Thursday, 17 December 2015

Prospect


The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Year C                                                                                                                        Luke 1:39-45

Are you in Clermont over Christmas? Or are you somewhere else with your friends and family?

And what are you expecting?

An image: Two women dressed in vaguely middle-eastern fashion clasp each other in an embrace of joyful friendship. Some artists have portrayed one woman as being older than the other or one woman more advanced in pregnancy than the second (who might not yet even seem obviously to be with child). In the picture one woman might be regarding the other with greater honour. Even if the painting were not labeled, anyone familiar with Christian art and iconography will immediately think of the Visitation - the visit of Mary to her cousin Elisabeth (the mother of John the Baptist) and Elisabeth's salutations to Mary: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb" and "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord".


You brought that box of Christmas decorations upstairs from the basement. You adorned your house "as it was" with something new, something seasonal, something pretty which you will take down and store again in the cave. The house goes back to its usual state. Isn't the Universe an elastic place?. It can be stretched into a new shape. It is capable of novelty. But at the same time it has an amazing ability to return to where it was and to leave no shed of evidence of ever having been different. This is not a modern reflection: men and women have been disappointed before with changes they were promised by others or with the changes which they themselves had promised to turn into a reality in their own lives.

Every Sunday we say, in our Nicene Creed, that God is Incarnate - that in one unique moment in history he took upon himself human flesh through his earthly mother and joins us where we are so that life could be changed in such a way that it does not slip back. From the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews to the testimony men and women you know yourselves, there is abundant witness to the power of God to change willing lives beyond their bounds with power and with permanence. Listen! Engage with the promise of God. Go to Bethlehem this Christmas with your prayers and your thoughts. Elisabeth cries out to Our Lady that she is blessed because she has believed what God has promised. The message to human beings is nothing like the adornment of what already is. It is substantial hope for what has not yet begun to be.

Your lives need never be the same




Friday, 11 December 2015

Prospect

The Rev'd Robert Warren.                                                                                     Luke 3:7-18


The idea of fire as an agent of cleansing and renewal appears twice in this passage from Luke’s Gospel.  Useless trees, which bear no fruit, are cast into the fire.  The empty hulls of grain – the chaff – is burned at the end of the harvest leaving the good grains to be bagged and taken into the larder.  We are familiar with one term from this passage – The Baptism by Fire – which we have incorporated into ordinary language to describe any event which seems destructive and hostile but which ends up fitting and preparing us through the ordeal it produces.

When you drive through northern British Columbia and the Yukon Territory along the Alaska Highway (which in my day was nearly all gravel for the 920 miles between Dawson Creek and Whitehorse) you pass through areas which have been recently burned over.  The burnt ground is dotted about with blackened stumps.  It speaks of death and destruction.  If you give it some thought, however, you might be struck by how this section of the forest is now a sunny spot for the first time and standing on what was once the forest floor you can now see the sky.  As you drive along for a few miles more you encounter areas which were burned over a year ago.  Fireweed grows in tremendous abundance, filling in the spaces that have been left.  As you drive further you pass areas which were burned over five years ago.  Small poplars are growing, their leaves shimmering like paper coins in the breeze.  Further on the conifers are new and still small in areas which were burned over a decade ago.  Every hillside around you with its bands of old conifers, fireweed, poplars and new conifers and bear witness to the regular and periodic cleansing of the land through fire.

You – the men and women, the boys and girls of Christ Church Clermont-Ferrand – are being invited by God to repent, to return and to be renewed.  The Advent scriptures come with both promises and warnings because nobody can assume that the new life could simply be added to what we have
already acquired and collected around ourselves over the years.  The natural man will suppose that the promises of new life are extra bits – options if you like - that might go nicely with what we already have.   As you approach the river you should expect to hear loudly that this is not so.  The prophets will all tell you that burdens must be dropped to the road side, taken off our shoulders, stripped and even burned away.  Where most of our baptisms of fire are involuntary misadventures that come our way by chance or ill luck.  They fall on us. Your invitation here is something of a quite different order:  you are being invited to enter into the Good News quite voluntarily, to undertake the necessary process of leaving behind what has held back the new growth you desire.

John the Baptist is telling you quite roughly that you need to decide.  Do you want to see the sky again?   You may need to permit some  branches be burned away.





Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Giving Thanks in Crazy Times

A Sermon for an American Thanksgiving in France
2015 - Year B
 Matthew 6:25-33


Don't worry, says Jesus; not about food or drink, not about being
appropriately clothed.  Don't even worry about the length of your life.
You think you are alone with these concerns but you're not.
God knows you need all these things.

Yonder are the Gentiles.  Look at them strive.  Don't be like them.
Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things (the very
things you worry about) will be added to you.

Bible readings for Thanksgiving (October in Canada and November in America) are chosen according to the same three-year-cycle as the usual Sunday lections.  This year - Year B - dwells heavily on the subject of anxiety and the Gospel reading for the day is taken from the Sermon on the Mount. 

Jesus tells us not to worry. 

Let’s clear the table first, shall we?  There are two things we need to negate (one of them completely) and something else we need to explain so that we can see clearly what Jesus then proclaims to his listeners at the end of the passage as the best and most worthy way to deal with anxiety. 

After all, this is the Sermon on the Mount.   We might imagine it to be a sort of manifesto for Christians everywhere and at all times.   Because it deals with the subjects of worry and uncertainty it may have a particular leverage on us right now.  Terrorist attacks have taken place in various places around the world.  Here in France and in Western Europe families and friends are grieving the events and losses of the last week or so. A much larger community is worried about what might take place in the future.  As an expatriate community living in Clermont-Ferrand we have some particular refinements on that worry.  When the news reached our home countries, there were enquiries from friends and family members.  Are you safe right now?  Are you secure in the future?    How far is Clermont from Paris?  Are there troops on the street?  Do you live in ethnically mixed neighborhoods?  What sort of precautions are you all taking?  So, what should be our attitude in crazy and unsettling times?  If we're being told by Jesus not to worry we want to know how.  What are we being told not to do?  What should we do instead? 

First of all some negations:  The subject at hand is not worry itself.  Jesus is not chiding those of us who worry about nonsense.  That would be easy angle to take.   That would mean that this section of the Sermon on the Mount is directed to the ten percent of the population who jump at shadows or who always imagine the worst or who have lived with a sense of dread and impending doom most of their lives and watch helplessly as this anxiety passes from one thing to the next.  For such people this anxiety is more about them than it is about the world.  Faith can have a hand in fixing that too.  So can therapy.  So, too, will friendship.  These might help us to change the way we think. That’s another sermon, though.   Maybe a pastoral conversation.  That's not what this scripture is about.  Jesus is telling his followers on the mountain side that they should not even worry about things which are real and substantial threats to them – the absence of food, drink, and clothing – up to and including the very spans of their lives.  Real things – don’t worry about them, says Jesus.

There’s something else we need to negate and clear from the table:  Is Jesus simply praising a peasant’s or poor artisan’s life by suggesting that it won’t get any better by worrying?  Jesus was speaking to poor country people about a life of subsistence which, while it was hard, was at least working for them.  How could they complain too much?  They were alive after all, weren’t they, as they sat on the mountainside and listened to him?  They were descended from people who had successfully navigated poor and difficult lives and who had scraped by.   Their parents were no more secure than they were.  But they were alive, getting by year-by-year “working for the man,” living in their villages, playing with their surviving children. Is this a sermon meant to dignify a chronic life of worry and struggle as being ‘not so bad after all – most of you will survive - look at the birds, look at the flowers’?  Why would it take Jesus to say such a thing?  They’d heard that from their oppressors and employers. No, I don’t believe that Jesus was simply praising the low and humble life by recourse to nature and family history.  Both Jesus and the crowds understood the novelty of what he was proclaiming which was the presence of the Kingdom around them - Good News for the poor - not merely the dignity of the daily grind.  It’s what drew them to the hillside in the first place.

Before we leave the idea of an inherited ability to “scrape by”, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Isn’t there a well-known path through uncertainty that others walked before us?  You may be related to people who have lived - gotten by – even thrived - in highly insecure circumstances.  Some of you have work colleagues or even school mates here in Clermont who have come from countries where physical security is a daily concern and where the tasks of raising a family and maintaining a household takes place in an atmosphere of turmoil and chaos.  You might want to ask them how it’s done - and done successfully, for that matter.  But even this is still not the point of the passage.

Don't worry, says Jesus.

The word he uses for worry has, at its root, the idea of "dividing up" (“don’t divide” or “don’t be divided up”).  In English we say "don’t go to pieces" – similar, but still not completely on the nose.  The “dividing up” behind this Greek word for worry seems to be more like taking ten one-dollar-notes and trying to apply a dollar to each bill which has come through your letterbox, or trying to deal with all threats to safety, comfort or security simultaneously and thereby turning in frantic circles, desperate and with insufficient resources. The presumption is, of course, that we are completely alone with a single tank of gas that will not get us all the way to Swift Current or a limited pot of money which will not satisfy all our creditors.  Not that, Jesus says.  Don’t do that.  Unify your effort.  Focus your energy.  Do something else first.  He even tells us what that is:  First, says Jesus, seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.  After that, all these things will fall into place 

Is seeking the Kingdom of God, then, just a matter of running from what we know to be the case –  what is true?  Is it a matter of going in a different and unrelated direction?   You might object that what Jesus is saying in his Sermon on the Mount is simple denial.  Well, what is exactly is true here?  The truth that hits us in the face – which needs to be reacted to (which Jesus tells us not to do) and doesn’t need to be sought out (what Jesus does tell us to do) is written in four inch headlines in the newspaper in deep red block capitals on our television screens, with drumming music in the background, as we watch the 24 hour news.  Our way of life is at stake.  People of ill will lurk in the shadows.  Further plots are suspected.  The four-inch headlines in the newspaper and the deep red graphics on the network news would tell you that last Friday evening in Paris was a Night of Evil, a Night of Chaos and a Night of Danger. We find that we easily come to inhabit a world divided into black and white, yes and no, friend and enemy, good and evil, right and left in which we have no choice but to flee, react, hide, and strike out - or just helplessly flap our hands.  That might be our character or it may be what we do when we’re not feeling in control of circumstances. You and I should suspect, though, that the truth which you don’t need to seek, the truth which simply hits you in the face, is rarely the truth. And yes, the one positive command that Jesus issues in this passage is to seek - to seek the Kingdom and its peculiar logic.

We are mature enough to tolerate a measure of ambiguity - that state of life where paradoxes abound and more than one thing is true.  The battle is not between a thing which is false and a thing which is true but between two things which are found to be true when you dig a little bit – when you seek truth out.

It’s true that evil, chaos and danger were in evidence in Paris on the Friday night in question, in Beirut the day before and in Mali a few days later at the hands of small and organized groups of terrorists.  But that very same French capital city, for example, contained a much larger community of people intent on doing some of the following things:  comforting and shielding people with a physical embrace who needed to be hidden, reassured and protected, opening their doors to people who had found themselves stranded in the 10th and 11th Arrondissements, working for days to ensure the appropriate medical care for the wounded who were swamping Paris hospitals and conducting all the appropriate investigations to ensure the safety of their city.  What we don’t see screaming at us in the headlines is any mention of a Night of Courage, a Night of Friendship or a Night of Helping Strangers. Little mention is made of the people who agonized within themselves in the following days and who vowed that their responses would not make them smaller people, less open to others and less capable of love.  That the truth of what occurred on a particular evening in Paris was expressed in one way and not in another was a choice that somebody made.  Somebody who is not us - who have sat on the hillside and heard Jesus tell us that in the Kingdom of God blessings and challenges are divided up according to a quite different logic.  

We have rather a lot of choice in the matter.  

On such a night, while the panic and the anger, the prejudice and all the frantic feelings have been flagged and then negotiated, there always remains something to do - something that makes us better and not worse, more open and not hidden away. Life in the Kingdom of God is living within a truth which men and women have been invited to and have then chosen to seek out.    It is quite possibly not the first thing in their minds and certainly not their immediate reaction.  The Kingdom is a bigger world - a place where worries and hungers are mediated by purpose.  Tell your children that.  Tell your neighbours.  There's always something to do.  And be thankful that such a world is there for the seeking. 




Friday, 13 November 2015

Prospect

The Rev’d Robert Warren​​​​​​​ 1st Samuel 2:1-10
Pentecost 25 (Proper 28)
Year B


The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap.

In one of our readings this Sunday, (1st Samuel 2:1-10 which we will use in the place of a responsive Psalm)  Hannah has brought her young boy, the future prophet Samuel, to Shiloh to give thanks for his birth. What she says takes the form of a poem or a song. She even states clearly what she is about to do: She says that her “heart exults in the Lord.” A similar song appears on the lips of another young woman in Luke’s Gospel (1:46-55). With the promise of her new child on the way, Mary speaks in the nearly identical form of a song in what we now know as the Magnificat. She too says what she is about to do: She says that her “soul magnifies the Lord”

Both Hannah and Mary, in the course of the exultant songs which follow, proceed to do exactly what they’ve said they will do. They exult in their hearts. They proclaim with their lips. They thank God for present circumstances. They do not stop there, however, and it is for this reason that their words have come to be read in Church and, in the case of the Magnificat, even learned and memorized by Christians across the ages. What these women believe and proclaim is that they find God now doing what God has always done and what God will continue to do.

He tosses the mighty from their seats and lifts up the lowly.
• He nurtures what has been neglected and tossed aside as useless.
• He proves himself faithful to the promises made to his people.
• He provides for options and possibilities which are beyond human aptitudes and abilities.

That two women who lived long ago, and far away, were happy on two different days could be of little import to you living here and now. Good for them, you might say. Bless! These words have been preserved within the canon of the Old and the New Testament because they are dependable statements about God's character.  More importantly, they are still “effective” for Twenty-first Century Christians. The words of these two women point out of the Scriptures to the place where you live now – to that complex of life you imagine will never and could never change.

You are not in complete control of what happens to you.  In your strongest moments you cannot manufacture your best blessings. You are not in charge.  But this is equally true for the forces, the impediments, the personal weaknesses, the fatigue, the coldness of heart, your opponents in this life or the cynicism which presently holds you back. As overwhelming as such things might seem, these are not in charge either. Hannah and Mary sung songs about it. God has no investment in straight lines and predictable outcomes. He is known for turning things upside down. God opens his hand in blessing all the time. It happens all the time.




Friday, 30 October 2015

Prospect



The Rev’d Robert Warren                                                                                                 Psalm 24                           

They shall receive a blessing from the LORD
and a just reward from the God of their salvation.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.


The standard lesson on “Saints” in the churches of my youth emphasized that when the Apostle Paul wrote to the “Saints” who in any particular city in the Roman Empire he was writing to ordinary Christians.  He called them "Saints" simply because they shared the life of faith in that place.  The subtext, especially for those who were born and raised in denominations which came to be during the Reformation, was that we should spend less time thinking about particular historic Saints (Francis, Peter, Lucy, Agnes, Thecla and Anthony) and more time thinking about the saint who is sitting next to you in church this Sunday or the saint that you, with a little spit-and-polish, could become yourself someday.

It’s a fair cop.  The fellowship of saints did grow, over time, into a top-heavy Executive Committee with named saints overseeing defined areas of human activity (patron saints of weaving, soldiering, music making) or showing particular favour on this or that country, region or city.  Are Englishmen aware that they share St George with Palestinian Christians, with Serbia, Portugal, Lebanon, Malta and Gozo, Ethiopia, half the cities of Greece, the international Scouting movement and the Armor Branch of the U.S. Army?


The answer is a resounding yes, then:  You and I are the saints of God and called to be saints in our own allotment of time and space.  Saints are ordinary folks like us.

But I want to put in a plug for memory and for the witness, the sacrifice and the effort of those who came before us and upon whose foundations we build. We do not live in a vacuum and the church was not invented ten years ago.   I want to know, in my generation, that being a saint means I am a member of that same family of men and women who went about the lonely and risky work of offering their lives to God in the first century or the mid twentieth.   This they did in time of war or uncertainty.  They did it against a backdrop of moral decay or pestilence.  They did it for the sake of the truth, on behalf of outcast people and at the behest of the Holy Spirit who gave them words to speak and deeds to do which were commensurate with the needs of their generation.   The men and women, boys and girls of Christ Church, Clermont-Ferrand need the fellowship of the men and women, boys and girls who walked the very same path that today we are either actively walking or actively avoiding.    

The witness of those named saints serves to strengthen us in what we have begun.  It could well provoke us to reflect upon what we have neglected or not yet started.  Which will it be?






Thursday, 22 October 2015

Prospect

The Rev'd Robert Warren Psalm 126
Pentecost 22 (Proper 25)
Year B


When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream

What would such a restoration of our fortunes look like? An individual winning the Euro-Millions Lottery or a like-minded community witnessing their political party restored to power? The restoration of God's people would have what sort of substance, exactly? For the people of Israel in exile in Babylon restoration meant something quite palpable - a return for them and their children to
their historic lands, the restoration of faithful Jewish worship and a safe existence behind their own walls with political and religious leaders of their own choosing. They could have written you a list - items A to F - nothing mysterious there.

The New Testament, as you know, makes no promise of land. The land as the cardinal possession of God's people pretty well disappears in the Gospels and Epistles. Christ's followers are to be sent into the whole world and are to be at home wherever the Spirit of God sends them. Jesus doesn't put a lot of stock in safety, either, or in political strength and stability. Preserving one's life, he says, can be the route to the ultimate loss of one's soul. No gain there, then. Knock these off the list. Are we left only with intangibles; an invisible sense of personal fulfillment or an inner verdict that "things aren't so bad after all"? It's a safe position. Nobody could prove us wrong (don't we all feel good sometimes?) but the promises of the Kingdom of God here are short-changed. Jesus says the Kingdom is "around us" or "within us" or "among us" but he does not say that it lacks substance or evidence. It can actually be found like a treasure in a field, or like a pearl of great price or a lost coin recovered after the homemaker's mad scramble with a broom. It is a thing and not merely a sentiment. You should be able to tell whether you're part of it or not, or at least whether you're on the right path.

So where do we start?

Jesus' words and actions point to the substance of the Kingdom. Through parables and pronouncements, healings, miracles and the lifting up of wine and broken bread, Jesus shows us what the Kingdom looks like:


  • The removal of shame and the restoration of strangers and outcast people to community.
  • The vindication of God's historic promises to humanity - that these proved true and were no lie.
  • The discovery of purpose and direction by both individuals and communities.
  • The presence of courage, perseverance, kindness and commitment as the fruits of the community's faith and repentance.
  • A willingness to follow the Spirit where it leads and the presence of that same Spirit in the heart of the community's worship.


Can this substance be found in your church, your home or your life? Give thanks if it is. If not (or if not enough) then let this first verse of Psalm 126 be for you a statement of your longing.

Write yourself a list.











Monday, 19 October 2015

The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind

Pentecost 21 (Proper 24)
Year B
Job 38:1-7


Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? ........Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.'

Have you ever been answered out of a whirlwind? You are talking to somebody on the phone. In the background you hear the tapping of a keyboard. The person you're talking to is multitasking. This bothers you. You are dragged along the hallway by a superior between his two o'clock meeting and his two-thirty as he tries and deal with the question you've asked him in the space of fifty yards of badly carpeted corridor. You feel cheated and undervalued. 

This is true. You are. 

Were you to complain he might say something like "Sorry I have a life that doesn't have only to do with you. Where were you when this project went south and the investors demanded a meeting? Where were you when the deadline got changed and it was suddenly 'all hands on deck?'"

You're right. Your complaint, question or issue is not getting the time it deserves. But then again, he is right too. The world is a big place. It contains more than just you.

Does any of this apply to poor Job in his complaint to God about a missing family, the boils on his body and his many other misfortunes? Well, frankly, no. The analogy is a poor one, were it not for the fact that the people I know who have completely valid complaints (the cancer has returned, the job has worked out badly, the kid has been caught smoking dope, the divorce papers have arrived at the hand of a burly and unpleasant bailiff) these folks do, nonetheless invariably stop paying attention to the world beyond the awful one they live in.

Can they articulate their complaint clearly? Yes, of course they can. Is it a palpable reality? Most probably, yes. Dreadful things fall on people from a height. Awful things hit the fan. Pitfalls abound.  Nonetheless...the greatest injury done to grieving people, to people besieged by troubles or stresses, is that their world shrinks to a point. And, as difficult as it might be for any such a person to conceive of being pushed beyond the circle of grief and dis-ease in which he takes his place, it is precisely that to which God points us out of the whirlwind - the great big world around us where God is stirring the pot.

Praise him.   Praise God for "...his excellent greatness." 

In our grief he brings to us something which is not us:  the world - big and beautiful and turbulent and above all - still and always - the dwelling place of God.










Thursday, 8 October 2015

Prospect

The Rev’d Robert Warren 
Mark 10:17-31                                                                                    
Pentecost 20 (Proper 23)
Year B


…he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions… Jesus said…”It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”

Fine. Here he is having another go at us. What’s this all about then - rich men and camels and the eyes of needles? One more reason to squirm at the back of church on Sunday. You wouldn’t be alone.
Any focus group gathered together to discuss the passage would think that they were being criticized for having possessions or for being born in the most prosperous hemisphere of the earth when so many other people in the world make do with less. Whatever… That same group of respondents, however, when fed a different saying of Jesus – let’s say, for example:

“Come unto me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest”

wouldn’t bat an eyelash. This is good! This is Jesus promising something to us rather than criticizing us. Burdens are bad and if Jesus wants to divest us of those burdens then we should say yes. You’ve figured out where I’m going with this: It amounts to the same thing.

In the larger story of this Sunday’s Gospel reading a young man who is pious and eager asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. After having checked the boxes of both eagerness and piety, Jesus tells him that he needs to free himself up to be a follower – and that the discipline of the Kingdom is not a party membership badge which one adds to an already completed wardrobe.

Those who follow are those who are free to follow. Many of us are burdened. Some carry the burdens that others put upon them. The mission of the Church (as it was the mission of Jesus) is not only to reassure such folks that they may be free but, through both evangelism and activism, to free the oppressed in Jesus’ name. We do something in word and act which defies the necessity of such burdens on others. Let my people go! 

Some carry their own burdens. With an eye to safety and security they make themselves prisoners. In the name of financial stability they make it nigh on impossible to say yes to anything which is “off message” or “off the beaten path”. Why have we become our own worst enemies? Do remember that repentance, generosity and service to others are acts of defiance. They defy the tendency to self-preoccupation which keeps us bound, which denies us our liberty to follow, to change and transform – to say “yes” to the big and beautiful things which come our way. Look at yourselves the way you look at another who has been unjustly burdened or enslaved.

With compassion and tenderness you might say of yourself-as-another, “What can I do to set that man or woman free?”