‘Heaven, and why we prefer to avoid it . . .’ Sermon for OT26 Year C, 2016

Sermon for Sunday September 25th, 2016, 18 after Trinity, OT26

Luke 16:19-31

‘when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

‘Hell’, said John Paul Sartre, ‘is other people . . .’ Now I must admit that I am a little confused trying to figure what Sartre meant by this saying. French existentialist philosophers are not always the easiest to understand, but part of what he was pointing at was in a sense something quite Christian – that the mere existence of other people places responsibilities upon us, responsibilities which are inconvenient to our lives and which we are very good at avoiding . . . even in ways to which we have become oblivious.
Like it or not, there is something deep within our fallen human psyche which leads to us avoiding those who are ‘not like us’ – even down to those beside whom we will sit on a Sunday morning🙂 And this has deep, genuinely tragic consequences for society, community, and most sadly, even the Church.

By way of example, just this last week I was reading a most disturbing article from the UK written in the wake of the success of the Paralympics. It said, ‘don’t forget in the midst of all this hype, the plight of the profoundly disabled in this country’. It was a very distressing read.
In short, government policies have led to huge reductions in the amount of care the profoundly disabled are entitled to. The article told the story of a paraplegic woman with significant needs – who had had her care hours cut from 64 hours a week, to 7 as part of the reduction to local authority budgets. She had no continence problems, yet was now required to wear incontinence pads, for under the new system she was no longer entitled to the help which would mean that she could get to the toilet when required . . . Shocking, no?

Yet, here is the rub. The council in response to her protests suggested she asked her neighbours for help . . . I wonder how many of her neighbours even know her, let alone think that somehow THEY have a responsibility towards her?

One of the reasons I am very wary of those who argue long and hard for Christian’s involvement in politics is that for the Christian, the neighbour is not an abstract or a statistic, they are our neighbour, the person in the gutter in front of us, the homeless person we encounter on the street, the families in our community who often go to bed hungry. Not a problem to be solved, but a person to be loved. Jesus, in fulfilment of the Law and the prophets sums up Torah in the Greatest and second commandment – Love the Lord your God, with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, Love your neighbour as yourself. Neighbour love can in effect be summed up in the golden rule, do to others as you would have them do to you.

If we were in need, would we want someone to be engaged in politics so people like us weren’t in need or would we want someone to come and care for you. And before we answer, well its both / and – just remember, you are the person left to sit in incontinence pads day and night whilst people fume about poor government policies – the person who has to wear incontinence pads all day, the person whose children are going to bed hungry in our city – in their place what do we want? Yes, it may well be wonderful to think that there are people out their ‘fighting for your rights’, but how long do I have to sit in my filth before the ‘unjust structures of society are fixed . . .’ Surely we want to see another human being, come to us . . . from the other side of what must seem like a gulf, fixed.
And perhaps, just perhaps, if we heard the gospel and believed it in obedience to Jesus with his command of radical neighbour love, we might find we didn’t actually need such structures, which will always be unjust . . . Whilst some criticise those Christians who speak of heaven in terms of pie in the sky when you die – a society in which each is cared for according to their need must seem a similarly, perhaps more abstract version of heaven to those who are hungry and lonely and cold, and sat in incontinence pads . . .

Political structures. Systems of ‘making sure these things don’t happen, are profoundly deceptive substitutes for human relating. Worse they contribute to our gradual distancing from our neighbour. Imagine  for a moment if we lived in that perfect state, where our neighbours had no needs that we might meet. We might be able to live our own lives as we wish. It would be Sartre’s vision of Heaven – but in truth this is the Christian vision of Hell.
The irony is – we aim at abstract versions of heaven, blind to our own biases which keep us avoiding our neighbour, and perhaps like the rich man in the parable – we may be surprised to wake up in the other place.

And this is true of the church also.
Last week at Synod I perceived an example of just how the system separates us out, and how we don’t see it. Of course it had been staring me in the face for years, and I had been captured by the same blindness to the narrative as everyone else – I have been to so very many Synods – about 75? And many associated with budgets and fair share formulas, and over and again I imagined that this was somehow a Christian conversation – rather than an example of how we have been taken captive by what our own St John calls, ‘The World’. So year in year out, we try to get a fairer formula for how parishes contribute to the financial aspects of our life together . . . and then last week, after all those years, I saw what was happening

There we were and discussing the budget and the ‘fair share’ – and in a line of similar comments, someone from parish X got up and said that they couldn’t possibly pay the extra $2500 share requested as it pushed them into even more unviability. A few moments an another speaker later, the Archdeacon of Parish X stood up and said how as Archdeacon they Could be very happy with the proposals, as overall the Archdeaconry was being asked for $9000 less overall . . . yet they couldn’t support the new formula for Parish X was suffering so . . .

You see? The system, the political structure had separated us out, for management convenience and then we had not only acquiesced in that, but it had become our way of understanding the world. The idea that all the parishes in the Archdeaconry might get together and SHARE what they had with one another, to either take the pain or the gain together had not crossed their minds, and to be fair I have been in that same conversation so many times, and not seen it myself. It had taken me more Synods than even Bishop K had been at for this penny finally to drop . . . And as I have pondered this, it has become clear that in other ways, the political organisation of the diocese has actively kept us from the difficult, messy business of trying to have a genuine common life

Of course . . . it would mean sitting down together, Face to face. Could we do this without judgement? Parishes which had had their bills cut, their debts forgiven, might need to help pay the debts of others . . . I thought of our own archdeaconry and what it might be like to sit down together to begin that conversation . . . and then I thought, ‘oh, maybe the formula is a better way after all . . .’ after all, Hell is other people . . .

Love of the real neighbour is HARD, because we are sinners, and in part that means we unconsciously avoid the other – we sin in ignorance – a gulf we don’t see exists between us. In an odd sort of way, our difficulties over life together make The Kingdom of Heaven seem like the other place. Much of that gulf is found in things we don’t even see or realise. In socio political structures, in the power of money to separate us one from another. As I said, no one seemed to see that we might possibly sit down together and share out the share – it was as if it had been cast in stone that each parish must pay in separation from the others, we just need to make the share fair, but the formula will never in truth be ‘FAIR’ Such a concept is an abstract and The World delights in such abstract concepts as ‘social justice’, and ‘challenging the unjust structures of society’ – because it keeps us from the plain commands of God, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Structures, mechanisms, organisations become our way of at once seeking at once to obey the command, and avoiding it.

Our parable today shows what happens in the end when we do not cross the Actual Neighbour gulf – it gets deeper and wider and deeper and wider until in the final judgement it is fixed and we cannot pass from one side to the other. What happened at Synod made me wonder if we had reached that point, where the Judgement that Christ comes to announce is fully enacted – although there were also signs that we might not have got there quite yet.
Imagine the plight of that poor disabled woman in the North of England – she knows that fixed gulf which no one may pass over in that remark from her local authority ‘perhaps a neighbour could come and help you . . .’ Like Lazarus being told, ‘you hungry? Perhaps the rich guy next door might feed you?’ How devastating to hear this in a modern urban liberal democratic state, where we are all Individuals and community has all but disappeared . . . Yet does the rich man who might help, feel the gulf as sharply? I know that increasingly over the last couple of years, the reality of that gulf for me has become more and more apparent as my life has got tangled up in the often chaotic and dangerous lives of those who have nothing.

Jesus parable is  stark. The curtain is drawn back on ‘The World’ and its ways and everything is revealed for what it is. “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.”

If we have been paying any attention at all to Luke’s gospel these past weeks we should have seen this coming. The gospel is the announcement of the Mighty River of the Justice of God, Israel’s God, ‘coming with judgement to save us!’ Announced by Mary ‘The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. We should have seen this coming.  Following that song of vindication for the poor and the weak, along comes John the Baptist – calling people to a baptism of repentance. When the crowds ask ‘what should we do in the light of this gospel announcement’, the answer is simple. If you have two coats, share with the one who has none. If you have food, share with the one who has none. Simple – but The World has changed this. Someone who has no coat or no food becomes an abstract symbol of a failed abstract society – a gulf is coming into being, not fixed but it is there, but slowly one thing after another conspires to make the gulf deeper and deeper, We should have seen this coming. As Jesus said ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven. Woe to you who are rich for you have receive your reward’ ‘Use wicked mammon to make friends for yourself so that when it fails you, they will welcome you into eternal homes . . . Live this way, because surely you can see what is coming??

We know nothing about the Rich man, he is so disconnected from his neighbour, he himself has no identity, no name. He has ceased to exist in the world. we do not even know his name. Who knows, he may have been a political figure working day in day out to ‘fight for a more just and equitable society’, then driving home past the line of the hungry and the homeless, comforting himself with the thought that, ‘one day even that guy at my gate will have something to eat

The parable says, you should have seen this coming – this was what the LORD has always said would happen. The Rich man, finds his ‘social superiority’ the thing that had perhaps kept him from going to Lazarus, was now ineffective in getting Lazarus to come to him. So he calls to Father Abraham – ‘send him to my brothers and warn them!’ And Abraham says, they have the Moses and the prophets . . . they should be able to see this coming. Jesus remember comes only to fulfil the Law and the prophets – in a sense there is nothing new, except for this one thing – God’s final Victory is revealed in that he raises Jesus from the dead, and of course the gospel is addressed to those who know this – what difference does it make to us? If death itself is overcome, then what is there to fear from crossing the gulf now?

The Christian way of making the world a better place is living as if heaven is already here, breaking in amongst us and sharing that news with those around us, that in Christ God is breaking down every barrier between us – reconciling that greatest gulf between God and the human and thus making the bridge across we might walk to the neighbour, sharing in what we have with one another. Revealing the Life of the Risen one amongst us – amongst us . . .
And this is where it starts . . . As I said, at Synod we were challenged to talk together about the simple matter of our parish shares and how together we might help one another as parishes. For if we cannot do this simple thing, do we truly believe the LORD will entrust us with the treasure of The Holy Spirit, the Life of the Kingdom? Again – it may come as news to folk that Diocesan Council has decided that ten out of 14 church buildings will close in Dunedin by 2020 . . . a political answer to a problem of our common life. Surely if the gospel is true we might as the Anglicans in the city come together to think, pray and share with one another what wisdom we might have. It is not as though there are all that many of us! What vision is there that the LORD grants us? Or do we in truth believe Sartre? Hell is other people, we’ll allow the politicians to fix things between us, to fix the gulf in place.

Are we unable to do even this little thing, this small act of crossing the gulf set up between us in our separated parishes? Do we really have a gospel to proclaim?

God is coming with judgement . . . coming with judgement to Save his people – we of all people should be able to see this coming.

Sermon for Evensong – John 7

Sermon for Evensong
Sunday September 18th, 2016

John 7:14-39

The First and Great Commandment . . .
Life Giving

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. Matthew 22:34-38

Trees have a great deal to teach us. It is perhaps a symptom of the stupidity of our age that we do not attend to them to listen, and so readily cut them own, because they are ‘in our way’ CS Lewis spoke of Dryads, spiritual creatures which inhabited trees and which died as trees were felled, most notably in the sombre, ‘Last Battle’.

I don’t know how well you know our trees? The trees on this section of land, nearly all of them I am glad to say, protected (and how sad that we should have to protect trees . . .) The Beech by the road is especially worthy of contemplation, not least for her wondrous roots, which extend on the surface nearly fifty feet from the trunk. (My apologies (?) for using feet,  I have no conception of one 297 millionth of the distance light travels in a second, but I have feet . . .) Her roots are a thing of wonder and there is an incredible solidity to that tree in particular, not as tall as the others, but strangely almost permanent, as if she has been and will be there for ever, and with such wondrous roots, for of course the Life of the tree is utterly dependent upon her roots.
Roots anchor us, fix us in place. It is perhaps no surprise that the mark of the age in which we live with its relentless change and movement, which we assume must be progress, surely ?? . . . the mark of this age is the cutting down of its trees to make way for our own fleeting lives. Rootlessness is a particular feature of modern existence, and of course with so many spending so much time in virtual existence, neither here nor there, not fixed in space or indeed in time, trees are an affront to our unlimited desires – with no suggestion that perhaps Life eternal might perhaps be found just under our feet.

And that rootlessness extends to ideas and words. Take the word ‘Orientation’ which as I have explained has to do with to our standing before God. it is a word about human beings in relation to God, for Churches were ‘Oriented’, pointing East to Jerusalem, in anticipation of the resurrection of the dead. Now the word has lost any external reference, it has become a subjective word, the dimension of the other lost, it has no external reference, it has become uprooted. Or the phrase, ‘Image of God’. A phrase which is lazily thrown around in the church having lost all connection with its original meaning, that is ‘the one to whom is given Dominion under God’, the One whose life is fruitful and multiplies, finding its source in God, and its fullest expression in Jesus whom the Apostle Paul tells us is ‘The Image of the Invisible God’. For Christians ‘Image of God’ means Jesus, the one who has been given Dominion and all authority in heaven and earth. It is only descriptive of us insofar as we are by grace through faith included in Christ by the Sacrament of Baptism, and then only in our life submitted to him in obedience. It is a phrase which can only be understood in terms of the person whose life is oriented towards God, who is Jesus. And unsurprisingly therefore, we might note how rootless our use of the name of Jesus has become.
Finding this first Century Palestinian Jew somewhat of an embarrassment. He comes from such a primitive time! We know so much more nowadays. His Historical Rootedness becomes something we avoid or get around – as we redefine him to suit our own image. Subtly ‘killing him’ . . . and the crowds answered him saying ‘you have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?’ We are as befuddled as Jesus’ first hearers at the accusation that by our trying to redefine him, we are ‘seeking to kill him’. As someone said a few years ago now on reading one of the Gospels, ‘Oh My Jesus would never say such a thing . . .’ So, we do away with Jesus

So we make a new Jesus, in our own image and thus become self oriented having lost touch with our roots . . . our deepest roots, and of course when the Church loses touch with her deepest roots, she withers and dies – for in truth, the church has no life apart from her Lord.
And thus we ourselves, losing touch with The Human become ourselves dehumanised. For all the talk that the Diocese is its people and clergy, the papers for our Synod were I think most telling, for the Diocese as Institution was fully on show if close to death, but as far as the life of the parishes?? A set of statistics on the back page. Having lost touch with The Human, even  the Church becomes radically dehumanised – something which we have to manage – a set of accounts, some committees –  and its people?? A set of statistics . . . all in the name of one who on the last and great day of the feast stood up in the temple precincts and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! He who believes in me, as the scriptures have declared, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.

No one dare suggest that the Church is in the state she is, because she has lost touch with her Roots, her source of Life . . . where is that living water?? Well Jesus gives us our answer – ‘He who believes in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water . . .’

So, let us attend to Jesus – let us cry out to him, ‘Lord I believe, have mercy on us and help thou our unbelief’ let us come back to the Lord and learn from him – and ponder two questions with  which our reading from our beloved patron St John, is concerned

Firstly – ‘where does all his teaching come from?’

About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, ‘How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?’ Let us remember that this is not the first time that Jesus has astounded people in the Temple, even at the age of 12 he is found in the Temple Courts – you will remember the story – everyone sets of back to Nazareth and after a days journey . . . Mary and Joseph realise that he isn’t with the party and go back to look for him “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’”

‘all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers, and then again in our reading ‘The Jews were astonished at it, saying, ‘How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?’ This unlearned wandering teacher – there is no record of anyone ever teaching him anything – he is not known as the disciple of anyone, but from his youth, he know that he must be in his fathers house – ‘I must be in my Father’s house’ And we have our answer ‘ ‘My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him. . . . ‘Father glorify you name . . . and a voice came from heaven saying, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’

Jesus’ teaching comes from the Father, and he seeks only the glory of the Father – and anyone who resolves to do the will of God will discover the truth of this – Jesus speaks the Words of God and living in obedience to these words of Jesus is the source of Life.

So his teaching comes from God – you will remember perhaps the little incident when Jesus’ opponents try to catch him by asking him ‘by what authority he does his miracles’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” But shall we say, “Of human origin”?’—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’ If Jesus’ teaching is from heaven, from God the Father . . . clearly only one course is open to us, and it is not for us to pick and choose

Secondly Given that his teaching comes from God the Father – where does Jesus come from  – ‘Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, ‘Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.’ Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, ‘You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.’ Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.

Jesus himself comes from God the Father – according to the flesh it is known from whence he comes, he is the son of Mary and Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth – an unlearned man – whose teaching comes from God the Father, from whom according to his divinity he comes – he proceeds from the Father – His Life is rooted in the very being of the Life of God and so he becomes the source of the Living Water of the Holy Spirit to all who believe in Him. And his humanity and his divinity are in perfect harmony in Him. So he is The Human who perfectly loves the Father with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, even from his youth he has been sinking his roots deep deep into the Life of God His Father. He Is the righteous one of Psalm 1 who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; for even from his youth his delight has been in the life giving law of the Lord, and on his law he has meditated day and night. He is like a tree 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.

Jesus loves the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind – and thus and only thus becomes the one who loves his neighbour as himself, even the neighbour who is his enemy, even the one who would have him killed – loving us more than he loves his own life.

We call such a person Holy – Their Life is in deeply rooted in God  – anchored deep in God – and from Him flows streams of Living Water.

We live in a spiritual wasteland – wandering in the wilderness far from those springs of living water – we have chosen life on our own terms. The Church, separated from her roots is now withering and dying. Like the chaff, it is blown away – As the money in which it had trusted in for so long runs dry, it becomes clear where her life really was.

Yet, the Church that is deeply rooted in the life of God in Jesus can neither wither nor perish, it may like any tree suffer the gales and storms of this life, it may, indeed it will suffer the wounds and the hatred of the World, but it Will bear fruit, and it will inherit eternal life

Prayer of Saint Aidan

One of my patrons. Spent several hours conversing with him in his church on Lindisfarne during my Sabbatical . . . it was a very wet day!

Eclectic Orthodoxy

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.

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A taste of home in the midst . . .

Yorkshire-Gold-wins-2-Great-Taste-stars

Just this morning I received a message from home. An old friend posted on Facebook about a near miss on the motorway far from her home. She escaped safe but her car may well be a write-off. Fortunately the collision with a truck happened in a speed restricted area of the route. She mentions the kindness of several who helped, not least someone charged with watching the traffic cameras, who made her a ‘cup of Yorkshire Tea’. For someone who Knows this wonderful part of Northern England, it was a taste of home, a deep connection. In the midst of the trials and tribulations, something solid and real with deep associations.

Our family are just back in New Zealand from Yorkshire, equipped with (not nearly enough) Yorkshire Tea. A reminder of home that goes past just the visual, with which we are obsessed in our culture, but enters in, and speaks to us more deeply. (Any accusation of over egging this will be met with the gentle rebuke ‘Get Real’🙂 )

 

To change tack, or perhaps better, to sail more directly into the Wind, I was recently startled and graced by a request for ‘a taste of home’ Someone was visiting me and asked towards the end of our conversation, ‘Do you have any reserved sacrament to hand? I haven’t had the eucharist for a few days’ (A Davidic request for the bread of the Presence – 1 Samuel 21)

Startled, for such a request is so ‘from another place’, indeed in many respects in the church in the west it is tragically from another time, an anachronism.

Graced for when two are present, Jesus is in the midst.

Stanley Hauerwas is well known for his observation that in our age we are functional atheists. To use this idea, we may well have a fine doctrine of the Eucharist, but we are not physically hungry for it. If we are hungry for Jesus, it is usually at a far less embodied level of our existence, little more than a vapour – we have lost most if not ‘all sensitivity’ to His presence in bread and wine. We might have a theology of The Real Presence, but practically we are on the whole ultra Zwinglians – memorialists of the most naked variety. For us, we only know ‘Jesus’ – we have perhaps forgotten Him in the flesh, the one who is the way Home . . . When we Commune in the Communion we participate in Home

Are we are so home in the world as it is for we have lost a taste for Home, the bread which came down from heaven . . .

 

Our mundane taste for the things of home, Yorkshire tea, my grandmother’s fly pie,  Cumberland Sausage . . . (I could go on🙂 ) is itself a sacrament, an echo in the creation, distorted though it is, of a deeper taste. The Eucharist is Food sent from Home (As the Father has sent me . . .) In the midst of the trials and tribulations, something solid and real . . .

O TASTE and SEE that the Lord is Good!!

 

 

 

 

Theophan the Recluse: “All troubles come from a mental outlook that is too broad.”

have been thinking something very similar for a very long time

Dover Beach

Theophan the Recluse

“What has happened to you? What kinds of questions are these? “I do not know what to do with my life. Should I be doing something in particular? Should I define some particular purpose for myself?” I read this and I was dumbfounded; where could such odd thoughts have come from? Indeed, you already settled all of this when you expressed the desire to stand at the level of human dignity.

I would guess that among your friends are progressive thinkers, or that you have joined a society having such people in it, and they have scattered your good sense. Such people usually rave in this manner.

It seems to me that all of this is clear and simple; there is no reason to torture yourself with difficult problems. You need to put out of your mind any plans about “multi-beneficial, all-embracing, common-to-all mankind” activity such as the progressives rant…

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Let your waists be girt and your lamps lit – Sermon for OT 19C

Sermon for 12th Sunday after Pentecost, OT19C

Luke 12:32-48

Let your waists be girt and your lamps lit

whilst back in the UK, a dear friend gave me the present of a book about his homeland, where he grew up, in the PNW of the USA. In its early chapters it is dominated by the story of the great Columbia River which empties into the pacific between the states of Oregon and Washington. At that point of collision where mighty river meets the worlds largest ocean (if not its most terrifying) the seas are so rough and terrifying that for many years sea farers didn’t even realise that a river lay behind them – and to this day even those charged with rescuing those from the waters, and those who pilot ships into the Columbia live in fear of those tumultuous waters.

For almost all of its history the Columbia was as terrifying as its outfall. Whirlpools and rapids made the navigation of the river far from straightforward, but as modern humans have done almost everywhere now, the river has been tamed by dams. Where once one might have regularly expected to be hurled into the foaming waves, now people waterski.The great flow broken into people friendly lakes for fishing and what we have been trained to call ‘recreation’ – the River has disappeared. And the church herself lives in constant danger of doing the same with Holy Scripture. The words of a friend of mine ‘My concern with the scriptures is to look for contemporary answers to contemporary issues’ is symptomatic of such taming. The text now reduced to little more than a somewhat confusing encyclopaedia of ‘spiritual problems’. So we are reduced to sitting aside from Scripture, distancing ourselves from the invitation to find life in and through them. For as the Columbia was once a scene of vibrant life and its taming has led to ecological devastation, so our attempts to ‘tame the scriptures to make them serve our ‘concerns’, has led to the imminent death of the church in so many parts of the world [And, let the reader understand, this is no mere metaphorical parallel]

So Sunday by Sunday, if we are careless, we come to a gospel reading as a little snippet, a thought for the day, a little something helpful to tuck away, rather than an encounter with the Living God, whom no one may see and live. From riding the terrifying rapids clinging on for life, we are reduced to spiritually moribund tourists on deckchairs – most of us, lets be honest well past the age even for waterskiing!

And Luke’s gospel, if we dare approach it so, is like a mighty river in full flow – of a whole. Its end in its beginning, the tumultuous climax known even as its waters are first seen high in the mountain air of the Birth Narrative – for those who Hear Scripture, like those who navigate rivers, we Know where this is headed. At the outset this Mighty River is framed by two great prayers which form the Gates of the life of the church in her daily prayer – the Benedictus in the morning, the prayer of Zachariah at the birth of John the Baptist and The Magnificat in the evening, The Song of Mary which heralds the Birth of Jesus – And out through these flood gates flows the Story of God’s coming with judgement to save his people. Judgement and Salvation woven together. So John comes and announces the one who is coming the thong of whose sandals he is not worthy to untie – the one who will baptise you ‘with the Holy Spirit and with Fire’. Judgement and Salvation!! And these Themes are the flow, the rapids, the whirlpools, the rocks and the occasional still pool in the journey of this River as it flows insistent, urgent, with a power that overwhelms towards its [] as it joins with the mighty Ocean that is the Living God.

So when we hear the Gospel, we do not come as those who are set apart from it, for as the baptised we have been thrown into its waters. In that light, to say that we have domesticated Scriptures, Worship and the life of the Church seems almost to obvious as to be of comment – we have not ‘come to church’ we have he Living God, to come to share with all the heavenly host around the throne of Grace with thousands upon thousands of others, hidden from our sight yet present to us by the sight of faith.

So last week – we may remember the story of the man who built barns – this is no mere fridge magnet ‘nice idea for the week’ ‘There’s more to life than your stuff’ – which we all agree with, go home and do not even begin to think about what it requires of us – no this is a parable of the coming Salvation and Judgement of God. This is coming! It is present in the words of Jesus. ‘You fool! this very night your life will be required of you, and who then will get all your stuff?? Your life reduced to a stuffed owl . . .’ Jesus says – in the light of God’s Presence, in Judgement and Salvation, to live like this is as mad as setting off down the Columbia and into the ocean on a child’s beach toy. It is a call to wake up to existence!! One of the great myths of our existence is a loss of the sense of our fragility – here and there there are still faint voices calling us to wake up – I remember for myself one of those was the news when I was about 20 that a friend, just a few years older ‘just dropped dead’ in London . . . I was too insulated from such stuff – modern life, insulated as it has made itself from the reality of existence in the world had told me that these things didn’t happen, that I would live a long life . . .

And so it is in this light that the words of Jesus to his disciples are to be heard – not in the sight of a river that has been dammed to make a pleasant lake, a little gospel nugget – hiding the river from us – but in the sight of the mighty torrents – for they only make sense when we are alert to our predicament and our place. God is coming! God is present!
Jesus is not offering us a ‘thought for the week’ – ‘try to worry less, after all what does it acheive’ not leading us into some sort of Zen detachment from life – rather he is speaking to those who are in the full flood and trying to hang on – ‘do not be afraid little flock’. A good parallel would be where Jesus is asleep in the boat in the midst of the Storm – and rebukes them for their fears! ’Oh ye of little faith!’ –
So these words ‘Do not be afraid little flock’ are to be heard in the context of the great flow of the Gospel – in the announcement of God’s coming in Judgement to Save his people . . . and then seemingly Jesus pushes us even further into the flood – Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . for after all, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give You the Kingdom. In the midst of the flood of Life in which we encounter the Judgement and Salvation of God, what is it that we are given to cling to – the promise of Our Father, the One who has taken us to himself in Jesus – that he desires to, that he is pleased to give the kingdom to this tiny – humanly insecure flock.

And then this little phrase. ‘Let your waist be girt and your lamps bright’ The pilot of the Colombia river straps his crew to the deck with a double line and equips them with emergency flares and locator beacons should they be thrown into the maelstrom, as indeed they are from time to time. Jesus likewise tells us how to be equipped in the midst of the flood, in the light of the Judgement and Salvation of God – in these two ways – let your waist be girt and your lamps lit . .

But, we may well ask – what does that mean? Is he just saying be ready, or is there substance to these phrases. Again we need to be caught up in the flood of the revelation of God in the scriptures. Our contemporary translations often do not help – we heard about ‘Dress yourselves for action’ but this rendering of the words of Jesus actually takes us away from picture that was highly recognisable to GOd’s people throughout the ages. ‘Gird up your loins’.

In the Scriptures there is perhaps no book which more speaks of this Storm of the encounter of the human with the Living God –  this judgement and Salvation  – than the Book of Job. Job finally is addressed by the LORD out of the whirlwind and is asked ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’

To Gird the loins was an action which would be heard as ‘make yourself ready for the conflict’. A man would be working in the fields, enemy forces would be coming over the hills – the cry would go up – gird up your loins!! Prepare yourself for the coming storm! And so they would take their long robes and wrap them up over their waistband – Girding their loins so that they could run! Do not be deceived – you will face the LORD and that encounter will be just like the encounter of the LORD with Job. Prepare yourself!! This is coming. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the many lakes of the river – the river still heads assuredly to its Source. You will see Him face to face – and who may abide the day of his coming?

Yes, but how!! Simply by living deeply into this reality in our daily lives. Through prayer, Through self examination before God, through throwing ourselves into the Majestic River of the Living Word. For our End is every before us in and through Jesus Christ – the Beginning and the end. As the life of a river is present in its source as much as it empties into the ocean, so our End is ever before us in Jesus Christ. Guiding and directing deeper into our life in him, so that that day might not catch us unawres, like a thief in the night. Yes, the Encounter with God is every bit as Challenging as those mountainous waves, but we are not unprepared . . .

And so also ‘let your lamps be bright’. Of course these words of Jesus about a master returning from a wedding – find a powerful parallel in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and their oil. or lack of it for their lamps. But what might it mean?? Of course unless we are immersed in the story of God’s people and indeed Luke’s gospel itself we might just wander off and put any old meaning which seemed amenable to us upon it. But we do not, instead we attend to lamps and understand that the lamp always indicated the presence of God. Aaron the priest was commanded not to allow the oil of the lamp of the presence to go out form before the Ark of the covenant. Unfortunately we live in an age of ‘symbol and metaphor’ where one thing is separate from another – but for God’s people the lamp in a powerful sense Was the presence of God. When God left Israel to her fate for a season, the Light of God is seen leaving the temple. the Angels of the Church in Revelation are warned, lest their lamp be removed.

The lamp is a very real sense was and Is the presence of God. Let your lamp be bright. but what might that mean for us? Well, as we pay attention to Luke and if we have travelled down the river of the gospel, we have already heard Jesus say, ‘Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.’  The ‘Eye’ here should be understood as what the Church calls ‘The Nous’ – the Eye of the heart – that place within your body where we See God – where we Know His Presence. For in the same way that the lamp in the Temple was the Presence of God before the Ark of the Covenant – so your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Oil of the Lamp? The Holy Spirit. Let your lamp be bright, to quote st Paul, ‘Go on being filled with the Holy Spirit, with whom you were sealed for the Day of redemption . . .

I think we ponder very little this profound mystery, that as the baptised, our very bodies are Temple’s of the Holy Spirit of God – what care we might take of them, and indeed of that lamp were we just a jot more aware of this reality. As St Paul puts it again, Christ in you, the hope of glory.

in the light of God’s coming with Judgement to Save us, so much of that with which we fills up our lives looks like so much broken flotsam and jetsam, so much detritus. The man who builds barns, that will crumble to dust and be over run with rats, even Martha – God coming with judgement to save his people comes into the house but in the Light of God coming with judgement to save his people . . . And of course that light of apprehension is the Gift of God. As I was sharing with a doctor whom I had to see on Friday, Faith is a Gift – It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, but we get upset and worried, distracted by many things, pleasure, wealth and care . . .

Just a couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus say to us hear in this place – ‘Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?’ Later that week I saw a post on the internet which asked – ‘what do we do when it seems that God has given us a snake instead of a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg?’ it went viral – and many people praised its wisdom . . . sadly, for it completely missed the point, that God’s good pleasure is to ‘give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. What is the Kingdom which it is the Father’s good pleasure to give? What is it but his very life!! ‘If you, though you are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him’ God gives to all who seek all that is needed to ready ourselves for that Full encounter, and he continues to do so, day in and day out, week in and week out – in prayer, in confession, in reading of the Scriptures, and in the Eucharist.

To quote the magisterial 8th Chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans

He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God is coming with Judgement to save his people – do not be afraid little flock for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Let your waists be girt and your lamps lit, for you know not the hour – and do not be afraid . . .

Undoing Unrighteous Mammon – Making friends . . .

Loving God with all you have and all you are, and loving those you meet as if they were your very own flesh and blood is the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets, that is it is Union with Jesus Christ.

Everything that gets in the way of that state of reconciliation effected in Christ is Sin. When Jesus talks about Money, he talks of it in terms of Sin, for Money ‘gets in the way’ . . .

Imagine for a moment going for a meal. The person who serves the food is obviously in a very bad mood. Whoever cooked the food clearly isn’t a very good chef, it is badly cooked and close to unpalatable, and whoever is looking after the housekeeping hasn’t done a very good job, for their are gravy stains on the table linen.

Question – how might we respond?  The answer is, as always, probably dependent upon the context.

This might be a meal at the home of a friend. Their life is troubled, hence the bad mood, they have never been taught how to cook, and with the way things are housekeeping is not anywhere near the top of their list. But because the person is your friend, then (one might hope) we will be far more concerned for their well being than the ‘quality’ of the ‘experience’. We may know them well enough to discern that actually this is the best meal we have enjoyed in their company – that they have extended themselves for us despite everything. (Of course, it may be that such a person may not be someone we would want for a friend. . . for food like anything else can be an idol, keeping us from others . . .)

On the other hand, we might have gone to a cafe or restaurant for the meal. What now is our response? We are wired to have a very different response – after all, ‘we paid for this . . .’

It might be that we go to a restaurant where the waitress has just acrimoniously split up with her boyfriend, the chef is doing his best and really is in the wrong job, yet it is all he can get to keep body and soul for himself and his family together, and the company they outsource their linen cleaning to went bust the day before. The manager is in despair . . . Yet none of this is important now.

There is of course no difference between the two except that in one case we are divorced from those who are doing their very best under trying circumstances to feed us. Money has got in the way. Who the people are, their lives and circumstances are of no interest to us. We paid for this! Life has made restaurant critics of us all – well those of us who can afford such luxuries . . . (We might add that the idea of paying to ‘eat out’ is a rather odd one in itself when you think about it, but another time perhaps . . .)

Put another way, money is very effective at keeping others at arms length. Indeed it could be argued, this is precisely why we invented it. It depersonalises our neighbour, and in the process reduces us also to objects, perhaps to ‘uncaring and obnoxious customers’ (My daughters, all having worked in the dining trade know this all too well). Put another way, money distances us from the messy reality of life with other people and their lives.

This, as I have remarked before is plain in the way people live. The more money you have, the more separately you live. In my home country, the poor live cheek by jowl in tenements; moving on up the wealth and ‘social’ scale (although the greater the wealth the less the sociality . . .) one might live in a terrace; or up again to a ‘semi’, or even a detached house; or finally we get what we really aspire to, a large house on its own – behind gates . . . all because we can, because we have the money.

The heart of Jesus is Reconciliation [sic] St Paul says ‘He reconciled us to God in one body by the cross’ Jesus is in his very flesh and blood pulling us together. It is no surprise he is no fan of money. Of course one cannot serve God and money, for God in Jesus is drawing together and money at best keeps us apart and so actively works against God’s good purposes in Christ. The fact that we might begin to try and argue otherwise is only because we are so separated, it has become normal for us, being ‘Friends and neighbours’ little more than a breath, and we have lost the Sight to discern God’s work in Jesus. We do not See.

And so when, many years ago now, my family was visited by the local priest to organise my dad’s funeral, I vividly remember him agonising over the sermon he was to preach that evening (a warning to me not to ‘go on about my own stuff when with others’) He was preaching on the parable of Jesus about ‘unrighteous mammon’ and the story of a man who is about to be thrown out on his ear for for whatever reason (who cares why, money is involved!) he has made a bad job of his masters affairs (haven’t we all?), and is about to be thrown out on the street. Physically he can’t labour and begging is beneath his dignity, so he comes up with a scheme whereby he embezzles his masters business ‘to make friends’ – People who will welcome him to dinner (because friendship and food are what it is all about, no?).

The priest agonised, for Jesus seemed to be ‘commending dishonesty’ – and of course he was, in a very deep sense. For Money so sets the rules of what is ‘Right and Wrong’ – Money determines the meaning of honesty for us – thus  Jesus’ parable is morally shocking, for we have a money ethic. The fact that the man was about to be out on his ear on the streets and destitute mattered less it seemed to this cleric, than a financial accounting.

Jesus parting shot as always opens a new vista. ‘Make friends for yourself therefore with the mammon of unrighteousness’. Yes, use unrighteous money; you have little choice after all in the world you have made for yourselves, but do so to undo money’s story – its power to depersonalise. Use money to undo its power over you – use it to subvert its own impersonal story about your lives – ‘Use unrighteous money to make friends . . .’

Perhaps in the restaurant, we might pay double for our lousy meal – throw a party for the beleaguered staff, they might even welcome us to eat in their homes after we did . . . or perhaps we might just go home and write a fierce critique on Trip Advisor?

Friends – like family – don’t charge for their services. We don’t bill our relatives, our brothers and sisters for lodging and food. The Church, which is in theory supposed to be this community of the Reconciled and reconcilers has largely forgotten this. More and more it has adopted other stories and thus has become radically depersonalised. Clergy want to be thought of as ‘Professionals’ and have job descriptions etc etc etc. We might talk of Church as family, but money subverts the gospel and thus the church. We cannot subvert the gospel without subverting the embodiment of the gospel – Jesus himself. Thus ‘Jesus’ becomes no more than a nice idea, or a ‘spiritual’ guru.

Yet, the Gospel is Jesus Christ in the flesh, in whom God is reconciling the world to himself and thus us to one another – making friends. Making One Body

At present in our Anglican Diocese we are pondering whether we will have another bishop. Money of course, what else, is the reason why. Do we have the imagination and indeed the faith to live deeper into the gospel message, imagining the Church as it is – a family, or will we still be looking to ‘get what we pay for’? Perhaps if we can only see it in these terms we have no gospel??

Oh, and by the way, how does Jesus do all this reconciliation??

He doesn’t spend money, he spends himself.