The Triduum – Jesus entire Life and Ministry
If you are patient with them, words come together . . .
“Grandmother, let’s not have any godtalk while you are here, okay? I believe that God is everywhere. Let’s just get on with life” Charity – five years old. Reported to Eugene Peterson and recorded in ‘The Pastor – A Memoir’
‘The same Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.” The old man said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.” ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ trans. Benedicta Ward
“It may be that the advent of language alone produces, and indeed requires, this distancing from reality, this degree of alienation . . .It has often been surmised that there is likely to be a relationship between language and psychosis. I believe that this is correct” Iain McGilchrist: The Matter with Things
“For God alone, my soul waits in silence” Psalm 62, verse 5
‘Whatever happened to sin?’ This question which did the rounds from time to time is not insignificant. By some it was thought that the church could be obsessed by it, yet certainly it has become less and less a focus of preaching. Something less and less part of our consciousness, to the point where in some circles, the Gospel announced as ‘Christ died for our sins, according to Scripture’ (1 Cor 15), indeed the significance of the death of Jesus Christ, except as a sign of God’s participation in human suffering, seemed a rather strange idea, with little or nothing to do with our daily lives.
Yet, apart from the insistence in some quarters that the Gospel and the teaching of the Church must be relevant to our lives, perhaps it is more the case that this seeming irrelevance calls our lives into question. Certainly as today’s gospel points us towards the rejection of Jesus’ by Jerusalem, with its own humanly directed salvation quest – not entirely disimilar to our obsession with political solutions to the human plight – it also directs our attention away from Jesus Christ as God’s response to us, and indeed the way of healing.
To understand better perhaps the centrality of forgiveness in life, we need to consider sin, and its effects.
Straightforwardly put, sin breaks the bonds of affection, or the ties of love by which all things are held together – perhaps this is Physics mysterious ‘weak force’ . . . ? For those of us living in highly technological, depersonalised societies such as here in New Zealand, or more generally Modern societies, the idea that my relationship with those around me is Essential to Life is a strange one. After all if I have money, why do I need people, except if I am of a gregarious, extroverted nature and like a party?
I can obtain the ‘essentials of life’ without attention (love) towards those around me. My life has the sense of something I sustain by my own efforts, in a not dissimilar way to the way in which Jerusalem understood that her Redemption would come by keeping the Law. Such a stance counter intuitively also suggests that Sin and Forgiveness have little to do with the Essence of Life. Where Sin is merely ‘breaking the Law’, as opposed to rupturing the ties that hold all things together in Love, forgiveness of sins is inessential to Life in its fullness.
In our society in which technology ever infiltrates the ‘between’ of human existence, and we move toward the uncontact society towards which we have moved far far further than there is distance left to travel before its completion, we move towards a state of affairs in which in a perverse sense ‘sin will be no more and sorrow and sighing also’, for we shall have no connection with one another, to break. Yet that connection Is Life. In another sense, we shall humanly speaking, be dead.
Imagine it you will instead a community which is as large a community as we might meaningfully live within – say about 150. It is one in which the community works together to grow its food and in which there is of necessity mutual interdependence. If you fall out with your neighbour, or are indeed cut off from the community, this is a matter of life and death. Or indeed if you as a community fail to live in some kind of mutual relationship with the land in which It’s life is understood to be literally vital, then also you will die. Sin as the breaking the bonds of affection. between yourself and your neighbour, or yourself and the land, leads to death.
Forgiveness in such a scenario is also a matter of Life or Death. And this is fundamental whether we recognise it, in a smaller, more personal society as sketched out here, or in a city – say, Jerusalem – which does not recognise it, not least because cities are always out of tune with their surroundings, except in Urban Planners dreams.
God is Love. It is God we seek to kill in our failure to love. In societies which do not understand that they are fundamentally, essentially dependent on love. God is sent outside the walls to die. ‘Life’ so called has no Holy Anima, and increasingly mimics that of those forms of ‘life’ we have ourselves created without love, that is the machines, or graven images of God, that which we imagine we control.
Jesus, the Hen, provides the shelter of His Kingdom of Forgiveness and thus Peace for those who will Live, having at least some sense of what life is, and knowing that nothing counts more than the Love which binds all things together. He provides the overshadowing as the Blood of the Lamb, from Fox, or fire. So that when the storm hits, those who live by his Love, will be those who see it out to the end.
Learning God – A study for Lent 2022
Matthew Chapter 4 vs 1-11, Chapters 5,6,7
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the Devil” Matthew 4:1 (ESV)
“He calls his sons and daughters to the wilderness” Michael Card
[Find a notebook and pen, or pencil (I prefer a pencil).
Together with the Scriptures keep them close this Lent]
Recently one of our grandchildren celebrated her second birthday. Via the miracle of modern technology Sarah and I watch as she discovers the present her parents have given her.
Miriam was told to go to the kitchen and as the camera followed we saw her discovering a model kitchen within the kitchen. Having unpacked the box with the pots and pans and plates and cups she just set about ‘doing kitchen stuff’. It reminded us of when her mother and sister had also been given a play kitchen. They just set to ‘doing kitchen stuff’.
Children learn by imitation, but it is unselfconscious. It is such a remarkable thing. Jesus calls us to become like children in our faith – without self-consciousness; Learning God.
In this Jesus is our model “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”
Pause in Silence
Sit in the quiet with these words of Jesus. He can only do what he sees the Father doing . . . like the child can only do what they see the parent doing.
Perhaps take a pen and notebook – what does this summon up within you? Is there a prayer which rises up?
This is the entirety of our Christian vocation. This is our Christian Life, Life in all its fulness. To do only what we see the Father doing.
To live this life requires we see God clearly, and that is the purpose of the wilderness . . to learn God.
Pause in Silence
What comes to mind when you imagine Wilderness? Take time to imagine . . .
God’s ancient people the Hebrews were led out into the wilderness. This is the place which to our eyes is empty. Just the Wind of God, Breath, Spirit. There is nothing to distract . . . from God, and indeed ourselves.
There’s nothing we can do in The Wilderness to make a life for ourselves.
In my native Cumbrian dialect, the opening of Genesis reads,
‘In the beginning, there were nobbut God’ In the wilderness there is a blank slate and ‘nobbut God’.
God fills our vision as a parent fills the world of the child who lives in the flow of unconscious vibrant imitation.
Pause in Silence
What do we make of the idea of learning God?
How does it resonate, or not with our ideas of ‘Being a Christian’?
“To all who received him, who trusted him; to all those he gave the right to become children of God, to become those born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but born of God.” John 1:12-13
Some writers suggest we can translate the opening of Genesis, ‘In the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth’ This translation suggests a ‘coming into being’ of the surrounding world. But what of us? Of our Becoming into being?
Our study this Lent comprises the key elements of Jesus Wilderness life.
As the Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness, so Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There after 40 days of fasting – which sharpens our vision of what really matters – to be tempted, or more helpfully tested, judged, tried. (in the way one might try a metal to see if it was fit for purpose, in the fire.
‘Tempted’ carries a lot of unhelpful baggage . . . what is being tried here is Jesus’ discernment, his vision. Can he see right?
Seeing right the essence of the Life of God, as opposed to the death of Sin.
Then Jesus goes up on the mountain and there brings to fulfilment the encounter of God’s people with God on Sinai, when he gives ‘the Law’. Now from the Mouth of God comes Livingness in Jesus’ words.
For the rest of our time this week, read slowly through the ‘temptation’ story from Matthew and then the Sermon on the Mount . . .
Make a few notes as you go along. What strikes you? What attracts? What scares? What puzzles or confounds?
We have plenty of time. All the time we need to take is found in God’s hands . . . Let us know ourselves there in our imagination. And, what’s more, there’s nothing else we really have to be doing, is there?
Next week – Learning God – What do you see?
Priests and a Kingdom of Priests
Sermon for Evensong
Christ the King
‘the most remarkable aspect of [this] civilisation, . . . was the ability of even the poorest members of society to afford cheap and high-quality consumer goods, enabled by immense specialisation in production and an interconnected trading network that spanned the entire empire.’
‘even as they were living through its early stages, [people] were unaware their society was collapsing. Yes, goods were harder to come by, infrastructure was increasingly degraded, urban life was increasingly unsettled, economic growth was only a memory, and new religions boomed as people tried to make sense of their declining prospects. . . .For some people, great profits could still be made: for most, things went on much as before, though with a lower standard of living with each passing year. No doubt, things will improve soon, [they] told themselves: this is only a temporary blip.‘
Or so our cat might wish who has recently had to make do without his favourite, ‘Whiskas with Fish Selection’ . . . Is this a description of our current circumstances? COVID has caused massive disruption to our highly connected and intricate distribution networks, with containers scattered across the globe ‘like abandoned shopping trollies’ as one writer put it . . . ‘We’re out of EVOO! I cried on Friday evening as I prepared pizza . . .’ ‘there is none on the shelves’ my dear wife informed me . . .
Those descriptions however come not from a prophetic book about our days, but from a study on the collapse of Imperial Rome, a collapse which may have been in the view of St John as he struggled to record what he had been shown in his Apocalypse, or literally ‘Revelation’
What John sees is the underlying characteristics of civilisations as they collapse. ‘Great Beasts’ as we heard this morning, signify Nations or Empires, and their fall is the theme of Apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic for when a civilisation collapses, it is ‘the end of the world’ This is why in these days in some Christian circles it has become and object of fascination, yet central to our attempts to understand this strange text has been the theme of repeated patterns. ‘What goes around, comes around’. Civilisations rise, and they fall. The higher the rise, the greater the fall . . . the fascination of some Christians with The End of The World, can perhaps obscure the repeated pattern. Jesus himself says that even the collapse of the Jerusalem temple should not be understood as The End . . . although for many it was ‘the end of the world’.
And so the Great Angel cries out, “Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great!” And the ‘four horsemen’, ‘plague’, ‘famine’, ‘war’ and of course the pale rider, ‘death’, are the great disruptors whose regular return is curiously unexpected, and whose appearances increasingly destabilise what was thought to be secure and indeed eternal . . . Hitler’s Third Reich may not have lasted 1000 years, but the conceit behind the thought is common to all ‘great’ human civilisations. (It is a matter of some interest to consider how one might properly pray in such days . . . but another time)
In a sense one might suggest that to God’s people these words are written as reminders that even the greatest of empires is but a breath, a day in the sight of God whose kingdom we heard this morning – is an everlasting Kingdom. For God’s people suffer under these kingdoms, Rome of course, and Babylon. Which takes us to the Book of Daniel.
The book of Daniel is set in a time when God’s people are suffering – and have been taken into exile. This is the occasion of that most notorious verse in the Psalms 137:10. ‘Oh that THEIR babies heads were thrashed against stones’ the howl goes up no doubt from the mothers of those who had seen such horror inflicted by the Babylonian armies. God’s people suffer and cry for justice – and relief. The End of the Age of Rome, and of Babylon.
Daniel has risen high through the gifts God has given him, but continues to worship God, and not King Nebuchadnezzar. Running through the first part of the book is a repetitive theme of the King requiring that which belongs only to God, only for God to save Daniel and his friends.
Human hubris is the symptom of the End. Nebuchadnezzar, the father of Belshazzar is driven away from human civilisation as a reminder that he is not above all. (Perhaps the idea that ‘we shall save the climate’ is itself a manifestation of such hubris?) Nebuchanezzar was troubled by a dream, as it turned out a dream of himself as a great tree, cut down – Daniel tells him – your kingdom shall be re-established for you from the time that you learn that Heaven is sovereign. Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.’
From the time that you learn that heaven is sovereign . . . Does our Age Know that Heaven is Sovereign?
One cannot help but hear echoes of the words of St Paul in one of the early Christian writings to the persecuted church in Thessalonica, about the ‘end of the age’
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
Nebuchadnezzar does not learn from his dream . . . and clearly hasn’t taught his son very well either
Belshazzar has destruction written all over him. At the apex of human power, Lord of all he surveys, he is drunk and orders that the vessels of Gold and Silver his father had pillaged from the Jerusalem Temple be brought forth. So they brought in the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
The symbolic power of this action needs little commentary, just four words . . . a hand from God’s presence is sent and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; tekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’
That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed.
‘Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great . . .’ in one night. And down goes the global trading system with it
Hubris – Over reach – the cautionary tale of Icarus – or perhaps ‘tall poppies’? Or booksellers building rockets . . .
Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great . . .
‘Alas, alas, the great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!’
And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,‘What city was like the great city?’ And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out, ‘Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste.’
Today is the last Sunday of the Year, Christ the King. The Day on which we are to call once more to mind that here is no lasting kingdom, and but one to which we owe our entire allegiance.
Next Sunday is Advent and we begin Year C in the Lectionary Cycle, the year of Luke
With all this in mind, and to bring it from stories of Kings and collapsing empires down to the personal level, I close with a parable with echoes of Belshazzar’s folly and fall, and the End of all human civilisations from the mouth of the one whose kingdom is eternal
‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
There is only one story. It is Always the Last Day. How then shall we live?
I somewhat butchered the poem in the sermon – you will find the true text here – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52298/we-are-seven
The Living God – Accept no substitutes!
Sermon for Trinity Sunday
‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord . . .’
While Sarah was away, folk may possibly have noticed that I was a little more disconnected than is usual. That’s because I was incredibly busy. In her absence I gave every spare moment I had to writing a book about her. It includes some of her life story told from various angles, some of her funny saying, and some poetry I wrote to her. Of course I didn’t have to stop there in this age of technical magic – I put some photos in there as well. And then I got in touch with Netflix and asked if they could make a movie for me about her life, and having read my book they happily concurred. It was a bit of a rush job and I’ve been sat in front of my screen watching the final edits over and over and am really looking forward to when it’s on general release and I can binge watch over and over and over again. In any spare moments I have now, I go back to the book and re read that over and over . . .
At which point you might gently tap me on the shoulder, or perhaps Sarah herself might and say, excuse me, but I’m here . . . ‘Please don’t disturb me! I’m reading and look at this great movie about you! . . .’ Yes, ,you would think me mad, and rightly so
The other night I stood out in the garden for over an hour observing the near total eclipse of the moon. Others might have stayed in bed and assumed correctly that they would be able to look at the photograph the following morning . . . we live in a world where increasingly we confuse representations for reality. If you ask me to picture The Queen, I find it very hard to get the image of Clare Foy out of my head. The other morning I watched the sunrise and found myself thinking – it’s as beautiful as a watercolor . . . Increasingly surrounded by dead representations we lose touch with LIVING Reality. And this perhaps above all is the reason why the contemporary culture has lost touch with God.
Today is Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday comes with beartraps for preachers. Notoriously, Vicars decide to take this Sunday off and allow someone else to preach, lest they get caught in their words. Of course one trap is Heresy, that you might say something wrong about God – like for example the clearly heretical statement at the beginning of one of our prayer book liturgies – but the fact that many people think this is the biggest trap is a sign of what I’ve just said. That we have substituted a representation of God, our words about God, for God. The real trap is the delusion that we can substitute words and thoughts about God, for the living and the lived reality of God.
I chose those words carefully and I’ll repeat them ‘The real trap is the delusion that we substitute words and ideas about God, for the living and the lived reality of God’
On December 6th Thomas Aquinas went to mass . . . Thomas was The Great Scholar of the church. He had over the years written perhaps the great systematic theologies, the Summa Theologica. That is what he is remebered for, but were he here today, I wonder if he might be going around saying, No! No! Because on December 6th something happened to Thomas. He came home from Mass and said to his servant ‘all I have written is straw’. He’s been born from above. He had had some kind of experience of God for which all his words were utterly inadequate.
He never wrote another word and died the following March
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
One of the habits I find increasingly difficult is how people say ‘God’ this ‘God’ that, ‘God’ the other, to justify themselves, or in the church a particular policy . . . This is taking the name of the Lord your God in vain, to try to USE God . . . The people of Israel had a not dissimilar practise – they would cry out ‘this is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord . . . Jeremiah 7. They had God contained – they thought they knew what God was about, and he lived in the Temple they had built, against God’s explicit prohibition . . .
Isaiah Sees the Lord – and the bottom edge of his robe fills the entire Temple building – the largest structure anyone in Jerusalem would ever have seen, and the seraphs declare ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts – the whole Earth is full of his glory . . .
To paraphrase St Paul’s letter to the Romans – God is Obvious! Why do you not see him as Isaiah did? Why are you strangers to him, and he to you? Why are you blind? Why do you use God substitutes and then just get on with your lives as if the Living God was somewhere else? Why do you talk about him, in a way you would never talk about a person who was sat in the room with you? Words, words, words . . . “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” As Job says ‘but now my eyes have seen him! I repent myself in dust and ashes
The Christian Life is the Life of God or it is nothing. It is the Lived and living experience of God in the world which cannot be reduced to words. It is not even ‘a faith we live by’ for to reduce it to any kind of formula is to kill the life. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life!
So to come to Paul again – For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. That is the mark of the Christian – not that they ‘live out their faith,’ a way we have come to say, but that they are born of God’s Spirit – and act in accordance with his movements.
Let me give you a simple example of this, which is very clear. As everyone is aware here, I face East during the Great Thanksgiving, and at other points in the service. Why? Because the Spirit of God in me compelled me to. I could do no other. It wasn’t that I had as it were figured out that I had to, rather the other way round. I was racing to keep up with God. My theology had to straighten itself out in the slipstream. I could give you now some reasons, but the danger would be that you might think I had figured it out ahead of time. I rarely if ever figure things out ahead of time and then put them into practise. ‘He does it because he believes this that or the other’
When I was called to ordained ministry I thought it couldn’t be right. Why? Because of my theology
When we were called to New Zealand I came up with loads of really good theological reasons why this couldn’t be right
When I first faced East I did so having for years thought it was theologically wrong, and still wondering, but I could do no other.
Isaiah stands in the Temple and all his God words are dust, straw . . . I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips . . . the letter kills,
but the Spirit give life
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God
For those who Know God – God is their life. That is what it means to call God your father – that you are born of God
And this is for the entire people of God. I was so so dismayed when I received a communication from a member of the clergy which embodied what is called the Spirit of clericalism which is horribly alive in so many ways
The church has a patchy history of caring for its clergy, and burn-out and other health issues too often feature in the lives of passionate and committed followers of Jesus Christ
What??? Apart from the huge issue of people getting burnt out following the one who rpomises that if we are with him we will be given rest – whose yoke is easy, and whose burden is light . . .
I wonder if you heard that? Were you indignant? I kind of hope so. If I believed for one moment that as a church we thought that the whole people of God were not ‘passionate and committed followers of Jesus Christ’, or that somehow I was moreso, I would have to resign my orders. This is precisely what always troubled me about ordination and it does to this day. That it created a ‘passionate and committed class’ amongst the half hearted and patently wobbly laity . . .
Part of the reason for East facing I think, is that the priest should be anonymous – simply one of the people of God oriented towards the life of God coming to us in and through Jesus. Perhaps like one who sees pointing the gaze of others but certainly no more. Anyone who sees God can be a priest
Anyone can be a priest if the Spirit of Christ dwells in them, if they are born again and can See the Kingdom of God. If they have no desire to deal with dead representations of God, with books or movies – because God is Real to them . . . Anyone for whom God is not only a living reality, but their lived reality, Christ in them Alive!
Think for a moment as we close about someone you dearly love. Perhaps they’re sat beside you, perhaps you wish they still did for they have died. If I took them away, or if they had been taken away and I said – ‘don’t worry here’s a book about them’, or ‘here’s a movie we’ve made of their life with an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to them’ Can such a thing subsititute? If that is true for the one you love, how much more true is it for God. Know God, If you Know Jesus – no substitute will do . . .We know we wouldn’t accept a book about a loved one – we know that it is no substitute. Stop accepting substitutes for God
We believe in the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but do not think for a moment that God can be reduced to a formula which the scholars can dissect, for to See him is to die to our own agency and life our own definitions, our theologies lie in the dust. To Know God is to be animated by his life – and the Spirit blows . . . where’er it will – we follow in his slipstream, chasing to catch up.
GK Chesterton once said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been tried and found too difficult”
There’s a temptation to think that these words are aimed at an audience outside of the church, but Chesterton was a wise old owl . . . he knew the reality of the Church well enough not to romantically imagine ‘here are the people who get it . . .’
Judgement begins with the people of God, those who have the sacred scriptures, those to whom God offers the Spirit and the Eucharist . . . those without excuse
‘Jesus is coming for his church’ we hear . . . and those words should give us pause
I once had a church that over ten years I had helped to get along without me . . . then I left. Unfortunately they appointed a new Vicar who took charge and made himself indispensable . . .
I’ve always struggled with the idea of being ‘a Vicar’. I remember telling my own Vicar that no one should be a Vicar as Vicar was from the word ‘vicarious’ – in the place of . . . Jesus
Although that isn’t its actual historic meaning – the Vicar replaced the Rector – all the same the idea that the people of God need ‘someone in charge’ has a very very long history, and God’s rejection of that is the heart of the message of Easter, now made most clear as Jesus goes to be with the Father.
Down through the years Israel had wanted one thing above all else – ‘a king, then we can be like the other nations’ As Samuel the prophet tears his hair out, God speaks to him – it is not you they are rejecting, it is me. Whenever we hear a call for leadership in the church it is the same – God is being rejected and the way of Jesus abandoned. As Bishop Kelvin used to say ‘those who cry out for leadership want someone to support their position’
But, to use a not inappropriate metaphor, Ascension Day is the day that Jesus says to His church, ‘now it’s time to put on your big boy pants’.
For three years Jesus has been showing the disciples the Way – His Way . . . They have squabbled – they have fought for power – Jesus has shown them His way laying down his power . . . which leaves them speechless and uncomprehending, and on Easter morning plain terrified.
He was only here for a season – The work has been finished upon the cross he reminds his disciples. Sins are forgiven. It is time to grow up and follow me in laying down your power . . .
Yet, to develop Chesterton’s words – it is not that following Jesus has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has been found too hard and not tried . . .
For the way of Jesus is Very hard, but not in the way we think. It is not hard in the worldly sense that we have to flog ourselves to death in His service. After all Jesus says ‘Come to me, and I will give you rest’
Back to why Vicars are a bad idea . . . Those of you blessed with children know all about this. “Muuum . . . johnnie said a bad word! Susie hit me! ” Dealing with children is dealing with the inability of children to grow up and live authentic human lives. It requires ‘a parent figure’ who is ‘in charge’ and judges between one person and another . . . yet Jesus said ‘man, who appointed me as a judge between you . . .’ Hey, Jesus – aren’t you here to tell people how right I am?
The story of Israel in the wilderness is a story about children. Moses is worn out because all the people bring their disputes to him . . . “so and so did this, or that or the other.” But all of that came to an end on the Cross. There, the Judge dies . . . The King dies . . . The Cult of the leader is demolished.
Now there is only the Life of God, or death – except the Way of God looks like death to us and that’s our problem
Sometimes in ministry someone says something which reveals that they have seen the way of Jesus and rejected it, whilst still holding on to their self-righteous ‘Christianity’.
I remember well how at a Christian basics group I ran a young woman, the eldest of three sisters, on hearing the story of the Prodigal and how the Father went out to bring him home and dress him in the best robe, “After all he had done!” cried out “That’s not fair!” BLessed was she who heard. For once the horrible message of Jesus had struck home.
“Horrible message?” Yes, that is how it appears to us, the way of death, the Cross in all its ghastliness confronts us.
Another example – Corrie Ten Boom – whose family hid Jews from the Nazis in wartime Holland. Eventually they were betrayed and taken to Ravensbruck Concentration camp where with her beloved sister Betsie, who dies there, she conducted worship services and led many to the way of Jesus
After the war Corrie had a remarkable ministry – she went all over Europe preaching the gospel of forgiveness. As she recalls that message and ministry was most powerful in Germany and it was there one day she was confronted with the “Horrible” message of Jesus. After preaching in a small church a man whose face was radiant from this the transformation this message had worked in him came to her to thank her. As he held out his hand she recognized him, one of the SS officers from Ravensbruck. He had been set free by the announcement of the gospel . . . but had Corrie . . . well you can read all about it in The Hiding Place.
The counsel of Jesus is clear and terrible at the same time. I have known Christians ignore it. ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, go to them in private and show them their fault’ . . . “What? Grovel before that person? Humiliate myself?!” The horrible message of Jesus strikes home . . . His Life giving message is about dying . . . Notice Jesus did not say – “if your brother or sister sins against you, go and find the church leaders and get them to deal with it, as in the days of Moses. Get them to grant you justice!” The Judge is Dead – so is The King . . . No now it is the Way of Jesus – laying down your life, your dignity for the lost person. ‘insofar as it lies with you be in fellowship with your brothers and sisters’
This person had really heard the horrible Gospel at last. only one goal, to seek and to save the lost. To that end he will suffer the utter humiliation of the Cross ‘to win them back’ What does he seek above all? Restoration of relationship. That is all that matters. Without Reconciliation there is no justice. Reconciliation is the undoing of Sin – as St Paul puts it, it is ‘the gospel of reconciliation’ – to go out to those who have cut themselves off and so are dead, and restore them to fellowship . . . But pride gets in the way – ‘they’ve gone too far’ – or just further than you or I will go. So we leave JEsus to do it, but we turn round and . . . well he’s gone . . .
The end of all the old ways is the Cross. There Jesus dies. For a few brief weeks he appears to his disciples, reminding them of all that he has said – because he is going to the Father. Today he has gone away.
On the Cross the old way has come to an end – now there is only the way of Life, the way of the Spirit, the way of Jesus which looks like death. Yet we don’t want to hear this for as Paul says ‘the way of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’
So, we try and find another Jesus to be “Father”, even though Jesus said – ‘you will call no one on earth “father”‘ Or in that vein we might add ‘VIcar’, or ‘Church Leader’. In the early days of the church, it is notable that the letters written to the churches are written to ‘all the Saints’, and the leadership is not mentioned, if of course it exists, and we should be wary of reading it back into the text . . . The Risen Christ addresses his letters to ‘the angel’ of each church and commands that We hear what the Spirit is saying to the church . . . but it is hard to grow up. It is hard to trust God to work in our brothers and sisters – yet that is the Only Way
That is why the Church has one thing to be given to – to pray for the gift of the Spirit. To pray that where there is death, Life will blossom. For apart from the Life of Jesus the Way of Jesus is not hard, it is impossible. Jesus has gone . . . Jesus has gone. It’s time to get those big boy pants out of the cupboard
Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday, 3rd after Easter, Year B, 2021
1 John 3
‘What do we mean when we say ‘God’’?
The Sundays between Easter and Pentecost are properly taken up with a struggle – struggling to come to terms with the resurrection. ‘Christ is Risen!’ we loudly, perhaps even joyfully proclaim. Perhaps like Thomas we doubt. And that is not wrong, for if Christ is Risen, then what? If Christ is Risen from the dead, then how we look at and understand the world is seriously wrong, and if the way we understand the world is wrong then the way we live in the world is wrong . . .
What’s more if as we pondered last week, Jesus the True Human is bodily raised from the dead – if having passed through death he walks and talks and eats fish – then what does it mean to be Human?
And as we considered a couple of weeks ago, if Jesus in his Deity is crucified, what does that mean about what we mean when we say ‘God’? What does the revelation that God is not some Image of perfection humanly speaking? If God is happy, joyful even to reveal himself as wounded for our sake? Such that Thomas can say not merely ‘you are Lord, you are God’, but ‘you are the Lord of me, you are the God of me’? If there is a self recognition of God in the wounds, if by the eye of faith, we are sharing in something with God?
So Jesus offers his wounds to Thomas – in utter vulnerability. Not healed over wounds, but gaping wounds . . . . How we try and pretend that they are anything else but a gash in his side, and great holes in his hands . . . Jesus says – do not be afraid. I am utterly vulnerable before you, as on the cross, naked before the gaze of the whole world. Do not be afraid. The door is as open as this wound in my side. Come enter into my life.
Jesus’ wounds are not there for identifying him, they are there for identifying with Him, seeing ourself in Him, Knowing ourself in Him, and so as we read today, The Sheep know their Shepherd and the Shepherd knows His sheep.
This Knowing is so close, it is the knowing we find so difficult if not impossible with one another. The closest we come to it humanly speaking is in the ideal of marriage, where the bride and groom declare to one another of their own free ‘All I am I give to you, All I have I share with you’. I lay down my life for you . . . I give you my life.
And so today we move to ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ – and those familiar words of the 23rd Psalm should take deep root in us. ‘The LORD is my shepherd . . .’
Yet like the vulnerability of the wounds, we seek to cover this over as well. I wonder how many of us will be thinking – yes, the Shepherd, the King! Which do you want? A Shepherd who is defined by kingship, or a King who is revealed as a Shepherd?
In the same way that we might actually be terrified by Jesus weakness and vulnerability in his humanity, so much want ‘The Leader’ – The Strong King . . . Perhaps this is why we end up seeing the cross as some mere transaction, a price that has to be paid, because in so doing this preserves for us the Ideal we want for God – Strong, Powerful . . .
The Resurrection of Jesus puts us on the point of a dilemma here . . .
The is God on the Cross, or it is not . . . It is God at our feet washing them, or it is not . . .
So much Christian talk about the Cross, effectively sees it as God popping out of heaven on a rescue mission – a mission which then mysteriously has to wait for us to die before we can share life with him, rather than on a mission to share life with us, here and now. We who fled from him, he has come out to live amongst us . . .
God is the one who wishes above all to share his very existence with us. That’s why we are created . . . This goes way way beyond what we call ‘having a relationship with’, such words are inadequate. This is a mutual indwelling. This is the heart of the Christian Genius, which sets it apart from any human religion.
In Bhuddism, there is no God; In Hinduism there are many gods and all sorts of stories are told about them, rather like the Greek myths; in Islam the idea that God could share in human existence is impossible. God is utterly unapproachable. The version of Christianity which says that humans cannot ‘go to heaven’ unless Jesus dies to seal a deal with the otherwise unapproachable God, not only seems to ignore the God who sits down at table with sinners, but also sounds suspiciously like a form of Islam . . .
No. The death and Ressurrection of the Man-God Jesus of Nazareth reveals a God who is far from remote. We fail to see him, not because he is too far away, but because as St Augustine reminds us, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves, such is his identifying with us. When the shepherd brings us home to himself, he brings us home to ourself . . . Salvation is the Good Shepherd bringing us home.
But, as many Christians ask – how can we know? This is simple. As St John says, because in the same way that the Life of God flows out of Jesus, it also flows out from you.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
If by faith in Jesus, God dwells in you, then God’s life will flow from you – to pick up on a phrase in the verse previous to our reading – they have eternal Life dwelling in them
We pass from death to Life – we enter the Kingdom and feed with Him at His table – we are filled thus with His Life and Love one another as he has loved us, without reservation, in mutual sharing of all we have and all we are, and so with Thomas proclaim his to be Our Lord, Our God.
Sermon for Easter 2
1 John 1
The Wounded God
Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
So I am sure that people really want to know how my guitar lessons are going . . . As always there is a special FB page for folk who are doing the course and people are putting up their photos of their fabulous guitars, and videos of their amazing playing . . . There’s a video of someone a little better than me, which has no likes. . .
I look at it and think . . . I can never be like that . . . Fail!
I wonder what we make of the story of the disciples – have you ever heard folk say ‘The disciples failed’. When Jesus needed them, they fled . . . they are doubting, they make rash promises which they can’t keep . . .
I wonder, as we hear this familiar story of Jesus’ appearing to his disciples, if we are reading it through that lens? If the truth is perhaps so life altering that we can’t hear it?
I mean, Have you ever been let down by someone? What was your emotional response? Love?? Or anger perhaps?
When you encountered the person . . . did you put them right?
Or perhaps you are one of those ever so rare people who is aware of having let someone down . . . What would your response be? Shame perhaps – almost certainly. Perhaps you wouldn’t want to meet the person you had let down. A resolve to pull your socks up and try and live up to their standards for you . . . Like God, no?
After all – we come to church and sit here and ‘call to mind our sins’ . . . make a list of how we have failed . . . perhaps we make a resolution ‘to do better’, to try and live up to God’s standards, and because we are, in the same way we expect others to live up to ours . . .
Back in 1985 a huge concert was held at Wembley Stadium – Live Aid. I wonder how many folk here watched some of it? It was to raise awareness and money to ‘feed the world’ as our TV screens were full of images of starvation in Ethiopia . . . In terms of star names, everyone was there including Queen . . . With Freddie Mercury strutting his stuff . . . ‘We are the champions of the world . . . No time for losers, for we are the champions . . .’ I wasn’t the only one who noticed a more than jarring note . . . no time for losers played out in front of images of starvation . . .
The world has no time for losers . . . it is its motto. Idols of perfection surround us and dominate us from birth . . . and our failure . . . ‘Could do better . . .’ So we need ‘people we can look up to leading us in the church . . . despite the FACT that we have to look down to see Jesus . . . washing our feet’
Images of perfection . . . Letting people down . . . but according to that story, this story of Jesus makes no sense . . .
The disciples are hidden for fear of . . . the Judeans . . . not Jesus.
Because in the eyes of the world – Jesus, like his disciples, is a loser . . . The World has no time for losers, like the disciples, like Jesus . . .
Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
He showed them his hands and side . . . Jesus identifies with failures . . . They are so happy to see him . . . that seems to be all that concerns him . . . Peter, get over yourself, I know you failed, but I’m not interested in that . . . ‘do you love me?’
Jesus shares his life with them, he identifies with them.
Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.
So the early church – life shared – instead of images of perfection which separate us one from another so we can only stand at a distance and admire, a community of those who have failed according to the world’s story . . .
And then Thomas . . . again we have a problem. If we read this through the lens of ‘the demanding God who calls us to live up to his standards’, we do not see Jesus . . . who loves and forgives and washes feet . . .
Someone wrote of Thomas – ‘John obviously has it in from Thomas – painting him as ‘the doubter’’ but to write that assumes the world’s standards . . . that being a failure by the world’s standards is a failure in the light of the gospel also . . .
Note Thomas’ response – ‘My Lord, My God . . .’ You are the wounded God . . . in the eyes of the world you are the failure God . . . You are the God with whom I can identify . . . you are the God who will not hold my failure over my head – you are the God who Loves me unconditionally . . .
If we take the Incarnation at all seriously we need to See the wounded God in the Wounded Jesus . . . his bodily imperfection. Jesus does not stand in front of them with his wounds healed – They are open – and so Thomas believes in truth – identifying himself with the God who is not ‘impossibly perfect’ . . .
From the wounds flow life – blood and water – the source of the eucharist is the wounded one – the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world – in other word’s God always was like this . . . pouring his life out through his wounds, by which we are healed . . .
You see, Jesus shares life in weakness . . . we are terrified of weakness – we are ashamed of our weakness in a world which demands strength, and success which has no time for human failure, for losers . . . which endlessly condemns and judges . . .
Why does Jesus call these disciples? Is he on some massive ego trip and doesn’t want to be outshone? If he wanted to set up a church in the image of the world, surely he would have selected people who were humanly speaking very gifted . . . or does he want to set up a church which is like Him? Like God? All too human
It is in weakness we are saved – at the end of ourselves . . . Years ago I had a major breakdown. I had been driven by images of perfection, of trying to please God, of working harder and harder and I blew up . . . Coming out of that was a revelation . . . all the old ladies of the parish gathered round – ‘oh it’s so terrible, those nerves . . .’ So many of them had been through that. Suffered from nervous exhaustion . . . all of a sudden there was connection we hadn’t had before in weakness – the Vicar was human
Playing the guitar, I watch videos of people who play so well. I can admire, but I cannot relate to them . . . recently someone posted a video which was much more like my clumsy attempts . . . a bond was formed . . .
A community of drug addicts is the closest I’ve ever gotten to see the Kingdom – like in Acts. No one counted anything as their own . . . a community of the wounded, surrounding the wounded Jesus, who points us to the Wounded God . . .
I wonder . . . how many of us live under these idols of the God for whom ‘we can never be good enough’, who are worn out as we drive ourselves without love or mercy? And how well do we as a church manifest the wounded God, the real God shown perfectly in Jesus – put your hands in my side . . . I am broken . . . recognise yourself in me.
My Lord, and My God
Sermon for Lent 1
Evensong – Sunday 21st February 2021
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
“Have you not discriminated among yourselves, and become judges with wicked thoughts?”
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
Why? Why does eating of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil lead to death?
Good and Evil . . . can We judge? Can we tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat?
Following the end of the Second World War, at the Nuremburg trials, the triumphant Allied forces showed a 6 hour long movie. Entitled, “The Nazi Plan”, it carefully spliced together film to show the horrors of Nazism. It was an act of judgement, of making the line between Good and Evil very clear. The official story of the war was simply that Good had triumphed over Evil. The judgement of History was clear. There must be no doubt about who the wicked people were.
Yet there was a problem with such a simplification. Rather than viewing from a great height – in ‘the great scheme of things’ – viewed up close the picture was not at all clear. As many many allied troops knew, they too had committed and been involved in atrocities. Those stories were not told. Not all of humanity was to be on trial at Nuremburg, although perhaps it should have been
Following the war in Germany, the shame of what had happened meant that the war was not spoken of, until a generation arose who did not have first hand experience of the war. They were angry when they discovered the truth. It was their parents who had been complicit – so in the 1970’s there was an attempt to wipe the slate clean. Most famous were the actions of the Bader Meinhof gang, yet they too came to a terrible realization. In condemning Nazism they had murdered people. As one former member said – “we too had become fascists . . .”
And despite many many attempts down through the years to produce Purity, the old problem remains. We have eaten from the tree and Know Good and Evil, but there is ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing’
We can ‘know about’. Or we can Know. And the difference is critical here, most particularly with respect to other human beings, but also the Creation itself.
To know about requires separation from – to know as it were from a distance. But to Know is to be woven into. “Adam knew his wife Eve and she conceived and bore a son”. Two lives become one, not in confusion but in Union. These are different Knowings.
To ‘Know’ Good and Evil is the human condition. Eating the apple, we take it into ourself. Yet, we are deceived. Our problem is that we confuse Knowing with knowing about . . . We set up an supposed objective distance from this or that person or act and declare them to be Good, or Evil. A curiously objective distance we even apply to ourselves . . . declaring ourselves to be Good . . . as opposed to that person or those people.
And it is that setting apart that is the root of the problem. By our distancing we think we can see properly. By judging we separate ourselves from others and indeed the world around us.
Jesus’ problem as he encountered people was with those who thought they were Good compared with others. We categorise them as ‘religious’ people, yet all people in those days were religious – it is a wrong distinction.
As some folk try to purify the world of religion, with all its attendant problems, they merely set up other versions of the same things, with sure dogmas of who is in the right and who is in the wrong. It wasn’t the Pharisees and Saducees who were entering the Kingdom ahead of the tax collectors and prostitutes, it was the other way round, and the first person to enter the fullness of the Kingdom was a thief . . . which brings us to the Cross of Christ.
To Judge is to undo the work of Jesus upon the Cross in making the two one. In his flesh uniting God and Human beings. He used the consequences of our alienation to undo the transgression of Adam, the sin of standing apart, from himself. He became a stranger even to himself. He is ashamed of his nakedness, his own being.
Now he has to cover himself. Separating himself from himself, he found himself separated from the woman – flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones. He no longer recognizes himself in his fellow human. The man and the woman hide from God, and become strangers to one another. The Good Creation becomes an enemy. Estrangement rules. And Estrangement is death.
Yet Death will not have The Last Word.
In the Resurrection of Jesus, God gifts eternal Life to humanity. Not how Paul speaks of humanity as a totality in his letter – from the one man all – how much more, from the one man all. For as in Adam, all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. Unless of course we don’t count ourselves as Christ himself did, amongst the transgressors. Amongst those people. Upon the Cross, Jesus hangs between two thieves . . .
We ate from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, thinking we might thereby stand as judge and jury – instead of which we found we took it into ourself – we were woven into Good and Evil.
Yet God in Christ wove himself into humanity – that we might Know not good and evil, but The Good, The Good One, and so share not in knowing about, but Knowing God
As Jesus Says. –‘Now this is eternal Life, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Not know about, but Know.
Our healing from the wound of the knowledge of Good and Evil is to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Life, the body and blood of Christ and thus Know Him. That is Life
Out of Control!
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds
‘I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it began to cry after him to return: but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, ‘Life, life, eternal life’
So begins the journey of the Pilgrim towards the heavenly city in Pilgrims progress . . .
I couldn’t help but think of this when a news item caught my eye. The newly elected MP Ricardo Menéndez who had travelled to Mexico for distressing family reasons. The powerful ehoes of the Government ‘advice’ – “Do not leave New Zealand”, yet something called him forth, and he has won few plaudits for it.
Similarly of course Sarah has left these shores to step into the thick of the current situation in the UK. Flying into a locked down country – against the stronger advice of some of her own family and to the bemusement of some here.
Stay Safe. Stay where you know. Stay in your cave. Stay where it is safe. But what if you have no choice?
Recently I’ve been in conversation with folks who are exploring a vocation to the ordained ministry of the church, both here and in the UK. There is only one failsafe test of vocation, which is having no choice. This is why I think the old ways of laying hands on people and ordaining them was far better, there was never any danger of self deception, they had no choice.
I’ve been considering those who have no choice in the world at the time of this COVID pandemic. Those who have no choice to work from home. The only choice is to go out to work or to starve. A choice between life and death, which is on the one hand no choice at all, and on the other the only ‘choice’ that matters. Those who have no choice in the world . . . Blessed are you poor – you who have no choice. For yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.
In our society, perhaps like no other time before, the idea of having no choice is understood as a bad thing. For those who are sufficiently well off we like to decide what work we will do – of course we might dignify it with the label ‘vocation’ – but in reality it is almost always our choice. We like having choice. It is a sign that ‘we are in control’ of the circumstances of our lives. To step into, or to fly into danger , in to the place where you are out of control, is seen as a form of insanity. The only people who do this kind of thing are those who have no choice . . . Something Summons them forth. LIFE calls. Follow me!
And so Peter, James and John drop the security of the life they know, the life where they have half a clue what is going on, the life they have in some respects. They left their nets and followed Jesus. Because when you hear the call of Life, you have no choice.
And so you relinquish that which choice creates, the illusion of control.
When we relinquish control we step out from our safe space, the shore of the life we make for ourselves. It is a death. It reveals itself precisely in the way people leave security because they have no choice. But as Christians we believe that it is precisely when we die that we enter Life in its fulness . . .
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves
Jesus took them. He leads them. They are not in control. They have passed through the death of relinquishing control, and enter Life.
Note Jesus words to the three disciples after this event. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So, after he has risen for the dead, the disciples are to tell people . . . about this!
Years later as Peter writes to the infant churches, of all the things he wants them to remember of his life it is this incident.
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
After the Son of Man has risen from the dead, Peter is telling people about how Jesus has led them through death to life . . .
And it was a disorienting experience. They thought they knew what life and existence was all about, yet now . . .
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.
Peter is babbling. He is like a new born child – he has passed into the Kingdom of Heaven . . . This experience has undone him. Crossing the boundary does that. Your world falls apart. And one way or another our world will fall apart. Through the cracks in our lives of quiet desperation to use Thoreau’s helpful phrase, light breaks in.
It’s always light – as with Paul on the road to Damascus, so too with Peter, James and John. Light – Terrifying bright Light – we die and enter Life in response to a call which we have no choice but to follow
There is Life. And then there is Fear which keeps us from Life. We live in a world dominated by fear, and fear creates the urge to control. An urge which has no space for those with no control. Think about cars. About how they are bigger and stronger and safer . . . but not for those who have no choice, the pedestrian.
The situation with regard to Covid only reveals this to a higher degree, the tightening grip of fear, fear which is the antithesis of life . . . And this happens in a myriad of ways. I saw something from the church officials suggesting that perhaps this was an opportunity to move to a new way of sharing the peace. Never mind that originally it was a kiss; handshakes and hugs are so yesterday in the ever so ‘Brave New World’, ushered in by those who are afraid. In which people get used to and then justify never hugging another person . . . This is not Life, it is a living death.
As our own beloved patron says, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear: for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 1 Jn 4:18 Put another way, as I was sharing with our Wednesday congregation, when we fear we do not know what Love is. Rather our definition of love is one which works within closed in boundaries where we feel safe. Where we are in control. When we are in control, Love is our choice . . . when we enter the life of God, Love just Is. Perfect Love casts out fear. Perfect love doesn’t merely cross the boundary, it stops seeing it. It is Life – Life, Love drives out fear
But this requires a death – a coming to the end of our life, or perhaps better, the end of our self . . . the life where we think we are in charge and in control . . . Perhaps this is needed for the church as well. I know from personal experience about how the church has become about control, about ‘we know how things are and God has left us to get on with ‘it’, that old story about God leaving us to get on with it. ‘Never will I leave you – Behold I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.
Control has been given over to Jesus – Jesus takes them, Jesus leads them. And they discover Heaven on Earth, because they have given up on fear and control, they have entered Life on the Holy Mountain.
When we hear that voice calling us to Life, we must go and step through the fear barrier to be Life in the World. Our life is put in God’s hands, where it belongs for now it is not our Life but His.
Heaven on Earth . . . not pie in the sky by and by.
When you know the power of life, you step through the fear barriers. Hearing its call you can but drop your nets and follow . . .
Or stay by the lake shaking your head after those who have gone . . .
1 Cor 9:16-23
What are you looking for? life or Life?
From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps reach out to grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. Acts 17:26-7
The North of England is a place of strange goings on and customs. From the obscure practices of hill farmers to old men in flat caps and whippet racing, there’s lots to confuse the merely curious.
On the outskirts of small towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire are huts, where for generations usually the male of the family in an effort to get a bit of piece has retreated to tend to his prize possessions – his racing pigeons. This is where ‘the little man’ lives his dreams, becoming the equivalent of sheiks and Rosthchilds with their thoroughbred horses.
Every few weeks a truck will collect baskets of pigeons and drive them to somewhere in Southern Europe from where they will be set free . . . and one morning the old man’s gaze will pass to the horizon where a dot becomes the prize pigeon, having flown almost unerringly home . . .
It’s thought this sense of direction is helped by magnetic particles in their beak . . . and humans are not dissimilar. We all have within us a homing instrument – the only problem we have is most people don’t know what it’s for . . .
Paul who has become all things to all people that he might by some mean save some preaches about this to those wise Athenians, saying, From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps reach out to grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
We were made to search for God. It is intrinsic to being human. As much as the pigeon, we are made to search for home. Our problem is that we don’t always realise that. We put this ‘homing instinct’ to different uses. We don’t know what it is . . .
Years ago, Sarah and I were out on the highest fells in my home, the English Lake District. It was mid-summer and the weather was, typically, cold and very wet. We’d spent the day crossing mighty Scafell with it’s rock gulleys, all ready to swallow the unwary, then onto the highest point in England, Scafell Pike. Sarah was tired and a little hypothermic, so we were making our way down the Corridor route towards Borrowdale, when we spotted two youngsters coming up the hill from the direction of Wasdale. Realising they were either foolhardy or lost, we waied for them to get to us. They were lost. They, like us were looking for Borrowdale but had descended 3000 feet into the wrong valley. After we’d ascertained that we asked to see there map so they could get safely down. ‘Map? Oh we haven’t got one, but we’ve got a compass . . .’ Proudly they brought out probably the most expensive compass I’ve ever seen, a wonderful sighting compass, extraordinarily accurate . . . but entirely useless without a map . . .
We put them on the Corridor path, told them to follow it until they reached a lake, then turn left until they reached the emergency stretcher box. Pause there and give thanks you haven’t need it, then turn right alongside the path following the outflow stream of the Lake until you come to the valley . . . Their faces which had been wracked with worry lightened and they set off, much faster than us, and we hoped not too fast . . .
We all have that compass. We are all equipped to find our way home. The problem is the compass only makes sense with a map. Someone who has made the journey, who knows the way.
The prophet Isaiah gives us the map –
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Wake up to where you are, and who is with you . . . And now, God himself has come to show you the way . . .
Jesus is on the move. He knows where he is going. As he goes like a compass swinging round in the presence of magnetic rock, that homing instinct wakens in those he encounters. First Simon Peter, Andrew, and James and John . . . following their deep instinct, not knowing why. They have to go after him.
As he goes Jesus draws a crowd. Reality – Real Life – springs into existence around him. Like those iron filings in school science experiments, the world is transformed around him, pointing people towards him. Demons come out of people. Simon Peter’s mother in law is healed. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. Like a compass needle that is stuck, then freed, Her life is immediately begins to orient itself towards Jesus and those around him.
She rises from sleep to serve Jesus and his disciples. She has found her direction. In the presence of Jesus her homing instinct finds its True North. Jesus then takes his time in leisurely prayer, checking out his own orientation, his own homing instinct, his Love for the Father . . .
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
Yet Simon and his companions hunted for him. How could they do otherwise? In Him they’ve found life, as Jesus has to be with the Father in prayer, so they have to be with Jesus.
When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ Of course – Everyone is created to search for God, and God has shown up.
Jesus answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
And the disciples go after him.
‘Everyone is searching for you’ We all have that compass needle. We are created to Know God – intimately. To find our home in him. But our needles get stuck. We lose contact. That Orienting instinct sets out to try and find home, but instead settles for a career, or the right education for our children, or good health, or a million and one things. That essential part of us, the spirit which is for God, gets bound up with the world, our ‘fixations’ – those things we can’t help but think about, our sins. Literally Sin means ‘missing the mark’ That compass which is given us that we might seek after God and find Him settles on something else. Something which we think is more real. We’re created for the Life which comes from God – which we call ‘Eternal’ Life – Life which isn’t bound by time and place – but we settle down, our homing compasses stuck in the wrong direction
It is only when we encounter The Real One, The Human being, Jesus that that needle is set free.
The Apostle Paul had been very sure of what life was, what religion was. He’d ascended the ranks. He was a Pharisee of the pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews. His worldly religious credentials were right up there with Bishops and Archbishops . . . His needle was stuck. Until he encounters Jesus. He’d set his heart on the wrong things, but in the presence of Jesus he is unstuck, he is undone. Serious work needs to take place in Paul. Unlike Simon Peter’s mother in law, he is very very stuck. Some people are far more stuck than others. Their hearts almost set in concrete, almost . . . but never entirely. Paul needs to be freed and this takes time. He is blinded by the presence of Jesus, it will take time for him to be reset.
But set free, all that ‘religious energy’ finds it’s true home. He loses himself. He is free and thus free to become the servant of all – I am free with respect to all, I have used my freedom to make myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Paul is Free and now he lives for Jesus, his orienting beacon in whom he has found his true home. Are we similarly free? Or are our hearts and minds set on other things? What are we looking for. Are we content with life, or in the presence of Jesus have we awoken to Life and set out on the journey to where we don’t know, to never be the same, to come Home.
May we like Paul find ourselves freed from the world’s illusions. May our homing instinct awaken to its true North, God in our midst
Sermon for the fourth Sunday after The Epiphany
Year B, 2021
‘Let those with ears to hear, hear!’ Matthew 13:9
Well, it’s still January. Just. Did the turn of a the year fill you with a resolution to change something about your life? New Year, New start?
For me, it was a decision to learn how to play the guitar. This may surprise some of you. For the discerning amongst you, it may well be met with the reply, ‘and not before time’.
I remember years ago taking a baptism service back in England. It was in the afternoon and my organist wasn’t available, so we sang songs accompanied by yours truly.
Following the service a fairly elderly man as he came to shake my hand said, ‘you clearly don’t know how to play a guitar’. He was of course right. I’d been found out.
I am in truth an occasionally enthusiastic self taught strummer of a guitar, and any judge would find me guilty of a duty of lack of care and abuse of a fine instrument.
Self taught, making it up as I went along, I had picked up all sorts of bad habits, and my guitar playing looked little like the real thing. So this year I took the decision to go back to basics. I’ve enrolled on a course starting from the beginning, stripping our some bad habits and hopefully make a little progress . . . To date, all I seem to have for my efforts are sore fingertips!
Stripping back to the basics.
It’s when we strip back to the essentials that we discover the true nature of our existence. Buried deep under the accretions and the years of bad habits and wrong turnings we touch on something we’d lost touch with, Life itself.
Often this stripping back happens against any will. We thought life was fine, then something terrible happens. As folk have said to me so many times, it really showed me what was important . . . We are found out. We realise we don’t know what we thought we knew. The life we’d been living was not life at all.
We realise that despite everything we thought we knew, in so many ways we are powerless. We don’t have what it takes. We are found out. Exposed before God – we are naked and ashamed . . . and all too often we pile up all those things that keep us from that life encounter. The place is too painful, too boring, too awkward, and way too uncomfortable. Too stripped back, too basic . . . well, this is year B. The Gospel for this year is Mark and Mark has no time for comfort.
His is the Back to basics gospel. There’s no fancy accretions. It is utterly unpretentious, and its strange kindness is as blunt as that man who pointed out the truth about my guitar playing all those years ago. (This was the way amongst those with whom I grew up . . .)
Mark’s Good News of Jesus Christ is angular – it has sharp corners and edges. We keep getting jolted by it. It’s repeated word is ‘suddenly’. If we are hearing the words well then they jar. You think you know where it’s going, then ‘suddenly . . .’. ‘Suddenly’ is Mark’s version of Behold! Wake up! Something is going on. Mark won’t even smooth things out for us with a post resurrection sighting of Jesus. The disciples are told that he’s gone ahead of them, we have to follow, to Galilee . . . which is where we begin. Jesus has returned.
Jesus is passing by the sea of Galilee and seeing Peter and Andrew commands them, “Follow me!” And Suddenly, Immediately, they dropped their nets and followed him . . . our gaze follows them. Further along the lake He sees James and Andrew, the sons of Zebedee, hard at work fishing. Immediately on seeing them he calls them and they too drop everything and follow him . . .
Where does our gaze go? Are we left asking about Zebedee and the hired men? Has Mark’s gospel left our pretentions to be followers of Jesus on the rocky shore of Galilee? Hey Jesus, we shout after his back, what about them . . . and he continues to move onwards . . . what about me? Where are you going? Come back! . . .
Jesus seems unconcerned. He’s on the move. We can stay put or we can follow him, but there’s not even the time to choose, for he’s not hanging around . . .
We respond or we allow the accretions to gather once more . . . “But where is he going?” Questions, questions . . . hesitations, waiting, and slowly like the bad habits on my guitar playing, our faith settles down comfortably . . . We come up with lots of answers which secure us in our existence. Like the John Bell hymn, having asked ‘will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?’, we follow up with lots of answers not to where Jesus is going – but where he has gone, answers that leave us where we are . . .
Jesus is not hanging around and as he goes on his way everything he does wakens people in astonishment. What Jesus does is calls people from the sleep of death, to Life, but as the parable of the sower teaches, we can awake and then go back to the sleep of death. Reality breaks in, and we pull the covers back over our heads for we have no root. The desire for Life doesn’t go deep enough.
I may or may not improve at the guitar, it depends if the root goes deep enough, if I am thirsty enough, if I want it enough . . . I may or may not improve at the guitar if I don’t allow many other things to get in the way . . . Far more important though , I might find out where Jesus is going if I go with him to where I don’t know . . . Seek, Jesus says, and you will find . . . but am I thirsty for what he offers . . . Must I know where he is going?
In Jesus do I see or hear something which . . . which wakens me to something worth giving up everything else for, abandoning all distractions for . . .
The Good Shepherd comes looking for His lost sheep. The sheep follow Him because they know his voice. Knowing his voice entails following Him
Follow me, Jesus commands Peter and Andrew, James and John. Look! They go with him, where?
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
Jesus speaks and things happen . . . this has never been seen since the creation of the world. God said ‘let there be light!’ And it was so! Jesus said ‘Follow me!’ and Immediately they went. Jesus words go deep. He casts his net into the depths of human hearts, to a place we didn’t even suspect existed. There we were, in charge of our own lives. Knowing what was right and what the day held before us, and where we were going . . . and then a voice. A voice from both beyond us and within us . . . We wake up! He gets his hook into us, and we go . . .
“The Scribes – well we hear them a lot, We sit around and discuss their teachings . . . What they say seems to make sense when we think about it. We can take it or leave it. It does not take hold of us.” I sometimes wonder if house groups are a bit like this . . .
We live in a world where we think it is all about us taking hold of things, grasping them, Figuring things out . . . for ourselves. But this is not the Kingdom of God.. The KoG is about our being taken hold of. The formlessness and void of our lives apart from God are taken hold of by this Word – and leaps upwards in response. ‘he taught them as one having authority’.
Authority! Authority demands a response. We know this at one level. When you see those flashing lights in your rear view mirror, you know this is Authority demanding a response. And you pull over! You don’t drive on thinking, well I need to figure this one out for myself . . .
That is the nature of authority. As the Centurion sad to Jesus, I say come, and they come: I say go and they go! He recognizes Jesus’ authority for he knows the nature of authority. Authority makes things happen
Authority is not about sitting around and deciding for ourselves . . . Authority is about letting go of that. We can endlessly ponder the plight of Zebedee and the hired men, we can wonder if there is another way . . . and sat by the shore we will come up with lots of reasons. The moment will have passed. We have failed to recognize Authority. We have ears, but we haven’t heard. That place within us that flickered momentarily goes back to sleep, and so do we . . .
Suddenly! Immediately! Look! there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’
Stripped back to basics – hidden away, terrifying things, and in the presence of Jesus the secrets of hearts are revealed – from the heart of this man comes uncleanness . . . He is exposed before God . . .
This is what Jesus does, reveal the secrets of our hearts, things hidden even from ourselves in the depths of our being. He casts down into the depths . . .
The hidden thing is brought into the light, the man is healed . . .
When we follow, we follow from death to Life, from darkness to Light. But for some the Light is too bright, the Life is too real. We return to the world of darkness and dreams. Of comfortable illusions about ourselves, about Jesus and about God. Stories that leave us where we are. We don’t want to be found out . . .
The Guitar Judge found me out. I had to return to the beginning . . .
Jesus comes to us. God is walking in the garden in the cool of the day – We are found out . . . do we hide? Or do we respond to his voice, and his invitation to us to let go of our ideas, and to go where we don’t know . . . to trust him that whatever is revealed in us he will heal us of . . . to go where we don’t know, and never be the same
Let those with ears to hear, hear
So I awake early one day this week and, unable to go back to sleep, switch on a podcast regarding the question of the body of God, as I am sure we all would After all, Scripture speaks of the face of God, the arm of God, and when God first shows himself in Scripture he’s out for a stroll . . .
Which set me thinking. About how despite all our attempts to keep him in His place, to nail him down – or up – God is always on the move in Scripture.
God is a God who is on the move. If you’ve ever read the bewildering account of Ezekiel’s vision of the Glory of God by the Kebar river, it is if nothing else a vision of God in Motion. Creatures, Eyes, wheels, wings, moving NSEW as the Spirit commands.
Right at the beginning, when God appears in Creation He is ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day’ – the sound of which causes the Man and the Woman to hide. They’ve just sought to secure their own existence, but God is on the move. They hide after all a moving God might disrupt their incipient ‘life on their own terms’. God is not Safe.
When God rescues Israel from Egypt, to go with Him they must go on a journey, and always ready to move. The God of the Exodus asks only for a Tabernacle, a tent. For Israel must be ready at a moment’s notice to dismantle it as the people follow the pillar of cloud and fire.
And God seems less than impressed with attempts to build a Temple for his presence in Jerusalem, to ‘domesticate’ him. To give God a place to settle down in, so we can pay attention to our own lives without wondering where he’s going. We build a place in our lives, a quiet half hour in the morning, a visit or two to church each week to visit the domesticated God. The Rest Home God . . . But God is not having anything to do with our programmes of domestication
So significant is this aspect of the Life of God, that when Paul preaches the gospel to those wise Athenians, he begins with this very point The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands . . . You and I can’t do anything for God. We can’t be busy on God’s behalf and turn up once a week to give him a progress report on everything we’ve done for him. As God rebukes King David, ‘will you build Me a house?’
And then Paul finishes off, While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent. You got God wrong. He’s not your domestic household God, or even your State God with his fine buildings, he is the dynamic Living God!
The Living God is looking for a house, but not one made of stone, but a living house, one that moves, indeed that walks. It is instructive how in Greek the verb to Live is the same as that to walk, which makes one wonder if in our sedentary age – and sitting kills you – then we are less in the image of the Living God who walks, who is always and everywhere on the move, as the wind blows wheresoever it will, not according to our whims and desires . . .
So when the tabernacle, the dwelling pace of God reappears – The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us – he is moving. ‘after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee . . .’ ‘As he passed along the Sea of Galilee . . .’
As he passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘follow me’. – literally ‘Come along after me’, walk behind me . . .
The announcement of the Kingdom of God at hand and the call for repentance is followed up by a call to move, to Follow . . . of course for God is not a stationary God.
But what does that mean? What does it mean to Go after Jesus, to Follow him?
In the early years of the Church, before the faith became domesticated it was far from respectable. And so when ‘they were first called Christians’ it was a term of abuse. In these days, it must be said, for various reasons it is again becoming less than socially acceptable to be a Christian. So some folk look for alternatives, like ‘Jesus Follower’. Cool, eh?
But what does it mean? What does that phrase summon up for you? Hearing the words ‘Follow me’?
If we are at all alert, then that question begs another question, a question asked by Thomas Lord, we do not know where you are going! How can we know the way? Follow Jesus! Yes! But where?
We’ve just sung ‘Will you come and follow me, if I but call your name’ Of course in this case Jesus doesn’t even call them by name . . . But will you? . . . Are we up for being Jesus followers?
Yet the next line . . . ‘will you go where you don’t know, and never be the same’
(Much as I appreciate the ministry of John Bell, I think that if he’d left it at that, rather than supply lots of suggestions as to where this might lead it would have been a more truthful if less popular hymn . . . after all it’s a lot easier to come up with our own definitions of what it means to follow Jesus than to follow him . . .)
Jesus said to them ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men’. Jesus has fished for men, and they have followed him, they in their own part will fish for followers who will go with them . . . but where?
Come with me, where you don’t know, and I will change who you are . . .
To follow Jesus means changing location, it means moving from where we are to somewhere else . . . but where?
To move is to change. If we go somewhere else in any meaningful sense we change. Tourists never really go to the places they visit – they think that other countries exist for their benefit, and as we know all too well here in Aotearoa, we get by by existing to fulfil the fantasies of the tourists.
But when you go somewhere to live there, to live in and become residents of another country, you change.
Our story is that of Abram who is called to leave his country for a land the Lord will show him, to Live there.
Which perhaps is why we like to keep this God fixed, in a Temple, or in some convenient idea which is pretty much the same thing, so we don’t have to go anywhere. Certainly not go somewhere we don’t know.
If we know one thing about Jesus’ disciples they don’t see where he’s going, until it’s too late . . . but they go anyway.
Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately [Behold!] they left their nets and followed him. Mark’s ‘behold!’ word is ‘immediately. After all there are these fishermen doing what they’ve always done, and What?! Without a word, they just go after him? Their action would have jarred their family and friends, woken them with a jerk. The Living God is at work. Look! They left their nets and followed him . . .
To follow Jesus entails a journey of change – to become different people. Perhaps that’s why we prefer to worship a god who is happy to be in a Temple, rather than the one who moves?
On the other hand, perhaps we too like the fishermen might go with him? And allow him to make us to become different people?
Lent is soon upon us – our study material is on precisely this movement and change – we are all invited to the journey
St Paul says – ‘We look to things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are passing away. But the things that are unseen are eternal’
We gather upon this Holy Night in the darkness of a church lit only by candles. It is moment in time for faith, for faith looks to things that are unseen. It is when the glare of so much artificiality is taken from our eyes that we can begin to adjust to a different way of seeing that is at the heart of how we experience our Christian faith.
On this Holy Night, we gather to celebrate a Light coming into the World, a Light unlike any other, a Light which shines in the darkness, a Light which the darkness cannot overcome.
All the light we see, and think we see by, is eventually overcome by darkness. The light of these candles if we leave them will expire in a few hours. The light of our own lives, as Shakepeare puts it so poignantly, ‘out, out brief candle’. The light of the Sun – even this one day will expire.
But there is a Light which no darkness overcomes – a unseen Light which paradoxically may shine all the brighter in the darkest night. For faith does not look to things seen, but to things unseen.
The Light of Christ coming into the world – a light in the darkness. A Light which the blind see – ‘Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!’, cries out blind Bartimaeus. The man who cannot see, sees!
But those who think they see . . . who see by the lights that are overcome, those who see by simplistic explanations for the Wonder of existence, which paradoxically remove all joy, beauty, hope and of course Love, everything that we know but cannot See . . . that which comes from the Light which darkness is powerless against
And a Voice, A Word, which the deaf hear, yet in a sea of words those who think they hear fail to detect. In the beginning was the Word, before any Light and beyond any Light.
We know much of course of false lights and voices – hopes and dreams we call them. We look forward to them, we place them in front of us to show us the way as we make our plans, but then . . . well 2020 did for an uncountable number of such illumination . . . Those lights we had lit for ourselves – Yet there is Light
The Light which shines in the Darkness . . . which shines out of Darkness
Recently I’ve been giving much thought to black holes. God has not left himself without testimony in His Creation, even if you have to look in the strangest of places.
Black holes – the centre of all galaxies from which or into which spiral untold millions of stars. Apart from which they would not exist. Light with darkness at the centre. Where does this light and life come from? Where might it go? Beyond our vision, beyond our sight – A Light in the darkness, a Light out of Darkness
Black holes in a sense are not properly named, for they do emit lots of radiation, but it is not visible radiation. It is if you like a light that we do not naturally see by, but light all the same.
We say we see, but we are blind to almost all of Reality
This theme of Light we do not see repeats throughout Scripture.
Scripture seems uninterested in Proving God to us – indeed He is the God whom no one can see and live. The God of Israel does not permit images to be made of him. He is not to be seen by our eyes, and thus subject to our control.
And He comes into the world but hidden from the glare of the false lights . . . He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He comes unseen as a babe born in an obscure part of the world, in an age lacking in mass media . . . relying on the testimony of a few unreliable and at times unsure witnesses . . .
The world came into being through him – yet the world did not know him, did not perceive him, did not see him . . . And Scripture seems unembarrassed.
Scripture lacks that passionate ardour of the evangelist – to prove it, to show us. Jesus says ‘a wicked a perverse generation asks for a sign’ – the only sign is that of Jonah, of walking into the darkness to emerge three days later.
In the darkness which grips so much of the world in these days – we would do well to listen to the voice of the angles echoing the most repeated phrase in these obscure Scriptures – Do not be afraid.
We would so well to ponder this Christmas tide the words of the prophet Isaiah who questions the people of God thus
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
and relies upon his God?
It is a question which all the baptised should ask, for at our baptism we are addressed with these words – ‘you have received the Light of Christ – Walk in this light all the days of your life.
Walk in this light
The Light no darkness can overcome
Walk in this Light
which was born into our world
Walk in this light
Even at the last as your eyes close to the light of the world
Walk in this light – which passes through the darkness of suffering and even of death,
To rise to be God’s bright new dawn
Jesus, the light of the world – to paraphrase CS Lewis – not a light to be seen, but a Light by which to see. The Light shining in the darkness . . . Eternal Light, Now and Always. Amen
This week I was asked to preach at another church, and to pick my own texts, always a dangerous business! Anyway, here are my thoughts on ‘Space for God’
Sermon for Advent 4
St Matthew’s, Dunedin
Space for God
My thoughts this week are on ‘Space for God’. I wonder what those words summon up within us.
Perhaps the title of a book which was very popular about twenty or so years ago – ‘Too busy not to pray!’ by Bill Hybels, and other such ideas – fitting God into our busy lives.
In the C 17 in England, near Liverpool there was a battle in the Civil War, before which one Jacob, First Baron Astley prayed before his troops, ‘Lord you know how busy I must be this day. Should I forget thee, do not thou forget me’
We have such busy lives. How to find space for God? And I guess you might be expecting me to exhort you to find more space for God, but I’m not . . .
We are in the season of Advent and like each of the church’s seasons, it is given to us as an opportunity to remind ourselves of essential aspects of our faith. For Advent, that is ‘Waiting for God in Hope’. Contemplating the second coming of Christ. You might say that the primary way that the Church is different, that Christians are different in the world is that our minds are elsewhere
Yet, on the first day of this month I received an email from SUNZ. It’s opening was ‘ Well, it’s December 1st, so I can officially wish everyone ‘Happy Christmas’.
We ought to forgive the Prime Minister and Mike Hoskings for exchanging their Christmas presents way too early, but when the church loses touch with its own seasons? When it misses the point, but perhaps in thinking about Space for God, we too are missing the point. Perhaps there is something much more significant and life transforming hidden in that seemingly innocuous phrase?
Nd we begin to explore it in the second of our two readings.
I must admit I have a degree of reticence preaching on the story of Martha and Mary, for however carefully I exposit the text, without fail someone fails to get it. You proclaim the Word, and someone is guaranteed to push back on it – on this text . . .
It seems that few people really believe Jesus when he says ‘Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her’ (I ought to add at this point that believing Jesus is Exactly what it means to ‘believe in’ Jesus. As he says in John’s gospel, ‘if you obey my words, you will abide in my love’. Jesus over and over says ‘Amen! Amen!’ ‘Truly Truly!’ I tell you . . . His word are Truth and we live by the words that come from his mouth)
So when Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, then that is the Truth . . . but somehow the world is full of apologists for Martha. People for whom books like ‘Too busy not to pray!’ were written. People like Baron Astley who has important work to be doing. I mean if your work is ‘really important’ – this story is a bit of a problem
For many many years, Martha has been held up as the example of the Active Life – ‘Busy for Jesus’. Like the car sticker says ‘Jesus is Coming! Quick look busy!’
Yet Jesus gently rebukes her – indeed he perhaps seems unimpressed by our work on his behalf –
After all, doesn’t He say ‘Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord Lord! Didn’t we do many wonderful things in your name?’ and he will respond – Away from me, you doers of evil, I never knew you!
Martha lets be clear has made a good start. She has noticed Jesus come to her village and has welcomed him into her house. Classic hospitality – which in itself actually was not at all uncommon, and amongst some people groups remains common. Welcoming in the stranger.
I think that to read this well, we could say – she has welcomed him into her life, the arena of her agency, her work. Yet, that initial welcome has been set aside – for her ‘many tasks’. Martha now sees Jesus not as the honoured guest, but as a means to her ends ‘Lord! Do you not care that my sister has left me to get on with all this work on my own? Tell her to help me!’
We can be ‘busy’ for Jesus in our ‘important’ lives, or we can be imploring Jesus to sort things out for us, but in both cases, we are at the Centre.
And we are empty of Life . . . There is a busyness that at the end of the day asks ‘What Was that all about?’ A good number of years ago now, I got into such a state. Working phenomenally long hours – reminding myself continually that I was ‘doing the Lord’s Work!’, until one by one, all the wheels began to fall off . . . After 6 months away from work, I finally awoke to the realization that it was the Lord’s Work, not mine. That I was meant to be the beneficiary of His Work of Salvation. That I couldn’t save a single soul . . . left me wondering what I had got caught up in. One can easily preach grace, but live works, not least in a culture which idolizes the self made hard working individual, who is lauded at their funeral . . .
My life was full, of me. And so those who see Martha as the one who does the work that must be done, fail to realise that Christ himself has done the Work that must be done . . . and welcomes us into his rest. ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ – and how we need to hear those words, in Truth in these days.
We get So used to our own agency, we struggle to comprehend a life of Grace, and the Church is often dominated by those who in the world’s terms make a good show, hence I suspect Martha’s many supporters, despite what Jesus says . . .
Martha welcomes Jesus into her life, but her life is full, there is no space in it. She is Pre-occupied. Her life is meant to be a space for Jesus, but it is full of her stuff. Advent is meant to be such a space, but it has become full of Christmas . . .
That’s the point. It is not that she is to make space for Jesus, Her life is meant to be a space for Jesus, indeed that is what it is created to be, Space for the Living God.
Which brings me to the other reading, and the other Mary. Oh, yes, ‘That’ Mary . . .
Not long after Sarah and I were married, we welcomed a teaching colleague to our house to spend the night. John was unmarried but had a partner. We kindly asked them to occupy separate rooms. (Actually looking back, I’m not sure how this was possible as we had a tiny house!) John actually wasn’t put out – he rather liked the idea that people had standards which they kindly asked their guests to observe. Although jokingly he called me ‘a hot prot’
Well this hot prot was on the end of one of many God’s practical jokes when I was appointed head of department in a large Roman Catholic High School . . . Wherein during every assembly the pupils dutifully prayed words taken from our gospel, Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death . . .’ Well they prayed it every assembly until I became a Year Dean! And then it stopped – except once a year when the Principal walked in without notice to take the assembly, and I promptly walked out – I was a Very Hot Prot in those days.
The School as it happened was an old convent. My office was one of the former bedrooms of the nuns. One year, in a much needed building reordering, some work was being done on my corridor at the end of which stood the largest statue of Mary, in her guise as The Queen of Heaven from Revelation 12. (Funny how this ‘bible believing Christian’ hadn’t made that particularly awkward connection)
Anyway, the builders needed to move the statue and when they did, the colleague who shared my office, a Liverpudlian Catholic by the name of Paddy Devlin was the only person around. ‘Where should we put this?’ they asked. ‘Oh, I know Just the place . . .’ And so it was that The Queen of heaven spent six months right beside my desk – ‘Where our lady can keep an eye on you, Eric!’
You had to admire the sense of humour – teaching this Hot Prot a thing or two . . .
It is all too common for some Christians to have a less than easy relationship with Mary – yet from the beginning of our faith she has been held in the highest esteem, and her significance is huge.
Mary, put simply is the first true disciple and model for all Christians.
She consents to be The Dwelling Place of God. Space for God in the World
Where does God live? For many years the Jewish people had of course said that God dwelt amongst them, in the Temple in Jerusalem . . .
But Jesus opened his ministry with the declaration, ‘destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it’ . . . meaning the Temple of his body.
In his humanity Jesus revealed the remarkable truth that just as He is God amongst humans, he is also, being full of the Holy Spirit. God within the human being. As AW Tozer puts it in the title of one of his little books, ‘Man, The Dwelling place of God’
As St Paul says to those in Athens, ‘God does not dwell in a house made by human hands’ No he dwells within those who believe His Son. ‘
Abide in me, says Jesus, as I abide in You. ‘Your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit’
Mary in the early church was referred to as Theotokos – God bearer . . . and as The Ark of The Covenant – indeed that very imagery is at play in several places. There is an old story, form the first century, of how as an infant, Mary danced in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. In those days of course it was a vast empty space, the Ark of the Covenenant long lost. The Ark wherein and above which the Glory of God dwelt. And now a young girl who will bear the Word of God herself comes and dances in that space . . .
She becomes Space for Jesus
Space for God
I guess that hearing the phrase ‘Space for God’ we might well think of that holy ald hour we give to God, Baron Astley’s prayer – but he desires much more. He has been born into the world in his Son that he might live in it in those in who believe his Son, who Hear his words, who live by his words, His Life in them. As Mary sat at the feet of Jesus . . .
You and I by grace not work, have become the dwelling place of God . . . and that I think deserves our attention
As St Paul says in his letter to the Colossians
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Christ in you . . .
As the Body of Christ, among you because he dwells in each of you
That prayer that we twitch at – ‘Holy Mary’ – That in which God dwells is Holy
We are Holy not by our own efforts, but made so by the indwelling of God . . .
Mary reveals to us the True Christian Life that we are God bearers . . . And that is I think is worth allowing ourselves to realise during this season. That we understand the centre of our existence is the living God – that it is not about finding time to pray in our busy lives, but allowing the Holy Spirit of God to pray in and through us. To discover the wonder of who we are created to be, Space for God in the World
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
The Christian life is immensely simple – and paradoxically in an age of complexity, immensely difficult. We have perhaps lost sight of simplicity
The Christian life is Simple as it requires just One thing of us – that we attend to God, without distraction. That Is the Christian Life in its entirety.
Attentiveness to neighbour is simply the outflow of that life which comes to us from God in our attentiveness – as the flow of a river from its source. If we stand in the stream and look to the source, the river flows out behind us.
Jesus is the undistracted one. The Life flows from Jesus often without direct request – such as in the healing of the woman with the flow of blood . But even when it is by request it is the request of faith – which simply looks to him as the source, with nothing to give or to bring except attentiveness to Him that is Faith. Not a belief – but a direction of our life
Some understand the necessity of preparing for the return of Christ to be a call to action – Jesus is coming – Look busy!
Yet when he comes, Jesus seems unimpressed with our busyness. ‘Many will say to me on that day – Lord Lord did we not do this AND that AND the other in your name? And I will say to them – ‘Away from me, you doers of evil, I never knew you’’
I never knew you
Knowing him is what it is all about and you cannot know someone unless you attend to them – or put another way, love them It is the same thing. Attention is the one constant aspect of our lives – it is love. Our true loves are revealed in what we spend our lives doing, in that to which we give our attention.
Jesus says that knowing Him is eternal Life – it is the fount of blessings and it is the source of all God’s goodness coming into the world. As we attend to God his life flows towards us and through us
So we train ourselves in that attention, by following the advice of St Paul in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica. A church going through hardship the like of which we have but little inkling. Persecuted and weak, small and struggling – all they have is faith, which is why they are the Blessed. Yet, Paul calls them to that labour once more, to the undistracted gaze upon God in Jesus Christ in simple practice
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
These seem to us like counsels of perfection which in a sense they are – perfection properly understood is simplicity – but we might hear them and cry out ‘but what about . . . this or that or the other’ – Like those this or that or the others we would parade before Jesus in our concern to prove ourselves to him – to place ourselves at the centre of the story, and look in a mirror rather than gaze undistractedly upon God, our life coming towards us
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not stop that flood of life by averting your gaze . . .
Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything;
hold fast to what is good;
abstain from every form of evil.
It is Simple. It is we who have woven webs of complexity for we are tempted all the time to think that life is about us, and not about God . . . yet St Paul closes these words with the reminder that it is All about God
May the God of peace himself sanctify you – entirely;
The Work of perfecting your Life is God’s if we would turn to him in faith
and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Just look to his appearing
In this season of Advent – we watch for his coming. This season is like every other season of the church’s year – given us to train us in our faith. So this watching for his coming is a daily, moment by moment work of our faith – it IS faith, you would truly say
And as we learn to watch for him, we learn to hear Him, ot despising the words of the prophets – and we hear him say Lo! I am with you always even unto the end of the age. I am Always Coming towards you if you did but have faith
Sermon for Advent 2
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins
There is a not uncommon way of speaking of Christian faith that supposes one might lead what are considered by prevalent standards a respectable life and also follow Christ. One might accumulate money and honour in the world and still be truly one of Jesus’ flock.
However in this year of Mark’s gospel evidence for this is to say the least, scant. Mark throws a bucket of cold water over any presumption that being a Christian is in any way in tune with ‘the ways of the world’, that it is a way of comfort. The Way of Jesus cannot be accommodated to our plans for ‘living a good life’. The paths diverge so radically in Mark that we are left with a stark choice – to face in one direction, into what the world calls darkness and in faith proclaim it as light, or to go along with the crowd bedazzled by its deceptive alure.
That is clear from its ending – Jesus last words in Mark are ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ After that we neither see him not hear him. Mark’s gospel ends in darkness which only faith can call light.
If you’re going to get on in the world’s terms, the Way of Jesus is a bad joke. We might say that to be a successful Christian is to be marked out as a failure – certainly that is true of Jesus himself.
The gospel begins with what sounds like that joke. ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. Son of God. We are so used to hearing those words that we cannot begin to imagine how they sounded in the ears of those who heard them first. For they in all likelihood lived in Rome under the Emperor, the Son of the Divine Emperor. Son of God in Roman terms, was to be at the top of the pile, and Mark has the audacity to claim that a homeless Jew, one amongst countless others, crucified on a rubbish heap outside the walls of Jerusalem, was the Son of God.
This message most deliberately disorients us. It has the temerity to suggest that what we call ‘the world’ with all its power and the rest is an illusion. That its light, its glory is a sham, and that it is in the way of darkness that true light is known.
Mark above all the evangelists speaks of Jesus in terms of the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah and the words of Isaiah in the 50th chapter speak of Him, and of the contrast
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
and relies upon his God?
But all of you are kindlers of fire,
lighters of firebrands.
Walk in the flame of your fire,
and among the brands that you have kindled!
So when the gospel opens it is with the call from outside of the world – away from the city, the place where we kindle our own fires, away even from the pastoral fields gold with corn and covered in flocks of sheep. It is a Voice crying in the wilderness, in the figure of the otherworldly John the Baptist, dressed as Elijah was in camel hair and with a leather belt round his waist, the one who had previously called power to account, who had declared that the LORD not King Ahab was God. Elijah who travelled deep into the wilderness before her met God. Away from the noise and the clamour, the deception of the world, where true encounter takes place. In the sound of sheer silence. The silence of God. And so
people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to John the baptiser in the wilderness
The wilderness is something that has all but disappeared from our consciousness and indeed the planet. The human footprint and desolation is seen everywhere. You cannot escape from wifi, from piped music. I was in Naseby last week, 2000 ft above worry level, but the sound of the chain saw, the lawn mower and hedge trimmer still filled the air.
I remember once sharing a car with Kelvin Wright and we were speaking about this very thing and he said he longed for a place that might possibly kill him. From my own experience the wild mountains of the far North of Scotland on my own, high on rocky ridges without a rope, where a slip would be my last were my experience of that, but such places are increasingly rare as we seek to domesticate the Wild. Increasingly one met folk on the mountains as if they were on the high street as GPS gave them a sense of ‘having never left home’
Here and there a few intrepid folk can still find the wilderness. A recent TV series – was about folk who were dropped off with basic survival gear in Northern Canada, to try and survive for 100 days. But even with their wilderness skills, they were competing with wild animals for the few fat rich animals which might possibly sustain them through three months of Arctic winter. Porcupine for example. And one by one, the wilderness proved too much and they had to be rescued.
In the wilderness you come to yourself – all the ways in which we hide from reality are stripped away and you are vulnerable. In the wilderness you discover your own insignificance, and in the wilderness you might possibly encounter God. As your own ‘I am’ is reduced to its meagre frame and I AM becomes Reality.
people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem
To go out from the artificiality of the city, and it is most literally artificial, to leave even the carefully tended fields – to go beyond the boundaries of what is ‘safe’ – to go off the edge of the map hedged around with warnings ‘here be dragons’ – that is where we are to go in response to John
That is the place of repentance. There you awaken to your true vulnerability. And in that awakening, awaken to the possibility of God.
Advent is a season of this stripping back
The promise is The Holy Spirit – the life of God himself, but The World noisily intervenes and distracts. Just this week I received an email from a Christian organisation. It began – Today is December 1st so I can now officially say ‘Merry Christmas’. Even Jacinda and Mike Hoskings have exchanged ‘Christmas’ presents on air.
‘Christmas’ so called invades the space – fills any void – like the relentless playing of ‘Christmas’ music. In this seaosn of The Voice in the Wilderness when we are called away from the clamour – The World pursues us relentlessly.
But for those who like the Pilgrim in ‘Pilgrim’s progress’ put their fingers in their ears, who ignore the siren cries of the world, and respond to the Voice in the wilderness, then and there they might encounter the one who will in time come and baptise with the Holy Spirit.
Unlike those TV wilderness experts, We don’t need to be rescued from the Wild, we need to be rescued from the illusion of life which the World provides. That is we will accept it is the gift of Advent
We wait for Him – For apart from him, we know that we have no good thing
Sermon for Christ the King, Yr A 2020
‘Now you say you see . . .’
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints . . .
With the eyes of your heart enlightened.
How we see is fundamental to our lives. So much so that we talk of understanding in terms of sight ‘Oh! Now I see!’ we say. The problem is that sight, the sense which we put most trust in, is also the one most easily deceived. Think how many magic tricks depend on that, compared with your sense of smell, or hearing . . . and of course in the age of the captivating screen this deception is amplified.
Illusion in the magic sense depends on what you think you are going to see, because that is the controlling factor. We don’t talk about ‘the elephant in the room’ because we don’t expect to see the elephant in the room, because most of the time there is no elephant in the room. We have our stories about reality and without realising, we see the world as we are. Unconsciously (?) we filter out that which doesn’t fit our way of ‘looking at’ the world.
Which brings us to our parable, that of ‘the sheep and the goats’, but first we need to return to last week’s parable – of the talents. As I said last week I want to flip it on its head. Because what we see depends on how we see.
My brother was talking to a wealthy individual recently. He knew this man well and he epitomised one way of looking at the world. He looked around him at all he had and said ‘the fruit of all my hard work’. You might say he looked at the world and said, if you play by the rules, work hard, you will do well for yourself. So, he would perhaps read the parable of the talents and say, exactly! The hard workers, people like me get what we deserve, and the idlers . . . well they get what they deserve as well . . .
It’s a common enough story. But there’s another one. My brother, who is sensitive to these things remarked upon the person who cleaned for this individual. He knew that she held down three full time jobs, just to make ends meet . . . she certainly worked hard, but . . . He went on to note that this man hadn’t worked hard for a long time, rather having got a certain amount of money, his money was doing the work.
Perhaps you have enough money to buy a second house. You let it out. Now your money is making money.
Now, imagine you hear the parable of the talents and Jesus’ final words – to those who have much , much will be given, to those who have little, even the little they have will be taken away . . . first as my brother’s wealthy friend, and then as the cleaner? Perhaps not to enjoy a long happy retirement despite working her fingers to the bone to make ends meet?? To those that have will be given more . . . to those who have not, even the little they have will be taken away . . . And we look out at the world and . . . say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.
Which brings us to the second parable . . . you see those who have much, who see the world in a particular way, will hear this. The sheep are those who shared what they had, and the goats are those who didn’t. This is the way we are pretty much set up to hear this parable.
If as we do, you live in a hierarchical society then part of the story of such a society is that those at the top are supposed to help out those at the bottom – it is called paternalism. It is the way we see the world. So we hear it and think ‘I need to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and visit those in prison . . .’ But what if you are the one who is naked or hungry or in prison?? What then do you hear?
Regarding those in prison there is an eye opening book which I recommend called ‘Reading the Bible with the Damned. It is an extended reflection on what happened when the author started regularly to go into a high security prison amongst those on life sentences and read scripture. All of a sudden his ideas were stood on their head . . . these men saw the world very differently.
As we have been reminded these past weeks, these parables of Jesus are admonitions to his disciples to be ready for what is coming. But what Is coming? Who is shut outside? Who finds themselves in the placing of gnashing of teeth and outer darkness? Or, who finds themselves, to put it another way ‘hungry, naked, in prison’? After all, didn’t Jesus start out by saying ‘blessed are those who are poor? Those who are hungry? Those who mourn?’ Did he not say ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’
Did not Jesus himself die ‘outside a city wall’?
Why is our focus on the sheep and the goats and their fate? Are we, as those who in one sense have done well set up to ‘see’ the whole story in terms of ‘just desserts’, ‘you get what is coming to you’. Is such a way of seeing, seeing in truth or is such an interpretation simply a reinforcement of our story about the way things are – to those who have much, more will be given . . . and perhaps ‘of those who have much, much will be required’?
Our attention falls on the sheep and the goats, their actions and their fates . . . which is odd, for Jesus’ says that neither the sheep nor the goats see . . . Hearing this gospel as a moral tale about helping those less fortunate than ourselves or else . . . copying the sheep to gain a reward or avoid ‘the other place’ is then simply the blind following the blind . . .
Neither the sheep nor the goats see, but Here’s another question – Do We?
More specifically, neither the sheep nor the goats ‘see Jesus’ . . . but do we?
You ‘see’, This parable is not the judgement of Jesus’ people, it is the judgement of the nations. The Judgement of those who have not seen him, yet, who as St Paul says will be judged according to whether they have obeyed the law written in their heart. Perhaps they have seen the people of Jesus in those days when to be Christian was to be shut out from the world’s bounty, often to be ‘hungry, naked, strange and in prison’ and so tended to Christ himself in his people.
The parable assumes that the people of Jesus are those who when Jesus sits down on the mountain are those who have come to him, those who Know Him, who See Him . . . for those who say they belong to Jesus, who Know Jesus, that is the assumption, that they See Him. For they are his and he is theirs.
We have come to the end of the church Year. Christ the King Sunday. It is the end of our year of Matthew, but if we step back from Matthew and look at it not merely as a collection of ‘bits and pieces’, but in its entirety, something stands out.
Bookending the gospel is The Command which calls us to Life, a command to the people of God; “Behold!”
Behold! the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
And again, Jesus closing words to his people, even as he was taken from the sight of their eye . . .
‘Behold! I am with you always, even to the end of the Age’
And So St Paul prays for those who have faith in the Lord Jesus and their love toward all the saints,
“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
That whenever and in whoever Christ appears, we who Behold might recognise Him in whatever guise he is hidden from the eyes of the sheep and the goats
Put another way, give up on your stories about ‘getting just desserts’ or whatever other story you have about the world, because if we can’t see Jesus, why do we think we can see anything else??
Sermon for the twenty third Sunday after Trinity
Year A 2020
The Fruitfulness of Joy, and of Duty
So the cry goes up – get out of bed, it’s nearly time for church! “but I don’t want to go to church!”, but you Have to go to church, Why do I have to go to church? Because you’re the Vicar!
Recently I was in conversation with the pastor of another church here in Dunedin, and he pointed out how so much in this day we are told to ‘follow our heart’, and that it was important to ‘live an authentic life, and be your real self’.
He’s right. If you follow the titles of popular books there are many on such themes . . . [individualism vs shared life] but such an approach privileges the individual over the group because it starts from the presumption that I have no necessary obligation or duty towards others.
This Zeitgeist can be ‘spiritualised’, and spiritialising things is very dangerous for us as Christians although it is rampant amongst us. We say ‘oh I have no call’, or ‘I do not sense the Holy Spirit prompting me to do this’ Without realizing what we are doing, we break the third commandment and take the name of the Lord in vain, using God to back up our often unconscious biases, or our captivation to the Spirit of the Age
Doing things out of duty seems is very much against the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, which is a huge problem when it comes to the Christian life for God’s commands are at least requirements. Loving your enemy and doing good to those who hate you is not something we do because we feel a sense of call.
Of course for some, the Way of God’s commands is the way of joy, but if we are ever to discover that joy, then we have at least to acknowledge the duty, even if we don’t understand, or ‘heaven forbid’, they don’t speak to our heart
Last week we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. If you remember these parables are told by Jesus in the few days between the complete breakdown of relations between himself and his opponents and the events of Holy Week. So Jesus is warning his disciples to get ready to be ready, for The Day of the Lord is Now.
The Day of the Lord is like a wedding, and last week we thought about how getting ready for a wedding involved lots of people taking their obligations seriously . . . and to be honest, it is very rare in our familie sexperience for people who had a role to play to do so out of anything less than Joy. They en ‘joyed’ serving and stepping up to help. Now perhaps there may well have been people who only turned up because they felt they had to, out of obligation or duty, but turn up they did anyway . . .
So we are not told whether the wise bridesmaids filled their lamps with oil out of a sense of duty, or joy, but they knew what was required of them and so they were ready. The foolish knew what was required but didn’t prepare. The Lord of the feast said to them when they found the door closed, ‘I do now know you’ . . .
Which takes us to our parable this week. Again we need to remember that parables of Jesus are not simple stand alone stories. This is about The Day of the Lord, and the accounting that Jesus has already warned his disciples about.
Before he starts out on the parables he tells them Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked slave says to himself, “My master is delayed”, and he begins to beat his fellow-slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Again, there is a work to be done, and again we have no insight into whether or not the hearts of the servants were in the work . . . whether your heart is in it is not it seems the most important thing.
So the parable of the talents is part of this. It is not simply a story about using or not using what you have been given, it’s a story about doing what is necessary, or doing the work you have been given.
Last time this came up I remember noticing something I hadn’t seen before – that the first two servants both have an element of joy about their service. Behold! I have made five more talents! Behold! I have made two more talents! They are excited about their work and how it has born fruit. They have served with Joy and their service has born fruit.
Again we remember that Jesus is merely reiterating his teaching from the Sermon on the mount – By their fruit you shall know them. The good bear good fruit, the wicked bear bad fruit and then tells them that bearing fruit is simply a matter of hearing the words of Jesus and doing them. Loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, loving one another as jesus has loved us. As Jesus says to the man trying to justify himself, ‘do these things and you will live. Whether you feel like it, or not. Whether you have a sense of call or not, if you do it it will bear fruit.
This explains the response of the master to the third servant. The third servant is clearly not interested in the work of his master. He has told himself a story about his master in order to justify his failure to do his will. Isn’t this what we do when we say ‘Oh, the Spirit has not moved me in this direction’??
He is alienated in his mind, he has become his own God, judging his master – And we do this, do we not? What we ought to do is often clear, but then we come up with a justification for not doing it . . . something along the lines of ‘oh, its not my gift . . .’, or ‘my heart isn’t in this . . .’ or some other such thing. And what we do is put ourself at the centre, not God. And when we are at the centre then we are alienated from God.
You see the master at base just asks that if for no other reason, you act out of a sense of duty. You should have put the money on deposit with the bankers . . . you work for me, you have an obligation. It seems that this grudging obedience would have been enough, but the third slave wasn’t having anything to do with his masters business, he cuts himself off from the life of his master and finds himself therefore cut off.
Jesus uses the imagery of fruitfulness a lot. We know the season is near for the fig tree is coming into fruit, I am the vine you are the branches – bear much fruit to show you are my disciples. Fruit bearing is at least a duty – may God so change our hearts that it becomes our Joy and gladness and we enter into His Joy
“Behold! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”
The Condemned man ate a hearty breakfast, we are told
On my wedding day, I ate a hearty breakfast . . . I ate a hearty breakfast because my best man, Mike, who faced a highly significant role in the day’s events, had never been to a wedding before. And he was nervous.
He was nervous because he took his responsibilities with great seriousness, as indeed he does to this day. So he couldn’t eat his breakfast
So I did . . . as well as my own
Of course a Wedding requires lots of people to show up not just in the sense of attending, but in the sense of playing their part, taking their responsibility seriously. Thus they honour the significance of the occasion. Not to do so is to fail to recognise and dishonour the significance of the day.
And the significance of the day is huge.
The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast – for to be married is to agree to die to the person you are, and to submit to the Way of love, which is to be changed. The two become one flesh. That cannot happen unless each dies to their own interests.
As we have explored from time to time, both in our evening talks and on a Sunday morning, to love is to be changed. To refuse to change is to refuse love.
So the wedding day is like a death . . . and a new birth . . . it is a day of great significance and everyone has to be ready to play the part appointed to them on that Day
Our Gospel is a Wedding Parable. Jesus has been talking about this day all along.
And now The Day has come! ‘The Rain fell, the floods came, and the winds howled and beat against the house, and the house on the . . .’ Was the house ready?? The Day will reveal it
So far in Matthew, this has been flagged up clearly in the sermon on the mount, Those who have heard his words and done them . . .’ they are ready. They are ‘The Wise’ Those who have heard his words and not done them; they are the foolish. Why? For the Day is coming
Jesus’ actions and words have drawn the attention of the Pharisees and others. They have been questioning him, over and over. By whose authority do you do these things? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? If a woman is married seven times, in the resurrection whose wife will she be? But Jesus having confounded them, then flips the tables. Whose Son is the Messiah? ‘David’s’ Really? How then does David call him Lord? ‘After this they durst ask him no more questions’
The die is cast. We find ourselves now in a very brief window in which Jesus prepares his disciples for what is to come, the Day fast approaching. He tells them of the destruction of the Temple, and then over and over with symbolic actions like the cursing of the fig tree, or in parables he gives them one clear message – This is Near! Be ready! You, My disciples, the day is near – it is time for you to play the part I have appointed to you . . .
Having had more than a passing role to play in weddings – there are strong parallels. The courting, the engagement, the save the date, the booking of venues, sorting out how everyone will have plenty to eat, the dress, the flowers . . .The Day is Coming! The Day is Coming!, and all around people given roles and responsibilities. The Invitations . . . and so the day dawns, and everything is to click into gear, and it is time for those who have roles need to step up
“Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. These bridesmaids, or better ‘virgins’, have a role. They are to light the way for the bridegroom. Yet, When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them” . . . Jesus has given out this role to his disciples.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’
This is their work – nothing else. Obedience to the teaching of Jesus. Many turn up at the end of the sermon saying, ‘Lord, Lord . . . haven’t we done all these [other] things’ He says ‘I never knew you’. So too the foolish bridesmaids – ‘Lord, Lord! Open to us.’ ‘I never knew you’
In a few moments we shall baptise Wyndelyn. Following her baptism, we shall give her a lit candle and call upon her ‘Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father’ We say to her, through Ethan and Sara, Christ has made you his own, he has made you one of his disciples, and he has given you a work
Christ gives that commission to everyone here. I am giving my Life for you, I am giving my life to you – Be full of my life – Be full of the oil of the Holy Spirit – Be full of God! To Know Him. That is your work.
It is huge. It is why we have this community the church, to encourage one another in this massive responsibility Christ has given to us. It is why we don’t baptise except into the church – into the body of Christ.
It is where we surrender our own lives to receive His Risen Life
It is the marriage feast of the Lamb – Death for the sake of Love which rises to new life
We stand upon the great Stage – the lights are going up and the curtains are being drawn. This is the Day!
“Behold! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”
Sermon for All Saints – 2020
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Today is the feast of All Saints.
In a sense it foreshadows the Great Feast at the End of the Age – the collapsing of time (for to me they are alive) – when all of the Saints who from their labours rest, shall share fully in the Life of God . . . but that begs a question, who are the Saints – what does it mean to be a Saint?
Again as with last week we have a problem with language and indeed our thoughts last week on holiness fit perfectly well, for the word for Saint, could be rendered ‘Holy Ones’ . . .
Which then leads us to a further question – How does one become Holy, Become a Saint? For as Saint Paul opens more than one of his letters to the people of God, they are those who are ‘called to be Saints’. It is a Vocation, a Calling . . . Put simply it is to hear and respond to the Call of God, or as St Paul again puts it, the Upward call of God in Jesus Christ. It is to live more fully towards and into the very life of God. ‘Be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy is a Call, it is GOd’s Call towards Him, it is a, no it is The Vocation . . . God’s Call is always a call towards Him – ‘Come to me’, says Jesus . . . ’
Yes!’ You may well say, ‘but how?’ Well if you are asking that question that in itself is a hopeful sign – Hope is always directed towards the End of all things . . .
Yet in these times, one has to be very careful. We live in a world of ‘technique’, of How To . . . and as a good rule it is Wise to avoid, indeed to put into a large pile and set fire to any book on the Christian life which includes the words ‘How To’ in their title. It is a Life we are called to both individually and as a Church, there are no techniques, not ‘fail proof’ schemes in the way the world thinks of these things, except to pay attention. This is about Life – not mechanisms – So as we would be with someone we wished to know better, we only need to be attentive . . .
Or as Jesus puts it, let those with ears to hear, hear! (That is Respond! Obedience is another way of saying ‘really hear’)
Paying Attention is the great challenge of the Christian Life – no more so than in these days when everything is screaming for attention amplified by screens and literal amplifiers . . . We are surrounded by noise and images in a way unprecedented in human history, and paying attention is so difficult, especially paying attention to what is nearest to us, for Salvation, Life, healing and wholeness – or Holiness is utterly close, utterly surrounds us, and is Everywhere present . . . Just pay attention to what is present . . .
This week I was reading a powerful book on the ‘New Media Epidemic’. Written by a French Christian Orthodox Scholar, it included the following quote
When the remote gets too close, what is close becomes remote. —Gunther Anders, The Obsolescence of Man
Larchet, Jean-Claude. The New Media Epidemic (p. 47). Holy Trinity Publications. Kindle Edition.
Which put me in mind of this cartoon which you may have seen . . .
When the remote gets too close, what is close becomes remote. —Gunther Anders, The Obsolescence of Man
Larchet, Jean-Claude. The New Media Epidemic (p. 47). Holy Trinity Publications. Kindle Edition.
For it is our inattention to that which is nearest to us . . . that is God who is closer to us, than we are to ourselves. Perhaps this is why Jesus is called the stumbling stone?
For most of the time we spend in our ‘self-conscious’, and this is a form of remoteness, of alienation from others – and from ourself. There is no one more lonely than the self conscious individual – – –
We confuse our thoughts with our self. And you don’t have to be sat in front of a computer to do this. Have you ever, or perhaps this should be have you never had an imaginary conversation with someone, putting them right in your head? Or working though why you were so right and they were so wrong? Or or or . . . there are so many possibilities, so many ways in which we are distracted, and when we are distracted, we are as it were away from home . . . so the prodigal son is ‘living his dream’ . . . he needs to come home – the elder brother is similarly living a resentment story in his head, and is alienated from his father who is closer to him that he is to. Himself . . .
Saints, simply put, are those who know they are at home in God – those who have heard God’s call to be saints and respond are awaken to their home in God. They have come to the depths of their heart, and are learning to live from the deep wellsprings of life which flow from their, they have uncovered long neglected wells . . . wells of the very life of the one who is at the heart of all things . . .
So, the blessed are essentially the empty, those who do not have to dig deep to find God in their life, for they have little with which to hide themselves from him . . . you can think of possessions etc as fig leaves. Whatever fills our heart dan minds is God to us, for it fills the space that our lives are created to be, for God
These Blesseds of the Beatitudes are the empty, those poor in Spirit, they do not think themselves to be holy and righteous, those mourning, who have lost, those who are gentle who do not grasp to acquire, but are open to receive life as gIft, those who are pure in heart, who are not preoccupied with their many things of their busy life, those who are hungering and thirsting for this Life . . .
Finally the Saints Cry out “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
This is a cry of realisation – their healing, their life their salvation comes from God and the Lamb – little if anything blinds their sight, they know the source of life. To Know God, To Know Jesus IS Eternal Life
We are all called to be saints – to dig deep into God – to know and to live from his life which is present in the depths of our being
Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Trinity
Being a Tree
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.
Last week we considered the question ‘to whom do we belong’. Jesus, faced with the trap question about paying taxes to Caesar asked to see the coin for the tax. A piece of metal with the face and inscription of the Emperor. (The Pharisees who were scrupulous about ritual purity sent their disciples to handle the money, which was idolatrous)
Jesus says – well if Caesar puts his mark on the coin, give it to him, it is his. But render to God the things that are God’s. ‘The people of God’, That which God has marked as his own, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit – belong to God and are identified with him.
Perhaps this is nowhere more starkly expressed in these words which the LORD speaks to Moses, ‘speak to all my people and tell them ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.
Holiness is something which is poorly understood. Like so many things to do with God, we tend to think that it is simply an amplification of some common virtue.
So you have ‘bad’ people, and ‘Good’ people and up at the top of the tree – ‘Holy’ people. But this is not what it means – it does not mean ‘exceptionally virtuous’ in the context of God. Rather it means ‘quite unlike’ anyone or anything else. God’s ‘otherness’, the sense that He is not like us, that his ways are not human ways and his thoughts are not human thoughts, is most clearly expressed in the word ‘Holy’. When Isaiah sees the LORD high and lifted up in the Temple and the Seraphs called out ‘Holy! Holy! Holy!’ This Otherness of God struck Isaiah into silence. It was the fire of God which transformed him – the coal, the Spirit – The Life of God
God is powerfully ‘Other’. And so His people are not like the surrounding peoples. They are Holy. They are different – because they belong to God. Being His offspring His lIfe is their life, life which come from God and will return to God, Holy lives.
The Psalms open with a meditation upon what such people are like.
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
Happy, or blessed, or fortunate we might say whose lives don’t just go along mindlessly with the crowds . . . as the LORD goes on in Leviticus – you shall not go around as a slanderer among your people – You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin, you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself.
Don’t go around talking about others behind their back – your life is with your neighbour. Don’t harbour resentment in your heart against others, go to them and point out their fault between the two of you whilst you are alone . . . if you have an issue with someone and you do not take steps to resolve it, you will incur guilt yourself . . . This is a different life to those of the wicked and sinners and scoffers – because it is the life of God . . . It is a Life rooted in God, from God and too God. You are different – you know the nature of what it is to be truly human. You don’t talk about others behind your back. The Law of God isn’t so much prescriptive – thou must not, as descriptive, thou shalt not
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
As we explored a couple of weeks ago – the Way – their mediation is on The Deep pattern of existence which is The Way of God, the deep river flowing underneath, from which we are to draw our life. Our life comes not from the media – it rises up from God
The Holy are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Like Trees – drawing their life from hidden depths – the wellsprings of Life that is God himself. Drawing on Life from God and revealing His Life then as it were above ground. Rooted in the depths and reaching to the heights . . .
Trees are perhaps the most universal image of Life, the Tree of Life is known in many cultures. Both CS Lewis, in The Last Battle, and JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings in different ways see cutting down trees as a mark of the end of the Age, of the end of Life on Earth. It is many long seasons since the Entwives were seen – the Age of the Tree shepherds draws to a close. Trees are cut down and the cry of the dryads which are their life fades on the wind . . .
But the Psalmist speaks of the person who draws their life form God – they are like a tree
It used to be a trope that drama classes began with ‘be a tree’ 🙂 But trees have much to teach us about our life as the people of God. Not least in these last days
In an age which is increasingly given over to and resigned to death, Trees are literally full of life
In an age which wants everything now – Trees observe full and fallow seasons – labour and rest – bearing fruit when the time is right. Trees teach us patience. Trees are not anxious
In an age of frenetic and haste and hurry, Trees are slow and even paced – they are never out of breath
In an age of mobility, homelessness and disconnectedness, Trees Know their place. They do not destroy their surroundings by moving around insensitive to where they are
In an age in which no one cares and we have to pay people to ‘pastor’ or as ‘carers’ for a job – In an age where ‘home’ means so little – Trees provide abundance shelter, home for flower and seed and bird
In an age where friendship means a wave on Facebook, Trees are always there as the most pleasant company
And in a world oppressed by the tyranny of words and noise they creation, Like God Himself trees speak only in silence
And as I wrote these words I wondered not only about us as individuals, but also as a Church . . .
Trees are Rooted in Life – The Holy ones are rooted in God
The wicked are not so,
Rooted rather in the illusory imaginings of a ‘self sufficient life’ a life which comes form nowhere and goes nowhere – a life which is not connected to the deep wells, dry and shrivelled – they
are like chaff that the wind drives away.
They will not stand in the judgement,
Or in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
This delighting in the law of the Lord is what it is to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength – to know and to love the source of your life
And when we rest in this, all boundaries disappear.
To return briefly to the silence of trees – we often hear the trope – ‘that which unites us is so much more than that which divides us’ And this is true, but it is hidden, hidden in the deep places. The Deep and Good Earth, the Silent place. Unity is to be comfortable with others in silence, the underlying silence which unites, which is the Life of God
When our lives are rooted in the God who is Silence, we no longer see our life as our own, but coming form the same source as that of our neighbour.
To slander our neighbour is to be blind to who we are, to hate our neighbour in our heart is to hate ourself, for at root we are all one – it is only when we are disconnected from our root – our life in God that we do not connect to others
So to Love your neighbour as yourself, is not a moral effort for the one whose life is rooted in God and stretched towards God in Heaven, who knows that the life that they delight in is the same life that is in their neighbour
Blessed are all those who Know this Truth
NB We have recently updated our course on John’s Gospel – Here is the link
Sermon for Evensong
On the question of healing . . .
Today the church remembers the third evangelist – St Luke
Luke’s words occupy more space in the NT than anyone except Paul and of course our own, St John. It is widely thought that his gospel and the sequel, the Acts of the Apostles were originally one, but papyrus technology being what it was, they couldn’t be put together (There is by the way an intriguing scrap of papyrus which suggests that all of St John’s writings were once bound together as one . . .)
So we have Luke start The Acts addressed to ‘most excellent Theophilus – Lover of God, ‘in my previous book . . .’
Yet due to a single phrase in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which you may well have missed, Luke is associated with healing. The phrase? ‘Luke, the beloved physician’, or as some preachers style him, Doctor Luke.
So the Society of St Luke is a society given to the promotion of Christian healing . . . which of course is not something straightforward. It raises so many questions for us, not least when we or those we love are not healed . . .
I remember sharing with a friend accounts of spontaneous healings in a Christian community with which I have good links, and there was a veiled skepticism as she wondered why they did not allow in a team of scientists or doctors to validate these healings. ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound . . . if a person is healed and no one validates it, did it happen . . .??’
This whole area is clouded if not with controversy, at least endless questions. Why doesn’t God heal everyone? Indeed, why didn’t Jesus?? Or did he???
I want this evening to offer a different perspective on the whole question and put it into a larger frame wherein if at least we don’t get hard and fast answers, we might at least begin to understand that the questions we bring come from a very narrow perspective on the matter.
I’ll begin with a question ‘of the moment’. If we allow that everything the president of the United States is true about his recovery from COVID, is he a well man?? In other words, what does it mean anyway to be healed? We often only understand this in terms of the equivalent to the doctor prescribing a pill which cured an illness . . . but is that what Healing fundamentally is? Or is it perhaps something too large for us, something which perhaps we cannot begin to comprehend and indeed even want to seek . . .
A couple of brief comments, a very brief historical note, and then we’ll return to the theme directly.
First, in our faith, we talk of Salvation. Fundamentally this words means ‘healing’, a most profound healing. We might say perhaps that in the narrow terms we set someone was not ‘healed’, but were they in the far deeper sense, ‘saved’? The US President seems by some accounts to be healed, but is he ‘saved’? (And I DON”T mean that in the narrow somewhat fundamentalist terms by which some of his followers might suggest)
Second, there is something close to the heart of the church which gives us this same broader perspective. When a priest is inducted into his parish, the bishop in handing him his license says ‘receive this cure of souls . . . which is both yours and mine’ The old view of the church is that of a hospital – indeed hospitals as we know them owe their existence to the medieval church . . . These communities of faith are meant to be places of profound healing, or salvation, and those charged with episcope (oversight) are to manifest that, to be people of healing, relational healing etc. etc.
Yet, the heart of our problem with respect to healing can I think be traced to those same middle ages in which hospitals came about. About that time there arose a theological controversy, one the impact of which has pretty much formed the Modern world without most of us realizing.
Up to that period, the world was understood as a place of profound connection. You couldn’t alter any one part without altering another . . . somewhat ironically, modern science has just come to this same conclusion, about a thousand years to late . . . BUT there was a problem . . .
The word ‘couldn’t’. This seemed to therefore limit the agency of God! How could one say, God cannot . . . Now there are many threads we could pursue at this point, but time constrains somewhat, so lets just leave it at that. ‘Surely if God is God, then God can do whatever he wishes, and so God CAN change just one element in the Creation without everything else being affected’ and in a sense if the argument had stopped there, then the world would be a very different place . . .
Because, IF God can do whatever he likes without everything else being affected . . . why can’t a human being?? So arose an understanding of the world which was foundational to Science until the late years of the C19, a world where we might as it were see things in isolation and treat them as if we didn’t have to consider a multiplicity of relationships . . . except we do.
The Environmental collapse we are living through can be traced precisely to this sense. Put another way, seeing things in separation from one another we did not understand the consequences of our actions. The World is a remarkably woven together place. Just this week I read the words of an Amazonian Chief. A people who had lived for unknown years in harmony within their surroundings. She said
In all these years of taking, taking, taking from our lands, you have not had the courage, or the curiosity, or the respect to get to know us. To understand how we see, and think, and feel, and what we know about life on this Earth.
I won’t be able to teach you in this letter, either. But what I can say is that it has to do with thousands and thousands of years of love for this forest, for this place. Love in the deepest sense, as reverence. This forest has taught us how to walk lightly, and because we have listened, learned and defended her, she has given us everything: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning.
Which brings me back to the question of healing. And a question. When we think of healing, do we do so in a sort of unreal isolation . . . In other words ‘the only thing that matters is this healing’ . . . You see perhaps that is part of our problem. Certainly I think it is increasingly clear that much of our illness in so many forms has been brought about precisely because we have not realised how one thing interacts with and changes another. Or how everything affects everything . . .
And this I suggest points us towards the centre of the truest healing and indeed Salvation as manifested in Jesus
People often ponder – why did such a good man have to die? In a sense Jesus death makes no sense – after all as Scripture amply testifies ‘he went about doing good and healing many’ . . . but perhaps that is precisely the point. The world is woven together. You can’t expect such significant change and transformation just in one place, without it affecting everything. Indeed Jesus most dramatic healing, the raising of Lazarus is the event that leads directly to his death. The world moves around this event, nothing is ever the same again.
So often when we seek healing, we want things to be ‘just as they were before’ How often and in how many different ways do we want such things. How much do we want to live in a universe where nothing affects anything else, when we can simply change ‘this’ and a myriad of ‘thats’ remain in place. But the world is not like that. If the outcome of Jesus’ healings was to bring Salvation to the World at the cost of his own life, I guess the question which faces those who seek healing is that which Jesus posed to the man at the pool of Siloam, ‘do yo want to be well?’ or, put another way ‘are you prepared for nothing to be as it was before? To die to the world you think you know, in order to truly live?
Perhaps this is the faith we need if we are to be healed
To whom do you belong?
N-Gram – my new discovery. As a newspaper article put it, ‘there is yet another way to spend endless hours on the internet’. Simply put, it uses Google vast index of books to show how the use of words and phrases has changed over the last 500 hundred years. It came to mind for a couple of reasons – first a book inspired by the loss of words in children’s dictionaries to do with the natural world, and their replacement with words like blog, voicemail, cut-and-paste and the like. This is troubling as it speaks of a consciousness cut off from anything outside of ourselves, but second and related to it, I was interested to know about the use of the phrase ‘autonomous individual’
What is ‘an autonomous individual’? Well according to some, it is the idealised human being. The person who is entirely in charge of their own life, and since yesterday, death. Autonomous – a law unto themselves – the Sovereign self. Well this phrase is perhaps a bit more recent than we might suppose. It hardly seems to appear at all before the C20, beginning to show sings of existence eon the 1920’s and 30’s. But in the last 35 years its use in literature has increased by 350%
To whom do you belong?? The idea that we belong to someone is perhaps not a popular one, ‘I belong to my self!’ Is the Modern cry . . .
Yet it is this question which is at the heart of Jesus’ reply to those who wish to trap him.
Jesus opponents want to destroy him, and to do so they want to get him to say something which will get him in trouble with the powers that be . . . so the question about taxes – this is no mere ‘philosophical problem’ – as usual these questions are designed to put Jesus on one side of the argument or the other – a not unfamiliar decide to us in this day and age. In some senses it is a question which asks – are you one of us, or one of them?
But here the question is one which whichever way he answers Jesus is in trouble. If he says it is lawful to pay taxes, then the pious Jewish leaders – who have accommodated themselves quite comfortably to Roman Rule, will tell their fellow Jews – he’s not one of us! And if he answers in the negative – then of course they can run off to Pilate and accuse Jesus of being a threat to the state . . . Divide and Rule! Divide the world into two camps and then you are the judge . . .
But Jesus knows what they are about – he knows their hypocrisy. He knows that in all likelihood they are ‘in bed with’ the powers that be . . . so he asks to see a coin.
Whose Image is this? And whose inscription? The inscription by the way said – ‘Tiberius Caesar, son of Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus’ – Son of God’ . . . and the Image was of the Emperor. So the answer to both questions is ‘Caesar’s’
And then Jesus makes the move about ownership – it bears his mark – it belongs to him.
Our cat marks its territory – my books, some of them have my name in them, we mark what belongs to us . . . [cf Like the number of the beast . . . to whom do you belong?]
And this is the level of Jesus’ reply . . . We get into agonies over legitimate or illegitimate government . . .
Although this text has been used over and over to justify our allegiance to civil authority, for any Jew, this was unacceptable, hence the sting in the question. Is it lawful to pay taxes – If Cesar has said ‘this coin is mine’, then give it to him . . . What is Casar’s? That which has his mark on it . . . does the coin have his mark? Give it to him. This thing, this scrap of metal . . . give to Cesar the Things that he has put his mark on . . .
We fall into this trap – the first part occupies our thoughts . . . but Jesus’ answer is dismissive of these tortured pondering – and it is his final words as always to which our attention would be drawn? Render to God what is God’s . . .
But what is God’s? . . . well, on whom has God put his mark??
Jesus as ever shows the way. Upon the Cross he render’s to God what is God – Himself
St Paul says of Jesus ‘he is the image of the invisible God’ – the question is ‘are we?’ To whom do we belong
Years ago a friend of mine stopped me for a faith conversation – brought up a Christian in a loving and devout Christian home, she had reached an impasse in her faith. Funnily enough it was at the bottom of a flight of stairs . . . ‘I’ve realised that it is all or nothing . . .’ And that is the point. There is no division – there is nothing of any consequence that belongs to Caesar, you certainly don’t . . . Jesus’ answer is simply a question, ‘To whom do you belong?’ God, or not?
Whose Image do we bear? To whom do we belong?
‘Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”’ Isaiah 30:21 . . .
‘Where is your life headed?’ . . . We might well say, we do not know. But perhaps a more helpful question is – ‘towards what is your life directed?’
Knowing our Direction – to what we are directed is to know where we are headed, and it makes our life far simpler, even if often it makes it far more difficult
Most folk know of the difficult way our family is following with our daughter. Some might wonder why? They might be tempted to say, it is her ‘Christian principles’ which told her the way. But no, the principles, the rules if you like are the manifestation of something far deeper, that is The Way. For our daughter, to see a beating heart is to know The Way . . .
Early Christians were often called ‘followers of The Way’, in Scripture far more often than ‘Christians’ which is used only once. The prophet says ‘Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”’ It is deep within the fabric of existence and lies, usually buried in the depth of the human heart, for it underlies all of reality.
As CS Lewis explains Christian faith to those who might not know it, he speaks of this deep underlying Right Ordering of things using the ancient Chinese concept of The Tao.
We as the people of St John the Evangelist, know it as The Word – or as the Greeks put it – The Logos. The deep underlying Right Order of the universe. In the beginning – when God created the heaven and Earth, there it was – In the beginning was the Logos, the Tao, The Way.
As the children of Israel gather at Mt Sinai, God reveals himself, the unseen God, by revealing The Way. The ten Commandments or as they are perhaps more helpfully known in the Jewish tradition, the Ten Words, the Tao, The Logos. The Logos who is I AM reveals himself as The Way
I am, the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
These first three commandments are summed up in the Great Command we hear every Sunday – Hear, O Israel, O people of God, The Lord your God, the LORD is One and you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength . . . Why does The Way begin in this Way?
We are commanded to Love the God whom we do not see so, not idols, or the gods of the nations – followers of The Way are never nationalists. Why Love the unseen God?
So that we learn the Direction of our The Way, The direction of our Life – or, for it is the same thing, the Direction of our Love. To Know this Logos, this tao, this Way is to Know the nature of Love and Life that is always and everywhere Towards.
Love is ecstatic – it is ‘Away from’. We love away from ourselves. Love flows towards – Love is not about acquiring or drawing to ourself. Love does not seek to possess – this is a tragic distortion of love. Loving that which we see all too often perverts love by reversing its direction – from away from like the flow of a River, from releasing and letting go, forgiving we might say, to eeking to possess and hold on to – to draw to ourself.
‘So and so ‘completes me’’ Oh, I saw that piece of furtniture and I just Had to have it . . . this is the perversion of Love.
We learn Love, The Way by loving that which we cannot see, so that we learn not to set our hearts on things that do not last, and so move away from life which is eternal. We learn not the false misdirected love which seeks to acquire – and we learn to love that which surrounds us as ourself.
Sin in Greek is hamartia – it means to miss the mark. Sin is misdirected love. It is against The Tao, against the Logos. Sin is to draw towards for our sake.
We are made to Love, but we are surrounded by many things which we seek to possess for our own sake. Rather than to direct our Love to the One thing necessary – the Love towards God which is the Way, the Way which orders and directs all Love.
Sin is misdirected love, for the moth and rust consume and thieves break I and steal. It is the Love that always ends in our loss, for it is the love of things that pass away, which is misdirected love.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the rich man, who had many possessions. He had loved everything he had seen – he had set his heart on them. This is idolatry. In the early church it was called the spirit of fornication, to Love as God that which was not God. It was disordered love. Yes it had a sexual expression, but the deeper disorder was the problem, the sexual aspect was merely the most clear expression of the disordered love, as it strikes most deeply into our humanity. It reveals that to love is to become joined to, we become one with . . . We are created to be united to God, the young man had become united to his possessions
The Goal of the Christian Life is simple – it is to become One with God and so to become Love – The Direction of The Way is Up – that is why Jesus says – ‘take no thought for the morrow . . . rather seek his kingdom and his righteousness’
This is what we call Resurrection. It is where our lives are to head. Not forward in time, but upwards towards God so that within the realm of time and Space which God has called into being the Tao, the Logos, The Way is manifested. To become expressions of the Eternal in the world of things passing away
So St Paul in his letter to the Philippians
I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
In the beginning was The Logos – our Christian announcement is that the Logos, the Way has become flesh in Christ Jesus and Him Crucified. The Resurrection is the revelation of that – through dying to self, considering not the things that are passing away, but rather fixing our hearts and minds on the Eternal – God manifested in Christ (this is faith – that which we set our hearts on) – The Human is Revealed in the heart of Creation. This is the Centre of all things, the meaning of all things – it is the way through death to Life. It was for this that Christ came, to make the dead Live!! To become Love is Resurrection, it is as St John reminds us, the grounds of our hope ‘for as he is, so are we in the world’
This is to be restored to our true humanity, it is to find our life in accord with the deep pattern of the entire Creation. As I wrote in the parish magazine this month, Resurrection is written into the Creation – a true river always finds its course – And we, if we have come to know Christ have come to know The Way.
Our daughter sees a beating heart – her heart pours out – the River finds its painful course, towards the Sea – She Knows the Way . . . Those who walk in The Way, Know the Way
Resurrection . . .
Spring is in the air, in a sense it always is, but usually we don’t recognise the signs, which as Jesus tells us is a human deficiency. But all around for those with eyes to see . . .
Many years ago, one of my parishes ran out of people to mow the grass in the churchyard. In that moment a young couple recently moved to the village from Canada, came to the Vicarage. They were interested in the idea of a ‘Living Churchyard’ They had the right skills to actively care for the grass around the gravestones, that it was restored to meadow, with wild flowers, diverse grasses, and butterflies etc. etc. (From the place of death, Life)
This required very little work from them, except a gentle care and the occasional uprooting of gorse. ‘For the grass and plants know themselves best how to grow, and the wildlife will find its place’. I foolishly mentioned this offer in the next parish magazine. Almost immediately a delegation of well meaning village folk were on my doorstep – telling me that they would mow the grass . . .
We find it very difficult as human beings just to let things be. T S Eliott wrote – ‘Teach us to care, and not to care, teach us to sit still’. Our attempts to ‘manage things’, to put the world, and of course ‘those people’ right, seems to infect us all from an early age. And so new life is smothered under our ‘care’. The Care which we are called to in Elliot’s poem is that of attentiveness, the work of Mary, of beholding. If you take time to learn this way of Seeing the world, you discover as my Canadian friends had, that Creation Knows its maker and its own way. And it requires far less of us, perhaps simply our wonder? Resurrection wonder.
The other night in a time of darkness, something Sarah told me came to mind. She had been listening to a podcast about a beck (a small river) on the Eastern edge of the English Lake District. Some years ago, well meaning folk had straightened its course. (There was money in such things from city politicians who knew nothing of the ways of a stream). As a result the water ran far more swiftly down its new (dead) straight course. (There are no straight lines in the Living World) As the water ripped along it took with it all the gravel and small pebbles, which up until this ‘improvement’ had been the spawning ground for fish. These fish knew the beck as their home, their source, the place from which they came, and to which they returned, their place of birth, death and resurrection.
Some local folk, rather like my Canadian friends, wondered if there was a way to restore the stream and thus its Life. So they set about the task of diverting the river to its old course, starting from the upstream end. They had done very little yet arduous spadework, when one night there was the sort of rain which those parts knows too well. A late summer deluge. Under the ‘improved’ course, this water would have rushed down the river and possibly flooded out a village further downstream, and the labourers woke expecting to see not only flooding down the valley, but also their small work washed away . . . but they hadn’t counted on Resurrection. We never do.
The small change they had made, enabled the deluge to open up the older course of the river. Slow, meandering. The River Knew its course . . . it was written into it In The Beginning. And over time, back came first the pebbles and gravel, and then the fish
As I pondered this, I had one of those Mother Julian moments. Light flooded into darkness, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well . . .’ Resurrection is written into the Creation, by the Logos of God, if we would just let it be so.
Our place as Christians in these days, perhaps more than ever before is Holy Saturday – to rest in the tomb. The old way of fixing things is over. This is the message of the Cross. We wait on new birth. Watch and Pray. Wait and Behold, the Glory of the Lord . . .
In the Church, in the World, and within ourselves . . . Resurrection is built in if we do but stop to See it
How do you earn a living?
Interesting q. Not because of the answers, the q itself . . .
‘Earn a living’ – Why do we use such language?
Have you bought into the latest thinking in this area?
How do you spend your life . . .
The criminal must ‘pay their debt to society . . .’ I’ll return to debt shortly
Arguments ‘the bottom line is . . .’ I could go on almost ad infinitum. The language of Money is woven through our way of being . . . We work, to get money, to buy bread, to live . . . Money and Life woven together, which is a problem for us
Of course one might be very otherworldly about money
God will provide! Why is the church always talking about money, yet the next moment turn round and say ‘but you owe me an apology . . .’ This reveals in a sense that money is more than cash – it is . . . well some kind of Spiritual force – or Mammon
The mammon one way or another radically infects our language and thus our lives and indeed our faith . . .
And so it is with the issue of forgiveness – as anyone who knows presbyterianism will attest – we ask God to forgive us our debts . . . (but woe betide any customer of mine who doesn’t pay his bills . . .)
Which is odd, when you think about it for a couple of reasons.
Firstly because we live in a world where it is assumed that, you must pay your debts. I owe, I owe, its off to work I go . . .
Debt and the money system are a prison and an utterly unforgiving one – is that LIFE?
Secondly the language of debt in the prayer, takes it for granted that we can ‘owe’ God . And whether we use that language or not, the sense of ‘being in Gods debt or that of another overshadows our understanding of forgiveness . . .
Yet owing suggests a deficit in God . . . By our sinning he has lent us something and thus is diminished – so it is rooted in a wrong idea about God. For God is overflowing abundance – Life in all its fullness . . . yet we won’t have it
This approach in some respects has really kicked into gear since the Protestant reformation, although it was very alive in the church since the late middle ages – ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’ The Sale of indulgences, buying time off paying what you owed God – was one of the rampant abuses the reformers rightly railed against but unwittingly, as the man who kicked a demon out of his house found, it only made matters worse let the spirit of Mammon loose without retsraint – The Protestant work ethic and consumer capitalism are happy bedfellows . . . that anyone should get – Something for nothing . . . the underserving . . .
And it infected our language of faith – ‘There was no other good enough to pay the price for sin . . .’ And I as was taught regarding confession – you need to ‘keep short accounts with God . . .’
What is Peter doing in his approach to Jesus but the work of accounting.
Jesus has already told his disciples that as servants of God, their work is to seek and save the lost, to renew connection. To reconnect them to the ever flowing stream of the Life of God – To seek out the brother who sinned against you, not that your honour might be satisfied, not that they owed you, but because this is what God does – in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us
But Peter is still counting – Peter lives in the small minded world of Mammon – a world with an unforgiving bottom line – world of scarcity – there’s only so much forgiveness to go around. A world in which Life runs out . . . So you wouldn’t want to waste it.
This is a world in which secretly we don’t want to forgive, as if we will thereby lose something . . . yet Peter will begrudgingly push himself if Jesus requires it – How much do you require of me Jesus?!
He guesses that Jesus might go further than the rabbis who counselled that your forgave three times only, but ‘Jesus is better’, but ‘We know the story so the Jesus story is the same’, . . .of the same mould . . . so 7 times – after all that is perfection, but Jesus isn’t interested in ‘a better version of the world’, he has something New to say, or rather something original . . from the Origin of Creation, from the heart, from the heart of God
Jesus’ teaching is from the origin . . . from the source of the river of LIfe
And his shocking words expose the world for what it is – ruled by accounting, and limitation, harsh limitation, begrudging forgivness merely to keep the rules.
This parable of Jesus is often taught like this –
A tale of two debts. One owed by the first servant, one owed to the first servant. The debt owed by the first servant is 60,000 times greater than what he is owed. So . . . we owe God an unpayable debt . . . except that is something we have made up, assuming that the world of debt is normative.
Nowhere in scripture are we told we owe God, after all, if God is your father, does your parent lend you their life, their house, do they bill you for your sheer existence?? The language of infinite debt is the infection of the faith by those who do not know God – who understand faith in terms set by the money system – serving Mammon still – and so using the language of accounting in the world of faith
And if your brother really IS your brother . . . The words of Jesus are Shocking to our world . . . forgive 7×70 times – forgive and forgive and forgive . . . ad infinitum – If money is our picture of life, then it is limited, But if God is our picture of life, then . . . boundless forgiveness is the Reality
Note that the master has pity on the slave . . . He doesn’t see the debt, he sees the person – a person in trouble. He doesn’t see someone who has sinned against him, he sees someone who has cut themselves off from life and is in trouble . . . he loves the servant. He pities him . . . and he forgives him, he connects his Life to that of his servant . . .
But the first slave goes out and although he has not been treated according to the harsh unforgiving money system – goes and implements the harsh unforgiving money system . . . he has been given Life, but chooses limitation and death . . .
He only sees the debt . . . he doesn’t see the person. He is blinded by what is owed – by the offence, and has no pity . . .
This is not a story about the debt system – it is a story about Love, or not . . .
It is about Life – or death . . . After all, the wages of sin is death . . . the Gift of God is eternal Life
In our world Mammon – holds the power of life and death, and its doctrines infect everyday life, to the last cent . . . which is why we tend to see this parable in terms of the vast amount of money and the small amount of money, and miss the pity, the love. Why would the fellow slaves be shocked by the treatment of their fellow? Because they are servants of their master – and live a life according to love. If they lived according to money they wouldn’t be shocked – their is no sense that they know what happened between the master and servant – it is ‘of the heart’s inner room . . .
Forgiveness from the heart is a different life. Life that is a never ending stream – a river.
From the heart says Jesus – as he says in John’s gospel, out of the heart of the one who believes will flow rivers, rivers of living water. Wells run dry, but rivers . . . they are a flow of life throughout scripture.
It really is your money or your life . . .
You can serve God, and live a life of love, or live under the system of Mammon, which has a bottom line – Death . . .
Sermon for Trinity + 13
Servants of God
‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself . . . and has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation’ 2 Cor 5:19
I wonder if you’ve ever encountered an angel? I’ve had one fleeting encounter, and my father also, just before he died, although it was only later as my mother told the story of a strange encounter on an evening walk hours before he died, that I understood this.
One of the gifts of returning to each of the Synoptic gospels on a three year rotation is that you see things you had previously missed. This year is Matthew and this week as I have sat with today’s gospel that I have realised that Matthew is the gospel of angels. There are considerably more angels in Matthew than in Mark or Luke combined. The angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream, the angels who separate the wheat from the chaff, the twelve legions of angels Jesus says he has at his disposal should he call on them.
But for our purposes today – two mentions are significant. One, which we may remember is to do with Jesus’ argument with the Sadducess over marriage in the Kingdom – for he says ‘in the Resurrection, they are neither married not given in marriage, but are like the angels’, and, a verse that has been important to me this past week as I have prayed over Hannah’s child – a verse from Matthew which comes a few verses before this week’s gospel reading and is part of its context.
Jesus has set a child in the midst of his disciples and said, ‘unless ye repent and become like one of these, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’ – and further “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones, for I say unto you, that in heaven, their angels do always behold the face of my father in heaven”
Last week we considered the uncomfortable truth for those who think much of themselves, that God chooses the none-people to be his people . . . Put simply, it’s not about us, our talents and abilities, it is about God. Moses’s question, “who am I?” , is responded to with God’s I AM. (And we’ll consider this further this evening).
God is God of the none-people, and in most of history children have been none-people, indeed before birth they are not considered by the law of this land to be people, and in certain appalling circumstances, not after birth either.
Jesus places a none-person in front of the disciples – one whom we in the Significance and Importance of our busy meaningful lives overlook – one whom we overlook the more our lives are escapes from the vulnerability of childhood. He says, you must become like this to enter the Kingdom of my Father. Possessing nothing, and thus possessed by nothing – and those for whom it might be said, because of their vulnerability and openness, their angels always behold the face of God . . .
Last week we asked – “Who are the people of God?” This week we are confronted with a different but equally important question, “What are the people of God?” For as Jesus’ says, in the Resurrection they are like the angels . . . and Christ is Risen. We are the people of the Resurrection – as St Paul says, if anyone is in Christ, He is a New Creation, the old has gone, the new has come . . .’
Like the angels . . .
Well you may well say, “But what has that got to do with our gospel reading? After all it’s a sort of ethical injunction, isn’t it? A code of conduct for life in the church?” Well yes, but if you don’t know who and what you are, you will not understand it. Put another way, how we hear these words of Jesus are a measure of whether we have heard him at all . . .
“If your brother sins against you, go!” Jesus sends us with three levels of engagement. 1. Tell them alone, 2. Take on or two others, 3. Take it before the church . . .
“If your brother sins against you, go!” Note that this almost always works its way out the other way. Someone sins against another and if the person who is sinned against takes it badly . . . well do they go and tell the person privately? No, they go straight to Level 3 and tell Everyone!! You have no idea what this person has done to me! . . .
But here’s the question . . . Why? If another Christian signs against you, why would you go and tell them their fault . . . Why tell them their fault? Because they need to know what they’ve done wrong? Because they need to know how you are hurt? Because you have been offended? Because they are going to have to do certain things before you’ll think of trusting them again?? Because they need to say Sorry, and say it like they mean it? That they wake up to the injustice of their lives?? So that your honour, your story about the world is proved to be true? Why tell them their fault??
You see, all those reasons why the children of the world might tell them their fault, are all about them . . . My pride, my feelings, my offence, the wrong that has been done to me . . . and notice btw how much contemporary discourse is precisely of this nature . . . these are the reasons of the children of the world – but not the children of ‘my father who is in heaven’
But is this why Jesus tell us to go and point out their fault? And then if necessary to draw one or two people in? And then to take it to the church?? Why? To satisfy your honour? To deal with your hurt feelings??
Did Jesus cried out from the cross, “You have no idea what they have done to me!” ?? No, he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do . . .”
You see, if we don’t know who we are and what we are as the people of God, we don’t know how and why we act . . . we do not know what we are doing . . . We have lost sight of the face of our Father in heaven, who says I AM, and it’s all about us . . . but God, but God uses the none-people because, it is all about God and God’s purposes, and God’s life which he wishes to share with all.
We talk very glibly about doing the work of God . . . but unless we know who we are and where we are, we do not know what the work of God is, the work of Jesus.
St Paul puts it the work of God like this – ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself . . . and has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation’ 2 Cor 5:19 The four verses before this weeks gospel read – ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones – don’t overlook them, pay attention – ; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
Therefore! If your brother sins against you . . .
The angels of the little ones, the none people – Jesus’ people always behold the face of God, and in the resurrection, they are like the angels of God in heaven . . .
So . . . to be one of God’s people is to be like an angel . . . which means??
Angels wait on God, Like Mary – they pay attention to God in Christ, and serve His purposes. They wait on his command. That is what they live for, the people of God . . . they are messengers, connection makers
Why like an angel in the resurrection? God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself? He has woven together heaven and earth in his Son. Christ on the Cross is lifted up holding heaven and earth together . . . Like an angel he dwells in both places – he moves effortlessly between the two . . . He stands at the right hand of God, yet is with us always . . .
When your brother sins against you, Go! Commands Jesus, go into the world to do the work of your father which I have revealed to you – GO! seek and save the lost, to restore the relationship. They have sinned and so have broken the life giving bond – they are thus cut off and lost from the household of God. They have become a lost sheep, go find them! Bring them home.
We do not go to point out the fault of our brother or sister because of what they have done to us, in the same way that God in Christ does not seek us out to tell us how we have hurt him. God’s own self forgetfulness – your sins and iniquities I will remember no more – is the Life of the Church which has been entrusted with the message of reconciliation.
We are like the angels who dwell before the face of God. That is what we are – in ourselves weaving heaven and earth together, so that whatever we bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatsoever we lose on earth is loosed in heaven. It is only in knowing who we are, what we are and where we are that the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes plain to us and we become its self forgetful, God serving expressions . . . Only those who lose their life will find it . . .
Trinity + 12 – 2020
Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:10
What does it mean to be ‘The people of God’?
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount starts out by naming God’s people – the poor in Spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty . . . that is where God starts . . . These are the Blessed for from them God will create a people for his glory
The writer Dallas Willard in his book, the Divine Conspiracy, a book about The Kingdom of God, so chokes over these words of Jesus that he has to completely rewrites them. In Willard’s picture God obviously needs competent people, skilled people, talented people. ‘If we are going to bring in the Kingdom of God! . . .’
In short people like him. So these people . . . the nothings, the non-people he . . . well he says ‘Hey when Jesus is announcing his Kingdom he says ‘it’s even for people like this!’ We competent people we are the ones charged with the business, and so doing we’ll help these non people. So Sure is he of this that he spends an entire chapter deliberately these people as losers, as non-people . . . The losers, the people no one would look to if humanly speaking they were setting out on a great endeavour, let alone ‘The great Endeavour’ . . . Humanly speaking . . . That’s the worlds story – vote in the right government and the poor will finally be looked after – This is how We will fix things . . . We the competent and powerful will help out the less blessed.
Except Jesus has named the blessed, THESE are the blessed, and there’s no ‘also’
What is perhaps a little unsettling to consider is why Willard has to do this . . . Why? Because he is working from an unexamined assumption, that he and his fellow middle class Christian friends, the Movers and shakers, the people with ‘significant’ roles and the like – are OBVIOUSLY ‘God’s people’ – The story is so pervasive we believe it – It is our job as God’s people to look after the non-people . . . But Jesus says, the non-people are God’s people. And there are no ‘alsos’ . . .
If the ‘Blessed’s of Jesus aren’t like those people Willard knows . . . and Jesus says blessed are ‘those people’ . . . what of him, what of us?? (And you might like to take a moment to reflect on how like Willard we immediately try and hold our story together . . .)
The Jesus story tips the world on its head, because it is not about human glory except as Christ and him Crucified. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, people come to Jesus saying ‘Hey Jesus, look what we’ve done, what we’ve achieved ‘in your name’’ and Jesus is less than impressed – away from me, you doers of evil. For this is not about human glory, but the glory of God.
God’s work is always a work of Creation – and he caps out the creation by Creating His Image and placing it at the Centre – so that the creation would know what the Creator was like. God creates a people Like him, He does the creation, the work is all God’s. Even Jesus says ‘I only do what I see the father doing’ and that Creation is from that which is ‘nothing’, the formless and void of the waters of the deep, he forms a people from those who were not a people. They do not make a name for themselves, there are no laudatory memorials to those people – he places his name on them
As St Paul puts it in a text that has been much on my family’s heart these past few days – God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. A child growing in her mothers womb turns our world on its head . . .
[We have a society and culture which is set up by the powerful who may or who may not do good for the weak . . . but they dominate the story. And this story is also the story which dominates the church. So Synod, reduced to just a one day zoom ‘meeting’ will debate the usual well meaning motions about ‘helping the non-people’ – top down. But ignoring our Christian Story which is that the people of God are the non-people.
You see it’s only the non-people that need God . . . the rest of us can and usually do get by very well without God. Indeed we think so much of ourselves that we say that it is our job to ‘bring in the Kingdom of God’. Faith is hard not for those who have no other hope, it is hard for those who have a thousand and one alternatives]
So God comes to the raw material of the non-people. The enslaved Hebrews
‘I will send you to Pharaoh’! If we read further on, the LORD says to Moses, I will give you words . . .
And Moses Knows he is not up to the task . . . Who am I? I am NOT . . .
I AM has sent you. And I AM brings them out and makes a people for himself, to reveal his Glory . . .
But they looked around and sought to emulate other nations. Hey we need a King! If folk are going to take US seriously . . . so they fall into the failure of the nations who do not know God. They get their king- first David, who wouldn’t lay a hand on Saul but became king by popular acclaim as the one who slew his tens of thousands . . . Then the glories of the Solomonic era, in which the liberated people were ironically enslaved to their own imperial project. Imperial projects always enslave – as anyone paying attention to their own life might notice . . . Solomon intermarried with a gusto . . . he built an amazing temple and an even more amazing palace for himself . . . and following his death as with the death of any emperor, the succession led to a bloodbath and the separation of the 12 tribes.
And one of the most pertinent facts regarding God’s people is that they are largely absent from the historical record . . . even Solomon in all his glory . . . In vain do we look for the historic record of the non people. For all their glorious past, they barely deserved a footnote in the annals of the Human story . . .
From then the story had not been good, and at the time of Jesus, God’s people are waiting for ‘the Son of David’. . . An imagined glorious past . . . how we love to live in the past and fondly remember it . . . not really a good call. The powerful amongst them are trying to hold things together. The Pharisees are not narrow minded legalists – rather they long for the return of God’s King, and understand that only when Israel perfectly keeps the law will this happen . . . but their understanding of God’s Messiah is still one built not on God’s creative acts amongst the non-people. They are looking for the movers and shakers . . . The King, The Messiah to restore ‘the good old days’
So Peter’s cry ‘this must never happen to you! Is based on that story. He has just been graced BY GOD to see that Jesus is the Messiah, the long awaited one. He didn’t figure this out for himself for this is a story about God, not about how clever Peter is . . . note by the way that the gospels do NOT exalt the disciples . . . They are very raw material . . . We note the ‘joke’ that on this rock Jesus will build his church and like Sarah we laugh! Really? Peter??? That flippy floppy nobody?? Because it’s not about Sarah or Peter, it is about God
Jesus calls the non-people . . .
Peter is allowed to see who Jesus is, and then Jesus tips Peter’s world upside down . . . he must go to Jerusalem and suffer . . . and be killed . . . and on the third day be raised. The word Suffer is passive – he becomes a non person, the target of those who have a different story, he becomes the ultimate non person by being killed . . .
So Peter when he says ‘this must never happen to you’ isn’t saying out of his deep devotion to Jesus, but because that’s not the Messiah story. The Messiah is the top down ruler who will save Israel . . . the Messiah institutes an eternal reign – He comes to make us a GREAT nation! The Messiah does not die!
But that is the way of Satan, the Prince of this world. It is designed to leave us without hope, because we think – the next government, if only we had the right ruler . . . a world of eternal despair in the human – ‘Get thee behind me Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of Man. because we have not in mind the things of God.
It is perhaps the Great Satanic illusion which grips our hearts and minds – just get the right people at the top . . . (Which is why I have no time as a Christian for politics – its not the Jesus way, and the temptation for us is that it takes our hearts and minds off Him, and our neighbour, and through the power of the internet focusses us on false hopes . . .)
But more – if you would be my disciple, to be God’s people – you also have to give up on your story . . . Jesus takes the story back to the start – into the deep waters of death . . . it is out of that that life emerges. Our story as I said last week is Life through death, when we try and avoid that we try and solidify Our existence protecting ourselves
The disciples looked on the glory of the Temple and said, what fine stones – and Jesus destroys it. All Their hard work . . . all their self justification, all their self righteousness, because God needs raw material to form a people for himself who perfectly reflect his Glory – that is the purpose of The Image of God, to Manifest God . . . it is the vocation of the Church, the Body of Christ – but we do like our Temple building projects, those things which give us a sense of self satisfaction – of course inscribe it AMDG. – to the great er glory of God, but the glory of God is revealed in the non people
Which leaves me thinking about us, the people of St John’s
We have a long and it may well be said ‘proud’ history . . . When I came here and folk outside the parish realised who I was, they would say ‘Oh! The new Vicar of St John’s’ As I got to know some of the history I realised what they were talking about – This parish had achieved so much, but also that it had a darker side. Over the years we had let go of the small weaker churches and retreated to the high ground. During a polio epidemic in the 1930s, the Vicar sent people round the parish, not to pray for people and to share bread, but to raise funds for the church . . . The question I have is, do we cling on in hope, looking for a Messiah who fits, or are we prepared ourselves to become once more the non-people, the raw material for New Creation . . . to let go of our ‘glorious’ past??
Like Peter, and like the Pharisees we are So given to ‘clinging on’ to whatever gives us security – but God can only work with those for whom He is their security . . .
Some years ago I spoke of Two cities in Northern England – Bradford and Leeds. Bradford lived long on past glories . . . and collapsed. This seems to me to be the story of the Anglican church, at least in our Tikanga,, less so in Tikanga Maori, MUCH less so amongst our Pasifika brothers and sisters . Those who are little are by far the most vibrant and alive
We live in a time of shattered illusions. We who talk so much of ‘bubbles’ don’t realise that what COVD has shown us is that we were living in a bubble. Our technological prowess and scientific knowhow was supposed to protect Us from all of that – flee from the virus deeper into our bubbles, even more divorced form the reality of the world by burning phenomenal amounts of fossil fuels and building houses insulated against the storms they created.
To be Safe in human terms is to be separated from God. In our Scientific technical bubble we were separated from God, although he got a look in now and then, the occasional prayer, but really it was our job to ‘bring in his kingdom – We created a world – so as the creator of the world was the centre of the story – – – we became the centre of our own story – in which we, of course were going to ‘bring in the Kingdom of God’, because of course it would never occur to us that we couldn’t, after all, look at the fabulous things we humans have done!
COVID amongst other things is shaking things up – do we cling on and try and climb higher and higher up the mountain securing ourself, or do we follow Jesus into the waters of death, and allow God to raise us and reform us – do we cling on, or do we let go, let go and Let God . . .?
To Fix, or to Heal?
Sermon for Trinity + 6
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; Romans 8:19
The revealing of the children of God
Each Sunday as we prepare to pray in the words that Jesus has taught us, I preface our prayer with these words ‘As our Saviour Christ has commanded and taught us, we are very bold to say . . .’
Why? Because it is true. To dare to say to God, Father – is an act of extraordinary boldness . . . after all, what if it weren’t true? And how would we know? What if we called to Jesus, Lord Lord, and he said to us, away from me, you doers of evil, I never knew you . . . How do we know?
Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, most clearly in the sermon on the Mount makes it very clear how we would know
I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Or as Luke puts it – ‘be merciful, as your father in heaven is merciful . . .’
Like Father, like the child . . . As I say we Are Very Bold to say . . . our Father . . . Indeed the prayer presumes this for it presumes for example that we are forgiving – forgive us as we forgive others . . . Whilst there are often sermons given over agonising over forgiving, to pray the Lord’s prayer presupposes it is ‘natural’ which it is for a child of God.
No wonder as St Paul says: For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; Romans 8:19
Creation is gasping, it can’t breathe . . . it longs for the revealing of the children of God, for those who in truth call upon God as Father . . . for those who look like God . . .
Jesus did not die to make bad people good – he died so that the dead might live – that we might become Children of God. Christian existence is not a matter of moral performance, it’s a matter of a new Life – that we might become pure wheat . . .
8:12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. Becoming Christian is not a matter of tidying up your moral performance . . . of loving and forgiving and being merciful because we have a different or better set of rules – not it is a new Life, the very life of God flowing in and through us. As Jesus says, you must be born from above – you must be born anew as God’s children, bearing his likeness and revealing him in the world . . .
Which brings us to our parable. We tend to assume that Jesus used parables of growing living things because he was a country boy, but the reality is that he used living things, for to enter the Kingdom of God was to become a Living thing . . . birds, trees, seeds, weeds, wheat . . .
Weeds or Wheat? How can you tell? And the answer is that you can’t – only God sees the heart. There are suggestions that the weeds that Jesus had in mind based on the word he used, were notoriously hard to tell apart from wheat. Perhaps he had the hypocritical pharisees in mind . . .
But how do you know? That’s none of our business!
You have to wait to find out. Good seed in Good ground produces God Life. Even good seed in the wrong soil can’t produce wheat as we heard lats week . . . But you have to wait, this is why Jesus uses the Last judgement imagery
Like the sheep and the goats, it’s only at The End that the truth of things is revealed. At The End – when the fruit is born. If these weeds were so hard to tell from wheat, it was only at The End, when they bore seed that it became clear . . .
So what should we do?? Well the answer is as old as time – every moment of every day, repent – turn towards God. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and all of your soul and all of your strength – Loving the Father ‘above you’ Rise from the chaos and darkness of death into the glory and light of life . . . you must become children of God – Wheat, not weeds . . .
Which brings me to a question I am asked from time to time – What can I do to ensure that my children become Christians? (Even now that they are grown up . . .)
When faced with such a question it is tempting to come up with some ‘technical solution’. , and I’ve heard them all and seen so many try them out . . . often to no avail . . .
We try all the time to fix things – but unlike our food processor, which we managed to fix on Friday – you can’t fix growing things, you can’t fix living things – you can’t make the dead live . . . There is no technique, indeed it is evil to try and fix things like this. For we are not dealing with machines, but living breathing human beings . . . People can’t be helped by tool sets . . .
By attending to people, you can no more ‘ensure they become Christian’, than you can raise the dead . . . Only the Living can raise the dead
Can you raise the dead? I know of a bishop who wouldn’t ordain someone unless they had . . . Jesus sent out his disciples saying As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food.
These are Jesus instructions to his disciples – not to ‘put the world right’, not to ‘fix the world’, but to heal and thus direct the gaze of the world to the Father in heaven . . . .
We are not created to be machine and machine fixers – a living human being is no machine – there are no tools or tricks or techniques, indeed to use such things is evil. Yet we have been trained by the world to think that everything has its technical fix, and with the right rules, the right well, the right moral behaviours, the world will be saved . . . and after all, obeying Jesus and curing the sick and raising the dead and cleansing lepers and casting out demons??? . . . it is no surprise that these things only happen in non technical societies where people haven’t the power to fix things, and we think our society advanced and spiritually it is in ICU . . .
As I suggest from time to time, the real danger of Covid 19 is not the virus – it is what our response does to our souls . . . Jesus says do not fear the one who has power only to destroy your body . . . fear the one who can destroy body and soul . . .
As I said, these times reveal the truth about us, what we really love, and certainly as a society
We are in love not with the living God, we are in love with technique, with saving ourselves . . .
How can we fix the world? Vote for the right government? What will get the desired outcome? Vote out the weeds? Vote in the wheat? Can you tell the difference?
’What can I do to ensure that my children become Christians?? We are anxious, about . . . well about everything and so we are easy meat for technical solutions which promise success . . . So uproot the weeds – Clean it up! Vote for the ONE party . . . Make sure they go to ‘a bible believing church’ . . . Pray! Fast and pray! . . . What’s the technique?? What’s the fix?? Healing?? I can’t do that! Funny, Jesus disciples these simple fishermen and rag tag and bobtail didn’t say that to Jesus . . . but then they weren’t civilised like we are . . .
Yet were created to be healers not fixers – we were created to be the dwelling place of God, to have the Seed of His life in us, so that like Jesus we would heal, but that requires a struggle – a struggle to become chidden of God. For all who believe in Jesus are given the right to become Children of God
Jesus says ‘Do not worry about anything! Seek His Kingdom! Be drawn up and you will draw others up around you . . . Acquire inner peace and you will save a thousand around you – become Jesus sale in the storm! That is the upward call of God in Jesus! To be like him! SO make every effort to enter in through the narrow gate! Loving God with all you have and all you are requires your entire attention, for broad and easy is the way that leads to destruction . . .
And therein lies the answer to the question . . . Do we want our children to become Christian? We must become Christian ourselves! Wheat lives towards God with every ounce of its fibre and being . . .
You see, it is a matter of Life, of the Life of God . . . only the Living can do this, only those in whom is the life of God, because weeds beget weeds and wheat begets whea
Perhaps more than ever we need as church to realise that our faith is not a set of beliefs, or a set of morals, it is a life . . . and if the church is dying, then that life is missing . . . All over the Western world we see the same thing – folk coming up with techniques for pretty much every aspect of life . . . Like finding the right exercises to get the right abs, what do we have to do to inherit eternal life and Jesus says, leave the life you have behind . . . and follow me . . . so we go to the bookstore to find a better answer . . .
How can I ensure my children become Christians? How in the Life of the Father can we ensure anything?? Seek Him! Struggle – fight against all that wars against you soul – rise from the soil, Grow towards the Light
Make every effort to become a child of God yourself.
Life begets life. Wheat produces wheat, weeds produce . . .
Children of the Father produce the Life of the Father – for the healing of the world
The Gospel of John as the Parable of the Sower
Some thoughts . . .
The Fathers teach us about ‘logismoi’ – unhelpful thoughts. They are like birds flying about and through your head, and often like to sit on a branch of the tree. If given roosting space will drop their deposits into your soul to do their work . . . however, not all thoughts are ‘logismoi’ . . .
The Sower sows the seed . . .
Yesterdays gospel reading was ‘the parable of The Sower’, or ‘of the Seed,’ or ‘of the soil’ . . . take your pick, but you know the one I mean. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record it for us, and there’s good reason.
As Jesus berates the disciples in Mark? ‘You don’t get This parable? How will you understand ANY parable??’ (ROUGH translation) As Jonathan Pageau helpfully points out, this parable is a / the (?) Meta-parable, ‘the parable of parables’. Which brings me to that seed of a thought.
Recently I have been teaching on John’s Gospel, taking a largely thematic approach. Yesterday evening I set out again to teach on ‘Believing in Jesus’, perhaps THE theme of this Gospel of The Beloved. Yet when announcing in the morning that I intended to do that, I couldn’t help add by way of a thought, ‘including the Parable of the Sower in the Gospel of John’
To be totally honest, I hadn’t entirely thought this through . . . (‘question to self – “when did you ever?”‘)
I had previously spoken on ‘Jesus and Women in John’, working a theme about which I had given much musing over the years, that of how each significant encounter of Jesus with a woman in the gospel leads to Life in Abundance. Wine from Water, White fields of disciples from Sychar, Life from Death, and as at The Beginning, Light from Darkness.
In this, the Idea of the Logos Spermatikoi – the Seed of the Word was being worked out, which reminds us that Words are Seed Like. Rather than allowing those troublesome ‘logismoi’ a home, we might open up our soul soil to receive a life giving Logos, and thus finally by grace, become the Source (Beginning) of Abundant Life (John 7:37,8), Children of The Living God.
I was, I admit, teaching on the fly. There is a link here to the recording. Yet with regard to ‘believing in Jesus, I was gently suggesting that this required total identification with Jesus. (We are after all baptised into his death) So, I had noted ahead of time Jesus words in John 12 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
And then I saw the context . . .
The Seed falling into the ground to die – but then more, much more, at least to my mind.
In Matthew, Jesus’ words come as Judgement. Indeed his presence is understood as Judgement. The ‘Woes’ announced on Chorazin and Capernaum had come hot on the heels of Jesus revealing that John the Baptist, was ‘the Elijah’ who was to come at the end of the age, and then refers to himself as ‘The Son of Man’ – the One coming on the clouds in Daniel. The End is present in Him. The judgement of the crowds on The Baptist and Jesus, is turned back on themselves, as all judgement is so turned back (Matthew 7:1)
We had excised from the RCL reading those words of the prophet which, in our supposed fragile state we could not bear:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
‘I’m teaching in parables because you don’t want to hear . . .
So back to John 12 where we read:
After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfil the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
‘Lord, who has believed our message,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’
And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,
‘He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.
These words come after Jesus has ‘departed and hidden from’ the crowds, from public ministry. He cries aloud after this, but having withdrawn John suggests to us that He is not heard. Shortly thereafter begins the chapters of the gospel, 13 through 17, in which Jesus opens up “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven“, to his disciples “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance“
In other words, John 2-12 finds the Logos being scattered, then the Words of judgement, then the ‘explanation’ to the disciples in 14-17. So it follows the pattern of the parable in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Having in his public ministry scattered the Seed of The Logos, and occasionally bring forth fruit in receptive soil, the time draws near for Jesus to enact the entirety of the parable in Himself, as The Seed which falls into the ground and dies to bear much fruit. The Life which brings forth Life towards The Father springing up from the Earth.
The Word which hovers over the waters of chaos, calling forth the Life of repentance, the Life towards God which He Is, from those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
And THAT is a parable, The Parable of the parable of parables . . .
Sermon for 5th after Trinity, 2020. Year A
Matthew 13:1-9, [10-16], 18-23
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Stories . . .
We love them. As human beings we are wired for stories – indeed when asked about our lives, we will usually speak them as story . . . Some people say that it is ‘reason’ which sets human beings apart from other creatures, and are perhaps a little disturbed to find other creatures also ‘reason’, but stories? Perhaps that is what sets us apart…
When asked about The Bible, people have all sorts of ideas. Many, many say ‘Oh its just full of rules’. Well actually it isn’t, indeed ‘rules’ as such take up a very small portion of Scripture. It isn’t a ‘book of rules’ in that sense at all. There is a lot of poetry – and indeed the words of the prophets, which fill a considerable part of the book are often rendered poetically. But its fundamental form throughout, embracing poetry and law and letters etc. is that of story, of human stories, of universal stories, or perhaps One story retold multiple times . . .
Take the story from Genesis we have just heard. Jacob ‘steals’ Esau’s birthright – or, according to the book of Hebrews, he sells it, for ‘a mess of pottage’ in the delightful turn of phrase in the AV. Like Jack selling the family y cow, which was all they had, for a handful of beans . . . Esau is famished and easily gives up what is life giving to him, for . . . a plate of stew.
And if we’re paying attention, we’ll realise that this story is one we have heard before, not just the story of Jack and the beanstalk.
Right back in the beginning, the man and the woman in the garden. As we explored a couple of weeks ago, the Garden of Eden was a mountain. At the top was a tree, the Tree of Life, the offer of ‘being like God’, but hey . . . it’s such hard work getting to the top and the Snake whispers in their ear . . . you can get what you want, here, eat this apple . . . the man and the woman not alert to what was really offered ate the apple, and lost their birthright . . . The Snake won
If you have read this in a bible with notes, you’ll know that his name means ‘deceiver’, or ‘one who grasps the heel’ . . . He knew where the point of weakness was – like Achilles, immortal but for the heel and so the deceiver strikes the heel . . . He knows Esaus weakness and buys him off . . . stories within stories within stories
As humans we are easily bought off. We prefer the easy way . . . And we are put to sleep – And that story is repeated throughout Scripture . . .
Any burglar knows, you carry a nice steak, buying the guard dog off – and lace it with sleeping pills . . . and so we are put to sleep, and as those who are put to sleep, we don’t like being woken up . . .
So much so that we even cut out those passages which might disturb our slumber from the scriptures . . . every week at the moment.
What’s missing this week? What was in danger of waking us up and spoiling our sleep?
Here we have Jesus telling the familiar parable of the sower, and then he explains it . . . but we missed the disturbing element out
Jesus tells the story of the sower, the parable, and concludes, ‘let those with ears to hear, hear!’ Well immediately we should be on our guard, after all, haven’t we all got ears to hear??
Here’s the bit we have cut out . . .
Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
WHOAH! Strong stuff there Jesus! You’re telling these things in parables BECAUSE you don’t want them to understand? You’re giving this story to those who have much? You’re telling it as a story so that ‘the little they have will be taken away??
Yes he is . . . but there’s a good reason
We read on
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
Jesus is speaking in parables precisely so that the people are confirmed in their own choice . . .
He is pronouncing the judgement that they have themselves made. They don’t want what he is offering. Like Chorazin and Capernaum before whom he made the deaf hear and the blind see and raised the dead, and were entertained and applauded, but did not respond – fundamentally they don’t want what is on offer . . . Waking up to Life. They’d rather sleep
Last week as we were talking on Sunday evening, someone asked about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. But if you read the story, you will notice that time after time, God reveals himself to Pharaoh and Pharaoh hardens his own heart . . . when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, he is merely confirming Pharaoh’s choice
We wake up – We realise that someone has sold us a dud and we set off to find Life . . . not many, but here and there a few – and those who seek will find . . . it is those who do not seek who do not find.
God is looking for his lost sheep, those who know they are far from home, those who have welcomed his Salvation, who love his Son
The parable is precisely told about its hearers – Most of the seed falls on ground that is no good for the seed – Some have chosen their path through life, thanks. Some are kind of enthusiastic, like the crowds who were, but when faced with the force of Imperial Rome, they call for him to be crucified – Some, well there elves are just to full of other things . . .
But here and there there are a few . . .
Back in England, there was a wonderful priest called Robin Gamble. He worked in a very difficult part of town, and would go into the pubs and clubs telling folk the Good News of Life in the name of Jesus. He used contemporary music – so you had, The Good News according to Abba, or The Beatles’ He used humour, a lot of it – well not ‘churchy’ – he shared the Good News with many, but few responded . . . and as he taught what he did to others he would say, out of 100 people, there are perhaps about 5 who are looking for life – the rest are just looking for entertainment. If you are going to ‘fsh for men’ you have to seek out the seekers’
He had a point . . . most people actually don’t want to know, and God after many efforts to persuade them otherwise, even raising his Son fro the dead, seems to allow us to choose.
Do we want the Life that Jesus is offering? Will we do that soul work which prepares the soil? Do we eagerly grasp each opportunity God gives us to live up towards Him? Or are we easily bought off with a pot of stew?
Which ground, which soil has this word fallen into??
A few weeks ago – on Pentecost Sunday we heard these words of Jesus – ‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink, for as the Scriptures say, ‘out of the heart of the one who believes will flow rivers of living water . . .’ Whoever is thirsty . . . whoever desires Live . . . whoever is waking up to the fact that they have been sold a dud and Seek Life – et them seek, for the father seeks after those who seek, and they will bring forth life in abundance. The question Jesus asks is – are you seeking? Are you thirsty . . .
Matthew 11:16-19,[20-24], 25-30
On a lonely road in ancient Greece there stood an inn. Far from anyone else the inn keeper lived alone, and occasionally a solitary traveler would stop for the night. If this has creepy echoes of a horror movie, then you’d be right.
Each traveler would be shown to the one guest bed. For some it was too short, for others too long. Those for whom it was too long would awaken to find they’d been put on a rack, to stretch them out to fit the bed. Those who were too long for the bed . . . well they awoke to find missing feet or more . . .
This ancient myth reveals a deep truth about human beings – that which doesn’t fit is not comfortable to us. We Know how the world is . . . so we can spot that which doesn’t fit, and deal with it. After all we have eaten from the apple of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We Know! Get with the programme! Then we can all be comfortable . . . or perhaps dead . . . after all, that is supposed to be just a long sleep . . .
And Jesus says . . .
‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
This generation, every generation . . . Every generation with its opinion about what fits. ‘Hey look it’s a time for dancing, why are you so miserable?’ ‘It’s a time for fear, why do you live so freely?’ Here’s the bed – Get with the programme!
The spirit of Procrustes lives on . . . as Jesus found
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; Hey John,, all that camel hair shirt and Repentance stuff! Don’t be so miserable – we just want to have fun. John, he’s too moral.
Jesus . . . he’s not moral enough the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
Of course, we are not like that are we . . . especially in respect fo Jesus. Yes, John is a bit miserable, but Jesus . . . well he’s our version of an all round good person – we wouldn’t distort his message, stretching him or cutting him to fit our comfortable Procrustean bed, would we?
He’s ‘A friend of tax-collectors and sinners’ – Just like us . . . or is he?? Who are those people? Those whom the dominant narrative declares do not fit – those who are ‘beyond the pale’.
The tax-collectors were collaborators with the brutal Roman power – Jesus hung out with them. Think of any ghastly regime you like, Stalin’s, HItler’s . . . Trump’s even, if you will. The Romans were right up there – and these Jewish people collaborated with them. Those how have thrown their lot in with the brutal oppressors?? Tax-collectors. Jesus hung out with them – why one of them was his disciple, and may even have written a gospel!
Sinners – well that’s all of us, isn’t it? But if you want to get a feel for the force of it in the ears of Jesus’ detractors – think of Hilary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ . . . everyone has them. The ‘good’ people always have their ‘nasty people’ – Those people . . . the people you wouldn’t be seen dead with? They are ‘sinners’ . . . they are the ones Jesus is hanging out with . . .
Perhaps Jesus is not moral enough for us . . .
Perhaps Jesus isn’t moral enough for us – He’s not a good fit for the Saviour we were looking for. And so here and there we trim Jesus to fit our story, and if you know Matthew Chapter 11 – you’ll realise that that’s exactly what we have done, or at least someone has done on our behalf . . .
the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’ Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds . . . What does that mean?? But we skip over the verses about the deeds of Jesus, about the vindication of Jesus, the Wisdom of God . . .
Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done,
John the baptist, in prison has just asked – are you the one who is to come??
And Jesus says Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Look at my deeds!
20 Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done . . . because they did not repent.
Hang on there Jesus! Leave the repentance stuff to your miserable cousin! But he doesn’t seem to have heard . . .
21’Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.
And he doesn’t stop there – he turns his eyes much closer to home –
23And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. Jesus had been living in Capernaum – he was theirs . . . the local boy . . . made good – after all the crowds were going after him and lauding him – ‘Jesus, he’s one of us . . .’
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’
More tolerable for SODOM?? Well that Stung . . . no wonder we cut THAT out. That’s not the Jesus WE know . . .
Yet – Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds . . .
But we’ve cut the miracles out, they don’t fit our advanced ‘scientific’ view of the world . . . We’ve stripped out judgement – OUR Jesus wouldn’t say ‘Woe to you and you and you and it will be better for Sodom in the day of judgement . . .’ Not the Jesus made in our image . . . (because of course we neevr judge anyone . . .
We’ve reduced Jesus to a size we can handle, we can use to justify our lives. We’ve put him on the procrustean bed of the god of our imaginations who is as Freud rightly said, merely a projection of ourselves . . . We don’t do miracles . . . so neither did Jesus. We know what is right . . . we’re the judges – just read your news feed – we don’t need Jesus to judge the world.
We want a tame god, a domesticated god, a saviour who agrees with us, whom we can believe in, who measures up – so miracles?? Fairy tales. Judgement?? Don’t be silly – we know what is right and wrong – we know who the good people are and those who are not.
We have taken Aslan and tied him on the procrustean bed of a stone table, stripped him of his claws and his teeth and tied down with a knife through his heart. Because that is the story of the World – we would be better off without THAT Jesus . . . So we crucified him
And then we wonder why a church which so often does this – to get a more respectable faith – why is it dying . . . because it has rejected its Life.
Yet Aslan is not dead. On the third day, God raised him from the dead . . . He is the One who lives – and his word to us is the same. Behold Me. Behold my works. Repent and come to feast in my kingdom
We look out at the world and see so much that is wrong – but we don’t look too close to home . . . We judge the world . . . but the church is dying . . . why? What is wrong? What is wrong with the world – or closer to home, what is wrong with the church – or closer still, what is wrong with me?
‘What is wrong with the world? I am . . .’
St Paul gets this – Paul doesn’t look out at the world, he looks deeply into his own heart
21 [There] I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!
As Jesus says – ‘whoever sins is a slave to sin’
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Jesus is not the Saviour we were looking for. Indeed if we are honest, he probably isn’t the Saviour we want, BUT for the Salvation of the World – he is the Saviour we NEED
Yet . . . blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ Blessed is anyone who doesn’t try to rewrite my story in their own image – who doesn’t feel the need to fit me to their story, blessed is anyone who accepts what I say at face value, who accepts my judgement of their life. For I judge justly.
I am numbered amongst the transgressors – I hang out with ‘the deplorables’ . . . Jesus hasn’t come to call the righteous, those who are right in their own eyes – he has come to call sinners to repentance – and I will feed THEM my Life . . .
Come to Jesus’ table, accept His judgement on your Life – be numbered with the deplorables . . . Say Yes to Him – receive His Life in bread and wine . . .
Draft notes for Sunday Sermon – Trinity +4 2020
Baptism and Genesis 22
Today we have a baptism! And a reading about child sacrifice . . .
Keep Safe! . . . School holidays, Air NZ
Lockdown . . .
Economy . . .
Who knows? Everyone apparently . . .
Have you had conversations about this with folk??
Have you even once asked – ‘where is God in all of this??’
On the planet Zog?? Is God involved?? As Christians surely that is where our focus should be, shouldn’t it?
Yet all I hear is ‘Lockdown!’ – ‘No Lockdown!’ . . .
Thank you god for giving us a PM who kept us safe . . . Are we the elect of God???
Because where were you in the US or Italy or the UK . . .
It’s a lot more convenient not to have to think of God . . . to avoid God . . . and if we’re ruthless honest with ourselves, this is precisely what we do, almost all of the time, and it’s why this mornings text is so terrifying – because we don’t want to pay attention to God . . . If the God we encounter in this text seems strangely alien to us . . . is it because we don’t know him??
As good members at St John’s we have four patron Sts – Mary, John, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis
Aslan – is he safe??
Good is Not the same as Safe -you have to choose – between the Good and the Safe . . . Cognitive Dissonance
Church is Aslan’s Realm – there is a Lion Loose!
If you want to be safe – Church is not the right place!
Annie Dillard – Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
We are going to Baptise Marie today . . . We invoke the name of God . . . blithely??
And THEN we have this reading from Genesis . . . Child Sacrifice . . . we are not on safe ground here – and it is not comfortable . . .
But it is a move away from the Safe God story, the God avoidance story . . . It’s a move away from illusion to Reality
God draws Abraham away from all his security blankets – all that keeps him from Reality – all that keeps him Safe
Leave your country – culture – kindred – relationships – father’s house – home – and go to the land I will show you . . .
No Heir – this really Is the end of the line! Ishamel?? No . . .
Can a child be born to a man who is 100? Can Sarah who is 99 bear a child? Oh that Ishmael might live before you . . . but no . . .
This makes no sense . . . but then, does anything? Have you got COVID figured??
God has promised Abram a Son, through Sarah . . . the son of the promise. Isaac
And joy of Joys, Hope beyond all hope! He is . . . and then we come to Gen 22 . . . and it is a terrifying text . . . Not Safe -YET – THIS IS CHRISTIAN LIFE . . . This is THE Exemplar of faith into which we are going to baptise Marie
After these things God tested Abraham.
Whoa!! . . . Who trusts who?
The question is not, can we trust God, it is can God trust us to trust him . . . after all if we are charged with living out His purposes . . .
He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Abraham is Alert to God
He said, ‘Take your son,
your only son Isaac,
Just to be clear
whom you love,
Just to make it abundantly clear what is going going on within Abraham
and go to the land of Moriah,
and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’
So Abraham rose early in the morning
, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
WHAT???? NO discussion???
On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’
OK So Abraham says ‘we are coming back’ WE ARE
Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac,
He laid the Wood on his Son – pay attention here folk . . .
and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.
Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’
Abraham is alert to God – he is alert to Isaac – he is responsive to both – he is attending to both – he loves God, He loves Isaac
Isaac said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’
Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
Abraham Cannot see how this is going to turn out . . . none of us can . . . but he trusts God
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Still paying attention in the midst of it all!! He is attentive to God
He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’
And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
God is His Life
Jesus is our Life
Meaning of Baptism
We place our life in the hands of the Lion – The one who isn’t safe – The one who Is Good . . .
Do not be afraid! This is the most oft repeated injunction of Scripture. Because it is often so difficult to do, it is necessary to examine the ‘Why?’ of this Command of God, so often on the lips of Jesus . . .
Recently I’ve been feeding on various podcasts, not least those from the Ancient Faith website. Recently I came upon this one by Michael Haldas from his often excellent series ‘Sacramental Living’, entitled ‘Fear and Control’. It’s worth a listen, and I’d like to make a few additional comments.
As you will note, Michael is speaking in a daily series of talks and I suspect a little unscripted as he becomes a little contradictory, not least with respect of ‘Control’, so I offer hear a few thoughts which might possibly help direct our Spiritual Exercise in these days.
Fear and control are intimately linked
Life is full of uncertainty. If we have until now only believed that in our heads, the events of these past weeks have caused that knowledge to become Knowledge. It has moved from the head to the heart, the seat and root of our lives, and there has born much anxious fruit.
So much about the Coronavirus situation has the potential to make us fearful, and in many ways we can see that fear realised, not only within us, but also externally to us. This latter is a significant point to which I shall return in a few moments.
A short personal reflection regarding my own heart.
Here in New Zealand, we were given about 48 hours notice of the lockdown. I noted that all of a sudden the streets were alive with cars making their way to our local supermarket. I was told that after only an hour, the queue for the checkouts went right round the store . . . of course, I wasn’t so foolish . . . yet that wasn’t quite so. As I went to shop early the next morning, I found myself pausing in the aisles and looking at certain products, and an internal nudge arose, and ‘mysteriously’ this or that ended up in my basket, despite the fact that we had some at home! I stocked up on potatoes and yoghurt starter, whilst self righteously ignoring the toilet rolls . . .
. . . so to continue – in many ways we can see that fear realised, not only within us, but also externally to us. The simple fact is that we are far more alert to that external to us, than internal. The more we internally fear within our hearts, the more we See reasons to fear out there. (This is because as humans we are microcosms – tiny Worlds. We See as we are) And we are trained ot think that what we see is Reality. But Rather, what goes on within us constructs a false reality ‘out there’, because we are afraid. The internal which guides our eyes and our thinking, from fear to fear, not the external.
And our response to fear is to seek to control. Indeed Control is always a response to fear. We try to get the world ‘the way we want it’ because we are afraid, and if we have power, we exert our will on the World around us. Technology of course which is at root an instrument for exercising control over our Reality, feeds not only our sense of agency, and control, but also feeds our fear. Now of course we are afraid of what in our fear we have done to the Creation . . .
Consider the working of fear in someone who has been bullied. Because they have been bullied, often when young, they seek to protect themselves from that first fear they knew. So they exercise control over others, they themselves bully. They exercise Dominion. To a greater or lesser extent this is true of us all, but as in so many things, we only recognise it in particularly significant examples of it, Out There. Our ‘Desire to make the world a better place, to turn the people around us into our projects to improve them, are merely our attempts to make the world Safe for ourselves, so it fits how we think it should be.
This perhaps is why we know so little of the truth of prayer.
We pray and we pray, seeking God to intervene and change things Out There, so our lives can ‘return to normal’, but then God doesn’t respond . . .
YET if it really is God we seek – rather than just getting the world’s electrician, plumber, etc. to appear briefly and fix things – then God may well respond and do a far more significant work – within us. God asleep in the storm – God intervenes there through His Son Jesus and the disciples world is shattered, they’re more frightened than they were of the storm . . . Do we really want God to step in?
So often prayer is simply, “Lord I know that the world is really yours, but can you fix it so that I have it as I want it? Please can I have the life I want.” But that isn’t prayer – it’s magic . . .
These words of Father Stephen Freeman have really struck me these past days “ . . . when we seek to use the unseen in a manner that controls or directs the world around us, we have left the path of true belief and entered the world of magic and superstition. It is, oddly, the opposite of the sacramental life. In the sacraments, material things are used for the purpose of communion with the immaterial with the sole intent of communion with God. In magic and superstition, we seek to manipulate the immaterial world for the sake of controlling and managing the material world. It is actually a form of secularism – one which presumes that the material world itself is the true and final place of our existence.”
God comes to us in Jesus to give us His Life. And this requires the upending of all the tables of our lives, of many things being driven out, of a renewed Vision of what Life actually is.
To return to the theme of Control, when God steps in we have to cede control and that is the last thing we want to do, to lose our life, so it seems.
But is there no place for control?
Here I think Michael became a little confusing – for he was speaking about control as a sign of fear, but then switched ot speaking of it in healthy terms, but not defining the sphere of good control, or its home.
For there is a place where we are to exercise dominion – in our hearts. Over what rightly are we to have control? The simple, yet difficult answer is, ourselves.
It is not our place to control anything outside of the domain we have been given, our bodies, until we have mastered that which lurks within us. Michael helpfully uses the example here of God’s words to Cain ‘sin is lurking at your door, waiting to master you . . .’ Cain has no self mastery, no self control, and the rest as they say is history. Sin and death are the fruits of lives which have no self control, just self gratification, however beautifully packaged . . .
Self Control is a Fruit of the Holy Spirit.In other words, it is Evidence of the life of God within us, the Life of Jesus, abiding in us
Jesus can speak words to the Creation ‘Be Still!’ and rightly rebuke us for our lack of faith. He alone, The Human (as Pontius Pilate will remind us), can exercise dominion over the Creation for He alone is that Life that comes from God. It is only as we allow Him in to change us that we might grow into true humanity. Only when he comes ot the Temple of our lives, or indeed stills the storm outside, and reveals the Storm within.
Only when we train ourselves to only do what we see the Father doing, moment by moment, only when our life comes to us in and through Jesus, are we in the still place from which in truth we might exercise Control, not from Fear, but from Love, Joy and Peace.
The audio of a talk given in our series on The Epistle to the Hebrews
Sermon for Trinity 6, Year C 2019
Pray your Life
I wonder what you ask for when you pray? Why do we pray for the things we pray for? What is it that causes us to pray – not what deep ‘spiritual thing’ does, but what in the world we inhabit makes us pray?
These questions which I suppose we rarely if ever give thought to – but are called to mind by our gospel and also a presentation at our clergy conference this past week.
Firstly our gospel. Jesus’ disciples are being good disciples here – they are asking their rabbi to teach them. Jesus let us never forget is our rabbi also! Our teacher. We are to listen to his words for they are Spirit and they are Life. We might say ‘they are true’ – although the idea of truth is so thin in our modern world that perhaps this isn’t the best way of putting it. Better to say with Peter that they are ‘words of eternal Life’. To Hear Jesus – to listen and allow his words to shape us, is to come alive! Just like old Lazarus – this is what the Words of Jesus do! So when we hear Jesus’ words on prayer they also if we hear them bring us to Life – to Life filled Prayer.
Or quite literally a Prayer filled Life – Your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit, a House of prayer to use Jesus’ words. As Paul tells us – the Spirit prays within us – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. His Life giving words of prayer are perhaps the most clear form of Spirit filled prayer we can know. Well we shall return to the Holy Spirit towards the end
As with any good rabbi – what Jesus says – is pithy, short and memorable. His words are Life – they are bread for us – we need to be able to come back to them over and over again for our Eternal Life in the age that is passing away.
So when Jesus teaches us to pray he gives us a simple prayer. Not a set of techniques – ‘Just’ Words – but these words are Spirit and Life, for they are the words of Jesus.
We learned to pray it ‘on our mother’s knee’ – although in my case it was from my father 🙂 As we were taught these Words – the Life in Jesus was handed on to us. Do you want to know how to pray? Then listen to Jesus and say these words that are Spirit and Life. As Paul reminds us, we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit pray within us. Jesus words. Life – Spirit. Within us
But back to that question of what to ask for. We are told to pray for the coming of the Kingdom – on earth as in heaven – for bread and forgiveness. That’s it!
Christian Life is a gift from God. Like Jesus – this Life is physical and relational. Bread is fundamental to our physical existence – it keeps us alive. Eugene Peterson translates this ‘keep us alive with three square meals a day’ but I think that pushes it rather. We just need bread for the day. Give us this day our daily bread. It has an immediacy to it. Tomorrow’s bread can take care of itself – we seek bread for this day. We live too much in terms of the unknown future. A place of myths and terrors or enticements. At the moment there are those amongst us who are worried about things that lie in the future – but our prayer is for daily bread. This Life flowing from God now – our Life now. We live in humble dependence on Our Father in heaven from moment to moment.
And for forgiveness, We begin the prayer – our Father – we pray as His children his offspring in the world – He is The Provider. The Life giver – the Life of His Son. Breaking relationship is death – it is intimately connected to Bread. Bread shared – is Life shared. But sharing of bread requires relationship. So broken relationship is Death. We pray for Life. Knowing that this Life comes from the Father we seek forgiveness of our sins
But it doesn’t stop there. You see life doesn’t.
Your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit. and the dominant picture of the Temple and the Spirit in Scripture is of water flowing out from it. In the garden – that first picture of the Temple – the Temple which we have indeed turned into a den of thieves – there are rivers flowing from it
A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.
Ezekiel speaks of the water flowing from the Temple in these terms
The LORD showed me ‘This water flows towards the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. . . On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.’
And of course, Jesus – the Temple destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days is the source of this Water – Spirit and Life ‘whoever is thirsty let him come to me and drink, for out of the heart of the one who believes will flow rivers of living water’
For that for which we pray is the centre of, perhaps the entirety of the Christian active life – as Jesus fed the multitude and forgave all from the Cross, pouring out his life, so our Life is the reception of that life and the passing on of it. Share your bread with the poor, forgive others.
indeed the prayer suggests this very flow. Forgive us as we forgive others! We are asking God to replenish our lives. Feed us as we feed others. What does Jesus say – do not worry about what you will eat and drink or what will you wear do not worry about the Life coming to you— but rather seek his kingdom and righteousness and all this things will be given you
Of course as we learn, be it ever so slowly to share what we have, to share bread, to share forgiveness – this Life Of Jesus is revealed in us, amongst us and flowing from us
And so Jesus teaching on prayer concludes with a prayer that sums up the Lord’s prayer
He asks us to reflect on our lives. Do you give bad gifts? No, though you are evil you know how to give good gifts . . . how much more than will the Father [who is Goodness] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him – the gift of his Good being. The transformation of our inner being, that we are converted to temples of life giving spirit, spreading bread and forgiveness wherever we go
Do we pray each day for bread? Do we pray each day for forgiveness? Do we pray for the Life of the Holy Spirit? It is perplexing. Jesus gives us words to pray, but so many think they have moved on from this to more ‘advanced’ forms of prayer . . .
This brings me briefly to the talk at ministry conference. In it, Dr Tim Cooper spoke to us about most Christianity in the World – which is not Western. What is more it is a story of almost continuous persecution, of millions who imitated Jesus in their deaths. Millions upon millions of Christians over 2000 years who lived on the edge – not just materially but culturally. Our Western Tradition which has been at the heart of Western culture at least for the last thousand years is one which does not know what it is to be marginal, although there are some who would say that we are now discovering that. When you are on the edge – you depend on others for your life. You depend on people not killing you – you may well depend on them fro bread – and because you depend on them, relationship is key – forgiveness
If we think that The Lord’s Prayer – Words of Spirit and lIfe flowing from Jesus are not the Essence of prayer – the Essential Prayers – is it perhaps it is because we have become so self sufficient? After all – how many of us ever have to think about where our bread comes from let alone ask for it? If we can get by without close relationships with others then forgiveness isn’t part of our needs for our relationships are rarely Life or Death matters
Listen to Jesus ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God’ As his brother James says ‘Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?’
When we have little or nothing we live in dependence on the goodness of others, relationships matter more because of this. Life is bared down to its essentials. We who have much are much further from the Kingdom – perhaps this is why we are so quick to come up with alternative visions of the Kingdom that better suit our lives, and different forms of prayer?
With whom are we sharing our bread, that we need to pray for Bread? With whom do we share in Life, such that broken relationship is life or death?
In this respect it is sobering to consider that the absorption of the General Synod of the church in maters of sexuality over the past 25 years has been the wealthy driving the agenda, and ignoring (and I saw it happen over and again) the cries of the poor – our pasifika brothers and sisters whose lives are literally being submerged under the water, homes destroyed by tropical storms . . . but where is the church most alive in our province?
Are our lives lives Real Lives? Life flowing from God through us? Lives of Receiving and giving? Perhaps we need to hear the words of Jesus?? ‘How much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those that ask Him? Perhaps we who are so comfortable with our own lives, need most to pray this prayer that we be saved by His Life in and amongst us? Amen
A teaching series on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Church in Ephesus
“With the eyes of your heart enlightened”
Resurrection Difference – Daniel in the den of Lions, or perhaps Jesus?
Let alone, the Internet . . .
In the last couple of days I came across a well meaning article about ‘Sacrificial Giving’. As so often such pieces – in this case written in response to a news item regarding a church – skims the surface and fails to ask any deeper questions or examine presuppositions regarding the very nature of things, or in this case questions like ‘why do we have paid ministers at all?’
The following was written over a week ago but I forgot to send it for inclusion in the Parish Magazine. What I suggested was that all giving, that is all Living involves sacrifice. Sacrifice is unavoidable, the question is ‘What is the Goal of your life?’ Your End? This determines the nature of the Sacrifice and whether or not it is Good. We all Give all the time. All Giving is Sacrificial . . . but to what End? (Which brings us back to ‘paid ministry’ and the World of what Joseph Pieper calls ‘total work’ which we inhabit and shapes our perceptions regarding work and reward and indeed ‘The Good’.) But enough of that – here is the article I wrote.
‘Death and Resurrection’
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
We continue our journey through the Easter Season. On Good Friday we heard how Jesus, the Living One, by his death on the Cross tramples down Death, and thus sets us free from the fear that death generates, free to Live his Life in obedience to his commands, which are Spirit and Life.
At Easter we heard more of how Jesus’ Death and Resurrection was not simply a three day period in a 30 year human life, but how it encompassed his entire life and ministry.
Coming from the Eternal Father into the realm of death and dying, corruption and decay in which all things are subject to moth and rust, and in which thieves break in and steal. Jesus is born into Good Friday and Death, as ikons of his birth at Bethlehem reveal; the swaddling clothes and stone feeding trough mimicking the shrouds of burial and the stone tomb.
Thus Holy Saturday in which St Peter tells us ‘He preached to the spirits who were in prison’, refers as much to his speaking words of life to us in a world bound by fear, as it does to any speculative going to ‘the underworld’. As Jesus says, ‘My words are Spirit and Life’ – spoken to us who are in the realm of Death and Sin.
Finally Easter reveals the One who is Alive for evermore, and so we live in the season in which we learn what it is to follow him in a living that looks like death to the world bound in fear of death. Letting go our fixed grasp of life, to Live.
Reflecting upon the nature of a life well lived, Jesus is surely its pattern, for all life requires sacrifice, ALL life. Sacrifice is the means by which we spend every moment of our existence, and indeed the way in which we enter the world.
A very simple illustration. Any choice we make for a certain course of action necessarily sacrifices a literally infinite number of other choices, most hidden from our eyes. Thus it is we live, by dying to other possibilities, and thus the shape of every life comes into being. I can’t help but think of the story of Michelangelo, who said that he saw his great sculpture of David within the stone, waiting to be revealed. Our lives come into being as we chip away at that which will not constitute us – in the End.
The Question that this leaves us with is this; ‘to what End’ do we live? Towards what goal? What is our Guiding Star? For we who dare to call ourselves Christian, our LIght and Life is that Known in the revelation of the Eternal Life that is in Christ Jesus.
Such a life is marked by self-forgetfulness. It is not marked by making plans for ‘the life we have always wanted for ourselves’. For a Life we live for ourselves in the End is one which moth and rust consume, and into which thieves break in and steal. A life that is rather, in the pattern of Christ, life given away for the Glory of God – is one which is revealed finally to be Life without end, rather like a river, a metaphor which Jesus himself uses and which bookends the Holy Scriptures in Genesis and Revelation.
St Paul expressed this well, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Living by faith is Living with the eye of our heart directed towards God in Jesus Christ. It is a Contemplative Lived and Living response towards God in which God then goes to work to sculpt a Life after his image and Likeness, as Living Stones. We entrust ourselves into his hands, as Jesus did upon the cross. This brings to mind a favourite prayer of the Iona Community, returning us to the fashioning of our lives through sacrifice . . .
O Christ, the Master Carpenter,
who at the last through wood and nails purchased our whole salvation;
wield well your tools in the workshop of your world,
so that we who come rough-hewn to your work bench may be fashioned to a truer beauty by your hand.
May we say Yes to His Life and Good purposes for us, as He shapes us in these days of Resurrection
Grace and Peace
From St Matthew’s, Dunedin
Learning God – A study for Lent 2022
If we are to learn God, then we need to be as little Children and to allow God to fill our conscious imagination, and in childlike trust follow the Way of Jesus
Week 5: Matthew 6
The rest of the Sermon on the Mount can be expressed in Chapter 6 and 7, as distinct sections of Jesus teaching but each fleshing out as a whole a significant aspect of the journey so far. Therefore, before setting out on the penultimate part of our study, it might be worthwhile refreshing out memories about one or two aspects of what we have explored so far.
Firstly we recall that the wilderness brings us in a sense to a childlike state, that of utter dependence upon God. We sometime speak of such occasions as ‘coming to the end of ourselves’ (We explored this in greater detail in last years lent studies) What does such a phrase suggest to you? Is ‘coming to the end of ourself’ something we seek, or flee? In what ways does the World suggest to us that this is a state best left, until we have no choice in the matter? (Bear this in mind especially as we read Chapter 6)
Second, the Beatitudes describe such dependence – each of the ‘blessings’ is the blessedness of incompletion. If we believe ‘we have it within ourselves’ to live the Life of God, then of course we confuse ourselves for God. One of the foundational things we must learn is that we are not God. (Or perhaps in the light of Genesis 3, we need to unlearn our propensity to ‘play God’, in the negative sense, rather than the more positive light in which we imagined it in our second session).
Finally, at the end of Chapter five, we saw as it were ‘the end of all our journeying’. Remember that it is this ‘Telos’ – that is ‘Goal’, ‘End’, ‘Wholeness’ – which must inform our reading. If the journey is ‘up’ a mountain, then we need to keep the ‘ascent’ mindset before us, or as I once did on a misty day on a Scottish hill, we might spend our days going round and round the mountain in circles.
As we begin to explore Chapter 6, take time to read it through in its entirety, then read it again, having the ‘Telos’ of Chapter 6 in view throughout.
What appears to be the thread linking Jesus’ teaching in this chapter? (For once, the chapter divisions aren’t entirely arbitrary or unhelpful) What is the ‘Goal’?
We begin with Jesus’ teaching on what have become the three classic Lent disciplines; Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.
What common theme links Jesus teaching on each of these? In what way might this appear to conflict with Jesus teaching in Chapter 5 concerning Salt and Light? In what way does Jesus prior teaching harmonise with his teaching here?
Last year we explored the notion of ‘The Kingdom of God’. Do you recall anything from that teaching which might help explain what Jesus is pointing us towards in these verses? What might Jesus mean by ‘the inner room’? Or, ‘Your Father who sees in secret’?
Notice how often the word ‘Heaven’ comes up in the Sermon. Matthew’s gospel accounts for nearly half of the occurrences of the word in the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount it occurs more than in the entirety of John’s Gospel! This is a ‘heavenly minded’ Gospel and Sermon. What do we mean when we say ‘heaven’? Obviously, given the arena within which we are commanded to store up riches, it might help to consider what Jesus means . . .?
How might the teaching of Chapter 5 and its ‘Telos’ help us to understand this?
Jesus three times speaks of those who have already received their reward. Look back to Chapter 5: 43-8. It is here that Jesus first mentions ‘reward’. In what way is the reward of the Father unlike that received by those who pray ‘to be seen’? It might help again to consider the character of the ‘Blessed’.
Moving on to vs 19-21, how does the nature of reward accord with that of ‘treasure’, on earth or in heaven? What words might describe the two natures of these rewards?
Given all we have so far considered, what does this suggest about vs 22-3? (Remember the ‘headings’ put into the text were only included in the C17! Jesus doesn’t speak them ) The word ‘healthy’ carries with it the notion of ‘generous’ (perhaps ‘merciful’ 5:7) What might be the opposite of a ‘generous’ eye? How does this resonate with what we have so far read? How does it lead on naturally to vs 24? (You might also like to consider the parable of the rich fool, and how the man was not generous towards God)
So we hasten towards the end of the chapter with Jesus ‘other worldly’ teaching about ‘worry’. This begins ‘do not worry about your life’ What is ‘your life’? This teaching remember is given to his disciples, in the hearing of the crowds. How might the circumstances of the disciples differ from ours? What worries might we substitute in our condition of life?
Bearing in mind that we are commanded to pray for ‘daily bread’, how might this illuminate the final verse of the chapter? This verse is commented upon by Wendell Berry in his essay about ‘The Future’ in a dialogue with a scientific friend. Berry dismisses ‘the future’ as a helpful notion. Certainly the idea of ‘planning for the future’ is one which is only meaningful to those who have a sense of the certainty and solidity of existence. It can cause much anguish and anger with God when our ‘plans for the future’ are thrown into chaos . . .
What does this bring up for you?
Our final Study – when ‘the ‘future’ breaks in . . .