Thursday, 22 February 2018

Putting the faith of Abraham to the test.

The Second Sunday 
in Lent
Year B
Romans 4:13-25

Do things happen the way that they must? Must things be the way they are? We are used to seeking out necessary causes for things.  What are the necessary causes of bad things?  How might we ferret out and neutralize those necessary causes to prevent bad things from happening?  What are the necessary causes of good things?  How can we recreate those to make sure that more good things happen? 

Give us some control, at least. 

We would avoid magical explanations.   Believing in magic risks bringing us back to a world of leeches, gnomes and fairies.  We had centuries of that.  We’ve had a belly full, in fact.

Faith remains the opposite of certainty for many of the people we know.  We know people who are stuck and can’t move forward.  We may feel that way ourselves.  Faith is a hard case to argue to poor people or unfortunate people or excluded people or condemned people who would like nothing more than a certain path forward or, at least, a damned good reason to put up with the way the chips have fallen. 

It’s what Saint Paul does, though.  He says that the best thing – the only thing – we have in hand is this diaphanous, invisible thing called faith and that it holds the key to what our lives will look like.  Faith in God has gotten people up from where they’ve fallen, it has brought them to where they have no necessary right to be.  It builds community where there should be enmity between factions.  It removes condemnation.  It sets us among the saints.  It's a thing.

Paul begins with a bit of history.  "Abraham", he says, "is the father of us all".  It might not be clear to every modern reader the extent to which these are fighting words.  There are some who were listening to St Paul, or reading the letters which he wrote, who would have said:

I am part of the family of Abraham because of my name, my lineage and my childhood religion.  This man or woman sitting next to me here on the park bench, however, is not of the family, because this person is a Greek or a barbarian.  I am a Jew.   I am necessarily one of Abraham’s children.  I am a son or daughter of Abraham because I must be.  I was born to it.

Paul throws a wrench into this implied necessity:  things are not the way they must be - they are the way they could be when men and women believe that God will do what he says he will do.  

We are all children of Abraham when we do what Abraham did which was:

·        to hear what God promised,
·        to take stock of his own inability to perform that promise on God’s behalf, and
·        to believe that God would, himself, accomplish what he promised.

We are being asked to believe  - to believe that we can be a part of God’s family and can find a place in his Kingdom in spite of who we know ourselves, in our weakness, our exclusion and our sinfulness, to be.  And there is abundant evidence in the family of faith that the barriers begin to drop, not when the conditions become optimal again, but that life regains its fluidity 

because God has promised 
and the human person has taken the risk of believing again.

Believe it?  Put it to the test.

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. 

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Pointing to Jesus - Giving way to God

The 3rd and 4th Sundays in Advent
Year B
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Luke 1:26-38

The fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve.  And like December birthdays it so easily gets lost in the mix, and so I’d like to combine the two Sundays, the 3rd Sunday of Advent last week and the 4th upcoming.   In particular I’d like you to hold the two principal characters of the Gospels (from John and Luke, respectively) from these two Sundays in your mind:  St John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of our Lord - significant characters – both of them remembered, preached about, enshrined in stained glass in churches around the world, but whose significance is not so much based on what they do as on what they allow.  Their bodies and their beings are not so much hammers and javelins as they are doors and passageways.  I probably need to explain.

Many of you wonder how much significance you have in the world around you.  It’s clear you have some ambition at work.  It’s clear from the contribution you would like to make to your church or the associations you belong to.  You want to say your bit.  It’s even evident from your family life.  Ask your children whether mum or dad still wants to hold some of the reins. 

It’s a thing – personal power.  You know it and the people around you know it.  Alfred Adler parted company with Sigmund Freud over Freud’s belief that sex was as much a fulcrum for the motivation of human beings.  Adler looked at it differently – no, he said, it is the quest for significance which motivates us.

Some of you have been beaten down in that.  You have the look of loss about you – what Adler meant when he coined the phrase “the inferiority complex”.  Some of you project an air of humility but behind all that you have a plan.   Other folks can hear the wheels turning.

Who are you then?  You might be on the younger end of life:  The sort of person who is battling in your salad days for a place on the ladder at work, for recognition among your social circle, for a listening ear in your family who haven’t cottoned on to the fact that you’re your own person now.  You’re somebody who would like to nail that funding, write that great Canadian novel, throw off the watching eye of the matriarchs and patriarchs – create your own footprint. 

Or flip it around:  Perhaps your bus pass is not far down the road:  You worry that you will be superseded by people who are younger and stronger than you and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  The children are grown, your spouse is already answering questions with that Mmmm yes tone of voice indicating that he or she has not fully listened to you.   You may simply be trying simply to hold on to the gains you have made.

If someone were to say to you – younger or older - that the key to life is learning to step aside and that great power is involved in giving way in the days of your strength you might find that a hard argument to accept – quite counterintuitive, really.

The record of John is this:  that when he was questioned by the envoys of the Scribes and Pharisees about himself, at what must have seemed like the height of his career, with his preaching attracting not only people from the suburbs of Jerusalem out to his desert pulpit but residents of Jerusalem itself in considerable numbers – when he was questioned sharply about who he was he declared openly and clearly that he was not the expected Messiah.  Asked further whether he was some heavenly adjutant like Isaiah or Elijah returned from the dead he answered plainly:  I am not the Christ, nor am I Isaiah or Elijah.  I am just a voice and the one I announce is somebody other than me.  This success I take off and lay to the side.  I announce another.  Jump ahead a couple of chapters and he puts it even more succinctly:

"He must increase and I must decrease."

Mary hears the news from the angel Gabriel that her youth is being asked of God as a gift.  On the cusp of her adult life, God asks her for what must be the substance of her near future.  She will be overshadowed by the Most High  She must risk the marriage which is about to begin – her status in her community – the stability of the ordinary family life she had every right to and for which her community, her upbringing and even her own piety had prepared for her.  Her imagined future happiness, says the angel, must now include a sword which will pierce her soul also. 

Biblical writers - describing conversations between God and a human agent be it Moses, or a prophet or such like – often leave out the silences.  God proposes and the human responds.  What gets missed in the narrative is that moment of silence which we must read in to the text – that necessary interlude, brief or not – where both Yes and No are possible answers.  Mary’s response to the angel, when it occurs, is her considered promise to be useful in the birth of something wonderful which is beyond herself. 

"I am the handmaid of the Lord.  
Be it unto me according to his word."

You were obliged in school to run at least one relay race.  You ran your portion of the track and then handed on the baton.  You’ve doubtless walked around graveyards filled with people who had their day.  It’s no mystery that we eventually give way in our generation.   If you are the sixth president of your Kiwanis club it is no Greek tragedy that there will be a seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth president.    Giving way is the most normal thing in the world in the long run and unless you are Chaucer or King Tut the memory of you will cease in all the land.

As you approach the end of the civic year and think about the new one looming up perhaps you feel a certain dis-ease.  Of what are you resolved as the new year begins?  What did you accomplish in the last?  Do you resolve to be more of a hammer this year?  Would you chuck your javelin a little further along the track this year, conquer a little more territory, build up your walls a little stronger – dominate the resources around you a little more effectively, do that thing, write those words, settle that challenge?

Take stock, won't you, of what has the greatest value.  The angels gathering around the birth, unlike Gabriel, have no names.  The names we attribute to the Wise Men are mere legend.  Nobody knows who the shepherds were.  They gathered to witness the arrival of what they could not give themselves, what no end of human ability will ever supply and what you, at your best, will never be.  Resolve at least, this Christmas, to place your trust in what you do not have yourself – to point, as John did to what shows itself to be stronger, better and more beautiful than you.   Allow yourself, as Mary did, to be a channel for something you can never own yourself.  Allow wonder to replace confidence.  Truth and beauty are given to us from elswhere.  Unwrap then, with this newfound attitude of wonder, the gift 

Which has been prepared for you.  
And for the people you love.  
And for people you have never even met.

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.