Saturday, 10 February 2018

When words fail...


The Last Sunday After 
the Epiphany
Year B
Mark 9:2-9

If you were to speak about a gorgeous sunset on the Pacific coast of Canada what would you say?  Once you realize that you have fallen in love, how ever would you put that into words? 

On the other hand, what do people do when something terrible happens?  Don’t they oftentimes stand there completely stunned and mute?  They might say, afterwards, “I was at a loss for words” or “words failed me”.

Despite being the second book of the New Testament, the Gospel of Mark was the earliest of our complete written Gospels.  It is an exercise in “explanatory language” designed to be read by Christians rather than “persuasive language” meant to be read by unbelievers (that was the job of people on the ground; of preachers, catechists, evangelists and deacons).  It was an exercise in using Greek words to describe what people had first seen, heard and felt - up close and personal – of making things explicable to a new generation.

Mark’s style is terse.  His sentences are short.  One thing follows another. This happened.  Immediately the other thing happened.  Which led, straightaway, to that other event.   In the middle of Mark’s Gospel, however, amid stories lending themselves to a written record of events, we find the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the slopes of Mount Tabor.  It has been described as a piece of John’s Gospel transplanted into the midst of Mark.  The veil is pulled to one side for an instant.  Glory is revealed.  An ordinary hillside becomes a doorway to heaven - open and mysterious.   It is not for nothing that generations of painters have treated it as their subject for the episode evokes a visual tableau.  Even the words are the slaves of the visual picture which arises in the heads of the reader.  Christ is there at the center.  See him set amid other figures from the Biblical narrative.  The movement was like this.  The light changed like that.  If you think, says Mark, that words will sum it up, dear reader, just look at poor Peter for whom words failed utterly.  In response to his insecurity Peter began to babble – desperately trying to fill in the insecurity of the visual moment with mere words. 

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and
one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.


What struck you about Notre Dame Cathedral or the Grand Canyon or a piece of art or for that matter the opening of Brahms’ First Symphony (auditory, and not visual, but which has no words).  What on earth would you need to say to explain your feelings when you watch your little granddaughter?  You’d just point.  Isn’t it obvious? 

Do these things not remind you that the chain of time in which you live – the ordinary things of earth made of flesh and stone and light point to something beyond the ordinary and that to be there in that Presence shining through the ordinary is perfectly sufficient, thank you very much.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Who is the hero?

The Second Sunday 
after Epiphany
Year B
1 Samuel 3:1-20

I’ll start off like many other clergy around the world are doing this morning by shaking off the last remnants of our post-Christmas indolence, port wine and chocolate and remind you what the appointed readings tend to focus on in these Sundays after Epiphany: 

The presence of God – word or light – extends out into the cosmos.

The foreign Magi visit the Christ child – through them God’s gift is extended to the nations.

God “speaks” the day and the night into existence – and all the fish, and the “creeping things”, and the animals – wild and domestic - and, ultimately, even our human forerunners.  What was once formless-and-void takes on direction and diversity at God’s behest.

And today:  God speaks to the boy Samuel and reinstates the voice of prophecy in the land.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls Philip – Philip goes and tells Nathanael – the knowledge of Jesus’ mission is furthered and extended through human activity and interaction.

Ripples, then -  ripples of both voice and light extend out from the speaking source, from the shining source, into the surrounding silence and darkness – sometimes directly from God and sometimes with human agency of one sort or another:  servants, prophets and disciples.  You and me.

And that, Charlie Brown, is what Epiphany is about.  That’s what the word Epiphany means – to shine forth.

Now - speaking of human agents – maybe you have a hankering to be one of the heroes of the Epiphany season.  You might fancy yourself a Samuel or a Philip in your generation – and why not?

Why shouldn’t the young people in our little choir this morning imagine that what they sing and play and even compose could have an earth-shaking effect on how men and women understand the mystery and beauty of God’s love for the world?  Bach did it.  Hildegaard of Bingen did it.  Are you chopped liver?  Why not you? 

Or why shouldn’t the clergy in our little churches believe that God could use the words they speak, the liturgy they celebrate and the pastoral care they exercise to nurture and mediate-into-life communities of faith which would stand out in their generation and serve as a launch pad for revivals of the sort that we have seen at pivotal moments in the Church’s history?  Other priests and ministers in other generations have been a part of such movements.  John Wesley was just a bloke.  John Henry Newman was pink inside.  Why not us?  Why not now? 

Why not you in your place of work, doing what you do, making what you make, writing what you write, leading in the way you lead?   Why couldn't you make the sudden left turn necessary to change the vector of your organization in such a way that people are nourished, enlightened or changed?

You who are raising children – or grandchildren – you’d like to raise them to be truth tellers, light shiners, doers of justice, openers of doors, inventers of new ways for people to live.  And why not?  St Augustine had a mother.  Why shouldn’t you have grand hopes for the young souls over whom you still have some sway?

What makes any of this impossible?

All well and good.  We could be God’s Samuels and Philips in our own generation – or assist in the formation of such people.  Everyone loves heroes.  The world needs heroes.  Bring on the heroes or those who forge them.

But – as you might already suspect – I am about to throw a spanner in the works.  It’s what we do sometimes – cheeky clergy - and today I find it necessary to nuance my enthusiasm a little bit with recourse to our Old Testament lesson from 1st Samuel.

Who is the hero?  Well – the first candidate who sidles up for the honour – the one who first catches our eye -  is that very fellow who will give his name to the book of the Bible - the wee boy Samuel, himself, lying on his bed and hearing a voice calling out his name.  Back home in Clermont-Ferrand our Senior Warden this morning is arranging colouring sheets for our very active children which will, doubtless, show Samuel sitting on the edge of the bed with a quizzical look upon his face because he’s just heard his name called.  Samuel gets up and wanders next door to where old Eli is sleeping. 

Eli is a tragic figure, really – educated and formed to know which way is up and which way is down he has, nonetheless, let things slip rather badly.  The sanctuary he presides over is corrupt – his sons are in cahoots with the parish treasurer to not only rob Peter to pay Paul but it appears they are paying themselves rather handsomely as well.  Samuel asks why Eli called him and Eli says that he never called him and that he must be dreaming.  He tells Samuel to go back to bed. 

God calls a second time and Samuel gets up again.  Eli – what do you want?, he asks.  Stupid boy, says Eli, let me sleep.  Go back to bed.

God calls a third time, and Samuel approaches Eli again but this time it’s Eli who has an epiphany. 

If you’re a cartoonist and one of your characters has an epiphany you usually draw this as a lightbulb appearing above that character’s head.  
Eli’s formation as a priest kicks in. 
Eli suddenly thinks a thought. 
Eli is struck by a possibility. 

Go back to bed, he tells Samuel, and the next time you hear the voice, I want you to say “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening”.

Now, I want you to understand clearly that there is nobody in this story with as much to lose as old Eli would lose if God were to start speaking to his people again after a long silence, or who would find himself as quickly displaced as he would if God were to begin to inhabit his sanctuary after a long absence.

Let that sink in.  Eli is bad and Eli is vulnerable. 

Were he to act in his own self-interest he would provide the young Samuel with earplugs.  He would put a pillow over the boy's face and lean on it.  He wouldn't do the very thing he ends up doing which is to act as a midwife for the truth to come out. 

God’s truth about the love of God for the world, God’s truth about the future of Israel’s gift to the world is, first of all, a word of challenge to Eli’s job, fortunes, family and his performance as priest, caretaker and human being.  

And here I believe I may have answered my earlier “why not” questions about me and about you with some accuracy. 

Why will our music not change the world?  Why will our priestly ministry not cause others to turn a corner?  Why will your work not have the footprint it could have and why will our children and grandchildren not thrive as heroes in their generation?  Part of the answer is that we have one eye on the task and another on other commitments – our comfort, our safety, our habits, our pension and our position.  We have an interest, at some level, in things staying the same.  We are not willing to pay the price. 

Our own self-interest may even interfere with our selfless love of our children.  That is a bitter pill, isn’t it?  Against our better judgement we raise them the way we were raised.  You see it all the time. 

Truth-speaking and light-bearing and life-giving will cost us – first of all – they cost us a great deal and we are all a bit like Eli.  We get up in the morning and see the compromised person standing before us in the full-length mirror and we say “We can get by”.  For another day, or until the end of the week or until our retirement.  We can avoid the wrath of others, we can avoid risk and we can avoid facing up to the full measure of who we have become. 

As my grandfather used to say: “It may be an ugly dog but it’s my dog”.

But hold on a minute. 

Let me remove the spanner from the works and show you what a real hero looks like:   Samuel enters the chamber of Eli a final time.  Eli asks him: “So?  What did he say?”  

The young Samuel prevaricates a little.  He tries to sugar coat things.  Eli presses him: “Spare me nothing.  Tell me exactly what he said!”

And Samuel tells him.  He tells him the whole story.  He leaves no words out.  Eli sighs and leans back against the pillow.  This is what the old man says:


“It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” 

Anyone who reads the story will understand completely that Eli is a bad man but, I’m sorry, it seems to this reader that Eli’s words are more akin to Our Lady’s response to the angel Gabriel,

“Be it unto me, according to your word” (Luke 1:38)

than they are to Ahab’s dreadful cry,

"Have you found meO my enemy?" (1 Kings 21:20)

In spite of himself, his sons and his personal history, Eli has proven himself a hero – perhaps “the” hero of this morning’s Bible readings.  In spite of what our children were colouring on Sunday, the witness of Eli's words will be more helpful to us, here and now, than will sketching out the progress of the young boy Samuel.  

Samuel is precisely that - a boy.  He is a blank slate and none of us here this morning is that person.  To “locate ourselves in the story”, as we should always try to do, would be to ask ourselves the degree to which we are able, in courage and acquiescence, to cease being a block to truth and light by allowing that truth and light to land squarely on us first.  

Our contribution to the life of the Kingdom, to the health of the Church, to the future of our art, to civic society, to the lives of our children and grandchildren depends on just that.  It what folks do.  It’s a thing which can be done.  Much depends on it.

God bless you.  
You have everything to lose.  
You have everything to gain.   

The saints have shown us how to do it.  Even sinful old Eli mustered up the courage.  People do it all the time.