aliens or visitors is a beautiful world. God wants something for it and you are a partner in that work. You - and not someone else. Here - and nowhere else.

3) Even the symbols which God, through his prophet, recommends - the building of houses, planting of gardens and the contracting of marriages - may mean something for us. What is the visible sign we do, or could, exhibit which shows that we want to belong to the society in which we are presently living?

At the very least let us be curious about this and consider it.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                                    Luke 14:25-33

The word “decide”, coming to us from Old French (and beyond that from Latin), means to cut something (caedare) off (de) - hence, decaedere. It means to fall on one side of an ambiguity by turning away from the other option. There’s that poem by Robert Frost you read in school about the diverging paths in a forest. If you are a truly decisive person, you will have any number of roads behind you which were not taken and travelled.

It depends what you want. As a salesman, in this week’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems not to want to make a sale at all costs. He reminds us, his hearers, that we can have what we want. If we want him, however, and to be a member of the Kingdom which he is ushering in, there will be a cost to that decision. Jesus does not cajole them (or us) with false promises. He doesn’t anesthetize them (or us) with respect to the risks and the costs. He wants us to decide.

Some of us spend rather a long time in those woods looking at the two paths and even attempting to place a foot on each without doing ourselves an injury. We will need to say our “yes” and our “no” to something if we ever hope to get anywhere. We need to come to terms with the fact that decisions are costly.

Being husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, members of a local church and members of God’s Kingdom requires of you a positive affirmation of the life that goes along with that. You might have been surprised at what these roles required - but you suspected all along that there would be a cost.

All your pursuits - your jobs, your family roles, your engagement with the world and your fellowship in this parish church - require, as a first step, not an immediate application of work and energy but, rather, the answer to that nagging question about what you want. Disfunctions may stem less from our lack of native ability than they do from a lack of positive desire. Do you want any of these things enough to walk out of the woods and follow the path?

Jesus puts it plainly: It’s up to you. What do you want?

Thursday, 13 June 2013

It will all come pouring out

Luke 7:36 - 8:3
(cf. Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8)

This Sunday's Gospel takes three slightly different forms in Matthew and Mark and Luke and a completely alternate retelling in John's Gospel:

A woman of ill-repute breaks into a dinner party made up of worthy people. She anoints Jesus with costly and fragrant ointment and weeps. The onlookers are aghast that Jesus should allow someone so sullied to have physical contact with him or (in Mark and Matthew's version) that expensive ointment has been so extravagantly wasted.

Is it only my imagination or do notorious sinners secretly save things up: money in numbered accounts or bodies buried somewhere? They accumulate people - confederates to keep their secrets and friendly policemen to turn a blind eye. They keep a pot of expensive perfume at home to make their world smell better. They save up alibis or excuses which they rehearse. They must even convince themselves. They collect a series of routes home which bypass the people who know them and could denounce them. In the long run the lies they tell to hide their misdeeds become complicated and interlocking and hard to maintain.

Even those who may not consider themselves particularly notorious sinners will recognize this accumulated burden which they bear around in secret upon their shoulders. It may all become too much - as it did for this woman who, one day, decides to end the pretense. She hears the buzz in the market that Jesus is in her neighborhood and will be eating with Simon the Pharisee at his house. She knows the place and that Jesus is a perceptive prophet. There she will be known and exposed. She will come clean.

It will all come pouring out.

When we love, testify or confess we spread our riches about. We empty our account. And rather than leaving us bereft, the perfume fills the room. Until this point the road has always carried us away from community, away from friendship and away from confident commerce with strangers. Jesus’ very presence can coax us from the tree where we've been hiding, up from the beggar’s corner that has been our lot in life - into community, into friendship and into forgiveness.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                                            John 2:1-11

When the wine ran out at the Wedding at Cana, Mary turned to Jesus and told him about it.  

Folks are a bit divided on whether Our Lady was among the angels at this point in the story.  Was she, knowing who her son was, simply letting him know that he would need to intervene in this unfortunate turn of events - or was she was doing what we all have a tendency to do when an over-planned event reveals a fatal glitch.  We comment out of one side of our mouth to the person sitting next to us:
"They missed that detail, didn't they?"  

The technical term is schadenfreude.  Its not a pretty thought. Come to think of it, it's not even a very pretty word.

Its all quite accurate, though.  The emperor truly has no clothes, the diva does have a busted zip at the back of her dress, and the preacher did, in fact, forget his notes.  All these aspired to great things while being, essentially, quite ordinary and fallible.  The Scots have a particularly memorable phrase which sums up such a state of affairs:

"Fur coat and nae knickers"

But do try to be both humble and bold.  It is no credit to the Gospel that we fail to reach beyond our abilities.    We will continue to ask, undeserving as we are, for our Lord to involve himself in our lives' projects, which are the best we can produce given who we are - overreaching and too big for our boots.   

As a congregation here at Christ Church, Clermont-Ferrand, our services will contain moments of confession where we acknowledge our brokenness and the fragmentary nature of our faith and ability.   They will also, however, contain reflections on stories such as this week's Gospel reading which point us to the person of Jesus, who touches and transforms the very matter which fails us and who declares himself, in his actions at the Wedding at Cana, to be the master not only of thoughts and reflections but also of the very ordinary resources we require for life and ministry, health and wholeness - for provision for ourselves and for the world we serve.