Stabilitas – An Advent Discipline

Our modern culture worships choice and ‘freedom’
Thus it is highly mobile
The grass is by definition greener, not only on the other side of the fence, but also over the rainbow, to mix the metaphorical palette

A question therefore all for all of us called to the work of abiding and bearing fruit is, ‘do we trust the soil the gardener chooses for us?’

To stay put where we’re put?

Richard Foster in his now classic, ‘Celebration of Discipline’ says ‘The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people or gifted people, but for deep people’
The question is, can such a mobile world, one which has radically (sic) severed its connection with Place ( the Given connection, the Soil ) in favour of an overwhelming multitude of connections bearing little or no relation to geography, produce such people?

Unless we wish to discount much of the significance of the Incarnation, then I suggest that we cannot be deep if our mindful existence is independent of Place, Location, Geography. A plant cannot grow in the virtual realm.

The Internet, texting etc., means we are not where we are . . . Which might in a sense question our very existence as anything other than disembodied consciousnesses. The metaphor of the fruit bearing vine is a physical one, we are not ‘winds’ – we are the planting of The Lord. Place matters

As a deep one of former times put it, ‘stay in your cell, it will teach you everything’. Or as Benedictine insisted in his rule, we cannot grow if we’re always on the move.

Do we trust the soil?

Through the Bible in a Year – March 18

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 5-6; 1 Cor 16; Psalm 97-98

Thinking as we did yesterday about living in the light of the Resurrection, Paul gives instructions for the collection for the needs of the Saints. It is very hard to imagine the generosity he calls for from the church – that they put aside everything beyond their simple costs of living.

In many respects this is allied to Paul’s perspective of the Church as a community of care – that the needs of the faithful are looked after by the faithful. How different is this to our mindset, where we do not think for a moment about laying up treasures against the future – that there might be no-one to look after us, so we must secure ourselves. Life for those Corinthian Christians was far far far more fragile than anything someone having the means to read this post will in all likelihood know – but their security was to be found in Christ who was their common life. That their shared life was Christ, the care of Christ was expressed in and through the body, in physical expressions of love.

So after you have taken what you need for food and shelter needs – give away the rest, for to be sure their will be Saints who have neither food nor shelter – and what can be said of the one who rich in this world’s goods, knows his brother and sister to be in need and does not share with them out of his or her abundance. As St John says, ‘how can the love of God abide in him?’ And the only reason the love of God does not abide in us, is that we do not abide in the Love of God – however fondly we may think otherwise. Love has teeth – it changes things. Love raises the dead – what else is there to fear?

We find wonderful expression of this in the last part of the reading from Numbers – with the words of the priestly blessing – reminder that God is the one who blesses – we only need empty hands – we only need to empty our hands – to receive.

Sermon for Lent 5 – Extravagant Life – Extravagant Love

LENT 5 Extravagant LIFE

Sermon for Lent 5 – Year C – 2013

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’

Last week we were treated to a fine sermon from Jo on the Parable of the Prodigal Son – and I’d like to take a few moments this week just to reflect a little further on that parable, for it leads us beautifully into our texts for this week, and the theme ‘Extravagant Love’.

The Father in the parable displays a shocking extravagance in his response to his younger son. In many ways we might call that parable, the parable of the Prodigal Father, for after the son has squandered his father’s goods on prostitutes and dissolute living, the Father squanders himself on the son, welcoming him back with open arms, Killing the fatted calf, throwing him a party and giving him The Best Robe, the Ring of Sonship and Sandals. The Prodigality of the Son is dwarfed by the Prodigality of the Father. And the elder son picks up on this – ‘You are wasting yourself on this wastrel of a son of yours . . .’

And as I’ve noted before, this Wastefulness can strike us, like a slap in the face – that we might also cry out ‘That’s not fair!!’ Or with Judas – ‘Why didn’t you give it all to a deserving cause . . .?’ However much we try to separate ourselves from Judas’ motivations – of course we are not into waste because we want to remain secure . . . – his response to Mary’s outrageous extravagance with the perfume strikes a chord with us. ‘This could have been sold for $40k and the money given to the poor . . .’ Because of course if we found ourselves in possession of a pot of perfume worth $40k, that’s exactly what we’d do with it, isn’t it . . . we wouldn’t keep any of it for ourselves would we?

The Command of Lent, given to us on Ash Wednesday, has two aspects, but they are two sides of the same coin. ‘Repent and believe the Good News’. To Repent is not primarily to stop ‘being naughty’ as we might perhaps teach our children. Rather repentance is what the Prodigal does – he realises that the story of Life with him at the centre is no life at all – which it isn’t. You take what you can get out of life, you do the best you can with it and then you die. Not much of a life really. The Prodigal realises the utter poverty of his life.

This is why in an age when we are so materially comfortable, we have so much difficulty really hearing the gospel. Like Judas we imagine the meaning of life is to secure ourselves against the harshness of life and have enough to keep going until we stop – indeed perhaps enough to put off the stopping for a few years longer than most. The anxiety ridden story – Get a good education, get a good job, get a good spouse, raise your children well so that in your old age they won’t abandon you, and leave enough money in the pot to pay for a decent burial. And we call this ‘The Good Life’. And when as in a culture like ours these things are at least on the surface moderately easily attainable, we can’t even begin to imagine that relatively speaking we’re sat eating pig scraps, compared with what might be ours were we to return to God. That what we have been trained to call the Good Life is in reality the Devil’s anaesthetic. In the words of CS Lewis, “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

So repentance is difficult for we don’t see any need to – as every missionary or evangelist will tell us, the gospel is at best utterly subverted, and at worst ignored by the rich – whereas the poor, like the prodigal sat with the pigs don’t need all that much encouragement to believe that life in God’s Kingdom might perhaps be a bit of an improvement on what they have.

Repentance and believing the Good News are in essence the same movement. That is, saying no to the life we painstakingly build for ourselves – a life of great care, a life if we are religious of trying not to break the rules, of living ‘moral’ lives; and saying Yes to the Outrageous Provision of God. To understand that he provides for his children – that Jesus was not lying when he said ‘Seek God’s Kingdom and all your material needs will be looked after’ We don’t believe in God’s provision – That ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things’????

To enter Life we must abandon the idea that we have to look after ourselves – we have to let go of the story of careful frugality and that ghastly parody of the gospel – ‘God helps those who help themselves’ – why?? Because that is not Life – because the only Life there is is the Life of God who is outrageously prodigal – outrageously wasteful – who receives this outrageous act of worship, for it reveals the heart of the Father – the Prodigal God. Mary is a child of God – she lives in the same utterly Care Less abandon and generosity, wasting a pint of pure nard on Jesus

The life of careful frugality is NOT the Life of God – it is merely a sign that we have not heard the Good News of a God who throws banquets for the utterly undeserving. We remember the parable Jesus tells in this regard – the invitations are sent out – and back come the polite refusals – I have business to attend to (I need to watch my security) – I have just got married (I need to watch my security) – I have new oxen to break in (I need to watch my security) – I am too anxious about my miserable life of cares to take time to feast on abundance.

The Apostle Paul, in terms of the times in which he lived had it all – he was circumcised on the eighth day, he was a REAL Jew, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a Pure blood – regarding the Law, unimpeachable (The Pharisees WERE morally Pure!), as to zeal – he was hot to persecute any false way – Paul had it all in the world’s terms – but when he encountered Christ, he realised that it was all – manure. HIs eyes were opened – he realised that he was sat amongst the pigswill, and yet in the world’s terms he had a life all would envy him for. HE had it all carefully controlled, carefully managed, he’d been to the right schools, if he had children I guess they’d gone to the right schools to – he’d bought entirely into the world’s lies. Then he met Christ – and his eyes were opened.

And to everyone who knew him, what happened next must have seemed utterly outrageous – he threw away all his carefully cultivated security, and like the fishermen before him, set out to follow Christ – in the life of Abundance – as outrageous as the Prodigal Love of the Father for his son – as outrageous as the Life of the one whom the Pharisees saw squandering his Life on Prostitutes, and tax collectors, on galilean peasants, on sinners. The Prodigal Son is of course in a sense Jesus himself

Well, before I close a couple of brief reflections – what does this mean for us as a people. Firstly as the people of God in this Diocese. We have been listening too long to the wrong story – a story of Scarcity. A story which denies the Gospel we proclaim. We have assumed that the bottom line is the bottom line – we have chosen to believe that God is Not outrageously generous to those who chose to live in such generosity – put another way, we don’t believe Jesus when he says ‘Give and it will be given to you, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” As things stand in the Diocese at the moment, there would be at least a degree of consternation if someone wasted $40k on perfume for Jesus . . . Which story will we live by in the Diocese? The myth of the life we have to scrape together for ourselves, or the Story of God’s abundance for all who live this life of Abundance? The central challenge is that of Faith – that God is who he says he is – The God who provides – and to enter His Life

And what about us, as the people of God at St John’s –  we shall in a short while have our Annual meeting – when we consider the state of play for the church. I just want to say ahead of this that this year Vestry has decided to give a double tithe of the fair proceeds – one tenth to Servants Health Centre in town – a charity which gives medical care and attention to those who cannot afford it – and a tenth to Cyclone Relief for our Pasifika neighbours in Samoa. Good. But I want to suggest that next year we try and imitate God our father – that we hold a fair Purely for the benefit of others. That we discipline ourselves as a church to do that, to Be imitators of God as dearly loved children. To put in all that work and time of preparation entirely in order to bless others, as our God gives all he has for our sake.

Imagine the headlines in the ODT ‘Church holds fair and gives all the proceeds away . . .’
Father welcomes home wastrel son with a banquet – God wastes himself on the undeserving – Fishermen leave their nets and follow Christ – ‘Church holds fair and gives all the money away’ . . .

You may have noticed in the gospel that Mary had bought the perfume for Jesus burial . . . and it would have been perfectly in order to think, ‘well all that is used up so there won’t be anything for the burial . . .’ but if we read on in John, then after the death of Jesus we read  After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.

Mary wasted a pint of Nard on Jesus – God the Prodigal Father blessed that and provided ‘myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds’ – may we too do likewise and so come to know the Extravagant Love of God. ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get – Good measure, pressed down and running over . . .’

Through the Bible in a Year – March 17

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 4; 1 Cor 15; Psalm 95-96

Paul’s profound exposition of the Resurrection is utterly remarkable. As I have noted elsewhere, any attempts on the part of the church to render itself credible in the eyes of the world are radically undone by the central claim of our faith – that he died for our sins . . . was buried . . . and that on the third day, God raised him from the dead. Not metaphorically, not in some sense that ‘life’ as a principle cannot be overcome, but as a flesh and blood Fact. In many respects the Resurrection is the vindication of the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is utterly remarkable that often those who make most of Christ’s incarnation, are the very ones who for the sake of relevance or because ‘we know so much more about the world now’, must deny the Resurrection.

Paul reminds us that if the Resurrection of Jesus is not historic fact in the plainest sense of that phrase then we may as well give up on the whole idea of church and faith – being ‘of all people most to be pitied’.

But in fact Christ Has been raised from the dead. The outworking of this we think little about – the idea that the Resurrection of Jesus is meant to transform our lives in the here and now – we still relegate it as a doctrine to the ‘for use after I die’ pile. Rather Paul would have us die every day, put our lives on the line. That is to live lives that only make sense in the light of the Resurrection – lives which have no security in the things of the world, for they have a far more sure and certain security – the Risen Christ.

Through the Bible in a Year – March 16

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Num 3; 1 Cor 14: Psalm 94

‘so that the church may be built up . . .’

Paul’s argument here is well understood, but very hard to apply, or even see the significance of in Western Protestant churches, where we have a well worked theology of why the church is irrelevant to the Life that we individually enjoy in Christ.

It is informative to read Paul carefully to see just how powerfully he continually speaks of the significance of the church, the vehicle for God’s wisdom to be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places – the church as the Body of Christ. It is Paul who teaches us that Christ utterly identifies himself with His Church, his bride. Yet to read the vast majority of contemporary books on ‘Spirituality’, the church may just as well not exist.

The individualistic model of Salvation prevalent in so many parts of the more conservative churches, coupled with the Social liberation agenda of so many liberals sees no place for the church. It is no surprise it is in such radical decline given this assault on both wings upon the Bride of Christ.

In the Anglican church (a church which has a hard time deciding whether it is Catholic or Protestant, or both, or neither) we share the peace with one another before receiving the Sacrament, the symbol of our Unity. In this we are exhorted to follow the teaching of Paul – ‘to pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life’. The common life of the Western church must extend far beyond coffee fellowship and bible study groups or learning opportunities, to a radical sharing of all of our lives, that we might be seen for what we are the Bride of the one who shared his life in toto for us, and in the Eucharist, with us

Through the Bible in a Year – March 15

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Num 1-2; 1 Cor 12-13; Psalm 92-93

As we read the book of Numbers which, it is immediately apparent, is well named. It may well seem once more that as in Leviticus we enter into a strange world. With the LORD’s careful instructions for how the Israelites whould arrange the camp. On the one hand we need to remember the teaching of the letter to the Hebrews, that the earthly sanctuary, the Tabernacle or Temple (placed at the heart of the people) is a foreshadowing of things eternal. Put another way, the strangeness is in a sense pointing us to the strangeness of heaven.

So it would be easy therefore to read the familar words of 1 Corinthians 13 and consider we were on much easier ground, as if we knew what Love was. Except we don’t, neither do the Corinthians. In seeking to penetrate the mystery of Love, Paul concedes he sees as only in a mirror and an imperfect one at that.

As we read of the attributes of Love – it is instructive to place our own name in the text – to read ourselves into it, as we always should. And in so doing we realise that we are as much strangers to Love as we are to the world of the book of Numbers. All too readily we assume we know what love is. All too readily we assume that by and large we are loving. We have not the honesty, or perhaps better the self knowledge to say with George Herbert ‘Ah! I the wicked, the ungrateful one? I cannot look on Thee [Love]’

The great English Saint, John Stott, made it his practise to meditate every day upon one of the fruits of the Spirit. We might do well to adopt that attitude and meditate daily upon the attributes of Love, in the presence of the one who is Love made flesh. That by the grace and strengthening of the Holy Spirit, Love might become less of a stranger to us.

Perhaps we speak too easily of our ‘relationship with Jesus’ – our careful meditation upon his character revealed here, carried out in his presence – shows us how far we have to go to grow into the fulness of him who fills everything in everyway

. . . your father is merciful

Just this week, this story from the UK caught my attention, if only for the stark quality of the reporting of the offences and the judgement. It’s worth reading if only to realise that we do not live in a world marked by the quality of mercy.

Chris Huhn and Vicky Price have done wrong, inarguably – ‘THEREFORE they must pay the price’.

It is the remorseless logic of this Sequitur that the Law demands. Judgement without mercy.

Recently I’ve taken much time to consider Peter. In some respects he is my patron Saint – with his at times almost comedic attempts to get it right and his lack of the classic virtues. Lent, when we look at the reality of our lives is a time I keep coming back to Peter.

Of course we all know of Peter’s gravest error, that he denies Jesus three times. The early church agonised for years over those who publicly disowned Jesus when faced with the possibility of death. Thus revealing that the denial is not to be dismissed as some adolescent overexuberance on the Chief Apostle’s part. Jesus’ restoration of Peter is no mere pat on the head, understanding ‘that we all make mistakes’. This is a Grave offence. Which reveals that Jesus’ actions towards Peter as in our terms frankly scandalous.

However much we try and psychologise the interchange between Jesus and Peter – ‘of course he had punished himself enough’- the fact is that there is NO punishment. Most interestingly Jesus does not even demote him. Jesus knows he cannot trust Peter, but then he knows what is in a man. He appointed him knowing he would fail him. And having asked ‘are you still on board? Are you still following?’ – reinstates him to his position of Chief Shepherd – he doesn’t even take away the privelege of martyrdom, which Peter has scorned.

What is clearly not central here are Peter’s quality as a leader, however much many ‘biblical sermon series on heroes of faith’ try and project our Ideals onto this and other frail humans. As has been remarked over and over again, by our criteria Jesus’ choice of those who will carry his mission into the world makes no sense at all.

WE would chose better, and having made such judgements, the price of failure, of not being what Our judgement had suggested those chosen actually were, would be demotion. What church leader, when fallen from Grace, is reinstated? The judgement of those who called him, or her, are shown to be faulty . . . the chosen one pays the price. Our failure of judgement is laid on the one we called.

No, what is central is not a quality in Peter. Jesus hasn’t seen something in Peter which we could see as well if only we tried hard enough. No. What is Central – indeed the only thing that matters is the call of Jesus. That is all. Peter IS unqualified – that is clear and only becomes more so. His only qualification that matters is the call of Jesus, and this endures after all the other ‘qualifications’ are shown to be straw.

In the case of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce, there is no reinstatement for ‘the guilty pair’ – no-one says to them ‘neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin’. All there is is the remorseless logic of the law, tempered by . . . nothing. They had high office, we expected better, they must pay the price . . . Of course as the elections in the Vatican remind us, Peter’s office was even higher

At the heart of the Christian faith is a dead Jew on a Roman Cross. In just a few days now we will stand before this cross. Perhaps for the first time today, one of the most significant messages that the Cross of Christ conveys to the World struck me. That is that Judgement itself is Judged and found utterly wanting. The death of the one who had no sin, for all its metaphysical overtones, in its starkness reveals that human judgement is itself only an instrument of death. That the only one who is not worthy of death is judged to be worthy of death by the world, says everything.

Of course, if Christians started to truly treat one another with the sort of mercy that Jesus showed Peter – reinstating fallen leaders, throwing parties for Prodigals, then of course we would in all likelihood lose much if not all of our credibility in the world.

But then when you think about it, the idea that the Creator of the Universe hangs on a Cross, to reveal his utter mercy. That on the third day he rose from the dead and began the work of reinstating and restoring all those who had so publicly humiliated him – is itself not credible. Perhaps that’s why we continue to judge and so be judged. We don’t really believe, that it’s true. ‘People Do need to be punished, they must pay the price’. We don’t believe the fundamental doctrine of our faith, the Jesus has paid the price.

If it really IS true however that the Chosen one pays the Price – then perhaps we might see the world differently. If the punishment Has really been laid on Him, then Jesus’ re-instatement of Peter is actually not the most incredible thing – rather the Divine Sequitur of mercy is the only possible response. It’s all that’s left. The price has been paid.

Through the Bible of a Year – March 14

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 26-27; 1 Cor 11; Psalm 91

As we saw yesterday, Paul’s arguments concerning both the unity of the church, and also the question of meat sacrificed to idols, come to a focus in the Eucharist.

Here we see how so much of Paul’s theology of the church and the work and life of Christ is shaped by the extraordinary and unique genius of Christian life and faith, foreshadowed in the Old Testament – that is God’s radical identification with his people. In Ephesians 5, we read Paul speaking of the union that is betwixt Christ and his church using the imagery of marriage – the two becoming one flesh. We think supremely of the words of the Risen one in John’s Gospel – ‘abide in me, as I abide in you’ [It is always the Risen one who addresses us in the gospels and this is explicit throughout the gospel of John where the glory of the Cross is not hidden as it is from those who have no faith]

Given that identification, Paul’s language of ‘discerning the body’ is that double edged sword – it is discerning Christ in bread and wine and it is discerning Christ in our brother and sister. We cannot come to the table of the LORD – put another way, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God – if we do not discern Christ. Upon the Cross he takes hold of his people – in Baptism we enter into his death, and are also raised to new life in His resurrection. To look upon or brother and sister is to see, though through a glass darkly, the new creation that is Christ, the Risen one.

Thus Paul is quite clear, our relationships with each other are every bit as significant as our relationship with Christ. They are not one and the same, but Christ has taken our brother and sister into himself in his death ad resurrection, as he has us. We cannot be present to Christ, and absent from our brethren. The measure of our Love for Christ is discerned in this discernment.

By This shall all know that you are Mine – your love for one another.

Through the Bible in an Year – March 13

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 25; 1 Cor 10; Psalm 90

Moving on from yesterday’s argument about not living in such a way to cause offence to the weaker brethren, Paul addresses a further issue, that of licentiousness. “All things are lawful” – his intelocutors tell him – yes, he responds, “but not all things are beneficial. The Church in Corinth, unlike say that in Galatia, is rife with people hearing the message of freedom in Christ, yet in effect rejecting it, by not entering into the new life. Using it as an excuse Not to turn from wickedness.

Paul points them back to that prefiguring of salvation, the Exodus – and how the Israelites used their freedom to abase themselves. This Freedom we have in Christ is to grow into the fullness of the Image of God. We have been set free from all that kept s from being fully human. Paul argues strongly, do not allow your freedom either to be a stumbling block to others, OR a vehicle for a life of license.

He asks them to consider who they are, and his focus is the Eucharist – the centre of our shared life – ‘Are we not in this participating in the very life of Christ?’, Paul asks. How can we therefore at the same time live lives that continue to participate in the worship of things that are not? ‘You cannot participate in the life of God and of demons’

As there are those who use their ‘knowledge’ to offend their brethren, so there are others, or indeed the same people, who use their knowledge to live not to the Lord but to themselves. We are back in the garden – the temptation to be like God – to rule our own lives.

Through the Bible in a Year – March 12

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 23-24; 1 Cor 8-9; Psalm 89:19-end

“Knowledge puffs up, but Love builds up”

Paul here returns to a theme we encountered in Romans 14 – that of not allowing disputation over those things which are not fundamental to our shared life of discipleship, get in the way of that life. Once more it is over the matter of food sacrificed to idols, something which the Law and the Tradition abhors. Paul ‘knows’ that these restrictions are meaningless, but for some, who do not possess ‘knowledge’, they remain abhorrent and a stumbling block.

They are a stumbling block in that those who practise the behaviour, cause those who are not so ‘well informed’ to shun the fellowship of believers – and thus to withdraw from Life itself, which is only to be found in the community of faith, which is the body of Christ.

However morally acceptable before God it might be to eat food sacrificed to idols (which are nothing), it is unacceptable before God to do anything which would repel a fellow believer that they were caused to fall away, that is break from the Life Giving fellowship.

Paul’s concern is for the salvation of his brethren, which his Wisdom tells him is not primarily a matter of right ‘knowledge’, but sacrificial love. So Paul will lay down his Right to eat food sacrificed to idols, indeed he will not even go near it is it would offend his fellow saint for whom Christ died. Similarly he will not use his perfectly justifiable Rights to wages for his work – he is intent on not allowing his opponents to have a reason to judge him and thus themselves fall under condemnation.

What we see here is a revolutionary love for the brethren, that will go without for their sakes. It is part of the outcome of Paul’s way of life, his self discipline for the sake of the brethren. For he knows that if he puts a stumbling block in front of one of the least of the flock, it would be better for him to have a millstone put around his neck and be thrown into the sea, than face the consequences of his action.

Frankly in the contemporary church with so many issues being screamed about from the highest rooftops, it is sometimes hard to imagine what such a church would look like – but perhaps we ought at least to try and find out?