Friday, 26 September 2014

Proper 21 - Year APentecost 16
Matthew 21:28-32

In Sunday's Gospel reading Jesus explains that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are getting into heaven before the Pharisees and the Scribes because they have seen the light and changed their ways.

I was staying with former parishioners from Montreal in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They were out and I was reading a book.  A  campaign robocall came in on the telephone and was picked up by the answering machine.  An election of some sort was going on.  The candidate's recorded message was clear about the shortcomings of his opponent.  There were the usual over-the-top assaults on character but I particularly remember that opposing Candidate X had also offended by "flip-flopping" on Proposition Ten or Twelve or something.  I have no idea what the issue was but it was clear that flip-flopping, in itself, was a very bad thing.

Flip-flop.  Verb.  Je flip-flop, vous flip-floppez, il faut que nous flip-floppions.  Once upon a time, Candidate X had an opinion.  Now he has another.  He is not the man he was before.  I, on the other hand, have not changed my mind. Vote for me.

What has candidate X done?  Has he read a few more books on the subject?  His bright young intern has brought along the latest research on the topic to the morning meeting.  Candidate X has talked to his constituents and realized the economic and political consequences of Proposition Ten.  His changing opinions have even strained his relations with members of his own party.  A good Democrat or a good Republican would be the sort to believe in something like Proposition Ten.  Candidate X, though, has changed his mind.  He now believes Proposition Ten to be a complete dog.  It should be opposed.  

Bring on the flip-flopper, I say.  There's someone I can trust.  Where did we get this belief in the immutability of opinion or in the goodness of people behaving like Newtonian solids traveling through space in never-ending straight lines?  Biographers are forever trying to present consistent pictures of their subjects.  The greatness of the man and woman was somehow present in embryo from the earliest years.  In the words of Dylan Thomas

The oak is felled in the acorn
and the hawk in the egg kills the wren.

You have the right to change your mind.  Jesus is asking men and women to change their minds.  Evidence of such would be that you no longer do quite so well as the men and women you were before.  Your opponents will have a heyday.  Your wineskin no longer fits.  Those who love you will worry.  Your children may regard you with uncertainty.  But it is no weakness on your part.  It may be your greatest strength and the source of your (and others') liberation.

Why have you not changed your mind?  Are you simply not listening?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Exodus 16:2-15 

The Old Testament readings from the Book of Exodus have been quite fruitful these last three weeks.  This week’s reading is no exception.  The topic is the anxiety which the Israelites feel in the midst of their wanderings through the desert after a dramatic escape from Egypt. Moses and Aaron are feeling the full weight of the individual and familial angst. The task of leadership becomes difficult as hitherto forbidden questions begin to be asked: Was the life we led as slaves back in Egypt really that bad?  Was there not bread back home - occasionally even meat in the pot?  We might die out here in the desert.  It could all go so wrong.  

We might recognize an undercurrent of anxiety in our community here in Clermont-Ferrand.  Topic headings might well include:   

- The distance from family members - both young and old - who must face life transitions far away and without us.  
- The loss, in some cases, not only of an income but frequently the vocational world of one spouse who must retool and mourn the loss or suspension of one of the things upon which his or her self-worth was based.  
- Places which were strange, foreign or incomprehensible were once seen on television or in National Geographic.  Now they are all around us.  Our children’s education is in a different mode, perhaps even in a different language.  We don’t understand how the bureaucracy works or even, for that matter, how the shops are set out.  How are we going to find what we want to eat? 

And so there are a few (slightly stretched) analogies between the way some of our lives feel and those of the people of Israel in the desert.  What the heck are we doing here, anyway?  Do we know if it’s even going to work out?    

In Sunday's passage from Exodus the challenge is addressed by Moses and Aaron.  Recourse is made to faith in what God promises: The people will eat both bread and meat because God can provide even in out-of-the-way places.  The second point is a challenge: The people will need to change their diet.  Quails and Manna is the plat du jour.    

God is faithful.  We will have enough.  God provides, but the people must learn to delight in the food which he gives. 

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                                 Genesis 32:22-31
Jacob at the river Jabbok
Proper 13 - Year A

What was Jacob thinking - standing thigh-deep in the river Jabbok - ushering his flocks, his wives, his maidservants and his eleven children across to the other side because he was afraid of what would become of him when his much-offended brother Esau caught sight of the returning troupe? 

“You first”, he says to his family 

This is Jacob sneaking back from exile - never the gentleman and always reluctant to face his demons honestly.  Perhaps the sight of these little nieces and nephews will soften the heart of Esau once he sees them in the flesh.  

And so the family crosses the Jabbok as a potential sacrifice to Jacob’s misadventures.  Our “hero” remains on the safe side of the river.  He’s a tough nut, is Jacob.  God must need to squint to see the Patriarch in him.   

Now - at possibly the lowest point in his story - God decides to show Jacob a mirror.  A man (God?  An angel?) wrestles him until the dawn.  The stranger begins to lose the battle but then defeats Jacob with an underhanded move.   

At daybreak the man tries to break the clutch and to depart.  Jacob cries out to the ghostly figure in his grasp:  “I will not let you go until you bless me”.   

God in the form of a man appears to lose but then wins and becomes the source of blessing for the one who grasps him in hope-against-hope.  You know the story.  You’ve heard it preached in different guises.  The identification with Christ is not lost on the Christian reader.   

What about our similarity to Jacob, then?  How much desperate behavior - our raging, our crying, our violation of other people’s space and boundaries, our historic immaturity and our dishonesty in work and play is based on our need to be loved and treasured and our belief that we have not been so blessed? What is the central part of this story - the pivot around which it turns - if it is not the pleading of Jacob to the one who has defeated him? 

"I have nowhere else to go.  I have no one else to turn to.  See through my sin and weakness.  Bless me, Lord!"

 If not God, then nobody.  If not his blessing, then nothing at all.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Pentecost 2 
Year A - Proper 21
Genesis 21:8-21

Among the hymns of my childhood was the one where:

God sees the little sparrow fall,
It meets his tender view;
If God so loves the little birds,
I know he loves me too.

As a boy I filed this one in the envelope marked "God is very big and can do all sorts of things at the same time" because, while it seemed very good of God to take care of the sparrows of Winnipeg, it was certainly not the BIG STORY which God seemed most concerned about which was obviously the family of Abraham and his descendants - the whole biblical epic which culminated in the ministry of Jesus and then beyond to the evangelization of the world, foreign missions, etc, etc.  

Sparrows were, at best, a sideline.

You remember the story of Hagar, the Egyptian servant of Abraham's wife Sarah?  She was given to Abraham as a surrogate when Sarah was unable to conceive a child.  She was given to him so that the BIG STORY would continue in spite of Sarah's barrenness.  And then Sarah, miraculously, becomes pregnant herself and so Hagar and Ishmael, her son by Abraham, are cast out of the camp.  The scene in Sunday's reading is poignant: alone and without support, food or water, Hagar lays her boy beneath a tree and retires to a distance so that she will not need to witness the boys death.  She lifts up her voice and weeps.  And God hears her.  He points her to the immediate satisfaction of her needs - a well of water - and to a future which had not existed prior to his intervention.

You've been there.  So have I.  

Our particular desperate corners - our crises, our illnesses, our family problems - do not appear to be part of the BIG STORY.  God has more than one script, however and when things appear to be lost, the game to be over and our goose well and truly cooked, we may be heartened by the fact that the testimonies of countless thousands across the history of the Christian faith begin at precisely there - at that moment of imminent or certain loss.  We cry out to the only one who can save us.  Grace is shown to what is small and cast away.  The sparrow.  The marginalized servant woman.  You.  Me.