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.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

If anything, God gets us!

The Second Sunday in Lent
Year A
John 3:1-17

Some things belong to you – moveable and immoveable goods.  You’d call these things your property.  They’re listed on your insurance.  There are also things which you don’t own but which are “your baby” nonetheless – processes at work which you got rolling, an article you’ve written, an idea, a recipe, a piece of music, even, which you created that you consider yours.  Then there are those things which you’ve been given to care for and to manage – the family fortune, the company secrets, the charter of the Association you belong to.  Whether or not any of these belongs to you, you still have some sense of ownership over them.

From time to time you might pause and ask yourself what “property” consists of, really.  Your name may be on the title deed but you’re only one of a series of people who has lived at 246 Elm Road across the span of a century.  You’re here and then you’re not.  And notwithstanding intellectual property laws, can anybody really be the proprietor of an idea?  These ideas of ownership don’t stand up easily in the face of a steady gaze.  Not when we are just dust in the wind.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as an owner, supervisor and gatekeeper of Israel’s religion.  He doesn't own the religious tradition but he’s certainly one of its chief stewards – one of its guarantors, one of its border guards.  Israel’s religion is his baby.  He comes to Jesus expressing both a genuine interest and at the same time a guarded caution about what Jesus is doing.  We think you’re one of us, he tells Jesus.  God must clearly be on your side given what’s happening around you in your ministry.  Is Nicodemus, speaking on behalf of official Israel, offering Jesus a franchise?  If so, why has he come at night and in secret?

As a religious expert and arbiter Nicodemus could be said to “get” the whole concept of God and to be the “go to” person for questions of law-keeping and belonging.  He has been chosen, trained and has risen in the estimate of his fellows but, even in this quite friendly night-time meeting, Nicodemus would presume to stand in Jesus’ presence as one able to include or exclude this itinerant rabbi from the mainstream.   And this is where Jesus stops him in his tracks. 

God crosses the centuries.  Nicodemus must know that.  The spirit of God moves here and there.  God speaks to whom he wishes.  Our drawing of circles around ourselves and our communities, our dividing up of religious resources and our “proprietary” attitude towards the story of God does not make us willing participants.   No, Nicodemus, you don't get God - you don't draw a circle around him.  He's not your possession or something which you claim in the name of your tribe.  We are not proprietors of God's Spirit.  Instead, we are the ones who follow the movement of that same Spirit. 

If anything, God gets us.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Tabula Rasa

The First Sunday in Lent
Year A
Matthew 4:1-11

What visual image would you place at the top of your parish website which sums Lent up in a single glimpse? A forehead with a cross made of ashes, an altar vested in purple cloth, a desert with a cactus plant?  I’ve got a proposal this year for a Lenten image – that of a clean slate – a blank piece of paper – what would be known in Latin as a Tabula Rasa. A clean slate is both nothing and everything.  Were one of our students here at Christ Church to hand in an empty piece of A4 paper to the teacher in lieu of a completed assignment they would quite rightly receive an F and a lecture from the teacher.  A note might be sent home which, I assure you, would have some words written upon it. 

An empty piece of paper receives no enthusiasm. 

On the other hand, if you were somebody with a poetic bent you might find yourself quite thrilled to pour yourself a cup of coffee first thing in the morning and to sit down at the table and place a piece of white paper and a pencil in front of you.  A clean state can represent the possibility of change, novelty and forgiveness.   Perhaps your guidance counsellor told you, when you were moving from Middle School to the High School that you could start over with a clean slate and that you should take the opportunity of make the best of this opportunity.

There's a scene in David Lean's movie Dr Zhivago that I will always remember.  At one point in the film the hero struggles through a war-torn Siberian landscape until he reaches his childhood home - abandoned and encased in snow and ice. There he is reunited with his lover. They fire up the stove in one room and make it habitable. In the midst of all this chaos - the Russian Civil War and the depths of winter - they have a brief interlude of peace. 

Zhivago finds the desk he wrote on as a child. He opens the drawer and discovers there, laid out in order, a sheaf of white paper, a pen and a bottle of ink. 

He writes a poem. 

Blank pages and blank landscapes offer an endless series of possibilities. 

That Jesus spends time in a wilderness at the beginning of his ministry is no accident.  Israel has always come to its senses in the desert - in a place where the din of human conversation is silenced and where the usual comforts are set aside.  The desert is a place where humans are sheltered by whatever structures God had made and not by the labour of their own masons and carpenters.  It is a place where food is found and not grown.  It is a place where priorities are reassessed and new decisions are made.  

Do you have such a place around you?  Do you have such a place within you?  

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.