‘The Secret Place’ – Sermon for Ash Wednesday – Year B 2018

Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Year B 2018

Matthew 6:1-21

Treasures in the hidden place

So today Lent begins. I wonder what we are giving up for Lent? Let me ask a different question, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ Rule Number 1 – Never tell anyone what you are giving up for Lent! I will come back to ‘Why?’ in a moment.

I wonder what We are giving up for Lent? Let us give up telling people what we are giving up for Lent . . . either face to face, or if we are too frightened to look at real people, on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever shouts at the world ‘Look at me!’

Of course if we belonged to one of the older traditions of the church, say we were Catholic or Orthodox, I wouldn’t have any temptation to tell anyone what I was giving up. After all, we’d all be giving up the same thing, and if you [s.] think you [s.] are giving up a lot, then I suggest you go and check out ‘Orthodox fasting Lent’ on Google after this service. If anything else it will stop you virtue signalling your sacrifice of chocolate, or it would if we understood the way of humility.

So, then should we abandon the whole ‘giving something up for Lent idea’? After all, what’s the point if I can’t tell someone I’m doing it?? ( and if you think that that isn’t your [s.] problem, then why are you telling Everyone on FB??)

Lent is a season of self denial. It is a season in which we go with Jesus into the wilderness. This is what it is to be a disciple of Jesus. As he says to his disciples, ‘where I am going you cannot now come, but you will follow afterwards’ So as Jesus went into the wilderness to be tested, we newborn in the Spirit go out into the wilderness to be tested.

And as we heard on Sunday, He went there to learn to say no, no to anything, or anybody who would keep Him from the Father’s will, no to anything or anybody which would quench the work of the Holy Spirit in which he had been baptised, that Spirit which brings light and life and healing and goodness, even life from the dead, ‘for as the scriptures say ‘out of the heart of everyone that believes shall flow rivers of living water’’.

So we go there too, to learn to say no. For if we can’t even say ‘no’ to a bag of chips or a piece of chocolate, how on earth [lit.] can you say anything of value? How can you say Yes to Life? How can Life flow from us?

As we considered Jesus is being tested all the time, not only in the wilderness, but all the time. Give us a sign! Show us you are the Messiah! If you are the Son of God . . . until finally he faces the greatest Temptation of all. He was in the Desert forty days and literally starving, ‘If you are the Son of God, turn the stones into bread’. ‘No! – Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that flows form the mouth of God’ . . . But that is as nothing – it is preparation for The Great Trial.

Finally in the excruciating agony of Good Friday – this is of course what Lent is about, preparing us to face Jesus, the one we follow, on the Cross – every sinew in agonising pain, gasping for breath, his body wracked, wrecked, comes the Final Test – ‘If you are the Son of God, Come down from the Cross . . .’ and of course it is a Terrible temptation, because he could, he could stop the pain, pain beyond our comprehension, Everything within him cries out to stop the pain – he could say Yes to the Tempter. Worship Him and it would all be his, except it wouldn’t. He could Prove it . . .

and everything would be lost’ You can have everything . . . on the Devil’s Terms. Public terms – and everyone will see you get what you want – But Jesus says No to the Temptation to go public, and The Salvation of the World is hidden from our eyes

And he commands the same of us – we are following him. We are his disciples. In this testing, in the disciplines of Lent – we are commanded to hide it, to keep it secret.

Our gospel reading embraces the three basic disciplines of the Christian life – Almsgiving, giving to the poor – Prayer – and Fasting. These three are the foundational disciplines of the Christian life – they are how we bring the testing and learning of the desert, of Lent into our daily lives beyond Lent – and the instructions of Jesus, our teacher, are the same for all three. Do it in secret.
When you give alms – ‘do not [even] let your left hand know what your right is doing’ – do not do it publicly and if a all possible . . . hide it from yourself

When you pray – go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place . . .

When you fast – do not put on a show – keep it secret – ‘do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place’

Jesus shows us the importance of saying no. Only a True No can give rise to a Life giving Yes. As we consider the poverty of the Church in the Western World, is it rooted in our lack of self denial? our inability to say no to anything? And so to say a life-giving ‘Yes’? Healing no one, not even ourselves?

And he ties this saying no, discovered where but in secret in the Desert, to being in secret – not to ‘going public’, not ‘letting it all hang out there’. As we cannot say no even to ourselves, we live in an age where everything is screaming at us ‘Show us! Prove it! Tell us all what you are giving up’ ‘Tell the world what you are going through’ Everything is laid bare, quite literally – there is nothing that you cannot see – there is nothing hidden . . . perhaps it is the final judgement when all the sins of the world are laid out for everyone to see . . . Having the form of religion, but denying its power – like a car tyre – we just opened the valve and let it all out, and we wonder why the Church is so weak?

But . . . in the grace and mercy of God, perhaps not yet. Not while a few persevere, and in obedience which comes from even a mustard seed of self control, say no to ‘going public’ and yes to the hidden way . . . for the power of God is revealed in apparent weakness. His ultimate Power over death itself revealed in the shattered body of Jesus, who would not come down from the Cross, but instead entered the most holy place, once and for all . . .

The Holy place, the secret place – the place hidden from our eyes.

‘Do not store up for yourself treasure upon the earth, where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break through and steal – don’t advertise to everyone what you are doing for Lent, for then you will have received your reward – whatever you get out of ‘putting it out there’ that will be your lot. Rather store up for yourself treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not corrupt, where thieves do not break through and steal . . . treasures in heaven – in the secret place

In the Temple in Jerusalem, much went on hidden form the eyes of many – but at the centre was The Most Holy Place – the Holy of Holies, and only one person ever went there. Each year the high Priest would go in to offer the Sacrifice of atonement. For what was the Holy of Holies? It was the very centre of the Temple – it was the place where resided the Ark of the Covenant, and over the Ark was the place where God dwelt between the cherubim – it was, for want of a better phrase, heaven on Earth. The secret and hidden place . . .

And so Jesus before the gaze of the public – says no – and rather goes into the hidden place, the secret place, to offer the one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the whole world

So Jesus goes and we follow him. This is what it is to be a disciple.

So let us own our sin in the ash upon our forehead, repent and believe the Good News, the Strange News of Yes through No. Of Truth through secrecy. Of Life from Death – Let us believe on Jesus.

Saying No – Sunday next before Lent – Year B 2018

Sunday next before Lent – Year B 2018

2 Kings 5:1-14

1 Cor 9:24-27

Mark 1:40-45

‘The Hidden Kingdom – True Authority’

‘I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air’

The story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian – out OT reading today – is one full of wonderful and revelatory detail. Every time I read or better hear it, I notice something new. But for a very long time I have associate this story with one of my university lecturers from many years ago now.

In the Biophysics department, Dr Parker was a bit of a legend, but in a mysterious way. He lectured through a beard, seldom looked at anyone, and was at times incomprehensible, and wasn’t one for being seen in and around the department. Yet, he was revered. The story was that if you were looking for an idea for a PhD, you should try and find Dr Parker. If you could find him he would usually be tucked away in a lab somewhere doing something odd, if not incomprehensible, like trying to open a centrifuge whilst it was working, to see what would happen. The rumour was that if you managed to, the centrifuge itself would arise from its vacuum sealed casing rise into the air rather like a flying saucer and bury its way through the concrete slabbed walls of which the whole department was built. Of course it was likely that only Dr Parker knew the truth of this . . . There you would ask him your question and without looking at you he would mutter something through his dense beard, and if you understood him aright you would undoubtedly go off, make your fortune and win the nobel prize for Biology, whilst he continued to do incomprehensible things. And I always think of Dr Parker when I think of Elisha the prophet and especially with regard to the story of Naaman.

Here comes the commander of the Assyrian Army no doubt with a retinue – It’s world war 2 and FM Rommel turns up at your door, probably accompanied by a small panzer division – and Naaman asks for help – the FM asks you for a cup of tea 🙂 ) And Elisha doesn’t even come to the door – he seems to be otherwise occupied, hidden away inside his house and sends his servant with the necessary and to Naaman incomprehensible instructions. ‘Wash in the Jordan, that muddy stream? Aren’t our Syrian rivers far superior?’ But just like the advice from Dr Parker, Elisha’s advice has powerful effect.

Neither Dr Parker, nor more importantly for our purposes this morning, Elisha, were just available whenever you wanted them. But remarkable things flowed from them. Surely we might think, Elisha one might think could set up a website, or the equivalent, a road side stall and advertise ‘Healings here! Come and get your healings! Leprosy, paralysis, raising the dead!’ But he didn’t, and neither did Jesus . . .

These past few weeks we’ve started to hear Mark’s account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and amongst many things two things often stand out. Firstly there is the note of Authority. When Jesus leaves the wilderness he calls the disciples. They just leave their nets and go. He teaches in the synagogue at Capernaum, and ‘they were astonished at his teaching, for He taught them as one having authority’ He heals a man with an unclean spirit, commanding the spirit to ‘Be quiet, and come out of him’ (we will return to this shortly). Again those who look on are amazed at His authority over ‘even the unclean spirits’. Elisha gives an abrupt instruction, and Naaman in obeying it is healed. Elisha has authority, and over and again we hear of The Authority of Jesus . . .

AND that he is often unavailable – he goes apart to pray – and when Peter tells him “Everyone is looking for you!” but he says ‘Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth’
Most significantly for us as we prepare for Lent, we remember how he spends 40 days alone ‘tempted by Satan’. Brett will be preaching on this next week, and Mark is very sparing – two verses. Yet Matthew and Luke give us the details of what is happening in the desert, and as we prepare for this season of our self-denial we might understand why we do what we do, after all, Lent will have begun by this time next week. It is surely better to know why you are doing what you are doing before you start!
And whatever else the temptations are about, they are about Jesus learning to say one word, learning to say No!

As I said a couple of weeks ago, testing times are given to us that we might Grow to maturity. I was with someone not so long ago who was going through a trial, a time of testing, and they said something quite remarkable nowadays, ‘I must take the trouble to seek to learn what God is teaching me in this time’. Testing and trials are about learning, and Jesus’s trials are of a dimension that we can scarce imagine.
Forty days hungry – and ‘turn the stones into bread’ – You Know what you want! ‘just worship me and it can all be yours’. The trial of the Obedience that comes through faith (Romans 1:7). Learning to say No . . . So perhaps Jesus’ hiddenness, his refusal to be wherever and whenever the crowds want him, is the secret to His Authority, humanly speaking. After all Jesus is Every Bit Human, Fully human. He can only learn as we can . . . and perhaps True Authority is rooted first in the ability to say No. Being hidden away, facing the demons . . . funny how we only have dreams of grandiosity on our own, funny how our darkest thoughts only reveal themselves to us when we are alone . . . As the desert fathers would say, ‘stay in your cell, it will teach you everything’, not least to say no to the myriad temptations and delusions we might suffer . . .

Three times Jesus faces the trial of Satan – Three times against the most appalling temptation imaginable he says No and emerges as one who has Authority . . . and so the leper comes to Jesus, and recognising his Authority says to Him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” “If you are willing” The leper recognises that True Authority cannot be manipulated to our own ends.”If you are willing . . .” and Jesus, ‘moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him “I am willing; be cleansed.” At the moment he spoke, the leprosy left [the man]’ (my tr.)
From this Authority flows Healing, Great Healing. An authority learned in the hidden place, rooted in the capacity to say ‘No’.

———

Well at this point it would be easy to go home and if asked say ‘Eric told us we need to say no, or at least more often’, but that is still missing the point which is twofold. What is this capacity to say ‘no’ rooted in? It is after all often easy to say ‘No’ to others but to little effect. No, True Authority is rooted in learning to say no to oneself.
The temptations of Jesus, cut right into the very heart, down into the very marrow of his desires, his deepest desires. He knows that there is only one way, and that that is his Father’s way – ‘Worship God! Him only shall you serve!’ ‘I only do what I see the Father doing’ He submits himself to the Will of His Father – the ends do not justify the means, for the wrong means subvert the ends. Only the Way His Father reveals to Him will bring Life, will bring healing to lepers and those in bondage. So it is not first about learning to say no to others, it is about learning to say no to yourself . . .
But there is even there an all too simple deception. ‘We say no to ourselves by saying yes to others, so always saying yes to others is saying no to ourself,’ – but no. Jesus certainly does not reveal this in his life. For simply always saying yes to others is surrendering your responsibility for your own life. Saying ‘yes’ to every whim within, is no different to saying ‘yes’ to every demand from without, and we have long long known this. Jesus says ‘Those who seek to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the Gospel will save it’ but you have to have a life to lose in order to save it!! Simply always saying yes to everyone and everything is not self denial, it is pure victimhood and often leads to deep bitterness and resentment, clinging onto a life that is no life at all. Only the one who Knows their Life can lay it down. And humans have long known this – yet our age is a forgetful age

Socrates, whom the oracle of Delphi (female – the Source of Wisdom), declared to be the wisest amongst men once said that he heard a voice within him. He had learned to unquestioningly obey that voice. It was that subtle quiet voice that would from time to time say ‘no’. He attributed good in his life to never going against that voice.
True self denial is learning to hear the gentle and quiet voice saying ‘no’. Whatever manner of self-denial we choose this Lent, and it is most sad that we have to choose for we will do it alone and may be little help to one another – but whatever self-denial we practise these coming forty days, we do so to learn to hear that small voice, the Holy Spirit’s Strengthening.
For surely, if you can’t say no even to a bag of chips [NZ for crisps in the UK] , then your ability to say yes to others in a meaningful sense is perhaps an illusion. If you have no authority over yourself – why might you think you can in any sense command others or be capable of good towards others? We are then just mere chaos. And it is the chaos without that constantly threatens Jesus.

‘And Jesus strictly warned the man [who had been healed] and immediately sent him away saying ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them’ However, the man went out and began to proclaim it feely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to him from every direction’

Jesus heals the man of his outer affliction, but he is not healed inwardly. He does not Hear the Voice which says ‘No’ The Voice which directs him to hidden obedience before the priests, to the obedience of faith, the hidden way of Jesus – we will explore this more on Ash Wednesday. Rather he disobeys, spilling it all out – and the result is that Jesus is driven away as again and again the Crowds threaten to overwhelm Him. The testing of Jesus does not finish in the desert, that is their beginning. Leaving the desert the crowds press in on every side – hiding The Tempter – always testing Him, always calling on him to throw himself down from the Temple – never satisfied, insatiable – Never able to say, ‘No! Never able to say Enough! Give us a sign, Jesus – and another and another and another!! Insatiable, the mark of demonic possession.

Lent is our preparation for Pascha – for Holy Week, for Maundy Thursday, for the trial of the Garden, and for Good Friday, the Final Trial, the Trial of the Cross . . . Everything, the desert, the chaos of the crowd, everything has been teaching Jesus the perfect way of obedience to the Father, for this moment.
And there once more in the final showdown is the chaotic Crowd – the Last Temptation. The Greatest Temptation. In the agony of Crucifixion he hangs there as the crowd, possessed by Satan himself call out the words of the Tempter ‘if you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross’ . . . Jesus final Trial . . . and his Final ‘No’

As we prepare ourselves for Lent, as we receive Him in bread and Wine – may we reflect upon our human condition, that in order to say the Great Yes to us of Easter Day, the word of Jesus from the cross is ‘No’.

His True and Hidden Authority. Bringing Yes from No. Life from Death

Amen

Feast of the Presentation 2018

Feast of The Presentation 2018

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 24
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

The Lord shall come to his Temple

“I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”
Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry

Today we celebrate The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Hidden from the gaze of the world, the infant Jesus is brought as the law prescribed to the Temple for the purification of Mary. Bringing with them two turtle doves, as Leviticus 12:8 ‘If she cannot afford a lamb, she shall take two turtle-doves . . .’ Of course we leap to readily to the assumption that Mary cannot afford a lamb, or maybe she does bring a lamb, or indeed the Lamb . . .

Temple worship – temple ritual and rites – it all sounds very strange to our ears, after all, we’ve moved beyond rites of purification for women after childbirth – blood is just that, blood . . . Yet if we are to recapture a Christian imagination we need as I said a couple of weeks back to get rid of the word ‘just’ from our vocabulary . . . To See where we are is to have the eyes of our heart enlightened, our Imaginative world illuminated by the Truth of our existence. Blood is not just blood, the Temple is not just a religious building in Jerusalem two millennia ago. And we’re not alone in needing our imaginations opened – even Mary and Joseph marvel at the words of Simeon and Anna the prophetess – in a sense they also do not know where they are, or who indeed is this child

Over my holiday I was reading the latest essays of Wendell Berry – the farmer, poet, essayist and novelist. Having read him for some years now, I was very aware of the how his essay writing, always excellent had developed a deep maturity as he comes towards the end of his life. He writes about our relationship with the Land, with Place, with Earth and Soil – and much of his energy has been taken up writing about the despoliation of the world brought about Modern Agriculture. He reflects upon several generations of farming by his family, of how the land bears the scars even from the days of the first settlers in his native Kentucky – before the machines came – revealing a lack of sensitivity to the Creation – and with our readings in mind and pondering Berry’s writings I couldn’t help but be drawn to almost the closing words of his finest novel.

This beautiful work is the life story of a man named Jayber Crow, told in his own words, and a story richly woven together with Nature, Place, People and very very beautifully textured. It is the story of a small town barber, woven into which is the story of a secret love – of Jayber’s love for Mattie Keith, someone he watches grow up in the township, and marry Troy Chatham.
Chatham looks at the land he inherits from Mattie’s father as ‘Resource’ – he wonders how to make more money from the land – a typically modern preoccupation. As in this Rational Scientific age we’ve stopped asking the question, ‘What Is the Land?’ We now only ask – what can I use it for. . . so he gives up on the uneconomic mules and borrows money to buy tractors,. These of course he is assured will make him a better farmer. He fells the old stands of trees which are in his way as he goes for a monoculture farming. On hills and slopes that cannot bear it. Pretty much as we imagine human beings are, he treats the Land also as Tabula Rasa, a Blank slate on which to write his own story. So All the boundaries come down, and all the woods are torn up, All except for one small wood. The best of the woods, which Mattie’s father has left to her, The Nest Egg.

Troy like so many small famers caught up in the bewildering abstract world of ‘scientific farming’ and ‘high finance’ gradually ruins all the land, until all that is left is The Nest Egg.
And then Mattie falls terribly ill, she goes to hospital where it is clear that she will die. Whilst she lies in her hospital bed, in one last desperate throw of the dice Troy sells this beautiful wood to timber men to pay off some of his debts . . . but Mattie gets to hear

At the End, Jayber goes to visit her in hospital where she is slipping away. Emaciated and wired up to the machines of Modern medicine – she senses him come into the room and tells him what he already knows “Jayber, Oh, he’s cutting the woods”, and then “I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”

And one cannot hear those words from a good Christian writer without hearing the familiar words of Simeon “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace . . .” But as the words of Jesus ask us, ‘do we know what makes for our peace?’

Another book I read was the simple and beautiful ‘I heard the Owl call my name” The story of an Anglican priest living with and amongst the Inuit in Western Canada – reading that I was haunted by the constant reminder of the Deep Sadness in the eyes of the people, as they saw all that they held dear, most especially their place within the Creation, as like so many before them they too were ripped up like trees, moved out of [sic] the land by well meaning people – all in the name of progress

Well you may ask – what on earth has any of that to do with the Feast of the Presentation? With Jesus coming as a child to the temple?
And you would not be alone. Curiously amongst the several versions of the Lectionary for this Sunday our Lectionary is unique in telling us that the Psalm set is Psalm 24, but ‘just’ verses 7-10. These verses about Lift up your head you gates, lift them high. If we were paying attention we’d note that we used the whole Psalm. but surely its just these 7 verses which are about the Lord coming to the Temple – the rest is about Creation. ‘The Earth is The LORD’S and all they that dwell therein, for it is He who has established it upon the seas, and set it firm upon the rivers of the Deep . . .’

The compilers of our lectionary would have us separate out the Creation and The Temple . . . As I have said before Temples are placed in The Temple. The Genesis account of the Creation with its seven days matches the ordering of the tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple in its sevenfold structure

You cannot separate them out . . . but we have. Temple and Creation. For example how often do we hear words like ‘Well now we must get out into the real world to do the Real Work of The Kingdom . . . what exactly have we been doing here? What holds the universe together? Our efforts? Or our prayers? Does Praying actually in some True sense ‘Do’ something?
the idea that Worship is like going to the petrol station for a fill up . . . Do we realise, do we See what we are doing when we are here? I have spoken from time to time about the movement in Space which takes place in the liturgy. Is it ‘just’ a model? ‘Just’ bread and wine? ‘Just’ words? Are those amongst whom we sit ‘just’ other parishioners? What is human being anyway?? Who are we? What are we? Where are we?

And that disconnection from a sense of the Vital livingness of Worship is mirrored in our lack of Seeing where we are beyond these walls. The Creation. Do we Realise Where we are?? I think that those Native Indians with their deep sad eyes Knew and Saw precisely where they were? Mattie Keith Saw. “I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”

To give s simple example, our rabbit sees better 🙂 I agonise I must admit over having a rabbit in a hutch(and yes I know, the Wrights let theirs run around everywhere 🙂 We are experimenting a little with free rabbit movements but where we come from there are foxes 🙂 ) Yet, here is the think, it is meticulously careful with its space – it doesn’t foul it all . . . It knows where it is, and it takes care of it and the rabbit droppings are located in a very small space.

Question? If we really Understand that we live in and are part of the Creation, the The Earth is The LORD’s, how can we possibly take it to the brink of complete destruction . . .

Simeon took the child in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

He Sees – as he looks At The LORD coming to his Temple.

This Creation is The Temple of The LORD – as the prophet says ‘The LORD, whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple . . . but who may abide the day of His coming, and who may stand when he appears . . .

Worship Matters, The Creation Matters – but as woven together – for The Earth is The Lord’s and everything in it

It is all His

As we ponder His Coming to His Temple, we may well ask, have we Cared, have we tilled and kept? Or have we been Casual?

 

Jayber Crow, his life woven into the land lies down in the soil in a clearing – he became one with the [Creation] but was anything but at peace – ‘I heard the motors speeding along the roads, and [along] the rivers, the tractors in the fields, the airplanes in the sky, and always, always that chainsaw in the woods. I heard the big trees tearing and breaking their way to the ground, and the thump of little creatures run over on the road . . .

This is the World of Faith – to SEE – it is no easy antidote to the World, it is to Know its truth and our place in it . . . and it is also to See our Salvation in Christ who as the Centre of Creation gives light to all who ask. True Faith is Woven into the fabric of Creation – for Creation is God’s and cannot be known or lived in apart from God

Let us pray that the King of Glory may come in
Let us pray that we Know the things that truly make for our peace

Amen

 

 

 

Epiphany Year B 2017 – The Fullness of the Glory and Wonder of the Mystery

Epiphany 2017

The Fullness of the Glory and Wonder of the Mystery . . .

So, Ella and Brett are married . . . In ancient lore, the newly wed couple leave the reception in a car from which hangs a sign saying ‘Just Married’, but as anyone with any experience will tell you you are never ‘Just’ Married – Marriage is far far more than a mechanical human agreement and contract – it is ‘a Mystery’ That is it is something which we can name, but the depths of we can only point towards – as if you saw the entire universe in a moment and everyone asked you – ‘What did you see . . .

In the same way as you are never ‘just’ married, and as I said a few weeks back, you never ‘just’ pray. Books on ‘how to pray’ as if it were a simple mechanical act strip Prayer of its ‘Mystery’ its depth, its very Life.
Our World would have us do this – I remember in my High School Biology class being told that if you added together everything that a human being was made of in terms of your chemical composition, you could be sold for about $2 . . . depending on the global price for minerals prevailing at the time . . . Defining things as ‘just’ this or that or the other, stripping them of their Mystery kills them. As the Romantic poet William Wordsworth noticed, ‘we murder to dissect’ . . . and I would say that The Modern World is an act of murder which would leave even Herod looking like a kindly grandfatherly figure in its reducing the World and the Human to ‘just’ this or that or the other . . .

The Ancients were very very wise to and alert to the danger of this ‘just’ness. They warned against ‘mere appearances’ that to live by mere appearances was to be enslaved. We of course live in an age imprisoned by appearances – Plato speaks of those imprisoned by gazing eternally upon images of images, appearances of appearances . . . He could have been prophesying the smart phone on which we gaze unceasingly at images of images . . .

And it is all too easy as Modern people to take The Christmas Story and package it in ways that lead to such imprisonment by the Gaoler ‘Just’ . . .
I always prefer to listen to the beginning of John’s gospel and at midnight, not only because his words take us beyond words, and it is in the dark and so we are on the edge of things seen and unseen . . . I prefer that than to listen to Luke on Christmas morning, when the sun is up and the story is comfortably familiar . . . For our imaginations I think have been captivated by endless images – endless nativities and children in tea towels, and the story is so far from this . . .

We often make the error of ‘simplifying’ things for children as if they had no sense of Wonder as if perhaps their Vision was less developed than ours . . . So the nativity is demystified to a children’s tail, or demystified by simplistic readings of the text

We would prefer to paddle in muddy shallows than take the risk of getting lost in the Wonder and Immensity – Yet even a little acquaintance with the times of Jesus quickly lead us into the rip tides of Mystery. Aslan is Good, but He is Not Safe . . .

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Any Jewish reader of these words is cast not into a world of Irish linen wrapped around children’s heads but into an Ocean.
The First Born Son – the Great High Priest of the Temple of God – the manger – or was it Jerusalem??? The word in Hebrew for manger, ‘ebus is almost the same as the old name for Jerusalem, j’ebus. Wrapped in cloths – the First born Son of God is clothed in garments of glory – ‘there was no room in the inn – ‘There was no Logos in the hidden place . . .’
The Christmas Story takes place in the ‘hidden place’ away from prying eyes. Kataluma, the word we translate inn and so have endless children saying ‘no room!’ sounds like ta’aluma, the Holy of Holies . . . in an age of terror, when to be a follower of Jesus would lead to your being ostracised and thrown out and possibly killed, the Gospel Authors carefully cover their tracks but leave enough signs for those who know. Better to have careless folk speaking about ‘Jesus being born into the arms of a cosy middle class family,’ beyond the kataluma, than the Great High Priest coming to the Holy of Holies, or the Garden of Eden indeed, in an animal feedtrough.
The Christmas Story is no call to sentimental childish play, nor a call to ‘social justice’ for there was no room for Jesus in the inn . . . no the Great High Priest of God comes forth and is clothed in garments of glory, not in the holy of holies in Jerusalem, but in a manger overlooked by Ox and Ass for as the prophet had foretold, Jerusalem does not know its ruler, but the ox knows its owner and the donkey its masters crib . . .

The Story is not what it appears to be, and we are caught up in something much much bigger than ourselves, something illimitably glorious, and on occasion, when we are not caught up in ‘mere appearances’ if we can look up from the lifeless ‘just’ness of things, if we dare get out of the mud pools – the Power and The Glory may for a moment ‘transport’ us, not away from here, but to here – away from ‘mere appearances’, from the world of ‘just’ this or ‘just’ that to world Transfigured by The Fullness of the Wonder of the Mystery. To live as new born children of God is to be caught up in this

And so to the Epiphany – the Unveiling, the Oh My! – the breathtaking as the magi come from Arabia – bearing gifts. I must admit, that final verse of ‘We three Kings’ Always Catches me – Glorious now, Behold him Arise, King And God and Sacrifice. It is one of those moments in worship in which one becomes tuned, resonates with Transfigured Reality

Matthew brings us into this world through the story of Herod, the magi and the Star. A story Rich in more than ‘just’ – for the Ancients, nothing was ‘just’ this or that. The idea that one might speak of the stars as ‘just’ balls of gas in the sky, was as foolish to them as reducing the human to a bag of chemicals – it was to kill the world off, when in truth everything around them said the world was full of Life!! Except there is always that which seeks to destroy life to rob it of Wonder and Glory, to demystify. So the star is not just a star – it points beyond itself. Probably a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a rare and Wonderful cosmological event – lying as seen from Jerusalem over Bethlehem, and in the tradition the Sign that many hoped for, not least because of Herod, of whom one commentator wrote ‘a man of great barbarity to all men equally and a slave to his passions’ – he pronounced that his three sons would succeed him and then had them all executed before he died – early Christian tradition associated him with Wormwood, the star that fell from heaven spreading bitterness and making bitter he waters, in the Book of Revelation. Although there is no historic evidence of the slaughter of all those under two years of age in Bethlehem, this is certainly in keeping with a man who had many of the priests of the Temple killed for their prophecies of a star and the end of his reign . . . in and around the time of the birth of Jesus

Matthew pulls us into a world in which we are not in control, Vivid, at times terrifying – a time in which the heavenly bodies were signs, portents and also announcers of Great Hope.

So the wise men come to Jerusalem, where of course they should perhaps have been looking for a manger . . . and finally to Bethlehem where they laid before him three gifts – Gold Frankincense and Myrrh – much has been made of these gifts, but again old traditions linked them to The Garden of Eden. Pre-Christian stories told of Adam pleading with the angels to take the perfumed oil from the garden that he might continue to offer worship to God. Christian texts tell of Adam being buried by Seth his son along with the Gold and the Frankincense and Myrrh, having been brought them by the three archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael . . . and Coptic Christians to this day depict the three magi bearing gifts as having wings . . . so the Archangels present the gifts to the Second Adam, the one who is in Himself the New Creation, Restoring the True Dwelling place of God . . .

“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

So, what is the moral of the story? What can we take away and use? . . . In a real sense nothing. If the world is ‘just this’ or ‘just that’ or ‘just the other’ then it is less than it is – we judge it by appearances and put it to our uses. it is ‘just’ resources, dead matter – as are we, something for us to make something with and of . . .

The Epiphany is The Unveiling, that the Wold is not ‘just’ anything — It is The Manifestation of the mystery hidden from the beginning of Time – in the truest sense Mystery for it is at once True and beyond our Comprehension, beyond our Grasp to use as we will.

It is not so much something to ponder . . . .and then ‘set out to live differently’, it is something to be caught up in, carried away by, transformed and transfigured by.

Here is the Centre of the Creation – its Source, its embodiment, in Wonder, in Glory – the very Mystery of Christ Himself.

Behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice, let us dare to be caught up with the magi angels in the Worship of Christ . . . then perhaps God Himself will Do something with us . . .

Christmas ‘Knowing my Place – Home for Christmas’

Christmas

Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

‘Finding my Place – Home for Christmas’

Home for Christmas . . . These simple words may well evoke a great deal in us – Family not least. As we get older our focus shifts. When we were small we were caught up in it all, drinking in that deep sense of home without noticing or naming it, it soaked into us.
As we grew older, then more and more it became something we began to create for those who were younger. Build a Home, a Place we hope of Trust, of Security, of Joy and Peace. Too man of us tragically know the pain of a broken Home. We have a deep sense of what Home Should be when things are Right!
A Place we Know as the Right Place for us. Preparing for Christmas is so much about getting things ready, getting everything in its right place. When we Know our True Place, or Right Place, we are Home

In the final years of my grandmothers life, I used to love to sit in her kitchen and hear her talk about her childhood Home. She grew up in the early years of the last century in a small hamlet on the far north west coast of England, in the shadow of the Lake District hills. It was a community where there was a strong sense of everyone and everything being ‘in its place’. To her last days she could tell you where everyone sat in the village church – from the Lord and Lady of the Manor with their family at the front of Church, back through the yeoman farmers – my Grandmothers family were sat here – then the tenant farmers, then at the back the labourers . . . everyone in Place, everyone Knowing their place . . . and although it is very easy for us to dismiss this, my Grandmother wouldn’t have it – for it was to her in amidst the hardship of life, a community of great security, true Social security, for everyone in knowing their public place knew also their public obligations to those around them.

She would tell of how whenever someone was ill in the village, and perhaps unable to work and thus buy food, the Lady of the manor would be seen making her way to the house to visit with a basket of fresh fruit and vegetables – of how my grandmothers family looked after the poor of the village who had large family’s and little money with fresh milk and eggs and butter and any other produce. Everyone Knew their place – a sense of being in Place, of belonging.
Of course it wasn’t an idyll, but she could not remember anyone going hungry – for that would have brought shame on those who had responsibility in the community . . . it wasn’t an idyll – it wasn’t perfect, but like so many long standing ‘orthodoxies’ it pointed beyond itself. In the impurity, a Deep Truth lay veiled and my Grandmother knew that simply ‘doing away with the old ways’ wasn’t the answer

But her age, her generation and its Wisdom has gone . . . Now ‘Know your Place!’ is only heard in terms of shackles. We are too hasty – we throw things away – we too readily miss the treasure hidden

The other day I was at a Graduation ceremony and the speaker told the assembled graduates that they should ‘challenge the orthodoxies’ This phrase passed I guess without comment, after all isn’t that what we are supposed to do nowadays? Challenge Orthodoxies??
It must be said it didn’t entirely pass the attention of Brett who asked afterwards. ‘Challenge Orthodoxies? Doesn’t Orthodoxy mean “that which is Right”?’ Bright lad that he is, he was of course correct. Orthodox means that which is Right, that which is True in the very deepest sense – literally it means Right Glory. To Reveal the deep Truth and Beauty of existence.
As many a young child might discover after an over vigorous engagement with their new toys on Christmas day, We live in an age in which we ‘happily’ break things down, and as that same child learns to their deep sorrow – it is a lot easier to break down, than it is to heal. Think how easily a word of criticism destroys – how seemingly impossible to speak a single healing word . . .

As we might look around at the wider order of things – what which we used to call ‘The Creation’ How easy to break, to destroy – how difficult to heal . . .
The sociologists have been telling us now for many years that breaking social structures, ‘challenging orthodoxy’ we might say, seems to lead inexorably to rising mental illness, despair and a sense of meaninglessness to our existence . . . a sense of lostness, of not knowing where our healing is – where our Home is . . .

For with the breakdown of the Old Structures – we lose our sense of Place, or Home. And we note this most powerfully at Christmas, loneliness is the great curse and killer of our age . . .
Alone at Christmas, not Home for Christmas . . . deep within we know this is Wrong . . . and yet

The Christmas Story is a story of Place, indeed of Home. Joseph takes the heavily pregnant Mary to his home, to the City of Bethlehem – a Place in an imperfect world in which a Child finds a Place, a Home – in a manger, a stone feed trough for the animals. A place of Security in a world of uncertainty.

As John tells us in the opening to his Gospel, this is a story of God coming to make His Home. “The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” – literally He “pitched his tent in our midst”.

The Word of God – the Greeks called it ‘the Logos of God’ – Logos, the very meaning of The Universe, the Mind of God, The Goodness of God, the Beauty of God – The Logos of God . . ; became flesh and dwelt amongst us – the One who ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’ took on our human flesh and made Home in and amongst us . . .

God made Home here – for he desires that we might have a Home ‘even the sparrow has found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she might lay her young, even thine altar O Lord of Hosts, my King and my God’ Where is this Home of God? ‘The Word became flesh and made his Home . . . here . . .’

At Christmas we usually get only half of the message. ‘God is with us! Round the world the message bring’ – it is Half of The Good News – but we Need the other half. As we Need, Truth and Beauty and Goodness and Love – we need them in their Place – Here. We are the ones who need a Home. We Need a Place where we are Known and can Know the Deep Peace and Beauty and Joy and Hope and Love for which we were made – a Place of our deepest healing in a age which only seeks to break down . . .

The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us – He finds his Home with Us, so that we might find our Home in Him . . . as Jesus says – Abide in me, as I abide in you. God in Jesus makes His Home amongst us, so may we find our true Home in Him.

A Home which is Orthodox – which reveals Right and True Glory – The Word became Flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we have seen his doxa, his Glory – Full of Grace and Truth.

God has come Home to us – might we, believing in His Son, come Home to Him. Now at this Christmastide – and to the ages of ages

Amen

Mary, Motherhood, and ‘God’s Holy Law’

Advent 4
Year B 2017

Sunday 24th December

Luke 1:26-38
Mary, Motherhood, and God’s Holy Law

Life in our household is always very full on at this time of year. I try to avoid the word ‘busy’ which can seem puffed full of self importance. ‘Busy’ people are of course ‘ the people who really count!’ However this year we find ourselves more than usually working every hour that the Good God provides for us as we prepare not only for Christmas, but also for a wedding.

Both of course are hugely important, both have their traditions which MUST be observed. So it is for example that tomorrow morning, I will risk early indigestion eating home baked fruit toast with lashings of butter, washed down with orange juice. Weddings too come with ‘observances’ central to which are ‘the vows’. I was somewhat alarmed some years ago when asked ‘in my professional capacity’ ‘why we cannot make up our own vows?’ To which the simplest answer at least back in England was ‘Church law does not allow it’ – here it is a little less clear, so perhaps the more helpful ‘because the morning after you’re married, if asked to write down your vows you’d probably not be able to remember them and might want to change them’

In marriage, the man and the woman make their vows ‘in the sight of Almighty God and the presence of the congregation, and this is made clear in the vows which end ‘According to God’s Holy Law’. So, the other evening I was asked by one about to be married, ’What does that mean? “According to God’s Holy Law”’

Of course we have a tendency in this day and age to think of ‘God’s Holy Law’ in terms of what might often seem like ‘an arbitrary set of rules’, but I do not think that this is either right, nor helpful. Rather God’s Holy Law is a Revelation of God in Jesus, and the shape of form of our existence within the Creation.
To put it another way, God’s Holy Law is the Revelation of ‘The Grain of the Universe’ – in other words when we follow it we reveal something of the Nature of What Is, The Creation, and thereby also the mind of the Creator, the Mind of God.

And so to Mary. Mary it must be said, and may the Good God have mercy upon us, has become a most uncomfortable figure for so many in the modern world. Good Protestants that we are, even if we believe the words of the Creed regarding her Virginity, we tend to think that the veneration of Mary especially within the Catholic Church is overdone!! I know that that was most definitely my own perception and after all, I Knew! I had taught in a working class Catholic High School as a very Correct Protestant, and all the excesses I was so sure were true, behold, there they were . . . there’s none so blind as those who think they can see!
My – mainly Catholic – colleagues, knew of my discomfort and would use every opportunity to tease me, not least when during some building work my immediate superior had an 8 foot high statue of The Queen of Heaven, which had to be temporarily re-sited, temporarily re-sited beside the desk in my office “where our Lady can keep an eye on you, Eric”.

Of course, if I was a Really good Protestant, I might have had more pause for thought in my self righteous judgement of Catholicism with all its nonsense, after all who was it who said “the Veneration of Mary is inscribed deep in the human heart”, but Martin Luther himself.

And well we should venerate Mary. As my spiritual director told me, when I confessed to me a troubling sense of her presence and Significance, ‘Well Eric, She Is the Mother of God’

Holy Mary, Mother of God . . . and of course we may well take a moment to ponder. One of the deepest losses of our ‘busy’ lives is that we skim over the surface of things. That we pay little or no attention to those questions which arise from the deep wells of our Existence. Last week I asked the question ‘Where are you from?’. Like the question ‘How are you?’ – it has become little more than a marker, no more than a seeking after ‘a fact’ – but How Are You? Where are you From? These are questions which take us deep if we will but let them. And there we find buried clues which point us towards The Grain of The Universe, God’s Holy Law, not least that of Motherhood . . .

One thing which every human living has in common from generation to generation, back into the depths of our lives, From The Beginning, What IS a Human, What Makes us Human? ; is that we are all ‘born of Woman’. Adam, facing life outside of the Garden, sees well the necessity of Motherhood, naming his wife Eve ‘for she was the mother of all living’ . . . True Life – eating, breathing, weeping, rejoicing, smiling, burping life even 🙂 being Born into the world of a woman

That life of which Mothers are the source – is more than ‘just’ giving ‘physical’ birth. I lose count of the number of folk who have told me that they learned their faith from their mothers, that their mothers were the ones who would teach them to pray – Motherhood is the source of Life in its Deepest Fullest Sense, From the Beginning . . . and so it is that in human terms the fulness of the Life of God comes into the world through Mary, The ‘woman, clothed with the Sun’ Revelation 12:1 – who “The Holy Spirit will come upon, and the power of the Most High will overshadow” Creating Life in its fulness in Christ Jesus

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary says ‘Yes’ to the very deepest wellspring of Existence. Her Yes to God is the vehicle for Revealing of The Light of the World, The Truth of Existence. By her ‘Let it be with me’ Mary reveals to us in her flesh ‘God’s Holy Law’, the very Grain of The Universe by her consent to be the Mother of the One who sustains all things by his powerful word, The Very Creator of the World, born of Woman

As we prepare our hearts, let us not be busy. Let us not be important. Let us be open and Receptive. As Mary Our Mother has taught us, The Very Truth of our Existence is revealed in simple obedience. Our Yes to God is the Wellspring of Life

Let us not be proud but learn from her, our True Mother in Faith. Let is be with me, according to your Word . . . according to God’s Holy Law

Amen