Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Showing up for good news and bad.

The Second Sunday of Advent
Year B
Mark 1:1-8

Mark’s Gospel says that that John “appears” in the wilderness.  What an odd verb in English.  It’s like he pops up out of the sand. 

In any case - he’s there, anyway, ahead of the action, like a “roadie” setting up the microphones before the concert.  Or somebody laying the table for a meal before the guests arrive.  

Mark is the earliest Gospel - the Gospel which Luke and Matthew had in their hands when they wrote their own and, as an introduction to Jesus and his public ministry, it is awfully abrupt.   Where are the shepherds?   Where’s King Herod or the hasty flight to Egypt?    No, just a man - in the desert - setting the stage.  John doesn’t even get the first word in after the title phrase - that job is given to the prophet Isaiah.

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

In fact it’s a mix of Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” with something which Malachi said about a “messenger” or maybe even something taken from the Book of Exodus about an “angel” leading the way.  If you follow these source readings back, you will find the recurring theme of things not being allowed to continue as they were.  In the Book of Exodus, God says the Terror and Pestilence will precede his leading angel.  Isaiah has the revolutionary idea that the mountains will tumble, and valleys be lifted up.  Malachi promises not only the cleanliness following the liberal use of a “fullers soap” but the purity which only a refiner’s hot fire will be able to deliver.  The process of change is not going to be easy.  The world will be scrubbed, burnt and turned on its backside.  John says more or less the same thing in his preaching:  

"The axe is laid to the root of the tree."

A day of reckoning is at hand.

When the registered letter was delivered to you by the postie, she had a smile on her face.   You passed the time of day over the fence but you knew (and she knew) that good news never arrives by registered mail.  

A little man from the Prefecture showed up with a measuring tape to check that your doors were the regulation height. 

The inspector from Weights and Measures had a measure of volume to see if you were selling full litres of gasoline for the announced price.  

Someone demanded to see your underwear drawer.  

"We’ll need a character reference from your last love interest", said the person with the clipboard.   

"A performance evaluation has been scheduled for you at work next week.  We thought you should know."  

You get my drift.  It’s that sort of day.  You remember that it was late afternoon when you got the news. The sun was shining.  You can even remember what you were wearing when word came to you.

Not everyone is broken hearted, mind.  Someone, somewhere, is rejoicing.  Remember that John’s words to the Pharisees:

“You brood of vipers!”

is only one end of the spectrum of readings this Sunday.  The earlier reading is from Isaiah 40:

“Comfort ye, my people!”

Like the folks who’ve been bumping their heads on your low doors, like the customers at your gas station who’ve suspected for years that you’ve been giving short measure but you’re the only gas station in the village.  Your spouse has complained bitterly that your ties and your jack-knife don’t belong with your underwear.   And that last love interest of yours?  She thinks you’re a jerk and wouldn't mind at all if the day finally came when you were called for it. 

What about that performance evaluation, anyway?  Maybe it’s just the ticket.  Your co-workers think you get away with blue murder.  They know how bad it is for morale on the floor.  Bad news for you is good news for them.   

But why is it not good news for you too?  

It would be – there are people who love you who believe it could be -  if you’d agree to let the knife carve away what is rotten and hurtful, wasteful and frivolous.  If you’d look beyond your own interests

It is a terribly difficult thing to do but we shouldn’t be dramatic.   People do it all the time.   Choices become clear when light increases and they also become possible. 

You could always run away, 
you could hide, 
or resist 
or pretend 
or just not show up

and so avoid being laid bare by this amalgam of good news and bad but people are, in the main, pretty courageous.   They both tolerate, and sometimes even dig up from within, honest reappraisals of themselves.  Like I said – people do it all the time.

I jotted these words down earlier in the week.  Maybe I get them wrong.  John is not performing the opening act for some process of self-improvement for moderns.  That would be twisting this reading out of its context and I don’t want to do that.  He is, in fact, announcing a dramatic turn in history where God approaches his people and where an unexpected cast of characters open themselves to that approach.  They show up - in droves.  The usual suspects and the unusual.  They permit themselves to be laid bare.  They express acts of repentance and demonstrate their faith.  They are not only witnesses but they become participants as Creation is reformed restated and reinstated in its beauty.

Who will be in attendance?  
Who will show up?  
Who is not allowed to come? 

Subsequent chapters of Mark’s Gospel have Jesus preaching and telling parables.  In village squares, on hillsides, in private homes - to individuals - to groups.  He’s fishing.  

For you?  
For more deserving people than you?  

He’s casting his net into the lake.  He’s chucking out his lure into the sea.  He’s throwing out the option to come out and be present and be part of God’s Kingdom.  And nobody – no matter how compromised – is excluded from the invitation. 

You could be there.  

At long last, it could be good news for you.  If you are hungry enough to be part of that movement in human history, you will be there.  In spite of yourself and in spite of your experience the last time you tried.   You could be so struck by the prospect of life that all your excuses for being a no-show could wither away.

When the scrubbing is done and when the fire has done its work in you, you won’t be missing much.   You will have gained everything.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

You shall not murder.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22 - Year A
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

The Ten Commandments appear in the first reading on Sunday and this week our eye is, of course, drawn to the sixth of them, namely:  You shall not murder.  We'd resent it if our pastor treated the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week as something which wasn’t noteworthy.  And so, for our part this Sunday, we will publicly remember those who were lost and rejoice in the strength and courage of those who demonstrated the good attributes of humanity amid terrible circumstances.

There’s something else which vicars do at times like this, though.  You might even find it grating.  The fellow up there at the front of the church dressed like a Christmas decoration could pause in the middle of his sermon and say something along the lines of:

“We’re all a little bit like murderers, aren’t we?”

Oh Father!   Why do you clergy do that? you ask.  Is this something you learned  at seminary - to generalize everything? We are not bitter and twisted individuals who pour out rage, fanaticism or illness on others in dramatic ways.  

On the face of it, yes, you are not that person.  It ought to be possible for a member of Christ Church Clermont-Ferrand to finish his three-score-years-and-ten without having transgressed any of the Ten Commandments and, certainly, not to be guilty of culpable homicide.  

We’re the good guys.  

Give some thought, however, to what Jesus says to those who believe the bad guys to be over there and the good guys here with us on the right side of the fence.  In the verses (Matthew 5:21-30) which follow the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses those who believe that they have passed and will pass their years without ever being guilty of – and here he chooses two quite dramatic commandments: adultery and murder.  

Jesus sharpens the commandment on adultery to include lustful thoughts

He sharpens the commandment on murder to include anger.  

Of murder he says:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. ’But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ (meaning - you are empty or worthless!) is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Notorious violence is when, with sharpened motives and powerful means, the content of sinful and ordinary human hearts crosses the threshold from thought into act.  Whatever it is which generates the headlines and deprives families of their loved ones, issues from the very same stuff that has made our home life painful, our relationships strained, our children bullied at school, our workplaces a nightmare and those who differ from us isolated and uncared for.   

This is stuff we know inside of ourselves.  

Jesus makes sinners of all of us.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A penny a day

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20 - Year A
Matthew 20:1-16

Try this one on for size: A landowner hires workers at nine in the morning. They are told to expect payment of one silver penny – a denarius – for their day’s work. Additional workers are hired at three in the afternoon. Still others are hired towards the end of the day to reap the last corner of the field before the sun goes down. With the field finally harvested, they all line up in front of the paymaster – some of them dog-tired and dusty with blistered fingers, and some of them barely having broken out in a sweat. Each receives the same silver penny in his pay envelope. “It’s not fair”, say some of them. The response from the boss is the following: It’s my money – may I not spend it in the manner I want? The agreement was as follows: work/penny. I have adequately fulfilled my promise. Quit your griping.

Don’t try to develop pay scales for a company based on this parable, please. At the same time, give a thought to the good things which can be said about adequacy. Adequacy is under-rated. I’d have liked to have said at the end of my life that I had achieved something excellent and to have been rewarded somehow for that. Now – two thirds of the way through the slog – I’m beginning to say that I quite desperately hope to have been an adequate husband, father, Christian, priest, pastor, preacher, writer. Unless we are Chaucer or King Tut, we’re going to be forgotten a hundred years after our demise, aren’t we? And so, other matters – matters pertaining to basic adequacy – become more important. Will I die in some state of grace? Will I have loved and been loved?  Will I still be in conversation with my children? Am I reconciled with my heavenly Father and in communion with the fellowship of his saints? 

If the priest, who visits me at my bedside, asks me the question “Have you had enough?” – he or she may not be asking me whether I’m fed up with the chemo or ready to make my departure. The priest may be asking me whether I’ve "had enough" - whether I have received the adequate things of this world – the promised silver penny - things which people less educated than me, born in more straitened conditions than I have ever had to endure, with shorter lives and fewer resources than me, have nonetheless managed to acquire: a sense of peace, a thankful heart, a place in human community and an assurance of God’s love and favour.

As you might have guessed, the background of this parable is very specific. Jesus asks whether the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the Law, are any better off than those lapsed Jews who, late in life, have come back into God’s graces through the ministry of Jesus. It may well even look forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant promises of God at a point which is late in time. The answer which Jesus gives to this question, however, is what I have explained without making recourse to the particular background of the parable.  It's this:

There is one task. There is one reward.

If you are bothered by the hints of mortality here, and the possibility that you won’t amount to all you imagine, or that the time is somehow short - then I am sorry. Strive to excel in whatever your calling is—fill your boots! 

Remember, though, that "all flesh is grass". 

We will not neglect the tasks of faith and love—faith, which unites men and women to God through Christ and love, which lifts others up into his light. These tasks are your required and achievable labour and the simple coin received at the end of the day, your only and greatest reward.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Losing sight of Jethro's sheep: Moses in Midian

The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17 - Year A
Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was doing his best to lose the Egyptian accent that people had remarked on when he first landed in Midian (Exodus 2:18-19).

It was an accent worth losing.  First, it was a lie: he wasn’t Egyptian.  He’d been a Hebrew child raised like a dirty secret in the heart of the Egyptian court.  Second, it provided a clue to his past misdeeds.  The child became a man back in Egypt.  His identity crisis sharpened and caused him to snap.  He’d killed an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave and thus became a fugitive from Egyptian justice. 

But Moses dodged the murder charge.   He walked the width of the desert and crossed the border into Midian.  He married the daughter of a prominent local family and began to work on his pension.   

Did he have nightmares?  Did the ghosts of Egypt haunt his sleep?  There’s no evidence of this.  This Sunday’s reading show Moses following the flocks as he would have done seasonally - a perfectly ordinary Midianite shepherd on a perfectly regular day with only the barest trace of an accent.  Everything is on track.

The recipe for what Moses needed to do next is exactly what every new parolee needs to do upon his release from prison.  He needs to keep his eyes forward and to follow the path and to seize the opportunity at hand.  When you’re given a fresh start and limited time, you stick to the straight and narrow.  It’s the same at the tail-end of the world’s worst divorce or a personal bankruptcy or a war or a natural disaster.   One foot goes in front of the other.   Direct those fat sheep to market down the straight path. That’s all.  Nothing else.

But that's not how our story ends, is it?  Moses’ eyes stray.  The commissioning of Moses and the whole story of the Exodus doesn’t begin with God’s words from the burning bush.  It begins a few lines earlier when Moses, still comfortably at the tail end of Jethro’s flocks and with everything to gain by staying the course, says to himself:

"I must turn aside and look at this great sight, 
and see why the bush is not burned up."

Curiosity may kill the cat and displease the parole officer but it also ushers in new epochs in history.  From one cover of your Bible to the other, and throughout the history of the Church, God upsets the settled and recommended paths of prophets, patriarchs, disciples and saints.  Before they were ever useful to God and to his Kingdom by being resolute and unshakable, they proved their worth because they were quite the opposite - capable of being distracted from their day jobs and unstuck from all their several necessary trajectories.  

God could depend on them to shift their gaze from their desks and direct it out the window.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Stay tuned! God is faithful.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16 - Year A
Exodus 1:8-2:10

Now a new king arose over Egypt, 
who did not know Joseph....

How quickly we forget.  Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, human beings carry around nearly all the information necessary to be a member of their species in their stories and not in their genes.  Activities which we perform by reflex or at the bidding of our hormones are precious few.   Instead, our children go to school.  They learn at their parents’ or grandparents’ knee.  They read from books.  Stories may be supple or rigid.  Stories can evolve and merge with the stories of neighbours.  They can be transformed in the retelling.  Rigid stories tend to be fragile.  National myths can be destructive.  And yet, civilizations can and do collapse when the cultural contents of the human story are forgotten.  Skip a generation and you will take a step way back into time.

The scenario described at the beginning of the stories concerns the new Egyptian king who, by malevolence or ignorance, “forgets” the role which God, Joseph and the Hebrews had played in the preservation of Egypt during the years of famine.  By intention or accident, the story of Egypt has a chapter ripped from its book.   Fellow citizens – artisans and laborers – established residents of great Egyptian cities became, in a moment, a despised minority.  We don’t need to look much beyond the 20th and 21st centuries to find analogs for this process within living memory. 

For the readers of the Book of Exodus, be they Christian or Jewish, there can be no question as to the outcome.  The descendants of Abraham living in Egypt have a purpose and a destiny that will not be cut off.   They are part of a larger and more important narrative than the one by which Pharaoh hopes to purify his kingdom.  At issue, here again, is the overarching question:

How will God remain faithful to his promises to Abraham
to bless his descendants and, through them, the entire world?

There is no other question in Exodus.   Frankly, there is no other question in the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles.  We remain glued to the page because the risks are many and, as is the case throughout the Old and New Testaments, human agents are used to propel the Promise through the ages.  Patriarchs, prophets and saints need to say “yes” and we don’t know if they will.  The promise may even need to be placed within a little basket of reeds daubed with pitch and bitumen and set out into the reedy edges of a great river.  And yes – it all must matter to you, who are praying for your little churches and saying “yes” to your part in the story, who pray that your children remain part of the same narrative, who wonder how God’s people will ever find their voice in a world grown suddenly more unstable and chaotic.  

Stay tuned!  Hold on to the handrails!  You are part of this story.  It's never been one for the faint-hearted.  

Saturday, 12 August 2017

It's not over until......

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14 - Year A
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

A book called The Joseph Cycle was written by Simon Sim in 2004 and used Joseph’s dream (Genesis 41:25-30), as recounted to Pharaoh, as the basis for a theory about markets waxing and waning in seven-year increments.  People buy Sim’s book because they want to make money.   Spoiler alert:  If you want to make money, then it’s off to Amazon with you.  Buy Simon Sim’s book. You’re not going to make any money reading this. 

For a student of the Scriptures, the Joseph Cycle is a series of stories from the Book of Genesis about Joseph.  That it is referred to as a Cycle and not merely a Story means that the whole narrative has bits to it, ups and downs, highs and lows.  It doesn’t begin and end in a single chapter or reach its conclusion in a single episode.

Your bicycle has wheels.  When you run your finger along the end of them you come back to your starting point.  Joseph stands blessed amongst his brothers at the beginning of the story (Genesis 37) in this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, and he will stand blessed in the midst of those same brothers at the end of the story (Genesis 45).  Between these two points many events have taken place – many of them points of utter collapse and desolation.  If Joseph prayed to God to be protected by him -

·        So that his brothers might not throw him in to a pit and tell his father Jacob that he had been savaged by a wild beast and killed;
·        So that he might not be sold to a band of wandering Midianites;
·        So that he might not be resold as a slave by them to the Ishmaelites;
·        That he might be protected from the wandering eye of his master Potiphar’s wife, and;
·        So that he would not be cast into prison.

- the answer from God would have appeared to him as an unequivocal “No”.   Let that sink in for a moment. 

Do you have a sense of your own vocation, and of the fact that God loves you and that nothing transpires outside of his will and care?    Joseph did.  God gave him dreams.  He knows that God has a use for him and yet, when he prays to God for what seems like the most basic matters of freedom from peril, even these are denied.

Herein is the difference between a cycle and a simple story.  You need to wait until the end.  You will not see the sense of things until the circle is complete.   The episodes by which you judge yourself, by which you judge God’s faithfulness – this or that failure or success, this or that child’s misadventure or your failure in relationships or ventures – no matter how it feels in the moment – needs to be seen in the light of the story which God is telling over decades.  Be faithful enough to actively wait it out – patient enough (with yourself and with God) to see things to their yet-unknown conclusion.

Friday, 14 July 2017

What do you intend to do about it?

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10 – Year A
Matthew 13:1-9,  18-23               

The old archdeacon I was apprenticed to in the early 80’s was critical of sermons preached by students and young clergy.   Too few of them, he complained, ended with a clear task that men and women could get up from their pew and immediately do afterwards.  Folks, he said, needed to hear an instruction – some practical ending to what would otherwise be an overlong and rambling sermon.  Get up.  Do this.

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is preaching from a boat a short distance from shore.  He tells a story which we all know well, about the sower who went out to sow his seed in the field.  Some of it landed on stony ground and withered away, some landed amongst thorns and the young plants were smothered by the weeds and some seed landed on good ground where it eventually grew and bore an enormous harvest. 

Pay attention, says Jesus.  And that, really, is the only command.

Sunday school or Lunch Bunch teachers amongst you may correct me but the children’s lesson on this generally has an implied command in it: “So go and be good ground”.  If you read carefully though, especially the intervening part between the parable and explanation which the lectionary left out of our Sunday reading (Matthew 13:10-17), Jesus doesn’t seem to insist that people change the sort of ground they are.   He wants to find good ground.  He wants to find those who will listen and accept and seems willing to leave to one side those who will not.  It seems harsh but there is, in fact, no Get up or Do this anywhere in the parable.  

It is perfectly okay for you to be bothered by this.  You wouldn’t be the first.

It’s precisely this anger that the congregation in Nazareth feels when they hear from Jesus that God has always presented his promise to whomever was willing to accept it and run with it, even if they prove not to be you who are sitting here in the synagogue at Nazareth – even if you end up being left on the side-lines (Lk 4:25-27).  

It’s what the Pharisees and the religious leadership, with steadily rising anger, heard him saying as well – that the publicans and the harlots were getting into the Kingdom before them (Matt 21:31), and that God could raise up children of Abraham from these stones if he wanted to (Matt 3:9).  

It’s what Nicodemus heard Jesus saying about the wind of the Spirit “blow(ing) where it will” (John 3:8).

The Church remembered the parable of the Sower—this parable-without-a-command.  The reason it’s there in Matthew, Mark and Luke is that the Church is here being given an instruction to go forth and present the Gospel to those who will listen.  It points the Church out beyond those for whom the promise of salvation is one of a number of lifestyle options, or a bit of family or national inheritance, to those for whom it will become very life and very hope. 

The anger of the Nazareth synagogue, at the stark reminder that Good News is for those who will receive it, leads them to strike out against Jesus.   That same starkness, on the other hand, which Nicodemus perceives about the very same content, leads him to show his hand and enquire of Jesus - desperately even - in the dead of night. 

So yes – in the long run I suppose we have some choice to make about what we will do with the starkness of the parable and its sometimes frightening content.   

If this parable of Jesus angers you – 
if it frightens you – 
then you have indeed heard it.

Now what exactly do you intend to do about it?