Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Of Fools and Foundations

The 7th Sunday after Epiphany
Year A
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ….  Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.

Have you been called a fool, yet?  Do you think maybe you are a fool? 

Who’s making the judgement?  Your bank manager?  Your guidance counsellor at school?  If the foundation of the world around you is something like the Law of the Jungle, where only the strong and cunning survive, then any behavior which doesn’t further your cause or allow you to come out on top is going to be foolish.  In such a world you need to just hunker down - educate yourself and your children in the skills necessary to maintaining your place in the world and avoid all unnecessary distraction.

St Paul would take issue with you as he did with members of the Church in Corinth.  Christ, he says, has laid the only foundation upon which we can depend and upon which we must establish our lives.  It’s not the Law of the Jungle either.  The nature of the
foundation he lays down is expressed in his willing death for the world but the details of that law of life can be found in the Sermon on the Mount.  Christ sets out the foundation of a world with a curious shape.  In his world those who give will receive, those who lose their lives will find it again and those who allow themselves to mourn will one day rejoice.  Being wise in such a world requires a very different skill set from the one which many of our teachers and mentors felt it necessary to pass on to us.  Being wise in such a world might require that we adults undergo a process of “unlearning” to become wise again or wise perhaps for the very first time.

The wise among us were oftentimes well-schooled by those who wanted to keep us safe.  We inherit what our forebears learned the hard way in wars and Depressions and times of trouble. They’ve done their best for us but the Gospel is not merely the wisdom of the ages boiled down.   To depart from the world’s wisdom and the comforting foundation it provides opens us up to the possibility of change, chaos and loss.   Foolishness.  It’s not something you’d do lightly.   You would need to possess some spark of fearlessness.  Fearlessness, in fact, is exactly what the Gospel message has on offer.  We live out the Law of Love because we must but also because we can.  Jesus’ sending out of his disciples into the world is predicated on the datum of his death and resurrection.   Easter has made fearlessness a way of life.   The Easter experience of the early church allowed them to live different lives from those of their fellow citizens in the Empire – standing tall and standing firm – but upon a very different hard surface.   

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Here and now the choice is made.

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Year A
Deuteronomy 30:15-20

 Moses said, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…….Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 

Did you ever see the 1996 film Trainspotting? If you had, then you’d remember the opening “Choose Life” monologue of Ewen McGregor’s character in which he admits that he and his circle of heroin-addicted friends living in the Leith district of Edinburgh have given up their right to choose. 


McGregor’s character puts it this way: “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin.”

People in the full possession of their faculties don’t routinely choose negative outcomes.  What you will hear, though, is that men and women feel they have no choice in many matters.  It’s work, its family, it’s all those the inner compulsions which overtake us.   We’re too old.  We’re too young.  It’s the addiction speaking.  It’s company policy.  We claim not to be the prime movers which the passage from Deuteronomy suggests that we are: able to choose door number one or door number two, the red pill or the blue pill, the fork in the road to the left or one to the right.

In the four verses preceding this Sunday’s reading, Moses states that the commandments of God are “very near”.  They are in the hearts and on the tongues of his people.  The information we need has been there the whole time.  When questioned in the aftermath of a personal disaster most folks will admit that they knew better than to sit mutely on their hands.  Is there, perhaps, some comfort in being powerless to choose and willfully blind in the face of what we should be able to see clearly?  Circumstances (like heroin) rob us of our power to choose.   But have we not chosen to nestle ourselves in these very circumstances, to blend in to the background, to blur our own vision or to vote with the majority?  People devastate themselves, their families, their relationships and their communities all the time by their willful inaction.

Moses sharpens his stick.  He makes a reference to time:  “I have set before you this day” -  life and good and death and evil.  Ladies and gentlemen, ten inches in front of your feet the road forks.  

It will be one way or t'other.  There is both hard news and good news in such passage of Scripture.  

It is hard news for the willfully blind that their blindness may be self-inflicted and they have no excuse.   They must choose.  Here and now.  It is good news for those of you who have felt themselves powerless and who had forgotten that the world is a more open place than it is a closed place.  You can choose.  Yesterday’s bad choice or your own personal history is no perpetual contract.  Every moment contains that threshold and that doorway to life.  

Saturday, 4 February 2017

The Feast of the Presentation
Luke 2:22-40 

Simeon took him [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying, "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all  people…”

How important do you think you are?  I hope you think you’re important. 

I hope you let those around you know that they are important too.  We spend a great deal of time as parents, spouses, employers, care-givers, older brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts showing the people around us that they are important.  It would be a hard message indeed to tell somebody that they weren’t important – that they didn’t matter – except we do also need to let people know – especially our young people - that they aren’t the centre of the universe.  Their individual importance can, and indeed sometimes must, take second place to larger projects and a larger story.

Small particles are attracted to large bodies.  We call that gravity. 

And, after all, aren’t our treasured attributes oftentimes inherited?   They’re not, then, completely our own.  We glean things from teachers, we share our mother’s sense of
humour, our parents’ DNA.  We are creatures of our culture and age and so the thing that is us in a sense isn’t completely us or at least isn’t completely our own possession

Maybe we get that point when we’re very old – like Simeon or Anna in this Sunday’s Gospel reading - and learn to lean away from ourselves into something better.   We got bored with our own importance long ago.  We have been waiting for a long time to see something which is not us and is not ours but is nonetheless beautiful and promising.  It is so wonderful that it can never be owned even by the holiest of men and women.  We hold that child in our arms and think that, yes, we could die today.  What we have in our own curriculum vitae doesn’t hold a candle to what the Spirit of God is about in the world, to what God has done in the birth of this child, and it is enough to have witnessed it and to tell others about it.

Proclaim the importance of the people around you.  Help the little ones you raise and the people you care for gather to themselves the sense of self-worth which is requisite and necessary in this life.  But in the full flower of your maturity do cultivate that ability to let it slip to the side in the presence of things which are bigger and better than you can ever hope to be.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

It's the real thing......

The Third Sunday in Advent - Year A
Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing,
he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the
 one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Between 1968 and 1971 the Coca Cola company worked on a series of advertisements loosely grouped together as the “Real Thing Campaign”.  You might be old enough to remember one of them from 1971 – the famous inter-racial song on the hillside: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke…” which ended with the refrain “It’s the real thing…”. 

Would you know the real thing if it kicked you in the backside?  Would the “Real Thing” fulfil your expectations or defy them?  Maybe you’ve spent years yearning for something you knew so well that you could almost taste it.  You’d recognize it a kilometre away - this or that opportunity – this or that perfect person.  You’ll have fleshed out the desired thing in your imagination during sleepless nights.  It will look like this – he or she will be like that.  The imaginary thing or person or occasion or opportunity has grown quite specific.  

You could draw a picture of it.

You're waiting, then, for something just like that to wander into view so that you can hop up and shout “bingo”? 

Give it a sec. 

You’ve built up in your mind an idea of what the real thing will look like.  You’re the one supplying its arms and legs, setting out the rules by which it will work, what it looks like, sounds like and smells like.  That might pose a problem for you out there in the real world.

I suggest that when you finally do encounter a “Real Thing” it will be a bit strange and it will be strange precisely because it’s not you.  It is not the product of your imagination.  It does not resemble your own face staring back up at you from the depths of the well.

In our reading from Matthew’s Gospel this Sunday, John the Baptist has already been put into prison by Herod Antipas.  His days are numbered and he has time to think.  He has time, even, to fret.  He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he’s the real thing or should they keep on looking.  John, you will remember, has publicly recognized Jesus as God’s lamb, as the coming Messiah and as one more worthy than himself.  But he is now assailed by a doubt:  something about Jesus’ ministry has not conformed to what he, John, had imagined.  And so he needs to ask. 

Jesus words are that the benefits of his ministry are abundant and obvious.  The blind, the deaf, the lepers, the lame and even the dead will all attest to its power.  Jesus finishes, however, with these words:

“Blessed is he who takes no offense at me”.

Jesus ministry will not be tamed by the cultivated hopes of either the great or the small of Israel.  You may not control the answer to your greatest desire. What comes to you from God is not generated or limited by your own imagination. Be encouraged and even delighted by its strangeness.  Discomfort may be the greatest proof that something real has entered the world—there to be met and known and followed.        

Friday, 25 November 2016

You know what time it is!

The First Sunday in Advent - Year A                                                              

Romans 13:11-14                         
Matthew 24:36-44
You know what time it is….

A statement.  There is no question mark:  You have enough information to know that the school bus is coming or that you risk being late for work if the traffic is heavy.  No doubt it’s tax time somewhere in the world.  The mailing limit for Christmas presents is almost here.  Don’t you owe the world a better degree of attention?  
What do folk say in response?  Answers are at the ready:  How time flieswhere have the years gonegoodness is it that time already?  Time, it seems, is something which catches up with us like a predator. We present ourselves as victims of time.
A quick survey of the readings during the four Sundays in Advent reveals that there are lots of people not paying attention to the movements in the world and the movements of the Kingdom of God which are happening around them.  A voice cries in the wilderness—a young woman conceives a child in a provincial backwater—a stump produces a shoot—the thief arrives in the dead of night.  We’re not alone.  Plenty of people are not paying attention. 
Which makes you special, then. This Sunday you are going to be privy to what Jesus said to his disciples :
Keep awake, therefore...
or there amongst the Christians of Rome to whom Paul wrote:
You know what time it is, how it is now the  moment for you to wake from sleep.
You have choices to make and a life to be greeted with open eyes and clear vision.  There is darkness to put off from us, to cast out from within us and to resist around us. There is never enough time for those who will not redeem the time they have been given by being wakeful. God is at work in the world and you are invited to join him.  The time is now—in this mortal life.  Now—in the year which begins this Sunday.  Here—in the place where we live and amongst these people beside us.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Pentecost 26
Proper 28 - Year 
Luke 21:5-19

“By your endurance … gain your souls."

Image result for horsemen of the apocalypseSo - how was your experience of the American election, then?  Good?  Bad? 

The beginning of a new dawn?
The end of the world as you know it? 

If it was the latter, for example, do remember that people emerge from all sorts of things – World Wars, state imposed famines in Russia or China, the Holocaust and the Armenian or the Rwandan Genocide, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War or the War of the Roses.  In the midst of the events it will appear to those on the losing end as if the real world or perhaps just the ‘known world’ were ending.  If you tacked up a sign or scrawled some graffiti on a wall which captured the beleaguered community’s self-diagnosis or the spirit of that moment it might well read:

“No Exit”. 

There’s something quite cold, then, about the archaeologist or historian who treats this or that ten-year or even fifty-year period - as if it were just  another chapter in the human story.  You want to scream at them as they dig around toppled Corinthian columns or through the layers of bones of an ancient gravesite: “Have you no empathy?  Don’t you understand that the world ended here?”

“But it didn’t”, she says to you over the top of her horn-rimmed specs, and points with her yardstick at the layers of civilization to be found above the burnt brick and the rubble.  “Here – here and here”, she says, shrugs her shoulders and then looks at you as if you were some sort of pillock.

In the small “apocalyptic” section of Luke’s Gospel, which we are reading this Sunday, Jesus uses three imperative verbs for his followers who will live in “interesting times” – outlining the things they are to do or not do:

Verse 8: “Watch”.  From the fact that Jesus needs to say this to folks who are obviously already looking around and observing, we must conclude that the word contains some sense that discernment is more than just observation.  Open your eyes and cultivate an eagerness to see something beyond the mere facts of victory, loss and change.

Verse 14: “Decide now that you will not make up your mind ahead of time about what to say” in your defence or in the defence of your  party or your ideals.

Verse 19: “In your endurance (or patience) acquire/possess/gain your soul”.  Most English translations of the New Testament cast this as a future verb (“In your endurance you will gain your soul”) but the verb is an imperative in the original Greek text. An imperative is an instruction. There is very little which is automatic about the process. You must choose to follow it.   Waiting can just be waiting - a fruitless exercise.  But you, the faithful follower of Jesus, have taken the first two imperatives seriously, which  makes such patience a fruitful exercise. 

Discerning rather than merely watching (v.8), and refusing to cloud that discernment by anticipating every evil outcome ahead of time (v.14),  you open the door to the full possession of your own self, in its novelty and openness to God and to the world (v.19).  What could be better?  What could be more necessary right now? 

Friday, 14 October 2016

Even at the risk of being rude

The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24 - Year C                                                                               
Luke 18:1-8

“…because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

We’ve all known somebody like this widow – a person who will not take no for an answer.  If we find ourselves in a difference of opinion with such a man or woman we muse to ourselves that it won’t be a question of if she (or he) wins the battle but merely a question of when.  Jesus exercises a sense of humour when he pits this widow against a corrupt judge and the scene ends with the judge on his front doorstep in slippers and housecoat rewriting his judgement there and then in the widow’s favour just to be rid of the woman.

A few commentators note that English Bibles usually soften the widow’s fearsomeness in saying that the judge worries about being “worn down” by the constant complaints of the widow.  The Greek verb comes from the world of boxing and refers to a darkening of the face.  The judge is worried about getting a black eye one of these days.  Crooked judges are not immune to the persistence of nagging plaintiffs, says Jesus, so why would your heavenly father (who, after all, is not an unjust judge) be deaf to the constant and persistent prayer of his children?  Now, you might pray for the wrong thing.  You could pray for things which you may not or cannot and, ultimately, do not receive.  God is not a soda machine which distributes the desired product when the button is pressed. 


What you must abandon forever is the thought that once you ask politely on a single occasion you must, from then on, hold your piece at the risk of being rude.  Before prayer is a concise request for a particular thing it is a conversation in space and over time and a relationship between you and your maker.  Your words and your feelings are a key component to it.  Prayer should make room for strong language.  It allows for a heated    comparison of the promises of God with the way things have actually turned out.  It will beneficially contain elements of your anger, sorrow and outrage.

The unrighteous judge says to himself:  Here she comes again in high dudgeon, with her papers and her affidavits and her high pitched voice.   He looks forward to the encounter with dread and wishes it over.

Your heavenly father sees you coming as well.  He knows what you want and he knows what you need.  He anticipates  the fruits your conversation will bear and does not, in fact,  want rid of you.