Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The questions Jesus asks along the road.

The Third Sunday of Easter
Year A
Luke 24:13-35

Standing in a high place you lose details but you get the whole picture in one sweep. Let's get right down to it, shall we?
Jesus breaks bread in the presence of two disciples and opens their minds through an exposition of the Scriptures. The downcast disciples are heartened by the encounter and go on their way much refreshed.  

That’s it – the Road to Emmaus seen from a height. 

The vicar in me wants to own this passage.  It’s about us, isn’t it?  Announce it on Facebook.  Stick it on the website.   This is what we do every Sunday – word and sacrament in one stop.

Which is precisely the problem with looking at anything from a great height.  Up here, things become small enough to slip into your pocket.  Small enough to be useful –  or perhaps misused, appropriated and domesticated.

There’s a mystical element in this passage from Luke which ought to growl at you as you attempt to slip a leash on it:   What do the disciples end up knowing and how do they come to know it?  Jesus joins the two troubled disciples on the road but they do not recognize him.  He expounds the Old Testament to them in considerable detail but it is not until he makes the physical gestures of breaking bread with them that they suddenly realize who he is.  Once recognized he is immediately taken from them – he passes from their sight and they find themselves alone but overjoyed.  They seek out the company of other disciples who have encountered the risen Christ.  They share their experiences.  It is not an easy story to summarize.  Mystical experience is hard to speak about.  If you boil it down to a few points you suspect you’ve done something unworthy. 

A few details which your bird’s eye view missed:  It’s not by accident that everybody is walking during their conversation and not sitting in a pew.  And - it is central to the passage that Jesus asks the disciples what they are talking about amongst themselves and that their unveiling of their problem is a part of the solution. 

I repeat:  Jesus is inordinately interested in what the disciples are already talking about:  "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" he asks. 

He’s apparently more interested in them than we are, oftentimes, in our own people. Why do we treat visitors, new members or "passers-through" as shoppers with empty grocery carts to whom we offer the valuable goods of the Church -  the creeds, the Mass, John 3:16, the social life of our parish, bells, hymns, incense or even the minister’s personality?

Most of the New Testament encounters Jesus has with people are genuine conversations. When we do take a positive step forward, we discover that the previous tumult is not negated.  It’s part of the process and why Jesus, sometimes, asks questions.

The details are important.

He met us on the road.
He wanted to know what our struggles were.
He reasoned with us over time.

We were conscious of engagement and love – love which made the next part possible. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The pain and the promise of believing again.

The Second Sunday of Easter
Year A
John 20:19-31

Our local paper in Victoria B.C. had a daily feature on the puzzles page where you looked at two complex cartoons and were challenged to discover at least five differences between them.  It took a bit of time but you soon discovered that the chair in one picture was closer to the wall than in the other or that the frame of a painting was slightly different in the second version. 

The school friend you bump into twenty years on – older, heavier, greyer - is no longer the same young person you drank beer with at the Student Union building even though he’s the same man.   Once he opens his mouth and regales you with stories from the old days, however, there’s no question.  It’s him.

Thomas might have said that he would believe Jesus had been raised from death (and that the other disciples had not suffered a group hallucination) if he could only hear him preach, or see him perform a miracle or watch him confront the Pharisees once again.  But no, he chose to make the task nearly impossible by saying that he would insist on seeing wounds on the body of the living Christ that were incompatible with life. 

Jesus shows himself convincingly to Thomas despite this harsh burden of proof.  He then chides him:  Thomas’ unbelief appears to be wilful unbelief.   Its purpose is not to establish a proper scale of credibility but, rather, to protect the wounded self (Thomas’ self) from being wounded anew. 

It is no easy matter to allow hope to return when hopes have been dashed.  It is exceptionally difficult to hope for love when love has been withdrawn in living memory.  You don’t see the horizon when you’re concentrating only one putting one foot in front of the other.

Jesus’ promise of new life conflicts with our vows.  The opportunity of living hopefully again rubs up against our survival strategies.  For what seem like very good and even noble reasons we vow to “make do” with very little hope and to live a life which is tailored to making it through the year or even just to the end of the month.  The substantial hopes of the wounded disciple become nostalgic matters set in the past as is evident from the words of one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped…..” or shelved away awaiting a seemingly impossible outcome: “I will not believe unless….”.

The Gospel readings in the Sundays of Easter centre around the appearance of Jesus to his disciples following the Resurrection and his invitation to them to enter the abundant life which that resurrection has now made possible.  I hope you will give some thought to those disciples – daring to risk once again and weighing, in their two hands, both the pain and the promise of decision.  Consider what vows you have made – often in response to very real conflict and disappointment – which keep you from hoping, from loving and ultimately from living life to the fullest.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

What have you witnessed?

Easter Sunday
Year A
John 20:1-18                                                                      

What have you witnessed?  

It's the sort of question a police officer or a judge might someday require you to answer - that you describe, audibly or in writing, the details of what you have seen or heard at a particular time and place.  Memories play tricks and entropy takes its toll even on recall. 

Sometimes it takes the collected memories of a series of witnesses before the real story can be reconstructed or the reliable core of the story can be established.

Know this, though:  a small number of disillusioned and failed followers of an itinerant prophet from Nazareth were transformed, in a very short time, into agents of hope. They transformed their world and went on to refashion ours.  Resurrection not only "was" something - with reference to God's raising of Christ on the third day - but it "meant" something.   We know its reality not only in the collecting of testimonies from the four Evangelists but by the history of what followed.  

When you throw a stone into the centre of a pond the ripples travel out to the edges. Truth is spoken to the powerful by humble people who, seemingly, have no fear.  The great persecutor of the early church becomes one of its chief apostles and advocates.  The boundaries which separate the wealthy from the poor, the Jew from the Gentile,
fade away.  God has not only raised Christ from the dead, he has raised us as well.  This power over death and meaninglessness is extended to the lives which we lead.

The ripples of Easter do not stop with the list of events that occurred on the third day surrounding the man Jesus.  The power of Easter is what folks across the ages since have seen as the agent of transformation in their current world.  The power of Easter is something you would rejoice in seeing at work in your lives.  It would be something you would mourn the absence of, should that be the case.

What the disciples saw, and heard and touched with their own hands will be the subject at hand this Sunday.  But that is only the beginning.  The Sunday readings between now and the day of Pentecost move into what this unique event means for his followers.  Christ in his resurrection is "the first fruits" of a harvest to come.  "Christ is risen....and therefore.....". 

What has happened now to you (and what will happen in the future) is part of the story.

The invitation to live abundantly has been extended to us as well.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

You and Pontius Pilate - where and when you live.

Passion Sunday
(with the Liturgy of the Palms)
Year A
Matthew 27:11-54

The church of the first two or three hundred years often added names and fanciful stories to nameless characters in the Gospels.  One of the subjects of later expansion is Pilate’s wife (nameless in Matthew’s Gospel) who sends word to her husband during the trial to have nothing to do with the man Jesus since she has had a troubling dream about him.  In due course the Church assigned her a name:  Claudia Procula.  In the eastern Orthodox tradition, she is revered as a saint.  The Ethiopian church inherited a legend that Pilate himself eventually became a Christian and reveres both Pilate and Procula as saints on the 25th of June.

It’s all quite unlikely – unproveable at best.  But you might wonder why Pontius Pilate gets the air time that he does in church.  He appears in the middle of the Apostle’s Creed and also the Nicene Creed which we recite together as a community at Mass every Sunday.  Why?  What is there about this middle to upper range Roman bureaucrat to grant him star billing on Sunday along with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?

It has nothing to do with the fiction of his later discipleship.  History pretty much swallows Pontius Pilate.  If anything, his name figures in the Creeds expressly to combat the human tendency to live in a world of legends and make-believe where Procurators become Apologists as a matter of course.  Heading in the opposite direction the Creeds attempt to do what the Gospels do and anchor the story of salvation in a world of place and time, bricks and mortar and all the prominent personalities of the world in which they occurred.  This really happened.  It happened here during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate.  It happened with these people present.  It wasn’t storyland or “once upon a time”.  You can put a mark on the calendar or a pin in the map.   

It’s as if the Fathers of the Church were saying that the “x axis” of God’s activity across time intersected with “y axis” of a moment in history and that all this is terribly important for us.  Is there some pastoral purpose for zeroing in on time and place and personality in the Creeds? 

Well, where do you live and in what times?  Donald Trump is the President and Britain is on the edge of Brexit.  Italy is awash with refugees, the blossoms in the Auvergne are in full bloom and the snow is beginning to melt in Montreal.  You can smell the coal fires in your Scottish village.  You are married to the spouse you are married to.  These are your children.  Count them.  Your job or your primary endeavour is what it is, for the moment, and is not another thing.  In such a world, and in none other, God asks you to discern the movement of his Spirit and to be faithful.  None of these particulars can or should be avoided.  They form the bowl into which you have been poured.  

Deal with it.  Rejoice in the opportunities it provides.

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.