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?

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

What part do you choose to play?

The Fourth Sunday in Lent                                                    
Year A
1st Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14

Why choose this one and not that one? 
Why take the fork on the left and not the right? 

Perhaps you are impulsive.  Your spouses, your parents and colleagues regularly bemoan the fact that you never think before you jump.  Others among you in our little congregation are the sorts of folks who will brood, bellyache and dither for eons before committing themselves to a course of action.  Maybe you are averse to risk.  Others must take up the slack and put themselves on the line.

In the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians, the writer encourages his readers to forge a path ahead in ambiguous circumstances as a minority community.  “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord”, says Saint Paul.  In 1st Samuel the prophet is told to choose a King for Israel from amongst the many sons of Jesse.  In both cases the right choice will appear alongside several options and requires discernment.  Discernment is more than fighting your own character and its inclinations.  That you are cautious or impulsive by nature matters less than you might think.  God can make use of either tendency. 

What is more to the point is this:  Are you your aware of the larger story into which your choices fit?  Paul’s words to the Christian community in Ephesus about forging a godly life in the midst of a hostile society and God’s words to the prophet Samuel about the anointing of a new king for Israel are not about how these people should maximize the quality of their lives for personal ends.  They are about fulfilling their unique role in God’s plan for the nation and the world. 

Are you consciously a part of that same story and one of its characters?  Are you fulfilling the call of a member of God’s family, God’s Kingdom and God’s church?  Does the larger dimension figure into your decision-making process? 

Decisions would be easy if we could narrow the scope down to ourselves and those closest to us.   I too have children and a grandchild.  The part of discernment, however, that presents itself in this Sunday’s first two readings, however, is suggesting to us that the decisions we make about our careers, our retirement, how we spend your money and how we nurture the education and direction of your children should include – must include in fact – the dimension of how we or they will be of service in the world and as a part of God’s family. 

This is not a great year for human beings.  The world has become an uglier and colder place.  In such times and places God has always called and willing servants have kept the windows and door of their hearts open to hear that call and find their place in the healing of nations, the creation of community, the work of worship and the lifting up of subtle alternatives to power, exclusion, alienation and suffering.  Look around you.   That you are needed goes without saying.  Ask yourself what God is doing.  Ask as well what part you might play in that work.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Around the Block

The Third Sunday in Lent
Year A
John 4:5-42

They’re quite some lives – our lives.  We start off life smelling bad from time to time and needing to be cleaned up.  We’ll end up in the same state – relying on others to tidy up what we’d rather not talk about.  And to varying degrees – even in our prime - we find ourselves needing to cover up or plaster over dysfunctions in our family life, in our legal history, in our prayer life or in our state of health or emotional well-being.  We carry around the truth with us that we are not exactly who we present ourselves to be.  My grandmother used to say of her morning routine that she needed to “put her face on” – a phrase which, curiously, endures to the present day among younger women in Scotland.  Yes – even the best of us must occasionally “put his or her face on” – the face which we present to the employer, to the kids, to the minister at church or, if you are fortunate enough to be the minister, to the congregation seated in front of you.

The woman at the well has “been around the block”.  Living in a small community with long memories her “put-on face” probably doesn’t hide much from the locals but, on this day, the woman sees a brand new face at the village well where she's come to draw water.  Here is someone with whom she could start over and reinvent herself– somebody who doesn’t know her.  Jesus is that blank canvas, that field of untrodden snow - an educated traveller with whom she can pass a few words in complete and total freedom.  She clearly has a ready wit and good conversation skills.  She might even talk about religion without inspiring a belly laugh from her counterpart.  And why not?  Good for her.  You go girl!  Reinventing yourself, wiping your slate clean or getting a fresh start:  isn’t this the warp and woof of religious revival? Isn’t this exactly what the preachers say is on offer?

Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).  It’s difficult, then, not to be on the poor woman’s side.

But you are who you are. God begins with that.  He listens for a while to the self-justifying language and sees the layer of foundation which you put on your man-face or your woman-face to get that divorce off your face or that bankruptcy or that nervous breakdown or that significant moral failing a few years back or even the realization that the meaning of life chronically escapes you and that you're more bored with the whole process than you'll allow anyone to know.  He puts it to you that so much of your religious language has utterly missed the point.  Freedom, grace and acceptance is indeed what God offers, but he begins with us as we are.  That wretchedness might need to be named.  God must tease from us a confession of inadequacy.  That's the fresh start.  We are what we are.  And what we are – the odour of it, the ugliness of it, the tragedy of it -  is offered to God as the raw material with which he is pleased to work.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

If anything, God gets us!

The Second Sunday in Lent
Year A
John 3:1-17

Some things belong to you – moveable and immoveable goods.  You’d call these things your property.  They’re listed on your insurance.  There are also things which you don’t own but which are “your baby” nonetheless – 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.  Then 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 or not any of these belongs to you, you still have some sense of ownership over them.

From time to time you might pause and ask yourself what “property” consists of, really.  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?  These ideas of ownership don’t stand up easily in the face of a steady gaze.  Not when we are just dust in the wind.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as an owner, supervisor and gatekeeper of Israel’s religion.  He doesn't own the religious tradition but he’s certainly one of its chief stewards – one of its guarantors, one of its border guards.  Israel’s religion is his baby.  He comes to Jesus expressing both a genuine interest and at the same time 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.  Is Nicodemus, speaking on behalf of official Israel, offering Jesus a franchise?  If so, why has he come at night and in secret?

As a religious expert and arbiter Nicodemus could be said to “get” the whole concept of God and to be the “go to” person for questions of law-keeping and belonging.  He has been chosen, trained and has risen in the estimate of his fellows but, even in this quite friendly night-time meeting, Nicodemus would presume to stand in Jesus’ presence as one able to include or exclude this itinerant rabbi from the mainstream.   And this is where Jesus stops him in his tracks. 

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 does not make us willing participants.   No, Nicodemus, you don't get God - you don't draw a circle around him.  He's not your possession or something which you claim in the name of your tribe.  We are not proprietors of God's Spirit.  Instead, we are the ones who follow the movement of that same Spirit. 

If anything, God gets us.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Tabula Rasa

The First Sunday in Lent
Year A
Matthew 4:1-11

What visual image would you place at the top of your parish website which sums Lent up in a single glimpse? A forehead with a cross made of ashes, an altar vested in purple cloth, a desert with a cactus plant?  I’ve got a proposal this year for a Lenten image – that of a clean slate – a blank piece of paper – what would be known in Latin as a Tabula Rasa. A clean slate is both nothing and everything.  Were one of our students here at Christ Church to hand in an empty piece of A4 paper to the teacher in lieu of a completed assignment they would quite rightly receive an F and a lecture from the teacher.  A note might be sent home which, I assure you, would have some words written upon it. 

An empty piece of paper receives no enthusiasm. 

On the other hand, if you were somebody with a poetic bent you might find yourself quite thrilled to pour yourself a cup of coffee first thing in the morning and to sit down at the table and place a piece of white paper and a pencil in front of you.  A clean state can represent the possibility of change, novelty and forgiveness.   Perhaps your guidance counsellor told you, when you were moving from Middle School to the High School that you could start over with a clean slate and that you should take the opportunity of make the best of this opportunity.

There's a scene in David Lean's movie Dr Zhivago that I will always remember.  At one point in the film the hero struggles through a war-torn Siberian landscape until he reaches his childhood home - abandoned and encased in snow and ice. There he is reunited with his lover. They fire up the stove in one room and make it habitable. In the midst of all this chaos - the Russian Civil War and the depths of winter - they have a brief interlude of peace. 

Zhivago finds the desk he wrote on as a child. He opens the drawer and discovers there, laid out in order, a sheaf of white paper, a pen and a bottle of ink. 

He writes a poem. 

Blank pages and blank landscapes offer an endless series of possibilities. 

That Jesus spends time in a wilderness at the beginning of his ministry is no accident.  Israel has always come to its senses in the desert - in a place where the din of human conversation is silenced and where the usual comforts are set aside.  The desert is a place where humans are sheltered by whatever structures God had made and not by the labour of their own masons and carpenters.  It is a place where food is found and not grown.  It is a place where priorities are reassessed and new decisions are made.  

Do you have such a place around you?  Do you have such a place within you?  

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

A Liberal Application of Ashes III*

The language used by the celebrant at an Ash Wednesday service for the “imposition of ashes” is nothing if not sharp:

Remember (your name here) that you are dust.
To dust you shall return.

Don't blurt out something like this to the stranger in the aisles of a grocery store. You might find yourself answering questions like:

Why did you say such an aggressive and unsettling thing to a stranger?
What gave you the right to intrude on somebody else's sense of well-being?

Tonight you are volunteers. And the words in question are part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy and not a personal blurt on my part. But are they even news? Who needs to be reminded that life is short and human nature is flawed? Isn't it the comic book caricature of the clergyman that he's the old guy up at the front of the church who looks at people in good health and enjoying their lives rather a lot, so that he can shake his finger at them and say – “it won’t last, you know!” 

He tells the beautiful that they will soon be old and ugly.
He tells the strong that they will weaken and fade.
He tells those proud of the recent past that their achievements are really just so much dry grass.

Why would anyone want to be such a professional wet blanket? No let this old clergyman at the front of the church rejoice with you about what everything which is good and lively and on the ascendant in your daily life.

And, frankly, like most pastors I can conjure up in my mind the faces of people who I know to be currently struggling with the deathward stance their lives have taken. They are ill and their bodies will not get better. A treasured relationship has died and will never be restored. They were sidelined in their employment or vocation. They are caught up by their own deep moral flaw or are the victims of that same flaw in somebody else. The bloom is off their rose. They’ve been around the block. They've seen too much. What more could their parish priest possibly add as he advances upon them this evening at the beginning of an Ash Wednesday service with a black and dripping thumb:

V. Remember, Roger, that you are dust. To dust you shall return.
R. Thank you, Father, I knew that.

We might hypothesize somebody who is "not in the know" about the fragility of life or the limits of their own natural goodness. They are in the darlings of everybody at work, they are regulars at the gym, they have perfect children with good teeth and an immaculate house – but in order for them to be that ignorant about life they would also have to be people who didn’t read or who had no vicarious experience of other people’s grief and contingency. I’m not sure that such people - devoid of questions, doubts or depth – even exist. If they did, then I suppose that a liberal application of ashes accompanied by aggressive words reminding them of the shortness and uncertainty of human life meant to assault their self-reliance would be perfectly in order. We might be doing them a favor although, frankly, I’m not sure you'd find them here at an evening Ash Wednesday service or our service at noon today at the office unless it were completely out of habit or unless they’d walked into the wrong doorway by mistake and were too embarrassed to get up and leave.

So why are we here? And what is this sharp language and this small plate of ashes about? What are we beating ourselves up about? It’s precisely this, I believe: If the language is sharp it is not meant to say that your lives or your activities are bad or without value. In fact, it’s a message that heads in quite the opposite direction: the sharp language underscores the tremendous value to be found in our lives, our pursuits and our allegiances by reminding us of the frame within which these events take place and that we must honour the time we have been given.

The American poet Carl Sandburg wrote a poem called Limited in his 1916 collection entitled Chicago Poems. It goes like this:

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains of the nation.​
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go fifteen all-steel coaches 
   holding a thousand people.​
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men and women laughing in the  
   diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)​
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers: “Omaha.”

What is a limitation if not the edge of something. Quite neutral really - it defines where the thing stops and something else begins. Or where the thing stops and mere space begins.

Think of it this way: You are at the bottom of Puy de Dome and you have your easel set up and your paints out on the tray. You are painting a picture of the Puy de Dome with all the paragliders swirling around its top and the funicular train heading up the slope and the communications tower on the top. There’s a lot you might dream about painting but you do not have the liberty of including everything to the infinite right or left, to the utter east or west. You’re not painting Issoire or Vichy.

Your canvas has an edge.  When the painting is finished it will have a frame and the frame defines what the subject is and ensures that it is not some other thing. Let your mind drift to Issoire or Vichy or Le Puy-en-Velay. Today, in this time and place you are painting Puy-de-Dome.

Without its frame life is, at best, undefined. If you come to one of our soup suppers down at 42 you will be dished out a bowl of soup. You will be dished out a certain amount depending on the ratio of soup to hungry humans. Look into the bottom of your bowl.  There is your meat and veg. . That is your portion. And your portion, generous or slender, is not infinite.

These ashes are not the church's attack on youth, beauty, strength, innocence, the pride in one’s achievements or healthy egos. They remind us pointedly that our time on earth is finite and the beautiful things of life and the noble things and the worthy things must be chased down and worked towards.

Or think of it this way: It is my experience that people, in the wake of a funeral, or a great and troubling event, feel disturbed. Beyond feelings of sympathy or empathy for the family of the deceased and beyond even the immediate loss of somebody loved and valued, they are disturbed about what this means for them. There is a nagging recognition of life's ticking clock. The question posed by the death of a friend or by a disasterous event are these:

Have the requisite colours been added to my painting - here in this 30th year of my life or the 40th or even the 58th? What about my broken relationships which have never been mended and which are unmended for want of a conversation or a letter? What about my youthful vow to “straighten up and fly right?” - to be courageous and self-giving? What about the midlife promise to recover that early vow?

Having thrown our handful of earth into the grave after the funeral we brush the dust from our hand as we walk back to the car and hope that the unsettled feeling passes and that life returns to normal. We wipe the smudge off our forehead with a soapy washcloth at the end of the Ash Wednesday service and with it perhaps the healthful but troubling question will disappears.

Which would be a shame, really, because that's exactly the question that this service wants to pose. It’s not an accusation that we are shallow and stupid people of whom little good can be said.

We are the living.
We are the mostly healthy.
And we have years left to us.

To become aware that we must make the most of our days, to seek out love and to take risks, to discover the enduring value of relationships and commitments would be the gift of a lifetime.

*to exercise full disclosure:  the III indicates that this is the third iteration of an Ash Wednesday sermon that I can't quite get right.  It'll be an absolute corker when I preach it on the Ash Wednesday before my retirement.

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